The First World-Problem(s)

Rehyphenating the priorities of the developed and developing worlds.

By Arvind Iyer, 8th January 2014

Background : The Three Worlds theories of the early postcolonial era that might have served to usefully map the sharply polar geopolitics of the time, continue to circumscribe policy imagination as well as commentary in a manner that limits the genuine planet-wide globalizing of best-practices discovered in any of the erstwhile ‘worlds’. The narratives of newly liberated nations making their unique trysts with destiny or the ‘nationalizing’ of ideology as in socialism with Chinese characteristics are far from timeless or timely at this juncture when wars for self-determination are receding into history, thus precluding preoccupations with self-definition, or assertion of identity, or characterization of doctrines. This article treats an increasingly dominant strain of middle-class political attitudes and aspirations in emerging India as a case study of sorts to illustrate how policy pragmatism and catholicity rather than policy puritanism and conservatism maybe both enabled and necessitated in a world where the problems India shares with America are as pressing as the problems endemic to ‘Chindia’ or the BRIC bloc.


Is wealth inequality in America as vividly revealed in this viral video, a first-world problem or one of the first world-problem(s)?  A question cued by the video  is : What is more salient in determining whether a person is suffering in poverty: their position in the ‘first’ or ‘third’ world, or their position in a percentile graph of income wherever they are in the world? One might step back far enough to engage in an exercise of Socratic definition of what ‘poverty’ is, and for that matter, what ‘suffering’ is, but even before going there fully, we may start with examining to what extent are ‘sights and sounds’ of suffering and poverty a reliable basis for working definitions. What our working definitions or archetypes are, will determine what experiences we will recognize as suffering, and also circumscribe our response to the same, and we shall consider both these aspects in turn.

The economist Ashok Desai, in his 1999 book “The Price of Onions” explains how a key difference in how the American middle class and the Indian middle class consumed (at least in the pre-liberalization era) was that Indians ‘purchased goods in less finished form’ than the Americans. His example was that of Indians purchasing whole grain and taking it to a local flour-mill or chakki whereas Americans would purchase their flour packaged by say, Cargill Foods (That illustration is, tellingly, now dated.). Consumption of ‘finished goods’ was to Desai not always a useful marker of affluence or even purchasing power, especially during cross-cultural comparisons. Likewise, the ‘image’ of poverty of an unclad human maybe an instance of attribute substitution where tropical rural attire may be considered the rags of poverty. Like any other heuristic, it works in the ‘ecological niche’ it arose in, but can mislead when misapplied to say, the homeless in the US who are often hoodie-clad than unclad, or to the agrarian countryside in India itself where moneylenders and those who are beholden to them dress nearly alike.

An urban slum or shanty town seems more obviously poor to even someone who grew up in India, than the pucca houses where Vidarbha farmers who committed suicide lived. None of this is to suggest ignoring familiar symptoms of deprivation, but only a reminder to be mindful that there will always be symptoms that are unfamiliar to us. If only minimalist clothing was simply a sartorial choice in India…if only! Instead, preventable deaths during cold waves continue year after year in Northern India, outstripping civil-society efforts like Goonj Rahat Winters to supply warm clothing to those in need. I once had a connecting flight via Incheon International Airport at Seoul while flying to India from the US for the winter holiday break, and the airport was completely snowed under. I couldn’t help noticing how that didn’t delay the flight nor inflicted the sort of toll a less harsh winter inflicts in India. Famines don’t occur in democracies, Amartya Sen observes, but eradicating preventable winter mortality seems to ask for more than political democracy.

That brings us to the question of what are the institutional changes needed for a proper and sustained response to suffering besides emergency humanitarian interventions. Trains famously ran on time in India during the Emergency, and flights running on schedule in South Korea even during blizzards is credited by some to the disciplining authoritarian legacy of Park Chung-hee. The popularity of the view that ‘democracy gets in the way of what is good for the people’ is attested to by the fact that a celebrity like Rajnikanth (whose influence was a king-making campaigner was evident during a Tamil Nadu state election in 1996) names Lee Kuan Yew as his political role model with his devotees nodding vigorously, endorsing in effect a preference for life in a Bonsai showcase. Whatever the original intent of Tao Te Ching Chapter 3  was, it is now seen as the blueprint of the ‘post-Tiananmen deal’ where the function of the state is to provide material prosperity and guarantee stability even at the cost of civil liberties, by benevolently sparing the people political unrest as it were, and denying them the freedom to go wrong or do wrong.

The undisguised paternalism of the post-Tiananmen deal and the manufactured consent of the Washington Consensus, seem to have lent themselves to an uncanny mix with a The-forefathers-knew-best Indian revivalism, with a generation of Indians brandishing the rhetorical device of a ‘starving voter’ to declare that the only real emancipation is economic and the only real empowerment is an increase in purchasing power. Pressed further to reconcile wannabe Americanism and China-envy with their civilizational pride, these cheerleaders of homegrown neoliberalism respond almost in feature-length with their conception of an ‘Indian Dream’ which they claim will have the same production-value of the American dream but will be free of single-parent households and mid-career burnouts which their ‘rooted’ and ‘holistic’ lifestyle would preclude. Their cheerleading of political freedom and economic freedom is vigorous and their enthusiasm becomes tempered only when talk arises of ‘social freedom’ as it were, or even ‘social justice’, since social conservatism is seen as an indispensable insurance against that American nightmare : the single teen-parent household, which to Indian sensibilities is more a spectacle of suffering than a poor but close-knit family in the Indian countryside. An outright comparison of well-being of a dysfunctional first-world family and a deprived but undivided Indian family is obviously prone to the moral hazard which the fallacy of relative privation poses. However, a juxtaposition of these family portraits may occasion a useful reminder of the limitations of viewing human beings simply as ‘mouths to be fed’ or as ‘producers’ or ‘consumers’, views that we are likely to lapse into if our purview is restricted to just the ‘third world’ or ‘first world’. Prof. Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, widely considered one of the drivers of the conceptual broadening from GDP to HDI, offers a framework that is less limiting of the imagination, and therefore potentially yielding more empowering policy-making, than currently dominant worldviews of numbered worlds and the current world order of bread-and-circuses allow.

Endnote: Instead of wistfully missing joint-family portraits, perhaps we can try to take a fuller view of joint family-portrait(s) of the sort a photo-essay like Peter Menzel’s “What the World Eats” puts together. Lessons on how to make the picture better, comprehensively better according to the menu of Prof. Nussbaum, which involves not just filling the table but also filling the chairs, may involve not just a tutorial by the superpowers to the rest, but genuine turn-taking in a conversation that is not between ‘worlds apart’ but amid ‘worlds together’.

Arvind Iyer is a doctoral student researcher at the University of Southern California working in the broad areas of Computational Neuroscience and biological visual processing. His interests include science popularization, continuing education, secular philanthropy and freethought blogging. He is originally from Mumbai, India.


One thought on “The First World-Problem(s)

  1. Excellent piece. ‘The bread and circus’ strategy is what our national parties in India are practicing too woo gullible public.

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