Book Review: Slouching Towards Utopia
A brave attempt at a grand narrative prequel to the present moment
Welcome back, and hello again from Seattle.1 I wish I could say that my six-week break was a refreshing reset, but it’s been a crazy busy time on the consulting front wrapped around probably the messiest move of my life. Still, I got a lot done.
One of the things I got done was finishing Brad DeLong’s highly anticipated new book, Slouching Towards Utopia. I rarely review books on this newsletter, but this felt like a worthwhile exception, since DeLong’s brave attempt at a new grand narrative of what he calls the “long twentieth century” (1870-1910, to be contrasted with the short twentieth century, 1914-90, which he associates with Eric Hobsbawn) helps paint a useful backdrop for many of the foreground themes we discuss here.
The attempt does not entirely succeed, but the important point is that the attempt was made at all, at a time when we are living through something of a famine of grand narratives. We are in a moment of failure of collective narrative nerve, and it’s heartening to see someone take on a grand narrative challenge.
I don’t know about you, but I personally feel starved of ambitious sensemaking frames for recent history that aren’t quite as silly as say Friedman’s World is Flat or Harari’s Sapiens, or quite as ideologically compromised as Graeber’s Debt. DeLong’s book will hopefully inaugurate a how-we-got-here genre that ought to exist. Only by making sense of how we got to where we are can we hope to tackle the question of where we go from here. Slouching Towards Utopia offers one thought-provoking answer to the question that is worth taking seriously, and integrating into your thinking. You may not agree with the story as DeLong lays it out, but at least it’s not disingenuous and unfalsifiable ideological mythology, which is the main kind of grand narrative currently on offer.
While Slouching Towards Utopia does not explain the present moment, or claim to, it does cover almost everything leading up to it, and sets up the right question we must ask of it, as we exit the Great Weirding, and emerge, blinking and narrative-less, into the harsh post-pandemic bleakness of what I’ve been calling the Permaweird.
That question is the title turned into a pensive query: Are we still slouching towards utopia? In the concluding chapter, with a becoming humility, DeLong offers no answer. He merely asks the question. And the loose ends he leaves unaccounted for in his book are the starting point for any search for an answer.
The title phrase (a reference to a Yeats poem by way of a Joan Didion essay) has long been associated with DeLong and his blog, and I’ve cited it several times myself over the years. It is as much the core sermon of the book as it is a summation of the history it points to. The twentieth-century tale, especially in the common “short” telling, makes for a dramatic saga of colliding charismatic ideologies that engaged in great wars over conflicting visions of equally false utopias. That short-century tale not only elides the economic and technological strands of the history, which DeLong views as primary, it also reinforces deep confusions about the nature of our world and its pattern of progress that arguably continue to fuel the confused culture wars of today. By expanding the temporal frame by 30 years at either end, DeLong scopes out a much truer periodization that he then proceeds to narrativize as a long period of “slouching” economic progress.
The slouching 140-year tale of imperfect trial-and-error progress that DeLong picks out as the essential one worth telling stands in stark contrast to the still-influential tales of the failed utopias. Read as a sermon, the history, as DeLong narrates it, also serves as a kind of untheorized normative model of progress. Not only did we slouch towards utopia for 140 years, slouching is the right way, the only morally defensible way, to approach utopia. The pragmatic humane way. Whenever the story derailed in horrific ways over the last 140 years, it was because influential people succumbed to the temptation of non-pragmatic, non-humane paths that made false promises of a tempo of progress faster than “slouching.”
The phrase is DeLong’s left-leaning version of Buckley’s don’t immanetize the eschaton.
By untheorized, I mean that DeLong does not offer a theoretical model or historicist-ideological end-of-history type account of “slouching progress.” There is just the history narrated through that lens, serving as an implicit argument for a pragmatic managed economics as the essential work of governance. Though he identifies as a left-neoliberal partisan, this story of slouching cannot be read as the a redemptive narrative of the triumphal ascent of left-neoliberalism. Indeed, one could read the book as arguing that left-neoliberalism is at best the least terrible in a field of mostly utterly discredited aging economic philosophies, all past their expiry dates.
The slouching story stands as relatively raw historical phenomenology, presented with a certain pattern of emphasis and judgment, encouraging you to draw certain conclusions. Especially conclusions about what does not work. It does not offer anything like a manifesto or distillation of a “correct” philosophy of economic governance.
