Khrushchev stuffing his face with Fidel Castro, May 1963, Soviet Georgia


Red Plenty is about the Soviet attempt to achieve abundance.  But the Soviet recipe for plenty was only one of several, some of which have been less disastrous.  (So far.)  The Soviet plan for an end, soon, to scarcity was just a special case of a general twentieth-century project.  I came to the Soviet story while I was thinking about the wider human desire to have, not enough, but more than enough; enough of enough that you didn’t have to count or calculate any more.  This is a talk written for BBC Radio in 2005 about plenty of all colours.

For six thousand years, from the dawn of agriculture to a gnat’s blink back, historically speaking, all human beings lived in one, universal situation.  If you want to see it, you have only to go the airport and to catch a plane to anywhere that isn’t Europe, North America, or East Asia: because most human beings live in the same situation still. 

It’s this.  People work very hard, and goods are scarce.  In the span of the year between planting and harvest, people go hungry, because they’re waiting for the crops.  If the harvest fails, people stay hungry, and they start to consume the means of their own survival -- the cow, the seed corn -- in order to last out till next year.  Locusts, diseases and marauders make random raids.  Droughts and floods make their visitations.  If you find a large diamond in your field, someone more powerful comes and takes it from you.  If you find two large diamonds, the powerful person takes your field and turns it into a diamond mine.  Most people, most of the time, manage to rear at least some of their children successfully, and the struggle continues into the next generation. 

But people don’t expect that the passing of time will see a reliable gain in prosperity.  Like the White Queen in Alice, it takes all the running they can do to stay in the same place.   Good times, as they know them, are a matter of cycles.  The good times come and then they go again: whether on the short cycle of the agricultural year, when a good crop makes the land yield a brief fatness, or on the longer cycles of climate and history, which can make some decades or centuries better than others.  At the very best, there can be a lucky time when everything seems to go right for a while at once.  The weather smiles, the ruler is benevolent and competent, the trade routes swell, your particular nation does well at war, there are marble facings on the buildings in the capital city.   Such times are remembered as golden ages, recalled again and again in fireside talk as the time of the great Augustus, or of Haroun al-Raschid, or of King Arthur.  But they pass.  They always pass.  ‘Cities and thrones and powers/Stand in time’s eye/Almost as long as flowers/That daily die’ -- wrote Kipling, who knew that the British imperial time he thought golden was also destined to go, to turn grey and to blow out like the dandelion.  The universal experience of mankind has been that feasts are brief, and are always, always followed by fasts. 

So after a day getting no further forward, another perpetual resource for the skinny people sitting at the fireside has been the shared dream of a feast that never ends.  Of an abundance that is permanent not cyclical.  Of a state of being that seizes the instant when the fat of the land runs down your chin, and lets you live there forever, freed from the plough, freed from toil, freed from scarcity.  The sign of these fantasies, the symbol under which skinny dreamers have stowed them down the generations, is the cornucopia, the ‘horn of plenty’. 

Sometimes the cornucopia turns up in mythology in disguise -- ‘the little porridge pot’ that never runs out in English folklore is a squat pewter version dispensing an oozy grey bounty, and the Magic Pudding of Norman Lindsay’s Australian fairytale capers about on little legs offering steak ‘n kidney with jam roly-poly for afters, in the tropical heat -- but the classical form, the form you see it in in temple carvings, is the curved cone strung with flowers and ribbons.  Somewhere back here in the shape is a fusion of the biological bits ‘n bobs that achieve human fertility, and somewhere here too in the function is a salute to the everyday marvel of ordinary agriculture, which blows a raspberry in the face of entropy by giving you back ten turnips when you only put one in the ground.  But the cornucopia goes further; wishes further.  It asks for reproduction set free from biology’s limits.  It asks for quantity run wild.  From its curved trunk which isn’t quite like a penis, from its open mouth which isn’t quite like a vagina, roll forth fruits without regard to season, vegetables that never needed to be manured or weeded.   Out of nowhere pours abundance.   Into the world of incompleteness, of straining to make do, streams stuff to make good all deficiencies, in amounts beyond counting. 

