Response Part 2.

by Francis Spufford on June 12, 2012

3. Pretending to be Russian, pretending (not) to be a novelist

I’m delighted that that Antoaneta Dimitrova finds my portrait of late-Soviet mediocrity in the Party authentic.  It seemed to me to be one of the most immediate anti-ideal forces in the Soviet environment, working briskly from the get-go against all beautiful dreams, that the perverse incentives of the place on the human level had made it inevitable, after the revolutionary generations were gone, that it would be staffed at the top by those who were best at getting along in a tyranny, rather than by those who were most devoted to the tyranny’s aims.  Hence the rise under Stalin of Brezhnev’s generation of vydvizhentsy, ‘promotees’, scrambling to seize the chance for upward mobility represented by the purges, and then that generation’s reproduction of itself in the 1960s and 70s, once it was setting the incentives, from among the greediest, most amiably shameless, most opportunistic of the young. 

This wasn’t the whole story, of course.  One of the most fascinating features of the later Soviet decades is the way that apolitical opportunism never quite displaced idealism altogether from the hierarchy; couldn’t, in fact,  because it depended for its legitimacy on some kind of lingering, ever-more-diluted reference to the system’s supposed intentions, leading to the situation in which, as Stephen Kotkin puts it, the Party in the 1980s was still ‘booby-trapped with idealism’.  Nor were the successful mediocrities necessarily stupid.  Low cunning was certainly part of the job description, and they must also have possessed a good sceptical feel – probably better than the various reformers had – for the present-tense possibilities of the system they milked.  But it does mean that, when it came to assessing Brezhnev and Khrushchev and their cronies as philosopher kings, it seemed to me that you didn’t have to wait for the Hayekian or Popperian objections to the system’s knowledge problems to kick in.  The theory of rule by steely, ‘conscious’ guardians of the public good arrived pre-vitiated, grotesquely self-cancelled, by having the actual representatives of the theory turn out to be beefy backslappers with the mental horizons of warthogs.

More than that, I’m delighted that she finds the book reasonably authentic in general, and not the kind of outsider’s fantasy that turns to ridiculous tinsel-dust and blows away at the mere touch of actual experience of life in the USSR or the satellites.  I’ve been gradually letting out a held breath since the book came out, on this point; and it’s just come out in Russian without reviewers pointing and laughing, so maybe I’ve got away with the absurdity of taking on the subject-matter from where I am, with the equipment at my disposal.  (It’s been a book which steeply compounds the standard author’s sensation that you’re trying to put one over on people, and will be found out at any moment.)  As anyone who has ever encountered the pink Englishness of me in the flesh will testify — aha, title for a future memoir: Pink Englishness — I am not even slightly Russian.  I don’t speak Russian or read Russian.  I’ve visited the places I write about, but I haven’t ever lived in them.  I don’t have close Russian friends.  Nor do I have the alternative route in of intimacy with the science of the story.  My only qualification is a kind of gift for pattern recognition, for seeing where, in the distributed mass of events and ideas and personalities, there is narrative sense to be made.  Everything in the book had to be second-hand.  Everything was obtained by reading, by staring as hard as I could through the narrow aperture available to me, and by  using every last scrap of the pertinent experience I have had, to what has sometimes felt like a ridiculous degree.  It wasn’t just that I contrived to use the whole buffalo.  I didn’t even leave a smear of blood on the pavement where the buffalo had been.  It was all turned into black pudding.  There are things in Red Plenty that originate in remarks taxi-drivers made to me.  Yes, I am the Thomas Friedman of Khrushchev’s USSR.  So while it is, indeed, ‘evidence-based’, as Antoaneta kindly says, in the sense that the factual, the real, has been the fundamental stimulus to my imagination, the book’s relationship to fact is a little complex; and the first complication that needs to be admitted is that it is not evidence-based in the sense of being a considered, selective response to some large, patient massing of data.  The book does not represent a selection of detail drawn from a deep knowledge of the Soviet Union.  It contains substantially everything I found out, with the directions in which I went looking for data often being dictated by my sense, in advance, that there was a piece of the narrative that needed to be supported.  As the great Serbian writer Danilo Kis said, when an interviewer praised the indetectability of the inventions in his Borgesian memorial to the Gulag, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich – ‘Really?  They seemed very visible to me.‘  Red Plenty is like the Ob Sea that the Akademgorodok scientists swim in: convincing as a pocket ocean in terms of width, but only a few feet deep at any point.  It contains just enough facts, at any point, to make it hold together.

And how much ‘just enough’ is, was always a literary judgement.  It was a world-building consideration, of a kind familiar to anyone writing SF or fantasy, and asking themselves what the minimum level of detail is that a reader can be fed to seed her or his imagination with a perception of solidity.  The secret of even the thingiest SF, the most solid-walnut-to-the-knuckles fantasy, is that you don’t need much to summon worlds out of air, so long as the details are the right ones.  But — and I’m wary here of rushing too fast into the question of what kind of fiction the book is, which flattering genre claim to succumb to — there was also always the pressure on fact-selection, on imaginative shaping, exerted by the need to arrange the world of the USSR for  comprehension.  Red Plenty isn’t just a book by an outsider.  It’s primarily for outsiders too.  (Even if Russia it seems to be being read partly as a guide to what’s generationally exotic.  One of the reviews says, ‘It’s a great book to read to understand your parents.’)

Antoaneta picks out the dialogue between Chekuskin the fixer and Stepovoi the naive executive as an area of artificiality in the book.  Yes, because I had source-problems there in trying to work out what a conversation between the licit and illicit worlds should sound like.  Yes as well, though, because this was one of the scenes in which the advantages of having someone be naive enough to require explicit initiation into a process I needed the reader to understand outweighed the potential for doing something more psychologically particular and individual with the characters.  This kept happening.  The explanatory load on the book kept pushing it towards trying to clarify the whole social function of some category of event we were just seeing one of.  Most novels, I felt as I was writing, were not so foreign to the modes of human interchange they portrayed that they had to explain the basic definitions of things as they went along.  It was as if I had to dip my steel-nibbed pen into the inkwell and say, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife; a wife being the female partner in a pair-bonded relationship for life, sanctioned by religion and integrated into systems of inheritance, child-rearing and regulated sexuality; a fortune being a quantity of money at a high multiple of the society’s average income, usually but not invariably available as a liquid resource; money being…’

Here was a large reason for the first sentence of the book.  When I wrote, ‘This is not a novel.  It has too much to explain to be one of those’, I was partly teasing.  And partly I was negotiating a particular difficulty that had arisen during the original publication, which made it important to assert that whatever it was, it wasn’t a failed novel.  But I meant it, too.  I was – am – genuinely uncertain over whether, as a piece of writing in which individual experience ceaselessly takes second place to idea, and some kind of documentary purchase on the world is being asserted, it should really qualify.  Heaven knows, I’m glad to be contradicted by Kim Stanley Robinson, and if my having done my best to through-imagine it all as a kind of concrete (and viscose) poetry saves it in other people’s eyes from occupying the place I feared it had in the uncanny valley, zombyishly half-alive itself – I’m certainly not going to argue.  Alright, it’s a novel.  I would be proud to be carrying the suitcases of anyone on Rich Yeselson’s formidable list of predecessors, and likewise to carry on the noble, multigenerational struggle Felix Gilman indicates against too blatantly visible As-You-Know-Bob-hood.   (Which goes back to Shakespeare, and all those prologues in which Count Robert tells the Duke of Boberino that my lord the king hath late return’d from Florence, where woo’d he ‘gainst all good advice the lady Eleanor.  Exeunt both.)  A friend of mine, on reading it in manuscript, said, ‘It’s like one enormous infodump, isn’t it?  In a good way.’

