A Dose of Rational Optimism

A Dose of Rational Optimism

Slouching Towards Utopia is a rise-and-fall epic—but it is better at depicting the rise than explaining the fall.

A cover of Scientific American portraying Thomas Edison’s electric dynamometer, mirror galvanometer, and electric generator (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century
by J. Bradford DeLong
Basic Books, 2022, 624 pp.

There is a masterpiece in J. Bradford DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia, and a very interesting muddle.

Humanity, the Berkeley economist argues, spent nearly the entirety of its history condemned to poverty by an insufficient supply of calories and a chronically excessive birth rate. But in the “long twentieth century”—the period between 1870 and 2010—an almost miraculous transformation took place: more and more people lived longer, healthier, more prosperous lives than ever before. Arenas of intellect and creative expression that were once accessible only to the most privileged of elites became the common experiences of mass cultures. Humans did not find utopia, DeLong argues, but we stumbled in its general direction.

In the grim morass that has followed the financial crisis of 2008, it is refreshing to receive a dose of rational optimism—however tempered—from a serious intellectual examining our place in the grand scheme of history. DeLong does not avert his readers’ eyes from the brutalities of imperial conquest, genocide, and revolution gone awry, which define the political milieu of the era under his microscope. But his narrative is fundamentally hopeful: people can accomplish amazing things on a colossal scale. Not that long ago, we did so all the time.

This perspective is refreshing precisely because everyone, DeLong included, knows that something has gone terribly wrong.

Slouching Towards Utopia is a rise-and-fall epic, but it is better at depicting the rise than explaining the fall. “Why, with such godlike powers to command nature and organize ourselves, have we done so little to build a truly human world, to approach within sight of any of our utopias?” DeLong asks in his final chapter, only to dodge an answer: “A new story, which needs a new grand narrative that we do not yet know, has begun.” Modesty is a virtue in a historian of long centuries, but after the persistent enlightenment of the book’s first 450 pages, this limping denouement is a disappointment.

Ah, but those first 450 pages. DeLong’s long twentieth century is a nod to the idea of the long nineteenth century developed by Eric Hobsbawm, one of two great economic historians (the other is Charles P. Kindleberger) that DeLong alternately channels and challenges throughout Slouching Towards Utopia. For Hobsbawm, everything changed between 1789 and 1914, as humanity established the material foundations that could support true liberation and the political structures to deliver it. In Hobsbawm’s telling, the Industrial Revolution and its political handmaiden, the French Revolution, opened the door first to liberal progress and then to the possibility of egalitarian salvation under Soviet Communism. Hobsbawm was very good at what he did—so good that many of his most strident political opponents still take a great deal of his intellectual framework for granted. DeLong spends much of his book detailing the horrors engineered by Stalin and Mao but ultimately offers a revision of Hobsbawm’s thesis in lieu of an outright rejection. The era of economic revolution is not 1789–1914 but 1870–2010; the transition is not from barbarism to socialism but from squalor to social democracy.

According to DeLong, the Industrial Revolution was just one of several economic innovations that improved humanity’s lot at the margins without fundamentally changing the trajectory of the human experience. He quotes an aging John Stuart Mill, who lamented in 1870 that the triumph of so many liberal reforms—the abolition of slavery, the expansion of the franchise, the growth of international trade—had not produced a healthier or happier world. The planet could support more people than it had been able to when Mill was born, but living standards had not improved for anyone outside a tight circle of elites. Even those who had thrown off the yoke of slavery had been delivered from the cruelty of forced labor into the cruelty of fate; a bad harvest or an unusually cold winter could bring mass death. Almost everywhere, life remained uncertain and short, if not nasty and brutish. Mill saw no way out absent a rigorous program of global birth control.

The wonder of the twentieth century, DeLong observes, was the attainment of previously unimaginable material gains amid a global population explosion. As DeLong notes, “Four percent of Americans had flush toilets at home in 1870; 20 percent had them in 1920, 71 percent in 1950, and 96 percent in 1970. No American had a landline telephone in 1880; 28 percent had one in 1914, 62 percent in 1950, and 87 percent in 1970. Eighteen percent of Americans had electric power in 1913; 94 percent had it by 1950.”

DeLong’s upgrade of Hobsbawm is persuasive, but it inspires an obvious question: why begin the story of material triumph in 1870, when the era of broadly shared prosperity did not really begin until the 1940s?

For DeLong, the ingredients of economic liberation are the industrial research lab, the modern corporation, a globalizing economy, effective demand management, and the rough balance of private and public power discovered during the New Deal. The first three factors arrived much earlier than the other two, and for DeLong’s story of technology-fueled growth to hold up, he needs technological fuel, which did indeed take root when he says it did. The number and the significance of new inventions skyrocketed in the 1870s. It is impossible to imagine twentieth-century life without electricity, the telephone, photographic film, recorded sound, the open-hearth steel furnace, the automobile, the motion picture, and a host of other innovations that arrived before 1900.

