What’s in a Name / On a Collective Label for the Non-West

April 2, 2012

Say one wishes to make a statement or ask a question about all the parts of the globe that, well, aren’t rich from capitalism to the degree the West is.  Say (for the sake of argument) that one did not wish to be more specific, referring to one or more particular regions of the … Not West.  What all-encompassing label could be used to describe some salient characteristic that a) distinguishes this portion of the globe from the West while b) applying more or less equally to all countries therein?   The usual pattern of label development has been top-down, with neologisms used by government and/or academia, and then being adopted by popular media.

The popular press is guilty of being especially slippery in their use of the various terms, but even in more academic writing the terms are interchanged with a carelessness more common (and more fitting) among teenagers. Which, when one recollects that we the West are attempting to apply a general label to a good plurality if not the majority of the world’s population who we wish to lump together simply by virtue of the fact that they are not us, well, one might appreciate that this whole label thing is kind of A Serious Matter not worthy of sophomoricism. (Yes, this is a population game and not about land area. Physical geographers are going to sit this one out. Again. Sorry folks.)

Thus, let us consider the labels for the non-West in widest current use:

  • Third World
  • Developing world
  • Global South

What may be immediately apparent is that each term highlights — reifies, really — a distinct aspect of the contrast between West and non-West. “Third World” emphasizes the hierarchical nature of the labeling exercise. It comes from a Cold War-era scheme dividing the globe into the First World (the West), the Second World (the Communist countries), and the Third World (every other country on the face of the Earth, largely overlapping with the Non-Aligned Movement). Following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and then the break-up of the USSR, the middle rung of this ladder fell apart, but somehow the two end terms stuck around, because even listeners who have no idea of the origins of the construct still see the inherent power dynamic the term invokes — we have it, they don’t.

“Developing world” may seem more benign in comparison, but a closer examination of that term’s roots within Western concepts of economic development — wherein the West is the assumed model — reveals a very linear, technological ideal of progress, one that sees the non-West as existing at an earlier temporal point. “Progress” in this model is steadily incremental, and signifies an emphasis on material goods that by and large (ware a further stereotype) the non-West has not embraced culturally to the extent the West has. More broadly, development theory tends to assume a globally universal endpoint — “developed” — which is relatively static and fixed to the set progression which proceeds it. All of this is problematic vis a vis the non-West: definition, method, metric, goal, and universality.

Finally, “global South” appears at first blush to be straightforwardly, even blandly, geographical. As any geographer of any stripe will be among the first to admit, however, geography and politics have a chicken-and-egg relationship. And so with this label for the non-West. A South implies a North, just as a West implies an East. However, the visual orientation of humans has led to a certain way of valuing or privileging whatever is “highest”, spatially. North is “on top” of South, and so the superiority-inferiority dynamic continues.

What term will suffice, then? Perhaps a truer solution is the one suggested already — moving away from a tendency to apply a blanket label to the non-West.

Meanwhile, in the Other Mexico

April 2, 2012

Far from the limelight of the violent drug war in Ciudad Juarez, NAFTA appears to be working more or less as intended: the Mexican middle class is growing by leaps and bounds.   In the city of Queretaro in central Mexico, people are more concerned with mortgage payments and the quality of their kids’ public schools.   Chatting with a transfronterizo recently — one who went to my brother Catholic high school by commuting from across the border — reminded me what a new and promising phenomenon this is.  Those opportunities used to be the exclusive preserve of the rich.  No longer.

The middle class anywhere is as much about mindset and social attitudes as it is about an income bracket. That plays out in the case of Mexico, a rising middle income country where purchasing power is still quite high.  For this new class in the geographic middle of the country, there is also the virtue of being far from the drug violence of the northern states — something their own middle class attitudes and habits perpetuate and reconstruct, so that the distance becomes socio-economic as well as purely geographic.  Those who fled the violence especially serve to promote the distinction.

The Mexican middle class is young enough to share another of its characteristics with another society that experienced economic shock around the same time.  The Russian experience was unique, of course.   But nearly two decades later the majority of citizens in both countries want to hold onto what they have.

There are two main intersecting metrics for how to measure the middle class: consumption and perception.  An overwhelming majority of Mexicans see themselves as middle class — figures that would no doubt surprise most U.S. politicians, especially in the Southwest, to say nothing of voters.   We have become so used to drug violence being the narrative frame for this entire country that this development, the same thing that is happening globally for the same structural reasons, has been overlooked almost completely.  (Making it a perfect NYT story candidate, but I digress.)

If we have ignored such a major trend in our southern neighbor, if — more to the point — the popular imagination in the United States has even come to think Mexico is immune to the positive forces of development?  Houston, tenemos un problema.

On the Way to Mandalay…

April 1, 2012

One of the more ridiculous conversations I had while in Cairo was the hatching of a mad-cap plan to visit Myanmar, nee Burma, while it was still a closed, authoritarian system untouched by tourist hands.  My co-conspirator (she of the DRC juice reference) and I were so caught up in the grandiosity of the thing that it’s laughable in retrospect how little we even tried to foresee the almost predictable outcome. This was in December 2007, during the so-called Saffron Revolution, which was ultimately crushed by the ruling junta like the pods of the saffron plant.

I reflect on that conversation now as reports come in that the new elections in this more authentically open Burma, the one visited by Secretary of State Clinton, have brought the National League for Democracy and its leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi into the country’s parliament.    The elections themselves have obviously brought more foreign journalists and observers into the country to see the first chance in 20 years for the NLD to stand before the voters.

I’m thinking too of the ethnic minorities of Burma/Myanmar: the Karen, the Kachin, the Rohingya.  The NLD has been vague — as it can and should be in suppressed opposition — but going forward they will need to take a position on what is essentially the biggest issue facing the country’s sovereignty.

Burma’s on the path — the former junta leader has committed to working with Suu Kyi.  Considering how many examples there are of countries stuck in neutral or headed in the wrong direction, some optimism in the face of Burma’s progress today doesn’t seem grandiose at all.