But – historical novel, as Rich Yeselson and Carl Caldwell urge, or SF, where Gilman and Robinson are beckoning?   I think the two genres are basically isomorphic, as Ken Macleod’s point about history being SF’s secret weapon suggests.  They share the increase in the story’s explanatory load, and in the need to create familiarity from a standing start for the reader, and in the increased prominence of world-as-character.  In terms of characteristic difficulties, they share the problem of how to make characters something other than just an expression of researched or invented perspectives.  They both aim to transport.  Where they differ is in whether they transport us to a combination of human possibilities which has already existed, or to one that only might exist, elsewhere or -when.   Since the Soviet Union in 1960 existed all too solidly, it looks like an open and shut case for the historical.  And yet…

4. Otherwise

And yet it was a haunted solidity I was after.  Solidity with a spectre in it, a will-o-the-wisp which nevertheless had power to promise, torment, console, frighten, cost, cause.  The misapprehension John Holbo read the book under – that it was an alt-hist spectacular, in which cybernetics would come to save planning at the last possible moment, and the sky would fill with happy citizens in autogiros – was an accidental artefact of Red Plenty’s marketing, and of the decision to lead the descriptions of it with what-iffery.  But I’m not at all sorry it happened.  It made him, in some respects, a kind of ideal reader for the book, able to take literally and therefore at full expectant force what has to be metaphorical, a ghost you can be confident of seeing through, if you read it in the usual way, in the firm persuasion that the Cold War is going to be won by Ronald Reagan.  (Joke.)  The glass bead game future in which Masters of the Plan delicately adjust shadow-priced destinies to their optimum on n-dimensional abaci of perspex is exactly in the spirit of the future that the now-dusty House of Scientists in Akademgorodok genuinely anticipated.    By taking on the past’s expectation as a real possibility (within the world of the text) he accidentally transported himself to something approaching the subject-position, as I understand it, of actual mathematical-economical true believers looking forward from 1962.   He put himself into a state of the world which, like all states of the world, is partially composed of what it is and partially of what might be.  Counterfactuals aren’t just an implied presence in historical explanations – I was glad Neville Morley in the comments brought up David Lewis’ Possible Worlds, which I read a long time ago and have had seeping about my mind ever since – they’re surely also the form, or one of them, in which we put our sense at any particular moment that a potential is present for things to change.  They are the floating home of ‘otherwise’.

The picture of the future world is also, almost always, a picture of an alternative present: a state of things in terms of which, from the standpoint of which, it is possible to critique daily reality, or to find it more bearable, or to justify it.  Which are three very different psychological uses for the counterfactual, rolled together and made available together, even when, as in the Soviet case, the future in question is a compulsory one, an organising destination which everyone is supposed to apply to make narrative sense of present events.  The Soviet Union in the 50s-60s seems to me to have been a society haunted by its hopes in a peculiarly powerful, equivocal way.  It was a place that in its very recent past had granted a hopeful goal an unlimited precedence over actual human lives, and then stepped back from mass murder without ever fully acknowledging what had happened, leaving hope tethered in private experience to a layer of sorrow and suffering; and it was a place that ceaselessly mobilised hope as self-deception, ‘psychoprophylaxis’, compulsory pretending, applied to push you into ignoring all the defects of reality; and yet it was also a place that admitted louder and louder, the harder it lent on hope as anaesthetic, the need for the present to be redeemed or transcended.   Hope revealed and concealed the nature of the times.  The USSR was haunted by horror and utopia at the same time.  I wanted, by picking the most sympathetically geeky and cybernetic version of hope, to make us feel the force of the haunting.   (Us now; us outside the experience chronologically, or geographically, or politically.)

Henry seems to me to be describing just the same phenomenon, only in different terms, when he give his aetiology of the infection of the real by the fantastic.  This is dead-on, by the way, in its description of the perceptual sequence I wanted to draw the reader into :

‘A collision between the real world and an imagined one, which somehow seems better, denser, more ‘real’ than reality itself, but is in fact a reflection of it. A moment of choice, connected with that collision, in which everything seems, for a moment to be possible. The falling away of that moment, as reality reasserts itself, so that the moment of choice recedes forever into the past, but still haunts the world, present as a sense of possibility and of failure, each entwined so closely with the other that one cannot tell where the one ends and the other begins.’

The fairy-tale frame brings the magical interpretation of the counterfactual to the surface. Or rather, the book’s insistence that the dream of planned plenty is twentieth-century magic, a cultural script or spell (grammar, grimoire) with connections stretching back to the hunger-dreams of the ancestors, has the effect, I hope, of suggesting that enchantment of this kind is normal, universal.  That the entwined sense of possibility/failure is threaded through times of change or choice in all sorts of societies at all sorts of times.  Its presence is not to be taken as confirmation of the absurdity of any particular hope it gets attached to.  History is made with refractory, recursively-patterned material, always.

I wasn’t thinking of M John Harrison, though, who I haven’t read enough of, and clearly should read more of.  My model for the intrusion or infection of the fantastic was much more John Crowley, whose Aegypt novels are all about the passage through, and then fading aftermath of, moments when the world seems bursting with the possibility of being otherwise; and whose Great Work of Time contains a marooned time-traveller who experiences the actual course of the 20th century as the nightmarish crumbling, year by year, of the safer timeline he came from.  Again the idea that the imaginary is realler than the real, and is the standard by which the real is judged, and found wanting.

And surely this is right, as well as dangerous.  Surely we have to grant imagination the power to keep interrogating what happens to exist, and to keep asking if it couldn’t be better.  The ‘otherwise’ at the end of the book is supposed to be open enough to gather into it, as in Felix Gilman’s essay, our general suspicion that some kind of less wasteful and destructive composition of the human pattern is possible, as well the specific longing of the socialist tradition for some kinder measure to dance to than the zombie-hop of the commodities.  It isn’t in there just as an all-purpose rhetorical dreamcatcher,  or as an exercise in the novelist’s impersonal sympathy.  That’s my yearning you hear in the Akademgorodok wind, too.  But it seems to me that to keep faith with the power of the imaginary requires you also to keep the most honest tally you can of its costs.  Which is notoriously hard to do, of course, without reliable prices.



Phil 06.12.12 at 2:38 pm

historical novel, as Rich Yeselson and Carl Caldwell urge, or SF, where Gilman and Robinson are beckoning?

If S is for speculative, it can be both – historical sf.

the idea that the imaginary is realler than the real, and is the standard by which the real is judged, and found wanting.

And surely this is right, as well as dangerous.

Mon semblable! Mon frère! Absolutely right. Quite a lot of sf is summed up in those two sentences, as well as a lot of good history and (perhaps less interestingly) my entire political life.

What a great symposium, by the way – everyone involved deserves congratulations, especially the organisers. The crockery-throwing kind is fun in its own morbid way, but this one has been so much better.


Cheryl Rofer 06.12.12 at 5:13 pm

Thanks so much for the book, Francis. I’m only about a third of the way through it and enjoying it thoroughly. So much there, as the posters have shown!

And it rings true to me, although I can’t claim the experience of some of the posters. But I’ve spent a bit of time in countries of the, as they say, Former Soviet Union.


Omega Centauri 06.12.12 at 5:30 pm

The chapter on optimization was very exciting for me to read. For in my career as a computationalist I’ve had a few mini-occasions like that. “My new insight/methodology is going to be so dazzling that the future has just changed”… Then gradually the limitations reveal themselves, and your great world changing work becomes just another humdrum everyday algorithm appreciated by few. It reminded of the excitement one can have in such situations. And of the fact that the exciting perceived possibilities are almost never rewarded by the unfolding of the future.


Rich Yeselson 06.12.12 at 6:48 pm

Very glad that Francis Spufford found this remark by Henry Farrell apposite to Red Plenty:

A collision between the real world and an imagined one, which somehow seems better, denser, more ‘real’ than reality itself, but is in fact a reflection of it.

