July 2017Theory

Michael Harrington's "The Vast Majority" -- Forty Years On

Note: This piece was first published at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog on June 28, 2017.

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 "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, Andre 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)

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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.

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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 in the case of Latin America.[4]

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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).

 

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