2012-04-05 / Sam Bari

First, Second and Third Worlds: Where do we stand?


The terms First, Second and Third World are outdated geopolitical models that are scoffed at by most modern scholars. There never was a universally accepted definition for the terminology. The labels were akin to so-called “politically correct” verbiage for which there is no source.

Nobody can tell us the origin of words that are “politically correct” or who sets the standards. A political pundit coins a phrase in a conversation or speech, the media grabs it as a good headline “hook,” and voilĂ ! We have a new “politically correct” term.

The First, Second and Third World labels took that route, and they have been beat to death by the media and the politically illiterate since they were loosely coined at the beginning of the cold war.

Now, when most people are asked about the Third World, they refer to poverty-stricken nations. Ask the same folks about the First and Second World and you will get a blank stare followed by stuttering and an evasive answer because they have not the foggiest notion of what the terms mean.

If asked about the Fourth World, most would be totally lost to the point of embarrassment and the person asking the question would be accused of being rude and pedantic.

Outdated or not, the idea of observing the shift in geopolitical blocs is significant. Without doubt, labeling countries and putting them into loosely defined groups is primitive, inaccurate and possibly insulting. But since better terminology does not exist, the accepted definitions of the First, Second, Third and Fourth Worlds will have to suffice.

Defining the terms would be a good way to start.

The First World is a bloc of so-called developed, capitalist, democratic–industrialized countries aligned with the post-WWII American economic and political model. Those countries include all of North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia.

The Second World was the Eastern block of the communistsocialist states, which no longer exist since the fall of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War there were 19 communist countries. Today there are only five: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.

The Third World, which is three-quarters of the global population, includes states not aligned with either the First or Second World blocs.

In the early 1970s, British Columbian Shuswap Chief George Manuel coined the term “Fourth World.” He was referring to widely unrecognized nations of indigenous peoples living within or across First World national state boundaries.

The Fourth World included nomadic tribes that were indigenous to areas that were developed into First and Second World nations by foreign governments that invaded and occupied their lands. Specifi- cally, he was referencing the plight of the Native American tribes of the United States and Canada.

Despite ever–evolving definitions, the concept of the Third World loosely identifies countries that suffer from high infant mortality, low economic development, high levels of poverty, and are heavily dependent on industrialized nations.

The slowly developing and technologically less advanced nations of Asia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America are included in this group. However, the key factor is the lack of a middle class – with impoverished millions in the lower class and a small, elite upper class controlling the country’s wealth and resources.

Second and Third World countries share a common trait. Both have a struggling or nonexistent middle class.

Industrialized First World countries, particularly the United States, with increasing labor costs, recognized that the Second and Third World offered untapped workforces. Unskilled labor could be hired for a fraction of the cost of unionized American workers.

American investors opened factories in Second and Third World countries, trained the workers that were otherwise uneducated, and paid them a fraction of American wages. However, the outsourcing destroyed many American industries, and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs to foreign labor. Today, finding products manufactured in the USA is the exception rather than the rule.

Foreign investment has caused a shift in the three-World paradigm by developing the middle class in the Second and Third Worlds. With our middle class shrinking at an alarming pace, and a Fourth World subculture growing due to a broken immigration system, how long will it be before we are a Third World nation with a poverty stricken lower class, elite upper class, and insignificant middle class?

Granted, this is a simplistic view to an extremely complex problem, but space is limited and the information must be condensed. However, the subject matter needs to be addressed.

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