Saturday, November 26, 2016

Ruminations 66/Democracy Part 37: "Las Ideas no se Matan;" Thoughts on the Death of Fidel Castro Ruz

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

"Querido pueblo de Cuba. Hoy, 25 de noviembre, a las 10:29 horas de la noche falleció el Comandante en Jefe de la Revolución Cubana Fidel Castro Ruz. En cumplimiento a la voluntad expresa del Compañero Fidel, sus restos serán cremados. En las primeras horas de mañana sábado 26, la comisión organizadora de los funerales, brindará a nuestro pueblo una información detallada sobre la organización del Homenaje póstumo que se le tributará al fundador de la Revolución Cubana. ¡Hasta la victoria siempre!" (video here).
It was with substantially these words that Raúl Castro, the current First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), President of the Council of State of Cuba and the President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba since 2008, announced that the body of his brother, Fidel Castro Ruz, ceased to function (video here). The announcement was a surprise, though only in that momentary sense of finally hearing what had long been expected.  In a sense Fidel Castro had died many years before--only his body lingered. Yet even that body continue to serve as the physical manifestation of those points of conflict, rupture, solidarity and ideology around which so many people, states, enterprises and organizations, had ordered their lives and their relationships to each other. That body served as the physical manifestation of clusters of conceptions, of approaches to the world and to the management of its people, of the concrete manifestations of values around which the world organized its normative structures and applied them, in at time the most brutal ways possible. That, certainly, was the sense of some of us in the Cuban community--both in Cuba and abroad.  It was a sense of liberation long after its most profound effects had long passed. 

And now of course, one is treated to the usual unctuous blandness that provides the self serving reflections of those who speak for the global communities. These reflections tell us more about those who utter them, and their own relationship with the dead, than they do about the object of their speaking.  The official U.S. response from our highest elected leaders provides a case in point.  Both President and President Elect spoke to the passing, each each statement was more notable for the way it spoke about the men who made them and their relationship to their own agendas (e.g., here for the respective statements), than it said much about the  confluence of events whose body was even then being prepared for incineration (e.g., here).  Others exhibited the same self reference (e.g., here, here, here). 

But even as his body is reduced to ash--to be venerated or despised in accordance with one's tastes-- the ideas, developed over half a century and more, appear more alive than ever.  "Las ideas no se matan" (ideas are not killed) (e.g., here, and  here).  Fidel was fond of weaving this notion in his speeches--derived ultimately from the French Enlightenment through Domingo Sarmiento, one of the great 19th century Argentine statesmen (e.g., here).  And they are more alive precisely because they have finally been liberated from the body whose own self interests, histories and lusts served to anchor and diminish their possibilities--for good or ill--in the world.  

It is to some of those ideas, now liberated and free to roam as they will, and to assume what form they will, and to be deployed as others might will, that is the object of this post. One cannot condense the dense interweaving of a maturing world view into a short post, but one can mark some of what for me are its most prominent features. These remains of Fidel Castro, are likely to retain their potency and influence in the years to come, especially in developing states (e.g., here).  It is the fool that would dismiss them and not prepare for their deployment, or fashion them for her own use int he coming years. And yet, perhaps, it is the greater fool that develops insights he is incapable of applying to his own circumstances.

There are lessons that might be drawn from the legacy that Fidel Castro leaves behind.  The foundation of that legacy, and the constraints of the insights of his vision, might be understood as a function of personality and the realities of personal power:

1.  Cults of personality.  If he is remembered for little else, it will be the way in which he was able to sustain a cult of personality that exalted a man over the institutions he created for his greater glory and the theory he fashioned to glorify his rule. Indeed, one of the great ironies of Fidel's rule was the extraordinary disconnect between his ideas, and the reality of his rule.  The cults of personality made it possible for an extended rule--one that mimicked those of great Enlightenment monarchs.  But at the same time the nature of that rule effectively eclipsed both the institutions that were meant to embed his ideas within the state system he crafted, and the ideas themselves.   But the dissonance between the cult of personality and the ideas sometimes proved too much.  They eventually ill served their author.  And yet, the cult of personality was also the means by which those ideas achieved a level of authority and influence that would have eluded perhaps more compelling visions from less notorious figures. Yet the taint of the cult of personality may, in the long run, also detract from the ideas themselves.  

