MOOCs and the Masses: Big Data and the Question of Access in Online Teaching

Much of the heat and light generated by recent conversations about the crisis in higher education has been forced through the prism of the “MOOC” (Massively Open Online Course). This has been especially the case during the last year, as the trade press has provided daily click bait to MOOC proponents and opponents alike.

Rather than restate the various arguments for and against MOOCs, I want to focus on the Utopian claims made by the MOOC providers themselves, which invariably center on the concept of access.

At the outset, I should be clear that when I talk about MOOCs, I’m referring to the so-called xMOOCs promoted by companies like Udacity and Coursera. There is a useful pedagogical distinction to be made between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, but discussion about the latter type has been obliterated by the massive promotional campaign being waged by big course providers and their venture capitalist backers.

An important point to make about xMOOCs (and therefore about “MOOCs” as they are now understood in popular discourse), is that they reduce education to the transmission of information from an educator to the learners. A similar point can be made about large lecture courses. MOOC proponents will claim, of course, that online courses, however massive, can offer numerous opportunities for interactions among students and between students and teachers. This is a half truth. Student-to-student interaction, in face-to-face and online courses, often reduces to “Do you know what the professor wants us to do?” The MOOCs on offer do nothing substantial to improve on this limitation of the large lecture course; when classes of 200 become classes of 20,000, things probably get worse. When one looks closely at the pedagogical claims made by MOOC defenders, it becomes clear that interpersonal communication is replaced by something called “interactivity.” The course content itself is interactive. A course, then, is no longer a journey of discovery with its own temporality, open to multiple futures (“outcomes,” in the jargon of assessment); it is a vessel for “content,” information reified, then personified as something that can “interact” with students. Educational content is fetishized to such a degree that it becomes possible to imagine a group of MOOCs sitting around and interacting with each other and the occasional person in an online class. Perhaps soon bumper stickers will appear: “My MOOC is an Honor Student.”

To be fair, the content fetish is a feature of traditional classes, too, and not just in large lecture halls. MOOCs are big, though, so they dominate the current higher-education field like a fifth-grader with a moustache dominates the playground. Course providers leverage this size, displaying their real and potential enrollment numbers to tell a story about access. Traditional education at brick-and-mortar colleges has failed, they say, because it is too expensive and too restrictive for the billions of people who crave a deeper understanding of Artificial Intelligence and Astrophysics. Unless we are to take the reactionary position and refuse to acknowledge broad popular interest in such subjects, this claim should be taken seriously. In fact, course providers should be judged according to whether they uphold their own avowed goals. Let’s look at two examples.


We believe in connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits.

Coursera is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds.

We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.


Our mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right, and we seek to empower our students to advance their education and careers.

There’s a touch of bootstrapping ideology at work here—”education that will improve their lives” and “advance their . . . careers”—but I want to ignore it in order to focus entirely on the Utopian language about educating the world.

To understand why course providers must use this kind of language requires understanding what they are really up to. Since the MOOC makers aren’t the first to advance claims about the power of communications technology to democratize knowledge and culture, it will be helpful to consider some history.

Before the Internet came television, which was preceded by radio. Robert McChesney has written about the battle over broadcasting that took place during the early 1930s. Private broadcasters, through a variety of legislative mechanisms, wrested control of the airwaves from the public domain.

[T]he late 1930s and early 1940s were far from halcyon days to many educators concerned with broadcasting. By 1936, only thirty educational stations remained, and most of these were still enmeshed in dire financial straits that were seemingly inescapable. (233)

At a very early date, then, the educational potential of mass media was curtailed by the profit motive. Many of the radio stations that existed in the early 1920s were operated by colleges and universities like the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Radio, as a medium of mass communication, was very well positioned to bring education to the public-at-large. In 1927, however, the Federal Radio Commission was established and immediately served up the biggest and best slices of the radio spectrum to the fledging commercial networks. This installed a mass media driven by an advertising-based profit model. Public, educational programming would be forced to operate at the edges of this media environment and according to the same profit logic. When viewed alongside their commercial competitors, public radio (and, later, television) stations would eventually appear inefficient and parasitical.

The transformation of the airways from a public utility to a platform for profit didn’t happen easily or overnight, however. There was a fight, and the broadcast industry was forced to tread lightly. We are witnessing a similarly contested struggle over the Internet today. For the sake of drawing out such comparisons, I would like to consider a pedagogical project that, like today’s MOOCs, made philanthropic claims about its intentions.

In Robert Hullot-Kentor’s introduction to his edition of Theodor Adorno’s Current of Music, we read about the Princeton Radio Research Project. Paul Lazarsfeld, the project’s director, had brought Adorno on board, thinking that the German expatriate would assist efforts to foment music appreciation. A few months later, Lazarsfeld would rue his decision, citing Adorno’s “basically wrong attitude” (14). As it turned out, the project’s ostensible purpose, which was to spread musical culture to the public everyman, configured in the intellectual imagination of the day as the “farmer’s wife,” was in no way compatible with Adorno’s views on culture as an essentially negative category, something to be warded off. It also turns out that the project’s real aim was something quite different, as Hullot-Kentor explains.

The broadcast industry itself, having won the privatization of the broadcast system and the right to advertise, in a series of much-disputed legislative struggles then still within living memory, was piously careful to emphasize radio’s performance of social services and its contributions to national moral integrity.

This context certainly emphasized the philanthropic claim of a project to research ‘The Essential Value of Radio for All Types of Listeners’. But if this title is held up to the light and examined a second time, it did once refract other potentials, and still does. It might well name an undertaking to assemble information about what listeners most valued in order to provide the data to some third party with heteronomous purposes for this ‘essential value’. Once this is noticed, it is hard to decide what the title was about. It could, of course, have carried both meanings, as seems to be the case, but, if so, this ambiguity does not need to remain cloaked in lasting obscurity. An otherwise rarely acknowledged hermeneutical device, a dinner party, is available in historical documentation to solve the question. This particular supper, an award ceremony scheduled for the night of 15 February 1940, elucidates the definitive kinds of alliances at work at the Princeton Project: Frank Stanton, soon to be the president of Columbia Broadcasting System, wrote to John Marshall, the grant supervisor at the Rockefeller Foundation, to announce with pleasure that on that February evening Paul Lazarsfeld would be honoured by the advertising industry as the individual who had revealed ‘the educational significance of radio programs’. . . . Lazarsfeld had been chosen as advertising’s man of the year in the area of research for having brought together people from commerce and academia and thus having succeeded at demonstrating the economic significance of radio’s educational potential for advertisers. (11)

It’s possible to draw a number of comparisons between this particular configuration of interests and the current drive behind MOOCs.

Both rely on humanitarian and philanthropic language. “Social services” and “moral integrity” are replaced by “accessibility” and “human rights.” The Iowan housewife becomes a TED-talking, Davos-attending Pakistani girl, beloved of Thomas Friedman and the Gates Foundation.

Paul Lazarsfeld, the “academic tycoon” who sold out to industry, is reborn as a Stanford professor. Like the Princeton Project, MOOC initiatives serve a “third party,” the advertising industry. Robert Meister, president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations (CUCFA), recently wrote a provocative Open Letter to Coursera Founder Daphne Koller. It’s worth reading in its entirely, but one of its most important points is that course providers like Coursera are in the business of big data, the collection and warehousing of detailed information about students’ online behavior, study habits, consumer preferences, etc. This data is then sold to advertisers, or, in Coursera’s case, back to students interested in improving their academic performance and finding a job compatible with their data profiles.

