From the category archives:

Red Plenty Seminar

Online talks

by Henry Farrell on April 20, 2024

I’ve been doing a bunch of talks and events online, mostly not CT related, but a couple that might be interesting to readers. One that certainly is is this conversation with Francis Spufford, which is a coda to Red Plenty.

Some of my bits of the conversation build on this Long Now talk from a few months ago.

I’ll also be talking in a couple of weeks at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center, riffing on Alison Gopnik’s notion of Large Language Models as “cultural technologies.” I was deeply unhappy with HKS’s speech policy some years back, but they appear to have gotten substantially better even as other places are getting worse.

Finally, Abe Newman and I will be doing a conversation with Paul Krugman at CUNY’s Graduate Center a month from now. This will be open to the public (free tickets) as well as being videoed for broadcast. If you want to come, would love to see you! (I’m thinking about having an open coffee somewhere nearby before if people would like to say hi).

Five Books

by Henry Farrell on May 4, 2020

The website Five Books did an interview with me on the five best books on the politics of information. It was an interesting experience. Picking the best five books means that you have to go back and re-read them, and figure out how they fit together.

What I decided to do was to take this essay by Ludwig Siegele in the Economist’s Christmas issue, and start from the question: If you wanted people to build out from that essay, what books would you have them read? The essay is influenced by Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, and the Crooked Timber seminar that followed from it (in particular: Cosma’s essay): what it sets out to do is to ask whether the socialist calculation debate helps us to understand current fights about democracy, autocracy, markets and machine learning. Like Ludwig, I believe that it does: “Comrades! Let’s Optimize” is an excellent starting point for understanding how people in Silicon Valley today think about the transformative power of software. I also think that Red Plenty is an excellent starting point for thinking about these questions because it is a novel rather than a tract. As Francis said in his reply, writing fiction gives you access to negative capability: rather than stating an argument or a principle, you can have a multiplicity of voices and experiences, providing a kaleidoscopic rather than a synoptic understanding of the problem. When it’s a complex problem, that’s helpful.

A certain kind of autobiography can pull off a similar trick: hence the structure of the interview is that it starts off with Red Plenty and finishes with Anna Wiener’s wonderful account of living in Silicon Valley, sandwiching the social science between these two more complicated narratives. It’s a long interview (about 10,000 words!) and has nothing about coronavirus (it was conducted in February), but I think it worked out well. Read if interested; ignore if not.

Red Plenty Book Event – the eBook!

by John Holbo on July 11, 2012

Back around Christmas I had a come-to-Jesus moment, ebooks-wise. I posted some iPad optimized ebooks of Dickens and Spenser, trying to make the illustrations look good. I joked that PDF was the future! Then Santa gave me an iPhone for X-Mas and I discovered that I actually like reading books on a phone, which seemed a priori impossible before that.

So, when I volunteered to make our Red Plenty PDF ebook – here it is – I also decided to try to make my first Mobi format ebook (5 megs) (that’s what you need for your Kindle); and an EPUB version (1 meg). No, I don’t know why the Kindle version is so much bigger, thanks for asking. Both versions have some humorous bugs I’ve not yet worked out, and I gotta catch a plane. So I’m just going to post them and let other people kick the tires.

WARNING: We have a reliable report that the EPUB version crashes Nooks. Very sorry about that. I really need to get back on this, and clean out the bugs. Haven’t had time.

Here’s the cover:

This post is mostly by way of trying to make Bertram, Robins and Gourvitch’s post sticky, as it deserves to stay at the top for a while. If you haven’t read their post yet, do so. If you are already reasonably conversant with their points, proceed under the fold, if you like, for what is really just a Hayek-inflected restatement and reinforcement of some of their main points. (Also, it’s effectively a late, long footnote to the Red Plenty seminar): [click to continue…]

