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Pandora's Box 01 - The Engineer's Plot

« Pamela Harriman

Pandora's Box 02 - To The Brink Of Eternity »

Description

Pandora's Box

Adam Curtis

Episode One

The Engineer's Plot

This part chronicles how the Bolshevik revolutionaries who came into power in 1917 attempted to industrialize and control the Soviet Union with rational scientific methods. The Bolsheviks wanted to transform the Soviet people into scientific beings. Aleksei Gastev used social engineering, and even a social engineering machine, to teach people to behave in a rational way.

There was an ongoing power struggle between bourgeoisie engineers and Bolshevik politicians. Lenin is quoted as having said "The communists are not directing anything, they are being directed". In late 1930 Stalin had 2000 engineers arrested, and eight of the most senior were accused and convicted in the Industrial Party show trial. Engineering schools were set up to train party faithfuls in only limited engineering knowledge to not threaten Stalin's political powers.

America was seen as a model for the industrialization of the Soviet Union. The city Magnitogorsk was modelled on Gary, Indiana to be the perfectly planned industrial steel mill city. A former construction worker describes how they imagined a magnificent city with palaces, houses and parks, and how workers created a park with trees made of metal because trees wouldn't grow on the steppe.

In the late 1930s Stalin arrested and purged more engineers, this time old Bolsheviks. The beneficiaries of these purges were engineers who were faithful to Stalin, and were now put in charge throughout the Soviet industry, among them were Leonid Brezhnev, Alexey Kosygin and Nikita Khrushchev. They had only narrow specialist training, and were completely unquestioning of Stalin's political aims. They set out to plan the Soviet Union as though it were a piece of engineering, with technical solutions to everything.

Gosplan, was the central organization where engineers worked with planned indicators, rational predictions of what they knew society needed. Vitalii Semyonovich Lelchuk, from the USSR Academy of Sciences, describes how everything was planned in absurdum: "Even the KGB was told the quota of arrests to be made and the prisons to be used. The demand for coffins, novels and movies was all planned."

Planners discovered that what seemed like rational assessment could lead to odd outcomes. Trains travelled thousands of miles for no other reason than to fulfill a plan that measured success in tonnes carried per kilometer. Sofas and chandeliers were made larger and larger because the plan measured material used.

Stalins successor, Nikita Khrushchev, tried to reform the plan and among other things he insisted that planners must take the price of things into account. The head of the USSR State Committee for Organization and Methodology of Price Creation is shown with a tall stack of price logbooks declaring that "This shows quite clearly that the system is rational".

Academician Victor Glushkov saw cybernetics as the solution to the issues with the complexity of the planning.

In the mid 60s Leonid Brezhnev and Alexey Kosygin took over from Khrushchev. They tried to use computerized economic planning to vitalize the failing economy. A group of three economists tell of how they assess demand using a nation-wide network of consumer correspondents, consumer panels and surveys, data which is then processed by computers. One of the ecominist explains: "The problem is industry responds very slowly to our scientific forecasts. For instance, we decided people wanted platform shoes. By the time the industry got around to increasing production they were out of fashion. Nowadays the Soviet consumer knows that if there is enough of a particular item in the shops it's a sure sign it's out of fashion."

In the late 1960s there were years of economic stagnation, and in 1978 stagnation turned into economic crisis. By the mid-1970s the Soviet leadership gave up attempts to reform the plan and the industry degenerated into pointless, elaborate ritual. Quote the narrator: "What had begun as a grand moral attempt to build a rational society ended by creating a bizarre, bewildering existence for millions of Soviet people".

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