Utopian claims about access are ideological cover for the enclosure of a commons (David Harvey’s “accumulation by dispossession” or, simply, “privatization”). MOOCs, like early radio, originate from technologies and practices pioneered at public universities, with public grant money, or both. Many academics are taking steps to make their research and teaching widely available online and to build databases and tools that allow extramural access and collaboration. This knowledge and technology is being pressed into service by a legislative-managerial class in order to dismantle these public institutions and turn a profit in the bargain. I’m looking at you, Richard Blum. As MOOCs become more widely accepted as alternatives to traditional classes, teaching itself could get outsourced (“unbundled” is the term of art) to private course providers. The consequences of such a Schumpeterian disruption are entirely unknown, so calls to slow down and get the pedagogy right are entirely welcome. But such calls will go unheeded, I fear, because a powerful set of interests has targeted higher education for “innovation” and “operational excellence,” both of which, in the Devil’s Dictionary of the MBA, mean looting.

I return now to my initial, framing point about the reduction of education to information.

As Aaron Bady writes, today’s heavily promoted MOOCs simply reinforce the fetish of the expert.

[T]he MOOCs which are being developed by Silicon Valley startups Udacity and Coursera, as well as by non-profit initiatives like edX, aim to do exactly the same thing that traditional courses have done—transfer course content from expert to student—only to do so massively more cheaply and on a much larger scale.

It’s evident that the Open Source Movement in education, which includes the concept of the MOOC, has been hijacked by course providers and debased as a buzzword for drumming up venture capital and selling their (inferior) product to university administrators eager to expand their market share beyond the geographical regions they normally serve.

Universities are paying for this market expansion with a peculiar currency—information about students. The big-data business model outlined by Meister brings up privacy concerns. Whether such data-gathering violates the spirit of FERPA remains an open question. These concerns about privacy are more pressing than ever in light of recent revelations that the biggest Internet companies give the U.S. government direct access to users’ data. Given the close ties among Coursera, Udacity, and companies like Google, students should think twice about letting these course providers collect and store data about them. For their part, the course providers’ true aims are remarkably consistent with their humanitarian mission statements. They are indeed concerned with increasing access to information . . . about students.

For a university, partnering with Coursera is like putting a bank on campus. It entices or compels them to use a “service” that they never asked for and that wants to extract as much value as possible from them.

It’s easy for administrators to make such deals, however, because they are consistent with the prevailing management philosophy. We often hear calls for universities to be “run like a business.” Well, universities have been run like businesses for decades. The current set of managerial practices, in vogue since the 1990s, is known as Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM).

The "Enrollment Pyramid"

The “Enrollment Pyramid”

According to this paradigm, the years spent at a university are not intended so much as to educate the student (either in the vocational sense or the liberal-arts sense of forming citizen-scholars), but rather to turn as many recruits as possible into “active alumni.” In the meantime, as much profit as possible should be extracted from the student, through amenities, food services, business partnerships, textbook sales, tuition, etc. Image and branding are extremely important to these efforts, but so is information. Universities now build data-driven profiles of prospective students in order to identify and recruit those most likely to be attracted to the university’s own carefully constructed market profile.

Over the past twenty years, often under cover of the euphemisms with which the industry abounds, enrollment management has transformed admissions and financial aid, and in some cases the entire mission of a college or a university. At its most advanced it has a hand in every interaction between a student and a school, from the crafting of a school’s image all the way through to the student’s successful graduation. Any aspect of university life that bears on a school’s place in the collegiate pecking order is fair game: academic advising, student services, even the curriculum itself. Borrowing the most sophisticated techniques of business strategy, enrollment managers have installed market-driven competition at the heart of the university. (“The Best Class Money Can Buy“)

A university is a factory whose customers are also its product.

Financial aid also falls under SEM’s purview:

By making some students and parents pay full fare, or close to it, while offering discounts to less wealthy students, colleges attempt to maximize net tuition revenue. Indeed, after many years of engaging in the “high sticker price, high discount” business model, colleges have acquired armies of “enrollment management” consultants who advise colleges on the best strategies for maximizing tuition revenue.

Some colleges, it turns out, maximize their tuition revenue by running what amounts to a legal scam by gaming the Pell Grant system.

The rapid increase in the number of university administrators correlates to the rise of SEM as a management paradigm. SEM’s reliance on big data requires an army of analysts, the appearance of which has been documented at the University of California.

In looking at what particular job categories grew the most, Schwartz discovered that computer analysts and budget analysts had the highest rates of growth: “Computer

Programming & Analysis—from 2,084 to 4,325 for an increase of 108% and Administrative, Budget/Personnel Analysis from 4,692 to 10,793 for an increase of 130%.” It is interesting to note that this growing class of administrators includes people whose primary job is to produce and analyze data for other administrators.

As more classes move online, this push towards big data acquires greater implications for teaching. The most commonly used online teaching platform is Blackboard. In 2010, Blackboard purchased iStrategy, a company devoted to data analysis that was rebranded as Blackboard Analytics. This analytical software plugs into Blackboard’s teaching platform and universities’ student information systems to compile data that allows administrators to “align recruiting strategies and institutional aid awards with enrollment and retention objectives.”

At a university managed according to SEM principles, online teaching becomes a valuable data-collection point. Teaching in general, though, becomes a potential sticking point in a student–customer’s trajectory from recruit to active alumnus. If a course is too difficult, the clients may complain or fail to complete the graduation-transformation into donors. If a course isn’t very marketable or doesn’t align itself with the university’s image, administrators may chafe at the traditional balance of power, which gives faculty control over the curriculum. Administrators covet this control; according to SEM, everything from the physical plant to the mission statement must be completely malleable. Faculty are a stubborn, if crumbling barrier. “These people can’t be led.”

Pliancy and obedience, it seems, are the most desired attributes for faculty, students, and citizens. In Current of Music, Adorno criticizes the NBC Music Appreciation Hour for “show[ing] scant respect for the works themselves but exhibit[ing] continuous obeisance to composers and particularly to the conductor” (200). This description bears a striking resemblance to today’s heavily promoted xMOOCs with their cult of content and superprofessors.

A mode of teaching that transmits information from expert to student is reflected in a communications infrastructure that collects users’ data for analysis by more experts, the ones who will make the decisions that matter. The duty of an educator, it seems to me, is to expose and undo these compliance-inducing teaching structures. As Adorno said, “Education must attempt to counterbalance the hegemony of the tool” (op. cit. 170). Do we want students to think and create for themselves, or do we just want them believe what we tell them and trust us with their information?

Lest I be accused of MOOC-phobia, I should conclude by stating that I like MOOCs and I’m glad they exist, in more or less the same way I’m glad YouTube exists. I teach face-to-face and online classes and I find that the same tension between possibilities and constraints exists in both traditional classrooms and online environments. But a hustle is still a hustle.

Frozen Dreams

While researching my dissertation, I came across a lot of historical material that seemed worth remarking upon, but that I couldn’t fit within the project’s time and space constraints. One such story concerns a Latvian sculptor and a Soviet railroad.

The backstory to Jesus Díaz’s Siberiana, one of the novels I wrote about in the dissertation, is the construction the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) in the USSR. Intended as a strategic alternative to the more southerly Trans-Siberian railway, the BAM was labelled “the Project of the Century” by Brezhnev, and the astronomer Lyudmila Chernykh named an asteroid after it. An epic undertaking, it included real feats of heroism and engineering (check out the anecdotes here) as well as Stakhanovite “Heroes of Socialist Labor.” Its failure, too, was epic.

