The "Third World"
excerpted from the book
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
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
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
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
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.