By M. I. Bhat
Keen media observers may have noticed that before the current economic meltdown the phrase ‘Third World’ had gone missing from news and political and economic analysis columns, courtesy economic liberalization that spurred economic activity across the continents on a scale never seen before. Globalization was the mantra and economists, CEOs, financiers, bankers and portfolio managers – any one associated with business and money generation — were the toast of honor. Join the globalization bandwagon or fall by the way side was the short American message that Governments increasingly found attractive to hitch on.
In such a global sentiment economic laggards were not to be bothered about, so dropped from media attention and global concern, except in the World Bank routine annual reports. Public taste particularly in the developed and developing world felt aversion for unpleasant news, pushing the social scientists and their pet subject – the Third World – to the backyard.
Not any more. Built, as it turned out, on corrupt American financial system the whole concept of globalization and market economy unraveled within a short span of less than two decades, leaving it its wake lives and hopes shattered, particularly in the US and Europe. The millions that world saw marching Wednesday on UK streets and similar other across the Western world should really be seen as the funeral procession of the very concept as also of their own future hopes.
Sub-Saharan Africa and its counterparts in Asia and Central and South America are old, worn out hats. Current economic meltdown and mountains of debt accumulated by the United States and EU – unlikely to square up for many, many years to come – with deep and widespread negative social implications have made these the societies contemporary case studies that promise serious ears once again for social scientists.
Much of the Third World lacks technology but not the natural resources to manage their economies to sufficiently provide for their people. In their failure to do so, it was common place for the West to attribute their woes to their dictatorial and autocratic dispensations together with, in many cases, controlled economies that hindered growth and permitted corruption and loot by the governing class and their acolytes. Liberal democratic governance practices and capitalist market economy of the West were supposed to be panacea for the Third Word to pull it from economic and social deep holes. Two decades back the fall and break up of the Soviet Union and with it the wave of democracy that caught up the imagination of Eastern Europe, and in due course integrate with the Western Europe into what we know as the European Union, was sought to vindicate the success of this model.
Now two decades since when we witness capitalist economies bust in the so-called bacons of democracy, one is left wondering what really differentiated it from the controlled economy of the failed dictatorial regimes. Obviously difference in the governing or economic system doesn’t seem to matter. We possibly need to look for some commonalities that broke both. For sure one striking commonality is the “war of choice” that both the Soviet Union and the West went into before their economies gave in. But that can not be the whole story.
Anyhow, whatever brought about current economic woes to the United States and Europe is for history and future economists (if they could ever make a correct assessment regardless of some annually winning Nobel Prize!) to analyze and judge. What is material and of current interest, however, are the consequences for the people there that provide fresh and fertile field for social scientists.
Like debt, unemployment is significant and increasing (forget statistically dressed up ‘green shoots’ announced once in a while to hold up hope of the otherwise depressed populace) both in America and Europe.
Financial insecurity breeds, first and foremost, despondency and fear of the future, and that is crushing individually and collectively. Here is a piece of relevant statistics that revealingly bears on this: Americans consume 80% of the world’s opioid medications and 99% of the world’s semi-synthetic opioid. In addition, 157 tons of cocaine was consumed by Americans in 2009 while marijuana smokers registered a 6% increase from 2008 to 2009. “It seems that Americans are in the midst of a raging epidemic of mental illness, at least as judged by the increase in the numbers treated for it,” wrote Marcia Angell (June 2011) in her review of a book on the related subject.
Though a stigma, feeling of despondency and fear psychosis may not be a great risk for a country if it was limited to aged people. But it is a live and ticking bomb when young and potentially productive individuals see no light. Ever diminishing crumbs in a failing economy make such a situation more dangerous, particularly when racial and local versus immigrant sentiments are already deep and simmering, a point worth notice of those who see growing young American population a boon for the American economy.
It doesn’t need to be a genius to predict potential social and political consequences of such a situation. Innumerable seminal studies – incidentally most by Western social scientists — on the failure of the Third World countries are enough of a guide to predict emerging social contours for America and Europe.
If bomb blast and wanton killings in Norway and arson and looting in UK were the just the foreword, OWS, coupled with uprising in Arab world, could be the beginning of the first full chapter of the book that promises to lead to a monumental opus magnum on the potential social and political change societies may have ever undergone at a global scale. Unsurprisingly, then, people have started seeking social and political causes to these protests, bringing social scientists back on prime time television discussions and other media.
For a prolonged period of time now world is watching both America and Europe wrangle not how to turn around their economy and create jobs and, in turn, turn around economic situation for their people but how much more to squeeze their people and how much more to borrow (in America) or how to pull back the countries on the verge of debt default!
That these problems are hotly debated is apparently the only difference from the Third World where despots or small governing coterie would decide such matters. Net result, however, is no different – more and more sections of populations continue descending into poverty while their elected representatives rip apart one another to gain prime time media spotlight and electoral benefits.
Meantime, there is Tyrannosaurus rex out there quietly but aggressive mauling its already injured prey. Holding trillions of dollars of American and European securities, China is gobbling their economy and increasingly dampening their ego and their global leadership perception. If that was not enough of a pain in the neck, back home rating agencies are hitting body blows to American and European ego, making political leadership across the Atlantic blush with shame. World Bank report foresees America selling its family gold (assets, I mean) to cover up its rising debt obligations.
American debt crisis didn’t begin with Obama. By Jan 2009, that is when he took office, American debt was US $10.6 trillion and people were already desperately bitten by worsening economy. Obama came to White House on “Change” platform. Change he did bring about, indeed, by changing American economy from bad to worse. Debt galloped to 15 trillion before completing his third year in office, and simultaneously negative social indices (jobless, homeless, poor and on food stamps, layoff of teachers, nurses and police officers, school and college dropouts, and so forth) continue their nose dive.
That speaks for the political leadership. Any hope in the future for the Americans need be weighed against the on-going debate among the aspiring presidential candidates and the media focus on what and how much a candidate says or doesn’t say not about economy but in deference to Israeli interests, or about tackling China or hitting Iran and Syria. The prognosis for Europeans is certainly no better where political leaders of Britain and France vie with each other in proving to the US and Israel their loyalty; damned be their suffering public.
Mind you, we are not witnessing one of lows in the business cycles but consequences of fundamental structural defects in the global political and economic systems that would not settle before it has devoured peace and future hopes of millions of innocent world over.
It may sound far-fetched at this stage but the fact of the matter is that with such grim social and economic numbers and the type of political debate that currently comes out from the United States and Europe, what one may infer is the emerging contours of the New ‘Third World’ Societies (as against whole countries) within the developed world where, unlike the familiar Third world, people suffer not from lack of democracy, technology or natural resources but from the greedy political class and their corporate cronies presently busy pushing the US and its European allies to yet another war in the Middle East. More than the old West, it would be interesting to watch how its recent converts in the former East European countries would fare now that Soviet Union is long gone and there is no one left to underwrite their budget deficits.
– M. I. Bhat is former Head, Department of Geology & Geophysics, University of Kashmir, Srinagar, India. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.