THE VAST MAJORITY: A Journey to the World's Poor by Michael Harrington

THE VAST MAJORITY: A Journey to the World's Poor

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Michael Harrington's sortie into developmental economics is an appeal to the conscience of the ""decent,"" ignorant general reader--those very Americans, presumably, who ""are turning their backs on the wretched of the earth."" His antidote is a sizable dose of economic history and interpretation--to the effect that capitalism created and maintains Third World ""underdevelopment""--interspersed with jottings from brief trips to India, East Africa, and Mexico. But, as he acknowledges (the book is relentlessly first-personal), ""My contact with the Third World is quite minimal""; and his two weeks in India are an agony of indecision, uncertainty, and self-reproach (""Why don't these people assault us well-dressed, well-fed, camera-carrying tourists?""), while the more promising visit to bootstrap-socialist Tanzania is vitiated by Harrington's failure to set the scene. In the general analysis, indictment of capitalist exploitation is not balanced by recognition of the social and political preconditions for economic advance, and no useful distinctions are drawn between countries of differing capabilities. Unfamiliarity with the context makes Harrington weak, too, on specific strategies. He ridicules a Col. Sanders franchise in Kenya and ignores the canny use that the South Koreans and others (emulating the Japanese) have made of licensed technology in overtaking the West; mindful of food-production malaise, he dismisses the well-documented role of agriculture in capital formation; and he appears unaware of the great and damaging discrepancy between urban and rural incomes throughout the Third World. (Apropos particularly of the last, no attempt is made to explain the failure of most developmental aid--surely of interest to disillusioned Americans.) So we are left with the North/South inequity, the callousness of Herman Kahn, the evasiveness of Henry Kissinger, the non-benevolence of the multinationals, and ""the plight of the children of India"" as a long, wordy prelude to the most reasonable of proposals: that ""the key Third World demands--smoothing out the commodity fluctuations, rolling over the debt, getting assistance to industrialize--could be acceptable to the United States, not as it should be, but as it is."" A run of New York Times editorials might say as much.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1977
Publisher: Simon & Schuster