2. From Action--Theory. Castro was able to evidence the power of action over conceptualization as a means of fashioning conceptualization itself. One does not think and then do--one does and them thinks. It was the legitimating force of military victory, sustained thereafter by judicious alliances against the most relentless enemy (whose lack of will and sustained interest was also a remarkably lucky occurrence) that provided the space within which Fidel was able to translate the realities of the revolutionary experience and the expedience of the Soviet model into the ideas that emerged from the late 1980s through the immediate post 9-11 period. But again there is dissonance between the elegance of the theories--grounded in the development of most liberal theories floating around Europe form the end of the 19th century and blended with the historical determinism of Marxism  provided a vision of dignity for a culture still embedded in rigid hierarchies of another era.  But the articulation of those theories reduced them at times to a grim monasticism (masquerading as anti-consumerism), the relentless opposition of the United States produced a paranoia that infected the development of the societal order within an obsessive surveillance (that ironically is now being embraced in contextually relevant forms in the liberal West as the heart of its anti-terrorism and societal control mechanisms), and the drive toward the perfectibility of the working class produced increasingly strident efforts to engineer the model worker as the linchpin of a market less economy (e.g. here). 

3.  Ruthlessness on an Island is an effective means of sustaining power. Historical determinism  appeared to provide an excuse for everything. And everything was understood through the lens of political survival, challenges to rule, and the protection of the ruling elite. But all of this was transformed into institutional and ideological terms.  The result was farce and the sort of distortions that would inevitably suggest an interpretive pliability of theory that would reduce it to the accumulated product of the discretionary decisions of the leader. But theory that is reduced to an excuse or a framework for the exercise of discretion that is not constrained even within the theory that provides the space for exercises of discretion tears the heart out of the legitimacy of the theory as justification for the exercise of discretion. If everything is discretion, then there is no theory, even if all discretionary decisions are ostensibly grounded in the theory itself. Here one understand t he fatal flaw in European Marxism--its creation of a semiotic black hole into which all interpretation is flattened and vanishes of its own weight. In this world, the act itself becomes its own justification in theory--they merge.  Within this framework individual lives can be abstracted, and thus abstracted--can be subtracted when undesirable or threatening.  The notion of human dignity  themselves already abstract can then be attached to an abstracted aggregate individual rather than in living flesh.  From out of this emerged a  respect for human rights understood as the obligations to the community whose expression could only be legitimately manifested by the vanguard, and that vanguard, in turn, by its first secretary. In a world in which the abstract is incarnated and the flesh abstracted, the value of a human life is weighed in relation to the needs of the state, and the weighing is done through the exercise of discretion. Yet that connection provided just the conceptual veneer that made it possible to justify the ruthless bloodletting that marked  the relation of the state to the masses but that ironically reduced the authority of the theory as a consequence.

4.  Having enemies is useful. This is an old insight, but one that served the Cuban state and PCC apparatus well. This is a lesson that the Cuban state holds close to its heart, with respect to which the United States, especially, continues to play the fool. These lessons will play out again in the coming years, with well anticipated consequences that are, except for the detritus of its human tragedy, unremarkable.  Yet, having an enemy also served as a springboard to some of the most interesting theoretical insights that Fidel developed (though of course it must be emphasized again that the distance between theoretical construct and the realities of the Cuban state in its internal operation clouded its value within Cuba). But a consequence is a mania for order that makes reform, including the development of productive forces, difficult (e.g., here).

