Book Review: Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford (rerun)

Quillette has a piece on George Orwell and the fact that he never got past being a socialist.  Reminded me of this book and my review.

The idea of centralized economic planning is a very seductive one.  It just seems to make sense that such planning would lead to more efficiency…less waste…and certainly less unnecessary human suffering than an environment in which millions of decision-makers, many of them in competition with one another, are making their own separate and uncoordinated decisions, resulting in pointless product redundancy, economic cycles driving unemployment, and lots of other bad things.

Red Plenty…part novel, part nonfiction…is about the Soviet Union’s economic planning efforts as seen from the inside.  The characters include factory managers, economic planners, mathematicians, computer scientists, and “fixers.”  Published in 2010, Red Plenty is now quite timely in view of the current vogue for socialism in American political discussion.

Marx drew a nightmare picture of capitalism, when everything was produced only to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded.  The alternative? A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

How might this actually be accomplished? Stalin mocked the idea that planning an economy required much in the way of intellectual depth or effort.  Get the chain of command right, Stalin seemed to be saying, build it on the right ideological principles, and all that was left was a few technical details, a little bit of drudgery to be carried out by the comrades at Gosplan with the adding machines.  But it turned out to be a little more complicated than that.

Maksim Maksimovich Mokhov is one of the lords of the Gosplan file room, in which there are hundreds of folders, each tracking the balances and plans for a particular commodity. A good man, who takes his job seriously, Maksim has risen as high as you could go at Gosplan before the posts become purely political appointments..his was the level at which competence was known to reach its ceiling…Not just a mechanical planner, he realizes that the file folders  cast only the loosest and most imperfect net over the prodigious output of the economy as the whole, and has worked to understand the stress points, the secret path dependencies of the plan.  His specific responsibility is the chemical and rubber sector, and he is particularly concerned, at the time when he enters the story, about problems in the viscose subsector.

Arkhipov, Kosoy, and Mitrenko run one of the most important plants in the viscose supply chain, and they are three worried men.  The plan goals aren’t being met, and they know that the path to career death is separated by only a few percentage points of plan fulfillment from the other one, the upward path, the road to glory and local fame. (A couple of decades earlier, it wouldn’t have been just career death on the table.) This plant makes two viscose-derived products, yarn and tire cord.  The yarn line works fine, the tire cord line, not so much…but no problems with the machine can be found.  There is no prospect of getting a replacement machine in any relevant timeframe.

Arkhipov and his associates come up with a plan to solve their problem…read the book to see what it is and how it turns out.

Nikita Khrushchev, in September 1959, told a crowd that “the dreams cherished for ages, dreams expressed in fairytales which seemed sheer fantasy, are being translated into reality by man’s own hands.”  Modern technology, combined with the benefits of a planned economy would make it possible.

Because the whole system of production and distribution in the USSR was owned by the state, because all Russia was (in Lenin’s words) ‘one office, one factory’, it could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfillment, of human needs.  

The American exhibition in Moscow in mid-1959 (site of the “kitchen debate” between Khrushchev and Nixon) was attended by 3 million Soviets (including some of the characters in this book), and although many of them thought that the American claims of broad-based prosperity were exaggerated or worse, the experience surely helped feed the longing for a better life for the Soviet Union’s ordinary people.

Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich pioneered the application of mathematics to the optimization of economic activities…these methods surfaced as a possible toolkit for the planning organizations circa 1960. Could these methods help achieve Khrushchev’s stated goal of broad-based prosperity?

For example, consider several factories, producing a common set of products but with different efficiency characteristics.  Which products should be made by which factories in order to optimize overall efficiency? A set of equations can be constructed representing the constraints that must be observed–labor, machine utlization, etc–and the relative weighting of the variables to be optimized.  Although these techniques have been used to a considerable degree in capitalist countries, they would seem tailor-made for a starring role in a planned economy.  Selling the new methods in the Soviet Union, though, could be tricky:  the linear-programming term “shadow prices”, for example, sounded like something that might have politically-dangerous overtones of capitalism!