The contents of the tale are of course familiar to all. The period 1870-2010 is not exactly an obscure one to the literate student of history. You’ve probably read more than one version of the story. The book breaks it up as you might expect:
The 1870-1914 Belle Époque era of rapid economic growth, understood as the discovery and harnessing of an economic engine comprising free markets, active regulation, scaled industrial production, and engineering-knowledge economies.
WWI, understood as an unnecessary and regrettable interruption of progress by warmongering 19th century elites with nothing useful to do in the new economic order.
The interwar period, understood as a tale of sad economic mismanagement by believers in the economics of austerity and “pseudo-classical” conservative economics, with FDR’s fumbling trial-and-error installation of a social democratic order the only redeeming factor.
The WW2-1973 period, understood as three golden decades of progress and growth, at a rate faster than 1870-1914, the product of a “shotgun” marriage between left and right (brokered by Keynes) producing a fragile social democracy.
The collapse of the post-war order in the 1970s, followed by the neoliberal turn, understood as a largely failed experiment (in terms of its stated objectives) sold as a success on the strength of falsely claimed credit for winning the Cold War, and the loud celebrations of the wealthy who benefitted from it, and the erasure of the stories of the losers.
The Great Recession and the anemic recovery, understood as an indictment of the neoliberal era. Here the story ends, on the cusp of the Great Weirding, with the appearance of Trump on the world stage serving as a marker of the end of the story of slouching progress. For now.
This is clearly (and openly, and unapologetically) a partisan telling of the tale. DeLong gleefully attributes the failures of policy regimes he favors to bad luck, and those of regimes he is critical of to intellectual bankruptcy.
But he does make his case each time. It is an honestly told partisan telling of the tale; an argument made by a principled lawyer in the court of history who neither claims a god-like objectivity in reading the events, nor stoops to cheap rhetorical tricks or bad faith arguments. If there is a weakness to DeLong’s overall approach, it lies in his tagging of events as necessary or contingent with rather arbitrary justifications (many historical developments he views as contingent, I personally view as inevitable/necessary). But it is not a critical weakness. The story hangs together coherently despite his debatable meta-judgments of necessity and contingency.
I am perhaps inclined to indulge his approach because I largely share his political presumptions (perhaps I lean slightly more libertarian, but not by much). But if you are a strong conservative partisan, this book will definitely be a tough read.
As a scaffolding for his grand narrative, DeLong sets up something of a cartoon dialectic, featuring Friedrich Hayek and Karl Polyani as mascots. Hayek he reduces to the slogan “the market giveth, and the market taketh away, blessed be the market.” Polyani, he reduces to the slogan, “the market was made for man, not man for the market.” With each of his mascots, he associates a tribe and tradition of politics and policy-making, who serve as the protagonists of the 140-year story.
It is a radically reductive view of two important traditions of thought, but not an unfair one, and for the low-resolution narrative presented, it is perfectly adequate. The story of slouching progress towards utopia plays out as the tension between the two tribes of believers in these two slogans, over the course of 140 years.
It is clear that DeLong’s sympathies lie with Polyani, but his treatment of Hayek and his tribe’s ideas is fair, and he gives Hayek’s tribe their due, even as he paints them as the villains of the tale. Villains but not cartoon villains. Villains who saw themselves, with some justice, as heroes of their own stories. The protagonists of DeLong’s tale are the serious people trying to do the right thing, even if they fail sometimes, through either ignorance or human fallibility. The cartoon villains — the Hitlers and Stalins — are at the margins of this telling of the tale. Though they obviously played a huge role in the history (and the starring role in the short twentieth century story), the essential takeaway here is that they failed to derail the slouching trajectory towards utopia, even if they caused huge and long deviations at great human cost.
As a driving force for this tale of two slogans, the book offers up a kind of Promethean prime mover: the industrial economic engine starting to deliver, around 1870, growth at a rate capable of defeating the Malthusian drag of a growing population. The numbers attached to that notional econo-physics — raw growth racing against a growing population — provide the through-line for the story, with Hayek and Polyani tribes jockeying for control all the way. The book is strongest where the argument rests on big broad tendencies in those numbers across decades, such as the inflection point in the rate of growth around 1870 and the thirty year trends that followed. It is weakest where DeLong dives into the inside baseball of arguments over inflation, unemployment, bond prices, and the rest of the theological machinery that keeps EconTwitter busily arguing with itself. His account of the still-mysterious inflection of 1973-74, for instance, felt unsatisfying to me, as being too much of an economist’s tactical explanation of policy technicalities rather than a historian’s explanation of fundamental forces.