Red Plenty Coda

by Henry Farrell on June 14, 2012

Two things as the seminar wraps up (Cosma Shalizi is writing a response to comments which I will link to, but which will be hosted on his own site, since CT plays badly with the math script that he uses). First, a pointer to blogger and sometime CT commenter Adam Kotsko’s review of _Red Plenty_ at “The New Inquiry”: People should go read. Second, a thank you. Without disparaging individual contributions to other seminars, I think that this was the best seminar we’ve done here (obviously, this is my personal opinion; not at all necessarily endorsed by other bloggers here etc). Part of this is due to Francis – for writing the book (which couldn’t have been better aimed at CT’s sweet spot if it had been written for this purpose and this purpose alone), and for his lovely three-part response. Part of this is due to the many splendid contributors who wrote posts for the seminar. And part of it is thanks to the commenters – we’ve hosted many good conversations over the years, but this has been something rather special. I find it difficult to make it clear just how grateful I am to all of you who have participated in this. Seeing how it has worked out has made me very happy.

Update: Cosma’s post, responding to various points is “here”: Since Cosma’s blog doesn’t have a comments section, feel free to use the comments section of this post to discuss …

Response: Part 3

by Francis Spufford on June 14, 2012

5. History and comedy

I agree strongly with Rich Yeselson that praise for the novelty or innovativeness of the book’s form has been overplayed.  The overall patterning of it is fiddly, but the pieces of which the pattern is made are as straightforward as I could make them, and not just because as I get older, I increasingly think that simple is more interesting (and difficult to achieve) than complicated.  It’s also, as he says, that I had lots of very well-established precedents to draw on.  On the historical novel side, the whole Tolstoy-does-Napoleon recipe for dramatising the viewpoints of the grand historical figures, and the equally available rule of thumb that tells you how to mix the documented and the imagined to create the illusion of comprehensiveness.  And, drawing on SF, I had the scientist-fictions of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson to follow.  My Kantorovich very clearly has the DNA of Le Guin’s Shevek and Robinson’s Sax Russell in him.  Not to mention – as I’ve carefully confessed in the notes – that the whole alternation of character-driven scenes with italicised authorial narration is lifted straight out of Red Mars. And collections of linked short stories that fill in different vertebrae of a narrative spine are not exactly unheard-of, either, from Kipling to Alice Munro.  I am proud of the two ‘machine’ sections, set in Lebedev’s logic and Lebedev’s lungs, one in which determinacy produces indeterminacy, the other  in which the arrow goes the other way; and the messages of approval from George Scialabba’s amygdala cause fluttering in my own; but it’s not like Don DeLillo doesn’t already exist, and Pynchon, and for that matter Nicolson Baker.  It’s not as though there isn’t a blazed trail for paying imaginative attention to system.

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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. 

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Response: Part I

by Francis Spufford on June 11, 2012

For a novel about utopias, there’s something almost disconcertingly utopian about being read this way.  All this generous attention; all this ideal intelligence.  Thank you, everybody.  There’s even a Soviet rationalisation available to me to ease the moral strain of being in receipt of this pocket-sized, individual portion of critical happiness.  Like the inhabitants of Akademgorodok, the privileged science city in Siberia which plays such a large part in Red Plenty, I can choose to tell myself that being Crooked Timberized is only an early and individual manifestation of a good fortune that is shortly to become universal.  One day, every book will be read like this.  In the radiant future, every author will be ringed by symposiasts asking demanding yet perceptive questions.  Every topic will have its conceptual underpinnings set into casually dazzling order by a Cosma Shalizi essay.  And all the springs of co-operative wealth will flow abundantly.

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Red Plenty or socialism without doctrines

by John Q on June 9, 2012

Among the many reasons I enjoyed Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, one of the most important is that the story it tells is part of my own intellectual development, on one of the relatively few issues where my ideas have undergone an almost complete reversal over the years. I was once, like most of the characters in the book, a believer in central planning. I saw the mixed economy and social democracy as half-hearted compromises between capitalism and socialism, with history inevitably moving in the direction of the latter.

While I was always hostile to the dictatorial policies of Marxist-Leninism, I thought, in the crisis years of the early 1970s, that the Soviet Union had the better economic model, and that the advent of powerful computers and new mathematical techniques would help to fix any remaining problems. At the same time, I was critical of the kinds of old-style methods of government intervention (tariffs, subsidies and so on) that are now called ‘business welfare’.

