A few years ago, I wrote a “Carta a un joven que se va” (Letter to a young man who is leaving; June 12, 2012) and sent it to La Joven Cuba. At that time, I didn’t know any of its editors, all under the age of 30, and I only knew that the blog rescued the intellectual heritage of the Cuban left. Although it was long for a blog, they said they liked it and were going to publish it. That experience, the first I had with networks, taught me some things about consensus and dissent.
In about 12 hours, there were more than a hundred comments of all types. Nearly at midnight, I discovered that among the most furious, there were a handful who had been doing it non-stop since morning, and they saturated the debate space. The blog’s own editors had been responding to them, but they were still there. An expert friend later explained to me that they were trolls. She recommended that I not reply to that string of diatribes. Later, more interesting reactions appeared, in a different tone.
One was apparently written by an unknown relative of my friends Pedro and Ricardo Monreal, who said he was based on Pomorie beach. That vulgarized young Cuban referred to remote events as if he had lived them, and he wrote with the skill of a journalist with vast experience. Another networking expert suggested that he might be the heteronym of a well-known writer, but I didn’t pay much attention to him, because the conspiracy theory has always hit me in the face, as my mother used to say. Finally, months later, a young man with a verifiable name responded with a rather long text, which had a rebound effect on my letter.
Although he confronted me, I could understand that the letter was for him more of a pretext, what we say “using it as study material” for his own barrage of critical judgments, many of which seemed very reasonable to me, and some even illustrative of my own arguments. In the end, he closed by saying that he would not return to Cuba until a democracy like the one he enjoyed in the European country where he lived was restored. In addition to putting my letter in the spotlight, as a target, and the lessons learned about consensus building and dissent in the networks, the popularity of his post had two subsequent effects on me, which I want to comment on from the advantage of the years gone by.
The first was that, thanks to that rebound, I reached new readers, also in government. That dynamics taught me something about following consensus and dissent from above; and it even had some use for some of my later research. The second was equally instructive, and I might say, fascinating. The fact is that, sometime later, the same young man decided to return and start a family business, taking advantage of the modest space opened by the reforms, and although he was still there, he was also here. I confess that I was happy to see that life was still richer and full of unforeseen scenarios, especially when one doesn’t drive always looking in the rear view mirror.
In the first part of this article I ended by asking what consensus was, how it was related to dissent and dissidence, and to what extent the perfect past of the early years of the Revolution was related to a political culture that has continued to accompany us, with its conditions of reproduction, and just with plain politics. From that retrospective look, I returned to the present, to suggest seven problem areas that could capture the interaction between these processes and our political culture.
Since any student of political science and good leaders learn early on, consensus and dissent are not excluding; they are involved. The art of building consensus is, to a large extent, dealing with dissent. The notion that unanimity was misleading began to appear in government discourse since the Rectification debates (1986-1990). Long before, however, that incessant factory of political imagination that is speech had created the “sinflictive” neologism, the popular antonym of the term “conflictive,” which used to designate those who frequently disagreed in assemblies or confronted the bosses. The sinflictive was that deceptive unanimous, which the speech would eventually end up placing among the problems to rectify, as “unanimitism.” Although some observers have pointed out that it is more likely to be objected as “conflicting,” “problematic” and “judicious” than as “sinflictive,” orthodox or dogmatic, the weight of those distant debates in legitimizing dissent was not negligible.
In any case, if it’s about consensus, it could be argued that the one of recent years is crossed by dissent perhaps as never before, to the point that political discourse has naturalized it. Raúl Castro, for example, has indicated that leaders must reason “with solid arguments, without believing they are the absolute owners of the truth; that they know how to listen even if they don’t like what some say; that they value the criteria of others with an open mind.” He argues that they must be able to “encourage frank discussion and not see in discrepancy a problem but the source of the best solutions,” since “absolute unanimity is generally fictitious and therefore harmful.”
Returning to our seven problem areas, the first of all is the one that regarding the new visions about socialism predominating today, compared to those existing in the initial years, the 1970s and 1980s. These new visions are rooted in a more differentiated society, which was created, as sociological research has shown since the years prior to the special period, by the very social development that the system generated. Obviously, the political culture that has accompanied this development, made up of diverse social beliefs and behaviors, does not consist only of ideological bipolarities, as in the past, but of a more complex and contradictory social process. It is these changing social relations that build a more heterogeneous map and a consensus with a more differentiated structure. From that society arises the demand for a prosperous, sustainable, sovereign and democratic socialism, not for an imposition from above.