The strongest part of the book is its overall account of the major epochs of the 140 years, and how they fit into each other causally. I could spot no major oversights or flawed analyses. All the accounts felt roughly correct, and put together in the right way. Even all the partisan colorings of accounts felt persuasive, even where I kinda disagree (for example, I don’t regard the 1945-73 decades as particularly golden, but he almost had me convinced).
The weakest parts of the book are probably the stories of a) the development of the Global South, b) growing inclusion and c) the role of technology qua technology. To his credit, DeLong cops to the inadequacy of his telling of all three tales, and gamely does his best anyway. But it’s worth taking a minute to note those inadequacies.
While all three tales are told in adequate detail, as potted sub-histories embedded in the larger history, their inner logics do not quite shine through. DeLong, rather apologetically, frames the three sub-histories as hewing to the larger logic of the economic history of the Global North, and in particular to the white-male strand of it, due to the hegemonic power of the latter to shape the former. This is a reasonable position to take if the goal is to account for the grand narrative highlights as picked out by the macroeconomic numbers that form the throughline tale, but it does lead to systematic weaknesses and limitations in economic history as a genre. Weaknesses and limitations that make you wonder if an economic narrative of history can ever be a true grand narrative of history. But we’ll get to that.
Back to the specific inadequacies. By any of the economic measures DeLong focuses on (fair enough, given that he is an economist attempting to write an economic history), these sub-histories cannot but appear as more than footnotes. As economic histories, there is not much storytelling to do in each case. And if you take away the part explained as forced consequences of the economic tale of the White Guys of the Global North, there’s barely anything left to narrate.
The story of the Global South is largely that of large populations doing, economically speaking, nothing of consequence. This is a fair assessment, speaking as someone who grew up in pre-liberalization 70s/80s India, enjoying the infamous “Hindu rate of growth.”
The story of minorities is largely that of the arc of the moral universe doing various interesting things from Lincoln to Gandhi to MLK, but nothing particularly interesting economically (the exception here is the story of women, treated as an honorary minority, even though they constitute a majority — and to his credit, DeLong unpacks that thread a little).
The story of technology reduces to a gee-whiz parade of amazing science-fictional spectacles that mostly don’t matter economically — until they do. In the few instances where DeLong does tell hurriedly the story of a technology that mattered economically, he sometimes gets it mostly right (containerization) and at other times gets it kinda wrong (semiconductors and computing).
This is not a fault of DeLong’s particular story, but a weakness of economic history as a genre. The management maxim, you manage what you measure, might be ported to economic history as you narrate what you measure. “Seeing like an Economist” is, to some extent, a version of Seeing Like a State. What does not show up in clear macroeconomic trend lines can at best be understood as a vast marginal zone of mysterious and illegible phenomenology that occasionally irrupts into the narrative as an “Economist’s Surprise.” To the extent these Economist’s Surprises drive history via exogenous irruptions, economic history is a necessarily limited form of historical storytelling, which I think falls well short of “grand.” It can at best tell the tale between significant surprise entrances of unmodeled forces. And so the story must include “unexpected” economic awakenings of quiescent societies that suddenly start acting in proportion to their populations, minorities “unexpectedly” revolting and disrupting societies, technologies “unexpectedly” going overnight from rounding errors in economic numbers, to dominating the economy.
And here I am using scare quotes because obviously, a great deal that is “surprising” to a cartoon economist is entirely unsurprising to those attending to other strands of the grand narrative. This failure to accommodate at least a plausible causal account of these pseudo-surprising historical phenomena, I think, makes the idea of an economic narrative being a grand narrative shaky. Of course, most attempts to accommodate causal accounts have their own flaws — they end up as doctrinaire historicisms. Pick your poison. I think I prefer theories that are more comprehensive but risk being wrong to theories that are less comprehensive but must constantly be adjusted for “surprising” inputs.
