I recently got a review copy of Francis Spufford's new book Red Plenty
, and, like Brad DeLong, immediately dropped everything to read it
. It's a fictionalised account, or a non-fiction novel, about the project in the early 1960s to use computers to plan the Soviet economy. A key figure is the genius Kantorovich, who invented the mathematical technique of linear programming in 1938. (We follow his mind as the idea dawns on him, on a tram.) He and other real characters such as Kosygin and Khrushchev mingle with fictious characters - some based on real people, some not, but all convincing.
It's a bit like reading a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, or Ursula Le Guin - or maybe a mashup of all them; full of arguments between passionate and intelligent people, diverting (in both senses) infodumps, and all about something that actually happened - and, more significantly, about something that didn't
happen, and why it didn't.
Computer scientist Paul Cockshott
, a prominent advocate of cybernetic socialist planning
, has written a comprehensive and enthusiastic review
This is a marvelous and unusual book. It sits in a remarkable way in between science popularisation, social history and fiction. The author describes it variously as a novel whose hero is an idea and a fairytale. The hero idea is that of optimal planning. The idea of running a planned economy in just such a way as to ensure that resources are optimally used in order to deliver the ’red plenty’ of the title.
The author shows real skill as a science populariser, explaining such diverse topics as how the Pentode valve logic of the early BESM computers worked, to the molecular mechanics of the carcinogenesis mechanism that eventually killed its designer. He vividly portrays the enthusiasm and self confidence of the USSR in the late 50s when Khrushchev’s boasts that they would overtake the USA by 1980 and achieve communism seemed plausible. He gives a good didactic account both of the basic mechanisms of the Soviet Economy, and, through the lives of incidental characters paints a picture of its real operation that is more detailed and convincing than any academic history.
He traces the idea of cybernetic economic management from the hope of the 50s and early 60s to its sidelining under Kosygin, and the eventual relegation of Kantorovich to the less ambitious task of optimisating steel tube output for the oil and natural gas industry. Ironically, says Spufford, as growth rates slipped in the 70s, it was only the exploitation of petroleum for export that allowed Soviet living standards to rise.
All in all, let me say again, this is a book that should be read by anyone with a serious interest in economic alternatives.
Labels: Marxism, reviews, skiffy