The route plunges through the heart of Siberia, and its construction was plagued by bitter cold, indomitable permafrost—which caused the tracks to buckle violently—and overly optimistic predictions about the economic viability of the railway.

The route’s planners wished to link the Russian heartland with the Soviet Far East, which had long remained relatively underdeveloped. The BAM was also meant to spark the industrial development and colonization of the sparsely populated Siberian hinterlands, whose inhabitants were mostly Buryats and other indigenous groups who had opposed Stalinist collectivization and who remained indifferent to the growth imperatives of the Soviet economy. The boomtowns that sprung up from the work camps established during the BAM’s construction were intended to become entrepôts and industrial centers once the railroad was fully operational.

The BAM never fulfilled its promise, however. Poor planning resulted in a rail line that could never compete with the higher-capacity Trans-Siberian railway, much less with containerized ocean shipping. The industrial corridor through the wilds of Siberia never materialized, and the hastily constructed cities along the route began to hollow out and decay. (RT has a short documentary on the people who have remained: People of the BAM.)

Art that had been commissioned for public squares and train stations was abandoned in warehouses and workshops. The fate of one such artwork, by sculptor Viktoria Pelshe, is the subject of Dmitry Zavilgelskiy’s documentary Ethnography of the Dreams, which explores the human landscape of the lonely Baikal-Amur line and meditates on the fate of public art in the absence of state patronage. (The sculpture in the documentary depicts the mythical Angara, daughter of Baikal. Angara features prominently in Siberiana.)

Watch on Vimeo.

Semana de Autor 2012: Leonardo Padura

I will have the good fortune to speak at this year’s Semana de Autor, sponsored by Casa de las Américas, in Havana. For the first time ever, the invited author is Cuban.

You can find a description (in Spanish) of the conference here: Semana de Autor con Leonardo Padura.

My remarks will concern the nature of political commitment in literature after state socialism.


Update: Several media outlets reported on the conference. Here’s an article that attempts to summarize my comments: “A la tercera no es la vencida.”

Nineteen Principles for Literary Criticism

Below you’ll find my liberal translation of Roberto Schwarz’s satirical “19 princípios para a crítica literária.”

Reading this, for me, creates a contrast between, on one hand, strikingly familiar and seemingly universal traits of bad criticism and, on the other, rather remote-sounding and dated critics and paradigms. For my generation, Wellek is lost in the dim mists of 1970s lit-crit seminars, Wolfgang Kayser is unknown, and Todorov is just . . . well . . . old.

I suppose this amounts to proof that snarky metacommentary doesn’t age well, unless it’s fully contextualized, as in, say, Marx’s footnotes or an annotated version of the Quijote. Most of Schwarz’s “principles,” though, are still wickedly funny. Enjoy.


19 Principles for Literary Criticism (1970)

  1. Accuse critics older than 40 of impressionism, those on the left of sociologism, the meticulous ones of formalism, and claim a balanced position for one’s self.
  2. Quote French books in German, Spanish books in French, and always out of context.
  3. Always begin with a declaration of method and by disqualifying other positions. Follow that up with the usual (impromptu) method.
  4. Never present the life of the author without first attacking the biographical method. Many insights can be mitigated by horrible writing.
  5. Don’t forget: Marxism is reductionist, and has been surpassed by structuralism, phenomenology, stylistics, American New Criticism, Russian Formalism, aesthetic criticism, and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.
  6. Cite often and apropos of nothing. An extensive bibliography is essential. Support your thesis with the authority of specialists, preferably ones who are incompatible with each other.
  7. The argument should be technical and unrelated to the conclusions.
  8. Don’t forget: Marxism is reductionist, and has been surpassed by structuralism, phenomenology, stylistics, American New Criticism, Russian Formalism, aesthetic criticism, and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.
  9. Always reach a conclusion without entering into the heart of the matter.
  10. For ontological questions, Wellek; for formal questions, Kayser, and lately Todorov.
  11. Psychoanalysis is less obsolete than Marxism, but it, too, is very one-sided.
  12. Don’t forget: Marxism is reductionist, and has been surpassed by structuralism, phenomenology, stylistics, American New Criticism, Russian Formalism, aesthetic criticism, and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.
  13. Afrânio Coutinho and the Concretists brought scientific criticism to Brazil.
  14. Publish long reviews of unimportant books, convince the editor to translate them and the public to read them. There are almost 700,000 university students in the country.
  15. A doctorate is worth its weight in gold.
  16. The gluteal semanteme in modern linguistics tends towards polysemia.
  17. The critic of our era is engaged and authentic, and doesn’t neglect his deep vocation: his commitment to mankind in both its eternal and circumstantial aspects, a commitment that he will obey resolutely until the end. This is the really important thing.
  18. The books published by Indiana University and imported by Livraria Pioneira are extremely important. On the other hand, if you have a French education, don’t fail to apply the method of Chomsky and Propp. The results won’t be long in coming.
  19. Be very careful with the obvious. The safest thing is to document everything with statistics. Use a graph if there is enough space.

Museum Cuba

The Pope’s recent visit to Cuba has unleashed a storm of commentary and claims from the usual quarters. Conservatives in Miami are angry that the Pope didn’t meet with dissidents. The Castro government is undoubtedly happy about the Pope’s condemnation of the US trade embargo, but less pleased with his comments about Marxism. But even this can’t bother Cuban officials much. After all, Fidel himself declared in 2010 that the “Cuban model” no longer works.

The papal visit is a minor footnote to global affairs, an elaborate dance of two entities seeking relevancy wherever they can find it. Media coverage inflates this event in order to exaggerate the details: a dissident is arrested and silenced, Fidel pokes fun at the papacy qua occupation, and so on. And the usual pro- and anti-socialist rhetoric from Havana and Miami, respectively, obscures what lies in plain sight—behind the pomp and circumstance, reform and revolution, and Cold War political parameters, Cuba moves along the same path as the rest of the world. That is, the island is slowly but inexorably rolling back what would be called the welfare state if Cuba were another country.

State interventionist capitalism, Keynesianism, Fordism, socialism—these are labels that now describe a bygone era. The Cold Warriors on both sides of the Florida Straits continue blithely, not realizing that the battle of ideologies is over, and that both sides lost (notwithstanding the single triumphant decade of the 90s during which the “West” thought itself best). Now austerity is the watchword in all corners of the globe. Even Cuba.

As in so many other places, the state now appears as an impediment to both the right and the left. It’s an obstacle to the former, because its ideology of freedom demands that economic choices be left to the sacred individual; to the latter, because state management of production and distribution has reached its historical limit, and because the fight to save the welfare state is a defensive struggle over its ruins.

The Cuban state stakes its reputation and bases its legitimacy on precisely this welfare state that the revolution built when it was still revolutionary, when it was still a movement of the masses. It now finds itself in a situation in which it must continue to describe its mission as socialist, anti-imperialist, and egalitarian, even as it is forced to take measures which liberalize the economy and dismantle the social safety net.

For anything at all to be preserved of the Cuban Revolution, a left movement will have to arise independently of the state, which can commemorate past victories, but can’t create new ones.

The following text is a brief excerpt from my dissertation. It’s a reflection on two museums and the petrification of revolution.

