Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Coming to grips with bureaucratic thought

Cuba's Socialist Renewal
Monday, September 12, 2011

Graziella Pogolotti
Born in Paris in 1932 to a Russian mother and a Cuban father, Graziella Pogolotti grew up in Havana, Cuba. She studied at Havana University and at the Sorbonne in Paris, specialising in contemporary French literature. After returning to Cuba she qualified as a journalist, lectured at Havana University and worked at Cuba's National Library.

She has held various academic posts in the field of the arts and literature and has served on the editorial boards of several leading Cuban cultural journals and other publications, including Granma, the Cuban Communist Party daily. In 1999 she received the National Award for Art Criticism in recognition of her lifelong contribution to this field. She has also received numerous other national awards.

Attentive readers of my blog will have noticed how few of the commentaries I've translated are authored by women, which is more of a reflection of reality than any bias on my part. The commentary below is a small step towards redressing this imbalance. On the cusp of her ninth decade, Pogolotti's sparkling intelligence shines though in this piece.

Coming to grips with bureaucratic thought

By Graziella Pogolotti, Granma, July 21, 2011
Translation: Marce Cameron

General Raul Castro, Cuban Communist Party (PCC) first secretary and president of the State Council and of the Council of Ministers, has sharply criticised on more than one occasion what he terms “secretism”. Despite this, the phenomenon appears to be getting worse in all institutions, from the office that deals with paperwork involving the common citizen to those higher up that have the authority to decide what goes on in a workplace.

Thus the chain of interdependent links that is indispensable for the functioning of a complex society fails to function with the necessary rapidity, as happened on numerous occasions with the primitive tribal structure. When the petty functionary goes on holidays, takes part in one of those many meetings or attends to personal affairs, they leave behind under lock and key the documents without which the workplace cannot function. Meanwhile the demands of reality continue to wander about in search of a solution, because the monopoly of knowledge is the first defensive trench of a system of fortifications that includes routinism in action and in thought.

On another scale, the mentality of the coffee stand proprietor begins to assert itself, an unconscious postmodern atomiser that is unaware of the ultimate end-point of the “meta-narrative” of the construction of the present, and of how to safeguard the future. Each one preserves their own tiny patch. The inability to see the bigger picture gets in the way of the cooperation that is needed between the various sectors, as well as the optimal utilisation of highly skilled workers. The formalisation of procedures prevents recognition of the relationship between form and content. This leads us to cling to obsolete concepts that must be discarded in order to preserve, above all, the goals that constitute the raizon d’etre of the revolutionary process.

Few recall an interview given by Fidel back in the 1980s to two visitors from the US. It was published at the time by Editoria Politica. In an allusion to Heraclitus, Fidel affirmed that we cannot bathe twice in the same river, not only because the water is not the same but also because we ourselves have changed. The profound truth of this observation reveals an organic assumption about dialectics that is superior to the simple memorisation of the dialectical laws [i.e. the laws of evolution in the most general sense, such as the interpenetration of opposites and the transformation of quantity into quality – translator’s note].

This idea, and the implications it entails, is a powerful weapon against the routinisation of bureaucratic thinking and a stimulus to the incessant creativity that life’s unfolding imposes. The conduct of the petty bureaucrat hinders the proper functioning of the economy, the implementation of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines approved by the PCC Congress and is a source of political discontent among the people, who are often subjected to abnormal administrative procedures. It also undermines the credibility of institutions.

On another level still the harm done is even more irreparable; it can rupture the fabric of continuity of the socialist project, which would mean the end of national sovereignty and a precipitous decline in the quality of life of the great majority, along with the enthronement of violence via the intrusion of Mafia of every kind. Cuba occupies a particular place on this planet as an island in close proximity to the US, the biggest market for narcotics. During the prohibition era in that country Cuba was the base of operations for the smuggling of all kinds of alcohol, but times have changed. The intrigues of Al Capone belong to a more primitive era of criminality.

The present conjuncture demands a change of mentality. It may seem dull, but the phrasing of reports has led us to forget the “why” and the “for what purpose” of things, the concrete definition of medium and long-term goals, the permanent questioning of reality, the priorities and the sequencing of solutions and the specific appraisal of the quality of the available human and material resources. The established rhetoric obscures the formulation of the appropriate questions. In this as in other cases, the language conditions the way of thinking.

The habitual and indiscriminate use of the impersonal mode of expression has become a verbal formula that is applicable in all circumstances. “It” is being carried out, “it" must be undertaken ... who is responsible and the manner of execution are veiled in an impenetrable fog. Statistics rain down that take no account of the need to select meaningful data to quantify magnitudes, characterise the situation and submit everything to the appropriate analysis. The figures require a qualitative correlate. The study of reality must reveal reality in all its crudeness because only this can point to the way forward. “X has advanced, but we’re still not satisfied” has become a catch-phrase that hardly clarifies.

To take apart the structure of bureaucratic thought, everyone must ingrain into their consciousness a true modesty in the domain of knowledge. Only in this way will our pores remain open to learning on the basis of the confrontation of daily life. What was always done in a certain way may not be what is needed today. Mistakes are not overcome through formal self-criticism, nor by throwing stones at those who were mistaken in the past. Critical analysis serves its purpose when, on the basis of the multiple factors that constitute a problem, it delivers us the necessary lesson. In this sense, the “culture of dialogue” – also converted into a catch-phrase during the past two decades – implies an exchange of wisdom derived from experience, a command of various techniques and of the ability to conceptualise phenomena in order to get the bottom of problems and to come up with solutions.

As a character the bureaucrat has an ostentatious visibility. Though he may seem immortal he is the subject of criticism and, what’s more, withering humour. We see him often in the letters that the readers send in to our daily press. Bureaucratic thought manifests itself in subtle ways and can invade very different institutional environments. Some think that the radical reduction in the powers of the state can contribute to eradicating this evil. For various reasons many entities suffer from an excess of personnel and of functions, derived from the necessity to counteract unemployment and from excessive centralisation.

The strengthening of municipal administrative entities and local Peoples Power governments does not imply the dismantling of the state, but a redistribution of resources and responsibilities aimed at adapting state agencies to the peculiarities of local development. However, local government is bound up with the state. No measures of an organisational character will achieve their purpose if the predominance of bureaucratic thinking persists, a parasitic plant that sterilises creativity, real collective participation and the education of the new generations.

The struggle against bureaucratic thinking will take time. We have to go about demolishing its powerful system of fortifications. Joe Marti wasn’t a dreamer. He could offer Maximo Gomez only the likely ingratitude of men and women. Yet he believed in human betterment, in the dialogue that is needed to move forward. Let’s keep in mind the distinction between fertile contradictions and antagonistic ones. Let’s preserve respect, frankness and mutual confidence. Herein lies the key to the changes in mentality that we are demanding.

1 comment:

  1. The line in the last paragraph, "The struggle against bureaucratic thinking will take time" is universal. In the west, bureaucracies and bureaucrats continue to think and manage as if the organizations for which they are responsible are ends in themselves, not means to an end. The biggest change we need to make is a mental one: to think of organizations as tools we can use for a certain purpose, then change or discard as we wish. We will only be free of the oppressive constraints of petty bureaucrats described in this article when we free ourselves of our outdated thinking about organizations.