What distinguishes this technological revolution from Hobsbawm’s Industrial Revolution is what DeLong calls “the invention of inventing”—the development of new processes and forms of organization that enabled ideas to build on one another in rapid succession. “What was invented in the industrial research labs could be deployed at national or continental scale,” DeLong writes. “Perhaps most importantly, these economies discovered that there was a great deal of money to be made and satisfaction to be earned by inventing not just better ways of making old things, but in making brand-new things.”

Still, the Gilded Age was not an era of great social progress. In many respects, living standards for the vast majority of Americans deteriorated. As the historian Richard White details in The Republic for Which It Stands, most Americans living in the final decades of the nineteenth century lived shorter lives than their Revolutionary War–era forebears. A typical ten-year-old white boy could expect to live only another thirty-eight years. He was also shorter of stature than his recent ancestors would have been, an indication of inadequate childhood nutrition. The data vary across regions and by race, with Black lives notably briefer than white throughout, the South underperforming the rest of the country, and significant divergences between rural and urban life, with cities suffering from poor sanitation and deadly disease outbreaks. But the broad pattern is grim. Only after 1890 did things start to look up, and only after 1900 would American lifespans begin the general, unambiguous upward ascent that public health experts took for granted until very recently.

Why didn’t the wondrous new inventions of the 1870s lead swiftly to better living? The decade also marked the beginning of a revolution in global commerce brought on by the wide acceptance of gold as a common medium of exchange. The gold standard facilitated international trade and helped spread efficiency gains from a global division of labor. But the gold standard also established a new era of macroeconomic mismanagement. After the Civil War, the United States experienced chronic deflation until the turn of the century. The period between 1873 and 1879 proved so horrific that people called it the Great Depression.

DeLong’s story begins in 1870 because you cannot have the diversity of travel, consumption, art, and entertainment that defined the twentieth century without the inventions of the Gilded Age. But none of these fancy gadgets would have developed into a transformative mass culture without DeLong’s later plot points—particularly the coming of John Maynard Keynes. He enters Slouching Towards Utopia like Orson Welles in The Third Man, the brilliant man of mystery whose ideas have colored the entire work at last given room to explain the world and its problems. (Keynes was not a sinister villain like Welles’s character, though he would eventually be chased from the scene.)

Keynes’s great genius, DeLong argues, was his recognition that economic troubles had ceased to be matters of resource scarcity alone; they had become problems of systems management. The market needed an economic steward to consciously maintain aggregate demand for the goods it produced. Depressions were not the result of bad harvests or a lackadaisical workforce, but rather of a collapse in consumer spending. Keynes concluded that capitalism was dysfunctional, perhaps incoherent, without state economic management. DeLong, inspired by Charles P. Kindleberger, adds an international twist: global economic progress cannot take place without the active management of an international economic hegemon. The British Empire provided this service with decidedly mixed results through the First World War. When the United States refused to take up the mantle, the period that we now call the Great Depression ensued.

Keynesian ideas opened the door to an extraordinary array of compromises and collaborations between liberals and socialists. Keynes, a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party, helped design Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) for the Labour Party. In the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security and Wagner Acts. Europe and America enjoyed what DeLong heralds as “Thirty Glorious Years of Social Democracy,” where living standards rose sharply for nearly everyone. In the United States, the economic gap between Black and white families narrowed, as did the earning differential between men and women.

And then the neoliberals took over. The great puzzle of neoliberalism, DeLong astutely maintains, is how it preserved and even consolidated its intellectual grip even as it straightforwardly failed to achieve the social outcomes it promised. Milton Friedman, DeLong notes, insisted that repealing the elaborate economic management apparatus of the New Deal would produce price stability, something close to full employment, and a socially tolerable distribution of income. But none of that actually happened under Reagan and Thatcher. Inequality skyrocketed, as did unemployment. There are true believers who insist that their program wasn’t sufficiently libertarian—Social Security, the NHS, and defense spending all survived. But the retreat on fiscal and regulatory policy was real, and the results were higher unemployment and deeper inequality. That should have been enough to discredit the program. Instead, DeLong notes, Bill Clinton declared the era of big government to be over, and Barack Obama called for deficit reduction with unemployment over 9 percent.

DeLong concludes that the American victory in the Cold War gave neoliberalism an unearned aura of triumph. When Reagan was credited with vanquishing the Soviet menace, his brand of capitalism took the ideological win. The market had defeated the state, leaving no conceptual room for the Keynesian public-private hybrid, even though the United States continued to function as a thoroughly mixed economy. It is a creative and convincing explanation.

DeLong delivers this material with the clarity and dexterity of Kindleberger at his best. And though he does at times take excessive detours into dorky cul-de-sacs—the book does not need quite so many pages on the development of alternating current or the transistor—these indulgences can be skimmed easily enough.

The only truly frustrating element of the book is its treatment of globalization—and here the trouble is concentrated near the end. DeLong is a fine chronicler of national economies and of the development of Europe and the United States as economic units. But as he acknowledges, the story of the Global South during his period of interest is really dozens of different stories driven by different political currents. Beyond the inevitable narrative disjuncture is a genuinely difficult conceptual problem: how did globalization advance the welfare of so many billions of people when protectionist trade policies dominate so much of the long twentieth century?