The second area or characteristic of the new environment is the lack of concentration in the reproduction of ideas. In a society with a higher level of schooling, exposed to political education from the lower levels, and to a cultural matrix such as the one mentioned, political ideas no longer radiate from a single center, institution or leadership. In other words, the ideological resonators—not only those of capitalism-socialism, but those of socialist ideology itself—vibrate in diverse social foci and spaces. For example, artistic and intellectual production.
Third, the socialist culture is experiencing a new plurality. As is known, socialism and the project of the Revolution were contested from the beginning by an anti-communist opposition. In their defense, the revolutionary political forces had no option for survival, over and above their differences, other than organic unification, in order to face the holy alliance of that opposition and the United States, in a formidable block of hostility. It would be difficult to exaggerate the centripetal effect of this conflict on the plurality of the revolutionary bloc.
Instead, 30 years later, the rise of critical debate aroused by the rectification process, the psychological imprint of the debacle of socialism in Eastern Europe, and the emergence of new relations between civil society and the State, in the midst of the crisis in the 1990s, fostered a new plurality within that left-wing political culture. As an example, the expressions of dissent manifested in the debates and citizen consultations of recent years are enough.
Fourth, the thought and political culture of socialism are no longer expressed today in a single breviary of shared theses, as it used to be more than 30 years ago. Many of those who identify themselves as revolutionaries, socialists, or communists resonate with different ideas. In fact, it can be seen that the interaction between some ways of thinking and others does not always unfold in a climate of peaceful dialogue, but sometimes becomes incandescent. The deficits in the culture of debate that these rows reveal correspond, in a certain way, to policies that seek to advance in unknown terrain, that of the search for another socialism. Each current claims to know what it is and how it is done.
The fifth area refers to the nature of these contradictions, within a process of transition such as the one we are experiencing. Are they avoidable conflicts or are they structural in nature? Do they express the natural differences between different conceptions that have always coexisted under a monolithic institutional uniqueness only in appearance? Is it desirable and feasible that a smart and moderate policy cushions them? Do they reflect the type of consensus required to maneuver effectively and a fast respond in a circumstance of greater relative vulnerability? Or do they expose that consensus to the danger of being torn apart? What is the optimal balance between consensus and dissent?
A few days ago, a friend used the movie Los dos papas as an example. Is the Church weaker because it accommodates currents as different as those represented by Ratzinger and Bergoglio? Or does it express the equation of a transition towards a new order, still indeterminate, and whose uncertainty surrounds us?
The sixth area involves a question that is not at all academic, although to some it seems that it is: to what extent does the sense of history and the moment in which we live go through looking at the past in a different way? From the reconstruction of our internal conflicts to the understanding of what ties us intimately to the United States; from the use of cultural means to defend national sovereignty to the application of conspiracy theory to everything that comes from the United States—including migratory birds. Intelligence about the past, and its significance for the present, are rigorously over-determined by our knowledge. In the age of the google-ization of knowledge, the line between investigating and editorializing history can become more tenuous and imperceptible than it used to be in the era of Gutenberg and analogical erudition. It depends on that history whether the present is constructed with a sense of the historical moment, or with that of a Sicilian defense. And that the future be imagined the same way.
Finally, regarding the Internet, the seventh area brings us a new geopolitics that, as with civic culture, has left behind certain divisions inherited by generations still alive. For example, that of the topological representations that separated the surrounding reality into “inside” and “outside.” Everything that happens in the real world, and circulates in its own way on the networks, is inside and outside at the same time. This does not mean, as some enthusiasts of virtual reality and symbolic universes claim, that we are living in a world where everything is anywhere, nation states disappear, the sense of territoriality is erased, we walk around with transnational identities, etc. But it is true that national and international politics are increasingly interconnected and mutually dependent.
If dissent is structural to consensus and civic culture; yes, although some don’t seem to have found out, it has been naturalized by political discourse; if, in addition to the art and literature produced within the island, Cuban civil society exercises it at all times and everywhere, what is the place of the opposition in the real field of that society and in that of its everyday politics? What is dissent, what is its nature, its political style, its ways, here and now? Are they the ones who promote dialogue, national reconciliation and democratic consensus? Those who embody the healthy plurality that Catholic bishops speak of? The antipodes of the “authorized,” “officialism,” the complacent and silent? Are they the same “unauthorized” people who always express the background of an irreverent and genuine Cuban culture, like Rialta, that character in Paradiso, Lezama’s novel? Could they be identified as a loyal opposition? Let’s wait for the inauguration of the new government in the United States to pass, to approach the issue in an impartial and reasonable way.