Written by Jason Ouyang
Writing about economics is always tricky. Economics is a young field without extensive documentation, or indeed, any real settling of a scholarly consensus – the field is being constantly innovated, and overturned. The empirical revolution is barely twenty years old, now in 2022.
But today we use economics to understand the world – economically, politically, and socially – in its totality. Into this uncertain area steps economic blogger and University of California – Berkeley professor, J Bradford DeLong, and his new book: Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century.
At 536 pages bound, and another 60 for footnotes and an index, Slouching Towards Utopia will indeed slouch on many a reader’s bookshelf – and somehow, it still feels ten times too short. Slouching Towards Utopia is a book with a world spanning scope – it attempts to cover the human condition from London to Mumbai to Tokyo to Sao Paolo, over the period from 1870 to 2010, with a little bit extra on both ends to set the scene. It straddles economics, political science, and history all at once, because over this much time and this much space the three are completely inextricable. Brad DeLong has to somehow fit in the second (and Third, and Fourth) Industrial Revolution, the two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Asian economic miracles, the other Asian and African false starts, the Cold War, and still have enough room to comment on neoliberalism and the Great Recession.
To do so, DeLong must pass over many of the smaller anecdotes, relegate long debates to footnotes, and simplify whatever he can, wherever he can, whenever he can to reduce the long twentieth century into one readable narrative that fits inside 600 pages.
To his credit, I think deLong largely succeeds.
His main narrative is that there are two themes that emerge starting right around1870 and run until about 2010:
- Corporate reshuffling and the modern corporate research laboratory combine to create not just economic growth but exponential economic growth under capitalism in a completely unprecedented way.
- and so for the first time in capital-h History, it was true that everything was visibly progressing at the beat of economics rather than politics or socially
- And for the first time in capital-h History, capital-u Utopia was coming into sight
- The entire long twentieth century, from 1870 to 2010, is a story of humanity coming to grips with the demands of the completely free market and its apostles, and the counterargument that man was not made for the markets but rather markets made for man and Utopia.
Point two dominates his discussion of the history of the 20th century – the tension between the Hayekian free marketeers and the Polanyian “markets made for the man” disciples. Ironically enough, both Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Polanyi were born inside of his twentieth century, and neither would live to see its ending – but nevertheless, as philosophers they helped provide spokespersons for DeLong’s two large undercurrents clashing throughout the twentieth century.
Here is where DeLong’s strengths as a writer come in, and here is how his strengths are also simultaneously his weaknesses. In order to keep his long anthology comprehensible, he frequently and constantly ties whatever smaller story he’s discussing – whether it be the fallout of WWI or the failures of the Great Recession – to the great debate between the Hayekians and the Polanyians. This helps clarify the stakes, the tensions, and see the broader picture of the long twentieth century – but by painting with such a broad brush over such a great sweep of history, he frequently serves to obscure the details and nuance of his smaller anecdotes.
This leads to the ultimate strength and ultimate weakness of this book: to borrow deLong’s own metaphor, Slouching Towards Utopia is a fifteen-to-twenty-thousand-word argumentative article shotgun married to a research consensus made up of four hundred research papers in an active academic debate, blessed by DeLong’s writing and squeezed inside 600 pages. (You will be seeing the metaphor of a shotgun marriage blessed by an outsider very frequently.)
It therefore feels both too short and too long – too long for a thought provoking twenty-thousand word argumentative article, and far too short for the graduate degree that Brad DeLong almost seems to be begging to make. Slouching Towards Utopia advances many anecdotes, many short essays, and many examples which fit into its broader narrative – but can never take the time and space with any of its examples to provide a fuller sourcing or explanation within the text itself.
Perhaps this is for the best – if DeLong was forced to justify every choice he made inside the text, Slouching Towards Utopia may well have had twenty volumes of the same length book.
But all the same, much of his argument rests on the jump in economic growth created by the advent of the modern research corporation and modern organizational methods. While the story of the long twentieth century may be a story fundamentally about exponential economic growth and the political bargaining around that new engine of growth, the source of that growth, and the internal experience of that growth, feels underexplored. Nevertheless, Slouching Towards Utopia remains a triumph. It covers a period of 140 years across the entire globe with distinction, successfully weaving the tale of economic development and second order effects on politics and history with two broad narratives to tie the whole story together. It’s well worth the read, despite its length and shallowness – there might be a perfect book, and while the way there isn’t obvious, Slouching Towards Utopia at least slouching in that direction.
Delong, J. Bradford. Slouching towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. Basic Books, 2022.