Speculative presence – 10

by Jehu

While Keynes relied on crude back of the envelope calculations to arrive at his conclusion that hours of labor would shrink to no more than 15 hours per week by 2030 in the areas of the world market hit by the Great Depression, Khrushchev and the leaders of the Soviet Union proposed an actual timetable to get the USSR to the shortest workweek in the world by 1968.

Beginning in 1956, the Soviets announced they were undertaking a transition from a 48 hours workweek, established after World War 2 to recover from the catastrophic global conflict, to a 40 hours workweek by 1962.

Starting almost immediately in 1964, the Soviets would begin a transition from the newly established 40 hours workweek to a 35 hours workweek. The transition was scheduled to be completed by 1968, at which time the Soviet Union would be able to boast having the shortest workweek in the world.

But the reductions of hours of work would not end there: Khrushchev publicly claimed that the USSR would continue reducing the working day over the next decade or so, to achieve a three or four hours working day by 1980. In other words, the Soviet Union claimed it could reach Keynes’ speculative 2030 target of a three hours working day fifty years ahead of his crude, back of the envelope schedule!

Was Khrushchev talking nonsense?

Not really.

Key to the credibility of Khrushchev’s claim is the fact that Keynes relied on estimated annual increases in productivity of two percent in his conservative 1930 calculations, while the USSR was estimated, at least by the CIA, (hardly a source given to revolutionary hyperbole) to be expanding output at an annual rate of ten percent in the first nine months of 1960.

Moreover, whether you are in the camp of communists who think the Soviet Union was socialist, or in the camp that thinks it was capitalist — or even stuck somewhere in between — you have to admit that, essentially, this was planned production, in which the entire infrastructure of production was managed as if it consisted of a single enterprise (or capitalist firm, if you are so inclined). Thanks to central planning, this massive enterprise, according to reliable sources, was accumulating additional surplus at a rate of ten percent a year, without the usual disruptions of periodic capitalist crises.

So, assuming no more than the conditions in existence at the time of Keynes back of the envelope calculations, the Soviet Union was roughly doubling in size every seven years, not increasing by half in twenty years as Keynes figured. As Keynes says, think of this in terms of the total capital infrastructure of the Soviet Union — houses, transport, and the like — the capacity to produce everything.

To understand the implications of the Soviet timetable for reduction of hours of labor, we need only mention that 1968 would have opened with the spectacular defeat of US aggression in Vietnam and the collapse of the Johnson presidency into disarray; and, closed with the Soviet Union announcing establishment of the shortest official working day in the history of mankind.

Over the next decade, the world market would have seen the collapse of Bretton Woods and the collapse of the global economy into the then unimaginable simultaneous eruption of hyperinflation and hyperunemployment, leading to the rise of Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the United States, as the Soviet Union was progressively reducing its working day from seven hours to three hours, fully fifty years ahead of Keynes prediction.

As in the case of Keynes’ prediction, a good speculative fiction writer could have taken Khrushchev’s timetable and speculated on what a world where, essentially, the Soviets solved “the economic problem” might look like.

Of course, we already know what it looks like if that timetable wasn’t met — that’s what the picture above shows.