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The Read: Brad DeLong, Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century
Friday's Child Is Loving and Giving
Why did I get this book?
I’ve been in overlapping blogspace with Brad DeLong for quite a while, including his Substack, so that alone was reason enough—I’ve always enjoyed what he writes. But it’s also pertinent to the book I mentioned in the newsletter a while ago (the one that I’m going to try and find a publisher for soon after one more round of revision), so I will probably try to work it into that revision.
Is it what I thought it was?
In certain ways, actually not. It’s completely what I expected in one sense, in that it is very recognizably DeLong’s thinking laid out in long form. In another sense (see more below), I thought the subtitle maybe should have been An Economist’s History of the Twentieth Century, in that it often does not closely cohere to some of the constraints common in what I expect to see in economic history as a subgenre within the discipline of history. A substantial amount of the book is actually about politics, relatively unleavened by direct reference to underlying economics or economic institutions.
What continuing uses might I have for it?
There are some parts I’d like to go over again, especially in the last third of the book, and I could see reading some of it in future versions of my course on world history as a genre as well as some other possible courses.
“We do not use our wealth to overmaster our wants. Rather, our wants use our wealth to continue to overmaster us. And this hedonic treadmill is one powerful reason why, even when all went very well, we only slouched rather than galloped toward utopia.”
“The laboratory, the corporation, global transportation, global communications, and falling barriers—together, these factors were more than enough to trigger the decisive watershed and carry humanity out of Malthusian poverty.”
“What is more puzzling is why industrialization did not spread much more rapidly to the future global south in the years before World War I.”
“The failure of the British Raj to transform India poses an enormous problem for all of us economists.”
“Henry Ford would have been happy if he could have found qualified workers for his assembly lines at low rates of pay.”
[DeLong is typically quotable throughout the book, but I wanted to get on with writing up my reflections.]
Commentary, asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints
A lot of the economic history I read stays fairly far inside the lines of what we conventionally define as “economic”. It may stray into what is also meant by political economy in the sense of talking about how political and even social structures affected economic structures and economic practices. A lot of this book is straight-up (and very engaging) commentary on formal politics, on political events like wars or interstate conflicts, and on social and cultural changes where DeLong is only very generally linking his description and explanation of those histories to some form of highly generalized economic causality, usually to a view that a series of interlinked changes after 1870 began a “slouch towards utopia” which was at times a bit more of a rapid walk which inflected into all other global developments after that date. It is, in any event, a compulsively readable book that intermixes some very familiar individuals and incidents (I propose a total ban on Tesla for a while in all books of this kind) with some unfamiliar ones (DeLong does a nice job weaving Hoover through a lot of the first third of the book, most particularly aspects of his career that probably aren’t known to most people).
I think in any event that telling modern history from an eclectic economist’s point-of-view rather than in terms of a conventionally circumscribed economic history is fine as a decision, and it plays to DeLong’s strengths as an erudite generalist who reads a staggeringly large range of things—he and Adam Tooze are very humbling figures to follow in that respect. However, this strategy did quite often leave me saying “Hold up a minute, I have a substantial number of quibbles, occasionally metastasizing into real arguments, with the characterization of both large and small-scale events here”. DeLong is quite aware that said quibbles will exist in plenitude and invites readers to come over and quibble on the record at his Substack. (I’ve avoided looking at those until I finished my own reading.)
I’ll start with a big and abstract objection that is not limited to DeLong, which is the characterization that many economists and allied thinkers have been lately rather bullish about the view that we live in a world of unimaginable wealth and in fact are doing rather well at responding to the needs of humanity. This book doesn’t drink that Kool-Aid as hard as some folks have—the title gets its full realization in the last third of the book or so, where DeLong chronicles how neoliberalism seems to have been the prologue to a “new story” which will need a “new grand narrative”, one which is not merely a momentary downturn or interruption but which threatens to knock us off the path to utopia altogether.
My problem with this characterization whenever I come across it is first that it more or less makes the entirety of premodern economic history into an undifferentiated blob of bleak and unrelenting poverty that matters only as a source of contrast to modernity (whether that is dated to 1650, 1789 or 1870). Quite frequently, it is also offered as a benediction to our unequal present (which is not DeLong’s argument)—essentially an argument that people should stop complaining so much about inequality and injustice because they’ve got it so good compared to most human beings in most of history. I don’t object to that view because I’m sentimental about the material conditions in past societies, I object to it because inequality and poverty are mostly a relative rather than absolute concern.