Once again the Gilded Age is instructive. American trade with the rest of the world expanded dramatically after 1870, but it did so as the United States deepened its commitment to protective tariffs. There is substantial variation by year and by product, but generally, European manufacturers could expect to face duties of about 50 percent in the American market between 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed his postwar tariff bill, and the outbreak of the First World War.

Over this same period, U.S. exports increased by more than 640 percent, according to U.S. census data, while imports more than quadrupled. How could this happen during an era of historically high U.S. tariffs marred by chronic deflation, repeated financial crisis, and a federal government that refused to support domestic demand?

The answer appears to be that the British Empire—international economic hegemon of the Gilded Age—simply didn’t care much about trade reciprocity with the United States. Free trade was a principle of almost religious devotion in Great Britain, and by the 1870s, the empire had done away with nearly all of its tariffs. Yet it refused to punish the United States when it did not follow suit. As a result, Americans simultaneously enjoyed the benefits of both free trade and protectionism. Its farmers maintained access to large consumer markets abroad, while its industrialists could undercut foreign competitors and generate large profits and new jobs.

Britain was not so generous with the rest of the world. For India, one price of expanded trade with the British Isles was the deliberate deindustrialization of the Indian economy. India ceased to manufacture its own textiles, and instead provided raw materials to Britain, which handled the factory work. Under the traditional free trade theory of comparative advantage, this process should have maximized the wealth of both countries. In practice, however, it meant India had to wait decades to develop a high-wage industrial sector and experienced a much longer spell as an agrarian economy chained to the standard population problem of human history.

For most of his book, DeLong seems unusually clear-eyed about this phenomenon for an American economist, presenting the protective industrial tariff as an essential prerequisite for developing economies trying to shake off the Malthusian devil. Though tariffs were frowned upon after the Second World War, DeLong notes, the new economic hegemon, the United States, provided direct industrial investment to Europe, Japan, and other allies, and it looked the other way when those allies provided massive subsidies to their manufacturing sectors. Thus Japan and South Korea enjoyed a vast improvement in living standards over the second half of the long twentieth century, while most of the Global South did not.

But DeLong abandons this narrative when the 1990s arrive. Suddenly the principles of industrial expansion and material progress that dominated the first 120 years of his story cease to apply. Globalization and free trade now go hand in hand. DeLong is surprised that the North American Free Trade Agreement did not substantially raise wages in Mexico, and unsure why so many Americans have been angry about deindustrialization in the twenty-first century. DeLong maintains that no overall domestic damage has occurred, stating that U.S. manufacturing jobs have simply been transformed into warehousing and transportation jobs—without pausing to wonder if these new jobs aren’t quite so good as the originals.

DeLong is not a triumphalist about the experience of what he calls “hyperglobalization” in the 1990s. He acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of the gains from this project came in China, where the glory of new material prosperity must be balanced against the abuses of authoritarian surveillance and ethnic persecution. But he presents the era as a greater puzzle than it really is. The gains from hyperglobalization have been concentrated in China because hyperglobalization was a race to the bottom, and China won the race. And it won by pursuing the same development strategy that DeLong chronicles elsewhere. China’s economic managers tried everything they could to give Chinese exports a leg up on international competitors, including currency devaluation and massive subsidies to state-owned enterprises. And the United States, like Britain in the nineteenth century, played along, believing that a broader, wealthier Chinese middle class would be good for human rights and global stability. The question for China, and the world, is whether this protectionist first step will lead to “Thirty Glorious Years” levels of shared prosperity without the social democracy that fostered it in the United States.

DeLong’s story of hegemony as a driver of stability and growth is extremely compelling—but it’s also a nice way of saying that imperialism isn’t so bad when it works. The neoliberalization of the world that began in the late 1970s not only undermined U.S. fiscal policy management, it decimated America’s effectiveness as an international economic hegemon—a fact that is obscured by the expansion of American military operations over the same period. Our leaders rely more on death and destruction in foreign policy and less on economic coordination and cooperation. They solve political problems with guns and threats, and assume the market will take care of prosperity and harmony.

The last quarter century clearly demonstrates that this program does not work. But DeLong’s first 450 pages inspire a question that the American left does not often ask: if we cannot return to rising global prosperity without a responsible international hegemon, what is the proper role for the United States? America’s wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere make the promise of a more balanced and cooperative geopolitical order attractive. But today’s world, for better and for worse, runs on dollars, and it will not be made to do otherwise without extraordinary dislocation.

And we are running out of time. The acceleration of climate change will stress the global economy’s capacity to support human life. DeLong is right to fear that humanity is not slouching into the next phase of its history, which looks very little like a utopia.

Zachary D. Carter is the author of The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, winner of the Arthur Ross Book Award and the Sidney Hillman Book Prize.