From the monthly archives:

May 2012

On Narrating a System

by carl_caldwell on May 31, 2012

Francis Spufford’s sprawling mosaic of the Soviet Union in the 1960s at first reminds one of Vasily Grossman’s account of Stalinism and the Second World War in Life and Fate. Both use a variety of characters—workers and soldiers, technical elite and normal party cadre—to shift places and perspectives, in order to reveal the hopes, contradictions, and failures of the periods they describe. Both are eminently historical novels, based on extensive scholarly reading in Spufford’s case and vast journalistic experience in Grossman’s.

But there the similarity ends; each novel has a quite different point. Life and Fate is horribly tragic. The Red Army soldiers in Stalingrad are marked for death by the Germans and by “resolute” party cadre behind the lines at the same time. Juxtaposed to the horrific image of the woman hugging the child in the gas chamber is the postwar anti-Semitism that seeps through the pores of late Stalinism. Red Plenty, by contrast, despite the wretched fates of some of its characters, reads like a comedy, at times a dark one. The hopes of the mathematicians and cyberneticians prove mere wishful thinking within the real system of state socialism—the actual subject of the novel. In the first chapter, the prodigy Leonid Kantorovich thinks his deep thoughts on how to optimize the Soviet system—”All he would have to do was to persuade the appropriate authorities to listen”—while tuning out the reality of the bus. “He could tune up the whole Soviet orchestra, if they’d let him. His left foot dripped. He really must find a way to get new shoes.” Idea confronts reality; were this filmed, it could be slapstick.
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From the “Washingtonian article”: on the battle for control over Cato.

bq. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies, in Arlington—which offers seminars and scholarships for students interested in libertarianism—underwent a change in direction that one former employee described as “the Shadow falling on Rivendell.” “[Charles] Koch, evidently beginning to despair at the prospects of achieving political goals in his lifetime, became obsessed with a quick fix and decided that IHS needed to have ‘quantifiable results,’ ” onetime IHS professor Roderick T. Long wrote on his personal blog in 2008.

bq. Long said IHS officials began feeding students’ application essays into a computer program that counted how many times the applicants mentioned libertarian heroes such as Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman—regardless of what they actually wrote. “Then the management began to do things like increasing the size of student seminars, packing them in, and giving the students a political questionnaire at the beginning of the week and another one at the end, to measure how much their political beliefs had shifted,” Long said.

In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You

by Cosma Shalizi on May 30, 2012

Attention conservation notice: Over 7800 words about optimal planning for a socialist economy and its intersection with computational complexity theory. This is about as relevant to the world around us as debating whether a devotee of the Olympian gods should approve of transgenic organisms. (Or: centaurs, yes or no?) Contains mathematical symbols (uglified and rendered slightly inexact by HTML) but no actual math, and uses Red Plenty mostly as a launching point for a tangent.

There’s lots to say about Red Plenty as a work of literature; I won’t do so. It’s basically a work of speculative fiction, where one of the primary pleasures is having a strange world unfold in the reader’s mind. More than that, it’s a work of science fiction, where the strangeness of the world comes from its being reshaped by technology and scientific ideas — here, mathematical and economic ideas.

Red Plenty is also (what is a rather different thing) a work of scientist fiction, about the creative travails of scientists. The early chapter, where linear programming breaks in upon the Kantorovich character, is one of the most true-to-life depictions I’ve encountered of the experiences of mathematical inspiration and mathematical work. (Nothing I will ever do will be remotely as important or beautiful as what the real Kantorovich did, of course.) An essential part of that chapter, though, is the way the thoughts of the Kantorovich character split between his profound idea, his idealistic political musings, and his scheming about how to cadge some shoes, all blind to the incongruities and ironies.

It should be clear by this point that I loved Red Plenty as a book, but I am so much in its target demographic1 that it’s not even funny. My enthusing about it further would not therefore help others, so I will, to make better use of our limited time, talk instead about the central idea, the dream of the optimal planned economy.

That dream did not come true, but it never even came close to being implemented; strong forces blocked that, forces which Red Plenty describes vividly. But could it even have been tried? Should it have been?

