U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Michael Harrington’s The Vast Majority – Forty Years On

The following guest post is by Louis F. Cooper, longtime reader and commenter who contributed to the blog’s Roundtable on U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left in 2014.  

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Michael Harrington’s The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World’s Poor (Simon and Schuster, 1977).  The leading American democratic socialist of his time, Harrington (1928-1989) is best known for his 1962 book The Other America, which drew renewed attention to poverty in the United States and argued eloquently for a “comprehensive” assault on it. [1]  In The Vast Majority, Harrington joined the debate about the Third World (or the global South, as we now say) and the issues of global poverty and inequality.  Despite having become dated in some ways, The Vast Majority still bears reading.  Among other things, the book is notable for its candor: it admitted the complexities of the problems, their resistance to easy solutions, and insisted nonetheless that steps toward a more just global order were both possible and morally necessary. 

The timing of The Vast Majority was not accidental: the book appeared as the postcolonial governments of the Third World were pressing for what they termed “a new international economic order” (NIEO), a label that sounded more far-reaching than the proposed changes actually were.  The result was a series of negotiations involving rich and poor countries conducted in UN forums and elsewhere, until the advent of the Reagan administration, among other occurrences, ended this “North-South dialogue.”  Before that, however, the Carter administration seemed to offer the possibility of some change in the U.S. attitude toward the Third World and its political-economic agenda.

Published as Jimmy Carter settled into the Oval Office, The Vast Majority is framed as an appeal to Americans to abandon “the cruel innocence” with which they participate in “a global system of injustice that warps or destroys the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of human beings.” (14)  However, the book’s analysis of that system is stronger than its prescriptions for changing it, as Harrington acknowledged.  As “a point of departure, not as a solution” (233), he endorsed the Third World demands for more stable prices for commodity exports, debt relief, and more development assistance (especially with respect to industrialization), but he recognized that these and similar measures would not greatly alter “the existing world social system” (220) or the world political economy.  “[W]e will not easily transcend an unfair planetary structure that has been four centuries in the making.” (32)

Synthesizing scholarly work both within and outside of the Marxist tradition, Harrington examined the origins and causes of the so-called North-South gap.  His analysis followed the main lines of what became known as dependency theory, as indicated by his borrowing, for a chapter title, André Gunder Frank’s phrase “the development of underdevelopment.” [2]

In this connection Harrington made three main arguments.  First, exploitation of countries in the periphery of the world economy, while not a sufficient condition for the growth of capitalism in the rich countries, was “a necessary link in that process.” (120)  Second, coercive exploitation – via “slavery, murder and theft” (111) – gave way in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to domination via the world market, i.e., the operations of the international trade and financial systems.  These provided some benefits to poor countries, but did so “in a distorted way” that ultimately reinforced “the structures of underdevelopment….” (27)  Third and relatedly, economic growth in the poor countries was a response mainly to outside forces rather than internal processes; one result was that the economies of many poor countries were not well integrated, with the modern or industrialized sectors being isolated from the rest.  Economic growth under these conditions was often skewed in favor of an elite and “geared to the needs of the old imperial powers.” (44)

Though one might quibble with one or another aspect of his exposition, Harrington was right that the weight of history, and specifically economic priorities often imposed from outside, disadvantaged poor countries and left many of them with only bad choices.  However, he could have considered in more detail the character of underdevelopment, specifically the interaction of local conditions with global forces.  He did that impressionistically (or phenomenologically, to use his word) in the travel journals that comprise portions of the book, but this approach is not, for the most part, carried over to the more analytical chapters.

Missing as well from The Vast Majority is a sustained discussion of certain political impulses that animated the demand for a new international economic order.  Although Harrington noted at the outset that “the maldistribution of the world’s wealth offends two of the most powerful emotions of the modern age, national and racial pride” (22), he did not enlarge much on this point.  Yet it seems reasonably clear that the movement for a new economic order was not only a demand for economic fairness and greater equality of treatment, but was also an expression of a sort of collective nationalism, especially on the part of governing elites in the Third World.  Partly because the NIEO was an elite-driven set of demands, some in the North proposed various ways of trying to ensure that increased aid or transfers to the governments of poor countries would actually benefit the masses of poor people for whom those governments claimed to speak.  While Harrington noted this issue, he did not seem especially concerned about it, though he was critical of certain Third World leaders, notably Indira Gandhi, whose authoritarian Emergency was under way when he was traveling in India.