Rachel Weiss, in To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art, observes that “the Museum Cuba had replaced the Utopia Cuba.” In other words, the commemoration of the revolution has replaced the revolution itself. This is particularly evident in two of Havana’s most important museums: the Museum of the Revolution, housed symbolically in what was the Batista regime’s Presidential Palace (bullet holes left during a failed attempt to assassinate the dictator are still visible on the building’s main stairway and in its central patio), and the José Martí Memorial that overlooks the Plaza de la Revolución.

Bullet holes at the Presidential Palace.

The Museum of the Revolution, just a stone’s throw from Angel’s Hill (made famous by Cirilo Villaverde’s novel Cecilia) and the church where José Martí was baptized, memorializes the armed struggle upon which the current incarnation of the Cuban state is founded. In the absence of the socialist triumph that the state once proclaimed, the Museum of the Revolution feels like the architectural manifestation of an oxymoron. In a kind of viaje a la semilla, the displays move back in time to Playa Girón, the fight in the Sierra, the Granma voyage, Moncada. The old uniforms and weapons make it clear that the revolution belongs to another era. The fact that the museum exists seems only to confirm that the revolution no longer does, and that the living struggle of the masses has become ossified and institutionalized.

At the José Martí Memorial, a similar sensation takes hold. Scattered tourists amble through the plaza, photographing themselves in front of Enrique Avila’s iconic sculptures of Camilo and Che. It’s August and sunny, so they do not linger. A few workers grind away with stone saws, working to repair the marble at the base of the imposing monument, known locally as La Raspadura. Inside the star-shaped monument is a museum filled with photos and paraphernalia. Most relate to Martí and his associates, but an entire section (contained in one of the star’s outer vertices) is dedicated to the monument itself. Confronted with the old designs, sketches, maquetas, and photos of the monument’s construction, one realizes that the museum devotes considerable space to memorializing itself.

According to the information in the official guidebook, for sale at the museum, the José Martí Memorial was inaugurated in 1996, during Havana’s museum boom. It’s telling that this museum in particular—ostensibly dedicated to Martí but in fact a grandiose gesture of self-legitimation by the Castro government—insists on semantically doubling the monument: memorializing the act of memorialization. This strange inversion corresponds to a historical moment in which the revolution’s only way forward (i.e. the only way it can justify its continued existence) is to look back and memorialize its own achievements, including its successful completion of a monument that Republican Cuba had begun but never finished. Ironically, the Martí Memorial’s self-referentiality eliminates whatever possibility it had of fulfilling the promise made on the cover of its guidebook. Here, a blue and white sky evokes the stripes on the flag flapping in the breeze next to the massive statue of Martí at the museum’s entrace. Against this background, the upward thrust of La Raspadura directs the eye to the slogan: “Algo más que piedra.”


Un-American? On the Political Estrangement of Occupy Wall Street

To estrange, in one of its more archaic senses, means “To render alien; to regard or treat as alien; to sever from a community; to remove (possessions, subjects) from the ownership or dominion of any one.” It’s a time-honored political tactic, this rhetorical estrangement. In a nationalistic environment, it works wonders. Egyptian state television whipped up violence against Tahrir Square by accusing demonstrators of acting under the orders of foreign provocateurs who, according to the fantasy version of events, had suborned Cairo’s hapless populace with that most delicious of bribes—KFC. For years, the Cuban government has stifled dissent by appealing to patriotic sentiment; any critic of the government must be an agent of Tío Sam. (It doesn’t help matters, of course, that the US has a sordid history of violent interference in Cuba. But that’s a story for another time.) And US political culture is no different. To accuse one’s opponents of anti-Americanism is as American as. . . never mind.

As early as the so-called Revolution of 1800, the Federalists started slinging mud, accusing Thomas Jefferson, one of the principal drafters of the Declaration of Independence, of being un-American. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life includes examples of these attacks:

It was in France, where he resided nearly seven years, and until the revolution had made some progress, that his disposition to theory, and his skepticism in religion, morals, and government, acquired full strength and vigor. . . . Mr. Jefferson is known to be a theorist in politics, as well as in philosophy and morals. He is a philosophe in the modern French sense of the word. (149)

It would be exhausting to chronicle the number of times the “anti-American” canard has been trotted out since 1800. The HUAC hearings and McCarthyism are perhaps the most well-known moments. While the intensity has subsided since the end of the Cold War, it would be a mistake to think that the tactic has exhausted itself. What is the “birther” phenomenon if not a particularly irrationalist manifestation of estrangement? The ploy has been used so often, and to such great effect, that a culturalist understanding of politics now prevails, not only on the far right, where Breivik-like minds ruminate on the dangers of “Islamisation” and “cultural Marxism,” but also among liberal demonstrators at the Occupy Wall Street encampments, who insist (despite all the historical evidence to the contrary) that police violence is un-American.

It’s no surprise, then, that conservative politicians are pulling the well-worn brush out of the toolshed and attempting to paint Occupy Wall Street as some sort of foreign invasion. Peter King has somehow found the time amidst his ceaseless fight against his own imagination (where sharia lurks beneath every hijab) to denounce protesters as anti-American anarchists. Presidential candidate Herman Cain chimes in. Fox News fumbles its way towards an astro-turfing campaign—”the 53 percent”— which depends, in large measure, on distinguishing between the noble taxpayer’s “traditional American view of the world” and the “continental European mindset” of Occupy Wall Street’s shiftless protesters, who take no personal responsibility for their well-being, preferring to blame “institutions.”

To explore this “traditional American” worldview, it might be useful to inquire with a member of the Revolutionary Generation. William Manning was a successful New England farmer who, in 1775, took up arms against the British. He took part in the Siege of Boston during the initial phase of the Revolutionary War. Surely such a patriot would harbor no “European” biases against the wealthy and their institutions? Surely an American Hero™ such as this would avoid divisive rhetoric about the 99 percent?

In the swet of thy face shall thou git thy bread untill thou return to the ground, is the erivarsable sentance of Heaven on Man for his rebellion. To be sentanced to hard Labour dureing life is very unplesent to humane Nature. Their is a grate avartion to it purceivable in all men—yet it is absolutly nesecary that a large majority of the world should labor, or we could not subsist. For Labour is the soul parrant of all property — the land yealdeth nothing without it, & their is no food, clothing, shelter, vessel, or any nesecary of life but what costs Labour & is generally esteemed valuable according to the Labour it costs. Therefore no person can posess property without labouring, unless he git it by force or craft, fraud or fortun out of the earnings of others.

[. . .]

On the other hand the Labourer being contious that it is Labour that seports the hole, & that the more there is that live without Labour & the higher they live or the grater their salleryes & fees are, so much the harder he must work, or the shorter he must live, this makes the Labourer watch the other with a jelous eye & often has reason to complain of real impositions. But before I Proseed to shew how the few & many differ in money matters I will give a short description of what Money is.

Money is not property of itself but ondly the Representitive of property. Silver & Gold is not so valuable as Iron & Steel for real use, but receives all its value from the use that is made of it as a medium of trade. Money is simply this—a thing of lighter carrage than property that has an established value set upon it eyther by law or general Consent, For Instance, if a doller or a peace of paper, or a chip, would pass throughout a nation or the world for a burshel of corne or any other property to the value of said corne, then it would be the representitive of so much property.