Let’s suppose that a year from now a lab completely cracks the problem of molecular-scale nanotechnology and is able to cheaply and easily rearrange matter at small and large scales, producing a genuinely post-scarcity society. Replicators ahoy! Earl Grey, hot! First off a technology capable of abolishing scarcity does not mean the abolition of scarcity because other forces intervene to keep it from doing so—a point that gets a lot of attention in DeLong’s book. But let’s suppose that even that is overcome and everybody from a rural farmer in Zambia to a government minister in Albania has personal nanotech and there’s no worries about turning the planet into grey goo. Would the future Brad DeLong write about how ridiculously poor everyone was in 2022? By an absolute standard, that would be an accurate characterization. But right now, we’re not ridiculously poor by that standard because it doesn’t exist. It may be that ordinary farmers living under the rule of the Mwenemutapa state in what is now Zimbabwe in 1560 and even the royal court of that state are in absolute terms ridiculously poor compared to all modern Zimbabweans, and that farmers in the southeastern lowveld of Zimbabwe today are enormously wealthy in material terms compared to people living there four centuries ago, but it’s kind of a nonsense comparison when it comes to how people experience their material culture. If everybody’s poor—and there’s no option to be as rich as we are now—then our judgment that they’re living horrible lives is irrelevant in that time frame. Our wealth wasn’t an option for them. Equally, a poor farmer by relative terms in that part of Zimbabwe is poor—and in fact is more dramatically poor compared to the richest Zimbabweans, let alone the richest Americans, than anything that anyone in the world in 1560 could have envisioned. Having access to manufactured clothing, some processed food, and fitfully provided or available education and health care does not make those people rich except by comparison to long dead people except in some kind of ‘objective’ bookkeeping.
Moving along to the main substance of the book, in a more situated kind of argument, I was a bit surprised at DeLong’s relative reluctance to grapple with racism and empire. He doesn’t leave it out by any means, but the Occam’s Razor version of explaining inequality, especially racial inequality, as a deliberately constructed economic system, seems to me something he steps around a fair amount.
Being focused on the twentieth century, even a “long” version that stretches from 1870 to 2022, is maybe a valid way to wiggle out of having to get into the relationship between the Atlantic slave trade (or the intensification of global trade generally in the early modern era) and industrial capitalism, though he actually has quite a lot to say about this much later in the book in his discussion of postwar economic development in the global South. Nevertheless, the “new imperialism” that ramped up in 1870 is squarely in the wheelhouse of this book. There’s a chapter devoted to the subject and it comes up a fair amount in the first third of the book generally, but empire gets folded into war and nationalism as things that a classic liberal economist prior to 1914 might see as unexpected atavisms that produced woefully unoptimal outcomes and might be expected to disappear in a truly market-driven global order. (Echoes of which still pop up in far-right libertarian thought, where the belief is sometimes put forward that violence, interstate competition, etc. will be priced out as unoptimal behavior as soon as we are in a world where every household stands on its own property and is armed in its own defense.)
DeLong knows that Schumpeter, Hobson, etc. were not only proven wrong but that they simply weren’t understanding what empire (and later nationalism and global war) were all about. But I’m not sure he actually advances an alternative explanation except to say that the “Mr. Hyde” side of Hayekian thought wanted market systems to increase the wealth of those who held valuable property rights, and whether that outcome was in any sense just or fair was beside the point. The heart of how property rights were conferred to invaders and settlers on a global scale (including the ownership of people) is set in the time before the 20th Century, but formal empire after 1870 is at least a continuation of that story.
Sometimes European colonial administrations were complicated mediating mechanisms in the creation of new property rights, even sometimes conferring those rights on colonial subjects—the classic example in my field is the way that cocoa cultivation in West Africa, especially Ghana, involved a relatively decentralized conferral of new forms of land tenure on local African patriarchs who actively embraced accumulating capital through producing cocoa for world markets. In other cases, it was unconstrained theft—Leopold II and the owners of other concessionary companies in Central Africa allotting themselves the rights to profits from rubber, ivory and other commodities produced through forced labor. Even in those cases where Europeans eventually left physically, the orientation of those extractive economies remained intact, and the racialization of access to the combination of features that DeLong sees as the key to “escaping the Malthusian trap” in the slow-walk to utopia was often explicit not just at the outset of empire but all along. If economists are puzzled by why the British Raj did not engender transformation, they’re maybe not paying attention. (But of course some have—Amartya Sen has a pretty good intuition about the reason, for example.)
