Persephoneconomics: A Region by Any Other Name

I’ve not been writing for Persephone for the last couple of weeks due to the personal (and economic!) trauma of my much-loved, five year old laptop going to the big Starbucks armchair in the sky. The stages of grief for losing one’s computer are a whole other post entirely, maybe even a screenplay. However, there are far more important tragedies happening in the world, and I want to talk about how we talk about them.

When discussing the recent events in Japan, many analysts have framed them by comparison to other major natural and nuclear disasters. The tsunami in Indonesia, Chernobyl in the former USSR, the Haitian earthquake, the Three Mile Island disaster and Hurricane Katrina in the United States, have all been points of reference in the last week. The time it takes for a country to recover from a blow of this magnitude, and the level to which it can do so, are highly dependent on its economic and political resources. When discussing these attributes of one country in comparison to another, a system of classification is needed. And here we come to today’s Peresephoneconomics topic and a point of quite a bit of contention in the international development community: how do we categorize the nations of the world economically?

Obviously the globe contains many diverse types of economies on many different scales, so much so that designations of “rich” and “poor” are inadequate and misleading, not to mention the kinds of moral judgments and emotional weight we attach to such terms.

In 1952, seven years after the formation of the United Nations, French historian and writer Alfred Sauvy coined the term “Third World” to describe nations that were neither part of and aligned with the West, the United States and Western Europe, comprising the “First World,” nor the Soviets and their allies, comprising the “Second World.” Contrary to popular assumption, the label “Third World” was not intended to denote “third class” status, though the countries falling under this heading shared histories of colonial exploitation and economic struggle. Sauvy meant these numeric categories to hearken back to the similarly entitled “Estates” of the French Revolutionary period. In this sense he intended to imbue the Third World with revolutionary status, together these nations could form a third weight with which to balance the polar world.

The term was adopted by many nations that eventually formed the Non-Aligned Movement, countries that purported to refuse alliance with either the United States or the Soviet Union, and was used to describe not only shared political interests as part of this movement, but also denote solidarity and a shared culture developed out of oppression.

The oil shocks and debt crises of the ’70s and ’80s effectively ended the Third World Movement, as defaulting nations became too reliant on Western lenders and institutions such as the IMF and World Bank to wield much political power. The hows and whys of this are best left to another post because believe me, I have opinions. “Third World” fell out of favor with the fall of the Second World, as well as the complications, confusions, and implications of categories based on a numerical “ranking” system.

The popular, and widely accepted, terminology post-Cold War is “developed” and “developing,” which sound innocuous enough, but carries its own set of problems. First, one of the practical issues with this system of distinction is that many countries that, in measures of human development and overall economic health in comparison to “developed” nations, fall, for most purposes, into “developing,” but sectors of their economies may be advanced, technologically dynamic, and thriving. These countries, like India and Brazil, are often referred to as “emerging economies,” but I am not convinced that label is particularly descriptive of their place in the global economic system.

Additionally, the language of “development” brings up the question of agency. Is “develop” being used as a transitive or intransitive verb? And is economic development synonymous with the progress of social welfare, as seems to be implied? If one country is developed, is a developing country intended to be molded in the image of the developed one? These are the questions that are raised even before we get into the postmodern debates on the validity of a progress narrative.

In my writings here and in discussions with people outside my own academic circles I generally use the developed/developing/emerging distinctions because they are widely known and understood. In my academic work we often refer to a system of categorization developed by an American social scientist named Immanuel Wallerstein. Wallerstein divides the global economy by World Systems Analysis. He categorizes nations based not on current political alliances, but shifting positions within the framework of the world based on the components of their economies. Countries, by this system, are labeled core, periphery, and semi-periphery.

Core nations are those closest to the seat of power. Their economies are based on “core” processes, or those deemed most essential, highly developed, and technologically dynamic. Right now these processes include complex manufacturing, technological development, and financial industry processes. In the Middle Ages, for a point of comparison, the core regions would have included those engaged in textile manufacturing.

Periphery nations are those wielding little to no power on a global scale, and those whose connection to the global economy is limited or nonexistent. The peripheral processes that form the basis for these economies are generally small-scale agriculture and raw material export.

Nations in the semi-periphery are, as I’m sure you have guessed, somewhere in-between. They are integrated into the global economy, but not in a place of power. Some of their processes on which their economy’s foundations lie are technologically dynamic, and some are not.

I don’t know that this system of designations is practical for vernacular use, as the terms “core, periphery, and semi-periphery” aren’t widely recognized. I do wish that World Systems Analysis were taught in high school history classes. I have found it one of the most useful frameworks I’ve been taught. I have Wallerstein’s Wikipedia page bookmarked on my browser because I talk about him so often.

As I feel like I always end these pieces, I don’t have any answers or even strong recommendations for directly changing the way we deal with these issues. But again, as always, I must advocate a better understanding of the way a region’s place and history in the world economy, rather than an analysis of its fortunes, affect its future.

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Kelsium lives in Southern California with her partner and collection of almost (almost!) kill-proof plants. She enjoys the beaches, but finds the lack of acceptable bagels distressing. She considers herself an expert in red lipstick and internet rage.

2 thoughts on “Persephoneconomics: A Region by Any Other Name”

  1. Thank you for this! I wholeheartedly agree that the most common designations (“First”, “Second”, “Third” World and “Developing”/”Developed”) are problematic. For my thesis, I’m working specifically with relations between the U.S. and Haiti, and it doesn’t feel right to fall back on those descriptive systems, especially as a white, Anglo-American!

    I’ll definitely look up this Wallerstein character! Perhaps there are more goodies in there I can use. :)

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