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Reinventing the Third World

How does one reinvent the third world in a globalised system that has been dominated by a unipolar hegemon post the cold war? The only meaningful inspiration for such a reinvention in the current phase of globalisation could be for the third world to rediscover its identity as a conscience of the system. This could be done in the same way that the non-aligned movement in its heyday represented the voices of the disadvantaged sections of the states and people of the global system.

Reinventing the Third World Aswini K Ray for classifying their location within the wide-ranging structure of global diversities, like “oppressed people”, “Afro-Asian”, “tri-continental”, “non-aligned”, and later “south”, and “G-77”, each with

How does one reinvent the third world in a globalised system that has been dominated by a unipolar hegemon post the cold war? The only meaningful inspiration for such a reinvention in the current phase of globalisation could be for the third world to rediscover its identity as a conscience of the system. This could be done in the same way that the non-aligned movement in its heyday represented the voices of the disadvantaged sections of the states and people of the global system.

Aswini K Ray ( taught at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

he “third world”, as a concept, emerged in international relations as an incidental by-product of the cold war and, according to many, collapsed along with it. Reinventing it so long after the end of its original inspiration, and in the present era of intensive and extensive globalisation of the erstwhile third world needs some justifi cation. But before that, a brief recapitulation of its origin and role may help contextualise our analysis.

The global system of the cold war era, as conceived by its architects in the US and Europe as victors of the preceding war, had its core area around their ideological divide between the “fi rst” and the “second”; the residual segment of the global space, consisting of a majority of the states as actors of the system, and also of its people, was referred to by its architects as the “third world”. But soon, the concept, and international politics based on the taxonomy, became part of both global diplomacy and mainstream scholarship on the subject, paradoxically, also within what since then came to be known as the third world.

This brief recapitulation of the easilyforgotten history of its origin may help us to underscore some of the structural characteristics of the third world, to be able to assess its relevance, if any, in the post-cold war era to warrant the need for its reinvention. And, if so needed, its new composition and agenda.

The Concept of the Third World

First, the concept did not originate in the region which came to comprise it, and encompassed the disparate states and multicultural people of Asia, Africa and, arguably, South America. Consequently, while the architects of the global system in its core area have found their taxonomy convenient, the states and people in the region constituting its periphery have explored with alternative concepts

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more focused concerns beyond its simplistic spatial content, and corresponding composition. But within the rigid bipolarity of the early cold war era, all such indigenous attempts to forge solidarity among the people and states in the periphery of the global system was viewed with suspicion by both the superpowers, despite their ideological rivalry, arguably, because of it.

Consequently, most such countries were sucked within the security umbrella of one or the other, except for the initially few non-aligned states pioneered by India. Incidentally, even the temporal space has been abidingly appropriated by the dominant few of the era to be immortalised in universal historiography as the post-war era, rather than the postcolonial era of the marginalised majority. This appropriation of the universal by the dominant, to be interpreted on its terms and conditions has its lessons for us in our quest for reinventing the third world in the post-cold war phase of the process of globalisation.

Second, this taxonomy of classifying the disparately diverse states of the g lobal system into the fi rst, second, and third world does not appear to be an innocent sequential happenstance; but from all evidence of its impact, clearly value-loaded in terms of indicating the pecking order of normative concerns like democracy, economic justice, and even security within the structure of the system. It is not entirely insignifi cant that through the long cold war era, while there has been no signifi cant case of actual use of military force among or between the first and the second world

  • which was a sharp reversal of these two regions’ entire historical trajectory
  • there was not a single day without a war in one or other of the third world states, often as proxy wars between the two superpowers. Yet, as already noted, this period has been immortalised in world history as the post-war
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    era, paradoxically, even in the textbooks prescribed in the third world.

