Here is a fairly spectacular example of what ideology in power can do. In the 20th century, the Soviet whaling fleet slaughtered 180,000 whales, not because they had any particular need, commercial or otherwise, for whale products, but because of an abstraction. Behold, that special Soviet genius for evil:
The Soviet whalers, Berzin wrote, had been sent forth to kill whales for little reason other than to say they had killed them. They were motivated by an obligation to satisfy obscure line items in the five-year plans that drove the Soviet economy, which had been set with little regard for the Soviet Union’s actual demand for whale products. “Whalers knew that no matter what, the plan must be met!” Berzin wrote. The Sovetskaya Rossiya seemed to contain in microcosm everything Berzin believed to be wrong about the Soviet system: its irrationality, its brutality, its inclination toward crime.
Berzin contrasted the Soviet whalers with the Japanese, who are similarly thought to have caught whales off the books in the Antarctic (though in numbers, scientists believe, far short of the Soviets). The Japanese, motivated as they were by domestic demand for whale meat, were “at least understandable” in their actions, he wrote. “I should not say that as a scientist, but it is possible to understand the difference between a motivated and unmotivated crime.” Japanese whalers made use of 90 percent of the whales they hauled up the spillway; the Soviets, according to Berzin, used barely 30 percent. Crews would routinely return with whales that had been left to rot, “which could not be used for food. This was not regarded as a problem by anybody.”
This absurdity stemmed from an oversight deep in the bowels of the Soviet bureaucracy. Whaling, like every other industry in the Soviet Union, was governed by the dictates of the State Planning Committee of the Council of Ministers, a government organ tasked with meting out production targets. In the grand calculus of the country’s planned economy, whaling was considered a satellite of the fishing industry. This meant that the progress of the whaling fleets was measured by the same metric as the fishing fleets: gross product, principally the sheer mass of whales killed.
Whaling fleets that met or exceeded targets were rewarded handsomely, their triumphs celebrated in the Soviet press and the crews given large bonuses. But failure to meet targets came with harsh consequences. Captains would be demoted and crew members fired; reports to the fisheries ministry would sometimes identify responsible parties by name.