5. Transformative Revolutions are inevitably reactionary. One of the most interesting characteristics of what was ostensibly a transformative and revolutionary movement--accompanied by an equally transformative and revolutionary ideology--was its substantially reactionary character.  I have written of this before--the notion that for the Revolution to succeed as ideology it required that time stop at the moment of revolutionary victory (e.g., here). 
The PCC assumes that its role is to preserve the communist society it achieved at  the moment of revolutionary triumph. That distinction will have significant effects on the way in  which the PCC approaches its relationships with outsiders and its internal governance.  Preservation requires a single-minded focus on the consolidation of PCC power, though effectuated through the personalities of its leaders rather than through strong institutional structures. Preservationism might be understood as a window onto the stubborn Stalinist streak in Cuban institutionalizing ideology. The PCC is also Stalinist in the sense of the driving force of personality over institution. Institutions are essential instruments for the implementation of collective will, but that will is manifested through the politics of personality rather than situated within a matrix of rules that reflect collective application of ideological frameworks on individual issues. This succinctly describes the structural repercussions of the Latinized European Soviet style of Leninism and its reflections on the institution of the Communist Party after the moment of revolutionary triumph. (here).
Here again dissonance between the ideas and insights developed by Castro and their deployment within the Cuban state itself. A state, and a vanguard party obsessed with the need to preserve the moment of revolutionary triumph, from which the state of perfection already arises, is one that is increasingly doomed to experience an increasing  distance between the idea of itself and its reality. But this is a lesson with global dimension--rigid a historicity--the idea that one is locked invariably to the decisions, tastes and sensibilities of a perfect moment, is as much a danger for constitutional republics of the Western type as ti is for Marxist Leninist states.  The backwards  glance is critical for stability; the adherence to custom and tradition a necessary base.  But states that incarnate variations of originalism to divine status suffer both the need for a priestly caste to administer and preserve this rigid Logos, and the need either to make that vision more flexible in light of the realities of changes in historical context (the genius of the common law) or develop increasingly strictly means of disciplining people and increasingly brutal methods of reshaping them to suit ideas and sensibilities increasingly more remote in time and place.  It is in this sense that one reveals the paradox of the Cuban revolution--at the moment of its victory it became the very site of the reactionary impulse. 

6.  The ideas that matter. There are several ideas that will long outlast Fidel Castro.  Detached fro their author and the state and institutional structures within which they were applied without much success, these are the ideas that, continually developed, will likely challenge dominant views and the premises on which they are founded:
a. Regional Trade System theory. The Bolivian Alliance has failed for the moment.  But its ideological basis is likely to survive and re-emerge in a variant form. ALBA’s greatest contribution might well be its ideology. Its mere existence serves as a basis for challenging assumptions in the creation and implementation of methods of integration. It provides a base through which this distinctive ideological voice can be leveraged by its state parties in Hemispheric integration debates. It seeks to balance the tensions between post colonial nationalism, internationalism and state sector dominance by substituting for private markets and private actors, state actors and tightly controlled markets. It is no longer focused on eliminating borders for the production and management of private capital; instead it is focused on using borders as a site for the assertion of public authority to control all aspects of social, political, cultural, and economic activity. Understood as an ideological joint venture among its participants, ALBA represents a space within which a consensus on alternatives to the existing preeminent economic model of globalization might be constructed. As such, it may represent one of Cuba’s greatest triumphs and also its greatest challenge to the normative tenets of the current framework of economic globalization. Thus contextualized, ALBA serves as a nexus for six great points of tension and connection within both modern trade theory practice and the construction of state system frameworks in Latin America. ALBA implicates tensions between integration and nationalism; between public and private models of integration; and between internal and external regional trade norms. It also highlights connections between the current form of trade frameworks and the construction of alternative forms of trade arrangements; between anti-Americanism and integration; and between conventional frameworks of Latin American trade and it challengers (e.g., here).

b. Global Trade and Finance: Sovereign Debt. The dominant vision, firmly grounded in private law, posits that growth can occur only in a tightly integrated global economy founded on trade liberalization, privatization, and macrostability. When the state fails to pay its debts, it ought to be treated like any other failed corporate enterprise - a stay on debt collection efforts, broad enforcement of absolute priority, creditor approval of the proposed reorganization plan, and well protected new interim financing pending restructuring. Opposing the dominant vision is an anti-corporatist approach grounded in public law and the subordination of economics and markets to political control in the furtherance of deliberate state public policy and planning. States fail because it is in the interest of dominant states to use sovereign debt as a means of perpetuating subordination and a hierarchy of power among states. When a state fails to pay its debts, the focus ought to be on the creditor, and the fairness of the debt in terms of the larger public policy concerns - development, and the maximization of living standards for all individuals through state planning. (e.g., here)

c. Global Trade and Finance: Supply and Value Chains.  Well before it became fashionable to consider the human rights and development implications of globalization and the rise of transnational production chains, Fidel Castro had thought to theorize it from the perspective of developing states and the fundamental principle of state integrity.  These ideas remain powerful even as the larger and richer states continue to nudge the states embedding in lower rungs of production chains toward a transnational legal and economic order (see, e.g., here).  And indeed, the ideas that Castro articulated resonates with all developing states that see in the current system of global finance the means by which they remain stuck within the lower rungs of production chains and perpetually in debt (e.g., here).

