Red Plenty

I finished Francis Spufford's Red Plenty a few days ago. It's one of those books that sits alternately perfectly or awkwardly (depending on your opinion of such things) between fact and fiction. Spufford has devoured an incredible amount of Soviet faux-science and economic ideology in the construction of the book and I remembered reading somewhere that he intended to write a non-fiction piece but found this whole world so lively, baffling and tense with expectation, success and failure that it just had to be told as a story.

We begin with the genius Leonid Vitaliyevich Kantorovich who, in 1938 develops a system of linear programming that can genuinely optimise the economy of the USSR and ensure growth. There's a catch though; it requires an ideological shift - recognition that the value of a product is in it's resale value (what they call 'shadow price') and not in it's labour input or quantity. Then we meet the first computer, begin used to run his programs after calculating how to hit objects together at hundreds of kilometers and hour, hundreds of kilometers away. There's a neat segue here into how computing and the maths that began in rocket science and physics ended up in financing, but it's too long and best saved for another time.

The most fascinating part of the book was Part 4, which deals with the fundamental workings of the centralised economy and its functions. At the top, Gosplan, detailed its demands for growth of an economy which were filtered down through Sovnarkhovy (regional managers) and onto factories. The reality of this system was vastly more complex though as factories and planners tussled to reduce or explode estimates, demands and products in order to make life as easy as possible for themselves. I drew a brief diagram of how Spufford explains it at the beginning of Part 4.

My picture of Gosplan

Of course, Spufford works this through a magically delicious exception.
  • A viscose plant that makes both tires and clothes knows their machine is sub-standard and will never meet the tire targets.
  • The managers, in fear of perhaps fatal reprimand, devise and execute a plan to sabotage the machine so that they can have their targets reduced, then receive a new upgraded machine, thereby going over their reduced targets and walking away with a bonus.
  • Theoretically the production of an extra machine should mean going above target and healthy bonuses all round. In fact, the 'upgraded' machine is smaller than the old one, requires less materials than before and so is counted as a loss against the original machine that required more materials to build and so under the Soviet system was worth more.

This comes at exactly the point where Kantorovich is pushing to change the value system of the USSR in order to reform the economy and so the factories in question end up with '...the noses of the Central Committee pushed up against the window trying to see what's going on and why.' and no-one gets bonuses or leaves happy.

It's in the intricate detail of these systems that what could otherwise be an impenetrable and drudgy subject come to life and a feel is set for life in the Soviet cybernetic system that viewed the economy as the tide on which humanity surfed.