One of the first applications involved potatoes, the distribution of same. The BESM (computer) is using Leonid Vitalevich’s shadow prices to do what a market in potatoes would do in a capitalist country–only better. When a market is matching supply with demand, it is the actual movement of the potatoes themselves from place to place, the actual sale of the potatoes at ever-shifting prices, which negotiates a solution, by trial and error.  In the computer, the effect of a possible solution can be assessed without the wasteful real-world to-ing and fro-ing, and because the computer works at the speed of flying electrons rather than the speed of a trundling vegetable truck, it can explore the whole of the mathematical space of possible solutions, and be sure to find the very best solution there is, instead of settling for the good-enough sollution that would be all there was time for, in a working day with potatoes to deliver.

And even in the planned Soviet economy, there is still a market in potatoes, right here in Moscow, the leftover scrap of capitalism represented by the capital’s collective-farm bazaars, where individual kolkhozniks sell the product from their private plots…The market’s clock speed is laughable.  It computes a the rate of a babushka in a headscare, laboriously breaking a two-rouble note for change and muttering the numbers under her breath…No wonder that Oscar Lange over in Warsaw gleefully calls the marketplace “a primitive pre-electronic calculator.”

So put the BESM to work minimizing distance that the potatoes have to travel..a proxy for efficiency and freshness:  price is not a consideration, since the state selling price of potatoes has been fixed for many years.  But BESM can only work with abstract potatoes: Not, of course, potatoes as they are in themselves, the actual tubers, so often frost-damaged or green with age or warty with sprouting tublices–but potatoes abstracted, potatoes considered as information, travelling into Moscow from 348 delivering units to 215 consuming organizations…The economists recognize the difficulty of getting a computer model to mirror the world truly.  They distinguish between working at zadachi, ‘from the problem’, and of fotografii, ‘from the photograph’…This calculation, alas, is from the photograph.  It deals with potato delivery as it has been reported to Leonid Vitalevich and his colleagues.  There has been no time to visit the cold-stores, interview the managers, ride on the delivery trucks. But the program should still work.

The author notes that “the idea that the computer had conclusively resolved the socialist calculation debate in socialism’s favour was very much a commonplace of the early sixties.”

But despite all the planning paperwork, despite the attempts at computerization, people like Chekuskin remain essential to keep the Soviet economy functioning at all.  He is a fixer, he works the system to ensure that his customers–factories, for the most part–can get the parts and materials they need in order to keep operating.  Before the revolution, he was a salesman: now, the economic problem is not selling, but buying.  Chekuskin explains what a real salesman was, back in the day:

You’re thinking of some fellow who works in a sales administration, sits by his phone all day long like a little king, licks his finger when he feels like it, and says, “You can have a little bit”…That’s not a salesman.  You see, the world used to be the other way up, and it used to be the buyers who sat around examining their fingernails, hard enough as that is to imagine.  A salesman was a poor hungry bastard with a suitcase, trying to shift something that people probably didn’t want, ’cause back in those days, people didn’t just get out the money and buy anything they could get their hands on.  They had to be talked into it.”

But with Communism, the things changed.  Back then, people didn’t want to buy.  Now, they don’t want to sell.  There’s always that resistance to get past.  But the trick of it stays the same:  make a connection, build a relationship.

Volodya, is a young propagandist recently assigned to the huge locomotive plant in Novocherkassk, a dismal town that also features a university.  Unfortunately, it was classified by the planners as a “college town”, in need of the calorific intake required to lift pencils and wipe blackboards, but there were forty thousand people living and working in the industrial zone out by the tracks now, and between the students and the loco workers, a locust would have been hard put to it to find a spare crumb. White bread was a distant memory, milk was dispensed only at the head of enormous queues.  Sausages were as rare a comets.  Pea soup and porridge powered the place, usually served on half-washed plates.

Eventually, people can’t stand it anymore–and decisions by two separate planning organizations have the result that on the very same day, food prices are increased and so are the production quotas at the locomotive factory.   There is a raucous mass protest, featuring signs like MEAT, BUTTER, AND PAY and CUT UP KHRUSHCHEV FOR SAUSAGES.  The loco plant manager, Korochkin, does not handle the situation well, and the rage grows.

The ensuing catastrophe is vividly described as it is observed by the horrified Volodya.  Troops open fire on the protestors:  26 people are killed and 87 wounded.  Death sentences and long prison terms are handed down.

