The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, August 28, 2010

All right on the night

The Word Power event on Red Plenty went very well. The space was filled to capacity, and almost everyone in the audience stuck around for an hour and a quarter of often quite demanding discussion, with good contributions from the floor. The two speakers shared - across a broad political gap - an enthusiastic and informed interest in the subject. I managed to fumble the introduction by (a) garbling the name of the Word Power Edinburgh Book Fringe (b) failing to introduce myself and (c) failing to explain what the subject of the discussion was and why it was worth discussing.

What I should have said was, of course, that the current economic crisis has re-awakened interest in possible alternatives to capitalism and even the market, and that Spufford's book and Cockshott's research have in different ways given deep, critical examinations of one already failed alternative: the Soviet planning mechanism in general, and in particular the attempt in the early 1960s to reform and rationalise it through the use of sophisticated and pioneering mathematical techniques implemented on computers to optimise output.

Thanks to the miracle of market-developed computers, Paul Cockshott recorded the whole thing (mercifully missing most of my introduction) on what looked like a Blackberry, and has made the recording available here. (Don't be put off by the first minute or so - the sound quality does improve, though you may have to turn the volume up.)

Neil Davidson, who was speaking at a another event later that evening, remarked from the floor that looking at the Soviet economy as if optimising the production of consumer goods was a major objective rather missed the point that military competition was the real driving force. Francis's rejoinder that of course they were in an arms race, but this was a 'deforming effect of the Cold War', didn't really seem to answer that. It wasn't just the Cold War: responding to and shaping the international military situation dominated priorities (though not always direct military spending) from the first Five-Year Plan to the last. Another speaker from the floor brought up a different critical theory, that associated with the long-running journal Critique. One of the strengths of Francis's book is the way in which by focussing on facts (albeit through fiction) it forces reflection on the theories of what was actually driving the system, without itself explicating any.

[Picture credit: Scottish Comment]

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Sadly I didn't make this, in spite of it being nearby. The audio applet-thing on the page works, but the link to download it (should anyone wish to) is broken. The file can be found here on instead.

I have fixed the audio link, apparently the department server bans serving mp3s.

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