The Capitol Siege wasn’t like the ‘Third World.’ It was Uniquely AmericanRoundup
tags: American exceptionalism, political violence, Capitol Riot
Benjamin R. Young is assistant professor in cyber leadership & intelligence at Dakota State University and author of Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World (Stanford University Press) in Spring 2021.
When far-right rioters sieged the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Republican elites distanced themselves from the chaos and claimed that the event was reminiscent of the Third World. “There is nothing patriotic about what is occurring on Capitol Hill,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “This is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy.”
Rubio’s words perpetuated a negative perception of the developing world as a mass of impoverished non-White nations in chaos and continually at war. This is inaccurate and ahistoric. It also ignores the ways in which the United States has long stifled democracy abroad. In fact, the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol — waged by people whom President Donald Trump called “patriots” — made clear a reality that millions of people living in developing countries have long understood: U.S. militarism promotes the rhetoric of democracy but actually stokes violence and chaos.
During the Cold War era, the concept of the Third World originated as a term of empowerment and inspiration for millions of people living in Africa, Asia and Latin America who sought an alternative system to Soviet-style socialism or U.S. liberal capitalism. French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term in 1952, but it was the Martinique-born political philosopher Frantz Fanon who developed the concept into a full-fledged theory of decolonization. In his 1961 book, “The Wretched of the Earth,” Fanon argued, “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples.”
The idea of Third Worldism was meant to unify people all over the world fighting colonialism and imperialism. From the Black Panther Party fighting racism in U.S. cities to African liberation movements overthrowing European colonial regimes, the Third World was a global project of emancipation and solidarity. “The Wretched of the Earth” inspired revolutionaries and radicals all over the decolonizing world. Influenced by the horrors of the Vietnam War and U.S. militarism abroad, governments as diverse as those in Algeria, China, Cuba and North Korea claimed to be the sole torchbearer of a unified Third World anti-imperialist front in the 1960s and 1970s.
Influenced by Fanon’s work, Third World leaders and figures promoted the ideas of national sovereignty and self-reliance. By advancing autarkic economic policies and mobilizing feelings of nationalism among the population, Third World leaders hoped to cultivate a “third way” of development. In 1968, for example, Tanzania’s leader Julius Nyerere argued, “No nation has the right to make decisions for another nation; no people for another people.”
This rejection of American influence, however, came at a cost. The long reach of U.S. intelligence agencies and Washington’s anti-communist stance resulted in an aggressive and confrontational approach to leftist-oriented Third Worldism. For example, João Goulart, the president of Brazil from 1961-64, promoted left-leaning economic and political reforms that did not align with U.S. interests in South America. His reformist regime was overthrown in a military coup and replaced with a pro-American military junta. Although sources are still classified, it is widely believed that the CIA actively supported Brazilian opposition forces that deposed Goulart’s government.