Also Money is a thing that will go where it will fetch the most as naturally as water runs down hill, for the posessor will give it whare it will fetch the most. Also when their is an addition to the quantity or an extrodinary use of barter & credit in commerce the prices of property will rise. On the other hand if Credit is ruened & the medium made scarser the price of all kinds of property will fall in proportion. Here lays the grate shuffel betwen the few & many. As the interests & incomes of the few lays cheifly in money at interest, rents, salaryes, & fees that are fixed on the nominal value of money, they are interested in haveing mony scarse & the price of labour & produce as low as possable. For instance if the prices of labour & produce should fall one halfe it would be just the same to the few as if their rents fees & salleryes ware doubled, all which they would git out of the many. Besides the fall of Labour and produce & scarsety of money always brings the many Into distress & compels them into a state of dependance on the few for favours & assistance in a thousand ways.

[. . .]

The Reasons why a free government has always failed is from the unreasonable demands & desires of the few. They cant bare to be on a leavel with their fellow cretures, or submit to the determinations of a Lejeslature whare (as they call it) the Swinish Multitude are fairly represented, but sicken at the eydea, & are ever hankering & striving after Monerca or Aristocracy whare the people have nothing to do in maters of government but to seport the few in luxery & idleness.

For these & many other reasons a large majority of those that live without Labour are ever opposed to the prinsaples & operation of a free Government, & though the hole of them do not amount to one eighth part of the people, yet by their combinations, arts & skeems have always made out to destroy it soner or later [. . .]

Manning’s text, worth reading in its entirety, is called “The Key of Libberty.” It’s an incredible piece of progressive populism from a yeoman farmer with barely any formal education. Manning’s intuitive grasp of economics and politics would shame any of today’s faux-populist pundits, who would have no choice but to reach for the old standby, the anti-American label, which they would apply to Manning for daring to foment class war with inflammatory terms like “the many” and “the few.”

Finally, a different set of historical circumstances reveals the absurdity of most claims to the title of “real American.”

Papa in Cuba: Hemingway in an Island’s Imagination

When Hemingway is remembered today, 50 years after his death, one usually thinks of the Old World: his time in Paris rubbing shoulders with Joyce, Pound, and the American expats of the so-called “Lost Generation”; his participation in three European wars; his love of Spanish bullfighting and African big-game hunting. Nabokov’s pithy dismissal of Hemingway’s work as being primarily about “bells, bulls, and balls” likewise points to the campanas and corridas of Spain. Cuba, though, is the place where Hemingway lived the longest and where he wrote much of his work. The island is the setting for three of his novels: To Have and Have Not, The Old Man and the Sea, and Islands in the Stream. Hemingway first went to Havana in 1928, a stopover on his way to Key West, where he took up residence. He returned in 1932, in pursuit of swordfish. As his second marriage disintegrated, his trips to Havana became more frequent, until he became a permanent guest at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. His third wife, Martha Gellhorn, moved him out of the hotel and out of Havana, to La Vigía, a finca at the edge of San Francisco de Paula, a village in the hills to the southeast of the capital. Hemingway eventually bought Finca Vigía with the proceeds of the film rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls. He lived at Vigía from 1939–60, and it was here, for the first and only time in his adult life, that Hemingway led something like a domestic existence. It was here, too, that he wrote some of his most iconic works.

Cuba’s influence on Hemingway goes largely unacknowledged by Americans. But Cubans know that he took his Nobel Prize medal to Cobre, near Santiago de Cuba, where he laid it among the ex votos to la Virgen de la Caridad, the island’s patron saint. This grand gesture (and a thousand smaller ones) consolidated Hemingway’s reputation among Cubans as one of their own. Gabriel García Márquez, who, through his long-time solidarity with the Cuban revolution and intimate friendship with Fidel, is himself something of an honorary Cuban, writes about “Hemingway, el nuestro” in a prologue to Norberto Fuentes’ exhaustive, 700-page Hemingway en Cuba.1 The American writer’s presence can still be felt on the island: at Finca Vigía, preserved just as the author left it; at his old haunts in La Habana Vieja —Hotel Ambos Mundos, la Bodeguita del Medio, el Floridita; in the fishing village of Cojímar; in the memory of countless Cubans who have maintained an oral tradition of stories about “Papa,” many of which are recounted in Fuentes’ book.

Still, despite the lore and good memories, Hemingway’s relationship to the island, its people, and its politics remains enigmatic. A counterdiscourse emerged among the island’s intellectuals, some of whom claimed that Hemingway, in spite of the good will he generated, was a kind of neocolonial hacendado. The best example —and probable origin— of this counterdiscourse is Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), the classic film based on Edmundo Desnoes’ novel.2



Two facts about the film:

(1) The original version of Desnoes’ novel doesn’t include the Hemingway material, which comes from some of his essays. Director Gutiérrez Alea incorporated this material into the film and Desnoes later adapted the scenes we just saw and inserted them into a subsequent edition of his novel.

(2) When René Villareal, the former Hemingway employee and tour guide featured in the clip, saw the film, he loaded a revolver and went looking for Desnoes and Titón (the director).

At any rate, the film seems to have originated the idea that Hemingway lived like a king in his hilltop castle and took no interest in local affairs. Even García Márquez falls into this line of thinking:

[n]o hay indicios de que hubiera intentado alguna vez hacer algún contacto con el ambiente intelectual y artístico de La Habana, que en medio del envilecimiento oficial y la concupiscencia pública seguía siendo uno de los más intensos del continente. (Fuentes 17)

This claim begs for some skepticism—Hemingway was a close friend of journalist and poet Fernando Campoamor and he insisted that another writer, Lino Novás Calvo, undertake the only authorized Spanish translation of The Old Man and the Sea. Another consideration that might serve to temper García Márquez’s claim is that many of Cuba’s brightest literary lights were not on the island during much of Hemingway’s time there.3

The idea that Hemingway remained aloof and disinterested clashes with what is known about his friendship with the fishermen of Cojímar, his permissive and caring attitude toward the children of San Francisco de Paula, his intense interest in the ongoing revolution in the Sierra Maestra, and —some say— his clandestine support for the alzados in the vicinity of La Vigía.

But in “El último verano” Desnoes sees Hemingway’s economic and social position as emblematic of the pre-revolutionary era:

Creo que la revolución ha roto para siempre la posibilidad de que una relación semejante vuelva a producirse en Cuba. Hay aquí una especie de símbolo. No seremos más criados de amos extranjeros, aunque esos amos nos ayuden a vivir con comodidad, nos sienten a su mesa, nos tengan protegidos de las violentas luchas de nuestra época.

Desnoes would probably revise these predictions now that the revolution has run its course and Cuba continues to feel the aftershocks of what Desnoes himself has called the “social nightmare” of the 1990s. But I do think his anti-imperialist version of Hemingway is essentially correct from a structural standpoint that takes into account relative positions of economic power and social prestige, notwithstanding Hemingway’s personal qualities, which may have served to mask this structure. Desnoes’ view is consistent with an intellectual current in Cuba —one that also includes Miguel Barnet and Roberto Fernández Retamar— that came to see culture, rather than political economy, as the battleground of anti-imperialist struggle.4 This view creates obvious difficulties in recognizing Hemingway as in any way “Cuban,” despite the island’s well documented influence on his life and work.

