Freedom to Choose

Dmitri Prieto

Bayamo vendor.

The recent speech by President Raul Castro to the National Assembly laid out the prospects for the diversification of self-employment in Cuba.

The possibility of allowing self-employed people to hire their own workers was even mentioned.  In other words, they would no longer be self-employed workers, but true small business people.

Perhaps one of the positive consequences of such a measure will be a greater possibility for consumers to choose products and services based on quality and preference.  As economist Cristina Calvo told me, the freedom to choose is one of the conditions for a descent life, along with self-esteem and adequate sustenance.

I myself wrote a while ago (see Self-employment in Cuba: Who Wins?) of the “Special Period” crisis having now been “surmounted” (by the boring uniformity of State products) when at some of the city’s busiest bus stops there had been arrays of food stands with diverse selections of products.  In these places one could choose whatever refreshment to drink and whatever sandwich or sweet to eat, and the salespeople’s treatment is even congenial.

Let’s hope this happens again.

Even though we are now so accustomed to the same thing and more of the same thing being sold, a liberalization of small businesses would not be bad.

I would also want systems implemented in the public sector where it would be possible to choose your own doctor or the school where you could send your children.  Clearly, many of those things are addressed today through “pulling strings,” meaning the combination of personal relationships and administrative resources outside the established norms.

If education is truly diversified, it could stimulate qualitatively better forms of instruction.  This would also increase the capacity for creation in Cuban society as a whole and in the face of tremendous world challenges.

However…the proposed changes point toward a new private sector.  What will be the social effect of the appearance of a new small business class with a wage-labor work force?

On the other hand, is it indispensable that property be privately owned for the freedom of choice to exist?  The neo-liberals would respond yes, flatly.  Even some socialists would perhaps smile sadly in agreement… Or maybe not?

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.


11 thoughts on “Freedom to Choose

  • August 10, 2010 at 3:14 pm
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    Dmitri, I just wanted to add a comment on the idea of choice. In Britain, “freedom to choose” with regards to the welfare state was a key policy of New Labour. In the end there was a backlash. The problem became known as “the tyranny of choice”. A quick google search gives the following article: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=0006AD38-D9FB-1055-973683414B7F0000
    To quote its opening paragraph: “Logic suggests that having options allows people to select precisely what makes them happiest. But, as studies show, abundant choice often makes for misery.” Rather than choice, what people were really concerned about was the quality of what was on offer. Thus in my opinion, choice is somewhat of a red herring. Socialism needs to have dynamism and diversity and that requires more complex feedback systems than are present in the Soviet Model. Choice is certainly a necessary component of such feedback, but it is not the be all and end all. Rather a balance is what is required.

  • August 10, 2010 at 12:54 am
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    Was the contradiction lost on everyone? Freedom to choose inherently requires freedom to produce, to sell, to respond to ever changing consumer needs. Co-operatives deal with the issue of income distribution among its members but not among co-operatives. So, it is really irrelevant here.

  • August 9, 2010 at 10:56 pm
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    George, thanks for the reply. My 2009 book is a short, futuristic novel entitled A Gladness in the Eyes. It was felt that a popularization in novel form would be a good first presentation. As it turned out, it’s a pretty good read! A second book, a non-fiction programmatic statement, should be available shortly.

    Wow . . . Thanks so much for your constructive and deliberative words, and especially for the info re Cyprus. What is occurring through HT in English is the kind of exchanges of ideas that the socialist movement needs, if we are ever to solve our movement’s problems. (Circles has accomplished quite a feat!)

    I’ve got about 100,000 things to say in reply, but not a lot of space in which to say them. So, let me just touch on one item, and perhaps talk more via email.

    Re “don’t attack Marx . . . It’s counterproductive.” Thanks, and I understand. It’s what everybody says. May I reply respectfully: I have to speak the truth as I see it. The evidence indicates that Engels and Marx were provocateurs. “By their fruits you will know them,” and their fruits have been a catastrophe for world socialism. Either they were stupid and incompetent, or they deliberately injected militant-sounding yet objectively counter-transformational ideology into the socialist movement.

    Whether they were provocateurs or not however, Marxism is the main obstacle to the triumph of authentic socialism in the world. Its unworkable state monopoly economic formula has utterly disgraced the name of socialism, and it has disoriented the socialist vanguard for a century-and-a-half. (Surely I’m not off the mark here.)

    Socialist theory can only develop if it is pursued with a scientific frame of mind. This means that the core economic formula of workable socialism should be worked out according the Scientific Method. A proposed economic formula for socialism should be taken as a “hypothesis” ready for debate and exprimentation.

    Marxism however did not and does not do it this way. Two bourgeois guys said in 1848 that “this is the way it is,” and everyone came to accept their pontifications as though they were holy scripture. I’m sorry, George, but historical experience and common sense says that their core formula was and is absolutely, utterly wrong.

    What am I supposed to say? “Yes, everybody, Marx was the Jesus Christ of socialism, for now and forever, and we have to abide by his holy words, no matter what our experiments and our experience in the real world indicate to the contrary.” I will not say it, and I will ask every honest in the world not to say it and be disoriented by it any longer.

