Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — Planned obsolescence, one of the acknowledged mechanisms engendered by the voracious capitalist market, aims to make consumers more dependent on merchandise. The “contrived obstacle” is a category of the communist project undertaken by socialism, the only system that has been materialized to date. Here, I will attempt to analyze this aberrant practice inherent to the socialist market.
Many studies on planned obsolescence have been conducted (the concept even has a Wikipedia entry). I will try to portray some of the most common manifestations of the “contrived obstacle.”
The manager of a Cuban State restaurant was telling me of the unending difficulties he faced on requesting the products allotted to his establishment, which are distributed by a wholesale supplier. This is a curious fact, for we are talking about dealings between State companies that are paid through checks, not cash (which often leads to corrupt practices).
The solution, according to this friend of mine, was to offer key people at the wholesale company certain “gifts”, sometimes money, or to share some of the products requested with them. Why would this be necessary, if this is an official transaction between two State companies?
Because there are “contrived obstacles”, obstacles that will be impossible to overcome in the following days, destined to put the restaurant in a tight corner with respect to its menu offers. In the words of this particular manager: “If I don’t get customers, if I don’t have enough products to offer, complaints will begin pouring in from everywhere. When they look into it, I will have to wait weeks, months, for them to tell me I’m right. But I will have new enemies, ready to place obstacles in my way. They or their replacements, if they dismiss those responsible, will charge again, creating more obstacles, hoping to frustrate my just demands. It would become a veritable, pointless war.”
Contrived obstacles are found across the entire services industry, like fleas on a dog. In the public transportation sector, the common thing is have people wait at the stop for a long time and then send two buses, one right behind the other. Waiting in long lines makes people desperate and more prone to paying whatever they’re carrying to get on the bus. The drivers, who are very kind at this point, pocket dozens of fares, encouraging people to board the bus through the back door.
The most absurd obstacles are to be found in legal transactions, especially in those particularly convoluted ones having to do with housing. One will need a lawyer, but not precisely because of their expertise, but because of their personal relationship with the authorities responsible for signing the pertinent documents and applying the needed stamps. There is of course a price we pay for contrived obstacles, and the takings are shared by such bureaucrats and the brilliant pettifogging solicitor hired to knock down those fabricated obstacles.
It is now time to try my hand at philosophy and attempt to arrive at a more precise definition of the category of “contrived obstacles.”
These are unnecessary obstacles which defy common sense (unless we invoke the commercial logic of securing profits at all costs), barriers destined to make customers desperate, undermine their patience and lead to seek, with a payment, a favor from those who create the difficulties in the first place, who get what they want through this tortuous mechanism.
Bureaucracy is not a socialist invention, but it becomes most extensive and powerful within this project, understood as an authoritarian communist State. No other social project seeks to regulate every single aspect of a person’s life. Hence, contrived obstacles reach their highest expression under the socialist project.
The original idea was to give people the capacity to regulate society for the common good, to bring the blind laws of the market, its anarchy, a market which tends to widen the gap between the rich and poor and to produce an unjust distribution of riches, under control.
Socialist functionaries emerge from the new “proletarian State,” whose sincere aim is a society governed by the best citizens, based on solidarity and common sense. These experts are called on to regulate the market, to favor social balance. However, money, the root of all evil, is always present, setting low passions in motion, passions that become ferocious when one has a certain quota of power.
The project is ultimately betrayed. One of the concrete manifestations of this, one of the repeated abuses of power we experience, is that of creating false difficulties (which reaffirm the power of the bureaucracy).
Any form of socialism will inevitably experience this, for it cannot forego monetary and commercial relations for a very long time. Orthodox communists like Che Guevara spoke out against this subversive economic fact. It is important to stress that bureaucracy, and market categories, existed millennia before capitalism and its rival, socialism.
Today, fighting against the contrived obstacle entails a struggle akin to the battle of the titans and the seven-headed Hydra. Are there any solutions within an authentic socialist project? If we could at least reduce the number of people who demand money for basic human solidarity, it would be a significant step in that direction.