Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (New Press People's History) Reprint Edition by Vijay Prashad (The Free Press)

This book is an ambitious effort to chart the fortunes of the political project of unifying the postcolonial world into 'the third world'. It is not, however, a 'people's' history, either in the senses of charting the demographic transformations of ordinary people (literacy, urbanization, etc) or anthropologically describing how they understood the dramatic events (revolutions, counterrevolutions, development experiments, etc) unfolding. It is almost exclusively concerned with the major leaders and some of the intellectuals and artists who shaped the consciousness of the period. Indeed, even if it was not titled 'people's history', I think it could be faulted by being a little vague about 'the people'.

In any case, the book is basically divided into three parts. The first section, 'Quest', considers some themes (economics, nationalism, gender, etc) through the optic of major conferences. The second, 'pitfalls', highlights places that epitomize themes like military coups and socialism from above. The third section, 'Assassinations' describes the demise of the third world as a subject as a result of neoliberalism, the IMF, the rise of East Asia, and religious fundamentalism. In all sections, Prashad tends to move between the focus of the chapter and historical geographical events that are far afield and occur before and after the moment in question. The effect can be a little vertiginous. Certainly he deserves credit for attempting such an expansive work, and his knowledge about the time period appears to be vast.

However, I found his organization a little too tidy, and his political perspective restricted by his focus on state leaders. Particularly since he regards the UN as something of an instrument for third world advancement (an interesting contrast with Perry Anderson, who claims its just a front for the US), why does he disregard the international conferences held under its auspices in the last fifteen years regarding the environment, women, and racism? Although attended by people from countries in the North as well as the South, at these forums it is probably fair to say that Southern perspectives tended to prevail and throw the North on the defensive. And why is not a word breathed about the World Social Forum? Is it because he regards NGOs (also almost completely absent from his book) as instruments of Northern domination, or because he regards social movements as insignificant compared to states? The absence of any discussion of these issues seems almost sectarian, as does his fairly crude analysis of religion (focused on Saudi-backed Wahhabi Islam--the Iranian revolution is practically unmentioned). Finally, he doesn't seem to have noticed, as have some other writers, that a number of third world states have begun to recover from neoliberalism and seem to be gradually reasserting themselves.

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