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Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

Author(s):DeLong, J. Bradford
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

J. Bradford DeLong. Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 2022. 605 pp. $35 (hardback), ISBN 978-0465019595.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Northwestern University.


The twentieth century was like no other. That statement, of course, is true for any century, but economic historians will strongly argue that degree is everything, and that the twentieth century was more different. The evocative simile of a hockey-stick blade, which turns up sharply in the nineteenth century after a long flat handle, describes far more than just the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the associated rise in temperatures. It includes income, life expectancy, average years of schooling, and many other variables. It is thus with more than usual interest that our profession has looked forward to Brad DeLong’s long-awaited hefty volume that ventures to be a survey of the century worldwide.

The title of the book (not acknowledged) comes from W.B. Yeats’s famous poem of despair, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 after the mayhem of World War I:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(The title was also appropriated by Joan Didion in an essay on the San Francisco counterculture.) How many potential buyers of this book will get this allusion is something that an editor at Basic Books might know. The subtitle, of course, is more direct and will make every red-blooded economic historian want to plunk down for this (very reasonably priced) tome before rushing off to revise their class notes to reflect the insights of this widely respected and erudite scholar and public intellectual.

In many ways, they will not be disappointed. DeLong’s book, as will surprise no one, is exceedingly well written. It provides a narrative that is captivating, witty, often sardonic, at times even entertaining despite the often bleak realities it describes. The twentieth century, whatever else it was, was rarely boring: the rapid trend changes embodied in the hockey stick were punctuated by dramatic and often shocking events: two major wars; a great depression; the rise and fall of two brutal totalitarian movements that threatened and failed to take over the world; the rise and fall and rise of liberal democracies; and a long list of macro-inventions that changed material life on this planet in more dimensions than we can count. Arranged in a roughly chronological order, the book surveys the main events with a keen eye for irony and contingency, and while DeLong never hides his political and economic predilections, he writes with few distracting commitments to one ideological point of view or another.

This book is uncommon in that much of it is written in reference to intellectual history: far more than in most books called “an economic history of —” facts are juxtaposed with thoughts and thinkers. The writings of Hayek, Polanyi, Marx, Luxemburg, Friedman, Feldstein, Hobsbawm, and countless others are confronted with the historical developments as DeLong sees them. What influence did they have on how things turned out? DeLong is particularly fascinated by human folly, miscalculations, and plain ignorance. Time after time he cites some past essay or speech written by a policymaker or intellectual, adding his clear judgment: this was wrong. The only major twentieth century thinker who emerges entirely unscathed from DeLong’s critiques is John Maynard Keynes.

DeLong organizes his history around certain themes at the exclusion of others, which is of course his prerogative, and his choices illustrate his originality and imagination. A case where his out-of-the-box style shines through is his repeated juxtaposition of two influential thinkers of the mid twentieth century, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Polanyi, neither of whom was in the mainstream of economics. Hayek represents the belief in free enterprise and the strong resistance to regulation and redistribution, captured by DeLong’s phrase (repeated multiple times) “the market giveth and the market taketh away, the name of the market be blessed,” whereas Polanyi felt that the “invention” of the market economy during the Industrial Revolution (a wholly imaginary account) was a curse that threatened more fundamental human rights. For DeLong, the welfare states that emerged in the mixed economies in liberal post-1945 Europe represent a “shotgun marriage” between the two ideologies that otherwise shared nothing.

In many other places, DeLong provides keen insights, some big and some small, no more so than when he points out that much technological progress after 1945 was actually partially skill-reducing in that automation and mechanization could rely on workers with low human capital, and all the ingenuity was front-loaded by high-skill engineers and designers. Once that process got fully under way, firms had an irresistible temptation to outsource production to countries where low-skill labor was substantially cheaper — especially in a world in which long-distance communications (and hence control from afar) and transportation (as stressed by Vaclav Smil) became cheap and reliable (pp. 413-414).

One of the more appealing features of this book is DeLong’s willingness to engage the possibility that much of what went wrong in the twentieth century was the result of bad luck and contingency. Anyone familiar with the literature of what Acemoglu and Robinson (not cited) have called the critical junctures of the century, will see how accidents or relatively minor events with cascading consequences may have determined historical trajectories, though perhaps not everyone may embrace his example of the Florida hanging chads that gave an election to the “astonishingly-unqualified-for-the job” G.W. Bush. Others see material structures and inevitable historical forces, says DeLong, where he sees accidents and happenstance. But then he adds, “future historians will probably be in accord with [their interpretations], not mine” (p. 518). My sense is that there may be room for both.

Whether this book will do well with the general public is hard to say, but professional economic historians will notice that there is surprisingly little economics in it. Perhaps inevitably for a book about the twentieth century, it dwells far more on politics than on economics, and while the two are of course inextricable in any account of the world economy, the relative attention paid to politics and policy and the people involved in them seems oddly disproportionate for a book written by a professional economist. The book raises many of the most pertinent questions that economic historians worry about while thinking about the many challenging questions of the twentieth century: What were the economic roots of World War I? Why did the Soviet economy collapse? Why was Western Europe (a mixed economy) so successful after 1945 while Argentina (another mixed economy) failed? Why do some emerging economies become industrialized and in some fashion democratic, while others sink into poverty, misgovernment, and autocracy, ending up like Haiti, Myanmar, or Venezuela? Why did thousands of years of gender inequality and male domination over women come closer to an end in the twentieth century? The reader will find informed and thoughtful reflections touching lightly on all those and many other issues, but few if any well worked-out answers. While many scattered numbers are cited (often not sourced), there are no tables or graphs anywhere. Some of the most important economic developments of the century are either ignored or dealt with so succinctly that any undergraduate reading it may miss their significance. But even when they are discussed, some economic developments with enormous consequences seem to be treated with a broad brush if at all. Throughout the book, DeLong prefers anecdote to analysis, biographical vignettes to insight, bon-mot to depth.