Over time, and with experience of actual attempts at planning on a smaller scale, I became steadily more disillusioned with the idea. On the whole, I concluded Hayek and Mises had the better of the famous socialist calculation debate of the 1920s and 1930s, and that their arguments about the price mechanism had a lot of merit. This didn’t, however, lead me to share their free-market views, particularly in the dogmatic form in which I encountered them studying economics at the Australian National University.

Although I hadn’t read him at the time (and I wonder what Corey Robin would have to say on the subject), I agree pretty much with Oakeshott when he says ‘This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics’. This aspect of Hayek is even more pronounced in Mises, for whom free-market economics is a matter of logical deduction, and taken to a ludicrous extreme by their propertarian followers today.

The same kind of thinking was evident in much of the financial ‘rocket science’ that gave us the global financial crisis. The belief was that sufficiently sophisticated financial ‘engineering’ could overcome the realities of risk and uncertainty, producing untold wealth for its practitioners while making society as a whole more prosperous – only the first part of the promise was delivered.

So, rather than switching from central planning to free-market capitalism, I’m now, in Andre Metin’s description of Australia in early C20, a believer in ‘socialism without doctrines’, starting from the historical premise that Keynesian social democracy has delivered better outcomes than either free-market dogmatism or central planning, and looking for ways to develop a new social democratic vision relevant to our current circumstances.

As Red Plenty shows, my enthusiasm for and disillusionment with central planning was about fifteen years behind the same developments in the Soviet Union itself. Spufford gives us a sympathetic picture of their hopes, and of the promise generated by new mathematical techniques like linear programming and optimal control (although entirely free of actual math, the book does a better job than any I’ve read of conveying the feel of these techniques). In 1956, Kruschev makes his famous promise of overtaking the US, and it seems quite credible, but a decade later, all belief in the promise of plenty has been lost. As the book ends, the mathematical programmers charged with making the plan work are pushing the benefits of prices – some at least, like Janos Kornai, would complete the journey to the free-market right, and advocacy of the ‘shock therapy’ approach to post-Communist transition.

Red Plenty is a great book. It would be fascinating to see Spufford tackle the post-Soviet transition and particularly the way in which liberal reformers like Chubais and Berezovsky transformed themselves into oligarchs, with the aid of Western academic economists like Andrei Shleifer. The pattern of naïve faith and disillusionment with free-market economics would make a perfect counterpoint to the story of central planning presented here.

Red Plenty: What were they thinking?

by Maria on June 7, 2012

In August 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Television screens in the early days of the 24-hour news cycle told and re-told the confused but familiar tale of tanks in Red Square and a damaged leader confined to his dacha. I watched from Hofstra University, where I was working that summer, visiting America for the first time. I watched Oprah, went to the mall and rescued textbooks from campus bins, astonished at just how much of everything there was in America. In October, I flew back to Ireland at the last possible moment, excitedly telling first-day classmates at University College Dublin that I’d only arrived in that morning. And then the iron fist of reality came down with a thump.

There hadn’t been time to replace the compulsory second year course, Soviet Politics. In January 1992, we knuckled down to learn the defunct super-power’s committee structures, nominal reporting lines and some elementary Kremlinology. The lecturer delivered it in a state of mumbling hopelessness, his life’s work having evaporated in the middle of his career. The following summer, almost a year after the Soviet Union’s collapse, I regurgitated into three scrawled exam essays the precise textbook details of how the USSR had been governed. I may even have used the present tense. It was easily the most pointless and brain-numbing thing I’ve ever done. [click to continue…]

Life, fate and irony

by niamh on June 6, 2012

Not long before I read Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, I happened to read Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (prompted by BBC Radio 4’s excellent 13-part dramatization), so I was very struck by the parallels in scale and approach between the two works. Both are conceived on a vast scale; both draw the reader into the lives of a large number of characters at all strata of society. In both books, real historical people mingle with fictional characters. The long shadow of Tolstoy is apparent in both. Grossman had a real advantage over Spufford in that he’d lived through the siege of Stalingrad which features so centrally in his novel, and he’d had exceptional freedom as a war reporter to talk to people from many different backgrounds. Of course Tolstoy had to recreate Napoleon’s invasion of Russia from research and imagination, but he too was immersed in his own society and culture, and was able to avail of first-hand encounters with veterans of the campaign. Spufford has had to re-imagine the world of Khrushchev’s Soviet Union much more thoroughly, through extensive engagement with scholarly literature, memoirs and other sources, in this vivid and beautifully written book.