To suggest that Harrington’s presentation could have been stronger in certain respects is not to take away from what the book accomplished.  It was not intended to be a scholarly treatise but rather a moral case with supporting evidence, and on that score it worked well.  The Vast Majority was also honest in confronting, without pretending to resolve, what might be called the dilemma of radicalism in this area: solutions such as “a genuine world government” (250) were not in the offing, but more ‘realistic’ or incremental measures ran the risk that they would merely shore up the existing system.

***

In the decades since The Vast Majority appeared, substantial progress has been made in some areas such as combating particular diseases and reducing child mortality — although, according to the most recent available estimates, 5.9 million children under age five still died in 2015.  We hear about new middle classes and the large numbers of people lifted out of poverty by corporate or ‘neoliberal’ globalization, and about success stories like South Korea and Taiwan, while not hearing so often about the large numbers who remain in extreme poverty – for instance, roughly 450 million just in India alone.[3]

Moreover, capitalism’s tendency to generate inequality, especially within  countries, has become if anything more pronounced.  Notwithstanding some heralded economic ‘miracles’, problems of economic stagnation, high unemployment, corruption, child labor, food insecurity, inadequate health care systems, and environmental degradation (and that’s not an exhaustive list) continue to plague many countries in the global South; there continues to be a net outflow of capital from South to North; and the world trade and financial systems remain biased in favor of the richer countries and/or the wealthiest corporations and individuals.  The economic fates of poorer countries often still remain tied to business cycles and economic conditions in the global North.  A recent reconsideration of Gunder Frank’s seminal article “The Development of Underdevelopment” finds it to have continued application with respect to Latin America.[4]

In sum, many of the issues that Harrington discussed persist, if not always in the same forms.  As long as that remains the case, The Vast Majority will have a continuing relevance.

  1. M. Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (Penguin pb. ed., 1963), p. 179.
  2. This was the title of a 1966 article by Gunder Frank in Monthly Review (though Harrington cites not the article but a book by Frank: Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America, which expounded the thesis at more length). For a recent discussion, see Felipe Antunes de Oliveira, “A Radical Invitation for Latin America: The Legacy of Andre Gunder Frank’s ‘Development of Underdevelopment,’” Monthly Review, 69:1, May 2017, pp. 50-59.
  3. Basharat Peer, “India’s Broken Promise” (review essay), Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012, p. 159.
  4. Antunes de Oliveira, “A Radical Invitation” (see note 2).

5 Thoughts on this Post

    • Patrick,
      I downloaded your bibliography on this quite a while ago and I should take another look at it.

      As you obviously know, there’s been a great deal of work in this area in the last few decades, and I didn’t have space to go into it in the post; even if I had had space, it would have required considerable research since I’ve certainly not read all the recent work (though I’m familiar with some of it). I’d be interested in your views on which books/authors stand out here.

  1. Louis, I’ll send you a copy of the list with highlighted titles anon (it’s probably been updated since you downloaded it). I was inspired by your post, so I hope you don’t mind the somewhat long comment:

    In Harrington’s last book, Socialism: Past and Future (Arcade Publishing, 1989)—which has not received the widespread favorable attention I audaciously believe it deserves—he writes of a “new, progressive social structure of accumulation, a next stage of capitalism that is socialistic, if not socialist, because it is based on the expansion of popular decision making as well of qualitative growth and mass consumption,” concluding that “the immediate demands of the new socialism will be internationalist or else the new socialism will fail,” hence the futility of “socialism in one country,” an implication one might also indirectly derive from a careful analysis of the terms and conditions of the current round of capitalist—neoliberal—globalization. There’s no denying the fact that the current phase of capitalist transformation and entrenchment is truly, if not relentlessly and sometimes and in some places ruthlessly, global. In the words of the economist Meghnad Desai,

    “The influence of capital—either as portfolio finance or as direct investment—the hegemony of financial markets, the increasing penetration of trade, have been experienced by all the worlds: First, Second, and Third. Indeed, this numerical categorization is now otiose. The benefits and costs of capitalism fall symmetrically—though not equally—on all parts of the world. For the first time in two hundred years, the cradle of capitalism—the metropolis, the core—has as much to fear from the rapidity of change as does the periphery.”

