In 1900 the world’s population numbered 1.65bn. A century later that figure had quadrupled to more than 6bn. At the same time, despite this unprecedented crowding of humanity, gross domestic product per capita rose in real terms by more than four times. That huge increase in productive potential redefined the lives of billions of people. It also enabled more destructive wars than ever before and, beyond wars, something even more terrifying: the real possibility of the total annihilation of human life on the planet. This duality of production and destruction gives the 20th century a claim to be the most radical in the history of our species.
With Slouching Towards Utopia, J Bradford DeLong, Berkeley economics professor, former Clinton-era Treasury official and pioneering economics blogger, tries his hand at a grand narrative of the last century. With disarming frankness, he starts with the basic question of any such enterprise: which model, which narrative frame to pick?
In The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian, organised his account of the “short” 20th century around the rise and fall of the Soviet project — 1917-1991. The economist Branko Milanovic in his pioneering work on global inequality has sketched a narrative dominated by globalisation, deglobalisation and reglobalisation from the 1970s onwards.
DeLong’s version of the 20th century is more parochial than either of those. It is centred on the political battles that raged around the growth regime of modern American capitalism and continue to shape policy debate in governments and central banks today. This is, you might say, the in-house, post-Clintonian history of the 20th century.
The story opens in sweeping style in the late 19th century, when the second industrial revolution shifted global growth into a new gear. By that point the first British-centred industrial revolution was a century old. It had changed the face of a small part of northern Europe, but by modern standards it proceeded at a snail’s pace. The American-led growth phase that began towards the end of the 19th century was different. For the first time an important fraction of humanity experienced truly rapid economic growth and that growth was sustained and accelerated into the 20th century.
The drivers of this development, according to DeLong, were three forces: the laboratory, the corporation and globalisation. Migration enabled tens of millions to raise their standard of living. Global investment put them to work. From the laboratory poured forth the magic of modern technology. Surprisingly, DeLong makes no mention of the immense mobilisation of raw materials all this enabled. As the economies of Europe and Japan developed their own growth models, as they collectively bound in large parts of the rest of the world through trade, migration and capital flows, the ensemble acquired such momentum that it promised to give history a deterministic logic dominated by economic growth.
As the 20th century began, it seemed that economic development would realise utopia in the sense of freedom from want. But, as DeLong recognises, the liberal development engine was fragile. Indeed, it was smashed by the cataclysm of the first world war.
On the question of whether that war was itself the result of combined and uneven economic development, or nationalist passion and happenstance, DeLong prevaricates. In any case, the war ended the first wave of globalisation, not only slowing growth but opening the door to contingency and politics. Rather than marching on the high road towards material abundance, humanity slouched towards utopia.
As DeLong sees it, Friedrich von Hayek and his followers were right when they preached that the market would deliver dynamism and innovation, but they ignored the problems of inequality and capitalist instability. As the economist Karl Polanyi diagnosed, increasingly enfranchised populations were not passive victims of history. They pushed back against market forces, demanding protectionism and welfare.
The result was a dysfunctional muddle, which John Maynard Keynes tried to sort out. Around the triptych of Hayek, Polanyi and Keynes, DeLong spans the familiar stations of north Atlantic political economy from 1914 down to the 2010s.
This is a surprisingly political economic history. Of course, individual policymakers, ideologies and institutions do matter. But in the process of narrating the twists and turns of economic policy, the corporations and research labs that DeLong celebrated in the opening chapters disappear almost entirely from view, until they roar back abruptly in his triumphalist account of microelectronics.
The author likes European history and writes knowledgeably about the second world war, but the US is clearly the centre of his world. The Great Depression, postwar social democracy, the race question, the history of technology, are all addressed from an American point of view.
An American-centric world history has an obvious beginning — the years following the US civil war. The more tricky question is how such a history should end. For DeLong the long era of American dominance was concluded in the decade after 2008, a period characterised by secular stagnation and the ascent of Donald Trump.
One can see why this combination was traumatic for veterans of the 1990s-era Clinton administration. But, as a world historic caesura, it is something of an anticlimax. Does the shock of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat really rank alongside the fall of the Soviet Union or the rise of China? Or is the relative banality of that moment, the confirmation of the bigger point, that for all its monumental self-obsession the American narrative is losing its ability to organise our understanding of the world?
Furthermore, are we convinced that this is how the American century ends — with a whimper, not a bang? The last few years hardly suggest as much. For better and for worse, the US Federal Reserve remains the hub of the global financial system. American military power and technology span the globe and are girding themselves for a clash with China. The US is a major energy producer and the supplier of last resort for liquefied natural gas. Which brings us to what is surely the most puzzling aspect of DeLong’s book: his failure to address the vast mobilisation of non-renewable resources that from its beginning defined and powered the American-led growth model.
If the escape from Malthusian constraint defined what was radical about the 20th century, that century also brought us, from the 1970s onwards, a dawning certainty that environmental limits will indeed constrain our future. Not by accident, modern environmentalism was born in the 1960s and 1970s above all in the US. In the 1990s, under Clinton and his vice-president Al Gore, the US was the pivot of world climate policy. But America’s political class abandoned that leadership role and the climate problem has since become the most unambiguous indicator by which to gauge the end of the era of US economic preponderance.
In the early 2000s, in the wake of massive industrialisation and urbanisation, China overtook the US as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Today China emits more CO₂ than the entire OECD club of rich nations put together. In environmental terms, the American-led west no longer controls its own destiny.
Of all of this there is no mention in DeLong’s history. The title itself is telling. Slouching towards utopia? If utopia were on the cards, would slouching really be our problem? The big worry right now is the fear that the 20th century has set us hurtling towards collective disaster. Believers in technology insist that such pessimism is overdone. But nowadays they do at least feel the need to make the case, to demonstrate that to avoid disaster DeLong’s 20th-century formula — labs, corporations, markets and wise government — will suffice. Serenely untroubled by such concerns, Slouching Towards Utopia reads less like a history than a richly decked out time capsule, a nostalgic throwback to the 20th century as we imagined it before the great anxiety began.
Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century by J Bradford DeLong, Basic Books £30/$35, 624 pages
Adam Tooze teaches history at Columbia University. He is the author of ‘Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy’ (2021)
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café