On Why We’re Third World

It’s commonplace for us to believe that we Bahamians do not inhabit a third world country. We might be forgiven for believing so; to be fair, when we judge ourselves by economic indicators alone, as if money is all that matters, we don’t qualify.

But we would be wrong.

Being first, second or third world isn’t simply a matter of economic wealth or poverty; it has to do with the way the world distributes its power. It’s deeply rooted in history, and the insidious thing about it is that today’s world is so designed as to disguise some of the weakest of us as the strongest. It makes no difference, though; rich or poor, we’re still part of the third world.

Think of it this way. The terms “first”, “second” and “third” worlds originate in Europe, which naturally thinks of itself as the origin of everything civilized. (The fact that we still believe this as true should clue us in to our third-worldness.) In colonial times, the world was divided in two, Old and New, and everything on our side of the Atlantic was considered “new”. There were gradations of oldness. There were the countries that were old but “uncivilized”, like every country in Africa that doesn’t have the luxury of touching the Mediterranean; because of its “backwardness” Europe was obliged to take Africa over, teach it How To Behave. There were countries that were ancient but “traditional”, who had got lost in their own civilizations and had not learned how to become “modern”, like China and India; these too, begged for Europe to go in and teach them How To Progress. And then there were the apparently empty lands of the Americas, whose people were so insignificant to the Europeans that they could be enslaved or murdered to make room for Europe’s economic needs.

After the Second World War, when it became evident that empires of the sort Europe had been managing for four hundred years were dying, the terminology changed. As the people who lived in backward and traditional lands asserted their desire to progress by setting up nations — first India, then Israel, then Ghana and the rest of black Africa, then these islands of the Caribbean — words like “old” and “new” no longer made sense. The “Third World” came into being to describe how much further away from true civilization people who lived in coloured countries, who had either severed their links with their original civilizations (as India was forced to do under 150 years of British rule) or who had had their original civilizations atomized by colonization (as was the case in the Americas). It also helped to distinguish the so-called dark races from the light ones, and ensured that no country run by people whose faces grew brown, not red, in the sun could ever gain influence in the world at large.

The world we currently inhabit is governed by economic, not political, power these days. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that economic power is political power; the United States’ dominance of the world is far more deeply rooted in the fact that American products form the foundation of every nation’s political, economic and social stability than the fact that the American army is the only one left standing with any real clout. The latter is nice to think about, but it isn’t so; American security is far weaker than it would like to imagine, despite the rigmaroles and hoops that will meet any traveller who passes through US airports these days. But American products, American culture — well, now, those are different things. Today’s world is built on American innovations, from the telephone to the Microsoft Word programme on which I write this article to the electricity that powers my computer.

This world no longer depends on military power and European governors and apparently democratic administrations; rather, it depends on who produces the stuff that makes the world turn and on who buys it. The producers are the first world people. The people who can copy the producers’ stuff, who can carve out for themselves a little space where they can be a little independent, inhabit the second world. We, who produce nothing but only consume, are the Third World.

And it doesn’t matter how much money we have. In fact, the more money, the better; the more we can consume, and the richer we can make the producers. Our wealth or poverty are illusions. As long as we buy stuff we do not, and cannot, make (can any computer software compete with Microsoft?), the world we inhabit comes Third.

Don’t feel too bad about it. This is how the Caribbean came into being. From the moment Columbus took his stroll on the Guanahani beach, our region has existed to do two things: to fuel the economies of the “first world” with raw materials, and to fill the pockets of their producers by consuming what they produce out of them. Now, as then, nothing much is processed here. Our riches — gold, silver, sugar, coffee — are mined for export, sent away, and then sent back to us in packages for which we pay the same cash money that we got for them in the first place. It’s a cycle that ensures that the profits always end up far away from us. We’ve exchanged our local slavery for a global one and have not yet discovered that consumption is the true opiate of the people.

There’s no question, after all, about our world status. We’re rich. We produce nothing. We aren’t awfully educated. And given the fact that we spend over $7 billion of our own money in South Florida, we are, most definitely, Third World.