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

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.

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