I’ll give a good detailed example that I know fairly well in my own area of specialization. When I was deep in my dissertation work on changes in the lives of southern African consumers between 1870 and 1970, I was becoming very alive to what DeLong’s grand narrative sets out, almost against my wishes, coming from a fairly hard-left perspective at the time. I was seeing that the material worlds of local people were suddenly overflowing with new kinds of commodities that both replaced locally made goods and offered entirely new categories of material life, and that what had been wants were rapidly changing into felt needs.
One of the realizations which surprised me was also affecting other social and cultural historians working on the region, which is that between about 1850 and 1910, many young African men were quite voluntarily drawn towards engaging in wage labor in new mines, in sugar plantations, and as domestic workers. Keletso Atkins’ The Moon Is Dead and Patrick Harries’ Work, Culture and Identity were only a few of the monographs and articles to show that the market as a concept wasn’t regarded as an alien intrusion on a perfectly formed moral economy. For many young men, the idea of working in order to earn either currency or commodity payments sufficient to establish themselves as materially well-off in their home communities, especially as able to independently buy cattle in local markets, was a welcome prospect. That allowed them to do an end-run around generational transmission of wealth that kept them dependent on their fathers and uncles for the payment of bridewealth. But the point of that labor was only to work as long as necessary to cheat those local hierarchies, and no longer, not to enter into a lifetime of competitive accumulation designed to rival the ventures of new plantation owners or the consolidating owners of diamond and then gold diggings. (Though there were African men digging equally alongside the rest of the planet in the initial rush for diamonds around Kimberley.)
The new plantation owners and then the consolidators of mineral digs were tapping into circuits of capital far away from southern Africa, but they were also relying very much on imperial states to make good their theft of land from indigenous communities. None of them were buying deeds from the people who had lived there before. But more importantly, they weren’t going to take advantage of an openness to market relations in order to properly incentivize local men to continue and extend their participation in wage labor, because that would have cost too much from the perspective of men who wanted to accumulate capital that was comparable to the wealth of metropolitan investors and owners. So they used racial restrictions, petty taxation that was only payable in currency, and a massive scale of land alienation that transferred the best agrarian land to exclusively white owners in order to try and compel African workers to work for as long as mine owners and plantation owners needed them to work, not as long as the workers themselves wanted in terms of satisfying their own needs.
When Africans were in danger of competing economically with white settlers within the agricultural economy, colonial administrations stepped into overtly sabotage that competition with regulatory interventions. For example, in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), when Cecil Rhodes’ promise of a “second Rand” to his London investors and his “pioneer” settlers crapped out, the company-led state turned instead to promising white settlers cheap land and cheap labor to grow valuable crops like tobacco. But one of the locally valuable crops that was easiest to grow first was maize, which everyone needed and wanted as a part of their diet—and African farmers living near to the three biggest colonial cities were highly efficient at growing it, with low overheads. Settler farmers complained, and the government passed a Maize Control Act that required African farmers to sell their maize at an artificially fixed high price that let white farmers undercut them and still make enough money in the process that they could reinvest in higher-profit crops and cattle herding.
This may seem like a long digression, but it’s important I think for the economic history of the twentieth century. If “laboratory, the corporation, global transportation, global communications, and falling barriers” were a big part of the kick-off after 1870 (along with education, which DeLong frequently sees as important), I’d argue that so was the national mobilization of violence to suppress the power of labor and through empire to create valuable property rights through theft which were conferred on a racially exclusive basis long enough to structure a lasting global inequality. The Maize Control Acts and their ilk were repeated thousands of times throughout the non-Western world between 1870 and 1970. It’s something DeLong himself gets at in his chapter on “inclusion” in thinking about race relations in the United States, but the story seems weirdly discontinuous somehow.
