cover image Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

J. Bradford DeLong. Basic, $35 (624p) ISBN 978-0-465-01959-5

Spectacular economic growth in the long 20th century fueled visionary hopes, but never quite fulfilled them, according to this sweeping study. UC Berkeley economic historian DeLong (coauthor, Concrete Economics) surveys the period from 1870 to 2010, an era when, he argues, advances in global shipping, vertically integrated corporations, and new technologies hatched in industrial research labs created an unprecedented rise in productivity that for the first time raised humanity out of poverty. It was also a period when economic theories and crises drove history, from the pursuit of a communist utopia in the Soviet Union to the Great Depression that propelled Hitler to power in Germany. Beneath the century’s upheavals, DeLong sees a perennial tension between economic theorists Friedrich von Hayek, who anathematized state interference in free markets, and Karl Polanyi, who insisted that state intervention is needed to protect society from the disruptions of profit-maximizing market economies. (DeLong blames Hayekian market fundamentalism for dissuading the U.S. government from undertaking enough deficit spending to spur recovery from the Great Recession of 2008.) The author conveys a wealth of information in elegant, accessible prose, combining grand, epochal perspectives with fascinating discursions on everything from alternating-current electricity to the gender wage gap. The result is a cogent interpretation of economic modernity that illuminates both its nigh-miraculous achievements and its seething discontents. (Sept.)