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To market, to market … or not?

by george_scialabba on May 29, 2012

The tedious thing about being a book reviewer is your obligation to be fair, thorough, and concise. You’re supposed to keep in mind that, quite possibly, all your readers will ever know about the book you’re reviewing is what you say in the review, so the poor author, who may have spent years writing the book, is to that extent at your mercy. You’re supposed to give a reasonably complete idea what’s in the book, not just what you found interesting about it, since you don’t know that what interests you will interest others. You’re supposed to put the author’s case in the most persuasive and plausible form, since she won’t get to reply in more than a few, inevitably inadequate paragraphs. You can’t just blather on, mentioning all the (often irrelevant) things the book made you think about and, in particular, dropping the names of other (often remotely) related books, just to demonstrate your cosmopolitan interests and vast erudition.
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Despite being modestly defined as a Russian fairytale by its author, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty combines, in an original way, Russian style fiction and social science. Its originality lies in making the history of an idea into fiction and doing it in such a way that the combination of documentary and fiction does not come across as false history or as historical literature, but as a complex, engaging, exciting epic illuminating questions of economics and politics that are normally too dry for art. By interweaving the stories of numerous characters with historical events and a grand narrative describing economic and social processes of several decades, Spufford fits into the best traditions of Russian fiction, but his focus on ideas rather than emotions makes his approach profoundly un-Russian. This is, to my mind, rather a plus than a weakness of the book, since the great Russian writers of the 19th and 20th century are unrivalled in portraying the great mysteries of the human soul in turbulent times. What they have not done, what hardly anyone has done, is to make a calm, objective, almost scientific investigation of the ideas and relationships that made the success of the Soviet regime possible in the 1950s and 1960s, at the genuine and idealistic belief of citizens and elites at the time that, as Spufford’s Kantorovich character reasons, ‘if he could solve the problems people brought to the institute, it made the world a fraction better’ (p. 11).
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Red Plenty is a Novel

by Kim Stanley Robinson on May 29, 2012

“I loved Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which is a very beautiful novel.

There seems to be some unnecessary confusion as to its form or genre. You can see that in the front matter of the American edition, in which it is described as “like no other history book,” “a collection of stories,” “‘faction’,” “part detective story,” “a set of artfully interwoven genres,” “the least promising fictional material of all time,” “reverse magical realism,” and “half novel/half history”. Of course it does not help that the first words of the novel are “This is not a novel. There is too much to explain…”

All wrong. There is always too much to explain, and yet novels are still novels. They have an immense capacity to include and shape all aspects of the real. Red Plenty is not even a particularly unusual novel, in terms of length, complexity, self-awareness, historical inclusions, bricolage technique, or any other matters of style or content. Shall we say Moby Dick is not a novel, or War and Peace? No we shall not. Red Plenty is a novel like they are, and should be discussed as one.

All right. Getting past the first sentence: what I particularly liked in Red Plenty is the way it humanizes a mysterious and convulsive mass of recent history. It’s a tremendous demonstration of what a great diagnostic power the novel can wield in the hands of a strong novelist. You could call it an outstanding example of socialist realism, in that its critique of the Soviet experiment also contains a deep sympathy for the experiment’s goals, and for the many people who continued to struggle for those goals to the end, despite the worsening circumstances. It should be read together with F.V. Gladkov’s Cement to make that point clear. It should also be read in the context of science fiction, historical fiction, alternative history, Soviet modernisms, and steampunk. This would be to put it in the context of other similar works, where it will always shine and illuminate.

And it is so full of characters I cared about, described in a precise emotional language. A moment came for me, in the chapter called “Midsummer Night, 1962,” when the book took flight and soared into that space where we live other lives and hear other people’s thoughts, and feel their feelings. Now I too have been there! This is what novels do, and I insist Red Plenty is a novel because it strengthens our sense of the form to have this book included in it.”