DeLong is aware of these genre-level weakness of his approach to grand-narrativizing. He attempts to accommodate all this historical phenomenology that eludes an economic lens by corraling them within a notion of “Polyanian rights,” the idea that humans demand various extra-economic things such as work commensurate with their sense of their worth and skill, stable community life, and a sense of status. In DeLong’s history, Polyanian rights form a kind of catch-all philosophical boundary condition and forcing function (“the market was made for man, not man for the market”) that can guide regulation of a wisely managed economy, and through which all extra-economic forces operate. Left unmanaged, Polyanian rights tend to generate nasty surprises that derail economic stories. Properly managed, they tame the market.
To some extent, this unceremonious bundling of all non-economic strands of history into the rubric of “Polyanian rights” works, especially in the case of the Global South and Inclusion tales. To some extent, these tales can be understood as extension of Polyanian rights to larger, more diverse populations, along the way to them being fully incorporated into the Hayekian market. It feels reductive, and like it is missing the point and the inner logic of those stories to some degree, but I’m personally willing to go with it (though many others may not). As both a representative of the Global South, and a member of a Recently Included Minority within the Global North, it does not seem unreasonable to me to accept that, to first order, those stories can be reduced to footnotes within a global economic history driven by the story of the hegemonic Global North and its white-guy Main Characters. It’s not a true Grand Narrative because it does not properly internalize the logics of those important histories, but it is at least a Grand-Enough Narrative.
DeLong’s Grand-Enough Narrative of the long twentieth century unfolds as alternating periods of governance by Hayekian cultists who believe the market can do no wrong, and social democrats attempting to subordinate the market to Polyanian rights, with 1945-73 being presented as a Keynes-brokered uneasy shotgun marriage of the two, and a high-water mark of wise economic governance. This narrative scheme mostly works, with the bolting-on of a rather awkward notion of reglobalization plus “hyperglobalization” (a post WW-II do-over of 1870-1914 globalization, plus its extension beyond the Global North via the WB-IMF playbook in the neoliberal era) to explain 1990-2010. I did not find the account of globalization entirely satisfying, but it is serviceable enough for this large canvas tale. Not coincidentally, the 1974-2010 part of the book, which coincides with much of his own career, is too narrowly focused on American domestic economic matters, where the preceding chapters had an admirably global view. It is hard to make sense of post-1974 globalization from a primarily American point of view, and the narrative there feels much thinner than the pre-1974 part.
Where the accommodation of extra-economic factors does not work well is in DeLong’s treatment of technology. The question of how technology shapes economics does not fit into the sociological rubric of Polyanian social rights (though the question is more subtle than you think — Edmund Phelps, in his Mass Flourishing, a good companion read to Slouching Towards Utopia, tries to make something of a psycho-social case linking technological innovation cultures and generativity to economic mechanisms, but it doesn’t quite work). For DeLong, technology is bundled into a sort of blackbox idealization of the industrial research lab. A magic box within which fascinating spectacles unfold, but from which they only occasionally manage to break out and “arrive” economically as discontinuous “surprises” in the Polyani-Hayek dialectic.
This is perhaps an adequate view of technology if you are content to view history primarily in terms of legible high-inertia macroeconomic variables — those that compound, and are slow to change in response to any isolated technological event. The great strength of a story told through macroeconic numbers is that you get a very robust continuity through all sorts of disruptions and breaks that would derail the narrative momentum of almost any other kind of story. GDP and growth-rate tales can retain their logic and narrative coherence across the rise and fall of nations, ideologies, political parties, classes, generations, and through world wars.
But, I submit, they cannot and do not maintain their coherence across important technological “break boundaries,” as McLuhan called them. Any patching-over of a technological break boundary within an economic narrative is a kind of forced fiction of apparent economic continuity that weakens it. Major technologies, arguably, alter the fundamental logic of economics. To take a trivial example, “free” open-source software rewrites the economic rules for a very important economic regime.
The problem is that until a historical force becomes large enough to show up in high-inertia econophysics numbers, it definitionally cannot matter in an economic history, but that does not mean it cannot matter in history, unqualified.
If you tried to navigate the present armed only with economic histories, you would be doomed to ignore most technological breakthroughs until it was too late. I learned this lesson viscerally when running R&D projects at Xerox a decade ago: There is no way to model, understand, or justify early-stage R&D even in purely microeconomic terms, within the business-model logic of a single firm, let alone in macroeconomic terms, within the tale of a nation’s economy. Selling R&D to economics-minded managers who think in terms of ROI is a cliche kind of torture for a reason. It’s a pre-economic kind of pre-figurative existential gambling with the universe that begins to shape history well before it begins to shape economics. For the economist, investment in R&D must always remain something of a leap of faith; offerings to an inscrutable god.
