The bad bureaucrat

por Yassel Padrón Kunakbaeva

Some of us use the term bureaucracy a lot in our analyses, and we do not realize that it may be somewhat confusing for our readers. The way in which we scientifically use the concept may be slightly at odds with the popular representations existing in common knowledge regarding ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘bureaucratism’. In our country, most people associate these terms with red tape, absurd delays, poor service and irritating procedures. We also have a notion of what a ‘bureaucrat’ is: that repetitive and servile being when looking upwards and authoritarian when looking downwards, who has often been the target of local humor.

The concept of bureaucracy has been developed by many authors, including the brilliant German sociologist Max Weber. I do not mean to carry out a thorough discussion of his ideas in this article, for which I recommend the texts by Mario Valdés Navia in this very site. I would only like to say that many of us are influenced by the notion of bureaucracy developed by Trotsky in works such as The Revolution Betrayed, in which he portrays it as a new class that usurps the leadership of society.

When we say bureaucracy, we do not only mean dysfunctionality in public administration. We are making reference, above all, to the disproportionate empowerment of State officials. We say that those who should be public servants are exploiting their positions to exert domination and grant themselves privileges.

However, it’s not about building a narrative about the wickedness of those who occupy positions as public officials. Personally, I believe there’s no real basis for the stories some would construct about the evil character of leaders; conspiracy theories which depict them as power-hungry beasts. These are representations handled by the radical opposition, which, in my opinion, are very far from the truth.

It’s not a question of individuals, but a question of structure.

Real life shows us many examples which contradict what they mean to sell us with that discourse. There are honest leaders, company directors with poor roofing on their private homes, and who do not consume more fuel than they are allocated. There are people who assume positions of responsibility no one else would, because they imply a major risk of bringing trouble on oneself. There are leaders who listen to the humblest of workers and take their opinions into account.

The inefficiency of bureaucracy has the flip side that, in some sectors, one can find highly efficient civil servants. These people are well qualified in their fields, and if they can’t do more it’s because the general mechanisms keep them from doing so. In that sense, it must be said that not everyone deserves to be described as a ‘bureaucrat’.

In order to understand the characteristics of Cuban bureaucracy and assess its performance, one must resort to history. This structure appeared as a response to specific issues, and it hasn’t changed much since then.

The Cuban Revolution was very successful at destroying most of the forms of private domination existing in the neocolonial past. Private property over the means of production was almost completely eliminated. However, once the State assumed control over nearly everything, it became the victim of an inevitable paradox: it could not eliminate the division between intellectual, administrative and leadership labor and manual labor. With the inexistence of non-authoritarian ways to organize labor, it had to be organized in a centralized manner.

Domination is never based only on the exploitation of man by man and on the appropriation of surplus. It is also an inevitable result of the division of labor, which long ago separated the leadership function as a special task and promoted authoritative ways to organize labor. That separation of functions is essential, for it allows the appearance of that darkened space around the leaders, which lets them exploit those at the bottom with impunity.

In Cuba, the forms of private domination were eliminated, and there was an attempt to eliminate the exploitation of man by man. But the figure of the person in leadership continued to exist, which extended public domination by the State. Since the leaders are in a position beyond the control of those at the bottom, the space is created for impunity and temptation, something human beings are unlikely to resist. Through that gap, the exploitation of man by man and the appropriation of surplus creep in.

The Cuban bureaucracy has been very effective in achieving that for which it was created: to manage the whole process of production and –what’s been more important in the long run– distribution. If the authoritarian organization of production has been determinant, then an even more significant role –in these days when nothing much is really produced– is played by the authoritarian organization of distribution, which materializes in the centralized distribution of resources, that is, fuel, foodstuffs, finances, etc.

That bureaucracy has also been very effective in avoiding the resurgence of forms of private domination. Major domestic private property has still not reappeared. However, it has been unable to avoid becoming a mechanism of public domination, which is exerted in the usual manner of contemporary times: through corruption and the creation of privileges.

The great solution for this problem would be, obviously, the complete socialization of the main means of production and the construction of non-authoritarian ways for the division of labor. But this is much easier said than done. Cuba, as an underdeveloped country, is subject to the old paradigms of thought and authoritarianism, even through Spanish inheritance. There would still be much to be learned from the popular education methods of Paulo Freire.

On the other hand, the latest improvements in robotics and cybernetics, the social networks and the new methods of management based on innovation are some of the most recent advances which allow us to glimpse the possibility of non-authoritarian ways to organize labor. But these advances have become the norm in developed countries, not in Cuba. If Cuba should wish to become a developed country by modern standards, it should start in a lower rung, by strengthening the authoritarian methods of production, like China did.

Then all we need to do is to give the issue a political solution, by creating mechanisms of popular control over the bureaucracy. Domination would still exist, but at least the citizens would have a way to reduce the space for impunity.

However, the Cuban bureaucracy, as the Soviet bureaucracy was in its day, is a closed system which covers all of society and has no counterweight. This also has a purpose: to avoid any breach which may be used by the Revolution’s many and powerful enemies to destroy it. In that sense, we must also acknowledge that the purpose has been fulfilled. The downside is that it gets rid of any means to counteract the public domination exerted by the State.

The Cuban bureaucracy has been, until now, a closed system, because the citizenry has a very limited capacity to control those who become members of it and what positions they hold. That’s all controlled by the Party through its Cadre Policy, so the leadership becomes almost a caste, as the Soviet nomenklatura once was.

As one can see, it is not a question of individual evil: other people in the same positions would make similar mistakes. That’s why this is not an issue that can be resolved with moralizing campaigns or with slogans in the media. That some corrupt leaders be punished from above may have a temporary effect, but it doesn’t provide a lasting solution either. Structural problems can only be solved with structural changes.

Meanwhile, as was said back in the day, the struggle continues.

(translated from the original)