5. History and comedy
I agree strongly with Rich Yeselson that praise for the novelty or innovativeness of the book’s form has been overplayed. The overall patterning of it is fiddly, but the pieces of which the pattern is made are as straightforward as I could make them, and not just because as I get older, I increasingly think that simple is more interesting (and difficult to achieve) than complicated. It’s also, as he says, that I had lots of very well-established precedents to draw on. On the historical novel side, the whole Tolstoy-does-Napoleon recipe for dramatising the viewpoints of the grand historical figures, and the equally available rule of thumb that tells you how to mix the documented and the imagined to create the illusion of comprehensiveness. And, drawing on SF, I had the scientist-fictions of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson to follow. My Kantorovich very clearly has the DNA of Le Guin’s Shevek and Robinson’s Sax Russell in him. Not to mention – as I’ve carefully confessed in the notes – that the whole alternation of character-driven scenes with italicised authorial narration is lifted straight out of Red Mars. And collections of linked short stories that fill in different vertebrae of a narrative spine are not exactly unheard-of, either, from Kipling to Alice Munro. I am proud of the two ‘machine’ sections, set in Lebedev’s logic and Lebedev’s lungs, one in which determinacy produces indeterminacy, the other in which the arrow goes the other way; and the messages of approval from George Scialabba’s amygdala cause fluttering in my own; but it’s not like Don DeLillo doesn’t already exist, and Pynchon, and for that matter Nicolson Baker. It’s not as though there isn’t a blazed trail for paying imaginative attention to system.
But Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate occupies a special place for me, as a object of admiration and source for borrowable techniques. For one thing, it is a masterclass in how the toolkit of socialist realism can be turned to heterodox purposes. For another, to be more frivolous, the novel is a monument of imaginative and moral witness – I can’t read Sofya Levinton’s journey to the gas chamber without weeping helplessly – but line by line the prose is not so fabulous that it forces you the way reading Tolstoy does into endless Waynes World-ish cries of ‘I’m not worthy!’ Grossman seems to be a more assimilable master from whom to learn.
So I’m fascinated to read Niamh Hardiman’s and Carl Caldwell’s twin comparisons of Red Plenty to Life and Fate, with their basically opposite conclusions. Both agree that Red Plenty’s mode is comedy, unhappy comedy, in distinction to the tragedy of Life and Fate, but for Niamh the result is ‘the open-endedness of the characters’ experiences as we witness them’, while for Carl, the consequence is closure, a sealing shut of the possibilities of the fictional strand of the book because the story all takes place under the overhang of non-fictional certainties, which suck all genuine life out of words like ‘hope’ in the story, leaving only ironic slapstick behind. Needless to say, I’d rather Niamh was right. But I can’t adjudicate. The way the book assembles itself in other minds, the patterns of effect that my intentions settle into there, aren’t within my competence at all. I haven’t got any interpretative authority over the thing.
What I can say is that the whole interrelation of the fictional and non-fictional elements in the book was set up as my improvised solution to the problem of allowing a story with a known end – failure – to take on some unpredictable life. I wanted to permit some space for hope, for expectancy, in a situation which would, I thought, be perceived by most people as self-evidently over, done with, a closed ledger, productive of neither interesting questions nor sympathetic human emotion. It seemed to me that if I stipulated to the facts, and used them as a kind of authoritative backdrop or sounding-board, I might then allow myself a cleared space next to them in which there was room for something else to expand, something looser, composed of moments of experience rather than of reasoning about outcomes. And experience isn’t teleological, even if it’s the experience of hope. Its truth as experience doesn’t depend on what happens next. But to create this zone of not-fact, free as story because of what it wasn’t, I had to create a ‘historical’ narrative which represented solidity, which was to be taken as the singular and dependable truth, even when I was being highly opinionated and questionable in my judgements, as in the italicised sections’ dismissal of the Bolsheviks before 1914 as a tiny political cult. In a conjured-up tension with a certain truth, fiction could billow out into undetermined life. (I hoped.)
But as Colin Danby and Neville Morley have discussed in the comments, that isn’t what history is. History as practised by historians is not an invocation of unquestionable fact, at all. It’s a vast collective text, implicitly discursive, in a state not only of continual revision but of continual argument over method. Even in its most narrative, singly-authored forms, it poses, as Carl Caldwell points out, continual questions about representation, and in this respect is not so very far away from fiction at all. The reason why, in Red Plenty, ‘the two genres remain distinct’, with a historical apparatus (italicised intros + footnotes) of ‘assertive statements’, is that both strands of the book, both components, are in truth equally rhetorical. The ‘history’ does not contain anything that I know or believe to be untrue. But it is there to help fiction live, to pull open the space of not-certainty. If, instead, it has the effect of capping off and closing down the fiction, that will be – well, not the first time in my writing that I have managed to contrive the reverse of my intentions.