Cubans, however, have remained fascinated by Hemingway, and have continued to read and study him. A number of documentaries about the writer have been produced since 1962. Norberto Fuentes published his monumental study in 1984. One recent publication explores Hemingway’s friendship with Campoamor; another (written by an Italian) gives a culinary tour of every known restaurant that Hemingway visited in Cuba and elsewhere, complete with recipes.5

The early work of one major writer, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, stakes out a different relationship to Hemingway, one that starts with imitation and ends in parody.6 Likewise, Desnoes has acknowledged his early admiration for the American, whom he tried to “assimilate.”7 Since the mid 1960s, though, two opposing positions have dominated Cubans’ reception of Hemingway: on one hand, a popular, hagiographic narrative (which was adopted by Fidel and the Party) and, on the other, a critical assessment undertaken by Cuba’s writers and intellectuals, initiated by Desnoes and Gutiérrez Alea.

This began to change in the 1990s, like so many other things, with the film Strawberry and Chocolate (1994), directed by none other than Gutiérrez Alea (with Juan Carlos Tabío as co-director). Hemingway is mentioned briefly in a long list of famous people who were gay, at least according to Diego, one of the film’s major characters. The shift here is notable: Hemingway is no longer a titanic figure who must be reckoned with aesthetically or politically, but one cultural reference among many. More recently, prominent fiction writers like Leonardo Padura and Abilio Estévez have appropriated the North American author in creative ways that elude the once-dominant opposition of hagiography and critique.

Padura does this most systematically, devoting an entire novel to Papa. In Adiós, Hemingway (2001),8 Conde, the protagonist of Padura’s sucessful detective novels, investigates the murder of an FBI agent whose body has been discovered at Finca Vigía. Against the grain of the putative evidence —ballistics indicate that the agent was shot with one of Hemingway’s firearms— that points to the American as the killer, and facing his own animosity toward the rich, arrogant American, Conde discovers the truth: the FBI agent was an incompetent whose drunken carelessness while surveilling the old writer led to a confrontation that ended when Hemingway’s employees shot the agent to protect Papa. In this novel, Padura brings together the popular and anti-imperialist versions of Hemingway while also synthesizing two moments in Cuban detective fiction: the formulaic, social-realist paradigm that prevailed prior to the late 1980s, and the more critical, hard-boiled variety practiced by Padura himself, which focuses more on the island’s internal social problems than on imperialist aggression.

Abilio Estévez, in Inventario secreto de La Habana (2004), reflects on the odd contrast created by the austere manliness of Hemingway’s image and the house at La Vigía, decorated to match that image, and Papa’s obvious zest for life and sensual pleasure.

De [Hemingway] me molestaban su ridículo machismo y esa actitud ante la vida que no sé si llamar «heroica»; al propio tiempo, me fascinaban su voluptuosidad, su hedonismo. Por un lado, el rechazo al personaje-héroe que como actor se había creado; por otro, la admiración hacia el sensualista. (232)

Estévez dedicates just 3 of his book’s 343 pages to establishing this contrast that, although interesting, would be unremarkable if not inserted into a work which establishes opposing spheres via certain antitheses, some of which are family/nation, barrio/exile, proximity/distance, love/violence, cemetery/museum (oddly, cemetery represents the positive pole here), life/death, and so forth.

The Hemingway figure, with its unresolved polarization between sensuality and austerity, is a point of cleavage at which these spheres touch, yet remain unreconciled. In my dissertation, I argue that this separation of spheres reveals (and critiques) the separation of life and labor qua abstraction, and that Hemingway’s personal contradictions are turned back against a state now engaged in the commodification and museumification of life. By this, I mean that as the island restores its colonial architecture, cleans up its beaches, and modernizes its hotels, most Cubans now (again) face the reality of labor —as  hotel workers, builders, taxi drivers, tour guides, musicians, cooks and, yes, as prostitutes and hustlers— in an economy in which luxury, that sensual side of life so admired by Estévez, remains just out of reach.

  1. Norberto Fuentes. Hemingway en Cuba. Havana: Letras Cubanas (1984). []
  2. The novel first appeared in English as Inconsolable Memories, rather than Memories of Underdevelopment. []
  3. Alejo Carpentier, Nicolás Guillén, and Virgilio Piñera, for example, were living abroad in real or self-imposed exile for most of these years. []
  4. Due to time constraints —this is, after all, a version of a 15-minute talk—  I don’t elaborate here on the vicissitudes of theories of imperialism and underdevelopment in Cuba. I hope to take these topics up in future work. []
  5. See Osmar Mariño Rodríguez, La Habana de Hemingway y Campoamor, and Guido Guidi Guerrera, Paseando con Papa Hemingway. []
  6. See William Rowlandson, “Cabrera Infante and Parody: Tracking Hemingway in Tres Tristes Tigres.The Modern Language Review 98.3 (July 2003), pp. 620-633. []
  7. “La duda radical y la certeza ridícula: entrevista a Edmundo Desnoes.” La Habana Elegante 22 (Jan. 2003). Web. []
  8. The 2001 edition of Padura’s novel was published simultaneously in Portuguese, by Companhia das Letras, and in Spanish, by Ediciones UNIÓN. The Havana edition also includes a shorter work called “La cola de la serpiente.” The first stand-alone Spanish edition of Adiós, Hemingway was published by Grupo Editorial Norma, in 2003. []

Conferencia Internacional de Literatura Detectivesca

Voy a Lubbock, Texas a finales de septiembre para presentar sobre la obra de Myriam Laurini. El congreso es la Conferencia Internacional de Literatura Detectivesca en Español (CILDE) y tiene buena pinta. Presento en una mesa titulada “Poder, conocimiento y control en el neopolicial.”


He aquí el sumario de mi ponencia:

Las de abajo: la ficción policial de Myriam Laurini

Myriam Laurini (1947– ) es escritora argentina radicada en México desde finales de los años 70. Su obra periodística y novelística ocupa un espacio poco frecuentado por las mujeres: la nota roja y la novela policiaca. Ambos géneros, dominados tradicionalmente por hombres, son dispositivos que organizan el conocimiento de unos cuantos hechos verificables—los detalles de un supuesto crimen—dentro del armazón del aparato jurídico, por un lado, y dentro de las convenciones de un género de escritura, por otro. La ficción de Laurini explora los límites de estas convenciones con protagonistas femeninas cuyas investigaciones las llevan siempre a un dilema: ¿ser profesionales o ser justas? En la mejor tradición de la novela negra, Laurini nos hace ver que vivimos en una sociedad cuyas instituciones (legales, mediáticas, políticas) tienen poco que ver con la justicia, y mucho con la «ley» del más fuerte. Laurini interroga esta realidad social desde la óptica de sus víctimas, que suelen ser indígenas, niños abusados y, sobre todo, mujeres explotadas. Este trabajo pretende precisar hasta qué punto la ficción de Laurini revela la intersección del patriarcado moderno con la forma de heteronomía que el teórico Moishe Postone llama «dominación social».

Moreno Fraginals on the Collapse of Cuban Slavery

Manuel Moreno Fraginals was a Cuban historian. Along with scholars like Walterio Carbonell, he belongs to a radical strain of historiography that found itself at odds with both the pre-1959 dictatorship and the Castro regime. Moreno Fraginals was exiled twice: from 1956–1959 and again after 1994. Like novelist Jesús Díaz, he became increasingly critical of the Cuban government during the economic crisis of the 1990s. Also like Díaz, he was a radical thinker whose heterodox Marxism placed him in the crosshairs of the dialectical materialist orthodoxy. Unlike the main body of revolutionary scholars, for whom Marx’s statement “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” was reduced to “history = class struggle,” Moreno Fraginals always insisted on dealing with the problem of race. His work on Cuban sugar mills, El ingenio, is one of the most compelling analyses of slavery and the plantation economy in any language.