I was going to go off on a similar tangent in my remarks, but cut it for various reasons. Red Plenty evoked for me–in an analogous, yet inverse way to Henry’s point–David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. That film, beginning with its lush green, suburban grass, more lush than any suburban grass could ever be, was also “…denser, more ‘real’ than realitity itself, but is in fact a reflection [or heightened reflection] of it.” Of course, Blue Velvet was not “better” than American suburbia. I’m not entirely sure that Red Plenty is “better” than the reality it heightens either, but it might be. Still, Blue Velvet and Red Plenty more deeply embody Picasso’s axiom that “art is the lie that tells the truth” than more artistic projects do.


Yeselson 06.12.12 at 7:49 pm

Oops, meant to say “most”, not “more” in that last sentence, which makes a big difference!


Chris Williams 06.12.12 at 8:26 pm

Re the necessarily radical nature of science fiction, here’s something from an old newspaper: it’s from a speech reported in the _Northern Star_, delivered in July 1839 by Mr William Bairstow, West Riding Agitating Delagate, to several thousand people in York. It’s the earliest use I’ve ever seen of the rhetorical power of the alien gaze:

“One party being in exclusive possession of power, the other must necessarily sink in the same proportion that the other is unnaturally elevated. [Loud cheering.] Our country has been so long accustomed to this state of things that it creates but little surprise – were it not so, that some other class of beings should alight upon some eminence in England, surveying at one glance all the laws and institutions of our country, with all the inequality, injustice, pauperism, anarchy, beggary, cruelty, licentiousness, crime, madness, deabaunchery, and muder, of which they are the causes; what astonishment must seize their minds, and blind their vsion, how must the blood curdle in their veins when taking into account the vast amount of wretchedness and misery, of oppression, of starvation and death, of which they are so prolific.”


soru 06.12.12 at 9:49 pm

Sadly, dating suggest that’s not the same William Bairstow from West Riding who was the first white Australian to kill a crocodile with a knife and was later eaten by cannibals.

But maybe someone should write that book anyway.


Chris Williams 06.12.12 at 9:53 pm

One way or another, quite a few of those early Chartists made it to Oz.


gordon 06.12.12 at 11:18 pm

“Surely we have to grant imagination the power to keep interrogating what happens to exist, and to keep asking if it couldn’t be better”.

This has always been the position of dreamers and revolutionaries. And yet as Mr Spufford noted in his first response, the Soviet Union by its simple existence gave a kind of support to left-wing groups all over the world. He said: “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”. I think that is right.

Those old lefties weren’t just trying to import the Soviet system wholesale into their own societies, either. There was a strong element of re-imagining socialism locally which still drew strength from the existence of the USSR. That happened, I think, because of the simple fact of the successful Bolshevik revolution. It scared the Right, and gave hope to the Left. Change, even revolution, can happen.

The dreamers and revolutionaries are still there, but now that the USSR is gone they confront a Right which has far more confidence.


The Raven 06.13.12 at 2:48 pm

Gordon, #9, “The dreamers and revolutionaries are still there, but now that the USSR is gone they confront a Right which has far more confidence.”

And yet now the right is failing, drifting into ever more radical and authoritarian politics, as its policies fail. They take over powerful countries and what do they do? Impoverish them. Start pointless wars. Trash the banking and property law systems so that even the privileges of wealth are endangers. And in the background, the rising chaos of environmental disaster. Like the Soviet Union, this also cannot be sustained.

I admire this sentence: “The theory of rule by steely, ‘conscious’ guardians of the public good arrived pre-vitiated, grotesquely self-cancelled, by having the actual representatives of the theory turn out to be beefy backslappers with the mental horizons of warthogs.” And it occurs to me that no more than “steely, ‘conscious’ guardians of the public good” are there Randian super-heroes; most capitalists also have “the mental horizons of warthogs.”

There is, I think, something wrong with our philosophies, something other than poor economic theories. It is striking to me how both capitalism and communism seem to be failing in the same way and for the same reasons.

Perhaps we are solving the wrong problems. the 20th century has given us economic theory that could vastly improve the lives of vast majority. And yet we do not implement that theory. If both the Soviet calculation model and the Austrian market model were foredoomed by taking on too much complexity, by trying to encompass too much, what can we say of Keynesian models, which, setting more modest goals, seem capable of vastly improving material life, and yet which we seem unable to implement with any resolve?


Martin Bento 06.14.12 at 1:50 am

I was living in Eastern Europe during the last days of the Soviet Union. I saw how Marxism, by inhabiting the entire space of alternatives to capitalism, left that space barren when it died, like a virulent algae bloom that oversaturates a sea and dies off, leaving the sea dead. And I saw why Marxism needed to die.

I didn’t have time for the thread where people were discussing Havel, but those who think he was talking about common social disapproval for the grocer are misreading him. Havel is given to understatement, but when he says the grocer wanted to “live in peace”, he does not mean merely to avoid disapproving glances. The significance of his pointing out that the legal nature of Czechoslovakia is not unusual and does not reveal the reality of how his country is governed is that the state is not actually the governing force; the party is. Picture living in the US under the following conditions: 1) The head of the Republican Party clearly has more power than the President of the United States, and the latter serves pretty much at the former’s will. 2) The only other parties than Republican are transparently token and only permitted to deviate from it in minor ways. 3) The state, controlled by the Republican Party, is your employer and your landlord and will always be so. Now, you are a grocer, meaning you manage, not own, a grocery. Your landlord and employer gives you some signs to put up saying “Ronald Reagan was the Greatest President in History”. You refuse to put up those signs. What do you think is going to happen?

Maybe nothing. The system was very capricious and filled with people who did not believe in it either. But what could happen is that your life could be destroyed, perhaps in ways you could not even trace, much less prove. A woman told me that some people were attracted to that edge, the way Americans were attracted to drugs – there were real dangers, but you might survive. You might not wreck your life.

Tim, I’m with you on the conspiracy stuff. The Hofstadter tradition has left dissent willfully obtuse to how power actually operates. It has created a rhetoric that makes it possible to ridicule categorically the idea that powerful people can collude in lies, though this has always been routine for powerful people. Things like Cointelpro and MKUltra should be much more central to our understanding of how the US and similar governments work. But the reason the US govt. needs Cointelpro is that in the US there are other bases of power than the state. You can have a job that the government cannot directly strip away. Your residence is usually owned by you or rented from a private entity. You have legal protections that generally are not meaningless, because the formal legal state is the actual seat of power. So to do the sort of things Cointelpro did requires an extra-legal conspiracy distinct from normal governance. On communism, the Bulgarian dissident Alexander Kiossev was more blunt than Havel: “Under communism, power *is* a conspiracy.”


Doctor Memory 06.14.12 at 5:23 am

Martin, I’m inclined to print out the first paragraph of your comment and nail it to a wall somewhere. Bravo.

But I’m also looking at your reference to Tim and Hofstadter and wondering if you meant to comment on another thread. :)


Data Tutashkhia 06.14.12 at 7:00 am

Well, Martin is right that in the US they need Cointelpro because they can’t just pass the law and convict people for ‘anti-American propaganda’ or some such, although they came damn close, back in the 50s.

As for the Soviet Union, he’s missing big parts of the picture. If you look more closely into this 1984-like scenario, you’ll realize that, just like in Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother is only watching the Party members; “proles and animals are free”. And that’s 90% of the population. So, for the supermarket manager who doesn’t like slogans there is a simple solution: don’t become a freaking manager, and you won’t have to put up with it. Take a clue from George Scialabba.


Martin Bento 06.14.12 at 10:03 am

Doctor Memory, thank you very much. It’s nice to feel appreciated. I’m thinking of this as the summation thread on Red Plenty, so I responded to some stuff in an earlier discussion I did not have time to join at the time. Hope no one minds, and I hope Tim (Wilkinson) drops by to read it.

Data, where did you get that? It’s true that if people kept their heads down, they would not be bothered. And that is what Havel is on about: a society of people with neck strain from having their heads constantly down. “If you want to speak your own mind, fine, just don’t aspire to so lofty a position as grocery story manager!” seems a really weak defense anyway, along the lines of “Of course, you’re free not to sleep with me. I assume you don’t mind never getting a promotion.”.