This was a real event:  it happened in 1962.  News about the events did not appear in the state-controlled press for thirty years.

The author offers some interesting thoughts on the role of intellectuals in Czarist Russia and in the Soviet Union.  In the Czarist era, to be an intellectual was to feel that you were, at least potentially, one of those who spoke truth to power. ..These attitudes meant that while intellectuals largely welcomed the Revolution as the end of tsarism, very few of them signed up for Lenin’s brand of Marxism, even when–or especially when–it had state power behind it.  Indeed, a number of scholars who had been happy to teach Marxism before the Revolution, as a way of sticking a finger in the eye of power, promptly started offering courses in religious philosophy after it, to achieve the same effect…By the end of the 1920s, however, the Party was in a position to enforce ideological conformity…the new technological intellectuals were willing to be told, were willing to believe, that the task of speaking truth to power was now redundant, because truth was in power.  (emphasis added)

On the kinds of people who achieved positions of power in the Soviet Union:  At the turbulent beginning of Lenin’s state, the Party’s operatives had signified their power by using the direct iconography of force.  They wore leather jackets and cavalry coats, they carried visible revolvers.  Stalin’s party, later, dressed with a vaguely military austerity…Now, by contrast, the symbolism was emphatically civil, managerial.  The Party suit of the 1960s declared that the wearer was not a soldier, not a policeman.  He was the person who could give the soldier and the policeman orders.  The philosopher kings were back on top.

But there is a problem with the kingship of philsophers.  Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless.  Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than with wisdom…(Lenin’s original Bolsheviks) were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorized.  They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters. But their successors…were not the most selfless people in Soviet society, or the most principled, or the most scrupulous.  They were the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative…Gradually their loyalty to the ideas became more and more instrumental, more and more a matter of what the ideas would let them grip in their two hands.  In summary:  Stalin had been a gangster who really believed he was a social scientist.  Khrushchev was a gangster who hoped he was a social scientist. But the moment was drawing irresistibly closer when the idealism would rot away by one more degree, and the Soviet Union would be government by gangsters who were only pretending to be social scientists.

Francis Spufford is a fine writer who demonstrates considerable creativity in his work.  He explains the functioning of the BESM computer from the viewpoint of an electron.  His description of a character’s labor and childbirth in a Soviet hospital setting is so vivid and harrowing that I can imagine it having a measurable negative fertility effect among women reading it.

One reviewer at Amazon said:  I happened to grew up in Soviet Union and actually met some of the people mentioned in this book .. It’s unbelievable how a foreigner who doesn’t even speak Russian could capture the spirit of that time with the littlest details and at the same time summarize the grandest historic forces shaping up the superpowers of the XX century.

The book includes an extensive set of notes clearly explaining which stories and characters are historical and which are literary inventions or modifications.  (For example, the true story of the BESM computer and the Moscow potato market was moved from th 1966 back to 1961, for narrative reasons)

An outstanding book, not to be missed.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>Red Plenty</em>, by Francis Spufford (rerun)”

  1. Quillette has a piece on George Orwell and the fact that he never got past being a socialist.
    George Orwell went to Spain as a partisan fighter for the Republican side against the Nationals.(a.k.a. Nationalists; Franco’s side.) He left Spain very disillusioned, having seen Soviet-mandated killings of Spanish anarchists and “Trotskyists,” a.k.a. independent Marxists. With all due respect to Orwell, the rot in the Republican side was in full swing before he ever got to Spain.

    On July 13, 1936, government police (Assault Guards) along with some Socialist Party militants, went to the home of Jose Calvo Sotelo, one of the Right’s leaders in Parliament. They took him away, under the pretext of his answering some questions at the Security Directorate. Soon after the Assault Guards and Socialist Party militants drove away with Calvo Sotelo, they killed Calvo Sotelo.

    While the coup/uprising had been in the planning before Calvo Sotelo’s assassination, his assassination greatly increased support for the coup/uprising. Franco said the assassination moved him from the uncommitted. If government police could kill opposition members of Parliament with impunity- his killers were quickly identified- then it was no longer safe to be a peaceful member of the opposition. As the historian Stanley Payne wrote, it was safer to rebel than to stay quiet.

