I was taught in school that people in tropical lands are slothful and do not work as hard as we denizens of the temperate zone. “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 historic condition. We are asked to believe that it always existed, that poor countries are poor because their lands have always been infertile or their people underproductive.
What cultural supremacy could be claimed by the Europeans of yore? From the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries Europe was ”ahead” in such things as the number of hangings, murders, and other violent crimes; instances of venereal disease, smallpox, typhoid, tuberculosis, plagues, and other bodily afflictions; social inequality and poverty (both urban and rural); mistreatment of women and children; and frequency of famine, slavery, prostitution, piracy, religious massacre, and inquisitional torture. Those who believe the West has been the most advanced civilization should keep such ”achievements” in mind.
With the advent of the Western colonizers, the peoples of the Third World were actually 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 centres 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 financiers.
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 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. The massive poverty we associate with India was not that country’s original historical condition. British imperialism did two things: first, it ended India’s development, then it forcibly underdeveloped that country.
Similar bleeding processes occurred throughout the Third World. The enormous wealth extracted should remind us that there originally were few really poor nations.
Referring to what the English colonizers did to the Irish, Frederick Engels wrote in 1856: ”How often have the Irish started out to achieve something and every time they have been crushed politically and industrially. By consistent oppression, they have been artificially converted into an utterly impoverished nation.” So with most of the Third World. The Mayan Indians in Guatemala had a more nutritious and varied diet and better conditions of health in the early sixteenth century before the Europeans arrived than they have today. They had more craftspeople, architects, artisans, and horticulturists than today. What is called underdevelopment is a product of imperialism’s super-exploitation. Underdevelopment is itself a development.
Imperialism has created what I have termed ”maldevelopment”: modern office buildings and luxury hotels in the capital city instead of housing for the poor, cosmetic surgery clinics for the affluent instead of hospitals for workers, cash export crops for agribusiness instead of food for local markets, highways that go from the mines and latifundios to the refineries and ports instead of roads in the backcountry for those who might hope to see a doctor or a teacher.
Wealth is transferred from Third World peoples to the economic elites of Europe and North America (and more recently Japan) by direct plunder, by 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 freedom of trade and the opportunity to develop its own natural resources, markets, and industrial capacity. Self-sustenance and self-employment give way to wage labour. From 1970 to 1980, the number of wage workers in the Third World grew from 72 million to 120 million, and the rate is accelerating.
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 ”underdevelopment” have caused the United Nations, the Wall Street Journal, and parties of various political persuasions 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” seems to be just a euphemistic way of saying ”underdeveloped but belatedly starting to do something about it.” It still implies that poverty was an original historic condition and not something imposed by imperialists. It also falsely suggests that these countries are developing when actually their economic conditions are usually worsening.
The dominant theory of the last half-century, enunciated repeatedly by writers like Barbara Ward and W. W. Rostow and afforded wide currency, maintains that it is up to the rich nations of the North to help uplift the ”backward” nations of the South, bringing the technology and proper work habits. This is an updated version of ”the white man’s burden,” a favourite imperialist fantasy. According to the development scenario, with the introduction of Western investments, workers in the poor nations will find more productive employment in the modern sector at higher wages. As capital accumulates, business will reinvest its profits, thus creating still more products, jobs, buying power, and markets. Eventually a more prosperous economy evolves.
This ”development theory” or ”modernization theory,” as it is sometimes called, bears little relation to reality. What has emerged in the Third World is an intensely exploitive form of dependent capitalism. Economic conditions have worsened drastically with the growth of transnational corporate investment. The problem is not poor lands or unproductive populations but foreign exploitation and class inequality. Investors go into a country not to uplift it but to enrich themselves. People in these countries do not need to be taught how to farm. They need the land and the implements to farm. They do not need to be taught how to fish. They need the boats and the nets and access to shore frontage, bays, and oceans. They need industrial plants to cease dumping toxic effusions into the waters. They do not need to be convinced that they should use hygienic standards. They do not need a Peace Corps volunteer to tell them to boil their water, especially when they cannot afford fuel or have no access to firewood. They need the conditions that will allow them to have clean drinking water and clean clothes and homes. They do not need advice about balanced diets from North Americans. They usually know what foods best serve their nutritional requirements. They need to be given back their land and labour so that they might work for themselves and grow food for their own consumption.
The legacy of imperial domination is not only misery and strife, but an economic structure dominated by a network of international corporations which themselves are beholden to parent companies based in North America, Europe, and Japan. If there is any harmonization or integration, it occurs among the global investor classes, not among the indigenous economies of these countries. Third World economies remain fragmented and unintegrated within themselves and among one another, both in the flow of capital and goods and in technology and organization. In sum, what we have is a world economy that has little to do with the economic needs of the world’s people.