Is India a third world country?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 16 18:42:53 MDT 1999

(From the chapter on Frederic Jameson in Aijaz Ahmad's "In Theory: Classes,
Nations, Literatures)

Jameson seems to be aware of the difficulties in conceptualizing the global
dispersion of powers and populations in terms of his particular variant of
the Three Worlds Theory (‘I take the point of criticism’, he says). And
after reiterating the basic premiss of that theory (‘the capitalist first
world' ‘the socialist bloc of the second world’; and ‘countries that have
suffered colonialism and imperialism’), he does clarify that he does not
uphold the specifically Maoist theory of ‘convergence’ between the United
States and the Soviet Union. The rest of the difficulty in holding this
view of the world is elided, however, with three assertions: that he cannot
find a comparable expression’; that he is deploying these terms in ‘an
essentially descriptive way’; and that the criticisms are at any rate not
‘relevant’. The problem of ‘comparable expression’ is a minor matter, which
we shall ignore; ‘relevance, on the other hand, is the central issue, and I
shall return to it presently. First, however, I want to comment briefly on
the matter of ‘description'.

More than most critics writing in the USA today, Jameson should know that
when it comes to a knowledge of the world, there is no such thing as a
category of the ‘essentially descriptive’; that ‘description’ is never
ideologically or cognitively neutral; that to ‘describe’ is to specify a
locus of meaning, to construct an object of knowledge, and to produce a
knowledge that will be bound by that act of descriptive construction.
‘Description’ has been central, for example, in the colonizing discourses.
It was by assembling a monstrous machinery of descriptions — of our bodies,
our speech acts, our habitats, our conflicts and desires, our politics, our
socialities and sexualities, in fields as various as ethnology, fiction,
photography, linguistics, political science — that those discourses were
able to classify and ideologically master colonial subjects, enabling the
transformation of descriptively verifiable multiplicity and difference into
the ideologically felt hierarchy of value. To say, in short, that what one
is presenting is ‘essentially descriptive’ is to assert a level of
facticity which conceals its own ideology, and to prepare a ground from
which judgements of classification, generalization and value can be made.

As we come to the substance of what Jameson ‘describes’, I find it
significant that First and Second Worlds are defined in terms of their
production systems (capitalism and socialism, respectively), whereas the
third category — the Third World — is defined purely in terms of an
experience’ of externally inserted phenomena. That which is constitutive of
human history itself is present in the first two cases, absent in the third
case. Ideologically, this classification divides the world between those
who make history and those who are mere objects of it; elsewhere in the
text, Jameson would significantly reinvoke Hegel’s famous description of
the master—slave relation to encapsulate the First—Third World opposition.
But analytically, this classification leaves the so-called Third World in
limbo; if only the First World is capitalist and the Second World
socialist, how does one understand the Third World? Is it pre-capitalist?
Transitional? Transitional between what and what? But then there is also
the issue of the location of particular countries within the various ‘worlds’.

Take, for example, India. Its colonial past is nostalgically rehashed on US
television screens in copious series every few months, but the India of
today has all the characteristics of a capitalist country: generalized
commodity production, vigorous and escalating exchanges not only between
agriculture and industry but also between Departments I and II of industry
itself, and technical personnel more numerous than those of France and
Germany combined. It is a very miserable kind of capitalism, and the
conditions of life for over half the Indian population — roughly four
hundred million people — are considerably worse than what Engels described
in The Condition of the Working Class in England. But India’s steel
industry did celebrate its hundredth anniversary a few years ago, and the
top eight of her multinational corporations are among the fastest-growing
in the world, active as they are in numerous countries, from Vietnam to
Nigeria. This economic base is combined, then, with unbroken parliamentary
rule of the bourgeoisie since Independence in 1947, a record quite
comparable to the length of Italy’s modern record of unbroken
bourgeois-democratic governance, and superior to the litre of bourgeois
democracy in Spain and Portugal, two of the oldest colonizing countries.
This parliamentary republic of the bourgeoisie in India has nor been
without its own lawlessnesses and violences, of a kind and degree now not
normal in Japan or Western Europe, but a bourgeois political subjectivity
has been created for the populace at large. The corollary on the Left is
that the two communist parties (CPI and CPI—M) have longer and more
extensive experience of regional government, within the republic of the
bourgeoisie, than all the Eurocommunist parties combined, and the
electorate that votes ritually for these two parties is probably larger
than the communist electorates in all the rest of the capitalist world.

So — does India belong in the First World or the Third? Brazil, Argentina,
Mexico, South Africa? And. . . ? But we know that countries of the Pacific
rim, from South Korea to Singapore, constitute the fastest-growing region
within global capitalism. The list could be much longer, but the point is
that the binary opposition which Jameson constructs between a capitalist
First World and a presumably pre- or non-capitalist Third World is
empirically ungrounded in any facts.

Louis Proyect

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