For a novel about utopias, there’s something almost disconcertingly utopian about being read this way. All this generous attention; all this ideal intelligence. Thank you, everybody. There’s even a Soviet rationalisation available to me to ease the moral strain of being in receipt of this pocket-sized, individual portion of critical happiness. Like the inhabitants of Akademgorodok, the privileged science city in Siberia which plays such a large part in Red Plenty, I can choose to tell myself that being Crooked Timberized is only an early and individual manifestation of a good fortune that is shortly to become universal. One day, every book will be read like this. In the radiant future, every author will be ringed by symposiasts asking demanding yet perceptive questions. Every topic will have its conceptual underpinnings set into casually dazzling order by a Cosma Shalizi essay. And all the springs of co-operative wealth will flow abundantly.
Pragmatically, though, I’m going to have to group my responses a bit in order to talk about the main themes that have come up here. As separate critiques are aggregated for planning purposes and then disaggregated again, you may experience a slight loss of information. We aim to compensate for this, comrades, in sheer volume.
1. Unicorn husbandry
As Cosma S points out in his ‘attention conservation’ notice, Red Plenty is wilfully devoted to the deadest of dead issues: the planning problems of a no-longer existent system which has no prospect of ever becoming existent again. Unicorn husbandry, biplane manufacture, sermon publishing – take your pick of impractical comparisons. This seems like a good place to start. Because though the imp of the perverse played a major part in my decision to write the book; and I was positively attracted to the whole business of being the first person in thirteen years to consult Cambridge University Library’s volumes of The Current Digest of the Soviet Press; and in general to the challenge of taking on the most outrageously boring subject-matter I could find, and wrestling it to the floor, and forcing it to disgorge its hidden jewel of interestingness; despite all this, I did also have some sensible motives for going where I did, and they have a lot to do with the kind of generational trajectories that Maria and John Quiggin have sketched out in their pieces.
Maria, I think I’m about ten years older than you. John, I think I’m about ten years younger than you. So I fall neatly between the two perceptions of the USSR you describe. I was 27 when the Soviet Union fell, ceased to be, shuffled off this mortal coil. I was too young to have experienced John’s sense of it way back in the 1970s as a place which, barbarous and dictatorial though it was, nevertheless was essentially on the reasonable side of the economic argument; somewhere that, by opting for planning, had chosen the better economic model. On the other hand, I was too old to have Maria’s experience of it as a will-o’-the-wisp, vanishing as I studied it, and leaving nothing behind but tedium and stale air. For me, as a teenager in the early 80s, having the traditional nuclear annihilation dream at regular intervals – my friends would usually drive past me in a bus while the asphalt melted just behind my fleeing heels – the USSR was not a possible object of admiration, but it was an object of solidity. Its defining feature was its permanence. It was an inevitable part of the planet’s architecture: obsolete but immovable. And then it did move, and when it went its going suddenly disclosed a set of hidden linkages that pulled various aspects of my familiar, home experience away after it. It seemed that my Western socialism – the unbarbarous kind – had had an unsuspected dependence on the existence of the Soviet model. And not just because the USSR was definitionally useful to social democrats, letting us point and say “Not that!” It had also served, it turned out when it was gone, as a sort of massive concrete tentpeg, keeping the Overton Window (not that it was called that, yet) tethered at its lefthand edge in a way that maintained the legitimacy, in western discussion, of all kinds of non-market thinking. When the USSR vanished, so with amazing speed in the 1990s did the entire discourse in which there were any alternatives to capitalism that had to be taken seriously. This was the biggest intellectual change of my lifetime – the replacement of one order of things, which I had just had time to learn and to regard as permanent, with a wholly different one, in radical discontinuity with it. The before/after photographs of my time might as well be pictures of different people, it seemed to me. And once we were in After, Before receded faster in the culture than it did in actual chronology, until the previous edition of the world came to seem not just remote but improbable, an unlikely past for the present to have had.
This seemed a subject worth my while to take as seriously as I could. From this point of view Red Plenty is not a perverse project. It was supposed to be a way of registering the scale of the change narratively, imaginatively, by restoring at least some of the weight of what had vanished. By immersing people in Before, I wanted to remind us of the strangeness of After; to point out that our present looks at least as odd from the vantage point of the past as vice versa.
Okay, perversity immediately re-entered with the decision to take the voyage to the heart of dullness. Maria is absolutely right that I am playing on purpose in the book with a kind of deliberate inversion of the familiar stereotype of Russian novels. I have relocated the intense drama, the anguishes, the thwarted hopes, from the private lives of the characters to the fate of the system itself – though I hope I’ve left space for the characters to be plausibly happy and unhappy too. It has meant, in a curious way, reading Soviet life with a sort of deliberate naivety: taking the system at its official valuation in order then to keep crashing it into the obstructions of the actual.
