By Daniel Margrain
In my previous post, I examined how notions of authenticity play out in capitalist spaces and posited that authenticity and the subordination of people to profit are irreconcilable concepts.
In the eyes of much of both the Western corporate media and the governments who sing to their tune, the quasi-socialist state of Cuba is regarded as a formal authoritarian ‘dictatorship’. The informal elected dictatorship, the United States, on the other hand, is widely regarded to be a paragon of democratic values and freedom despite the fact that the world’s major imperial power continues to wage wars abroad and suppresses dissent at home. This has led at least one prominent dissenting voice to claim that the US displays many of the characteristics of a fascist state.
How can the apparent dichotomy between fascism and formal democracy be explained?
For the answer, it’s necessary to evaluate a countries credentials in terms of democratic outcomes. This relates, not to the particular form traditional-based democracies take as applied in theoretical and historically formal structures, but as they apply meaningfully, in practice. Let’s look at Cuba, Britain and the West in general as comparative examples.
In Cuba, the formal capitalist market plays no part in the organization of society. As the lifeblood of liberal capitalist democracies is consumerism, the conceptual understanding of democracy in Western society is tied to the notion of public relations and the passive consumer. The writer and film-maker Adam Curtis provides a historical analysis of this relationship in his impressive BBC series The Century of the Self.
In contrast to the British state-corporate conception of democracy in which populism and grass roots activism are frowned upon and passivity encouraged by the elites – as evidenced by the corporate-political classes reaction to Jeremy Corbyn – Cuban society is characterized by active political citizenship. Cuban politics, unlike its counterparts in the West has not, therefore, become susceptible to the distortions inherent to the market – the process of the buying and selling of things within what Marx calls the ‘sphere of circulation’.
The extent of the overriding corruption within the sphere of circulation is evident throughout all Western liberal democracies, where the lobbying interests of giant multinational corporations wield extraordinary power to the extent that they are able to influence democratic decision-making processes in their favour to the detriment of the general public good.
As I illustrated in my previous post, the subordination of people to profit can be witnessed daily by the extent to which the public sector continues to be debased and underfunded, predicated on the neoliberal ideology of austerity and welfare retrenchment. Meanwhile, Further and Higher education Research and Development Departments are increasingly under pressure not to be critical of the less than ethical practices of the giant corporations who are funding them, while many students are being priced out of higher education altogether.
The work of professionals like teachers and social workers are increasingly being nudged away from the classroom and face-to face interaction and communication with other human beings, towards productivity outputs, time-management and the seemingly overriding obsession of meeting financial targets.
Members of the general public who previously traveled on what was once integrated and unifying public transport systems funded directly from the public purses of governments, are now deemed to be customers who travel on largely fragmented and privately owned systems that have been funded through processes by which public tax-payers money subsidize the private capital of the giant corporations who now run them.
In Britain this method of funding is euphemistically termed Private Finance Initiative (PFI). The principle of public money underwriting private capital at great expense to the taxpayer, is a common practice throughout the democracies of the Western world. What used to be not-for-profit public services run in the interests of the general public who funded them directly from the public purse, are now increasingly being run for profit in the interests of giant multinational corporations whose tentacle like grip extends into virtually every aspect of our lives.
Even healthcare is not immune from this predatory practice. Recipients of healthcare in the US are deemed to be customers rather than patients, as if being wheeled around on a hospital trolley is akin to spending time in a car showroom or shopping for a refrigerator in a department store. Such is the distorting prioritizing logic of profit maximization that if one has the misfortune of needing urgent medical attention on the streets of the US, the healthcare worker is obliged in the first instance, to feel for the customer’s credit card before feeling for the patient’s pulse.
So the corrupted system of capitalism effectively reduces all human relations to the same profit-motivated logic as everything else. This is not the case in Cuba, where a different set of priorities have come to dominate social life. As Cuba is not a capitalist country, mass consumerism is not a distorting feature of the political process.
Therefore, the giant corporations whose life-blood the sphere of circulation represents, have no role to play in Cuban society. All things being equal, this means that collectively the Cuban people get to ensure that their basic needs are met as opposed to placing ‘democracy’ in the hands of unseen CEOs of major companies whose interests primarily lie with politicians, themselves and their shareholders.
This would suggest that Western liberal democracy is based on an economic system based on creating wants and desires aimed towards a passive consumer in order to sustain itself. Cuban society, on the other hand, is premised on the notion that people are active political subjects who have direct control over the running of their lives free from all the corrupting influences described.
Consequently, one of the poorest countries on the planet whose comparable nations are failed states like Somalia or Haiti, manages – unlike them – to provide its citizens with the necessities of life. This is despite the privations that underpin the continuing blockade and the punitive economic measures used against it by the worlds biggest superpower. Whether it’s Corbyn in Britain, or Castro in Cuba, the threat of good example is what the elites cannot tolerate.
In this respect, the fundamental ethos of Cuban society which runs contrary to the capitalist ethos, is a recognition that it is not the duty of society to provide favourable conditions in order for corporations to give the public what they think they ought to have, but to ensure that a genuinely responsive democratic government of the people, by the people, for the people, provides the public with what they need to ensure their fundamental well-being. This includes water, food, housing, education and healthcare which are all provided for free of charge or at minimal cost to all Cuban people irrespective of income and status.
In his book Tell Me No Lies, John Pilger cites the writer Simon Louvish recounting the story of a group of Soviets touring the United States before the age of glasnost. After reading the newspapers and watching TV, they were amazed to find that, on the big issues, all the opinions were the same. “In our country,” they said, “to get that result we have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what’s your secret? How do you do it?”
The answer to the question is that the Western media provide an illusion of freedom, democracy and authenticity in which it appears that the entire nature of society is really about the buying and selling of things within the sphere of circulation. Under capitalism people seek solace from their oppression in consumerism. Hence, we often hear of the ‘feel good factor’ associated with shopping and the notion of ‘retail therapy’ that the activity related to shopping implies.
It is impossible in capitalist societies to escape this process. All the features of capitalism which the writer, Naomi Klein, describes in her book No Logo, such as advertising and branding, are all part of the process where the power of the commodity dominates. All capitalist-based societies, whatever their variation are, in reality, overt forms of dictatorship.
My fundamental argument is that Cuban socialism and the democratic values that underpin it, necessarily overlap by virtue of the fact that the former is a necessary precondition for the establishment of the latter. In my view, this explains the reason why Cuba – outside of the tourist enclaves – represents one of the few authentic forms of society on the planet.
In the next three posts, I will touch on similar themes by relating some of my 2009 experiences where I traveled independently for two months visiting the Cuban towns and cities of Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Veradero.