The “man starts on third base, thinks he hit a triple” is not a metaphor in this case, it’s an empirical reality. Whatever laboratories, corporations, technology, education and the management of global-scale exchange enabled in terms of changing the material conditions of global humanity, it seems pertinent to note that the commodities and services which flowed back into Europe’s imperial possessions in some sense resembling stuffing an envelope full of dollar bills under a door to a person whose life savings you just stole. “Catching up” takes more than surgically repairing a hamstring you inflicted on half the runners at the beginning of the marathon. It just feels as if the book as a whole takes much of the “global South” in the economic history of the 20th Century as an edge case when it seems to me to be central to explaining not just half the planet’s economic history but the economic history of the whole. I can’t imagine that laboratories, corporations, technology, education and falling barriers would return the same 20th Century if half the planet had magically disappeared in 1870s and the global North was left spinning through space intact on its own.
I do not think in fact that “the struggle over systems was…carried out in and near the global north” as exclusively as DeLong argues. It may be that I choose other vignettes than he does but I’d like to think my choices aren’t cherry-picking but are instead pretty representative. The situation of the global South isn’t about the absence of the conditions for growth, it is that the global South was integrated into globalization through empire, violence and racial hierarchy, and that a fair amount of the unequal distribution of modern capital derives from the organized transfer of resources, land and labor from the people who had those to people who stole them on the grounds that the previous owners weren’t doing enough to create value with what they had.
Another thing that surprised me somewhat is that DeLong has relatively little to say (as an overall percentage of the book) about the notable changes after 1870 and then even more so after 1929 in how nation-states related to the economy, and the rise of the idea that the management of economies through expert intervention is one of the central functions of nations. The subject certainly gets a fair amount of treatment, especially as one would expect through attention to Keynes, but it just seems to me to be one of the astonishing differences about the “long twentieth century” from all that came before it—the relative amateurishness of economic management in the mid-19th Century and even (perhaps especially) at the cusp of the Great Depression is pretty astonishing by later standards. At least some of the wealth created between 1870-1900 in the United States had something to do with the extent to which government barely knew what the hell was going on with markets, companies or the economy, as Greg Steinmetz’ new book on Jay Gould points out.
One other thing that I kept turning over in my head is that for a history that is quite aware of the recurrence of certain kinds of events—speculative panics, depressions, inflation (caused by monetary policy or otherwise), predatory transfer-seeking or corruption, wars that in some sense made no ‘rational’ sense, etc., there’s a recurrent interest in turning to serendipity, accident and randomness as explanation, or “bad luck and bad choices”. Perhaps because more structural explanations of at least some of those seeming patterns unbalances the book’s desire to walk between Polanyi and Hayek and to see the economic history of the 20th Century as also balanced between them. If one were to conclude that market economies predictably favor certain kinds of “bad choices”—perhaps actively enable them—then that’s more than Polanyi’s thought that the market can’t satisfy all human needs for justice and fairness, it’s that markets—or more abstractly capitalism—have an attractor towards empirically bad outcomes. I suppose that’s another reason something in me is unsatisfied by the idea that we have been slouching towards utopia, even if that slow walk is possibly coming to an end as DeLong sees it—it is precisely that the material abundance of the post-1870 world is so short and episodic against the longue duree of human history. It’s as if a team is declaring they’ve won the Super Bowl after winning the first game of the season.
Even in the long twentieth century, there have been so many “bad choices” that they hardly seem like accidents, and yet it is at that point that DeLong insists (whether talking about politics or economics) that the explanations of bad choices are local, particular, specific to a country, a political moment, or an individual leader. “Utopian faith is a helluva drug”, DeLong writes, and I think he kind of knows that there are times in the book where he’s getting high on his own supply. But it also maybe reflects the extent to which some aspect of his faith in our slow walk to utopia is as much about liberalism as it is economics—that it is crucial to him to see both the dangers and the achievements of the 20th Century as frequently being the consequence of good and bad choices that could have been made differently rather than the inexorably determined outcomes of underlying economic systems and structures.
Anyway, this is me being feisty and maybe even nit-picky about a book that I enjoyed and found engaging—I think many readers would find it as good a history of 20th Century politics in a very accessible and punchy way as it is of economies and economic policy—and I also like to take a puff or two of the desire to see our times as having the possibilities of utopia embedded within them and to think, with great dread, that we have crossed a boundary where those possibilities are going to fall away from us with accelerating speed.