First World, Second World, Third World,
and the Tamil World
10 May 1998, Revised 10 May 2008
We speak of the First World, Second World, Third World, and Fourth World, and it may be helpful to ask: how did this hierarchical ordering of the world come about? Did it 'just happen'? Or is the classification a reflection of an often unstated, but value laden, view of the world?
We know, ofcourse, that the First World countries are those that are at the top end of the Gross National Product (GNP) ladder. The Second World, during the period of the Cold War, was the Communist/Socialist bloc. And the Third World were those countries at the bottom end of the GNP ladder.
The countries belonging to the Communist /Socialist bloc resisted this 'Second' class categorisation. Be that as it may, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the Second World categorisation lost its earlier conceptual underpinning and today has a largely historical significance. And if, today, there is no Second World as such, why is it that we continue to speak of the Third World? Is that categorisation too a relic of the past?
Even apart from such reflections (which may be dismissed by some as a mere quibbling with words), the question remains: why are countries at the top end of the GNP ladder, the First World? For instance, these countries are also at the bottom end of the ladder in so far as environmental pollution is concerned. Should we therefore categorise them as the Second World, and the former Communist/Socialist bloc where pollution is at its worst, as the Third World - that is if we rate environment before gross national product.
That the classification is itself a product of the First World will not surprise many. Hegemony is secured not simply by military might and economic power, but also by the artefacts of a 'legitimising culture'.
For more than three hundred years, until the break up of colonial empires in the aftermath of the Second World War, the colonial ruler legitimised his rule as a 'civilising' influence.
"…One .. aspect of British authority in India … was the conviction held by every European in India of a final and enduring racial superiority. Seton Kerr, a Foreign Secretary of the (British) Government, explained it as 'the cherished conviction of every Englishman in India, from the highest to the lowest, by the planter's assistant in his lowly bungalow and by the editor in the full light of the Presidency town – from those to the Chief Commissioner in charge of an important province to the Viceroy on his throne – the conviction in every man that he belongs to a race whom God has destined to govern and subdue'. Many equally authoritative statements of this point of view, from persons in the highest official position in India, could be quoted to show how universal this conviction was during the last century and indeed up to the time of the First Great War. One further quotation may, however, be permitted, as it throws light on the attitude of the army. Lord Kitchener, a most distinguished Commander-in-Chief of India, declared: 'It is this consciousness of the inherent superiority of the European which has won for us India. However well educated and clever a native may be, and however brave he may have proved himself, I believe that no rank we can bestow on him would cause him to be considered an equal of the British officer.'…" – K.M.Pannikar in Asia and Western Dominance, George Allen & Unwin, 1953
The 'legitimising culture' of the conqueror served twin purposes. On the one hand, it served as a rationalising platform for the conqueror to motivate his own army and strengthen the will of his own people in the pursuit of colonial conquest. On the other hand, it helped to persuade the conquered to acquiesce in what was passed off as a 'modernising' process. Even Karl Marx persuaded himself to the view that despite its excesses, colonial empires helped 'modernise' the Asian economies – and in that sense were 'progressive'.
The 'Red' Indians, Aborigines, the Negroes, the 'pagan' Indians who prayed to idols, the 'yellow' races, were 'uncivilised', even 'barbarians' and the conqueror persuaded himself and in many instances, the conquered people themselves, that he, the conqueror, was simply carrying out a civilising duty imposed upon him by God and history. Winston Churchill was eloquent – as always:
"I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place." – 1937, quoted by Arundhati Roy in 2002
For Abraham Lincoln, though democracy was the rule of the people, by the people, for the people, Negroes, after all, were not 'people' and therefore did not have the right to vote. As for 'Red' Indians, those that had not been killed off, should be confined within 'enclosed settlements' for their own good.
And as a divine instrument, the conqueror was not averse to giving God a helping hand. In 1835, Thomas Macaulay, President of a Committee on Public Instruction in Bengal, recommended for India, a thoroughly English educational system which 'would create a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in morals and in intellect'. The 'utilitarian' underpinning was provided by James Mills and others:
"Throughout his life, Mill’s ultimate concern was the happiness of humankind as a whole, or as I shall call it, global happiness. Global happiness will be obtained if all races of peoples of the globe are ‘civilized’ in the utilitarian sense. Mill had a conviction that all non-European peoples would become ‘civilized’ if the European knowledge, arts, manners, and institutions were diffused to them. Mill was particularly concerned with how to bring enlightenment to what he believed to be ‘half-civilized’ peoples, such as peoples in India and other Asian nations…" Man To Leung on James Mill and British Imperialism, 1998
Today, those of us who are 'Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in morals and in intellect' may, without much thought, perpetuate a categorisation of the world which proclaims that the First World is somehow 'First' and that the Third World is 'Third' – and has some catching up to do. The Empire may be dead, but the dead often rule from their graves. For those in the so called Third World to accept a hierarchy imposed by their erstwhile colonial rulers, is to perpetuate that rule by less obvious means.
