Decade of Decision

by Michael Harrington
Simon & Schuster, $11.95
Michael Harrington’s The Other America, published in 1963, helped awaken an entire generation to the existence of widespread poverty in the United States. His subsequent volumes (and there have been many) have attracted far less attention, and his latest book, a strangely tentative analysis of America’s immediate future, is likely to suffer similarly.
Even in 1963, Harrington was not as interested in describing social ills as in prescribing structural solutions to them. The problems of the 1980s— unemployment, inflation, scarcity, social disarray—are, he now maintains, a direct result of earlier failures to address a single fundamental issue: the inequitable organization of wealth and power. Government spending and excessive regulation have not caused our present “stagflation,” he argues. The real cause has been an economic system in which control of the economy is concentrated in a few private hands and in which corporate priorities, not the public good, dominate the decisionmaking.
Given the fundamental nature of the problem, Harrington’s proposed solutions are surprisingly modest. He urges no revolution, no sudden assault upon the capitalist system. The first step, rather, is a “revived liberalism,” a liberalism leaning toward socialism perhaps, but for the moment at least stopping short of it. His specific proposals—tax and welfare reform, a gradual democratization of corporate decisionmaking—could as easily have emerged from the liberal wing of the Democratic party as from one of the nation’s most influential socialists.
More provocative than Harrington’s prescription for the future are some of his challenges to prevailing assumptions about the present. The poor, he claims, are not overwhelmingly black and urban, the popular stereotype notwithstanding. Most are white; most who can work do work; and most receive no welfare, inflation, he insists, cannot be eased by inducing unemployment. On the contrary, unemployment helps to fuel inflation. And the nation, he argues, has turned far less decisively conservative than most people believe. A substantial constituency remains ready to support progressive economic reform, even if much of that same constituency has moved to the right on social and cultural issues.
Despite occasional bursts of insight, however, Harrington sounds unconvincing and unconvinced. His proposals for change are not only surprisingly moderate but curiously fragmented. And while he insists that society is ready for major structural reform, in his heart, this book suggests, he harbors serious doubts.