The concept of utopia is a major focus of the book. Somehow, DeLong notes with sadness in his concluding chapter, utopia has eluded us despite the huge increase in material resources; humanity had an opportunity to bring it about and failed. Yet the concept seems less than fully developed. The complex and volatile relationship between the West and the Soviet world in the Khrushchev era is summarized in a typical two-line paragraph: “And so, the world entered a stable, well-shy-of-utopia equilibrium, so you had to squint hard to see it” (p. 331). Clever, but not all that enlightening. The triumph of the West at the end of the cold war, says DeLong, may have proven that the West’s economic system was “better or at least less bad” than communism, but he then adds a warning: “be not proud” —the Western system was not so much “more utopian than less dystopian” (p. 337). Few have ever believed that the economic systems that emerged in the post-1945 mixed free market economies had serious pretension to provide a utopia; but they did provide a reasonable standard of living, access to education, and economic security to a large and growing segment of the population, and in the most successful cases (sadly not including the United States) they all but eliminated poverty. Perhaps the greatest transformation was evident in the (approximate) doubling of life expectancy across much of the world and the spectacular decline in infant and child mortality, which the book barely mentions. That may not have been utopia, but it was pretty good.

Several other important episodes of the economic history of the twentieth century seem oddly under-emphasized or neglected in this volume. One is the economic history of the Soviet Union, which gets one thin chapter sardonically called “really-existing socialism.” DeLong manages to miss the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 involving the death by starvation of at least 2.6 million Ukrainians (see Naumenko’s recent analysis of this catastrophe), whereas Lenin’s taste in classical music somehow deserves a mention. The book never comes to grips with the deeper questions of whether the collapse of the Soviet system really prove that the collectivist experiment “failed” in some definable sense. Nor does it note the many ironies and contradictions of an economic system that side-stepped Hayek’s wisdom regarding the essential role of market prices in the allocation of resources, for which DeLong elsewhere expresses his unqualified admiration for (pp. 93-94, 526). Not to mention the environmental devastation that the workers’ paradise inflicted on the soil, water, and air of the socialist nations.

Equally surprising is the absence of any serious discussion of the miraculous decline in fertility that took place during this period, which has dropped every European country (and now the US) to a fertility level below replacement. For a scholar explicitly committed to a Malthusian view of most of human history, this omission is astonishing (the word “contraception” does not appear in the book). Does a phenomenon this momentous in human history really merit no more than a single paragraph in a chapter titled “inclusion”?

All in all, the great paradox of the twentieth century remains that despite the horrors and the violence and despite repeated setbacks, material life improved more in a hundred years than in the previous ten thousand. To be sure, inequality remained high, which DeLong seems to feel keeps us from utopia; it is surprising that he fails to refer to Walter Scheidel’s recent Great Leveler, which shows at length that a rise in equality and “utopia” rarely went together. The European welfare state was, as DeLong notes in a thoughtful chapter on post 1945 social democracy, as close as we may ever get to it, and even it was far from foolproof. Yet as Peter Lindert’s path-breaking work has shown, it was as good as it gets and it was cheap even if its sustainability remains a continuing open question. Perhaps the economics of the welfare state requires more Lindert and less Polanyi.

The principal driver of the great enrichment, oddly enough, is never seriously discussed in this book. The main primum movens of economic growth was and remained the rapid expansion of the combination of science and technology and the positive interaction of the two, as Robert Gordon has shown in lavish detail. For DeLong the roots of this complex and profoundly transformative mechanism seem to be a minor matter, thus opening this book to a criticism of playing a prince-less Hamlet. DeLong feels that technological progress was generated primarily by industrial research labs and through the “routinization of scientific discovery” (pp. 1, 274, 526). This cursory treatment is wholly inadequate; had it not been for the continued expansion of useful knowledge, all other sources of increased human welfare would have eventually fizzled out. But why and how did it maintain its relentless progress? How was it incentivized and rewarded? Why and how did the West maintain its leadership, and why did the capabilities to deploy it productively reach some countries and not others?

It seems unreasonable to expect that any scholar with a finite life expectancy can do full justice to a subject this enormous. With his idiosyncratic style and approach, DeLong has created an enthralling and coherent narrative of the twentieth century. Readers will be persuaded or not, annoyed here and there, impressed in many places, catch a few errors, but it is hard to put the book down even for those who know most of the details. It is perhaps not a fully satisfactory and complete account, but it serves our profession by fully heeding one tenet: the deadliest enemy of economic history is not error but boredom.


Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, New York: Crown, 2012.

Gordon, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Economic Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Lindert, Peter. Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Naumenko, Natalya. “The Political Economy of Famine: The Ukrainian Famine of 1933.” Journal of Economic History, Volume 81, Issue 1, March 2021, pp. 156 -197.

Scheidel, Walter. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Smil, Vaclav. Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.


Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University, and Sackler Professor, (by special appointment) at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics, Tel Aviv University. His most recent book is A Culture of Growth (Princeton University Press, 2017).

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Income and Wealth
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century