On the subject of comedy, though, and its not-necessarily-happy qualities, can I bring in Henri Bergson? He talks about the internal equivalent to the ‘mechanical inelasticity’ of the pratfall being the state of adapting ourselves ‘to a past and therefore imaginary situation, when we ought to be shaping our conduct with the reality which is present’. Hence the comedy of absent-mindedness. Bergson sticks to the past for his example: but it would work too as an explanation of what happens when a person (or a whole society) gives priority to the future. Comedy is one of the effects of ceaselessly pretending – or under compulsion, pretending to pretend – that the ideal society to come should shape conduct more than the disappointing present one. If you try to live in the palace that hasn’t been built yet, you’ll collide with the furniture of your actual tenement, over and over, and then be obliged to pretend not to notice. The USSR, on this account, could be seen as a society of compulsory absent-mindedness, stepping through the slapstick of the plan under pain of worse. Or maybe you don’t even need the future. The present would do, if you existed in a sufficiently imaginary relationship to it. Then ideology is comedy. But again, as the person performs their compulsory mime of surprise at the discovery that the soup-plate, for the umpeenth time, has glue or ink in it, I think—I hope—that a space opens for less predictable feeling. For the person alongside the tyrannical joke, as it does for the person alongside the closed history.
6. Feasibility studies
I have a powerful urge just to point dsquared and Cosma Shalizi at each other. The 7800 words of ‘In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You’ provide an answer to the question in ‘New Ideas from Dead Political Systems’ about what if anything we can learn from the Soviet case which is orders of magnitude more elegant, powerful and mathematically-informed than anything I could manage. I wish the essay had existed before I wrote the book. It would have saved me months if not years of clumsy attempts to think through the underlying intellectual issue: whether, in any possible world, and not just under the hampering constraints of the Soviet environment, anything resembling the Kantorovich scheme for optimisation through prices could power a planned cornucopia. In science-fictional terms, whether Iain M Banks’ Culture Minds, and the nanoscale Babbage engines of the Solar Union in Ken Macleod’s Cassini Division, and the computers of the Mondragon Accord in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, can plausibly be imagined to be running a programme for post-scarcity consisting of millions of linear equations. I’ll take it as a vindication of my whole daft project that it has prompted such a beautiful piece of intellectual path-finding to exist. I’m not competent mathematically to challenge the conclusion it arrives at – which in any case squares with my own inchoate conclusion, gained from reading Stiglitz’s Whither Socialism?, that optimised allocation of resources, even if possible, solves the wrong problem—but like a lot of people who have commented, I’m glad that Paul Cockburn has called by to bring the expertise of someone who has been thinking seriously for some while about ways and means to deal with, at least, the computational difficulty. I would be delighted, and excited, to read a more sustained Shalizi-Cockburn exchange. (Especially if they would both be kind enough not to apply too strenuous a data-compression algorithm, and to keep talking in terms I can understand.)
So I think what I can usefully do is to make a couple of points off to one side of Cosma’s argument.
But first let me engage with Daniel on more narrowly historical ground. I don’t agree that the only lesson from the Soviet experience is ‘not to do that again’. The USSR was ‘a great big waste of everybody’s time’, but not just that, I think. The Soviet case doesn’t tell you much about the feasibility of optimal planning, because for a thick array of reasons to do with power and path-dependency and the lack of foothold for the reformers’ ideas in the actual conduct of the economy, they never came close to being applied in anything but the most truncated form. (Perhaps luckily.) But it does provide a kind of appallingly costly control study for the 20th-century experiences of capitalist industrialisation, in which we get to see what happens when an industrial revolution is run again with some key institutions missing or different. The USSR is something close to a real-world history experiment, a really nasty lab-test of an alternative time-stream, and negative results of an experiment are still results. And I don’t believe these results all reduce to: if you steal 95% of a society’s income and invest the proceeds, badly, in heavy industry, you get a temporary boom in outputs entirely detached from human welfare, and a toxic wasteland. Okay, so some of the lessons are stupidly obvious. Such as, don’t conclude from the fertility of mass production that you can run an economy consisting entirely of large units; you need units of all sizes simultaneously, shoe factories and cobblers, or you run into a kind of economic equivalent of Henry James’ late style, so cruelly described by H G Wells as being like watching a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea; you get a whole world of clumsily pea-chasing hippos. But even that offers an opportunity for critical reflection on the forces in our present world that are pushing for less economic diversity, for one model of corporate organism to replace the mixture of public and private structures. And then there’s the result to do with the staging of industrial take-off, and the different informational demands of the different stages, which doesn’t seem to have been investigated much by anyone, except in a non-quantitative or cultural-studies-ish kind of a way by people like Manuel Castells. There clearly is a difference between the informational load placed on a planning system by early industrialisation (viable) and by the later turns up the spiral (not viable), which there don’t seem to be easy grounds to explain in Von Mises-style or Hayekian arguments that all planning as such must be defeated by co-ordination problems. Yes yes, product differentiation, diversification, growing service sector: but there’s something tangible to be known here, I think, about the phase changes of development. However, I with my literature degree and my detailed understanding of the powers of the adjective am not the person to know it.
