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Book Reviews

Planning for plenty

Red plenty. By Francis Spufford. Faber, 2010. ISNB: 9780571225231.

This book proclaims itself to be a novel about an idea: the idea of effectively administering communist plenty. More specifically, the idea of plenty as it manifested in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s when politicians, mathematicians, cyberneticists and economists all took the idea of surpassing American affluence seriously.

The novel unfolds through a series of sympathetic vignettes, in which people living in the USSR deal with the mundane every day pressures of totalitarian government and the failures of the economic system: a woman giving birth without drugs, the poverty of a collective farm, a fixer wheeling and dealing his way through a world of business favours, the cramped living conditions that were nevertheless a step up from the old communalkas of rooms partitioned by curtains. The highly skilful prose leads us into the minds of the various actors, from Nikita Khrushchev down to a couple living in a Moscow apartment, and shares their aspirations and frustrations. The same skill is applied to the technical details of the workings of a Soviet built computer, scaling down to the electrons racing around in a pentode, up to an explanation of what a pentode is, and how they worked in computers.

Everything is backed up by footnotes. In fact, though, the footnotes are themselves as much a part of the novel as the main text, as they explain the ways in which the author has confabulated characters, contracted time and re-jigged events to make a more convenient narrative. They also give citations and inform the reader of what really happened, and give links to websites for further information. Not only, therefore, is the burden of interpreting the text thrown onto the reader in contradistinction to the normal fictional practice of drawing the reader into the text world and allow them to swallow its reality but also the reader has to decide how to integrate these footnotes into their reading – look up after each page? Read them all at the end? Read them after each chapter? This makes the text into a critical exercise, appropriate for a novel about ideas and critical thinking.

The story fluctuates around the person of Leonid Kantorovich, a genuine mathematical genius who developed linear algebra solutions while working for a plywood firm. The problem was finding the most efficient way of assigning work to various machines in order to produce outputs in the correct ratios to fulfil the planned targets of finished goods. Although the text does not go into much detail of the precise maths (it does cite various sources that no doubt would) it does illustrate, roughly, his approach to resolving simultaneous equations with unknown variables. From which, he developed an idea of using ‘objectively determined valuations’ in effect opportunity costs, to improve and rationalise on planning. These valuations would be used to derive planned prices. Together with cyberneticist colleagues, Kantorovich tries to get this method applied to Soviet planning to supplant the complicated system of guesswork employed by the planners at the time (which is also depicted in detail).

The story shows the subtle games played between the planners and the managers of plants – up to and including cunning acts of sabotage to get the latest machinery. It also shows how the system, despite its claims to be placing the economy under rational control, in fact made it even more ad hoc and chaotic – Khrushchev ends his days fulminating over his lack of control of the political machine. It is, though, the illusion of control that means the apparatchiks eventually decide they do not want to cede control of planning to a cybernetic machine, and the project is quietly shelved, and the Soviet computer programme is closed down and the decision taken to just buy in US IBMs.

The novel repeatedly returns to the idea that even amidst the Soviet hell there was a utopian core of humane ideas that were continually thwarted by the shortages and chaos of production, the kernel of the idea of abundance. What it helps portray is the immense task of consciously planning a complex economy, and the serious and rational attempts of practical minds to make it work. It is enough to make any socialist think. Helpfully, the exhaustive footnotes and bibliography provide an excellent resource for any socialist who wants to delve in-depth into the question. This includes writings by modern day western cyberneticists who continue to see Kantorovich’s methods as a means to even surpass pricing and have an economy in kind, and continue the debate.


Things about capitalism

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Ha-Joon Chang. Allen Lane. £20.

Three things Ha-Joon Chang doesn’t tell you about capitalism. As a form of society it’s only a few hundred years old. It won’t last forever. And it will be replaced when a majority of the world’s people stop supporting it and organise a better alternative.

The author makes no bones about supporting capitalism: “This book is not an anti-capitalist manifesto…my criticism is of a particular version of capitalism that has dominated the world in the last three decades, that is, free-market capitalism…there are ways in which capitalism should, and can, be made better.”

