(2023-06-17) Rao Book Review Slouching Towards Utopia

Venkatesh Rao: Book Review: Slouching Towards Utopia. 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.

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). (cf A 20th Century Economic Theory)

The attempt does not entirely succeed, but the important point is that the attempt was made at all

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 David Graeber’s Debt

sets up the right question we must ask of it: 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

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

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.

The phrase is DeLong’s left-leaning version of William F Buckley Jr.’s "don’t immanetize the eschaton"".

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

The period 1870-2010 is not exactly an obscure one to the literate student of history

The book breaks it up as you might expect:

The 1870-1914 Belle Époque era of rapid economic growth

WWI, understood as an unnecessary and regrettable interruption of progress

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

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.

As a scaffolding for his grand narrative, DeLong sets up something of a cartoon dialectic, featuring FA Hayek and Karl Polyani as mascots

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.

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. (progress)

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 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

as potted sub-histories embedded in the larger history, their inner logics do not quite shine through.

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

The story of technology reduces to a gee-whiz parade of amazing science-fictional spectacles that mostly don’t matter economically — until they do.

This is not a fault of DeLong’s particular story, but a weakness of economic history as a genre.

“Seeing like an Economist” is, to some extent, a version of Seeing Like a State.

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.”

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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).

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

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.

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.

The story we have here, what we might call a weak economic determinism story, is worth telling, despite its significant genre-level shortcomings.

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.

calls for pragmatic engineering (and economics is ultimately a kind of engineering in my tech-supremacist view) rather than ideological grand-standing.

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.

Response: What Is Right & What Is Wrong in "Slouching Towards Utopia": Venkatesh Rao's View

All of this is a wind-up to a main-event critique that Venkatesh makes, about my handling of technology:

What do I think of all of this?

First, and most important, I am tremendously flattered by and grateful for Venkatesh’s attention

Second, I am incredibly pleased that—in Venkatesh’s reading—the book works: it does what I intended it to do.

Third, Venkatesh is right: the inside baseball of semi-technical economics is weak (but I had to include it because it did matter), the account of the still-mysterious inflection of 1973–74 and the Fall of Post-WWII Global-North Social Democracy is unsatisfying (but I had to include it because it did matter), the coverage of the development of the Global South is inadequate

Fourth, what do I think about the main-event critique that Venkatesh launches, the critique of my handling of the category “technology”? I think he is right.

half that my Visualization of the Cosmic All does not have an adequate grasp of the relationship between technology and economy, of the workings of what somebody-or-other once called “modes of production”. But on all that more anon…

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