The following text is a translation of his note “¿Abolición o desintegración?”, a reflection on the collapse of the slave economy in Cuba. For the most part, I’ve tried to retain his unvarnished style. Moreno Fraginals often criticized his fellow historians for being wordy and boring, among other things. I disagree with a few of his assertions, most notably that slave labor produced surplus value, but I think the text is genuinely interesting and potentially helpful for thinking about how one social form (mode of production) is sublated (aufgehoben), unfolding into another. A useful exercise for those involved in crisis theory.

Abolition or Disintegration?

A Few Questions about the Centennial

1980 marked the hundred-year anniversary of the colonial law to abolish slavery in Cuba. In Puerto Rico a similar centennial had already been celebrated in 1973 because, although both islands were Spanish colonies, abolition was enforced first in Puerto Rico. It’s a centennial that invites study rather than celebration. We say this because it’s strange to commemorate the anniversary of a law that was neither the first one to abolish slavery in Cuba nor what ultimately destroyed the institution.

Unfortunately, very little has been written about the history of slavery in Cuba. Regardless, using current research—done in Cuba and abroad—one can arrive at certain conclusions about this “anomalous” institution, as Karl Marx would certainly label it. There is plenty of evidence that the enslavement of black Africans and their descendants on American plantations was a system of labor that, from a humane perspective, was barbaric and even criminal, but was economically profitable for the exploiting class. Its extremely high profits drove its expansion and development to the point of uprooting between 9 and 12 million people (according to the most conservative calculations) from the African continent.

Slavery’s profitability was possible within a set of conditions clearly present, for example, in the 18th-century English and French Antilles and in late-19th-century Cuba. But socioeconomic conditions change over time, and slavery, which was rational and profitable from the standpoint of colonial exploitation, began to create a set of insoluble contradictions that made it irrational and ruinous even for the exploiting class itself. This long process led to slavery’s disintegration and, finally, to its disappearance.

Plantation slavery was familiar to Cubans during the time of colonization, but its heyday began toward the end of the 18th century. Several of the characteristics that distinguish Cuban slavery from that of the English and French Antilles became evident at that time. Let’s examine some of these differentiations. The free introduction of African slaves into Cuba began in 1790, but the slave trade was banned by Denmark in 1802, England in 1808, Sweden in 1813, Holland and France in 1814, and by Spain in 1820. This meant that the greatest development of Cuban slavery took place while European countries unleashed an intense campaign against this kind of human commerce. This caused more slaves to enter Cuba as “contraband” than legally.

It’s true that this contraband was usually permitted by the Spanish colonial authorities, who benefited from it and even participated directly. But this doesn’t change the fact that slave traffic to Cuba during the 19th century confronted greater challenges than those faced by the English and French colonies in the previous century. The difficulties of the slave passage, the cost of bribes, and many other factors contributed to a rapid rise in the price of slaves, which increased fivefold over half a century (1810–1860).

And since all this happened amid an unprecedented European technological revolution and the rise of workers’ movements, the high cost of slaves as commodities was joined by the evidence that slavery was a brake on the modern development of the means of production. Likewise, every year it became clearer that slavery was a moral crime.

In Cuban cities, especially Havana, slavery had special characteristics. For example, the first major Cuban census, undertaken in 1774, records a free black population greater than 30,000. In 1862, free blacks numbered 221,417, of which 53% lived in cities; it was a predominantly urban population even though it maintained an influential presence on ranches, tobacco plantations, and farms. This free black population continued to grow and became a large, marginal mass that a achieved a degree of economic development in several important sectors, despite all the discrimination and exploitation. It was able to monopolize a large portion of the island’s artisanal activity: they were tailors, cobblers, and musicians in addition to carters, stevedores, coachmen, etc. During the 18th century and part of the 19th, many of them had won their freedom by providing important military services. Along with the free blacks, battalions of pardos and morenos were organized—their exploits in battle are famous.

Among this black population were many who had purchased their freedom with their own labor. As far back as the 17th century, urban slaveowners had discovered that one of the most profitable and safe forms of exploitation was to rent their slaves out as day laborers, which guaranteed a monthly cash income without the burden of labor or investment falling on the slaveowner. And at the end of a period of five to ten years, the slaveowner would recover his initial investment when the rent-earning slave purchased his liberty.

It’s obvious that the great mass of free blacks in Cuban cities during slavery’s apogee didn’t owe its freedom to the owners’ beneficence (as slavery and colonialism’s panegyrists claim). Rather, it existed because of the specific characteristics of a highly profitable form of exploitation. But it’s a fact that these free blacks were a very important factor in the disintegration of slavery in the cities. They had extensive communication with the slaves and they taught them about legal resources that provided protection from certain levels of super-exploitation and cruelty. Either directly or through the “councils” (cabildos), they helped slaves buy their freedom by making cash or work available to them.

By the 1860s, Havana was witness to the unique spectacle of a slave society in which slaves lived independently of their masters, in rented houses or extensions, working for themselves and sometimes running small businesses with employees who might be free blacks, slaves, or whites. These weren’t isolated cases: the 1860 census reveals that 34% of Havana’s adult black male slaves lived independently.

Thousands of urban slaves, and many in rural areas, earned a wage. However, despite what some historians say, a slave with a wage is not an indication of slavery’s benevolence, but of its disintegration. It shows that brute force, upon which typical slavery rests, is being replaced by the economic coercion upon which capitalist exploitation depends.

In sugar mills and coffee fields the situation was different. The extremely low fertility rates among enslaved women, the high proportion of men to women, the high mortality rate, etc. caused the continuous decline of the slave population in the sugar mills. To avoid this decline it was necessary to buy slaves annually to replace the deceased. Another way was to balance the sexes, improve living conditions, provide economic stimuli similar to a wage, etc. In Cuba the latter system was given the pompous title of “the good treatment.”

Sugar mill owners who employed the old system of exploitation, buying new slaves every year to replace the ones consumed by work, found that slaves cost more each time, but produced the same amount. Additionally, the basic system of labor grounded exclusively on brute force made it impossible to apply new technologies to increase productivity. The inability to modernize clashed with the capitalist law of constant revolution of the means of production. Productivity fell, production costs rose, the price of sugar fell, the technical disparity grew. . .

Those who practiced “the good treatment” created economic stimuli among the slaves; in the long run these were indistinguishable from a salary. They gave slaves land to cultivate and then purchased the produce and livestock. They lowered the mortality rate, raised the birth rate and average life expectancy, and achieved notable progress in modernization. Technical advances shortened the harvest time and increased idle time proportionally. The changing demographic indices increased the number of children born. These were too young to work and had to be clothed and fed. The number of unproductive elderly slaves who had to be supported also increased. As the harvest time—the period of maximum exploitation and surplus-value extraction—became shorter, the underutilization of slaves became more obvious, producing an internal crisis that was aggravated by the external factors already examined. This accelerated slavery’s process of disintegration. A modern, capitalist economy was impossible with slavery! Other forms of exploitation were sought, and 150,000 Chinese came to Cuba during the 19th century.

Cuban sugar mills in the 1860s and 1870s reveal the slave regime’s disintegration, which was much more perceptible in the eastern provinces. Sometimes systems were superimposed in a single mill, with some slaves working under the threat of physical coercion, others received wages, and still others were rented at a different price and were treated differently. And there were also Chinese under contract, and blacks and whites on salary or doing single-payment jobs or piecework. This chaos is the typical expression of disintegration.