But it’s the contrasts between Grossman’s and Spufford’s books that are perhaps more striking.

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Good and Plenty

by Rich Yeselson on June 5, 2012

 There’s a mordant joke running thru Francis Spufford’s spectacular Red Plenty that can be illustrated in the following story.  A self-taught Armenian monk travels to Oxford to importune the most distinguished mathematician in England.  The monk eagerly presents his findings to the grand Don.  After listening to the monk, and observing some of his formulas, the mathematician says to him, “I have good news and bad news.”  The monk replies, “What’s the good news?”  “You are a genius,” says the mathematician, “and you’ve invented geometry.”  “Great!” says the breathless monk.  “What’s the bad news?”  “Euclid invented it a couple of thousands years before you did.”  (I know, I know—please don’t post comments noting that Euclid didn’t actually invent geometry—the story is heuristic!)

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Worlds of Yesterday

by Felix Gilman on June 4, 2012

More than two centuries ago, our Founders laid out a charter that assured the rule of law and the rights of man. Through times of tranquility and the throes of change, the Constitution has always guided our course toward fulfilling that most noble promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve the chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. America has carried on not only for the skill or vision of history’s celebrated figures, but also for the generations who have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents. On Loyalty Day, we reflect on that proud heritage and press on in the long journey toward prosperity for all.

— Loyalty Day Presidential Proclamation, May 1 2012

Red Plenty is so unusual in its structure and concerns, and it does what it does so well, that after reading it one wonders if there’s a Red Plenty Method that could – should – be generalized to tackle other problems. Teams of graduate students could construct knock-off Red Plenties, not as good as the original but still pretty good and efficiently targeted to meet increasing requirements. First I want to see them tackle the above Loyalty Day Proclamation, almost before irritation, was to wonder how the Red Plenty Method would approach it.  The stories of a generation of US policy wonks – earnest, careerist, idealistic, and/or cynical – required to press on in the long journey toward Prosperity, first figuring what Prosperity means, while doing so in a way that is faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents, as interpreted by political actors in the most bloody-minded way possible, in the context of political institutions that reduce every idea to crudely weaponized slogans. Anyway I suppose this is as good a place as any to make a formal request for Red Plenty Extended Universe franchise fiction.

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New Ideas From Dead Political Systems

by Daniel on June 2, 2012

Back in the days before I had realised that a guy who takes five years to deliver a simple book review probably ought to rein in the ambition a bit when it comes to larger-scale projects, I occasionally pitched an idea to publishers of management books. It was going to be called “Great Ideas From Failed Companies”, the idea being that when you have the perspective of the entire history of a corporate story, you’re probably going to get a more honest appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses, and that although companies like Enron, Northern Rock and Atari clearly had major problems, they quite likely also had some good points too, or how did they ever get so big in the first place?
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You Are Alone, In a Dark Wood. Now Cope

by Henry Farrell on June 2, 2012

Francis Spufford’s earlier semi-autobiographical book on childhood and reading, _The Child that Books Built_, talks about fairytales. It tells us about Propp, Bettelheim and the others, relates fairy tales to Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood (the _ur_ source of all stories) and to his own childhood, and finishes by arguing that fairytales pose a challenge. They transport us to a dark wood; alien; removed from the comfortable assumptions of home and family and ask: now: what do you do? _Red Plenty_ is explicitly written as a fairytale in which the hero is “the idea of red plenty as it came hopefully along the high road.” The high road dwindles into a path, then a track, and ends in a tangle of brambles and thorns. The idea not only does not know where to go; it does not know if there’s anywhere left that it _could_ go, or even whether there _was_ somewhere that it could have gone had it only taken the right road at the beginning. By entering the world, it’s become hopelessly ensnared in it.

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