In 1900 the world population was 1.65 billion. A century later, that figure had quadrupled to more than 6 billion. At the same time, despite this unprecedented bustle of humanity, gross domestic product per capita increased by more than four times in real terms. That massive increase in production potential redefined the lives of billions of people. It also enabled more destructive wars than ever before and, after wars, something even more terrifying: the real possibility of the total destruction of human life on the planet. This duality of production and destruction gives the 20th century the claim to be the most radical in the history of our species.
Of Slouching on the road to utopia, J Bradford DeLong, Berkeley economics professor, former Clinton-era Treasury official and trailblazing economics blogger, tries to carve out a grand narrative of the last century. With disarming candor, he begins with the fundamental question of such an undertaking: which model, which narrative framework to choose?
In The Age of ExtremesEric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian, organized his account of the ‘short’ 20th century around the rise and fall of the Soviet project – 1917-1991. The economist Branko Milanovic, in his seminal work on global inequality, has outlined a narrative that has been dominated by globalization, deglobalization and reglobalization since the 1970s.
DeLong’s version of the 20th century is more parochial than either. It focuses on the political struggle that has raged around the growth regime of modern American capitalism and continues to shape the policy debate in governments and central banks today. This is, you might say, the internal, post-Clintonian history of the 20th century.
The story begins in a compelling style at the end of the 19th century, when the Second Industrial Revolution accelerated global growth. At that time, the first British industrial revolution was a century old. It had changed the look of a small part of Northern Europe, but by modern standards it was going at a snail’s pace. The American-led growth phase that began toward the end of the 19th century was different. For the first time, a significant portion of humanity experienced truly rapid economic growth, and that growth continued and accelerated into the 20th century.
The driving forces behind this development, according to DeLong, were three forces: the laboratory, the company and globalization. Migration enabled tens of millions to raise their standard of living. Global investments put them to work. From the laboratory flowed the magic of modern technology. Surprisingly, DeLong makes no mention of the massive resource mobilization that made all of this possible. As the economies of Europe and Japan developed their own growth models, as they collectively connected in much of the rest of the world through trade, migration and capital flows, the ensemble gained such momentum that it promised history a deterministic logic. dominated by economic growth.
As the 20th century began, it seemed that economic development would realize a utopia in the sense of being free from want. But, as DeLong acknowledges, the liberal development engine was fragile. Indeed, it was crushed by the catastrophe of the First World War.
As to whether that war itself was the result of a combined and uneven economic development, or of nationalistic passion and chance, DeLong digresses. In any case, the war ended the first wave of globalization, not only slowing growth, but opening the door to contingencies and politics. Instead of marching on the high road to material abundance, humanity sank into utopia.
As DeLong sees it, Friedrich von Hayek and his followers were right when they preached that the market would bring dynamism and innovation, but they ignored the problems of inequality and capitalist instability. As economist Karl Polanyi argued, more and more voting populations were not passive victims of history. They pushed back against market forces and demanded protectionism and prosperity.
The result was a dysfunctional muddle, which John Maynard Keynes tried to solve. Around the Hayek, Polanyi and Keynes triptych, DeLong spans the well-known stations of the North Atlantic political economy from 1914 to the 2010s.
This is a surprising political-economic history. Individual policymakers, ideologies and institutions do matter, of course. But as he narrates the twists and turns of economic policy, the companies and research labs DeLong celebrated in the opening chapters disappear almost completely from view, until they abruptly roar back in his triumphant account of microelectronics.
The author loves European history and writes knowledgeable about World War II, but the US is clearly the center of his world. The Great Depression, post-war social democracy, the race question, the history of technology, are all addressed from an American perspective.
An American-centric world history has a clear beginning – the years after the American Civil War. The trickier question is how such a history should end. For DeLong, the long era of American dominance came to an end in the decade after 2008, a period marked by secular stagnation and the rise of Donald Trump.
One can see why this combination was traumatic for veterans of the Clinton administration of the 1990s. But as a world-historical caesura, it’s kind of anticlimactic. Does the shock of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 really coincide with the fall of the Soviet Union or the rise of China? Or is the relative banality of the moment, confirmation of the larger point, that for all its monumental self-obsession, the American narrative is losing its ability to organize our understanding of the world?
In addition, are we convinced that this is how the American century ends—with a wail, not a bang? The last few years have hardly amounted to much. For better or for worse, the US Federal Reserve remains the hub of the global financial system. US military might and technology span the globe and gird themselves for a clash with China. The US is a major energy producer and supplier of last resort for liquefied natural gas. Which brings us to what is arguably the most puzzling aspect of DeLong’s book: his inability to address the massive mobilization of non-renewable resources that defined and powered the American-led growth model from the beginning.
If the escape from Malthusian coercion defined what was radical about the 20th century, that century also brought us, from the 1970s, an incipient certainty that environmental constraints will indeed limit our future. It is no coincidence that modern environmentalism was born mainly in the US in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s, under Clinton and his Vice President Al Gore, the US was the linchpin of global climate policy. But the US political class has given up on that leadership role, and the climate problem has since become the most unequivocal indicator for measuring the end of the era of US economic dominance.
In the early 2000s, in the wake of massive industrialization and urbanization, China overtook the US as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China today emits more CO₂ than the entire OECD club of rich countries combined. As far as the environment is concerned, the American-led West no longer controls its own destiny.
None of this is mentioned in DeLong’s history. The title itself is telling. Slouching towards utopia? If utopia were at stake, would lanky really be our problem? The big concern right now is the fear that the 20th century has propelled us into collective disaster. Believers in technology insist such pessimism is exaggerated. But these days, at the very least, they feel the need to defend the case, to show that to avert disaster, DeLong’s 20th-century formula—laboratories, corporations, markets, and wise government—will suffice. Serenely not troubled by such worries, Slouching on the road to utopia reads less like a history than a lavishly decked out time capsule, a nostalgic throwback to the 20th century as we imagined it before the great terror began.
Slouching on the road to 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)
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