On the question of alternatives to capitalism, one of the reasons I think it important to examine closely the failures of Marxism is that I do believe that capitalism is headed towards a grave crisis because of its very nature, but not for the reasons Marx gave, and that some kind of socialism may prove a superior – more efficient, not just more moral – alternative, but that if based on Marxist thinking, it will lead to the same sort of problems as the other societies based on that thinking have had. Marx did not invent socialism, but, even though Marxists are not that numerous or influential anymore, the bulk of the political spectrum concedes to him the entire space left of “regulated capitalism with a welfare state”, so Marx stands in the way of anyone who sees potential for anything else in that space.

And I do trace the bulk of the SUs problems back to Marx. As I argued in another comment, the calculation problem is the problem of deciding what is the most useful deployment of resources, and, with regards to labor as a source of exchange value, Marx set this aside as trivial. And this was not tangential. Had he treated this as a serious problem, he could not have derived a theory of exchange value independent of use value, nor stipulated labor as the sole source of that value. And if labor is not the sole source of value, then employment for profit is necessarily exploitative in the specific Marxist sense – that it extracts value created by labor. Without the essentially exploitative nature of Capitalism, how much of Marxism is left?

But it’s not only that. Why was the SU so uncreative? There were a lot of brilliant people. There were some great specific achievements, e.g. in math and engineering. But for a society that had to try to imagine an entire new social order, there were surprisingly few ideas that changed society, other than the idea of Marxism itself. During the Soviet period, the West created or perfected radio, jet flights, antibiotics, nuclear technology, television, all of the major household appliances, suburbs, the computer, gene splicing, the Internet, etc. The Soviets were first with space flight, but lost that lead. They had some of the fundamental ideas of the green revolution first, but spectacularly botched the implementation. To a shocking extent, they copied the ideas of the West, right down to Mcdonald’s (Arbat). And it’s not just the SU. All of the Marxist societies have been pretty barren creatively, though one can cherry pick exceptions in certain areas. Why is that?

A society will get little of what it does not value and, as I’ve argued here previously, Marx created a theory of value that does not account for the creative component of labor, and therefore does not treat it as generating value. For Marx, the value created by labor is determined by the labor-time socially necessary on average to achieve what it does. For creative labor, or the creative component of any labor, this is not quantifiable, and sometimes not even meaningful. The main role that Marx assigns to creativity is to productivity-enhancing innovations, which *decrease* value in his estimation by reducing the labor-time necessary to produce things.

And why should it matter that the country is governed by “beefy backslappers with the mental horizons of warthogs”? What will determine history, impersonal forces, specifically the economically productive energies of society and the conflicts between them, or the personalities of the individuals who happen to be in charge? To suppose the latter would be “bourgeois individualism”, or perhaps a “Not-So-Great Man Theory of History”. It runs against the grain of an ideology committed to very strong egalitarianism and a very impersonal theory of history.


Data Tutashkhia 06.14.12 at 10:20 am

“If you want to speak your own mind, fine, just don’t aspire to so lofty a position as grocery story manager!” seems a really weak defense anyway

That wasn’t defense, but a description of the situation. The part that, I believe, you missed. A store manager was indeed a very lucrative position (way, way higher than, say, software developer, or a doctor), and he/she was, most likely, a party member too. You want to advance in the hierarchy, you have to demonstrate loyalty to it; that’s universal.


William Timberman 06.14.12 at 10:47 am

Martin, please add my Bravo! to Doctor Memory’s. He praises the first paragraph — justifiably — but I hold that the last paragraph is equally praiseworthy. Soviet Marxism was wrong in one way about the feedback relationship between the individual and the productive forces characteristic of a society, and it cared not at all about the distributive forces. American-style capitalism is wrong in another way. Deprived of just criticism, both ways of being wrong can produce monsters, and monstrous evils.

Pretty much everyone — everyone here at least — now agrees that we’re in desperate need of a re-think. Let’s hope we actually get one.


Alex 06.14.12 at 11:32 am

So, for the supermarket manager who doesn’t like slogans there is a simple solution: don’t become a freaking manager, and you won’t have to put up with it

this assumption that there is no way a Communist state could make a blue-collar employee’s life miserable would seem to be romantic going on “I have seen the future and it works!” culpable-naive. a supermarket manager who couldn’t think of a way to make an employee’s life difficult if they wanted to wouldn’t be trying hard enough; a totalitarian state with nuclear rockets and one informant per dozen or so citizens? this is pathetically weak, especially given how much load it’s being asked to bear.


gordon 06.14.12 at 11:59 am

Martin Bento (at 14): ‘…the bulk of the political spectrum concedes to [Marx] the entire space left of “regulated capitalism with a welfare state”…’.

Oh, I don’t know. What about steady state economics? Or maybe the bulk of the political spectrum are beefy backslappers with the mental horizons of warthogs, and don’t know anything about that.

And I’m not so sure that I trace the bulk of the Soviet Union’s troubles back to Marx, any more than I would trace the problems of modern liberal capitalism back to Locke or Adam Smith. It seems a bit oversimplified to me.


Data Tutashkhia 06.14.12 at 12:55 pm

this assumption that there is no way a Communist state could make a blue-collar employee’s life miserable

I’m not making any assumption, just describing some empirical facts.

Of course a communist state could make a blue-collar employee’s life miserable, and so can any other state, and many social institutions. That’s not what we are talking about. During the period in question (1970s-80s) a blue-collar worker was not required, or expected, to demonstrate loyalty.

In fact, they were having lots of troubles attracting blue-collar workers to their Party. The way the party was structured, there was a rule, very important rule: 50%+ of the members had to be blue-collar workers. You know, for the party to be able to call itself a “workers’ party”. But a vast majority of people who wanted to join were managers who wanted to advance their careers. There was long, long queue of low-level managers (and manager wannabe office workers) to join the party. So, excuse me while I’m looking for the world’s smallest violin to play for that poor supermarket manager.


Ken MacLeod 06.15.12 at 6:21 am

Martin @14: The main role that Marx assigns to creativity is to productivity-enhancing innovations, which decrease value in his estimation by reducing the labor-time necessary to produce things.

In other words: in Marx’s uniquely perverse view, productivity-enhancing innovations make things cheaper.

In fact, reducing necessary labour-time was, in Marx’s view, one of the great achievements of capitalism, and one he hoped and expected to see more of in communism.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 9:00 am

William, Thank you very much.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 9:03 am

Gordon, the difference is that Capitalism wasn’t created by people directly trying to implement the ideas of Locke or Smith, it was created by people trying to make money and using some new technical ways of doing so created by things like financial innovation, colonialism, and the industrial revolution. Smith was describing what he saw, not trying to change it. Marx was doing both, but ultimately viewed himself as a revolutionary. He intended to dramatically affect the world with his writing if he could. That does give him considerably more agency than Locke or Smith. Without Locke, I don’t think the history of Capitalism would have been much different. Without Marx, the Czar may have been toppled, but it is impossible to imagine the result would have been anything like the Soviet Union.

As for steady-state economics, well, I said “bulk of the political spectrum”, not everyone. Let’s take the example closest to hand: this site. Taking posters and commenters together, there is a fairly broad swathe of the Left and Center-Left here, and a sprinkling of other things among the regulars, more so when certain topics come up. In the past few years, there have been at least a half dozen or so threads on Marx, and he comes up now and then on other threads. On other forms of far Leftism: anarchism, steady-state economics, syndicalism, deep ecology, Parecon – pretty much nothing that I recall Geo did bring up Parecon in one of the discussions in this seminar, but I don’t think anyone really took it up much.. So that’s what I mean. Marx still has the mindshare.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 9:11 am

Ken, I guess you’re just not following me at all. First of all, I never said Marx was wrong to say that creativity applied to increase the productivity of labor decreased value. I can’t see any basis for your interpreting it that way, unless you’re just reacting to the bold font on the word “decrease”. But it is silly to argue with a font.

