Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford

I’ve been reading a book that doesn’t sound like it would be interesting, but is actually absolutely fascinating. It’s Francis Spufford’s ‘Red Plenty’. It’s sort of half-novel, half-documentary (factual non-fiction?), about economics and central planning in the Soviet Union.

As I said, it doesn’t sound like it would be interesting, but actually, it really is. I can highly recommend it. Except there was one thing that blindsided me…

What I really hadn’t expected was how much the system of ‘planning’, and its various failures modes and malfunctions, reminded me of the internal administration of English local government.

The parallels actually are mildly terrifying.

I don’t mean the police state stuff; obviously we don’t have that (yet, anyway). Rather it’s things like prioritising ‘process’ over ‘results’, unconcern about the needs of end-line service users, an inability to share information or communicate effectively throughout an organisation, rampant obsession with ticky-box career advancement, toxic and dysfunctional management cultures … There weren’t any outsourced technology projects, but the scary thing is, they would have fitted right in.

Whilst reading this book, I found myself nodding along to things as I was reading it on my Kindle. “Yeah, I remember something like this happening back at [REDACTED COUNCIL]  in [REDACTED YEAR]. Oh, and hello, we made that mistake last Tuesday! Hey this method-of-balances sounds exactly like the annual budget reconciliation!”

(I no longer work for any English local governments, I should probably add here.)

It was disconcerting. ‘Cognitive dissonance’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Apparently the public sector really is the same the world over.

Another thing that jumped out at me was an implication of the ‘method of balances’ system of industrial planning. Basically the Soviet Union was insisting on running a balanced budget every year, except they were doing it through manufacturing produce rather than cash expenditure. And of course balanced budgets rule out any possibility of either good-times savings or deficit spending, which takes away all the room for flexibility in fiscal policy. And that of course means there is no way to offset any monetary shocks … and that’s exactly what happened when the price of oil cratered in the 1980s.

With no flexibility, you have no way to accommodate economic surprises. And the behaviour of the macro-economy is basically nothing but surprises.

Frankly, from that point of view, the surprise isn’t that the Soviet Union collapsed. Rather, it’s that it lasted as long as it did.

Being a book about the Soviet Union, there was (of course) plenty of actual horror in it.

Needless to say, there wasn’t a happy ending.

In fact, it was almost into pre-Extended Cut Mass Effect 3 territory. (You remember that old cinematic? One of whose implications was that the sequential detonations of the relay system would sterilise the entire galaxy with ionising radiation? Yeah, that one.)

By the end of the book, the relative cultural thaw under Khruschev is quite definitely over. Khruschev himself has been pensioned off to an involuntary retirement.

The glory days of the 1950s have passed, and the acceleration of the rate of growth (even on the official figures) is firmly negative. Far from “full Communism” by 1980, it’s actually likely that the Union’s economy will soon be shrinking in absolute terms. The optimism and hope that initially surrounded the Revolution and the post-war years had entirely evaporated; people expect nothing good from the future, and they’re entirely correct to expect nothing good.

The Council of Ministers has decided that it will adopt the bits of the proposed economic reform program that it likes, but not the bits that would actually make the program work. So the results will probably end up being worse than if they’d done nothing. (Yep, welcome to the fun world of toxic and self-defeating politics. Sadly, this tendency isn’t a flaw only of the Soviet system; we have it too.)

One of the characters has terminal lung cancer. There’s a gruesome scene with him sat in the Minister’s vestibule, coughing, while waiting in desperate hope for an appointment to talk about the reform programme. The Minister’s secretary won’t even share one of her mints with him.

One of the other characters finds herself fired from her job in Akademgorodok, and also has her residency permit cancelled. Her crime? She wrote letters to the Presidium and the Supreme Soviet protesting the handling of an acquaintance’s trial. (For added Kafkaeqsueness, under the Soviet constitution, it was actually theoretically-legal for private citizens to lobby the government. She points this out during the ritual-condemnation session, and is ignored.) She is at least still alive at the end of the book, but see the next paragraph…

The above’s former boyfriend, who had originally been a relatively decent person, finished the book knocking on the door to the Fifth Directorate office, with the implied intention of ratting out some colleagues to the KGB.

We never find out what happened to Galina after her trip to the sedative-less Soviet maternity ward. (Shudder.) In fact we never even find out if she survived the experience. The book’s silence is suitably creepy, a sort of eerie meta-Stalinist flourish. People don’t die, or retire … they just vanish.

The closest any character gets to a happy ending would be Leonid Kantorovich, who is at least free to continue his mathematical dreaming – but he’s been shunted into a non-job ‘optimising’ a steel pipework company, and his ideas are being ignored by the people who could benefit from them.


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