Red Plenty Seminar

by Henry Farrell on May 29, 2012

As promised, the seminar on Francis Spufford’s wonderful novel of the socialist calculation debate, _Red Plenty_ (Powells, Barnes and Noble Amazon). Over the next few days, interspersed with regular blogging, we’ll be publishing posts by a variety of people responding to the novel. On Friday, we’ll publish the first installment of Francis’ response; the second and third installments will be appearing next week. CT regulars with posts are myself, Niamh, Maria, both Johns and dsquared. Guests are listed in alphabetical order below. After all the posts are published, I’ll put up a post with links to the individual contributions, as well as a nicely formatted PDF of the proceedings.

Carl Caldwell is the Samuel G. McCann Professor of History at Rice University. His book, _Dictatorship, State Planning, and Social Theory in the German Democratic Republic_ was published in 2003 by Cambridge University Press.

Antoaneta Dimitrova is associate professor of European Policy and public administration at Leiden University.

Felix Gilman is a lawyer and novelist. He has written _Thunderer_, _The Gears of the City_, _The Half-Made World_, and the forthcoming (and wonderful) _The Rise of Ransom City._

Kim Stanley Robinson has written many, many excellent books (CT readers who haven’t read _Icehenge_, the _Mars_ trilogy, and _The Years of Rice and Salt_ at a minimum, should feel _very_ guilty), including _2312_, which just came out this month.

George Scialabba is a writer and critic. We’ve run a seminar on his collection of essays, _What Are Intellectuals Good for?_

Cosma Shalizi is associate professor of statistics at Carnegie-Mellon University and a blogger.

Rich Yeselson is a public intellectual, former union organizer, and former guestblogger here at _Crooked Timber._

Fuck me or you’re fired!

by Chris Bertram on May 29, 2012

What’s wrong with an employer saying to an employee (who needs the job, has bills to pay and kids to feed): “If you want to keep your job, you’d better let me fuck you”?

Rather like the wrongness of slavery, this strikes me as being one of those cases where my confidence that it is wrong outstrips my confidence in any of the explanations about why it is wrong, but, contemplating the case, I experience no great sense of puzzlement about its wrongness. But then, I’m not a libertarian.

I came across philosophical reflection on the issue at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians site after following a link from a “Corey Robin posting on employers who insist that their workers piss themselves rather than take toilet breaks”: . This instance of private tyranny elicited a comment at Corey’s site from one of the “Bleeding-Heart Libertarian” crowd, Jessica Flanigan, “deploring trade unions”: . An odd reaction to the case, you might think. “Flanigan had herself written on workplace coercion at BHL”: , and, in the course of her discussion, commended Japa Pallikkathayil’s excellent “paper on coercion”: at _The Philosophers’ Imprint_ .
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Andrew Sullivan links to a Ross Douthat-Julian Sanchez exchange (that started as a Douthat-Saletan exchange, and concerning which Karl Smith and Noah Millman get words in edgewise, if you care to follow up the links.) Douthat suggests that secular liberalism has philosophical-metaphysical problems: [click to continue…]

Converts, conversely

by John Q on May 27, 2012

Back in 2005, I wrote about the common experience of dealing with “ people who’ve shifted, politically, from positions well to my left to positions well to my right” (taking as an example, Nick Cohen). Paul Norton, about the same time, wrote along similar lines.

At the time, I mentioned that there weren’t many examples of people going in the opposite direction[1].  But as a commenter points out following this Ryan Cooper link to my last post on the collapse of the rightwing parallel universe, there are now lots of prominent US examples: David Frum, David Stockman, Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bartlett and just now Michael Fumento. I’m quite surprised by Fumento, who has always appeared to me as a stereotypical culture warrior.

Of course, there isn’t an exact symmetry here, essentially arising from the fact that, whereas most of the L-R conversions happened at a time when the left as a whole was conceding a lot of intellectual and political ground to the right, the current situation is one where the US conservative movement and their international offshoots have moved sharply to the right and remain politically potent. So, it’s much more plausible for those making the R-L shift to claim “I didn’t abandon the conservative movement, it abandoned me”.

