Paideia and Civil Society

Jorge Ferrer, one of the group’s former members, argues in a recent article that the Paideia was politically insignificant. According to him, their project was too ambitious and had no impact on Cuban politics. What he does not realize, however, is that he is measuring the project’s impact with the same utopian yardstick that he criticizes: “Todo proyecto colectivo . . . solo consigue rebasar los vastos y nutridos dominios de la insignificancia, si su objetivo se cumple, si concita suficientes voluntades como para que se lo tenga por masivo, o si la fuerza a la que se opone lo aplasta con suficiente sana, como para que perviva en la memoria, siquiera como testimonio de un martirio [Any collective project . . . only succeeds in transcending the vast and well-nourished domains of the insignificant if its objective is achieved, if it brings together sufficient efforts so that it is perceived as massive, or if the force it opposes obliterates it with sufficient fury that it lives on in memory as testimony to a martyrdom]” (Ferrer 2006). Paideia was based on an emancipatory political project, and in that regard its understanding of culture was no different from that of official cultural institutions. Paradoxically, however, it succeeded in displacing its own narrative. I refer specifically to its breaking ground as a civil society movement of sorts. The years that immediately followed the fall of the Berlin Wall saw a renaissance in civil society discourse, especially in the social sciences. Indeed, Paideia’s theoretical tenets were much more orthodox and in line with official policies than its real political interventions. The debates introduce the conditions of possibility to think about civil society in antihumanist terms. What is more, the project’s failure to establish a semiofficial cultural movement is symptomatic of the limits of political humanism. In this regard, it affirmed itself as an epistemological vanguard. This also proved that the government was right to consider it as a “political party” of sorts, which is something that always remains ambiguous in recent characterizations of the group by former members. For example, Rafael Rojas argues that “Paideia no fue un movimiento o un grupo, sino un proyecto y un espacio de sociabilidad intelectual. Una propuesta, como deciamos, de politica cultural autonoma, disenada por un punado de escritores y compartida, durante el brevisimo tiempo que duro, por la mayoria de la comunidad artistica e intelectual de

La Habana, en la segunda mitad de los 80” [Paideia was not a movement or a group but a project and a space of intellectual sociability. A proposal, as we put it, for autonomous cultural politics, conceived by a handful of writers and shared, during its very brief lifespan, by most of Havana’s artistic and intellectual community in the second half of the 1980s]” (Rojas 2006b). But what is the difference between these designations? Unlike Rojas, I think that the Paideia was both a group and an intellectual space, and that although it failed as a group, it successfully established an intellectual space. I believe that it is very important to distinguish the Paideia as a group, for two reasons: first, because this indicates its political character and, second, because this also acknowledges its key role in creating a civil society. In this regard, it is important to stress the political connotation of the movement, because this is precisely what established it as the first conatum of civil society.

In the early nineties, as a result of the partial entrance of capital into the Cuban economy and the establishment of foreign NGOs on the island, a theoretical movement emerged based on the belief that Cuban civil society was transforming or at least taking form. Scholars such as Hugo Azcuy, for instance, argued that the state’s loss of economic power caused a recuperation of an autonomous social space (Azcuy 1995, 160). Many of these scholars, however, conceived of civil society in a Hegelian fashion as the mercantile society of needs. None of them conceived of civil movements as Gramscian enclaves of resistance that could eventually hegemonize a new historical bloc. In Gramscian terms, civil society is interpreted as the space where new social forces are generated: “We are still on the terrain of the identification of State and government—an identification which is precisely a representation of the economic-corporate form, in other words of the confusion between civil society and political society” (Gramsci 1971, 262). Yet, what made the Paideia even more iconoclastic was that the intellectual space it enabled called into question the same humanist principles that the group brandished, a space also present in the Gramscian concept of civil society that I have just outlined. In other words, the group both enabled the emergence of a civil movement that posited itself as a new hegemonic bloc and, simultaneously, was able to overturn its political nature with an even stronger intellectual agenda. That is, the Paideia was never a new hegemonic bloc, because the intellectual space it opened debunked the Paideia’s status as a “group” fighting to establish a political praxis. The Paideia’s understanding of “intellectual thinking” ceased being subordinated to a goal, as it was in the group’s theoretical manifestos.

Paideia disintegrated under pressure from what Althusser would term ideological and repressive state apparatuses. The political disenchantment and impotence contributed to the creation of the Proyecto Diaspora(s), and especially to the idea of writing a samizdat, as I showed in chapter 2. Irony was one of the ethical responses triggered by the group’s political disempowerment and disillusionment.

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