    Another strike against the Republicans- at least from my agnostic point of view- was that in the beginning weeks of the Civil War, Republican partisans killed about a fifth of Roman Catholic priests and clerics, some 6,800.

    Contrary to what Orwell believed, even before the Soviet-mandated killings of Anarchists and “Trotskyists,” there was sufficient reason to not support the Republican/Popular Front.

    The Postil: Spanish Civil War articles.

  2. The old leftist line was “Superior scientific socialist economic planning will leave nasty obsolete ‘horse-and-buggy’ capitalist markets in the dust, producing abundance and prosperity for all!”

    The new leftist line, starting c 1970, seems to be “Scientific socialist economic planning is better at producing poverty and misery, while capitalist markets are better at producing abundance and prosperity. This means poverty and misery are GOOD (because socialism is axiomatically Good) and abundance and prosperity are BAD (because capitalism is axiomatically Evil).”

  3. The contrast between science, which, adopting mathematics (among other techniques) severed real science from the words-are-powerful alchemy and magic. Despite compelling proofs—and centuries of experience that certain techniques don’t work (see Diocletian)—people still believe that words can command economies.

  4. He left Spain very disillusioned, having seen Soviet-mandated killings of Spanish anarchists and “Trotskyists,” a.k.a. independent Marxists. With all due respect to Orwell, the rot in the Republican side was in full swing before he ever got to Spain.

    And surprise! In 2017 Dan Brown can write a novel (‘Origins’) which drools with hatred for Franco and Catholicism and never, ever mentions why Franco rebelled against “the Republic.”

  5. The allure of socialism, along with its kissing cousin progressivism, is that allows people to believe the conceit that the social world, human interactions and societies, can be both understood and controlled by reason alone in much the same way as the natural world. In short it is the “Science” as a former criminal epidemiologist might have said. Or as old neighbor of mine put it, progressives and socialists are simply hijackers who have claimed the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment to cover for their own social inadequacies.

    That intellectual mirage, that of being to be bring into being a society based on human reason and not nature, is why we are going to be stuck fighting this nonsense for a long time to come.

    When you bring up to those people the historical failure of socialism, I like to couch it as “empiricism” to play with their pretensions of following science, they say that it is because true socialism/progressivism hasn’t been tried yet. To their credit, they don’t believe that in the same way as a 12-step program where success is simply nestled up to failure and is dependent on just trying harder, but rather because the proper systems and technology don’t exist yet to manage the social sphere.

    If you argue with them that market-based, classically liberal societies are superior because they encode economic information in prices, they agree that there is an information problem but that it can be resolved with what amount to better versions of Spufford’s BESM computer. That conceit has only grown over the past year with the development of various AI algorithms that model human decision-making; when you reply that even simple models such as the poker playing Libratus requires knowledge of more than a million possible combinations, they simply acknowledge the technology does not currently exist… yet.

    It doesn’t have to be a hammer and sickle or the Red Guards. It all comes from that same mirage of social science, of technical utopianism

    For people and a movement that base their claim to science, progressivism and socialism seem impervious to empiricism and induction. In short all those fancy theories and degrees amount to less wisdom than a 20-something with a PMP.

    The other part of this cult results from the argument that “market-base” social endeavors are superior to “planned” ones because they rely on a superior-understanding of human nature. When you point out to them to this superiority, the “kinder” reply is based on a 21st-Century version of behaviorism, that the ideal human behavior to meet this utopia can be developed. The less kind reply is one based on 20th-Century experience of simply culling society of less desirable behavior through the use of gunfire.

  6. “…they simply acknowledge the technology does not currently exist… yet.”

    Then by their own reasoning, why not wait until it does, so that things don’t go horribly wrong again?

  7. If Dan Brown’s novel about Spain is as idiotic and poorly written as his Da Vinci Code series, even by the standards of airport thrillers, I assume it demonstrated anew his idiocy and sold hundreds of millions of copies.

  8. With some caveats, I might well prefer to be ruled by gangsters than by social scientists. The gangsters would have to be near the worst end of the gangster spectrum and the social scientists the most benign, and not very competent, end of their spectrum to change my mind.

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