Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Planning for plenty (2010)

Book Review from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Red Plenty By Francis Spufford (Faber 2010)

This book proclaims itself to be a novel about an idea: the idea of effectively administering communist plenty. More specifically, the idea of plenty as it manifested in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s when politicians, mathematicians, cyberneticists and economists all took the idea of surpassing American affluence seriously.

The novel unfolds through a series of sympathetic vignettes, in which people living in the USSR deal with the mundane every day pressures of totalitarian government and the failures of the economic system: a woman giving birth without drugs, the poverty of a collective farm, a fixer wheeling and dealing his way through a world of business favours, the cramped living conditions that were nevertheless a step up from the old communalkas of rooms partitioned by curtains. The highly skilful prose leads us into the minds of the various actors, from Nikita Khrushchev down to a couple living in a Moscow apartment, and shares their aspirations and frustrations. The same skill is applied to the technical details of the workings of a Soviet built computer, scaling down to the electrons racing around in a pentode, up to an explanation of what a pentode is, and how they worked in computers.

Everything is backed up by footnotes. In fact, though, the footnotes are themselves as much a part of the novel as the main text, as they explain the ways in which the author has confabulated characters, contracted time and re-jigged events to make a more convenient narrative. They also give citations and inform the reader of what really happened, and give links to websites for further information. Not only, therefore, is the burden of interpreting the text thrown onto the reader in contradistinction to the normal fictional practice of drawing the reader into the text world and allow them to swallow its reality but also the reader has to decide how to integrate these footnotes into their reading – look up after each page? Read them all at the end? Read them after each chapter? This makes the text into a critical exercise, appropriate for a novel about ideas and critical thinking.

The story fluctuates around the person of Leonid Kantorovich, a genuine mathematical genius who developed linear algebra solutions while working for a plywood firm. The problem was finding the most efficient way of assigning work to various machines in order to produce outputs in the correct ratios to fulfil the planned targets of finished goods. Although the text does not go into much detail of the precise maths (it does cite various sources that no doubt would) it does illustrate, roughly, his approach to resolving simultaneous equations with unknown variables. From which, he developed an idea of using ‘objectively determined valuations’ in effect opportunity costs, to improve and rationalise on planning. These valuations would be used to derive planned prices. Together with cyberneticist colleagues, Kantorovich tries to get this method applied to Soviet planning to supplant the complicated system of guesswork employed by the planners at the time (which is also depicted in detail).

The story shows the subtle games played between the planners and the managers of plants – up to and including cunning acts of sabotage to get the latest machinery. It also shows how the system, despite its claims to be placing the economy under rational control, in fact made it even more ad hoc and chaotic – Khrushchev ends his days fulminating over his lack of control of the political machine. It is, though, the illusion of control that means the apparatchiks eventually decide they do not want to cede control of planning to a cybernetic machine, and the project is quietly shelved, and the Soviet computer programme is closed down and the decision taken to just buy in US IBMs.

The novel repeatedly returns to the idea that even amidst the Soviet hell there was a utopian core of humane ideas that were continually thwarted by the shortages and chaos of production, the kernel of the idea of abundance. What it helps portray is the immense task of consciously planning a complex economy, and the serious and rational attempts of practical minds to make it work. It is enough to make any socialist think. Helpfully, the exhaustive footnotes and bibliography provide an excellent resource for any socialist who wants to delve in-depth into the question. This includes writings by modern day western cyberneticists who continue to see Kantorovich’s methods as a means to even surpass pricing and have an economy in kind, and continue the debate.
Paddy Shannon

No comments: