Commentary Magazine


The Vast Majority, by Michael Harrington

To Have & Have Not

The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World’s Poor.
by Michael Harrington.
Simon & Schuster. 281 pp. $9.95.

In The Vast Majority, Michael Harrington, who is identified on the book’s jacket as “the most eminent social critic, activist, and socialist in this country,” purports to offer an analysis of global inequality; a series of first-hand accounts of poor countries (really travel diaries masquerading as social science); and a “remedy” for the current world system, which, according to Harrington, “makes children leprous in Bombay, furrows the foreheads of women in Kenya, and turns Indians in Guatemala into drunkards.” The villain of the piece, to no one’s surprise, is the United States, indeed “the people of the United States,” who in their “cruel innocence” are the keystone of this entire repressive and exploitative edifice.

In Harrington’s view, Americans are responsible for the suffering of the world’s poor because they participate in the capitalist system, which has committed the grave sin of imposing a “growth process” on the Third World from without, instead of permitting underdeveloped countries to evolve naturally and organically. As if this were not enough, the growth process itself turns out to be a sham, because it is based on nothing but the desire for profit on the part of external capitalist forces led by multinational corporations. As a result, the Third World has no hope of reaching the standard of living of the developed West, because even when it achieves high levels of productivity, its wealth is drained off into the capitalist world—largely into the U.S. marketplace.

All of this will sound familiar to anyone who has been following the debate on the so-called New Economic Order, which is essentially the demand by poor countries (the “South”) that rich nations (the “North”) redress the balance between them by canceling current indebtedness, indexing world commodities (to guarantee that prices keep pace with inflation in the North), and contributing a greater, if still modest, proportion of their GNP to the South in the form of economic aid. Although he himself would like something even more radical, Harrington endorses this program.

Now, there is a case to be made for spreading the wealth around the world more equally, and Harrington recognizes that the case is essentially moral. Unfortunately, the moral argument can be stated in a line or two—hardly sufficient even for a volume so slim as this one, and hardly the stuff of “scientific socialism.” In consequence, Harrington has written some two hundred fifty pages of incoherent, pretentious, and contradictory nonsense—something of a feat on a subject already overrun with nonsense.

_____________

 

The central thesis—and the central weakness—of the book is the claim that misery is due to capitalism. If there is one subject that any self-respecting socialist ought to have mastered, it is this. But Harrington, despite his numerous protestations against vulgar Marxism, remains the slave of a rigidly mechanistic view of both the history and the contemporary practice of capitalism. Worse still, he has gotten many of his categories confused, and repeatedly confounds bourgeois society with capitalism, the growth of cities with the industrial revolution, and accident with what Hegel used to call “the cunning of history.”

Thus, for example, we are told that during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, cholera was an “equilibrium mechanism” which facilitated the “rough balance between available humans and job openings.” Harrington even cites the destruction of the staple crops of Mayan society by the Spanish conquistadors (to make room for coffee and beef for the home market) as an example of capitalism destroying the internal coherence of a native society. This sort of exercise was once termed “button, button where’s the bourgeoisie?” by the historian J.H. Hexter, who pointed out that there can be no classicial capitalism without a bourgeois society—something not particularly evident in 15th-century Spain, let alone Latin America. In any case, as the late George Lichtheim frequently observed, non-Western societies really do not belong in Marx’s framework at all; both the Marxist analysis and the terms of Marxist discussion (socialism, capitalism, feudalism) are irrelevant to countries outside Western Europe.

Harrington’s treatment of capitalism derives from the American radicalism of the 60′s, according to which anything America and American businesses do is “capitalism” or “imperialism,” and the underdeveloped societies are the innocent bodies upon which it is done. This model runs throughout The Vast Majority, even though there are moments when Harrington himself realizes that he has got it all wrong. One such moment occurs in his travel diary from India, when it suddenly dawns on him that no amount of structural change can transform a caste society:

Now, my Marxist structural analysis is being tempered by a vivid impression of the tremendous force of history, of the gigantic psychological and intellectual lacunae left over from much more than a thousand years of cultural history. Structure, God knows, is profoundly important, and India is cruelly used every day because of its systematically inferior position in the world economy. But even in the utterly unlikely event that we could remove those institutional negativities and inequities, the ancient India . . . would remain. . . .

But Harrington is not one blindly to accept the force of “history,” and so a few pages later he offers his “solution” to the Indian problem: “many of the truly holy and profound institutions of India should be, and must be, smashed. Nonviolently, persuasively, rationally smashed; but smashed.” In line with this, we find him giving his approval to Julius Nyerere’s brand of socialism in Tanzania, even though (as he notes in passing) there is a “risk of authoritarianism” in that country because of the single-party system and because even the candidates from that single party are subject to confirmation by the national executive. But Nyerere is a smasher, and he will impose socialism on Tanzania, and so one can wink at his anti-democratic regime.

_____________

 

Harrington, in short, has chosen to ignore the central fact about the Third World: its exquisitely totalitarian political structure. This is a curious omission for a democratic socialist, who ought to know that the problem of distribution cannot be dealt with until there is a democratic revolution. For if you do not have political democracy, national wealth will not be distributed throughout the population. Thus, until the poor within a country have enough political power to compel the wealthy to share with them, even a massive influx of money and “infrastructure” will not solve the problem of poverty. One need only look at the behavior of the Saudi royal family—several thousand strong—to grasp the fatuousness of the argument that sharing the wealth of the capitalist North will bring about a more equitable distribution of resources in the South. Harrington is so obsessed with the notion of America’s responsibility for world poverty that he refuses to see what is right there under his nose: the responsibility of the ruling classes of the Third World.

Harrington conveniently overlooks another central fact about the demands for the New Order: most of the countries asking the United States and Western Europe to contribute to their welfare are dedicated to the enfeeblement of the West. Significantly, there is little discussion in the book of the successful Arab oil embargo and attendant price rise, for to have dealt with these would have compelled Harrington to recognize that the Arab countries, which are now investing billions in the capitalist North, should themselves be asked to make massive investments in the South, where the petroleum price increases have sounded the death knell for most development plans. Instead, we find a tortured discussion of American grain policies at home and abroad. Here Harrington stubbornly maintains that the United States purposefully and cynically uses food as a weapon to exploit the Third World, even though the evidence he himself adduces demonstrates that America, first, does not have the means to impose a food embargo and therefore cannot brandish a food weapon the way the Arabs brandish the oil weapon, and, second, that the one time the United States did act as a food cartel—selling wheat to the Soviet Union in the early 70′s—it lost money. Some capitalism, some weapon.

It would seem self-evident that a cheap energy supply is essential to the Third World if it wishes to develop its industry; yet the growing scarcity and expense of traditional energy sources and the parallel rise in the price of petroleum byproducts—notably fertilizer—are the major obstacles to that development. Structure or no structure, a country with access to affordable energy and a government and populace capable of organizing itself can make impressive gains (Japan, South Korea, and Italy in the 50′s). And structure or no structure, a country which misallocates its resources can run a successful economy into the ground (Italy in the 70′s, postwar Great Britain, Soviet agriculture). It is useless to approach these problems through the myths of a bygone day, and it is ludicrous that the source of such myth-making should be a writer who passes for a major American social critic.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.