Still, never having had such a conversion experience I find it fascinating to observe. Particularly striking is the fact that a sharp change in position doesn’t much change the confidence with which views are expressed. Someone who was cautious and sceptical before a change in view will remain so afterwards. More strikingly, converts who held their old views with absolute confidence, will be equally confident of their rightness in abandoning those views.

fn1. Some earlier examples that occur to me now (all US) are David Brock, Michael Lind and Kevin Phillips. No tendency of this kind is evident in Australia as yet – I’d be interested in views from other countries.

Politics and the Internet

by Henry Farrell on May 24, 2012

A few months ago, I posted a draft article on Politics and the Internet that was forthcoming in the _Annual Review of Political Science._ The final version is now out, and available (via a paywall passthrough: let me know if this doesn’t work for you) here – with acknowledgment to Crooked Timber readers for the helpful suggestions that you all gave me. Again, thanks.

bq. Political scientists are only now beginning to come to terms with the importance of the Internet to politics. The most promising way to study the Internet is to look at the role that causal mechanisms such as the lowering of transaction costs, homophilous sorting, and preference falsification play in intermediating between specific aspects of the Internet and political outcomes. This will allow scholars to disentangle the relevant causal relationships and contribute to important present debates over whether the Internet exacerbates polarization in the United States, and whether social media helped pave the way toward the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Over time, ever fewer political scientists are likely to study the Internet as such, as it becomes more and more a part of everyday political life. However, integrating the Internet’s effects with present debates over politics, and taking proper advantage of the extraordinary data that it can provide, requires good causal arguments and attention to their underlying mechanisms.

Cognitive Democracy

by Henry Farrell on May 23, 2012

Over the last couple of years, Cosma Shalizi and I have been working together on various things, including, _inter alia_, the relationship between complex systems, democracy and the Internet. These are big unwieldy topics, and trying to think about them systematically is hard. Even so, we’ve gotten to the point where we at least feel ready to start throwing stuff at a wider audience, to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a paper we’re working on, which argues that we should (for some purposes at least), think of markets, hierarchy and democracy in terms of their capacity to solve complex collective problems, makes the case that democracy will on average do the job _a lot better_ than the other two ways, and then looks at different forms of collective information processing on the Internet as experiments that democracies can learn from. A html version is under the fold; the PDF version is here. Your feedback would very much be appreciated – we would like to build other structures on top of this foundation, and hence, really, _really_ want criticisms and argument from diverse points of view (especially because such argument is exactly what we see as the strength of democratic arrangements).

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by John Holbo on May 22, 2012

In case you are bored with libertarianism …

I see that Invasion – The Complete Series is marked down 90% to only $7 [amazon]. Do you think that means I should buy it? Let me give you some context: 5 years ago it was marked down 60% and in the end I didn’t buy it. Ha-ha! My frugality pays off! Now I can get a better deal! Or can I? What if it’s bad? Help me to think this through as a rational actor.

Welfare and Charity

by John Holbo on May 22, 2012

Henry’s reading seems quite straightforward and I’m really not seeing why Vallier isn’t seeing it. Let’s take it slow and straighten the curves as we go. [click to continue…]

Parallel universe collapsing?

by John Q on May 22, 2012

Over the last few months, a string of seemingly solid pillars of the rightwing ideological establishment have crashed, or at least wobbled. The typical case has been one of over-reach followed by public exposure and then a rush of sponsors and other supporters for the exit. Examples include

* Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke and subsequent abandonment by sponsors

* The failed attempt by rightwing operatives at the Komen Foundation to blacklist Planned Parenthood

* The exposure of ALEC’s responsibility for the “stand your ground” laws that played a critical role in the Trayvon Martin case

* Most recently, the  Heartland Institute has seen sponsors bail and its entire Washington team (mostly focused on insurance issues) decamp, promising that their new operation will have nothing to do with climate “scepticism”

In addition to this, but arguably sui generis are

* the attempt (which looks like succeeding) by the Koch Brothers to take control of Cato, easily the most credible thinktank on the right of politics

* the denunciation of the Republican party by Norman Ornstein, long presented as the intellectually respectable face of the American Enterprise Institute

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