    Not only wars; all military and/or civilian dictatorships, and feudal oligarchies, as client-regimes of the cold warriors were spawned in the third world, while democracies were nursed back within the countries of the fi rst world soon after their Nazi and fascist rule; so were secular states nursed back in Europe in the immediate aftermath of the holocausts while religious fanaticism was stoked within the third world as an instrument of the cold war. Consequently, the predictable balance sheet of the cold war global system was relative security with actual absence of war, economic prosperity, and political stability within the ideologically divided core area at the cost of wars, economic deprivation, political instability, dictatorial repression, and religious revivalism within the third world perpetrated by the regimes underwritten by one or the other cold warriors of the core area. This inequitable balance sheet was among the structural imperatives of the global system and its pecking order of normative concerns as designed by its architects. It is possible to interpret this pecking order even in ethnocentric terms.

    If not by design, the global system could surely be faulted for its insensitive default. For, to begin with, there was a sharp historically inherited asymmetry in both the power structure and developmental priorities between the industrialised nation states of the first and second worlds on the one hand, and the third world: the former were faced with the priorities of their post-war reconstruction, while the latter were on the eve of their postcolonial nation-building agenda involving economic development with a built-in component for social engineering to promote bonding among its diverse social groups to qualify as nation states. This latter agenda, as a logical legacy of its historical inheritance, was hardly compatible with the cold war paradigm of national security based on military alliances, and its developmental correlates. But within the rigid bipolarity of the early cold war era, most countries of the third world were sucked within the overarching cold war paradigm geared

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    to the specifics of post-war reconstruction at the cost of their own nationbuilding agenda, with irreversible consequences within their developmental priorities in the long run, as Pakistan’s and even Bangladesh’s case in India’s neighbourhoods would forcefully demonstrate. The militarily allied states of the third world soon became the “Trojan Horses” of the cold warriors for their proxy-wars in the periphery of the global system. Soon, they also played their role in dividing the third world between the aligned and the non-aligned. These appear to be part of the design.

    Non-Alignment and Its Adherents

    For the non-aligned states of the third world, like India, Indonesia, later Nasser’s Egypt, and much later, Tito’s Yugoslavia, the early cold war era was particularly harsh, being part of the world capitalist market but outside its military alliances – some of them even hostile to the idea – made them some sort of pariahs to both the superpowers in the fields of global diplomacy as also for purposes of crucial economic aid for development. It was not until the mid1950s, when the balance-of-terror between the superpowers helped in loosening the rigidity of the bipolar structure, that non-alignment as a foreign policy option within the third world gained some salience. But it was not till the early 1960s of the Cuban missile crisis that once for all eliminated the possibility of any open military confrontation between the superpowers, leading to their confidence-building measures, that the non-aligned movement (NAM) appropriated the third world label for itself as a badge of honour representing the aspirations of the disadvantaged states and people within the global system as the “wretched of the earth”. As the conscience of the anomic cold war global system, it assumed considerable political and moral legitimacy both among its protagonists and also within the liberal sections of the global civil societies. More important for its viability, it came to be acknowledged by both the superpowers as a potential “honest broker” in their many diplomatic “zero-sum-games” of the era.

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    This indigenous concept of the NAM as the third world has had considerable legitimacy since then in the entire cold war era through some of its undoubted impact within the global system. For a start, facilitated by the first thaw in the rigidity of the global bipolarity, it helped to loosen it further in a dialectical process, thus widening both the foreign policy options and developmental imperatives, with India as the role model for secular, democratic, nation-building in this part of the third world. This was in sharp contrast with the developmental agenda of “modernisation”, with the military and/or the bureaucracy as its “vehicle”, as promoted by the global funding agencies and imposed within the western military allies in the periphery of the global system contesting the appropriation of the third world label by the NAM. In the process this reinforced NAM’s appeal within the newly-liberating countries of Africa. NAM’s role in promoting the anti-colonial liberation struggle in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and against racial discrimination in Africa and apartheid in South Africa also helped its moral legitimacy, and attracted new converts to the movement like Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, Senegal, and later Cuba. The communist renegade Tito’s Yugoslavia in Europe could also be counted among them.