Not surprisingly, the dream of plenty often merges with the prospect of heaven, especially where heaven is seen as God’s recompense for whatever was in short supply in life.   In the Quranic heaven, for example, water flows as it hardly ever does in Arabia.  But since the dream is (after all) the dream of a full mouth, of working your way along the butter-dripping kernels of an infinite corn-cob, it also has manifestations that are cheerfully low and entirely this-worldly, in which physical abundance doesn’t merge into the plenitude of the divine, but exists down here somewhere, if you could only find it.  Not dreams of paradise, in other words, but of the earthly paradise.  Medieval Europe had the Land of Cockaigne, where the rivers run with cream and ready-roasted piglets run around squeaking ‘Eat me! Eat me!’.  Depression America had the Big Rock Candy Mountains, where the cigarettes grow on trees and ‘little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks’.   There was a lake of stew, and of whiskey too, and it was reported that you could paddle all around them in a big canoe.  This dream leaps over the boundaries of times and places.  It is trans-cultural, just as scarcity is trans-cultural.  It does not expect to be fulfilled.  Or to be believed.  It’s the just-material, just-for-pleasure, foolish version of the serious religious dream of redemption.   All the while, beneath the fantasy, the reality it’s giving the dreamer a break from remains visible.  Cockaigne’s true context is famine.  The song of ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’ could have waved a wand and vanished all the pains of a hobo’s life, but instead it only modified them to the extent of giving wooden legs to the railroad cops who chased him, and rubber teeth to the dogs who bit him. Dogs and cops remained, too solid for a mere dream of plenty to abolish them.

Then something unexpected happened.    We learned how to build a mechanical cornucopia.  Early models were clumsy.  They covered acres of ground, leaked choking black smoke, and ripped off the limbs of unwary children.  Later designs, though, ran with a clean reassuring hum, and did any damage safely over the horizon -- or in such small increments that it was easy to forget about it.   And the world changed, for some of us.  Instead of the feasts and the fasts, the good luck and the bad luck, we moved into a world where time promised improvement, where we could expect there to be mostly a little more every year: 3 per cent more, five per cent more, two per cent more.  Compounded.  The dream began to come true.  The unlikely dream, the dream not intended to have load-bearing qualities.  Over the last half-century about a billion people have moved into the dream, and hundreds of millions more are presently making the escape from our ancestral scarcity.   In our time, for the first time ever in human history, plenty has become a fact.  We may not recognise it, but the Big Rock Candy Mountain is where we live now; we have become citizens of Cockaigne.    The success or failure of harvests no longer makes any difference to the food supply, which is gigantic and continuous.   There's more to eat in a single branch of Tesco than in any medieval painting of the garden of earthly delights.  We have to pay for it, of course, but mostly we can.  We aren't pressed up against the glass looking at a plenty we can't touch.  Compared to what came before, the cornucopia flows for even the poorest of us in the rich countries.

And food was only the first commodity in which scarcity was abolished.  It looms large and urgent in the dreams of those who don't have enough of it, but we've moved on to the other scarcities that were waiting in a row to be abolished once hunger was dealt with.  From our cornucopias also pour houses that keep out the weather, clean water to bathe in daily, medicines to prolong life, clothes no-one wore before us -- and then stuff,  oh a torrent of stuff of unimaginable profusion and variety, stuff to tempt us, stuff to entertain us, stuff to decorate ourselves with, stuff to transport us from place to place, stuff to store other stuff in.  So much stuff that the idea of any one individual being able to sample all of it seems laughable.  It seems self-evident to us now that even the richest person couldn't taste the whole cornucopia -- wouldn't even want to -- though in the scarce times that've only just passed away, kings and magnates really did try to drag some of whatever was going to their mud palaces.  Our plenty far outweighs the consuming power of each of us as we contemplate it.   Welcome to the magic porridge pot,  welcome to the lake of stew.

