Arianna Huffington’s most recent book, Third World America, is generating some waves in the blogosphere. In her book, Huffington highlights the many challenges facing the United States, from crumbling infrastructure to rising inequality and declining social mobility, and argues that the global recession is not an one-off event but part of a general trend of increasing poverty and inequality in the country. As Simon Johnson argues at Baseline Scenario, this is also the theme other well-received books, including one by former IMF Chief Economist Raghu Rajan and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. James Kwak contends that increasing inequality undermines the political institutions and social structure of the United States, effectively weakening the institutions de Tocqueville viewed as central to democracy in American.
Indeed, by nearly any measure, inequality in the United States is higher today than it has ever been; more unequal than even the days of the robber barons or the Great Depression. The average worker has seen their wages stagnate since the late 1970s, while the proportion of wealth controlled by the top 1 percent has increased dramatically. But does this make the United States a third world country?
The term “third world” came into popular usage during the Cold War. As originally articulated by the Non-Aligned Movement, it was intended to highlight a “third way,” an alternative to both the system of free market capitalism espoused by the United States and the socialism of the Soviet Union. Over time, the term took on additional meaning, implying a specific (low-tier) position in the global economic order. The category of “Fourth World” was also added to encompass countries like Somalia, Bangladesh, or Malawi—countries at the bottom of the global distribution of wealth.
The defining features of the third world were not just the existence of high levels of inequality, though this was certainly one feature. In addition, the term third world also implied a history of colonization and a heavy reliance on extractive industries and raw commodity exports for foreign exchange earnings. As outlined at the 1955 Bandung Conference, the term “Third World” also implied a commitment to non-alignment, anti-imperialism, regionalism, and support for a new international economic order.
During the Cold War, the world divided into three groups. The United States and its allies were collectively referred to as the First World; the Soviet Union and its allies become the Second World. The remainder became the Third World. The end of the Cold War suggested that the categories were no longer relevant, and many scholars abandoned the term Third World in favor of new language: the global south, the developing world, the less developed world, and so on. But none of these categories accurately captured the common political agenda implied by the concept “Third World.”
The use of Third World to describe the United States today similarly ignores that history. The United States certainly faces many challenges today, including all those outlined by Huffington. The implications of these challenges are certainly dire, culminating, perhaps, with the collapse of American democracy as Kwak argues. But using the term “Third World” to describe the United States strips the countries which rightly belong to the “Third World” of their common sense of history. Perhaps we should avoid its use in this context.