The "Third World"

excerpted from the book

Contrary Notions

by Michael Parenti

The Michael Parenti Reader

City Lights Books, 2007, paperback

The impoverished lands of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are known to us as the "Third World" to distinguish them from the "First World" of industrialized Europe and North America and the now largely defunct "Second World" of communist states. Third World poverty, called "underdevelopment," is treated by most Western observers as an original and inherent historic condition. In fact, the lands of Asia, Africa, and Latin America have long produced great treasures of foods, minerals and other natural resources. That is why the Europeans went through so much trouble to plunder them... The Third World is rich. Only its people are poor-and they are poor because of the pillage they have endured.

The process of expropriating the natural resources of the Third World began centuries ago. First, the colonizers extracted gold, silver, furs, silks, and spices; then flax, hemp, timber, molasses, sugar, rum, rubber, tobacco, calico, cocoa, coffee, cotton, copper, coal, palm oil, tin, iron, ivory, and ebony; and still later on, oil, zinc, manganese, mercury, platinum, cobalt, bauxite, aluminum, and uranium. Not to be overlooked is that most hellish of all expropriations: the abduction of millions of human beings into slave labor.

From the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries Europe certainly was "ahead" of Africa, Asia, and Latin America in a variety of things, such as the number of hangings, murders, and other violent crimes; instances of venereal disease, smallpox, typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera, and other such afflictions; social inequality and poverty (both urban and rural); and frequency of famines, slavery, prostitution, piracy, religious massacres and inquisitions.

Superior firepower, not superior culture, has brought the Europeans and Euro-North Americans to positions of global supremacy.

What is called "underdevelopment" is a set of social relations that has been forcefully imposed on countries. With the advent of the Western colonizers, the peoples of the Third World were set back in their development sometimes for centuries. British imperialism in India provides an instructive example. In 1810, India was exporting more textiles to England than England was exporting to India. By 1830, the trade flow was reversed. The British had put up prohibitive tariff barriers to shut out Indian finished goods and were dumping their commodities in India, a practice backed by British gunboats and military force. Within a matter of years, the great textile centers of Dacca and Madras were turned into ghost towns. The Indians were sent back to the land to raise the cotton used in British textile factories. In effect, India was reduced to being a cow milked by British investors.

By 1850, India's debt had grown to 53 million. From 1850 to 1900, its per capita income dropped by almost two-thirds. The value of the raw materials and commodities that the Indians were obliged to send to Britain during most of the nineteenth century amounted yearly to more than the total income of the sixty million Indian agricultural and industrial workers. British imperialism did two things: first, it ended India's development, then it forcibly underdeveloped that country. The massive poverty we associate with India was not an original historical condition that antedates imperialism.

Wealth is transferred from Third World people to the economic elites of Europe and North America (and later on Japan) by the expropriation of natural resources, the imposition of ruinous taxes and land rents, the payment of poverty wages, and the forced importation of finished goods at highly inflated prices. The colonized country is denied the opportunity to develop its own natural resources, markets, trade, and industrial capacity. Self-sustenance and self-employment are discouraged at every turn.

Hundreds of millions of Third World people now live in destitution in remote villages and congested urban slums, suffering hunger and disease, often because the land they once tilled is now controlled by agribusiness firms who use it for mining or for commercial export crops such as coffee, sugar, and beef, instead of growing beans, rice, and corn for home consumption. Imperialism forces millions of children around the world to live nightmarish lives, with their mental and physical health severely damaged. In countries like Mexico, India, Colombia, and Egypt, children are dragooned into health-shattering, dawn-to-dusk labor on farms and in factories and mines for pennies an hour, with no opportunity for play, schooling, or medical care. In India, 55 million children are pressed into the work force. In the Philippines and Malaysia, corporations have lobbied to drop age restrictions for labor recruitment.

When we say a country is underdeveloped, we are implying that it is backward and retarded in some way, that its people have shown little capacity to achieve and evolve. The negative connotations of "underdeveloped" has caused the United Nations, the Wall Street journal, and parties of contrasting political persuasion to refer to Third World countries as developing nations, a term somewhat less insulting than "underdeveloped" but equally misleading.

I prefer to use "Third World" because "developing" still implies that backwardness and poverty were part of an original historic condition and not something imposed by the imperialists. It also falsely suggests that these countries are developing when actually their economic conditions are usually worsening.

What has emerged in the Third World is an intensely exploitative form of dependent capitalism. Economic conditions have worsened drastically with the growth of corporate investment. The problem is not poor lands 'or unproductive populations but self-enriching transnationals.

The local economies of the world are increasingly dominated by a network of international corporations that are beholden to parent companies based in North America, Europe and Japan.

Historically, U.S. capitalist interests have been less interested in acquiring more colonies than in acquiring more wealth, preferring to make off with the treasure of other nations without the bother of owning and administering the nations themselves. Under neo-imperialism, the flag stays home, while the dollar goes everywhere.

After World War II, European powers like Britain and France adopted a similar strategy of neo-imperialism. Left financially depleted by years of warfare, and facing intensified popular resistance from within the Third World itself, they reluctantly decided that indirect economic hegemony was less costly and politically more expedient than outright colonial rule. Though the newly established Third World country might be far from completely independent, it usually enjoyed more legitimacy in the eyes of its populace than a foreign colonial power. Furthermore, under neoimperialism the native government takes up the costs of administering the country while the imperialist interests are free to concentrate on skimming the cream-which is all they really want.

After years of colonialism, the Third World country finds it extremely difficult to extricate itself from the unequal relationship with its former colonizer and impossible to depart from the global capitalist sphere. Those countries that try to make a break are subjected to punishing economic and military treatment by one or another major power, nowadays usually the United States.

The leaders of the new nations may voice revolutionary slogans, yet they find themselves locked into the global corporate orbit, cooperating perforce with the First World nations for investment, trade, and loans. In many instances a comprador class was installed as a first condition for independence, that is, a coterie of rulers who cooperate in turning their own country into a client state for foreign interests. A client state is one that is open to investments on terms that are decidedly favorable to the foreign investors. In a client state, corporate investors enjoy direct subsidies and land grants, access to raw materials and cheap labor, light or nonexistent taxes, no minimum wage or occupational safety laws, no prohibitions on child labor, and no consumer or environmental protections to speak of. The protective laws that do exist go largely unenforced.

The comprador class is well recompensed for its cooperation. Its leaders enjoy opportunities to line their pockets with the foreign aid sent by the U.S. government. Stability is assured with the establishment of security forces, armed and trained by the United States in the latest technologies of terror and repression.

In all, the Third World is something of a capitalist paradise, offering life as it was in Europe and the United States during the nineteenth century, with a rate of profit vastly higher than what might be earned today in a country with strong social regulations, effective labor unions, and higher wage and work standards.

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