Now we have it, though, we aren't sure we do have it.  It doesn't feel the way we expected, before, that it was going to feel.   People who live in scarcity and dream of plenty have a very clear idea of what plenty would be.  It's what would make up the deficiencies they presently feel, what would lift the constraints that presently grip them.  It is self-evident to them what 'enough' would mean.  The fact that they haven't got enough enforces the definition of it.  Enough is what they lack.  When they look at the rich world and see that everyone (or almost everyone) in it is washed, clothed, housed and fed, they know what they are seeing.  They say to themselves, if I lived there, I would rejoice and be glad that the fasting was over and the feasting was permanent; that my children could be certain of what I was never certain of.  That's why they're willing to pay their savings to human traffickers, and to suffocate in freight containers. 

Even in the rich world, during the earlier stages of the transition to plenty, what it would consist of seemed obvious.  When Keynes wrote Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren in the 1930s, he looked forward to a time near at hand when, quote, 'the economic problem would be solved'.  Not an economic problem, or some economic problems -- the economic problem, the one singular finite problem that has existed from the beginning of economics as an endeavour, and about which it was originally so gloomy.  That is, the problem of allocating scarce resources so that everyone has enough.  The founding fathers shook their heads.  Malthus believed that population always grew faster than the food supply.  Result: famine.  Ricardo believed that worker's wages could never rise higher than the bare minimum cost of breeding up the next generation of baby workers.  Result: penury.  So it seemed quite clear to Keynes in the Depression, working on the tools he thought could prevent all future depressions, that if a society could just provide everyone in it with a secure job, a place to live, and enough to eat, then the one big issue of economics would be dealt with.  We'd have done it.  We'd have solved the whole of the material part of the problem of being human.  We'd have enough, so we'd be free to move on and solve other problems. And how we'd flourish.

Well, we are Keynes' grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.  But that isn't how it feels to us now, living in the plenty that the whole world dreamed of, and the majority of the world dreams of still.  Indeed, it's far easier to recognise from the outside that plenty is what we do possess, because our everyday experience amid the cornucopia's spilling fruits, is certainly not that the striving is over, that the 'economic problem' is solved, that the material issues of human life are dealt with.  On the contrary: we are still running as hard as we can, with apparently undiminished urgency, and our desires still feel to us as if they are thwarted and fulfilled in the proportions you'd expect from a resistant universe.  We are sceptical of our plenty; we focus on what we haven't got yet, we ask ourselves if this is really abundance or not.  (I propose a rule: if you aren't sure whether you really live in plenty, you do.)  We tell ourselves stories about how plenty will really arrive some time in the future, when the price of bandwidth falls to zero, when nanotechnology makes atoms assemble themselves just like that into the objects of our choice -- not realising that those new dreams are just retreads, speeded-up repetitions of what already happened when the industrial revolution kicked our cornucopia into gear, and first showed us that plenty doesn't come from diamonds, but from the power to multiply a widget by a million.  By historical standards, the times are already magically good.  But then, we don't judge by historical standards.  Now that we're in plenty we don't constantly measure it against the scarcity it replaced.  You can't be grateful for avoiding something you've never experienced.  You can only count your blessings for so long, and then the new world has to be engaged with on its own terms; the new world in which the material struggle does not lie behind us, and new wants present themselves unendingly to be fulfilled.

Somehow we'd believed that achieving plenty would mean getting wants and needs disentangled.  The whole idea of having enough depends on being able to tell the difference.  Those in the past who took a utopian look forward to plenty tended to imagine, just like Keynes, that there was a common-sense contrast of feeling involved in the difference between wanting and needing; and so moving from one to the other, from the era of needing a bowl of soup to the era of wanting a Rolex, would be signalled by a change of mood, a kind of relaxation of urgency, or, to put it at its most positive, by the birth of a new kind of human freedom.   Marx, for instance, who was as besotted by the runaway productivity of industrial technology as any enthusiast for the New Economy during the internet bubble, thought that when the engines of plenty were running for everybody's benefit, we'd be free to start discovering what human beings were actually like, what our nature might be with the leg-irons of need no longer hobbling us.   No longer needing to scrabble for our daily bread, we'd gaze at the world of things with a playful, impartial curiosity; we'd gaze at other people and know for the first time with absolute clarity that they weren't things, since we didn't have to treat them as things anymore to assure our own survival. 