It’s had one other consequence too, which I want to mention up front here. Henry was kind enough, when trailing the seminar a few weeks ago, to promise that Red Plenty passes the Bechdel test. I’m not so sure. I have certainly done my best to take my female characters seriously, and to make them something other than the orbital appurtenancies of the men: but the book’s commitment to following out the public business and the public claims of Khrushchev’s Soviet Union has also meant that I’m echoing, albeit satirically, the priorities of an intensely patriarchal society. This was a place that required the economic participation of women, but removed none of the traditional family burdens from them; didn’t promote them, didn’t give them positions of power, didn’t bother to save their labour with domestic technology, and celebrated International Women’s Day as an occasion for the gallant presentation, by men, of little bouquets. Any profession women dominated, like medicine, was by definition a low-status profession, and even the rare woman with a senior and prestigious job was expected to function as her colleagues’ skivvy too. For example: I thought about bringing in as a character the pioneer Akademgorodok sociologist Tatiana Zaslavskaya, who was an early and significant adviser to Gorbachev. I didn’t in the end – it would have been too diffusing to bring in another discipline, on top of economics and computer science and so on – but I got a nice email recently from a retired American academic who had dined at her flat in Akademgorodok in the mid-80s. She was the only woman present, as well as the grandest person in the room: and after the meal, the men chatted while she went to the kitchen and washed up. That’s the world Red Plenty reproduces.
One of things I have been entertained by over the last couple of years has been the steady trickle of reviews by Trotskyists which explain that, despite my hostility to socialism, I accidentally offer a portrait of it which makes the reader feel a bit sceptical about capitalism too. Through mighty feats of self-denial I have managed not to write in and say: yes, and isn’t it lucky the way that major rivers so often run right through the middle of cities?
For the record, I absolutely did intend Red Plenty’s USSR to function as a distorting mirror in which the reader would be able to recognise realities much closer to home in time and place. It can certainly ‘be made to stand in as an elegy for capitalist plenty too’, as Henry puts it. It wouldn’t be working if it couldn’t. The backing for the mirror, as it were, is the historical USSR’s strange and genuine Americophilia: the angrily unrequited love of Khrushchev’s generation for the USA as they distantly understood and misunderstood it, the continent apart from the zero-sum rivalries of the Old World, where the ketchup came from, and the burgers, and the ice cream, and the roller coasters, and the Buick plants, and the Taylorist management techniques. (All of which the Soviet Union imported.) And I have strengthened the similarity as much as I can with small decisions of vocabulary and emphasis. This USSR, written in English, is deliberately as American in nomenclature as I can make it, with a layer of distractingly explicit ideological speech stripped out of Soviet reality to reveal what apparatchiks calling each other ‘comrade’ can hide: that Khrushchev and co are, above all, managers. Bloodstained ones, yes, but still recognisable mid-20th-century organisation men, working for a bureaucratised conglomerate so vast it stretches to the edge of their world (and denies them any guidance from an exterior world of prices). I wanted it to be possible to read Soviet life as a kind of Dilbert cartoon printed all the way to the margins, a saga of corporate idiocy from which the citizens of the USSR never got to go home, because, with the firm and the country being coterminous, the management could pursue them 24 hours a day with bullshit about productivity and lean inventory management. For that matter, it makes perfect sense to think of the gridlocked planned economy as following a parodically over-achieving version of the Toyota Way, where you go one better on just-in-time and arrive at always-too-late.