    You are saying: “No, we shouldn’t be religious about Marx’s works, but let’s not attack Marx because so many have so much faith and affection for him.” Uh, George . . . If you buy this argument, that is fine. I cannot. I must speak the truth as I see it, and let the chips fall as they may.

    The bottom line is this:

    Marxism formulates socialism as “state monopolization of the land and all the instruments of production.”

    Modern cooperative socialism formulates it as “direct ownership of the instruments of production by those who do the work, through employee-owned cooperative corporations on the Mondragon model, with significant but partial “preferred” stock ownership by the socialist state.”

  • August 9, 2010 at 7:31 pm
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    Dmitri
    I am also optimistic, this is a very good move for Cuba the freedom to choose. I am hoping they will jump also from the economical realm to a political sooner or later better sooner than later.
    They have gone this path before this usually happens when they are in trouble. It is no secret they are in economic trouble now. I wonder how could they get in economical trouble in a plan economy? and if it can happen then what is the benefit of all the planing? The fact is there is always things that can never be predicted in advance. A hurricane, three hurricanes, The collapse of the eastern block. etc.

    For example when the special period started they went into a similar path but without allowing the employment of others that were not family members.
    Many think that the only reason the regime is going on this path is until the economical situation improve and once more they will go back to their default position. The one that does not allow individuals to contribute to society or limiting capitalism.
    Assuming these change make the economic situation improve then that will be a clear indication of more changes needed to facilitate more privatization of the economy. So at one point one is to ask then why do we need socialism for? Just to have a small oligarchy directing a country?
    What ever happen to all the talks about social justice and the other speeches of equality?

  • August 9, 2010 at 12:51 pm
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    Grady, I’d love to read your book, what is the title? I want to state my position so far with regards to your ideas. I think that what you call “co-operative socialism” is by far the best proposed model involving markets, much better than say Scandanavian Socialism. However I still think that there is scope for exploring models without markets as well. As Sam points out cybernetics offers potentials for introducing the dynamism and decentralisaion that is the best feature of capitalism, without compromising socialist practice. I know you are dismisive of this idea, probably because you are so focused on getting your own idea adopted, but it has not really been tried, so I think you should keep an open mind. We have to be scientific about these things and try different things to establish how to move forward. Unfortunately Cuba does not have the infrastructure currently to try the cybernetic approach. Your idea is far easier to experiment with, it does not require investment, but merely a change in law. However privatisation is always easier than nationalisation, and I believe it would be a tragedy if Cuba did not experiment with the cybernetic approach whilst it has the conditions of state ownership. As I said, I understand that you are pushing so hard for “co-operative socialism” that you are not really willing to consider the cybernetic approach, but I think this is a mistake. Neither option has been fully explored, and so neither should be rulled out.

    I am curious whether you have tried disseminating your idea in China? Of course China is a hugely bigger country, which makes getting your ideas heard much harder, but I think China is more in need of your ideas than Cuba.

    In fact what I beieve is your best bet is to approach the Communist Party of Cyprus, AKEL, though I might be biased as I have roots there. The reason for this is that Cyprus, like Cuba is a small country, even smaller in fact with a population of only about a million. However the Communist Party is the biggest electoral party on the island with just over a third of the vote. Combined with the Socialist Party, EDEK, they account for just over fifty percent of the vote. Cyprus also has one of the highest levels of unionisation in the world, with many of its businesses union owned. We actually currently have a Communist president, although he resigned as head of the Communist party when he took the job on the grounds that he couldn’t be both leader of the Communists and president of a capitalist country, which I think demonstrates his integrity. The main difficulty for progressing communism Cyprus lies with the continued division of the island, however I think there is potential for nurturing your ideas amongst the rank and file of the population, which could lead to your ideas being put into practice.

    One final note. I think your militant attacks on Marx are not helpful to your cause. Marx is just one thinker, and I have no problem with debating his faults. We should not be religious about his work. But I think your attitude makes it more difficult to get your ideas adopted in Cuba. It may be helpful to advancing your cause in the States where anti-marxian thought is dominant. But in countries where Marx is a respected part of the discourse, it is actually holding you back. For instance if you were to try and disseminate your ideas in Cyprus you would find a similar resistance simply because you were attacking Marx, when in fact your ideas would be much more warmly received if you simply ignored Marx and talked about pragmatic socialsim.

    Anyway, I’d welcome an email correspondence with you and as I said at the beginning would love to read your book. You can get my email from Dmitri or Circles.

  • August 8, 2010 at 9:04 pm
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    Dmitri’s article is positive in many ways. He yearns for the dynamism and plurality of consumer choice that is a common feature of a capitalist system. Having spent his life in a dysfunctional state monopoly socialist system, who could blame him!

    Unfortunately, he seems ecstatic about the possibility of small business persons being able to employ wage workers, the theoretical essence of capitalism. In a theoretical sense, Dmitri is applauding the capitalist economic system.

    What is wrong with capitalism, in its economic essence? It is that individuals are able, through the legal ownership of fixed and financial assets–usually referred to as “capital”–to exploit the productive labor and genius of those who do not own.

