23 November 2022

Slouching Towards Utopia

An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

Bradford DeLong
2022, Basic Books, 624 pages,
ISBN 9780465019595

Reviewer: Bridget Rosewell

DeLong argues that the period between 1870 and 2010 represents a significant shift in human affairs, starting with our ability to outpace the Malthusian trap.  That trap meant that in all previous periods economic progress meant higher birth rates so that in the end no one was better off.  It was the combination of globalisation, the industrial research lab and the modern corporation which enabled that take-off.
However, he also shows that the miracles of progress were both interrupted and at least potentially have come to an end.  Hence material capabilities that would have seemed utopian to the generations before 1870 have not produced riches for all even though real poverty has been seriously reduced.  Moreover, war has not disappeared either and this long period of progress has nonetheless been punctuated by massive military conflict and huge numbers of deaths both of soldiers and civilians.

His title reflects the proposition that having walked and even run towards utopia at various occasions between 1870 and 2010, culminating in the ‘thirty glorious years’ up to 1970 moderated by a turn to neoliberalism thereafter, we are now merely slouching.  To me slouching suggests laziness and a certain disinclination to engage, distinct from merely slow progress.  I’m not sure whether this is what he means, even after 500 odd pages.

The book is long, well written and pulls together many strands of history, philosophy and economics.  Aristotle, Plato and Socrates all figure, alongside Keynes, Hayek and Polanyi. Indeed DeLong thinks that Keynes’ merger of the thinking of Hayek and Polanyi encapsulates what was achieved in global economic growth and increasing fairness in the mid and late twentieth century.  The book is undoubtedly worth reading.

There are some caveats.  If industrial research and modern corporations are key to the transformation of the world, then I would have liked to see more discussion of these and how they effected that transformation.  Indeed, in the 1960s large corporations were seen by many as globally damaging; they forced less developed economies to stay that way and were able to undermine local communities and their polities. It can be argued that the establishment of the joint stock firm and limited liability has been both liberating in allowing entrepreneurs to take risks – and equally as damaging in removing consequences from such risk taking.  The long twentieth century which DeLong describes rests on the benefits having outweighed the risks in practice.  Could one have identified that ex ante?  It’s not clear and yet I think this is central both to the ability to outrun Malthus and to thinking about the kind of political environment which enables, rewards, but also mitigates and moderates, risk taking.

Further, DeLong does not really define what utopia might look like.  He does not, to my mind, make a wholly convincing argument that social democracy is the nirvana though he certainly implies it.  Quite apart from the concern that utopia might simply not be possible since restless humans will always be disturbing it, a definition which rests on economic prosperity and a fair distribution of outcomes is clearly contingent on an agreed definition of ‘fair’.  Marx defined it as ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ but these are probably not stable let alone well-defined according to some agreement.  It’s not surprising that an attempt to develop a society along these lines led to autocracy and a central definition of ‘need’.  China may still be on this path. DeLong argues that 2010 constitutes a break point and it could certainly be the case that it is after 2010 that the more limited ability to grow the pie has resulted in fiercer argument about how it should be distributed and the role that markets and governments variously play.  These are not yet settled into any form of new consensus so it remains to be seen whether there will be a very different social contract in the Western world – let alone elsewhere – in the future.
A further potential break point which I would like to have seen discussed is the role of globalisation.  Once again this has both pluses and minuses.  Economists are very prone to see all growth in trade as a positive, but more recently concerns about resilience, responsiveness and over-reliance on suppliers over whom there is little control have begun to alter the balance between costs and benefits.  Perhaps price is not the only relevant information.  Globalisation has brought some export-oriented and policy driven countries prosperity.  It has not done that for all. Economists should be more nuanced in distinguishing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ trade – the difference between win-win and win-lose.
And the biggest challenge which might mean a break point before 2010 is more appropriate is that of the environment. The escape from Malthus was built on coal and then oil.  The consequences are now looming large.  The industrial research labs produced Freon – destroying the ozone layer – and lead additives to petrol – destroying our brains.  They also produced nitrogen-based fertiliser which has arguable been a prime cause of soil and biodiversity destruction, particularly accelerated after 1950. None of this gets a mention in this book.

A last point to make about the book is the role of contingency.  This clearly worries DeLong and he is not sure what to do about the great men – yes they are (almost) all men who have shaped the ideas and outcomes – FDR, Keynes, Truman – and Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao.  The geographical distribution here is a worry but I would like to pay tribute to someone of whom I had not heard before reading this book.  Frances Perkins was Labor Secretary to Roosevelt and served for twelve years. She was the architect of much New Deal legislation. It’s a continual question for historians whether social and economic forces produce the person, or the person shapes those forces. I’ve teetered and tipped between the two before discovering feedback loops which suggest they cannot be disentangled.

This is a great book with huge sweep.  It makes you think about the current times, the playbooks we know about and those which might not work this time around.  As DeLong points out several times, history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  It’s impossible to have an outside perspective about one’s own times, but history does help one to step back and think about options more clearly. Endless borrowing does not work, but neither does austerity in the wrong place.  Identifying the difference between these and the scale of either is not easy and we all need to work harder to take positions of pragmatism as well as of principle.