But I wanted something more disquieting than just a funhouse glass in which the Other was displayed as a dysfunctional exaggeration of Self. That would be much too comfortable. Instead I had in my mind as an ideal a kind of impossible mirrored surface in which, whatever you brought to the book, you’d see something to recognise, and something you hadn’t bargained for as well, which the recognition would entail. I wanted anyone, with any variety of politics, to be able to see their own face looming dimly in the metalled surface of events. So for a start I tried to eliminate as many as possible of the markers of my own views; and then, as a matter of literary ambition as well as of satiric reach, to try and make the human sympathy of the book for the characters as impersonally near-universal as I could, so you couldn’t as a reader track liking or warmth as a surrogate for authorial endorsement; and then, as an exercise in critical self-discipline, to try to see an irony for every conceivable assertion, an exception for every truth, a complication for every simplicity. The Marxian utopia had to be genuinely attractive. The Hayekian objection to it had to be allowed its full disruptive force. Kantorovich’s work-around of the price mechanism had to have its beauty demonstrated. I was trying to stitch together a sort of story that paid more attention than usual to the economic motives for human behaviour, but even there, I wanted my account of causes to be as broad and open as possible, and not to collapse without residue into any single one of the rival diagrams of economic behaviour. Basically, I wanted to be awkward. I could take advantage of fiction’s built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights. Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics. And this effort to stay plural in my understanding of the story, though it was a conscious discipline, didn’t feel as I was doing it like some willed suspension of a more naturally argumentative or analytical state. My interest in the things I write about seems to be a narrative one, deep down. Far more than as paraphraseable ideas, I tend to perceive material that excites me in terms of possible patterns of story; often ironic ones. It would not be possible to overstate my incompetence at dealing with any of the science in Red Plenty in a quantitative or even genuinely abstract way. Person after person who was kind enough to talk to me for the book encountered a mumbling, stumbling individual who, not being able to talk in the language of maths, had no way to convey the scribbled cloud of nouns joined by arrows in his head.
But of course the book is not opinionless, and the ironic reflections of the present it offers back are not universal, or anything like it. It clearly channels its ironies within very definite bounds, and the non-fictional sections are blatantly partial in their shaping of Soviet historians. You can tell the limits of my capacity for negative capability by who the book doesn’t work for, politically. Conservatives can find their faces glimmmering in the mirrorball, and so can social democrats and independently-minded Marxists; but Trotskyists can’t*, probably because, of all the critiques of Soviet history, the one that doesn’t interest me at all is Trotsky’s. I’m with Keynes, where Trotsky is concerned:
‘He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have already been solved – that a plan exists, and nothing remains except to put it into operation.’
If you can’t even see that there’s a deep and rich unanswered technical question in the Soviet record, then all that’s left to talk about are the tedious differences between Stalin’s and Trotsky’s cults of will. I think, myself, that the Bolsheviks in both their varieties were a bunch of murdering scumbags, who turned Marx’s bad habit of rhetorical contempt, via Lenin, into a warrant for ending arguments with a bullet to the skull, and who diverted what should have been the civilised history of 20th-century socialism towards atrocity and disaster. But I do them the justice of taking them seriously, as conductors of humanity’s longest, largest-scale experiment in the non-market operation of an industrial economy: and that’s where there still something worth talking about.
Henry suggests that the relationship the book reflects back between Khrushchev’s dreams and those of the present must be ‘oblique’, because ‘the relationship between the Soviet Union in the 1960s and the capitalist system today is not directly obvious’. I don’t think I agree. What the relationship isn’t, is structural. For all the historical cousinhood between capitalist and communist idylls, the quality they share isn’t a similar causal pattern of breakdown; it’s a deliciously parallel consequence of mistaking the map for the territory, of proceeding as if the system – either system – were fully specified, and could be reliably manipulated through its formalisations. It’s a shared illusion of control, whether the control is to be exercised through Gosplan’s card indexes or through the Black-Scholes formula. What I meant the book to indict by reflection, to satirise by reflection, was the whole family of schemes of dangerous perfection. Here I find John Quiggin’s quotation of Oakeshott on Hayek fascinating, and very useful. I hadn’t thought of it, but the implication is that a genuinely doctrine-less conservatism, some kind of little-platoons preference for the small and local and unsystematisable, perhaps a la Front Porch Republic but without the loony lucubrations on monarchism and contraception, would escape the mocking reflection, as would the ‘socialism without doctrines’ which is my politics too.
Oops. Oh come on, though; of course it’s written from the left. Why would anyone who wasn’t on the left have enough at stake, feel enough of a sense of unfinished business, to go picking through the rubble that was left when the 20th-century wind stopped blowing out of paradise, to see if there was anything there that was worth salvaging? Despite the interesting suggestion that I might have written the whole 450 pages to put young Occupy activists off socialism – we bourgeois liberals are fiendish, and patient – I have to report that the Soviet model was already sufficiently dead not to need assassinating again. If the book has an ideological objective, it is simply that I would like the issue of economic alternatives to become a little more prominent again. As I’ve said in discussion with Ken Macleod elsewhere, I am almost entirely a nice, demand-managing, taxes ’n labour unions European parliamentary social democrat. But the other little piece of me wants to know if we can’t, some day, do better than that. I was charmed recently to see that Philly Socialists have decided to call their free-food-for-the-homeless operation ‘Red Plenty’. They don’t need my permission, but they certainly have my blessing.
[* But for a Libertarian Trotskyist, on the other hand, it clearly works just fine. Hi, Ken.]