    Together, they came to constitute a major global diplomatic bloc in many global fora, including the UN institutions, in which, helped by the Soviet bloc, the NAM group of the third world asserted their political strength by helping to create institutions like the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation geared to their specific needs, and also united to push through a majority resolution in the UN general assembly to create a New International Economic and Information Order. Later, the Brandt Commission too came into existence to ensure developmental assistance for the countries of the “South” from the “North”. Almost on all these issues, the NAM group was helped by the Soviet bloc, and found themselves pitted against the US and some of its western allies, which certainly did not


    help to popularise the latter’s allies with the people in the third world. The collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated this major crutch for NAM’s role in global diplomacy as the mouthpiece for the third world, as also their domestic developmental options. They had little cause to celebrate it as the “end of history”, while some feared their region to have inherited a fertile social and political base to become again the theatre of operations for the ensuing “clash of civilisations” after the end of the cold war, in fact, as its structural inheritance.

    Unipolar Hegemony

    The collapse of the cold war global system has spawned a hegemonic system with one ideology, one market, and one idea of good life across the world, and the US has emerged as the archetypical global role model as the ultimate superachiever in the idea and indices of good life. The global talent across the world in almost all fields of human aspirations are divided between those with the “green card” and others aspiring to have it; and those outside the contest are creating their caricatured hybrid versions with fusions of American lifestyle in malls, fast foods, music, films and architecture. It is in this sense that the US has emerged from the cold war as the dominant economic and military power at its beginning to the status of the hegemonic power at its end; and the global system has evolved from the rigidly bipolar, to the loose bipolar, briefly to the multipolar during the thaw of the confi dence-building phase, finally to the hierarchical global system of the Morton-Kaplan model, but with the US as the hegemonic power in the Gramscian sense.

    The concept of hegemony, rooted in the social sciences, and within the framework of sovereign states, when extrapolated to the domain of International Relations, mercifully still without a legi timate global sovereign, involves some creative imagination. But within such limitations, it offers better insights into the US’ status within the post-cold war global system, and the structure of the system itself, rather than simply as a dominant power within a unipolar system. It is the dominant player in most of the post-cold war instruments of global order, like the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank/International Monetary Fund, and now the post-Uruguay World Trade Organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency. And with its veto powers in the UN Security Council enabling it to pursue its unilateral diplomacy, including declaration of war, when necessary

    – as in case of the second Iraq war – or collectively with the other G-8 countries, as in Afghanistan or the first Iraq war, it certainly remains the global system’s dominant military and econo mic power. It is, arguably, more powerful after the collapse of the Soviet Union as its only superpower adversary. But it is the seductive charms of its lifestyle as the global role model that has catapulted the US to the status of the global hegemonic power, distinguishing it from the other G-8 countries which are also infl uenced by its business ethics and lifestyles. This is closest to Gramsci’s conceptualisation of hegemony: the values, ideas, and institutions that represented the “collective consciousness of the epoch”, as represented by the bourgeoisie in the capitalist

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    state, and the feudal lord in feudal societies, and arguably, the brahmins in I ndia’s “Sanskritisation” process of the Vedic era. This is a unique phenomenon in international relations with one hegemonic power within a global system, now encompassing the entire planet made possible by new technology; and, this is what has affected on the nature of globalisation within the system, and the policy options for the actors within its structural hierarchy.

    The nature of the post-cold war process of globalisation is crucial to our present concern around the need to reinvent the third world, and its new composition and agenda. For, while globalisation is an ongoing process from the beginning of civilisation, through adventure, conquest, proselytisation, colonialism, trade, commerce, and alliances, it has historically been on the terms and conditions of the dominant power, and tempered by the latter’s technological, managerial, and cultural resources. This could explain the global diversity in lifestyle of the colonial era between the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish colonies; or in the cold war era between the countries of the Soviet bloc, and the western bloc; as also between them and their allies in the third world, whether militarily aligned or non-aligned.