But this process isn’t determined merely by these internal socioeconomic conditions, nor by external economic or moral pressures. It’s also a function of the constant defiance of the slaves, seen in uprisings, escapes, suicides, sabotage, and work done poorly or reluctantly. Slavery’s coup de grace was finally dealt by the anticolonial struggle, which couldn’t succeed without abolition.

At the beginning of the Ten Years’ War, the conservative wing of the insurgents took great pains to avoid proclaiming the full emancipation of slaves. The Guámiro Constitution declared slavery abolished, but it instituted a transitional system (the regulation of freed slaves) similar to the patronage system established by the 1880 colonial law. Nevertheless, the reality of the independence struggle radicalized the revolution. In 1870, the Spanish colonial government was forced to impose the first law of emancipation, which “freed” slaves younger than 11 and older than 60. The law liberated slave owners from the economic burden of unproductive laborers.

Finally, the first law of total emancipation, which recognized the right of freed slaves to enjoy all civil and political rights, was Carlos Manuel de Céspedes’ glorious declaration on December 25, 1870. Within the territory of Cuba Libre, this meant effectual abolition.

The 1880 colonial law did not end slavery. It simply managed its inexorable extinction, caused by economic contradictions and the strength of the revolutionary fighters. It was a conservative colonial law that attempted to prolong the life of an institution whose time had definitely come.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America

Roth’s novel, written in the years following 9/11, made a splash as critics drew parallels between the plot–Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 election and America begins a process of Nazification, including pogroms–and the Bush administration’s War on Terror.

Postage Stamp: Lindbergh Flies Atlantic

Reviewers like J.M. Coetzee (full article paywalled) and Frank Rich, after ritually warding off such allegorical interpretations, nevertheless use them to frame their own readings.

Another reviewer goes so far as to say that “it’s essential to read this novel as soon as possible to fit it in its proper context.” Its context, though, isn’t quite so narrow as that.

The Plot Against America isn’t a true historical novel, even if we ignore the fact that its history is counterfactual. It makes no real attempt to display the complexities of the American political landscape in the early 1940s. I found myself wondering (as did this reviewer) where are the communists? I thought in particular of the presence of the Frankfurt School on Morningside Heights. Certainly such a group, along with other prominent New York intellectuals (not to mention organized labor and anarchists), would have played a role in a struggle against fascism.

Such historical complications are avoided, though, in order to remain faithful to the perspective of the narrator, who experienced these events as small boy for whom America must indeed have seemed to be a vast and hostile expanse beyond the limits of the New York metropolitan area.

The narrator, also called Philip Roth, recalls a fairly idyllic childhood suddenly invaded by fear as FDR unexpectedly fails to win his bid for a third term. The high-flying and Nazi-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh emerges as a charismatic, if laconic, leader and initiates a distinctly American version of the Final Solution.

Image of Lindbergh superimposed on American flag with swastikas instead of stars.

Roth’s prose is consistently understated, almost flat. Rather than relying on rhetorical fireworks or “creative writing,” the author lets the plot do the heavy lifting. The magisterial moments, when they do come, strike the reader with great emotional force, as in the “Where is Lindbergh” speech, in which “the red-faced La Guardia readies the assembled mourners for the climactic appearance of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Even in the moments when the prose is less muted, it remains rather clipped, tightly wound like the voiceovers of WWII-era newsreels. Page after page, the no-frills narration, meticulous but never florid in its attention to detail, confronts the reader who, lulled into complacency by the story’s rhythm and relentless forward motion, is stunned by the irruption of a figure which crystallizes the accumulated events into a synthetic image:

It’s so heartbreaking, violence, when it’s in a house–like seeing the clothes in a tree after an explosion. You may be prepared to see death but not the clothes in the tree.

Clothes in a tree.

Here Roth mobilizes an instance of the unheimlich by shattering the homely image of domesticity. A world, once familiar, is torn asunder, not by external forces, but by the violence it always contained. This is an organic violence, nourished in the bosom of the hearth; it is not the violence of reaction to the other.

This is why readings of The Plot Against America as an allegory of the War on Terror miss the mark. Even if Roth drew inspiration from the vengeful nationalism of the George W. Bush years, the novel exceeds its immediate context. Here’s an important passage:

The trip out had taken just over twenty-four hours, but the one back took three time as long because of the many times they had to stop for Seldon to vomit by the side of the road or to pull down his pants and squat in a ditch, and because, in just a twenty-mile radius of Charleston, West Virginia (where they went round in circles, hopelessly lost, instead of proceeding east and north toward Maryland), the car broke down on six separate occasions in little over a day: once in the midst of the railroad tracks, power lines and massive conveyors of Alloy, a town of two hundred where enormous mounds of ore and silica surrounded the factory building of the Electro-Metallurgical Company plant; once in the nearby little town of Boomer, where flames from the coke ovens reached so high my father, standing after sundown in the middle of the unlighted street, could read (or misread) the road map by the incandescence; once in Belle, yet another of those tiny, hellish industrial hamlets, where the fumes from the Du Pont ammonia plant almost knocked them flat when they got out of the car to lift the hood and try to figure out what was wrong; again in South Charleston, the city that looked to Seldon like “a monster” because of the steam and the smoke wreathing the freight yards and the warehouses and the long dark roofs of the soot-blackened factories; and twice on the very outskirts of the state-capital, Charleston. There, around midnight, in order to call a tow truck, my father had to cross a railroad embankment on foot and then descend a hill of junk to a bridge that spanned a river lined with coal barges and dredging barges and tugboats to go looking for a riverfront dive with a pay phone, meanwhile leaving the two boys alone together in the car just across the river road from an endless jumble of a plant–sheds and shanties, sheet-iron buildings and open coal cars, cranes and loading booms and steel-frame towers, electric ovens and roaring forges, squat storage tanks and high cyclone fences–a plant that was, if you believed the sign the size of a billboard, “The World’s Biggest Manufacturer of Axes, Hatchets, and Scythes.”

The passage describes part of a rescue journey into America’s heartland, up to this point depicted as a pastoral landscape, in stark contrast to the urban areas in the Northeast (Newark, New York) where the Jews’ numbers afford them some security. The enumeration of industrial artefacts eliminates the distinction, tearing down the confining, yet protective walls of the ghetto, just as the irruption of violence into the home violates its status as refuge from the world. The passage also has a corrosive effect on all the carefully constructed, subtle comparisons to Old World anti-Semitism that Roth establishes throughout the narrative. These references allow the reader to imagine the ever-present possibility of atavistic, anti-Semitic violence as a kind of universal rural primitivism born of ignorance and superstition, as in blood libel, a reference Roth uses more than once in the novel.

The authentic horror is found in the “factory brimming with sharpened blades” that drives young Seldon mad. The axes, hatchets, and scythes of an incensed peasantry are now mass-produced in an industrial process, just as anti-Semitism has been transformed, in the modern era, into a quasi-automatic reaction rooted in the abstract (and negatively coded) dimensions of capitalist society (see Moishe Postone, “The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century”). Beyond the eerie plausibility of the novel’s plot (the almost-Nazification of America), with its dilemmas of assimilation and identity, clarity and paranoia, lies the terrible union of a barbaric “nature” and technical progress, as hideous as a forest of chimneys or, alternatively, chimneys at the edge of a birch forest.