‘Butts Against the Incentive’

Dmitri Prieto

Recently, in the debate on the future of the Cuban economy, there has been a great deal debate on the “workplace incentive policies.”  This has involved what are usually called salaries, or wages, and “hard currency incentives” (meaning bonus payments in CUCs, a currency that mimics the US dollar at an exchange rate of one dollar for every 25 “laborer pesos”).

Earlier, people also spoke of “moral incentives” (awards, certificates, designations of “outstanding” and “vanguard” workers), but today few remember that such incentives exist.

It always seemed to me that there was something Pavlovian and behavioristic in those forms of incentives.  Work is a social fact, a practice and a much more complex experience, while that which has to do with incentives is a drastic over-simplification of a complex reality.

I prefer to speak of motivations, because not everything in the human life is like making a dog salivate, or making it believe that the sound of a bell signals some canine banquet.

I checked the dictionary and I found something surprising: “Incentive,” in Latin, means “a goad,” like the sharp stick that was used to prod oxen along.

Experts will recall the phrase by Jesus spoken to Paul of Tarsus along the road to Damascus: “Why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

In the Latin translation of the Bible prepared by Saint Jerome, this appeared as something similar to “head butts against the incentive.”

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

2 thoughts on “‘Butts Against the Incentive’

  • December 7, 2010 at 4:04 am

    It is interesting how, over the millenia, words change their meanings. Many Latin words, like “incentive” or “fascii,” for example, once signified physical objects, but now signify abstract qualities or systems.
    Speaking of “incentives,” I wonder what would have “incentivized” the employees in the Ciego de Avila bus terminal snack bar serve their potential patrons?! When I stepped off the ViAzul bus on a recent trip I tried to gain their attention, but of the five employees behind the counter, two were counting stock, one was checking the cash-register receipts, and one was determined to look off into (outer) space. After attempting to get their attention for several minutes, I gave up. Fortunately, there were private vendors at the edges of the bus terminal who were more willing to attend to their customers, though as a result of eating their snacks there were some, err, “dire consequences” some hours later! As was the practice of the Imperial Romans, I too, was able to “purge” shortly thereafter.
    On the other hand, Cuba’s dysfuntional socialism has no monopoly on poor service. It is the norm up here, too. Often, when I stop off at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, the employees behind the counter seem to be in a deep coma. This has changed somewhat during the last two or three years, however; with the official unemployment rate at 10%, and the real unemployment rate at between 14% and 16%, the owners of such franchises are now able to pick-and-choose their employees more carefully, and exploit them more mercilessly; hence their is now a certain desperation in their workers.

  • December 7, 2010 at 3:15 am

    Interesting article, Dmitri. “Incentives” goes to the heart of socialist theory.

    Capitalist employers have always desired that workers should work for “moral” incentives–various types of pats on the back–rather than for higher wages and salaries. Thus it is no great mystery that privileged-class elements coming into the socialist movement have brought with them this capitalistic grudge against “material” incentives.

    These privileged-class elements have included such as Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon and Engels/Marx.

    All the commune builders and state monopolists have tried to replace material incentives with so-called moral incentives. The big “advance” for the capitalists came in 1848 when moral incentives replaced material incentives in the socialist movement through the state ownership of all the instruments of production principle of Marxism.

    All revolutions that have tried to jump to moral instead of material incentives prematurely–that is, in the long transition period of “socialism”–have ended in failure. The Cuban Revolution unfortunately has continued this tradition.

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