    For the first time, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, the ideological appeal of both the socialist utopia and non-aligned options, the uniquely integrated global system has spawned one hegemonic power, and fuelled by new technology, is in pursuit of its globalisation agenda on its terms and conditions, thus unleashing an unique process of homogenisation across the globe. So that the uniqueness of the new process of globalisation involving the interweaving of the factors of production, consumption, along with the ideas and indices of good life across the territorial boundaries of sovereign states, is not the process per se but its pace, scale, and reach. It has new opportunities on a vastly extended scale for the historically dominant and the powerful across the global system of sovereign states, and also sectors and groups within each of

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    them, in the process, spawning new winners and losers.

    The more sensational components among the losers are those affl icted with famines, civil wars, and recurrent natural calamities, including some so-called “failed states” as the “new international protectorates”. But there are victims of ecological disasters, killer diseases like AIDS, terrorism, and drug addiction; there are also the abidingly marginalised communities of tribal people, forestdwellers, abori ginals, and victims of land eviction to accommodate the new industrialisation process of giant multinationals in the erstwhile third world, the refugees across the world in search of security, food and shelter, and many more, constituting the “wretched of the earth” within the new process of globalisation. For the erstwhile third world, the collapse of the cold war global system has not been a cause for unmitigated celebrations, despite the structural inequity of the collapsed system; for, most of the states in this part of the world, particularly its non-aligned part, had managed to diversify their dependence among the various components of the two power blocs to incrementally widen their policy options.

    The successor hegemonic global system eliminated such options. The third world emerged from the cold war as a metaphor of economic deprivation, political instability, social revivalism, and human misery, all of which were considerably a part of the structural inheritance of the anomic global system. This provided the ideal social base to fuel g lobal terrorism and religious fundamentalism within the new system; and after 9/11, as the social base of “international terrorism” and “Islamic fundamentalism” and as the global fault line in the new “clash of civilisations” after the “end of ideologies”.

    Reinventing the Third World

    Within this macro-level scenario of the global system what could be the compulsions, and options, to reinvent the third world? Obviously, within the intensively globalised, hierarchical, hegemonic, post-cold war global system, there is little scope for a third world;

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    and, with the Soviet bloc as the second pole eliminated from the scene, nonalignment as being coterminous with the third world is also a non-starter; besides, a purely spatial bloc like the widely disparate Afro-Asia, with or without South America, may at best represent the ethnically opposites of Europe and North America, but itself constitutes a range of diversities that are unlikely to be easily reconciled for meaningful bonding around critical global issues. The only meaningful inspiration for such a reinvention within the present phase of globalisation could be for the third world to rediscover its identity as the conscience of the system in the sense that the NAM in its heydays represented the voice and aspirations of the disadvantaged sections of the states and people of the global system. We have already identified some of those concerns and the new victims of the global system in search of human security with dignity and justice. Such an agenda cannot be the monopoly of any state or group of states; in fact, no state could be adequately motivated, or even qualifi ed, to objectively play such a role as actors in the international arena. This role can only be played by a global network of civil society institutions, and motivated individuals across the world replicating the role model of the “Conference of the Oppressed People and Nationalities” in Brussels in 1928, or the more recent rounds of World Social Forum.

    It may of course require considerable creative imagination to identify the agenda, or its protagonists, as the third world except in the sense of distinguishing these normative concerns and their activists as the “outsiders” in the sense of the French existentialists like Sartre and Camus. Within this global taxonomy, the sick, power-realist, consumer societies of the hegemonic power and its G-8 counterparts would constitute the first world; its deceived apparitions across the world, but still ensnared by the seductive charms of the hegemonic role model would be the second; while the new third world would consist of the victims of the inegalitarian system committed to justice within it, howsoever incrementally.

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