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Communist-run Cuba will allow farmers, private traders and food processors to engage in direct wholesale and retail trade as long as farmers meet government contracts, state media reported on Friday. The government will also loosen some price controls and delegate others to local officials’ discretion. The measures do away with the state’s monopoly on produce distribution and sales and are part of a series of policy changes in the sector approved by the Council of Ministers amidst a growing food crisis. Similar market-oriented reforms were adopted by the Communist Party a decade ago after a lengthy popular discussion, then reversed in 2016 with little explanation. (Marc Frank, 'Cuba loosens state monopoly on food sales amid crisis' Reuters 6 Nov. 2020).
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Thus the oscillation. And again the misreading. People (especially talking heads and other analysts) will see in this or project onto it some some of trend line toward some sort of progress that will produce transformation. It will not. It is an oscillation that is both measured and designed to produce that sort of illusion. These align with a number of pother policies announced in the last several months--all designed to take the burden off that state in a context n which the state is unable (temporarily) to bear it, but which preserves the fundamental structures so that as necessary, a reversion may be attempted.
Still even controlled oscillation never brings us back to the same place but rather like the oscillation of a pendulum moves use to a place different enough that other possibilities--within systemic constraints--may become apparent. And it is in the taking advantage of those that really interesting statecraft follows. And that is where the challenge and opportunity lies in systems of these kinds--not just in imperial systems like those of the United States and China, but in subaltern systems like that of Cuba. Oscillations stress the structures within which they occur. In ordinary terms, they pose a risk to the integrity of the system and its smooth operation. Pushing structural elements of systems to their limits eventually breaks them. One wonders whether that is the case in the United States since 2000 and in China since 2013, and in Cuba since the 1990s. In each of those cases factions push the limits of structural flexibility by deploying structural elements.
The history of the Roman Republic reminds us that any constitution, even that of a venerable republic, can be transformed without the benefit of an amendment. Such a transformation may so reshape a republic that it begins to function as a monarchy in everything but name. But the political transformation of a polity can be masked. The most easily fashioned mask consists of the forms of the superceded political systems. Totalitarian dictatorships can masquerade as democracies by maintaining democratic institutions, such as legislatures and judiciaries, which are under the control of the ruling group. The early Roman Empire retained the institutional forms of the Republic even as power was transferred to the imperial household. (Larry C. Backer, Race, "The Race," and the Republic: Re-conceiving Judicial Authority After Bush v. Gore, 51 Cath. U. L. Rev. 1057, 1060 (2002)).
The vanguard factions of the three states have learned much about the use of systemic tools to undermine the ability of opposing factions to govern and to advance their own interests. These lessons have no ideology; nor do the tools developed by the factions holding authority in each regime (or through their societal networks and narrative spinning organs). That creates an interesting set of parallel movements. On the one hand, the policy oscillations of states continue to swing within the borders of system constraints, and each swing continues to suggest linear progress (toward some goal) or the embrace of the correct alignment of policy and ideology.
That is the most interesting question--whether contained policy oscillations will also produce stresses on the form of government through which the oscillations are managed. As each of these states utilizes its structural mechanics (litigation, information management through platforms and news media), party organization and discipline, and societal control levers) to advance factional interests, it is to the long term effects of the utilization of these tools on the character of the political economic model that is worth serious consideration. The evolution of political tools all bear watching as the global New Era continues to reveal its characteristics. This is certainly an old political story, but one the lessons of which require retelling, especially at stress points in historical development--as are now occurring in the US, China, and Cuba (my three examples of a wider phenomenon). "Now the corruptions attending each of these governments are these; a kingdom may degenerate into a tyranny, an aristocracy into an oligarchy, and a state into a democracy. Now a tyranny is a monarchy where the good of one man only is the object of government, an oligarchy considers only the rich, and a democracy only the poor; but neither of them have a common good in view. " (Aristotle, Politics, Book III, Chp. VII).
In the United States the stress toolkit has become more sophisticated with a greater potential for destabilization. Some that come to mind: (1) an overtly political press sector that then seeks to both project its power in politics as an autonomous actor while claiming constitutional privilege for its role in civic life (the New York Times and New York Post were interesting examples); (2) platforms overseen by private sector institutions and individuals with a substantial power to shape narratives and perceptions by their control of platform inputs and outputs (including notoriously Twitter and Facebook); (3) the increasing and accelerating trend toward judicialization of administrative decision making and the parallel trend of subjecting political decisionmaking to the discretionary limitations of administrative organs ; (4) the use of state security organs for investigations (from the end of the Obama administration through that of Mr, Trump and likely going forward); (5) the utility of impeachment as a juridico-political tool; (6) the use and misuse of the executive order (tied of course to its counter thrust, the judicialization of administrative decision making No. 3 above); and (7) the legitimization of essentialist and reductionist politics.
In China the stress toolkit centers on the mechanics of vanguard working style. Unlike the United States, China has recently experienced the instability that is produced when the system is used against itself and is more conscious, in this case of avoiding the instability of the 1960s. Outside the Communist Party apparatus--(1) the administration of consultative democracy, especially through United Front and the Chinese Peoples' Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) organs; (2) the role of the National People's Congresses at the national and provincial levels.; and (3) deviation Within the CPC apparatus--(1) democratic centralism, communist internationalism, (2) anti-corruption campaigns; (3) core leadership principles; (4) rectification campaigns and purges.
In Cuba the stress toolkit is simpler but no less potent. These include the relationship between the state and party apparatus; the mechanics and abuse of the consultation process; and the abuse of bureaucratic process (beyond the usual tolerable levels, at least from a historical perspective). The rest is endemic--corruption, risk aversion, and paralysis driven by the high cost of mistakes treated as ideologically sensitive. The risk in Cuba is different as well--distortion threatens not just the Part's working style but the viability of the Party as well.
Taken together one might consider that the great changes in leadership (or their failure to change), those events by which systemic and policy changes are judged and measured may be less useful in recognizing and gauging either. Policy changes express the plausible; but the techniques to push that oscillation beyond its traditional limits affects not just the amplitude of oscillation but also the integrity of the system. Or better put it transforms not just policy but the normative premises and working style of the system itself. Thus it might be more useful to judge great changes in a political-economic model not by the obvious, changes in policy that are predictable and in line with factional lines. Instead changes to the mechanics of a system by using its methods against itself provide a better basis for measuring change. It may be time to get those measuring sticks out --not to judge changes in the policies of these three states, but to measure the way that these policy changes evidence the more profound oscillation in the character of the political-economic model. And those oscillations are best gauged, not by social scientists and their invocations of the deities of data and analytics, but by watching carefully the way that politics imitates popular culture an the way that popular culture mimics politics in a dialectic that is more revealing that any model produced through the reductionism of modelling. This is not a new phenomenon, certainly, but technology has made its creation and diffusion far more pervasive and powerful. In China, Cuba, and the United States, it is to television rather than the televised performances of political actors (the term is deliberately used in all its senses here) from which one ought to extract the politics of a state. That is what the American election of 2020 teaches (as well as its run up) reminds us today; China and the Cubans follow with national characteristics.