Footnote Fairy Tale

Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, like Infinite Jest, is a book you need to read with two bookmarks: one for the main text, one for the endnotes. It is also like Infinite Jest insofar as it shows us an alternative future that seems uncannily like our own. The difference is that while David Foster Wallace constructed a purely fictional near-future, Spufford presents us with an alternative timeline that failed to materialize: the triumph of Soviet central planning over Western capitalism. In this respect, Red Plenty also bears striking similarities with Wallace’s unfinished posthumous novel The Pale King, which featured a great variety of characters but was finally about a system, namely, the IRS. Yet the real topic isn’t so much the actual existing Soviet system, but a reformed system based on advanced theories of cybernetics, which was proposed but, again, failed to materialize.

Thus it’s fitting that Spufford describes his novel as a fairy tale. Much of its material is the stuff of fantasy: a visitor from a far-away land (America) bearing magical talismans (appliances), or a city magically popping up in the wilderness of Siberia so that academics can live in luxury. What differentiates Red Plenty is that the author provides much more documentation of the parallels between the fantasy world and the real one than is typical. In this fairy tale with footnotes, readers can flip back to find out that a relatively frank conversation was of course much more frank than was likely in the Soviet Union—Spufford had to exaggerate it because the real change in the frankness level would have been undetectable by outsiders. Similarly, we regularly learn that the time lag between events has been foreshortened for dramatic effect.

The most surprising endnotes, however, are the ones that verify that something really is true. Moscow really did have fast food before the United States, as we learn in the notes to Khrushchev’s fictional musings on the wonders of the American hemburger. What’s more, in the early 1960s Khrushchev really did believe the USSR would overtake the West by 1980, and a good portion of the Soviet population believed along with him. (The pervasive cynicism one now associates with Actual Existing Socialism didn’t really take hold until the Brezhnev years.) And perhaps most importantly, individual apparatchiks really did sit down and write a comprehensive economic plan for the entire Soviet Union—and then laboriously edit it by hand when something inevitably went wrong.

Remarkably, the Soviet Union experienced robust growth under this hugely inefficient system in the Stalin era and the early postwar years, but that growth reflected the huge difference between an impoverished peasant society and any development at all, not the merits of the Soviet approach to development. By Khrushchev’s time, the amount of resources required to generate further growth was increasing rapidly, meaning that the system could not rely on its own intrinsic momentum to overtake its Western rivals.

That brings us to the man who is, if not the hero of the novel, at least something of a hero to the author: Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich, the great mathematician who independently discovered linear programming and the only Soviet winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Kantorovich spearheaded the development of cybernetics (also known as information theory, control theory, or systems theory) in Soviet scientific circles. The goal of these cyberneticists was to help the unwieldy system of Soviet central planning have at least a fighting chance of fulfilling Khrushchev’s promises of abundance by introducing a much-needed degree of efficiency.

The only problem with this approach in the eyes of the authorities—and this is where things start to get really weird—was that it would require the use of prices. To help us understand why this might be a deal-breaker, Spufford takes us through the inner workings of the Soviet economy, through the eyes of characters with a variety of economic roles: an young upwardly-mobile Communist Party member visiting his fiancée’s backward village, a factory management team pushed to the point of desperation by an impossible production quota, and a tolkach or “pusher” who greased the wheels of the economy through a combination of glad-handing and various extra-legal means, among others.

What emerges is a strange economic system with the industrial production methods associated with capitalism, but shorn of all impersonal abstraction. Money exists, but its relationship with actually obtaining anything one wants or needs is indirect at best. The only “market forces” at work are orders from on high—which in this era still echo with the threats of the more violent “market forces” of the Stalinist era—while consumer desires are more or less irrelevant.

This portrayal is interesting in light of the frequent accusations that the Soviet Union didn’t create a system that was “really” different from capitalism. However misguided it appears in retrospect, Red Plenty prods readers to take the Soviet experiment seriously as an attempt to build a truly different economic system, one in which human beings would control the economy instead of the other way around.

A good illustration of the spirit driving the effort is a quote from Khrushchev’s inner monologue as he flies in a new Soviet military plane, bigger than current American models, on his way to his famous visit to America: “No one gave us this beautiful plane. We built it ourselves, we pulled it out of nothing by our determination and our strength. They tried to crush us over and over again, but we wouldn’t be crushed.” He runs through the crimes of the Stalinist era, which he had repudiated in a legendary speech, and then continues: “But all the while we were building. All the while we were building factories and mines, railroads and roads, towns and cities, and all without any help, all without getting the say-so from any millionaire or bigshot. We did that.”

