The book Slouching towards Utopia is a survey of the monumental transformations—and failed promises—brought about by an extraordinary rise in prosperity. The author offers a sweeping account of economic history over the “long twentieth century”—1870 to 2010. Those years, he argues, were “the most consequential years of all humanity’s centuries,” in which “the most important historical thread was what anyone would call the economic one, for it was the century that saw us end our near-universal dire material poverty.”
The book’s “grand narrative” charts how, in response to increased globalization and the development of modern research facilities and corporate business structures, wealth increased remarkably for a large proportion of the world’s population, prompting radical changes to long-standing social and political configurations. As the author’s mix of close economic analyses and illustrative “vignettes” demonstrates, this upsurge in prosperity incited slouching towards utopia dreams but repeatedly failed—sometimes spectacularly—to realize them.
At the end of the period in question, the author concludes, optimism about progress in eliminating extreme poverty and more equitably distributing wealth was at low ebb, and faith in America as a leader in such efforts is in marked decline. This is a lengthy text, and some of the chapters meander unnecessarily, but overall, the author ably anatomizes his subject with admirable clarity, offering accessible and illuminating explanations of key historical shifts and the socio-economic forces driving them.
Among the most gripping and persuasive chapters are those that explain the acceleration of globalization in the late 19th century, the causes of the Great Depression and what might have mitigated it and the origins and implications of the rise of neo-liberalism at the end of the 20th century. The Weekender