Politics — in the emphatic sense — can sometimes feel like a dead language.
Terms and concepts that today should still retain some of their original descriptive purchase (like “lumpenproletariat” or “petit-bourgeois”) are only greeted with blank stares and bewildered incomprehension. It’s like you’re speaking Middle English or something. But then words and phrases that should actually raise a great deal more doubt (like “imperialism,” the “Third World,” or even “the precariat”) are taken for granted, as if everyone knows what they mean, even though it’s not clear at all if they remotely correspond to reality.
Obviously, I’m not interested in adopting some kind of false orthodoxy. Nor would I insist that everyone drop the way they’d ordinarily talk about something. It’s just that when it comes to serious discourse and debate, there needs to be at least some understanding of what these categories once meant and what they might mean today (if anything). Many of them are quite loaded, historically.
A couple brief examples: In the early 1950s, the bourgeois-liberal French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term the “Third World.” He was trying to give expression to the new political-economic “balance of power” that emerged after World War II. Of course, the idea of a “balance of power” was quite old, going back to Metternich and the Holy Alliance. For Sauvy, a defining characteristic of international affairs after the war was the stark contrast between two competing world systems: capitalism and communism. The new global system was divided into three blocs: the “First World” (the U.S. and its allies, NATO, etc.), the “Second World” (the U.S.S.R. and its allies, the Warsaw Pact, etc.), and the “Third World” (the non-affiliated countries, often ex-colonies of European nations). What can this term mean today, when the entire political order it referred to has collapsed? The “Second World” is no more. There are still holdovers of past conflicts in places like South America, national liberation fronts that have for the most part dropped their Marxist rhetoric in favor of kidnappings and selling drugs. The “Third World” was a fairly vague, tenuous concept to begin with, and today survives as just a floating signifier still charged with ideological abracadabra.
“Imperialism” is another term that’s often bandied about these days, as a generic way to refer to military interventions around the globe, usually undertaken by the U.S. and coalitions it assembles or buys off. This completely distorts the sense of what Lenin, Bukharin, and the other Marxist theorists of imperialism understood by the term. For them, it was a distinct phase (the “highest”) of capitalism, in which domestic strife stirred up by social-democratic movements along with competition between the great powers led to an expansionist logic, whereby whole sections of the globe were divvied up as different empires looked for cheap labor and new markets. Colonies with direct colonial administrations were set up. Moreover, and this was crucial, from the so-called “periphery,” imperialism redounded upon the capitalist “core,” leading to inter-imperialist conflict. This was precisely what happened with World War I, and then to a certain extent with World War II (though this was mediated by the rise of fascism and Rooseveltism, responses to the Bolshevik Revolution). Usually with military interventions now there is an almost collaborative, not competitive, spirit to the invasions or missile strikes. Or there are just protracted proxy wars. Direct colonial rule is unfashionable and too costly these days, so usually it’s just military bases and puppet regimes.