d. State Owned Enterprises and Labor Cooperatives:Since the 1970s, the relationship between productive property, and the state and individual has been contested in Marxist-Leninist nations. Though China has moved to permit robust private activity, and the private aggregations of capital in corporate form, Cuba has strictly adhered to traditional communist principles. In the face of recent financial upheavals, Cuba is seeking to liberalize its approach to economic organization, but in a way that would retain a state monopoly of the use of the corporate form while opening a small and well-managed consumer oriented private sector. Among the most innovative alternatives being developed is the cooperative, which has the potential to develop into a useful form of what this Article calls a proletarian corporation (e.g., here). At the same time the development of state owned enterprises as extensions of the political policy of the state may substantially rework corporate theory, sovereign immunity and the parameters within which one understands the nature and unique functions of the economic enterprise (e.g., here, here, and here).

e.  The role of the state in the development of human potential and the rise of the model worker. The question of the relationship of the state, society and the individual remains a vibrant one.  While most states and normative orders have focused on the rights and dignity of the individual, constrained within very broadly drawn borders, Castro has sought to challenge the view of individual autonomy and choice--a markets driven notion, with a counter notion of individual obligation and perfectibility. This produces an intersting parallel to similar notions at the heart of Western religions and may find expression in new ways in the future (e.g., here).

f. "Markets".  It is clear that Fidel never embraced any notion of the utility of markets--either public or private.  His world view was grounded int he idea that state planning--incorporating the normative values of the people as understood by its vanguard party, was a  better (understood in economic terms) basis for the sorts of value based decision making that was at the heart of the markets-efficiency arguments of classical c¡economic theory. But classical central planning has not worked precisely because it has been impossible to fuse the techniques of the markets within the administrative cultures of public bureaucracies. But that may be changing and large scale integrated supply chains may pave the way for a reinvigoration of a "post markets" theorizing.  Not one that rejects the market but one that understands that markets may be internalized within complex bureaucracies (first the global supply chains, and thereafter, perhaps, public decision making of a similar sort). 
g. Inidgenization. One of the most curious notions developed by Castro was the idea of the displacement of traditional indigenous populations by a new indigenous population that consists of the blending of all peoples, first nations and settlers into a single ethnic community. The indigenization of population in settler states--like Cuba, raises substantial issues about the current move toward segregation and compartmentalization, of the preservation, of ethnic communities.  This is bound to be highly controversial (e.g., here and here

7.  For the short term expect the following:
a. How much will Castro's death change economic development in Cuba? Initially there will be very little change. The Cuban state and party is run the midst of finalizing its new conceptualization of its socio-political system. That “Conceptualization” has made it very clear that Fidel’s ideals of a Central Planning Marxism, which essentially rejects the value of markets beyond state control, combined with a focus on building “model workers” within “ model planning” will likely dominate thinking in official circles at least for the short and medium term. It is in this sense, certainly that Fidel will continue to be quite influential. On Central Planning Marxism versus the markets Marxism, of the Chinese, see

b. How much will it change Cuban-US relations especially in ways that would open Cuba up to business with US companies? Fidel’s death has been long anticipated but it remains symbolically important, in the way that thew death of an early parent is important to adult children—he hasn’t been at the center for a while but his presence had an important centering effect on politics, society, etc. For Cuba in the short run I believe that means caution and an unwillingness to take risks. I had wondered why the Cuban military appeared far more alert in the past few weeks—most people thought it was on account on the US elections; it is also plausible to suggest that the military was being prepared for any eventuality when the reality of Fidel’s death was announced. the cause. Otherwise, the course that Raul Castro has plotted—a slow steady progress that is quite strictly managed from the Cuban state side will continue in effect. US companies will find it no more or less difficult to do business forms he Cuban side of the equation. But that itself, at the moment does not auger well for US companies. What is worth watching is the willingness of the US and Cuba to continue to talk about opening support services—communications, banking and the like.