It is not that the Third World does not have much to learn from the First. It does. But learning is a two way street and the Third World has also much to teach the First World - a First World, which is rushing onwards on the basis of its Cartesian certainty 'I think, therefore I am', without knowing when and how to stop; which is caught with a consumerism which is destroying the environment and produces an underclass within its own territorial boundaries; which is unable to find answers to those fundamental questions which trouble the human heart and mind; which seeks escape from that unease by immersing itself in a search for heightened sensation; and whose more evolved minds, in a search for meaning, are turning to the fundamental truths embedded in the civilisations of the Third World.
"The general notions about human understanding … which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics…have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place."… Julius Robert Oppenheimer
Deprived of direction, the so called 'First World' is intent on getting there fast.
"..Apart from their self assurance, the most common characteristics of our elites are cynicism, rhetoric and the worship of both ambition and power… The assumption is that world-weary cynicism demonstrates intellectual superiority. In reality it indicates neither intelligence, experience or accuracy… To be world weary is to be willing to go on repeating old mistakes… Spirit, appetite, faith, emotion, intuition, will, experience – none of these are relevant to the operations of our society. Instead we automatically assign blame for our failures and crimes to the irrational impulse…
Our society was largely conceived by courtesans. They have therefore defined the idea of modernism in a way which reinforces their skills… It isn't surprising that like most ageing religions, reason is able to get away with presenting itself as the solution to the problems it creates…
The rootless wandering is perhaps the explanation for the hypnotic effect which the idea of efficiency has upon us. Deprived of direction, we are determined to go there fast… We confuse intention with execution. Decision making with administration. Creation with accounting. On the dark plain that we wander, totems have been erected, not to indicate the way, but to provide hopeful relief…. What hope there is lies precisely in the slow, close to reality enquiry and concern of the humanist. But first he, and perhaps more hopefully she, must stop believing that the accomplishments of the last few centuries are the result of rational methods, structure and self interest, while the failures and violence are those of humanity and sensibility. In spite of the rhetoric which dominates our civilisation, the opposite is true…" John Ralston Saul in Voltaire's Bastards – The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, 1994
If we wish to persist in a classification of the countries of the world on the basis of GNP, it may be more liberating to adopt a more fact based approach. The so called Third World is in truth the Majority World – and the so called First World is the Minority World. Such a classification will at least accord with the number of people who belong to each category without imposing an hierarchical pecking order.
By focusing on numbers, such a categorisation will also help many in the Majority World to more easily understand why some political leaders of the First World, see the Third World as posing a threat to their security.
"…. the combination of demographic pressures and political unrest will generate particularly in the third world, increasing unrest and violence… The population of the world by the end of this century will have grown to some 6 billion people…. moreover most of the increase will be concentrated in the poorer parts of the world, with 85% of the world's population by the end of this century living in Africa, Latin America and the poorer parts of Asia…. the problems confronting Washington in assuring US national security will become increasingly complex…" – Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981 published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983
A fact based approach which names the First World as the Minority World, will have the added advantage of helping the First World recognise that they too have a lot of catching up to do; that GNP does not necessarily bring wisdom; that a continuing onslaught on the environment will not bring progress but deprivation for all; that the future will be built by the peoples of the Majority World and the Minority World working together as partners; and that political leaders will need to truly serve the constituency that they seek to lead – the emerging One World, as a whole, and not partisan state interests.
The One World will not emerge by giving credence to the notion " that the Free Market breaks down national barriers, and that Corporate Globalization's ultimate destination is a hippie paradise."
"…There is a notion gaining credence that the Free Market breaks down national barriers, and that Corporate Globalization's ultimate destination is a hippie paradise where the heart is the only passport and we all live happily together inside a John Lennon song. (" Imagine there's no country…") But this is a canard. What the Free Market undermines is not national sovereignty, but democracy. As the disparity between the rich and poor grows… Corporate Globalization needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, preferably authoritarian governments in poorer countries to push through unpopular reforms and quell the mutinies…not the free movement of people, not a respect for human rights, not international treaties on racial discrimination or chemical and nuclear weapons, or greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, or god forbid, justice.." Arundhati Roy, 2002 in Come September
And Immanuel Wallerstein was right to point out -
"…Though it is fashionable to speak of globalization today as a phenomenon that began at the earliest in the 1970's, in fact trans-national commodity chains were extensive from the very beginning of the system, and global since the second half of the nineteenth century. To be sure, the improvement in technology has made it possible to transport more and different kinds of items across great distances, but I contend that there has not been any fundamental change in the structuring and operations of these commodity chains in the twentieth century, and that none is likely to occur because of the so-called information revolution…" – Immanuel Wallerstein , 1997 in States? Sovereignty? The Dilemmas of Capitalists in an Age of Transition
Eduardo Galeano's remarks underline the political reality – not of yesterday, but today.
