THE WORLD BANK has estimated that at least 650 million people in the world today--over three times the total number of U.S. citizens--live on an annual income of less than $50 each. Another 2 billion people live in countries with an annual per capita income of less than $200 per year. While "the vast majority" of humankind worries about its daily survival, Americans worry about overeating.
In The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World's Poor, Michael Harrington tries to come to terms with these inequities and contradictions. Harrington, the chairman and founder of the U.S. Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, is a well-known author and lecturer, and his The Other America (1962) opened the eyes of many Americans to the reality of continuing American poverty amid plenty. Harrington evidently hopes The Vast Majority will cause a similar American consciousness of global poverty.
An air of sincerity and earnestness pervades Harrington's writing. He consciously separates himself from the shrill rhetoric of the extreme left, justifiably complaining that this fringe sets up "straw men" all too easily knocked over by the budding capitalists in such places as the Harvard Business School.
Rather than such straw men, Harrington offers a succinct and eminently readable critique of the existing global structure and its negative effects on Third World economic development. He argues against the prevailing philosophy of a global "trickle down" phenomenon in which continuing expansion of the world market in its present form hypothetically contributes to Third World growth. Instead, he presents a less rosy picture. The built-in gap between the advanced and the less developed economies is so large that free trade between them only generates a still wider gap. The perverted logic of the international economic system dictates that Peruvian anchovies are sold to feed American livestock instead of hungry Peruvians. Multinational corporations, although they provide some benefits to the host nations, drain capital from the economy, skew development plans, and promote undesirable local consumption patterns. And, because of tremendous cultural differences, Third World nations cannot simply imitate European and American economic development strategies.
But Harrington speaks not only to the mind, but to the soul as well. Interspersing his social analysis with excerpts from a journal written during his recent Third World travels, Harrington manages to breathe life into abstract economic concepts. Unforgettable images emerge--hordes of beggars in India, a Kentucky Fried Chicken stand in the heart of Nairobi.
And there is a sense in which Harrington's reactions to what he sees during his travels make him a figure middle class Americans can identify with. His paradoxes are theirs--walking through slums as a self-conscious "tourist of misery," drinking expensive scotch but feeling guilty about it. For Harrington--and, he hopes, for his readers--an awareness of these paradoxes can be the catalyst that produces a passionate desire for greater global justice.
But Harrington's concluding proposals for concrete change--his "agenda" for achieving greater justice--are the weakest part of the book. Although he has warned from the outset that his agenda would be much harder to formulate and much less complete than his critique of the existing system, it remains a severe disappointment.
The agenda is simply not consistent with his previous social analysis. Harrington proposes that the United States and other advanced nations adopt, as "very modest first steps," the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) recommendations--price stabilization for important Third World commodities, increased Western aid to the Third World, a world tariff structure to encourage Third World industrialization, and a rescheduling of Third World debt payments. Throughout the book, however, the thrust of Harrington's argument has been that these very UNCTAD demands are not enough, because as long as they remain within the existing world structure of inequity they can offer no fundamental reforms or helpful change. He is vague about what will follow these modest first steps, expressing only a fuzzy hope that the dynamic of change will be unstoppable once set in motion.
Harrington's problem is perhaps representative of the dilemma that confronts any democratic Marxist. He recognizes the fundamental flaws in the existing international capitalist system, but does not want to see too much blood spilled in an attempt to change it. He continues to hope for a synthesis of Marx and Jefferson--an admirable hope, the hope of a moral man, a hope that combines economic justice with political liberty. But he does not give the reader much of a clue about how to approach this synthesis on a global scale.
Despite this flaw, The Vast Majority remains a work that should open people's hearts and minds to Third World poverty. In part, Harrington has written the book because of his conviction that Americans are unaware of the U.S.'s central role in a system "which massively reproduces the injustices of a world partitioned among the fat and the starving." He has a Jimmy Carter-esque faith that "we are a decent and charitable people," that only a "cruel innocence" prevents us from seeing clearly, and trying to correct, global poverty. Harrington's book removes the excuse of, "But we didn't know about it!" If we do not make such an attempt soon, we will no longer be innocent. Only cruel.