IN THE DOZEN YEARS since Norman Thomas' death, Michael Harrington has become the leading organizer and spokesman for the democratic socialist movement in this country. This has not always been enviable duty. To the multitudes who regard "socialism" and "communism" as different names for the same thing, Harrington has labored to convey his vision of a society with more individual freedom than we now possess and less authoritarian control. To those who know him only as the author of The Other America, the bible for liberal reforms of the Great Society era, Harrington has had to explain that a resumption of the War on Poverty is not all he has in mind. What he has had in mind, consistently through the years, is a structural transformation of the American economy, with the largest concentrations of economic power -- steel mills, banks -- passed from private to public control. Harrington has made the case for such a change in books including Toward a Democratic Left, published in 1968, Socialism, published four years later, and he does so again in Decade of Decision.
Harrington's purpose in this book is to link the democratic socialist prescription to the widespread sense that something has gone very very wrong with the workings of the economy. Everyone recognizes the symptoms of "stagflation" -- the combination of unemployment and inflation -- but the traditional economic theories no longer even pretend to offer a cure. Like the 1930s, Harrington says, the 1980s will be a "decade of decision," in which we will face the need for drastic corrective measures, or will remain in benighted misery. In his view, the necessary correction is to broaden public control over the productive resources of the nation. Whoever controls the nation's investments, Harrington says, will determine what goods we produce, what prices the goods command, how many people will be employed in production and how the rewards of production will be shared. Thus: "The achievement of full employment" -- and nearly every other desirable social goal -- will require "a redefinition of the institutional limits of the public and private sectors in the United States."
Although written with considerable economic erudition, this book is essentially a political manifesto. Like others of that genre, it is far more acute and convincing when analyzing what is wrong today than in saying, specifically, what else we should do. Harrington dissects modern-day capitalism to reveal its familiar problems: an economic distribution in which one half of one per cent of the people own one quarter of the total national wealth; investment incentives that leave the South Bronx blighted and put the workers of Youngstown on the dole; people living on food stamps in Appalachia while the chairman of GM earns $900,000 a year; etc.
This analysis is most effective when Harrington argues against the two basic planks of the capitalist creed; that economic inequalities are essential to inspire discipline and hard work, and that the invisible hand of free enterprise will point to wiser solutions than the clumsy fist of centralized control. To the first, Harrington retorts that today's inequalities are only coincidentally connected to effort and skill. If riches are meant to reward those whose innovations help society, what excuse is there for inherited wealth? If "unearned" investment income is supposed to reward capital outlays which increase production, what about today's two hottest investments -- houses and gold -- neither of which adds a bit to productivity?
To the other part of the credo, Harrington says that we don't face a choice between planning and the free workings of the market. Things are going to be controlled one way or the other, he says; it's only a matter of deciding how and by whom. Virtually all of the money for new productive investment comes, not from individual capitalists, but from corporations' retained profits, from pension funds, and from insurance companies. What all these sources have in common is that they are controlled by small groups of people -- corporate directors, money managers, "technocrats" beyond the reach of classic economic competition. the economy is already planned, Harrington says, but the plan is that of "corporate statism," in which a big, unresponsive public bureaucracy follows the wishes of a big, irresponsibly selfish private one.
When it comes to solutions, we are suddenly on spongy terrain. The book is full of proposals for detailed policy changes -- uniform national standards for taxes and welfare, national health insurance, a stiffer inheritance tax and a more comprehensive, progressive income tax -- but on the largest questions it steps up several levels of abstraction, toward the realm of pie in the sky. For example, after analyzing the deterioration of many northern industrial cities, Harrington concludes: "So the only way the nation will get a decent, liveable urban environment is through national planning." Well, okay -- but by whom, and by what standards, and in what way? Harrington points out that when the Swedes had national industrial planning, they decided to keep a steel mill open and protect the workers' jobs, rather than cavalierly closing the plant as a private firm would. Why can't we, therefore, put the hard-core unemployed to work with similarly sensible "planned" investments in solar energy?
But doesn't this just raise the same question in a different form? Removing gross economic inequalities, as Harrington prescribes, would certainly change some of the pressures on decisions -- but will it really bring us that much nearer consensus on what the goals of our planning should be? There are rarely any "economic" differences between the State Department and the National Security Council staffs, but they often battle to the death over the way foreign policy should be "planned." Don't public bureaucracies, free though they may be from the taint of Mammon, often behave as autocratically and oppressively as any private firm? Harrington clearly understands these problems, but his response in this book boils down to an exhortation on the final page: "Every single proposal urged here [must] be designed, not simply to carry out this or that function, but to involve people in carrying it out as well."
The insights and understanding of this book make it valuable reading, even for those, like me, who remain unconvinced. Harrington's greatest glory is his commitment to participatory democracy, political and economic; more specifics on the where and how would earn him his readers' thanks.