Years ago now, when this first came out, the blog “Crooked Timber” ran a symposium on the book that I read avidly. I remember at the time thinking that I should actually check the book out. When it came to it though, I had read enough around the book that I had felt like I had read the thing itself – the same way like I felt I was under no obligation to finish Piketty’s “Capital,” I think, because I had read so many blogs about it.
Come to think of it, that may be why I’ve never finished the namesake of that book, Marx’s Capital.
Alas, I digress. The good folks were running a symposium on another book and that reminded me that I wanted to read this book. I think it was worth it.
First of all, something must be said of the structure. It’s basically a look at the Soviet Union in the post-Stalin era where there was still some belief that the Soviet system might work. It is done in vignettes looking at different people as they lived and dealt with the economic and political systems of what is the American Eisenhower and Kennedy era. But there are a couple of weird things – It’s kind of like a Dos Passos or that other writer that stole his style and won prizes for it. The thing is that some of it is made up and the writer cannot speak or read Russian, so even the things that weren’t made up are a bit filtered through official records.
That said, the book was enjoyable for someone like me who is sympathetic to the Soviet Union in broad strokes even if having to condemn it in particulars. For the most part the tale is one of resigned acceptance of what must have been an optimism at some point – like most 30-year-olds today, you know. What it tells is the tale of trying to harness the rise of the computer but not being the innovator, and they technology always being the copy of the more inefficient but more entrepreneurial west. It is a shaded truth, and it actually opens one for optimism of what could be accomplished in central planning in terms of the computer we have and will have in the near future. Redundancy can be eliminated, leisure can be spread far and wide – plenty will be upon us. We just need to use the best of the systems that are available to us in terms of politics and economics and not let ideological rigidities preclude any possible strengths that are to be gleaned – because that is what the ultimate failure is that we really see both in Spufford’s book and the real world, a blindness induced by an idea of right that does not include all our rights.