Back to Cosma.
First, a biographical point. I can’t tell you how interesting the demonstration is, from the shallowness of the maths itself, that Kantorovich’s denial of the market-like properties of his system must have been knowingly opportunistic. So far as I know (and of course I’m confined to the universe of English-language materials) this is the first light on the question of how self-aware he was about what he was doing: how much he was in on Rich Yeselson’s ‘mordant joke’ about him laboriously re-inventing market relations in mystified Marxian terms. I’ve had to choose an interpretative side here, more or less in the dark, since Kantorovich so carefully bit back expression of any political consequences to his work. I chose to go with the idea of him as a true believer that’s suggested by his tenacity at offering his optimising services through more than four decades of changing Soviet politics, and his demonstrable innocence in dealing with the politics of the academy. But this is evidence for the other case: for the idea of him as someone aware of a market-mainstream of economics to which he was trying to inch back, which is supported by his long friendship (not in Red Plenty) with the Leningrad survivor of pre-revolutionary economics, V V Novozhilov. It is utterly, wonderfully elegant that a piece of surprisingly crude argumentation by someone we know to have been a (mathematical) sophisticate should send an ungainsayable signal of intent from out of the Stalinist fug. It’s rather like Zoya Vaynshteyn/Raissa Berg finding the unsuppressable genetic signal of the collectivisation famines in her mutation data.
Then a point about the desirability of the cybernetic cornucopia, independent of its feasibility. The power of the Kantorovich result, as I understand it, is that it proves that a set of prices exists for any plan which would allow it to be co-ordinated in a decentralised way, by having local actors simply maximise profits; which in turn, if the system worked, would allow a whole economy to be steered towards an agreed goal, rather than just passively following a trajectory determined piecemeal, by all the aggregated decision-making going on in it. Result: emancipation, or at least greater human choice about our collective destiny. But, but, but. Not only are there are the insurmountable problems of the Soviet context – for the system, to calculate the prices, would require the same impossibly complete information about capabilities which Gospan had been failing to gather for decades – and the computational obstacles Cosma lays out. There is then also the question of whether, by shifting from our captivity to the zombie dance of commodities to a captivity to the plan, we have really done any more than relocated our passivity, and gained any emancipating ground. If we don’t like our unplanned subservience to the second-order consequences of our collective life (market, government, family), why would we like a planned, first-order subservience to the masters of the bead game any better, even if they were acting as instruments of our collective choices? Even granted the perfect execution of a probably impossible computational task, wouldn’t the quality we were trying to escape promptly re-enter the system under another name? The latter part of the commonwealth forgets its beginning, as Count Boberino a useful patsy of Shakespeare’s said, on another island, long ago.
Finally, a point about rhetoric. If we’re deciding instead that, like all panaceas, wildly overpraised at first and then shrinking to the size of their true usefulness, Kantorovich’s insight has a future as something more modest, a tool of human emancipation good for some situations but not others – and aiming too for a more modest (and safer) politics that gains the more human world of our desires in pragmatic stages, which is what Cosma ends up with, and George Scialabba has found in the Nove-Albert-Schweikart nexus – then we have a presentational problem. It’s a lot easier to build a radical movement on a story of tranformation, on the idea of the plan that makes another world possible, than it is on a story of finding out the partial good and building upon it. The legitimacy of the Soviet experiment, and of the ecosystem of less barbarous ideas that turned out to tacitly depend upon it, lay in the perception of a big, bright, adjacent, obtainable, obvious, morally-compelling other way of doing things. Will people march if society inscribes upon its banners, ‘Watch out for the convexity constraints’? Will we gather in crowds if a speaker offers us all the utopia that isn’t NP-complete? Good luck with that. Good luck to all of us.
And thank you.