Let me lay this out a bit more schematically.

1)I claim that creativity can create or increase value, that this increase is not a function of either the socially-necessary, nor the actual, time spent in the creative act, and, therefore, that this element of value is not captured by Marx’s model.
2)Note that this does not imply that creativity always increases value. One rather dumb objection that could be made to my point runs something like this; “But of course Marx accounted for creativity. Didn’t you read the part where he went on and on about how creative Capitalism was in making production more and more efficient”, I made the comment you quoted to try to preempt this objection, which is irrelevant, among other reasons because it is a theory of how creativity subtracts value, not adds it, and it therefore does not address the matter I am discussing. For the record, not that I ever stated or implied otherwise, let me state that I think Marx is correct that creativity applied to make production of commodities more efficient, without changing the nature of those commodities (“nature” understood broadly to include things like cultural associations), does subtract value. But that is not what I am talking about.
3)Is your final statement about Marx supposed to be some kind of revelation? That is the sort of banal and obvious observation that I tend to leave unsaid in this venue, because I assume everyone who cares about these issues knows it, so why bore them by stating it? Needless to say, nothing I said contradicts this at all.

Let me give you an example close to home. I imagine your publisher, a Capitalist enterprise, made a profit on The Cassini Division. This implies in the Marxist model that the book had a definite value and that the value of your pay and the publisher’s other expenses added up to less than this value. And what determines this value according to the Marxist model? Strictly speaking, the average time it would take any competent novelist to write The Cassini Division. But this is meaningless, as only you could have written that particular novel, so let’s cut Marx some slack and say that, since novels are unique products and not strictly commodities, it should be the actual labor you put in. If your labor is actual Marxist labor-power, the value it produces would still have to be measured by time. And it it is not, then it does not create value. If you had worked 20% longer, would the book be 20% better? I don’t think I need to belabor this. Creativity doesn’t work like that. I know it, you know it, and I think Marx knows it as well, but he did not account for it in his theory.

Shall we say that novels and similar products (movies, comics, musical recordings) are economically peripheral and don’t matter to the overall nature of the economy? There’s lots of money made off them, so they are not that peripheral. After all, Marxism claims to be a theory of history, which implies a very high level of comprehensiveness, and a theory of Capitalism, which implies that it should apply to any Capitalist enterprise. And the cultural weight of these kinds of products gives them historical influence beyond that suggested by their monetary value. But, for argument, let’s set them aside.

What about software? As Andreessen says, software is eating the world. It keeps taking a larger share of total economic activity. No mythical man-months now. Here, too, the value of the program cannot be reduced to the labor-time spent producing it. In fact, the actual labor time is not that relevant. Whence the value of Twitter? As a programming project, it is trivial. The initial version was written overnight, and even the current one could be easily replicated by a handful of programmers. The value is in the ideas: both the initial one, and the later additions like hash tags. How long did it take to invent hash tags? Probably a flash, but it doesn’t matter. And Amazon? Just another shopping site. Nothing tricky or terribly laborious to program. They were early with the idea and strategically shrewd, that’s all.

Again, one could say Marx was talking about commodities, about tires, lumber, doorknobs. But then he has not given a comprehensive account of the economy, even in his day, and less and less so as time goes on. We live more and more in a world built of concepts. Even the simplest commodities originate as concepts, but increasingly the concept is the whole game..


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 9:12 am

Data, I’ve worked for companies large and small and never have been, even implicitly, expected to make some ostentatious display of loyalty. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one from my co-workers either.


Data Tutashkhia 06.16.12 at 9:26 am

What? You were a manager, and you were openly telling your coworkers that your company’s product is crap and the CEO is a moron, and you weren’t showing any enthusiasm at all? I don’t think so.

I trust you that you never felt pressured, but perhaps you’d already been conditioned to behave appropriately (‘professionally’) and it feels perfectly natural to you. Sorry about pop psych, but that seems like the only explanation.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 9:36 am

Data, I said I had never been expected to make ostentatious displays of loyalty. You translated this as I was telling my co-workers that the company’s product was crap and the CEO an asshole. These are not the same thing, and, if you are not an idiot, you know it. Dishonest paraphrase is dishonest argument.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 9:37 am

Excuse me, you said CEO a moron, not asshole. Same difference in this context.


Data Tutashkhia 06.16.12 at 9:53 am

I don’t know about ‘ostentatious’, I didn’t use this word in the comment you’re replying to, but self-censoring, suppressing your negative opinions about the hierarchy (especially the higher levels) certainly is a manifestation of loyalty. And that’s the whole point of that grocer parable. This seems too trivial to argue about; you can’t be serious.


Hidari 06.16.12 at 10:24 am

I wanted to make this point on a previous thread but the interwebs (or possibly David Cameron’s new Internet Thought Police) swallowed it.

The key point about Havel’s anecdote is just wanting an easy life, and thereby living a lie. And someone suggested that having adverts on the side of your bus was the equivalent. If you ask, the bus conductor may well say ‘well of course these ads are all a lot of crap.’

But surely that’s not the real equivalent? Surely the equivalent in our society is the corporate motto, the logo, the corporate dress (i.e. uniform) you are forced to wear, the corporate advertising (i.e. of the corporation you work for) that is plastered over the bus?

And yes, the bus conductor may well think it’s all a lot of crap. And he may even say so. But will he say so if he (sic) thinks that a manager or other employee is near?

When I was a penniless student I had to work in various fast food places, wearing corporation mandated uniforms. And this, precisely, was an ‘ostentatious’ display of loyalty. And I went along with it. Because I really had no choice.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 10:35 am

Putting out a sign is ostentatious. It doesn’t matter if you used the word; that is what the word means. As for self-censorship, yes, I have mocked the products and CEO of a company where I worked, but lightly, not bitterly, as you seem to suggest. But “bitterly” would not have expressed my actual feelings, so refraining was hardly self-censorship. I was mostly just cracking jokes. I have done such things in management too. But there is still a difference between actively being pushed to put up signs declaring things you may not feel, and just being expected to not undermine the project you are involved in. I’m not religious, but if I find myself in a church for some reason, I do not behave in such a way as to disrupt the proceedings. That is basic respect for others. There is a difference between that and being told to testify on stage about my relationship with Jesus. And I can’t believe you don’t see these differences.


Ken MacLeod 06.16.12 at 11:00 am

Martin #23 – OK, I may have misunderstood you. But –

When you say, as an explanation of why the SU was so uncreative:

A society will get little of what it does not value and, as I’ve argued here previously, Marx created a theory of value that does not account for the creative component of labor, and therefore does not treat it as generating value.

– it really does seem to me that your first usage of ‘value’ means value in the everyday colloquial sense (as in ‘I value your contribution’) and the second and third mean exchange-value in the technical sense. And this is a mistake whether or not your objection to the LTV is sound.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 11:02 am

Data, let me put it this way. Calling someone a moron is rude. Doing to their face is ruder still. Denigrating the work of your co-workers is rude. Denigrating the work of your little brother is rude. Telling a stranger on the street that she’s fat is rude. These are all occasions where self-censorship may be a good idea for reasons that have nothing to do with loyalty. But that is not the same thing as being told to stand up and say things you do not believe.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 11:39 am

Ken, it’s not really a mistake since I did it deliberately, but it is a bit of semantic slippage to be sure. I’m trying to be succinct and suggest an argument I cannot rigorously make in a paragraph. Briefly, though, if you have two societies, one of which believes that creativity can generate economic value and another that does not, which is more likely to value creativity in a colloquial sense? Our notions of what has economic value are not identical to, but also not completely independent of, what has value in other senses. After all, we value economic value. This is more straightforward if you are outside the Marxist paradigm and can see economic value itself as subjective (a measure of utility if you like, but I think subjective is more to the point), rather than as an expression of abstract human labor. And I am, indeed, outside that paradigm.