It takes two pages to list the headings of the 23 ‘things’, in no particular order. Four are on the market: no such thing as a free market; free-market policies rarely make poor countries rich; we are not smart enough to leave things to the market and financial markets need to become less efficient. Three are on economics: greater macroeconomic stability has not made the world economy more stable; we are living in planned economies and good economic policy does not require good economists. Three are on the US: it does not have the highest living standard in the world; its managers are overpriced and what is good for GM is not necessarily good for the US. The 13 remaining ‘things’ can be filed under miscellaneous’.

Ha-Joon Chang knows a thing or two about Marx and Marxism. He understands that Marx “argued that the fundamental problem with capitalism was the contradiction between the social nature of the production process and the private nature of ownership of the means of production”. Unfortunately he equates Marxism with central planning, which he says led to the unravelling of ‘communism’ in the late 1980s.

In his concluding chapter the author offers eight mostly disputable points:

1.    “The profit motive is still the most powerful and effective fuel to power our economy and we should exploit it to the full.” No – the profit motive applies to and benefits only the tiny capitalist class at the expense of exploiting workers.
2.    We should build our new economic system on the recognition that human rationality is severely limited.” No – this is too pessimistic an assessment of human rationality.
3.    “We should build a system that brings out the best, rather than the worse, in people.” Yes – capitalism certainly doesn’t.
4.    “We should stop believing that people are always paid what they ‘deserve’.” Yes – socialists never started believing that.
5.    “We need to take ‘making things’ more seriously.” Yes – a system based on making things is better than one based on making money for the minority.
6.    “We need to strike a better balance between finance and ‘real’ activities.” No – we need to get rid of finance as an impediment to real activities.
7.    “Government needs to become bigger and more active.” No – government of persons needs to give way to administration of things.
8.     “The world economic system needs to ‘unfairly’ favour developing countries.” Yes – but not in the way the author means it. The world socialist system may at first need to favour populations which have the greatest deprivations.


Oil out, guns in

Chinese and African Perspectives on China in Africa. Eds Axel Harneit-Sievers, Stephen Marks and Sanusha Naidu,  Pambazuka Press £16.95. (Also available as an e-book from

There may be a prevalent view of Africa as a continent immersed in poverty, but in fact it is rich in many things, minerals and energy for instance. Efforts by the wealthiest and most powerful countries to exploit these resources have carried on since the end of classical colonialism and the coming of ‘independence’, and these have helped ensure the continuation of poverty for the vast majority of Africans. As China joins the club of developed capitalist states, it also sees Africa as a source of raw materials and a market for exports. This volume gives a wide-ranging overview of China’s activities in Africa, with chapters by activists and academics from both China and Africa. Almost without exception, the most interesting essays are those by African authors, with those by Chinese contributors being largely bland and uncritical.

Bilateral trade between China and Africa has increased over the last decade to more than $US100 billion. As Chinese capitalism expands, it needs to import raw materials of various kinds, and nearly 80 percent of China’s imports from Africa are oil and petroleum products. For instance, 500,000 barrels of oil are exported to China from Angola each day, and it is only Chinese companies, with mainly Chinese employees, who carry out this work, so Chinese industry benefits from both the oil and the extraction work. Furthermore, China is a major producer of wood and paper products, but has relatively little by way of forestry resources, hence Chinese companies undertake logging in Mozambique and Tanzania. Minerals such as iron ore, copper and uranium are imported to China from Liberia, Zambia and Niger.

At the same time, China exports finished goods to Africa. In Nigeria, for example, cheap Chinese textiles have undercut domestically-produced goods, increasing local unemployment. Chinese companies export cheap, and sometimes dangerous, goods aimed specifically at the African market, where consumers have little money to spend.  Arms sales from China to Africa are also an important source of profits, with Sudan, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe among the purchasers.

The book contains a few pointless policy ideas, such as the African Union playing a larger role in supervising Sino-African relations. Its usefulness lies elsewhere, in showing the extent to which China is acting in essentially the same way as the other capitalist powers, and how the workers and peasants of Africa remain subject to the exploitation and oppression of both ‘home-grown’ and global rulers.