This sentiment is arguably even more radical than contemporary slogans (rightly) complaining of the disproportionate wealth of the 1%. Instead of calling for greater equity in the distribution of wealth, it essentially calls for us to say, “Screw you and screw your wealth—we’ll create our own!” The relentless push toward industrialization was meant to create the material conditions for an abundance so great that they wouldn’t even need to worry about equitable distribution of wealth; the Marxist slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” would be spontaneously actualized.

This is where the system runs into a contradiction, because the idea of what wealth would look like was modeled on consumerism. The very same internal monologue in which Khrushchev praises Soviet self-reliance has him marveling at the American system: “Of all the capitalist countries, it was America that was most nearly trying to do the same thing as the Soviet Union. They shared the Soviet insight. They understood that whittling and hand-stitching belonged to the past. They understood that if ordinary people were to live the way kings and merchants of old had lived, what would be required was a new kind of luxury, an ordinary luxury built up from goods turned out by the million so that everybody could have one. And they were so good at it!” The Soviet goal was to do America one better, to deliver an unprecedented level of luxury and enjoyment to every citizen—but, again, through their own, consciously-directed ways.

To return to the issue of prices, then, the problem was fundamentally an issue of who’s in charge. If prices—particularly prices dictated by a complex mathematical algorithm—determined what economic activities were undertaken, then that would mean that money was controlling humans rather than the other way around. The fact that the cyberneticists’ prices would be generated by computers and help serve the ends of the central plan, rather than emerging from the interaction of market forces, ultimately made no difference to the leadership. The cyberneticists lost the debate, and the Soviet economic system continued more or less unreformed until the end. Instead of the efficiency windfall promised by the cyberneticists, oil revenues plugged the holes in the Soviet economy and allowed the bloc to settle into the comfortable mediocrity of its twilight years.

As someone who was already very interested in the Soviet Union, I found this book at once fascinating and sobering. Probably more than a straightforward historical work could, Red Plenty provides a vivid picture of life in the most optimistic era of the Soviet Union through the eyes of a wide range of characters. 

At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine anyone getting caught up in this very fragmented and episodic story. Even point-of-view characters tend to appear in only one section, and when they do reappear, it’s often unclear whether it makes a real difference that it’s the same person mentioned in an earlier section. I made frequent reference to Spufford’s index of the scenes in which characters appear, which was helpful but also highlighted a certain artificiality in the structure of the novel.
In contrast to many Western accounts where every Soviet citizen is either a total cynic or a heroic dissident, the very ordinariness of the characters is refreshing, as is the naïveté of their trust in the official view of the world.
This ordinariness extends to Spufford’s prose style, which is sometimes very clever but mostly utilitarian. The only passage that stands out to me is Khrushchev’s internal monologue (already quoted above).
(If we’re tempted to feel superior to these duped communist subjects, we can remind ourselves of the millions of hours Americans spent over the past decade watching home improvement shows geared toward “flipping” houses—George W. Bush’s “ownership society” at work!) At the same time, it is hard to come away from Red Plenty thinking that the Soviets had developed anything like a viable replacement for capitalism. They doubtless achieved amazing things against incredible odds—going from poor peasant society to a major world power that put the first man in space within half a century—but they also had more than their fair share of unforced errors.

There are a lot of theories about “what went wrong,” the most popular of which involve some combination of Lenin living longer and someone other than Stalin succeeding him. While it’s difficult to be entirely sure what Spufford’s goals were, I think Red Plenty could perhaps be read as advocating another counterfactual: the Soviet Union would have succeeded if they had adopted a cybernetics-inflected version of central planning instead of sticking to the all-too-human model they had initially adopted.

Yet I think it’s more interesting to read Red Plenty as a fairy tale about our own age, where we are stuck in an economic system that is clearly no longer delivering on its promises, but attempts to reengineer it are either squandered through half-measures or, more often, simply dismissed out of hand. People more or less live their lives in this system, as they did in the post-Stalin Soviet Union, yet with the melancholy, forcibly retired Khrushchev, we hear a rustling in the wind asking: “can it be otherwise?”