Ken MacLeod 06.16.12 at 12:12 pm

OK, let’s leave it there.


William Timberman 06.16.12 at 1:33 pm

Martin Bento @ 23

Here, too, the value of the program cannot be reduced to the labor-time spent producing it.

Just an anecdote to add flavor to this part of your exchange with Ken. I once watched a TV show which recounted the history of Bill Gates’ early coup over IBM, and the subsequent rise of Microsoft. It was liberally salted with quotes from the surviving principals, who for the most part said what you expected them to say. One of the things that did stand out for me, though, came from someone at Microsoft — not Gates himself, I think — mocking IBM’s starchiness. Specifically, he was laughing about their company-wide practice of assessing the value of a software project by the number of K-locs it contained, i.e. the number of thousands of lines of code. Quantity may indeed have a quality of its own, but this IBM practice, if my memory is accurate about what was said, strikes me as a perfect example of what you claim is wrong about the LToV — and coming from such a capitalist icon, a pretty telling one at that.


Data Tutashkhia 06.16.12 at 1:43 pm

Putting out a sign is ostentatious. It doesn’t matter if you used the word; that is what the word means.

No, it’s not, not in Havel’s story, and not in reality of communist Czechoslovakia. The grocer is not volunteering to make the sign, the sign is delivered to him every week (or whatever), and hanging it over the window is a part of grocer’s job. He’s simply doing his job, just like you. Having this job requires him to adapt and do things he wouldn’t normally do, things he may not be particularly proud of.

And it’s exactly the same with you and me. We have to exhibit what’s in the west called “professional conduct”. It’s exactly the same thing. Most people, in the west or communist Czechoslovakia, have little problem with that: the authorities deliver a sign, you hang it. They send you a memo on what to tell the customers, you say it. And those who hate it (which still can happen to you and me, later in life) quit their professional jobs, start shoveling manure or flipping burgers for a living (like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty), and feel liberated. It’s trivial.


Hidari 06.16.12 at 5:32 pm

As I have argued before the LTV may or may not be true (some people say yes, some people say no).

But if you are going to attack it, at least attack the real thing, not a straw man. Facebook, Twitter, etc, can be seen as essentially an idea and the profits (hypothetical, in the case of Twitter) come from the fact that the capitalists hold the IPR. But this is simply an example (albeit a highly technological form) of rent. And this form of capitalism is not exactly unknown to Marxist theory. After all the (currently imaginary) profits from FB will come from FB ‘encouraging’ you to put more and more personal details online so that FB can sell this to advertisers.

Of course another way of looking at it is to argue that the ‘users’ of FB and Twitter, are actually the workers themselves. It’s just that they don’t conceptualise themselves as workers (not least ‘cos they don’t get paid). Everyone who ‘writes’ for FB is a sort of slave: yes you don’t ‘have to’ have an account, but the fact is that ‘you’ do hundreds of hours a month/year in unpaid work so that Mark Zuckerberg can have a yacht.

Of course, more traditional forms of capitalist exploitation are also used.


Data Tutashkhia 06.16.12 at 7:12 pm

Ideas don’t produce any value. They advance progress. Provided there is a mechanism in place to funnel investment into it. The Soviets were bad at it, especially in the area of consumer goods; no remote controlled TVs, till the end. But capitalism also has a problem there: patent shelving, oil companies killing electric cars, all that stuff. If progress is bad for Exxon Mobil, there will be none of it. This has nothing to do with the LTV.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 7:40 pm

William, IBM also did not treat software as having economic value in itself, back in the old days. They did not sell it. They gave it away to keep people buying their computers. So they didn’t really have a sense of its value at all, which was probably their biggest mistake, although I think the openings they left for Microsoft and Oracle were largely because DOJ was breathing down their neck about antitrust. They may not have understood the value of software, but they did understand the value of monopoly.


Ken MacLeod 06.16.12 at 7:43 pm

Martin: Just to add some value to my response –

First, I must apologize for misunderstanding your point. My only excuse is that I was too long in the trenches of Usenet arguing with people who got their understanding of the LTV from Starship Troopers.

Now, on to your argument about book production: I imagine your publisher, a Capitalist enterprise, made a profit on The Cassini Division. This implies in the Marxist model that the book had a definite value and that the value of your pay and the publisher’s other expenses added up to less than this value. And what determines this value according to the Marxist model? Strictly speaking, the average time it would take any competent novelist to write The Cassini Division. But this is meaningless, as only you could have written that particular novel, so let’s cut Marx some slack and say that, since novels are unique products and not strictly commodities, it should be the actual labor you put in. If your labor is actual Marxist labor-power, the value it produces would still have to be measured by time. And it it is not, then it does not create value.

Answering this objection to the LTV is above my pay grade, but as a first approximation I would say that the labour-time of an author like me doesn’t contribute to the exchange-value of a mass-produced book at all. It’s something like rent, which in Marxian terms is a cut of the surplus-value produced in the publishing industry as a whole. Artistic work isn’t abstract labour, it’s concrete labour, performed outside the circuit of capital (kind of like artisan work).

This question isn’t unique to the LTV, vide Econ 101 discussions of the earnings of footballers, models, and actors.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 7:51 pm

Hidari, first of all, if you want to consider tweets and wall postings part or even most of the value of Facebook and Twitter, fine. The value of tweets is still not a function of the average labor time socially-necessary to generate them,. And the success of Facebook is not because Facebook has IP protection sufficient to prohibit competitors. The empirical proof is that there are many other social networks, and, if it were possible to have a patent on social networking itself, Facebook would not have that patent, as they were far from first. What Facebook and Twitter have is network effects, aka “nothing succeeds like success”. If you want to find old friends, you look on Facebook, because that is where they are most likely to be. It is true that, at a crucial moment, Facebook did a couple of things right, and MySpace a couple wrong, so they did overcome MySpace’s earlier network advantage. It is possible to overcome network effects, but, other things equal, they prevail. Twitter too has a network advantage. I don’t know if there are other tweet sites, but it’s not IP law that would stop you from creating one (save possibly for using the term “tweet”.), since the elements are commonplace (posting messages and applying searchable tags has been common in the blogosphere for years). But if you tried to create a competitor to Twitter, you would have an immediate chicken/egg problem: why would people post on your site when Twitter gives them so potentially wide an audience, and how are you going to generate such an audience without lots of people posting on your site? This is network effects again, which could be considered a sort of rent, but they’re not IP rent, and I don’t think they’re anything Marx analyzed.


Martin Bento 06.16.12 at 8:21 pm

Ken, good, apology accepted. I think Cassini Division was a great book, so I’m glad we’re on friendlier terms. Haven’t read any of your others, but I plan to.

As to your analysis, well, certainly rent, IP rent, is involved, as that is necessary to make the book commodifiable (this is where I think Capitalism is running into problems. Commodifying information requires constraining its use, which diminishes its value to society as a whole. Socialism could solve that problem better by subsidizing production and making the product freely available. There is still the problem of determining what is the most useful labor – i.e., what should be funded – but there is the countervailing consideration that no artificial scarcity would need to be created. We see this conflict playing out now in the interplay between the commercial, non-commercial, and hybrid entities and products on the Internet). Treating the value as a function of the aggregate value of the whole industry would seem to make it a matter of indifference what books specifically are published, but that is obviously going to have an effect on total sales. If publishers started selecting books to publish from those submitted by lottery, I think overall sales would decline. At least I hope so. But maybe that is not germane. I don’t really get your argument.


Hidari 06.16.12 at 9:04 pm

‘Nothing succeeds like success’ is another way of saying ‘Facebook has a de facto Monopoly’ which is something I think you will find Marx had quite a lot to say about.

