The State, the Virus and the Sewing Machine

by Yassel A. Padrón Kunakbaeva

The idea for this article came from reading a piece by Víctor Fowler in La Jiribilla, entitled ‘Otra conversación sobre el coronavirus’ (‘Another Conversation about the Coronavirus’). I found it highly accurate in most of the ideas it brings forward, which bear indications of having elaborate and complex thought behind them. However, there’s a phrase that’s worth debating about, since stating it as it is, so categorically, may be misguided: ‘The huge mass of theories, propositions, documents, texts and critical discourses of all kinds in favor of limiting the power of state apparatuses (along with the supposed capacity of the market-civil society pair to fill power voids with their action) have been reduced to dust in correspondence with the intensity of the crisis. The complexity of the tasks (economic, legislative, political, organizational, etc.) is so big that the action of the State is not only central and organizing, but also admits no substitute.’

Apparently, while the health struggle against COVID-19 intensifies in the streets, the ideological apparatus continues its ideological battle. There have been several articles these days which have tried to draw the superiority of the Cuban social system as a teaching of the epidemic. But not all have had the acumen of finding the proper terms and landing on their feet, like Carlos Luque with his ‘¡Sólo el socialismo salva!’ (‘Only Socialism Saves!’). There’s also the uncalled for attacks on Cubasí against those who criticized ETECSA, and the general pack of those who demonize all production and dissemination of information that isn’t official.

Can one really draw the teaching, even elevated to the level of a theoretical principle, that the State is the adequate institution to organize every aspect of life? It’s certainly understandable that one may defend the idea of what the State means, faced with the blows that neoliberal capitalism has delivered in the last few decades to anything which might set a limit to its rampant accumulation. But that cannot make us forget that, within Cuban socialism, there’s a discussion about the role of civil society, let alone allow us to permanently settle that discussion in favor of state control as a result of the coronavirus.

Civil society isn’t perfect. Within it there are also relations of domination, impulses of mass psychology, ruptures and communication bubbles, etc. If civil society were far better than it is, there’d be no need for the State. The community needs a public power, a moment of power concentration that will allow it to act as a community per se.

That public power, for a number of historical reasons, has assumed the shape of a State.

In recent times we have witnessed, here in Cuba, how fake news and inventions have spread among the people, becoming magnified as they do the rounds. I’ve stood in line listening to the tale of how unscrupulous characters in another province were asking for money to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, when it was actually vaccines for pigs. Immediately afterwards, I heard another story in which a boat had docked in a Havana neighborhood to administer fake sublingual drops, which were actually poison. The culprit behind all that was –I had to laugh behind my facemask, since I hadn’t heard the word used like that in a long time– the counterrevolution. We’ve also learned that some enthusiasts have gone out to kill bats in caves in the countryside, in order to prevent infection.

All that and more is civil society: a hullabaloo of voices in the public square, some more sensible than others and some frankly irresponsible. But the presence of those voices has a raison d’être, and the State cannot replace them, because their function is to counteract the hegemonic vocation of the State and its tendency towards opacity.

The State isn’t perfect either. The temptation of wanting to sweep what was wrong under the carpet lead to terribly bad decisions in the first moments of the Chernobyl disaster. Also, in China, the first reaction of authorities was to try to silence Li Wenliang, the doctor who first warned about the coronavirus. The American government has gone to great lengths to conceal the environmental and human cost of carrying out nuclear tests in the Pacific islands. The Cuban State, from the structural point of view, isn’t so different: how many times have arbitrary decisions been made which were only reversed due to the popular rejection they generated? Over how many things we should discuss more often have they not cast a shroud of silence?

Even from the point of view of management, the superiority of the State is highly debatable. That institution has the advantage of being single-minded, of being able to embrace all of society with its instrumental rationality. That’s why it’s optimal for situations such as this one. Civil society, which is traditionally too fractured, is incapable of substituting the State in these crisis situations. It’s unfortunate; it means we human beings don’t know how to be civilized or act collectively without having someone whipping us into shape.

But the tasks the State is faced with in such situations are not the most complex ones. Not at all. It’s more complex to manage the innumerable small companies and microenterprises which make up an economy, such as barbershops and beauty salons, cafeterias, street salespeople, etc. Since it’s so complex, the State was never able to manage them efficiently, and they have mostly returned to private hands today. Civil society, with its trade relationships, is the one better suited to manage those sectors, because it multiplies the Administrator into countless administrators.

In practice, both things exist, and the usual contradictions will arise: each will pull in its own direction. What’s a little more serious is that the idea of the superiority of state control may solidify on a theoretical level, when the damage this control has caused in Cuba is widely known. It’s true that the present juncture requires a state-coordinated response, but we need our leaders to be more like Lenin, and know that there are moments when war communism must be applied, and moments when a New Economic Policy must be applied.

Meanwhile, I would only like to remind that, at times like these, civil society and the community show some of the most caring and responsible reactions. One should only see the sheer number of facemasks in the streets. A large proportion of them, which is hard to quantify, have not been distributed by the State. The sewing machines throughout the island have not ceased to work, so that many people, mostly mothers and grandmothers, may provide their families with means of protection. That’s also irreplaceable.