A Populist Vision

The Lean Years: Politics in the Age of Scarcity

by Richard J. Barnet
Simon and Schuster, 349 pp., $12.95

The economic and ecological disturbances of the 1970s have put thinking about economic power into confusion. The governments of rich countries have defined the “energy crisis” and other shortages of essential raw materials as problems of their own access to resources. The poor nations demand a “New International Economic Order” in which they would have much greater power and in which the terms of trade would shift sharply in their favor. Others have interpreted the difficulties of the 1970s as evidence of “limits to growth” and the need to impose controls in the interests of the biosphere. Some have even advocated letting hundreds of millions of people starve under the guise of “lifeboat ethics” or “triage.” What often emerges from such conflicting views is a vague sense of panic, tinged with fatalism. The problems seem so vast as to be beyond human control, whether they are created by technology fertility, or the iron laws of economics.

In The Lean Years, Richard J. Barnet attempts to make sense of what he calls “the age of scarcity” by analyzing the politics behind it. He tries to show that industrial growth and the exploitation of resources are determined not by impersonal markets or technology but by corporations and governments. Economic power reinforces political power and vice versa. Decisions made in corporate headquarters in New York affect people in Taipei and Sao Paulo as well as Akron. The actions of the people who run states rich in oil and other resources shape the lives of workers and consumers in the United States and Europe. Barnet therefore concentrates on organizations in the world’s political economy: not only states, but multinational corporations, which he sees as increasingly powerful. For Barnet, scarcity is produced by modern society and by the organizations that dominate it. Problems of resources, far from being beyond control, can only be solved through conscious human action.

Barnet touches on a diverse group of issues. In rapid succession, he discusses the energy crisis; the availability of minerals, food, and water; the implications of scarce resources for military action: and what he calls “the internationalization of labor” and the “world employment crisis.” Throughout his analysis is strengthened by his sense that economic and political realities stand behind what may appear to be technical problems. For instance, he makes it clear that malnutrition is not caused by a Malthusian shortage of food, but by an inequitable distribution of income: “People do not eat enough because they are poor.”

Barnet’s treatment of petroleum illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of his book. He argues persuasively that we must drastically change our patterns of energy use. Yet in his zeal to attack the multinational oil companies, he underestimates the part the US government played in creating the present crisis. The US imposed mandatory import quotas on oil, which encouraged companies to drill and produce oil in the US even when secure supplies of foreign oil were available at low prices. This was done not at the …

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