Incidentally, Facebook makes its profits (which is what it is all about) by selling ‘space’ on Facebook (which is, let’s not forget, just a blank page with a blue headline saying ‘Facebook’ without its users) to advertisers. It’s not a service industry, as most people think. It sells a product, advertising space (it’s basically a glorified billboard in cyberspace). And it charges other capitalists a price for that commodity. As you say, it wouldn’t be able to charge a price for that commodity without the unpaid labour put into it by the users (as you rightly point out, the code itself is dumb, and Zuckerberg et al do next to nothing except lounge about and recite cliches to gullible journalists). Zuckerberg himself notoriously stole the basic idea for the site.

To continue the story: ‘1. Facebook is going to “sell” users for $120 each
According to their filing, Facebook had 850 million Monthly Active Users (MAU) at the end of 2011. From that user base the company generated roughly $3.7b in revenue, or just under $4.50 for every member. Nearly 90% of this number comes from selling your information to advertisers who, in turn, try to sell you things Facebook says you want.
That may seem like a reasonable trade until we get to the IPO. “If this thing goes public at the price they’re expecting (Facebook) will get $120 per user,” Matt Nesto notes. Said another way, Facebook is going to sell you for 120 bucks. Wall Street bankers will get a cut of this figure, with Facebook getting the bulk of the money. FB users get nothing.

2. Facebook users are about to become billboards
In the first line of a 2,000 word letter from Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder announces the following: “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.”
Noble stuff from a guy about to be worth nearly $30 billion. Regardless of the original inspiration, once Facebook goes public Zuckerberg’s job is to create value for shareholders. That means getting more than $4.50 a year for selling each user’s information to advertisers. One of the ways Facebook is going to go about this value extraction is turning your every click into a sponsorship.
If you feel exploited now you ain’t seen nothing yet. Post-IPO, everything you “Like”, suggest or link is going to be packaged and sold. Anyone you “Friend” will be pitched stuff you like. People with whom you have common friends will be sold goods on the basis of your unwitting recommendation. You won’t just be connecting with people anymore, you’ll be infecting them with spam, pop-ups, and network.
If that sounds something like a social disease it’s because that’s exactly what it is.
3. The IPO is as much a Public Relations coup as a Share offering
Typically when a company goes public it gives the shareholders something in return. Under normal circumstances that means management giving up some degree of control, either in the form of voting rights or via an independent board of directors charged with looking out for shareholder interests. At least that’s the basic idea.
In the case of Facebook, the company is surrendering nothing. Zuckerberg will retain control of the company both in matters of day-to-day business as well as anything requiring a shareholder vote (buyouts, mergers etc). Should Zuckerberg become incapacitated his controlling interest will pass “to a person or entity he designates as his successor.” Mark Zuckerberg could bequeath control of Facebook to his dog, Beast, and there isn’t thing one shareholders could do about it.
Regardless of the company line about enhancing user experiences and fostering openness, the Facebook IPO will result in more ads and exploitation of user information. The shares may go up or down upon issuance but that’s almost an afterthought. Buyers of the stock are simply cashing out VC’s and funding the exploitation of whatever information they and their friends choose to share.’

This hardly proves that the LTV is correct. But it does concentrate our minds wonderfully on the real social meaning of FB. You do all the work, and Mark Zuckerberg gets rich. He doesn’t have any good ideas, he has little coding ability, he does no real work, but he gets a yacht and you get SFA.

This is capitalism.

End of, as the young people say.


Data Tutashkhia 06.16.12 at 9:05 pm

Artistic work isn’t abstract labour, it’s concrete labour, performed outside the circuit of capital (kind of like artisan work).

Absolutely right.

As for publishing, ideally it should simply follow the demand, as close as possible. Just like every other industry. If that is achieved, it should brings the price close to the labor-value.


LFC 06.16.12 at 9:37 pm

There are different kinds of publishers (some are non-profit, of course), but the best commercial publishers, ISTM, don’t simply “follow the demand.” They use the revenues from books that sell well to subsidize the publication of other books for which there may be less of an audience or lower ‘demand’ but which are often as good or better than the bestsellers. This I think is fairly obvious, except perhaps to DT.


William Timberman 06.16.12 at 10:20 pm

LFC @ 45

Aren’t we working our way back — however arduously — to what is and is not a commodity in Marxian terms? If you accept the IBM definition of software value as defined in my last comment, for example, it seems to me that indeed IBM did treat it as a commodity, albeit one produced to serve as capital in their own productive process. Much like any of the jigsaw pieces produced by other vertically-integrated enterprises, their software had no function except to add value to the entire puzzle they were offering for sale at the end of the production process, and thus they didn’t have to worry much about its exchange value — or use value, in fact — in any strict way.

Still, if you were renting a computing package from them, one imagines that the rent paid, and the subsequent ROI, depended not only on the amount of hardware was part of it, but also the amount of software, and as long as that software worked more or less as advertised, it was possible to value it pretty much according to the amount of socially necessary labor time that was involved in producing it.

If you extend that metaphor — because a metaphor is what it is, it seems to me — to book publishing, then it absolutely is the physical object that’s important. As long as the contents are serviceable, one is as good as another — Joyce of no more value than Grace Metallious.

Joyce had a different idea, and so did Bill Gates, though unfortunately for Joyce, when it comes to profits, high volume, low margin seems to be the way to go.


LFC 06.17.12 at 2:48 am

W. Timberman
Sorry, my comment used ‘value’ in a non-Marxist sense (more along the lines of M. Bento e.g. @33), so it was probably out of place in response to DT. It’s been a long time since I read Marx, but if one doesn’t accept the LTV (and there has been at least one long thread here on the LTV previously, in which a good deal of sophisticated, or sophisticated-sounding, work on ec. theory etc was cited, most of which I wasn’t familiar with), then I don’t see too much point in getting into the question of what the relation of a commodity’s price is (or ‘should’ be) to its ‘value’. However, I probably should have stayed out of this thread.

Perhaps on another occasion there could be a thread on the economics and/or history of book publishing, which I think might be of some interest. It is arguably different from, say, the computer business, inasmuch as there are still a few — very few — book publishers (probably only a couple of the ‘name’ houses or imprints, really, plus some small ones) who see themselves as having some kind of cultural or societal role that goes beyond simply making money. But that, as I say, would be a topic for another occasion.


LFC 06.17.12 at 3:10 am

from the OP:

Counterfactuals aren’t just an implied presence in historical explanations – I was glad Neville Morley in the comments brought up David Lewis’ Possible Worlds, which I read a long time ago and have had seeping about my mind ever since – they’re surely also the form, or one of them, in which we put our sense at any particular moment that a potential is present for things to change. They are the floating home of ‘otherwise’.

N. Morley in that comment also mentioned R.N. Lebow (thinking presumably of Lebow’s Forbidden Fruit). But I don’t recall whether Morley mentioned Geoffrey Hawthorn, Plausible Worlds, a title I ran across just today; a glance at ‘look inside’ on Amazon suggests it might be interesting.


Data Tutashkhia 06.17.12 at 4:24 am

Yeah, if they use that bestseller to subsidy something, this is not an ideal market. If it was, another publisher would’ve immediately jumped in, offered the same bestseller for less, and put them out of business. We are talking about an idealized model here.


Martin Bento 06.17.12 at 11:35 pm

Ken, haven’t read Starship Troopers, but I did meet Heinlein once when I was a kid. At the time, some Scientologist adults that I knew were telling me that Heinlein had collaborated with Hubbard in some of the early Dianetics work. So I asked him about this. He said, no, he had nothing to do with Dianetics and wasn’t going to comment on it, but if he had to choose someone to be trapped in a dark alley with, Hubbard would be his first choice.

Hubbard would not be my first choice.

But I guess that’s just loyalty to an old friend.

Isn’t it interesting that Romney lists Battlefield Earth among his 4 or 5 favorite books? Haven’t read the thing, but it’s just space opera, isn’t it?

A Mormontologist. Splendid.