The trouble with this vision (and the others like it) is that it's incompatible with the recipe by which our plenty came.  We don't know how many recipes for a cornucopia there are; we only know which have worked and which have failed among those that we have tried.   Our local one is made harder to state because of some people's insistence that markets are its only ingredient, when laws and institutions are just as important.  But at the heart of it is a decision to produce what people will pay for, and only what people will pay for, without enquiring further into why.  Our cornucopia deliberately makes no distinction between things we want and things we need; it can't, without beginning to ration the tumbling flow of goods and to make unplentiful decisions about our best interests.  Where need becomes want is left to our private judgement, at least in theory.  All we can consult is the blurred continuum in our heads with soup at one end and the diamond-studded Rolex at the other.  But the other peculiarity of our plenty is that, driven by desire without distinction, it doesn't include a way of stably stopping when an elegant sufficiency has been achieved for everyone.  It's an economy of insatiability.  It has to grow to function.  It cannot aim at any particular level of prosperity.  It can only achieve any particular tideline of plenty by overshooting it, and keeping on going.  And if we all did decide, one at a time or all together, on some mark that represented adequate plenty, and stopped buying at it, our plenty wouldn't glide calmly to a halt.  It would collapse, because the system depends on competition, and whatever ceases to compete in our system doesn't just stop rising, it immediately and inexorably sinks.

That's why in our age of plenty everyone who can is still working frantically hard.  That’s why our age of plenty does not resemble the age of leisure that was being predicted just as plenty’s threshold was being crossed, back in the 50s and 60s.  It’s comical now to remember the promise that people in ‘the year 2000’ would only work two or three hours a day, and would need to fill the remaining hours with a glorious efflorescence of golf-playing, symphony-composing, helicopter-piloting and basket-weaving.   It isn’t that the wealthy future turned out less wealthy than the futurologists of 1960 imagined.  On the contrary, a range of self-indulgences exists now that they never even dreamed of.  Parascending, anyone?  Karaoke?  Broadband on-line wargaming?  It’s that the structure of our wealth forbids us to run any slower.  And, to keep us consuming at the rate we need to in order to expand our plenty (which is to say, to maintain it) the persuaders labour night and day to keep us dissatisfied.  We are more advertised at than anyone in history, because it is so vital that we shouldn't fall into happy, non-buying repletion.

‘Maslow’s Hierarchy’ is cited a lot as the basis for our continuing hunger.  It says that, in order, we satisfy the needs for food, for shelter, and for clothing, and then move on to our need for esteem, as manifested in a handily-large number of ways, such as the need for a rewritable DVD player, the need for a sportscar, or the need for an aromatherapy massage at an exclusive spa resort.  But Abraham Maslow was not a psychologist: he was, appropriately enough, a marketing man, and his hierarchy is a codification of what the economy of plenty needs to be true.  The classical economists, the dismal scientists who said that scarcity would last forever, believed in 'diminishing marginal utility', the traditional view that as your appetite for something is satisfied, you want each extra helping of it a bit less.  A hungry person really, really wants a slice of toast.  The second slice is nice but not quite so nice; they can take or leave the third slice, and they probably do leave the fourth one.  This, our age of plenty has supplemented.  Okay, we say reluctantly.  You've probably had enough toast for now -- enough multigrain granary toast with unsalted organic Normandy farmhouse butter -- but that doesn't mean there's nothing else you want, does it?  Just alternate your hungers, and you can keep craving all the time.  Go on, turn away from toast for now, turn away with undiminished urgency to that wish for polkadotted silk handkerchiefs, for tango lessons, for Art Deco ornaments.  You know you want to.

Of course the problems of having too much are far better than the problems of having too little, but no wonder we feel bilious.  No wonder we feel confused.  No wonder that some of us balloon into obesity on the cornucopian diet, and some of us starve ourselves, and some find artificial ways of bringing scarcity back.  The little roasted pigs rush by, squeaking 'Eat me!'.  I'm sorry, we say: maybe later.  I feel a bit... full.  I feel a bit... sick.