    Two facts have been proved by the past nine decades of historical experience: (1) A state monopoly socialism economy on the Marxian Communist Manifesto/Soviet formula is unworkable; and (2) A capitalist economy–despite its injustice and inevitable generating of monopoly, imperialism, military-industrialism, war, poverty, and the ecological destruction of the world environment–still can deliver a life style and standard of living to many that is superior to that delivered by a state monopoly socialist system.

    What Dmitri might take a look at is how, through a redefinition of the core economic hypothesis of socialism as cooperative employee ownership of the instruments of production plus partial, non-controlling ownership by a democratic socialist state, the people of Cuba might retain the positives attributes of the old system, yet develop the dynamism and pluralism of a natural, entrepreneurial form of socialism.

    A very provocative article,Dmitri. Thanks.

    To Sam: You mind seems to be unburdening itself from sectarianism. Who knows . . . You may become a modern cooperative socialist!

    To George: Right on! You should read my book!

  • August 8, 2010 at 4:13 am
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    I have not given up on the idea of doing away with markets altogether, but I am also pragmatic, and if small businesses are what is required to get the economy working at the moment then so be it. But I have one reservation, if we are going to have market operations then we must ensure that legislation is in place to ensure all small businesses are run as co-operatives. Even in co-operatives there are managers, but the workers have rights over managerial decisions. If people are going to be able to hire workers, then the resulting relationship must be a co-operative one by law. Otherwise we will create a class of micro capitalists.

  • August 8, 2010 at 3:57 am
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    Unfortunately, and possibly on a pessimistic note, I do not think owning a small business is all it takes to create this so calles «freedom of choice». I think it takes tremendous effort as much from the people as from the governement-operated offices. But I do hope it comes one day.

  • August 8, 2010 at 3:30 am
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    Interesting thoughts. But then again, Cuba is not the first socialist country trying to find its “new” way. There are the old Soviets, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and even North Korea doing this in real time. Question is: why it takes so long? I read somewhere an article by the retired Chinese ambassador to Cuba, he remembered that Mr. Castro used to call him for long chat, asking all kinds of questions regarding the Chinese style reform, for hours on end. Apparently, Cuban government has made its decision not to follow the Chinese style reform. I wonder why, and I really wanted to know why. (I don’t know much about Cuba, but it seems to me that the Cuban government has put its policy priority on health, education, and I admire them for that. Its heart is at the right place.)

    Mr. Prieto wrote: “I would also want systems implemented in the public sector where it would be possible to choose your own doctor or the school where you could send your children.” I don’t know very much about the Cuban current public health or education systems. But I have to say, from the Chinese experience, be careful with the healthcare system reform. I would regard the Chinese healthcare reform a failure. (It didn’t have a good public healthcare to begin with), free to choose doctors sounds good, but the downside is huge. Cuba already has at least good enough healthcare and education, lots of people in other countries would die for. If it is not broken, why fix it?

    Mr. Prieto: “However…the proposed changes point toward a new private sector. What will be the social effect of the appearance of a new small business class with a wage-labor work force?” Like I said, Cuba is not the first socialist country to start this. The quickest way to resolve this is to buy a ticket to China, book a tour across the river to North Korea. You can answer this question in one day. (This is for the Europeans, and Americans, Canadians. For Cubans, just go to China and ask around.)

    There is a talk about Beijing consensus (whatever), why not give it a try? I really want to know the reasons why Cuban government resist it. Anybody?

  • August 8, 2010 at 1:38 am
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    Anyways, a thought-with social networking and media, doesn’t the state have a new opportunity in the modern information age to gather information, demands and desires about its people in a way no socialist state has ever been able to do? For instance, if a sizeable portion of Cubans complain about the quality of burgers at Che Burger, then the state company has a mechanism to go and improve their recipes or add variety. Traditionally, I think it’s the alienation between the decision making in the massive, central state monopolies and the actual demands of consumers. Whereas private companies had a financial incentive to set up systems to “scan the market” for needed goods, have focus groups, ect, public enterprises were traditionally more ignorant about the actual demand levels of the population or needs in particular industrial enterprises. If all companies and consumers go online, couldn’t that improve the command and control system of the Cuban state without any repression?

  • August 8, 2010 at 1:34 am
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    I think you absolutely can have choice in socialism. But you need more capacity for people to micromanage their operations. The reason that the canned goods in the USSR were dull and boring was probably because the same massive state monopoly built both of them. Surely if customers, local management or the workers had more say in design, ect then there would also presumably be a healthier set of choices.

    Private business on the other hand is an easy way to create choice, and isn’t bad on a small level. But once it starts to operate on a large level, you have problems. I do think perhaps its the best option for Cuba right now, since they probably lack the bureaucrats, resources and means of production to improve their socialist sector on a planned level. Presumably, considering Cuba’s dismal performance in its agricultural sector last year, this is the case.

    Anyways, choosing your doctor i fine, but choosing one’s school can get iffy. Would people who pay fees have a better chance of getting their schools changed, or could this be done on a really egalitarian basis? One of the flaws of our American model is the different qualities of schools for different economic sectors.

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