By Bread Alone
The Lean Years: Politics in the Age of Scarcity.
by Richard Barnet.
Simon & Schuster. 349 pp. $12.95.
The myth of the Third World would seem to have fallen on hard times. Oil-exporting nations refusing to help their impoverished brethren; economic misery persisting despite the application of every principle of socialist planning; murderous dictators like Amin, Macias, Castro; the widespread absence of elementary personal freedoms; the palpable maldistribution of resources within countries ostensibly devoted to economic justice-all this has contributed to undermining the once popular view that the Third World is a repository of virtue suffering only from external oppression by the rich, conservative Western nations.
Those who study the data on political and economic development go even further. In general, it turns out, those Third World nations which have aligned themselves with the West are the freest, and those which have adopted capitalism show the fastest economic development. Thus, whereas Communist China is the poorest and most repressive ethnic Chinese nation in the world, economic growth has enriched the people (not just the ruling clique) of the other three ethnic Chinese nations—Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, which have rejected the socialist model of central planning and state ownership.
To defend the older, romantic view of the Third World is, then, no easy task, yet it is a task that has been assumed willingly if not eagerly in recent years by Richard Barnet. The Lean Years: Politics in the Age of Scarcity is probably the best that can be done with the old myths, for Barnet has an agile mind and wide experience with the politics of the Third World. This is, indeed, the Gospel according to the Institute for Policy Studies, of which Barnet was a co-founder and of which he remains co-director. If Barnet is not the official ideologist for the Left on matters of world political development, his voice is certainly representative.
It is not difficult to summarize the argument of The Lean Years, for its core is simple: world population will soon outgrow world resources, and nations will face a struggle over food, oil, land, and water. Either we will all share these resources, or we will all die fighting over them. Barnet writes that “If we cannot develop a democratic planning system to touch these issues historians will doubtless conclude that our [American] experiment lasted barely two hundred years.” The alternative to destruction is a new set of social arrangements, which may have to be brought about violently: “Whether the redistribution of power, the precondition of the redistribution of resources, can occur without a huge escalation of revolutionary warfare is dubious.”
Fundamental to this argument is the idea that the role of power is to hang onto wealth. Here Barnet takes the traditional Leninist approach to “imperialism,” according to which the West is rich because the Third World is poor, and vice versa. The relationship between Western and Third World economics is one of simple exploitation. This is perhaps the weakest link in Barnet’s chain, for he simply ignores or explains away the mountain of evidence on economic growth in the Third World, particularly the remarkable success of Taiwan and South Korea at creating and distributing wealth.
In Barnet’s view, wealth is something consumed, not produced—hence his emphasis on the necessity of redistribution. It is clear from The Lean Years that this emphasis also determines his view of our natural resources, which he sees as finite and fast depleting. He denies, despite much evidence to the contrary, that significant new oil or gas deposits will ever be found, and he rejects out of hand the possibility that nuclear power, although technically feasible, will ever be made safe enough to provide for our energy needs. All this is a necessary step toward claiming that the only alternative to world catastrophe is fundamental social and political change.
The time has come, writes Bar-net, for the market economy to give way to a “more powerful political vision.” He does not embrace the old models of centralized planning and wide-scale nationalization, but trendier versions of each. Key concepts for him are decentralization and localized control. He advises “maximum feasible self-reliance of nations and regions” in food; “with-in U.S. agriculture, too,” he writes, “local and regional self-reliance should be promoted.”
In this leaning toward localism, Barnet deviates from the traditional position of the Left. His Malthusian approach to resources is also un-Marxian for, as he notes, Marxism was based on a vision of coming abundance. Yet his prescriptions for our imagined ills—the “Age of Scarcity” in which all our resources are fast disappearing—are familiar enough. “The key to democratic planning is democratic control of capital.” “More explicit planning is needed to manage the flow of scarce resources.” “Public governance of local resources” is required. Thus, despite his bows to decentralization, Barnet’s views on the direction of necessary political and economic change come down to state control and more state control. He even acknowledges what, in the Age of Scarcity, such a “political vision” would entail for human liberties: “without the myth of abundance, distributive justice becomes impossible without massive coercion.” (Although Bar-net makes this comment specifically about Marxist societies, it would apply a fortiori to any society that followed his prescription for the future.)
Barnet argues for the transformation of the social order with a modernized version of the carrot and the stick. The old Marxist pairing was class warfare as the threat, and humanism as the reward. In Bar-net’s vision, international warfare over scarce resources has replaced class warfare over the means of production. As for the reward, he offers redemption through politics: the new order will cure “the lack of connectedness to the future” we feel in the “special restlessness that permeates industrial culture.” Today, under our present system, “there is no answer to the inescapable human question: Why am I here?” But if we turn to “sharing and cooperation” we can live “in psychological and ideological harmony with the rest of creation.” The book concludes with the sentence, “The task of politics is to give expression to these yearnings so that institutions can be created to enable people to do what they know they must.”
Barnet labors hard to adapt both the threat and the promise of Marxism to our new age. To this end he builds a complex structure which combines some apocalyptic rhetoric, some romantic anti-industrialism, not a few factual errors, a refusal to deal with unhelpful data, an earnest style, and just enough Left pieties to make anxious followers feel at home.
But for all the sophisticated analysis in Barnet’s book, in the end it serves to obfuscate rather than to illuminate the most profound issue of our time, which is not the struggle over resources but the struggle between East and West over the survival of freedom. It is in the context of that enduring and now critical struggle that the true character of Barnet’s analyses and recommendations finally become recognizable. Despite the appearance of scholarly distance and detachment which he tries hard to maintain, Barnet’s “vision” leads down familiar paths to a world where freedom cannot survive.