Francis Spufford has had a long-standing interest in technology and its social significance. Among other things, he has edited (with Jenny Uglow) the really cool anthology Cultural Babbage, a selection of essays on old technologies and their intersection with culture, politics and society, and has written Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, an affectionate look at past British technological achievements.
Red Plenty is a different animal though. It’s not really history and not really fiction. It reads like a hybrid of both and it really works. Following a number of historical and fictitious characters, Red Plenty reads much like an episodic novel, with loosely linked chapters providing a worm’s-eye view of the implementation of scientific principles in everyday life in the Soviet Union, from the 50s to the late 70s. In that sense it is more a work of social rather than intellectual history, which succeeds in showing very econonomicaly why state-initiated and ran programmes of social reform and improvement fail. Yes, Spufford takes as his subject Soviet Russia, a very prominently intrusive regime, but parallels are effortlessly drawn with western, capitalist, societies.
Inasmuch as initial impetus for the project stemmed from a very real ideological antagonism, its end is one of energy and innovation that exhausted itself in the futility of that antagonism. At the height of the Cold War, one-upmanship, particularly military and industrial, was the name of the game (Sputnik etc). In the race for cultural and ideological sovereignity there’s no scope for the improvement of everyday life. Sound familiar?
Where Norbert Wiener believed that a cybernetic social theory would benefit from and would lead towards a more liberal, less rigid system, where feedback would freely bounce among different social strata, both the Soviet government and industrial management opposed such a loose framework and emphasised, for different reasons, the need for a controlled top-down structure. For Khrushchev, communism could only work as a tightly ran machine. The apparatus had to be centrally controlled, not allowing for the possibility that input could be generated by other levels. Many of the advantages of cybernetics therefore crumbled on ideological grounds. There can be no room for accomodation in a goal-oriented, top-down system, where everything connects and reflects on anything else, in an infinite regression. Factory managers would not be able to hide their inneficiency, while bureaucrats would have to work more in order to cover for failures and bad planning.
Spufford discusses the tension between the necessity for state control and the idealism of cyberneticians by focussing on what are essentialy vignettes, scenes from the lives of people (both fictional and historical), scientists, appparatchiks, politicians etc, interspersed with factual historical introductions that provide the necessary political, social and historical background for each of the book’s several units. Some of the chapters give the sense of descritions inspired by photographs, static and detailed. Village squares, landscapes, factories, offices, all become the canvas on which the futility of the endeavour becomes painfully clear, where everyday life intersects with the seeming abstractions of science, with the weight of political struggle.
I’m not going to discuss whether fictional representation is more or less ligitimate or biased than a strictly traditional historical study in this context. Red Plenty is not an accusatory, judgemental rant; rather, it gives off a sense of disappointment that an experiment such as this had to fail, while it provides a framework for considering the very possibility that such a bold move could ever succeed.