"…Christopher Columbus couldn't discover America because he didn't have a visa or even a passport. Pedro Alvares Cabral couldn't get off the boat in Brazil because he might have been carrying smallpox, measles, the flu or other plagues the country had never known. Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro never even began the conquest of Mexico and Peru because they didn't have green cards. Pedro de Alvarado was turned away from Guatemala and Pedro de Valdivia couldn't enter Chile because they had police records. The Mayflower pilgrims were sent back to sea from the coast of Massachusetts, because the immigration quotas were full. These misfortunes occurred in the distant past, long before globalization did away with borders…" New Internationalist, February 2004
And we ignore at our peril the words of Jeremy Seabrook -
"Globalisation permits money and goods to move around the world unimpeded, yet criminalises the other indispensable element of production, labour, when it seeks to move to where it can command a decent livelihood….Globalisation is imperialism by another name; the world market is an extension of the global imperial adventure of the nineteenth century; and the majority of the working class are now located not in the tenements of Berlin and Glasgow, the immigrant apartment blocks of Chicago and New York, but in the terrible slums of Asia, the favelas of Latin America, the townships of Africa… it is not only as workers that people need emancipation from the totalising dogmas of neo-liberalism, but as consumers too, as complete human beings. There is a new urgency to the need to formulate a richer form of liberation than that envisaged by the revolutionaries and pioneers of labour…" New Internationalist, February 1999
Hopefully, the views of persons such as Margaret Wheatley will gain increasing acceptance -
"..For many years, I’ve been interested in seeing the world differently. I’ve wanted to see beyond the Western, mechanical view of the world and see what else might appear when the lens was changed. I’ve learned, just as Joel Barker predicted when he introduced us to paradigms years ago, that "problems that are impossible to solve with one paradigm may be easily solved with a different one… Leaders are those who help others.."
"… We are all leaders, even without that formal title. We are in communities, governments, corporations, schools, universities, churches, non-profits, NGOs, healthcare. We are very diverse, yet our values unite us: We rely on human goodness. We depend on diversity. We trust in life's capacity to self-organize in sustainable, generous, and interdependent ways. We live in many different cultures and nations, and we express these values in wonderfully diverse ways. Yet we each serve the vision of a world where people can experience themselves as whole, healthy, sacred, and free. In all our different activities, we want to liberate the creativity and caring that are common to all people…"
'Leaders are those who help others'. But, how do we secure that leaders who truly serve will emerge? Dee Hock, CEO Emeritius of Visa International was right when he said –
"We live in extraordinary times. Around the world we face systemic and deep-seated challenges in virtually every field. At the same time, in part because of these challenges, we are coming to see ourselves, one another, and our home planet in new ways. We have an unprecedented opportunity to realize age-old dreams of abundance and recreate our institutions in the service of all humanity and life….A vital question is how to insure that those who lead are constructive, ethical, open, and honest. The answer is to follow those who behave in that manner. It comes down to both individual and collective sense of where and how people choose to be led. In a very real sense, followers lead by choosing where to be led. Where an organizational community will be led is inseparable from the shared values and beliefs of its members…" Dee Hock – The Art of Chaordic Leadership
'Followers lead by choosing where to be led'. Our leaders are perhaps, more representative of us than we may sometimes care to admit. Gandhi's words may help remind us that we ourselves must become the change that we wish to see in the world.
"… As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the World – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves. We must become the change we wish to see in the world…”
And, the words of an unknown author about changing the world continue to retain their significance -
"When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world."
Each one of us may then begin to recognise the enduring wisdom of Charles Chaplin in the Great Dictator -
"…I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor. That's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black men – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness – not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls – has barricaded the world with hate – has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…." Charles Chaplin in the concluding speech in his film the Great Dictator – quoted in Charles Chaplin : My Autobiography,1964
Today, more than 80 million Tamils, living as they do in many lands and across distant seas – live in the First, in the Second and in the Third Worlds. And to the extent that the Tamils are a trans-state nation, they belong to the Fourth World (the world of non state nations) as well. It is true, therefore, to say that for the Tamils, the world is already, in many ways, a 'One World'. It is a 'One World' not because we are not Tamils, it is a 'One World' because we are Tamils. It is a One World, because as Tamils, dispersed in many lands and across distant seas, our life experiences have given fresh meaning to the words of the Tamil poet Kanniyan Poongundran in Purananuru (poem 192), written two thousand five hundred years ago – words which continue to touch, move and inspire -
"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Death's no new thing; nor do our bosoms thrill
When Joyous life seems like a luscious draught.
When grieved, we patient suffer; for, we deem
This much – praised life of ours a fragile raft
Borne down the waters of some mountain stream
That o'er huge boulders roaring seeks the plain
Tho' storms with lightnings' flash from darken'd skies
Descend, the raft goes on as fates ordain.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise ! –
We marvel not at greatness of the great;
Still less despise we men of low estate."
- English Translation by Rev. G.U.Pope
in Tamil Heroic Poems