c. What is Trump's policy towards Cuba and is this really the overriding factor rendering the passing of Castro less relevant? It is hard to tell what precisely Mr. Trump will do with his Cuba policy. Certainly if we were to engage in Soviet style “readings of the signs”, then it is likely that having surrounded himself with more traditionalist Cuban elements in the United States that there will be some roll back. The Cuban Adjustment Program may be on the chopping block, as will some of the normalization gestures—though which ones is unclear. On the other hand, Mr. Trump may not deny his supporters the opportunity to make money, and that may color the form of engagement going forward. But indeed, from the American side of things, Fidel has long passed from the scene and US policy is grounded in the assumption that (1) Raul is different (and that is certainly true enough); (2) and that Raul can embed those differences in policy. Yet on the Cuban side it is clear that Raul is different to some extent, but not enough to change the fundamental center of Cuban socio-economic or political policy. And the second that Fidel remains quite relevant within the principles of politics and economics that continue to be embedded in the Cuban system. Thus, special economic zones,targeted foreign investment within systems of principles based rules that serve as a basis for the exercise of discretion by Cuban officials grounded in the need to keep foreign investment at arms length and to ensure that the Cuban State inserts itself between foreign capital and its population, will continue to be the rule. The private sector will become more relevant, certainly, but big money transactions will involve the state.

d. Other considerations moving forward? Right now, I think, Fidel’s death will put a spotlight on the most important parts of the jigsaw pieces that will determine the shape of US Cuba relations Critical among these are the confidence of the State and Communist Party apparatus in their control of the state, and the reading by the Cuban’s of the intentions of the incoming US administration. But also important is the actual development of a US policy. The current two track negotiations—the public and private ones—are likely to be the first victim; whether they are started up again in January remains to be seen. There is no doubt to Mr. Trump will likely amplify the ideological parts of US engagement with Cuba; the real question is whether the US and Cuba can continue doing business beneath the ramped up rhetoric on both sides that is likely to come after January.
(Pix from Viva Fidel 11-26-2016)

8.  The democratic impulse. The a historical and ultimately preservationism of the European Marxism that is at the center of Fidel's complex world view also evidenced dissonance between the expression of the democratic impulse in theory and its practice within and around the Cuban state. The idea of Leninist vanguard democracy--grounded in democratic centralism and vanguard leadership was consumed within a system that ceded all authority to the First Secretary.  Even the role of the vanguard itself was carefully embedded within a military framework that served as a reminder that it was a military, rather than a political effort that won the state for its leadership (e.g., here). Intra-Party democracy has only lately come to the PCC, and even that impulse has been carefully circumscribed (e.g., here).  Yet the symbols of popular democracy remain highly important performances of legitimacy whose conceptual basis becomes ever more attenuated from the reality underlying its reality.  And here is a great lesson the Western democracies whose own elites have become more and more careless about the integrity of their own electoral processes (e.g., here).  If the empty performance of traditional popular democracy through elections is discredited and unavailable, if there is an absence of growing intra-Party democracy within the state and PCC organs, if popular revolution is not realistically possible, then how is democracy expressed in Cuba? The answer has been clear since the late 1970s--through migration. Cubans have been voting with their feet for a generation.  It is not for nothing that Cuba's demographic profile now resembles more that of Japan than of other Latin American or Caribbean states. Migration tends to be the ultimate expression of sovereign power within a polity.  Where has that sovereign power migrated?  For the most part it has moved to and reconstituted itself--for better or worse--around Cuba's second largest city: Miami. It is here that Cubans have been practicing their own forms of popular expression, their own social and economic policy and their own engagement with cultural movement.  It is not for nothing that Miami tends to pull Cuban culture and society in ways that are usually exercised by cultural capitals within a state. And for the Cuban state apparatus that is the greatest threat of all.  For what the multi-generational effort to change people into model workers  for optimal insertion into a system of centrally planned activity (economic, social and cultural) that preserves and applies the ideals of the revolutionary moment of 1959 has produced is a mirror image of that drive in which the PCC vanguard and its military arm play a much reduced role.  And the great irony for the Cuban state, and for Fidel Castro, the architect of this historical product-- is that it is likely that his ideas, now liberated form the Party and state and individual from which it was sourced, may well come back into Cuba from outside and remake the state and its ruling elite. "Las ideas no se matan," may indeed be the most appropriate last words for this man who influence and actions will haunt for a long time to come; and yet it may wel be those ideas, transformed within a quite distinct global interpretive community that may serve as the basis for the fundamental changes to state and Party in Cuba.

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