DeLong’s treatment of technology is that of an unabashed fanboy who nevertheless insists on viewing it as a kind of separable species of blackbox that only impacts history through economic mechanisms in ways that are relatively predictable in aggregate. There is a long and awestruck description of semiconductor manufacturing for instance, but he tells the tale of the historical significance of semiconductors primarily in terms of of its economic impact as a “general purpose technology.”
DeLong candidly admits that his treatment of technology is inadequate, and that perhaps an equivalent grand narrative could be written with technology, rather than economics, as the main thread, implying that the two might be roughly equivalent.
Here, I suppose, as an engineer (and something of a tech-supremacist given to technological grand narratives), I disagree. To me, the story of the long twentieth century is primarily a technological, rather than economic tale (and a technological lens naturally leads to either a shorter or longer periodization — Carlota Perez’s 80-year cycle, usually understood as a sequence of “industrial revolutions,” or a two-century span that starts around 1800, with the expiration of James Watt’s patents).
My own view, which I ought to write up at some point, is that technology reshapes and alters reality much more directly than economists seem to think. It is not a matter of point-like “irruptions” emerging from “labs” and influencing reality indirectly through the midwifery of economic mechanisms. Technology is an input to all reality, not just to economic machinery. The vast proportion of the entangled dynamics of technology and history is economic “dark matter.” By the time economic mechanisms kick in to ride a subset of the impact of a technology (which economists tend to view as “domestication”) and turn it into measurable percentage point impacts on economic indicators, much of the consequential reshaping of history has already happened. Even after the “economification” of a technology, I suspect much of the continued historical impact of technology happens outside of the logic of economics. Take Twitter, for example. A mismanaged company that’s a rounding error when viewed through any economic lens you might care to use. Yet, a consequential technology that arguably bent the arc of history significantly, punching way above its economic weight class.
The relationship between technology and economics, in my opinion, is a bit like that between Bane and Justin Hammer in The Dark Knight Rises. You have economics (Justin Hammer) declaring nervously, “I’m in charge of history” and technology (Bane) replying “Do you feel in charge?” In the movie, Bane personifies the Polyanian-rights force of social justice (wrapped around a religious cult), but he could equally represent Promethean technology refusing to sit well-behaved in an industrial-lab black-box, dutifully producing technology investment options in return for funding at a predictable yield rate.
To invert the logic of the relationship between economics and technology assumed by DeLong, you could view recent history as primarily a technological evolutionary process studded with “economic blackboxes” that create the phenomenology of epochs of legible commerce as a subset of the phenomenology of technology.
But that’s a different story, a technological determinism story, to be told another day.
The story we have here, what we might call a weak economic determinism story, is worth telling, despite its significant genre-level shortcomings.
It is the story of the gradual taming, over 140 years, of a weakly domesticable beast, the market, that some viewed as a God it was sacrilegious to even attempt to tame, and others viewed as a Devil to be exorcised from society. The big takeaway from DeLong’s account is that the market is neither God, nor Devil. It is merely a kind of vast distributed computer that is rather difficult — but not impossible — to program. Monetarists are rather like prompt engineers trying to get an AI to produce interesting outputs. Keynesians are rather like AI model builders attempting to massage and curate the data being fed into it. In either case you have an opaque and complex process, but not a divine one. A process that calls for pragmatic engineering (and economics is ultimately a kind of engineering in my tech-supremacist view) rather than ideological grand-standing.
To program the market effectively, one must set aside childish ideologies and theologies, and deal with this big, unwieldy, willful computer in all its messy, slouching glory. The lesson of DeLong’s book is that unbelievable though it might seem, we’ve actually learned a few things about doing this.
Much as I feel inclined to argue with the choice of protagonist, the story of the long twentieth century told with the presumption that economics was (and remains) “in charge” of history is a useful story. One that vastly improves on motivated ideological mythologies, offers useful economic-moral prescriptions, drives the accumulation of useful know-how and management protocols, and leaves us with a powerful question with which to contemplate the Permaweird future: are we still slouching towards utopia?
In some ways, through a primarily technological lens, this is the question I keep circling in this newsletter. And while I don’t have an answer either, I think through the tumult of the Great Weirding, I have retained a certain confidence that hidden in the devilish details of emerging technologies, a yes answer to DeLong’s question can still be found.
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