    Harrington writes that increasing economic and social unity in the world will “lead to an intolerable global class structure not amenable to Keynesian (or neo-Keynesian) social democracy, which historically “discovered ways to ameliorate, but not to remove, the inequities within advanced capitalist society.” Nevertheless, obdurate Neo-Keynesian policy prescriptions persist among left-leaning Liberals and social democratic Leftists. Harrington’s analysis of the golden age of Keynesian social democracy prefigures and agrees with Desai’s précis of this period:

    “The Keynesian quarter-century had indeed been a party. Everything had stayed high—employment, hours worked, vacancies—or grown steadily—income, wealth. The public sector—central government, local government, public enterprises—had grown without causing any problems.”

    We may look back, but there’s no turning back. And so there is no golden-like age on the visible horizon, despite nostalgic proclivities and desperate yearnings among those of us old and privileged enough to be intimately familiar with this history. In other words, Keynesianism, post- or otherwise, is behind us, at least in the long term and globally speaking (recall that it was Keynes, for better and worse, who ‘made capitalism safe for democracy’). The current conditions are, Desai provocatively suggests, “analogous to sailing a ship on high seas. The ship has some machinery for control, but in navigating it, the captain does not control the waves or the wind. These forces can be studied, but they cannot be controlled. The captain who ignores or defies these forces may well run the ship aground or sink altogether.” Put differently, “[c]ycles, with their mania, crashes, and panics” are here to stay, as they undoubtedly “are endemic to capitalism.” Desai’s realistic yet bleak conclusion is in vivid contrast to Harrington’s programmatic sketch of utopian (in a non-pejorative sense) imperatives:

    “The new socialism must make the eradication of systemic planetary inequality one of its most important single priorities. That, as [Willy] Brandt [cf. the ‘Brandt Report’] well realized, is not simply a moral duty. It also creates a new basis for expansion in the North—it is an element in the next social structure of accumulation—through a commitment to ending poverty in the South.”

    If not obvious by now, Harrington says this “means that the new socialism should put redistribution on the agenda.” I’ll not summarize Harrington’s prescient remarks on the contours of “qualitative growth” (a critical component of which, is the ‘expansion of free time’) and the “age of automation,” but there is much to think about in his compressed expression of the “new” socialism’s obligation to “be concerned with the character of civilization, not just with the allocation of investment,” one reason why the “issues of gender, environment, and race,” while inextricably related to questions of class, cannot be “reduced to class injustice.” In short, would-be socialists in the affluent nation-states must think long and hard, and creatively, about consequences and prospects that come with “the inexorable socialization of the entire planet.”

    In thinking about the pressing demands of the present and the possibilities of the future, Harrington notes what is belatedly dawning upon an increasing number of economists, namely, that there “is clearly no single model of development that is adequate to societies with such different problems and at such radically different sates of economic and social development.” This fact does not diminish the urgency of ending “absolute poverty” (which in turn, should not crowd out the ongoing struggle to eradicate the disparate inequalities intrinsic to ‘relative poverty’ as well). Given the ascendancy of reactionary and neo-fascist politics in Europe and North America (and in other parts of the world, notably India), it is perhaps hard to envision the realism enshrined in Harrington’s insistence on the necessity of a concerted effort to transfer (redistribute) wealth and resources from North to South, a program that should go hand-in-hand, with “new international political institutions.” But the foreseeable alternatives to Harrington’s globalized socialism are not merely the persistence of morally evasive ideologies and the nauseating mantras of “realist” politics, they are the stuff of dystopian nightmares and apocalyptic visions inevitably if only intermittently descending upon us.

    • Patrick,
      Thank you for this.
      (I saw this only after writing and posting my comment below.)

  2. I see you’ve updated the biblio recently; what I downloaded was an older version.

    It’s always hazardous to start mentioning names, but I might mention that of Hla Myint, a Burmese economist who died recently (in his late 90s) and whose work Harrington cited. There are of course many others that could be mentioned.

    Also, and possibly of more direct interest to some readers of this blog, there’s a new book out on R. McNamara at the World Bank: P. A. Sharma, Robert McNamara’s Other War.

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