The notion of First World and Third World is a Western construct designed to protect the global political and economic hegemony of the U.S. and Europe.
By Michelle Chikaonda
Each time the United States devolves into a state of nationally-visible breakdown, people—both liberals and conservatives, on both mainstream and social media—begin predictably decrying America in those moments as being tragically similar to so-called “Third World” countries.
As a person originally from one such denoted country, I perceive these comparisons—or anti-comparisons, really, as they are intended to define what America is specifically not supposed to be—not as useful concepts for understanding the moment they are being compared against, but rather as condescending efforts to dissociate from America’s ugly truths, specifically that of the wide scale societal breakdown evident in the shape of these events. The fact that this phenomenon occurs practically every time this breakdown reveals itself—such as the nationwide June 2020 Black Lives Matters protests for which demonstrators insisted that the truth of American racism be both displayed and challenged, or the January 6 Capitol riot for which largely white rioters violently revolted against the very equality people across the country protested for seven months earlier—shows a toxic desperation to defend and protect American lies, at the literal expense of American lives.
The term “Third World” is in fact an anachronism of the Cold War era, in which the world was defined, by the West, as comprising three categories of countries. The First World, which were the U.S., Europe and their allies; the Second World, which were Communist countries and their allies; and the Third World, which were countries not yet aligned with either of the so-called First or Second Worlds. Though a ranked order was never outright stated, it was decidedly implied; and because the countries classified as Third World also tended to be impoverished, the notion of the Third World eventually became synonymous with economic underdevelopment, even poverty. These terms and the ideas carried over with them have continued to persist, in both formal and informal use, despite the ending of the Cold War three decades ago.
Yet it was the so-called First and Second World countries that directly contributed to the very impoverishment and unending brokenness of the so-called Third World that people now colloquially deploy as a way of lamenting a country’s decrepit state of affairs in a particular moment—such as the U.S. Capitol on January 6. This was either through formal colonial occupation—for which the occupying powers stripped those countries of their resources and wealth for the colonial powers’ exploitation and enrichment—or through the use of neocolonial tools like development aid, which typically comes with so many conditions as to effectively hamstring recipient countries’ efforts at true self-determination. In more extreme cases, there was covert military support for government leaders whose rule, however corrupt, benefited whichever First or Second World countries were bankrolling those regimes.
Much of the so-called Third World, then, is the way it is precisely because countries in the First and Second Worlds ensured those places remained in chaos for their own benefit. My home country, Malawi—consistently grouped among the poorest countries in the world—only managed to stay under authoritarian rule for the 30 long years that it did because its leader, Kamuzu Banda, was being supported by the West. Patrice Lumumba—the democratically elected Prime Minister of the newly-independent Congo in July 1960—was overthrown and assassinated in an operation supported by Belgium and the U.S. six months later in January 1961. Lumumba had an unabashedly socialist agenda, felt to be a threat to Western dominance in Africa. He was replaced by Mobutu Sese Seko, a kleptocrat who brutally ruled the Congo—renamed Zaire—for almost 40 years, but who was partial to the Europe and the U.S.
The idea of the Third World, thus, is not about a specific quality or even set of conditions inherent to the nature of the countries so dismissively classified under that moniker. It is, instead, an invention of the collective Western mind, designed specifically to divide, then maintain, the world in blocs directly supporting Western nations’ ongoing dominance in the world.
It is also, however, implicitly defined by wealthy First and Second World entities’ insatiable drives—whether governments, corporations, or corporations with the backing of their governments—to exploit and destroy nations for their own benefit regardless of the consequences. To this end, folks’ disparaging remarks about America looking like a Third World country in fact unwittingly reveal the truth about First World America: that it looks the way it does because American capitalism, powered by American racism through the vehicle of white supremacy, has successfully employed the same political-economic hatchet against this country that was formerly understood as being solely for use against countries of the so-called Third World.
The predictable comparative statements regarding the Third World in these moments of national unrest absolutely belie a deep-seated American need for there to be an “other” to situate themselves against. Not just in terms of the demonstrated need—no matter how patently misguided—to protect a glossy and seductive image of this country that just isn’t true, but in order to protect American supremacy, in equal measures coercive and violent, in the global order.
These statements also belie a far more dangerous truth: that a critical mass of Americans continue to fail at accurately perceiving the truth in the looking glass, so starkly present in the images flooding their screens from these moments, that the brutal reality of the Third World they so denigrate is definitionally embedded into the very concept of a First World America. And if they are horrified, they should be horrified not because the images reveal what they so desperately do not want America to be—but because they reveal exactly the Third World horrors that underlie the idea of America, ideas that have always been right at home beneath the bright delusions of our greatness that have been insistently sold to us, keeping us complicit in the illusion at the expense of our lives.
The events at the Capitol on January 6—indeed every event that inevitably causes a reflexive backlash decrying their un-American-ness—are entirely American. If America is the First World, then it is also the Third. A true reckoning with our despair at these events, and the others like it to come, will require unflinching engagement with all the facts of this reality, no matter how ugly or uncomfortable. It will also require that we not only repair our relationship to ourselves inside this country, but reform our relationship to the world such that the notions of First, Second and Third Worlds—as well as their cousin concepts of the Developed versus Developing Worlds and the Global North versus the Global South—may be dismantled outright. And until a critical mass of people commit to the destruction of not only these concepts but the very notion of such categorization as a necessary or useful way of organizing a complex world—a world in which ideals other than those of whiteness are equally centered—America will never stop seeing such violence manifest within its borders, as it will continue to manifest this violence outside of them.
Michelle Chikaonda (she/her/hers) is a narrative nonfiction and essay writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and The Seventh Wave’s Rhinebeck Residency. She is a VONA fellow, a Tin House Summer Workshop alumna, and a Pushcart prize nominee. She is currently published at The Globe and Mail, Electric Literature, Catapult, Hobart, and Al Jazeera English, among others.