Martin Bento 06.17.12 at 11:42 pm

Hidari. Wrote:

“..Monopoly’ which is something I think you will find Marx had quite a lot to say about. “

Yep, sure did. He said monopoly rents are an appropriation of surplus-value created by labor. I don’t see how this gains any traction as a response to a critique of the LTV; its premise is the LTV. What did Marx say about monopolies that you think is relevant to network effects or to my argument?

Then comes a long, denunciation of Facebook, concluding with “This hardly proves that the LTV is correct. ” That is an understatement. It is not to the point at all.

All these warnings of what will happen to “me” on Facebook are a bit premature. I saw most of this coming, and so am not and have never been on Facebook. However, being on Facebook could become less optional over time.

The conclusion: And this is Capitalism!

I made a critique of a certain aspect of Marxist theory. I signaled from the beginning that I saw that Capitalism had serious problems and that a sort of Socialism, just not a Marxist sort, might be a solution. Nonetheless, I am responded to as though I had been singing the praises of Capitalism. As though Capitalism and Marxism, both quite recent historically, exhaust the possibilities of human organization so thoroughly that criticism of Marxism is praise of Capitalism by definition. And unqualified praise at that. Not just praise of Capitalism in general or in the abstract, but praise of every specific manifestation of Capitalism that can be identified and denounced, such as Facebook. This despite the fact that it is very hard to find a contemporary Marxist who is not very insistent that huge swathes of the history of Marxism as practiced must be off the table in evaluating Marxist theory.


Martin Bento 06.17.12 at 11:48 pm

William, Last time we went around about creativity and the LTV, someone made the claim that computer programming was now much more routinized than in the old days. Actually, routinization of programming was much more advanced in the 1960.s than it is today. The two dominant business languages of the day, COBOL and RPG, were both designed with this in mind, especially RPG, and the biggest reason they died is that they were basically useless for doing anything other than what they were specifically designed to do There is often only one sensible way to do something in RPG. COBOL is a little better, but has many of the same limitations in more attenuated form.

For code written in one of these languages is lines (or, better, punch cards) of code a good measure of the quantity of time necessary on average to write it? Maybe not good, but it will get you in the ballpark. It is a terrible measure of debugging-time, which will produce a lot of individual variation, but the average program will take the average debugging time. Debugging time typically increases more than linearly with length, but IBM probably had no need to account for this for a product that they were treating as an enhancement, rather than something sold specifically.

Treating lines of code in a modern language like Java as a measure of programming time, or treating programming time as a measure of quality, basically doesn’t work. There are always multiple ways of doing anything non-trivial, with different advantages and disadvantages. One can improve code by making it shorter and it takes time to do this. Modifications by poor programmers can reduce quality rather than add it, and even good programmers will usually worsen something now and then.

Besides all which, as a I argued before, the monetary value of many contemporary software or software-based products and services is not a function of the value of the code itself in any recognizable sense, provided a basic threshold of functionality is reached (i.e., the thing does have to pretty much work). Twitter is technically trivial. Facebook, once it became a platform, was not as trivial, but hundreds of billions of dollars worth of coding labor-power it is not.


gordon 06.18.12 at 12:02 am

Martin Bento (at 22): “Without Marx, the Czar may have been toppled, but it is impossible to imagine the result would have been anything like the Soviet Union”.

Very few things are impossible to imagine. I suppose you mean that the result would probably not have been like the USSR we remember. There are two ways of taking that. Either the USSR without Marx would have been different, or there would have been no USSR at all. I like Mr Spufford’s recognition that “…apolitical opportunism never quite displaced idealism altogether from the hierarchy…”, and so maybe one way a non-Marxist USSR might have differed from the actual one would have been less of that idealism, because Marx’s vision of a non – exploitative society was at that idealism’s root.

But I suspect it is more likely that you think that without Marx there would have been no USSR at all. There, we are in the realm of alternative, possible histories, and anybody can exercise their imaginations on what might have happened.

As for alternative economic ideas, I think you are right that few of them get mentioned on this blog. The reason is very simple; this is a largely academic blog, so people who post and comment here are textbook readers and writers. If, eg., Parecon was in the textbooks, it would be mentioned here. But it isn’t; Marx is. So Marx gets the space. Put another way, there is an academic “Marx industry” but no academic “Parecon industry”.


Martin Bento 06.18.12 at 12:44 am

Data and Hidari, if Havel is really just whining about commonplace institutional conformity, if the substance of the essay is really trivial, why was his writing banned for decades? Why did he spend years in prison? If I decide that it is terribly oppressive of Denney’s to require their staff to wear uniforms and write a blog post protesting this, will Homeland Security come cart me off? The complaint that the party was unfairly coercing people to pretend to support it is a recurrent theme of Havel’s. It is a main subject of his open letter to President Husak, for example. Within a year after writing Power of the Powerless, he went to prison for over 4 years. Why? Supposedly for trying to “subvert the state”, according to the official charges, and for “standing in the way of reform”, according to the party newspapers. Really? He wrote essays like this one, and plays, and he was involved in VONS and Charter 77, organizations agitating for human rights, especially freedom of expression for artists and writers. This meant not so much protesting censorship, which was almost too much to ask, but protesting the prison sentences that had been or would be passed down on those who had offended the authorities.

Is it perhaps that the particular essay is just trivial, but in his other work, he is a real bomb thrower? Well, I’m familiar with some of his other work, and I’ve never seen the bomb-throwing. POTP is pretty typical. But maybe I’m wrong. Can someone who thinks Havel is just mouthing trivialities here point me to something else he wrote that justifies the treatment he got? After all, people do not normally go to prison for trivialities, and if Havel actually did, that is as great a condemnation of the system as anything else.


William Timberman 06.18.12 at 1:35 am

Martin Bento @ 52

Precisely so. My point was only that IBM’s view of software and GOSPLAN’s view of all commodities were essentially the same. What happened to IBM — i.e. the near eating of its lunch by forces outside its ken — was in fact very similar to what happened to GOSPLAN, and non-economists were, in fact, better at predicting those outcomes than economists were. Without an intimate knowledge of demand, and the effect of human creativity on demand, which necessarily involve non-economic insight, the gigantic, integrated economies that we’ve created in the past 100 years, socialist or capitalist, will always be at risk.

Hence Red Plenty, a nostalgic, bittersweet tribute to people history has not only vanquished, but vilified, and then forgotten. IBM should be so lucky when its turn finally comes around.


Data Tutashkhia 06.18.12 at 7:25 am

Havel was a major dissident there. But in any case: if you start actively agitating against institutional conformity, and you manage to gain some traction, they will be down on you like a ton of bricks. That is also universal. And if you are (or used to be) a part of it, you are, of course, also batshit crazy and self-hater.


Martin Bento 06.18.12 at 4:35 pm

Data, have you ever worked for a corporation? In which country? What you just said is batshit crazy, unless you’ve got some two-step coming where you switch to a castrated version, in which case it’s just dishonest. But going to prison or subject to similar severe punishment in America for speaking out against petty institutional conformity? Ridiculous. Brad Manning betrayed classified information. Agree or disagree, that brings down the ton of bricks. Complaining about uniforms? Only if Monty Python ascends to the throne of God. If started a campaign against uniforms at Denny’s and got traction, you know what would probably happen? Denny’s would stop requiring uniforms. It wouldn’t be worth the lost business. The government wouldn’t give a damn.


Data Tutashkhia 06.18.12 at 5:09 pm

Look, I may be batshit crazy, but why would I be dishonest? What do I get to gain here? I’m just making a conversation.

You misunderstood: I didn’t mean that the government will punish you; corporations will, the institution you rebelled against. You’ll lose your job and probably no other corporation will ever hire you to any management position.

Of course Havel didn’t just write pamphlets, he was a political activist, major political activist. His story is close to that of Ralph Nader, who annoyed GM, and so they hired some thugs and prostitutes to intimidate him and to ruin his reputation.

But what does it have to do with the poor grocer who doesn’t like marxist slogans and has to live a lie? We are far from it now.

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