Slouching Towards Utopia by J Bradford DeLong – the fuel for America’s global dream

In 1900 the world population was 1.65 billion. A century later, that number had quadrupled to over 6 billion. At the same time, the gross domestic product per capita increased more than fourfold in real terms despite this unprecedented increase in population. This tremendous increase in production potential has redefined the lives of billions of people. It also made possible more destructive wars than ever before, and beyond wars, something even more terrible: the real possibility of the total annihilation 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.

With Departure towards utopia, J Bradford DeLong, Berkeley economics professor, ex-Clinton-era Treasury official and pioneering business blogger, tries his hand at a great narrative from the last century. With disarming frankness, he begins with the basic question of every such enterprise: Which model, which narrative framework do you choose?

in the That Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian, organized his account of the “short” 20th century around the rise and fall of the Soviet project – 1917-1991. In his seminal work on global inequality, economist Branko Milanovic outlined a narrative that has been dominated by globalization, deglobalization, and reglobalization since the 1970s.

DeLong’s 20th-century version is more narrow-minded than either. It focuses on the political battles that raged over the growth regime of modern American capitalism and continue to shape policy debates in governments and central banks to this day. This is, so to speak, the in-house, post-Clintonian history of the 20th century.

The story begins in sweeping style in the late 19th century, when the second industrial revolution kick-started global growth. At this 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 was happening 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, a significant portion of humanity experienced truly rapid economic growth, and that growth continued and accelerated into the 20th century.

According to DeLong, this development was driven by three forces: the laboratory, the corporation and globalization. Migration enabled tens of millions to improve their standard of living. Global investments made them work. The magic of modern technology poured out of the laboratory. Surprisingly, DeLong doesn’t mention the immense resource mobilization that made all of this possible. As the economies of Europe and Japan developed their own models of growth, collectively linking much of the rest of the world through trade, migration, and capital flows, the ensemble acquired such dynamism that it promised to give the story one of economic growth dominated by deterministic logic.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it seemed as if economic development would realize the utopia of freedom from want. But as DeLong acknowledges, the liberal development engine was fragile. In fact, it was destroyed by the disaster of World War I.

When asked whether this war itself was the result of combined and uneven economic development or of nationalist passion and chance, DeLong evades. In any case, the war ended the first wave of globalization, not only slowing growth but opening the door to contingency and politics. Instead of marching down the highway toward material abundance, humanity meandered toward utopia.

From DeLong’s point of view, 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 economist Karl Polanyi diagnosed, increasingly disenfranchised populations have not been passive victims of history. They resisted market forces and called for protectionism and welfare.

The result was a dysfunctional mess that John Maynard Keynes attempted to clear up. Around the triptych by Hayek, Polanyi and Keynes, DeLong spans the well-known stations of North Atlantic political economy from 1914 to the 2010s.

This is a surprising political economy story. Of course, individual political decision-makers, ideologies and institutions play a role. But during the narration of the twists and turns of economic policy, the companies and research labs that DeLong celebrated in the opening chapters almost entirely disappear from view, until they are abruptly roared back in his triumphant account of microelectronics.

The author enjoys European history and writes knowledgeably about WWII, but the US is clearly the center of his world. The Great Depression, post-war social democracy, race, the history of technology are all treated from an American perspective.

An American-centered world history has an obvious beginning – the years after the US Civil War. The trickier question is how such a story should end. For DeLong, the long era of American dominance ended 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 1990s Clinton administration. But as a world-historic turning point, it is something of a disappointment. Does the shock of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 really stand alongside the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rise of China? Or is the relative banality of this 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?

Also, are we convinced that this is how the American century will end — with a whimper, not a bang? The last few years hardly suggest that. For better or worse, the US Federal Reserve remains at the center of the global financial system. American military might and technology span the globe, bracing for a clash with China. The US is a major energy producer and supplier of last resort for liquefied natural gas. That brings us to what is surely the most puzzling aspect of DeLong’s book: its failure to address the massive non-renewable resource mobilization that has defined and fueled the American-led growth model from the start.

If flight from Malthusian constraints defined the radical of the 20th century, from the 1970s that century also brought us a dawning certainty that environmental limits will indeed constrain our future. It is no coincidence that modern environmental protection emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, primarily in the USA. In the 1990s, under Clinton and his Vice President Al Gore, the United States was the linchpin of global climate policy. But America’s political class gave up that leadership, and the climate issue has since become the clearest indicator by which to measure the end of the era of US economic supremacy.

In the early 2000s, China overtook the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases as a result of massive industrialization and urbanization. Today, China emits more CO₂ than the entire OECD club of rich nations put together. In ecological terms, the American-led West no longer determines its own destiny.

None of this is mentioned in DeLong’s story. The title itself says it all. Departure into utopia? If utopia were in sight, would hanging around really be our problem? The great concern right now is the fear that the 20th century has hurled us toward collective catastrophe. Technology believers insist such pessimism is overblown. But these days, they at least feel the need to make arguments and demonstrate that DeLong’s 20th-century formula—labs, corporations, markets, and wise government—will be enough to avoid catastrophe. Serene from such concerns Departure towards utopia reads less like a story than an ornate time capsule, a nostalgic throwback to the 20th century as we envisioned it before the Great Fear began.

Departure towards utopia: An economic history of the twentieth century by J Bradford DeLong, Plain 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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Adam Bradshaw

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