Center for World Indigenous Studies

Skip to content
Chief George Manuel

Background on the Term "Fourth World"

An excerpt from CWIS Occasional Paper #18, The Meaning of “Nation” and “State” in the Fourth World

by Dr. Richard Griggs University of Capetown © 1992 Center for World Indigenous Studies

Fourth World:

Nations forcefully incorporated into states which maintain a distinct political culture but are internationally unrecognized.

A convenient shorthand for the Fourth World would be internationally unrecognized nations. These are the 5,000 to 6000 nations representing a third of the world's population whose descendants maintain a distinct political culture within the states which claim their territories. In all cases the Fourth World nation is engaged in a struggle to maintain or gain some degree of sovereignty over their national homeland.

After World War II the core of the state system split into two large geopolitical blocs of associated interests. A Euro-American bloc of states with political and economic ties came to be called the First World. Japan was later added to this monopoly of power. The term Second World distinguished the First World from the other geopolitical bloc: the communist-socialist states including the Soviet Union China, North Korea, North Vietnam and until recently, Eastern Europe. The states not aligned with either bloc of geopolitical power were regarded as the "Third World." These newly decolonized states were also the economically disadvantaged ones having just emerged from centuries of colonialism. Their situation of economic dependency on the First and Second Worlds (neo-colonialism and debt-burdens) is today the more commonplace connotation for the term Third World. The ancient nations from which the patchwork quilt of states was stitched have no internationally recognized sovereignty but their geopolitical force through self- determination movements is challenging the entire state system. Thus a new term has developed since the 1970s, the Fourth World.

The term Fourth World first came into wide use in 1974 with the publication of Shuswap Chief George Manuel's: The Fourth World: An Indian Reality. Manuel thought of the Fourth World as the "indigenous peoples descended from a country's aboriginal population and who today are completely or partly deprived of the right to their own territories and its riches. "(40) This is a valid definition. However, prejudices and misconceptions regarding the terms "aboriginal" and "indigenous" abound including an exclusive association with New World "Indians". In this manner, many indigenous nations in Europe, the Soviet Union, the Middle and Far East, such as Wales, Catalonia, Brittany, Flanders, Bavaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Armenia, Georgia, Palestine, Kurdistan, Khalistan, Balochistan, Tibet, and hundreds more are forgotten or discarded. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Europe because so much can be learned from examining the experience of Fourth World nations at the core of the European-derived system of states. Thus, we find the definition of "internationally unrecognized nations" precise, concise and less geographically limiting.

A definition which is too broad to express the geopolitical situation of oppressed nations is offered by a number of ecological and political organizations associated with the Schumacherian "small is beautiful" school. Influenced by such thinkers and writers as Leopold Kohr, E. F. Schumacher, John Papworth, and Kirkpatrick Sale, these groups are part of a movement toward decentralization and self-determination but do not share the same genesis as Fourth World nations. Hence, the definition of the Fourth World offered by such publications as the Fourth World News and Resurgence, the Journal of the Fourth World concerns the advocacy of more human scale institutions of any kind: [The] Fourth World embraces small nations of under twelve million inhabitants, groups working for their autonomy and independence at all levels from the neighborhood to the nation, minority groups whether ethnic, linguistic, cultural or religious, and those in the fields of peace action, ecology, economics, energy resources, women's liberation, and the whole spectrum of the alternative movement, who are struggling against the giantism of the institutions of today's mass societies and for a human scale and a non-centralized, multi-cellular, power-dispersed world order.(41) This definition of the Fourth World is far too broad and inclusive to be useful in explaining the historical expansion of states and the state-nation conflict it engendered. Clearly, the Fourth World by either definition is the outcome of a struggle between the forces of centralization and decentralization. However, this is an ancient struggle which is unrelated to many of the contemporary social movements listed in that definition. Kohr, Schumacher, Papworth and Sale all show a sympathy for Fourth World nations but are more concerned with the broader question of the size of states and what can be done to scale them down. That state expansion is a problem generated by the conquest of nations is not always explicit in their literature.

The Fourth World has also been used to designate:
  1. the poorest, and most undeveloped states of the world;
  2. any oppressed or underprivileged victim of a state.

R.G. Ridker used it in the first manner in the 1976 publication Changing Resource Problems of the Fourth World.(42) The use of this term has gained some currency among economists but has no relevance for the internationally unrecognized nations discussed here. In 1972, Ben Whittaker of the Minority Rights Group applied the term Fourth World to refer to any oppressed group, failing to distinguish between true ethnic and social minorities and historic nations.(43) Noel Dyck's 1985 publication, Indigenous Peoples and the Nation- State continued to support the conception of the Fourth World as "minority population that have no hope of ever prevailing within their respective national societies... [and] suffer from economic subjugation. "(44) Janusz Bugajski's 1991 publication, Fourth World Conflicts, reiterates the economistic, victimized image of the Fourth World: ...a whole range of tribal and peasant societies that... share a number of attributes, including a low level of political and economic integration in the state system, an inferior political status, and an underprivileged economic position.(45) Whittaker, Dyck, and Bugajski employ the term in a manner which presents the Fourth World as "not so much discreet groups of people or as specified societies" but as "complex political, economic and ideological relations" within the state.(46) This suggests weakness, victimization, and a convenient abstraction for seemingly invisible, intangible, immobile societies. The geopolitical force internationally unrecognized nations represent is totally unaccounted for. These are peoples who through both peaceful and military means are challenging the entire state system. Furthermore, not all Fourth World nations are "economically underprivileged." Some are the most economically advanced regions in their respective states such as Croatia and Slovenia in Yugoslavia, the three Baltic States in the Soviet Union (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), Catalonia in Spain, or Wurtemburg in Germany.

Finally, mixing minorities, tribes and ethnic groups in a single category with nations results in a definition too broad to account for the common historical experience of internationally unrecognized nations. The inadequacy of these terms and others are considered below.

Notes

  1. 40. Quoted in Burger, Julian, THE GAIA ATLAS OF FIRST PEOPLES, London: Gaia Books Ltd., 1990.
  2. 41. Albery, Nicholas and Mark Kinzley, HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD: A FOURTH WORLD GUIDE TO THE POLITICS OF SCALE, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: Turnstone Press, 1984.
  3. 42. Ridker, R.G. (ed.), CHANGING RESOURCE PROBLEMS OF THE FOURTH WORLD, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976.
  4. 43. Whittaker, Ben, THE FOURTH WORLD: VICTIMS OF GROUP OPPRESSION, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972.
  5. 44. Dyck, Noel, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES AND THE NATION-STATE, St. John's: Memorial University of Newfoundland, p. 236-237, 1985.
  6. 45. Bugajski, Janusz, FOURTH WORLD CONFLICTS: COMMUNISM AND RURAL SOCIETIES, Boulder: Westview Press, p. 1, 1991.
  7. 46. Dyck, Noel, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES AND THE NATION STATE.
  • >>