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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Cuban Agriculture

Via A.E. Lewis on the Distributism yahoogroup. An interesting article on Cuban agriculture at Harpers by Bill McKibben. Until the late 1980s, Cuba's agricultural economy was a Soviet wannabe, based on heavy mechanization and use of chemicals; the Soviet state-socialist model of agriculture, at least ideally, was as if Cargill or ADM had turned the farms of an entire country into one giant agribusiness plantation, and then the state had expropriated the corporation and put it under a state ministry. But with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 and of the USSR itself in 1991, and the cutoff of their "fraternal assistance," the Cuban economy was deprived of the inputs necessary for a Soviet-style agricultural model. There were drastic cutbacks in electric power and transportation, in the fuel and spare parts for those big gee-whizzy combines, and the oil necessary for chemical inputs. Left with an economy largely geared toward cash crops of sugar, and deprived of the Soviet-bloc markets for that sugar at subsidized prices, Cuba suffered something like a one-third reduction in average daily caloric intake. Many people lost considerable weight. But more than a decade later, McKibben notices a difference:

Now, just by looking across the table, I saw that Fernando Funes had since gained the twenty pounds back. In fact, he had a little paunch, as do many Cuban men of a certain age. What happened was simple, if unexpected. Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again, growing it on small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens—and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, much of that food became de facto organic. Somehow, the combination worked. Cubans have as much food as they did before the Soviet Union collapsed. They’re still short of meat, and the milk supply remains a real problem, but their caloric intake has returned to normal—they’ve gotten that meal back.

In so doing they have created what may be the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture, one that doesn’t rely nearly as heavily as the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth.

I should add, I'm only interested in this at the level of technique. As far as I'm concerned, if that works it stands on its own, independently of Cuba's larger social-political system. If anything, the fact that something like this can be made to work in a state socialist prison like Cuba should, a fortiori, be promising for large grass roots alternative economics movements in comparatively free societies.

It's certainly an example of how quickly a capital- and chemical-intensive agricultural system can be decentralized and shifted to a labor-intensive and largely organic production model in the event of a sudden loss of inputs (can anyone say "Peak Oil"?).

Addenda: Buermann, at Flagrancy to Reason, recently posted on an Oxfam study of Cuba's economic transition after the Soviet aid cutoff, and drew similar general lessons for an energy-scarce economy.

Also on the subject of peak oil and economic decentralization: Bill G (not Gates) informs me that Robert Waldrop of the distributist list, founder of both the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, will be a presenter at the re-localization and agraria conference at Community Solutions.

Robert will talk about the development of local food systems, which will be critical when the petroleum-dependent global industrial food system collapses. He will share his lessons from organizing the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, explain the role of urban agriculture, and enumerate the personal changes necessary for adapting to a local food system.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

From what I understand of Cuba, the claims of being well fed are greatly exaggerated. I would definately like to see a study before buying this.

August 24, 2005 5:27 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

It still would be worthwhile to compare the average person's daily nutrition today with that after the cutoff of support from the communist bloc.

August 24, 2005 8:03 PM  
Blogger buermann said...

I noticed a detailed oxfam study a while back about Cuba's recovery that raised my curiousity for the same reasons. It had some good quantitative information.

August 25, 2005 2:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might want to look up "palace economy" sometime. Roughly speaking, you have a pool of subsistence activity on which a small command economy floats, drawing resources from it and concentrating them in desired forms. You should not think of the command activities as being inefficient forms of production but specialised means of consumption. It applied to many religious activities, quasi-mikitary ones, and so on. It is typically not mediated internally with cash or markets, although it may interface with a wider world that way.

August 25, 2005 2:37 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


In his work on economic calculation, Mises wrote that a small enough unit like a family farm could practice autarky and allocate resources internally without a price mechanism. If the unit is a voluntary association (like a commune, for example), it will trade off the resulting "inefficiency" costs against the benefits of direct control of its own subsistence activities.

August 25, 2005 8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This went rather further, though I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't draw on that. Consider garrison troops with their own family plots of land, up to the extreme of a Roman Legion drawing on the empire's resources but only doing serious war munitions within the state-within-a-state of a legion. Or monasteries and commanderies (of military orders). It let highly sophisticated results be achieved even from a low base, by processing to the sophisticated level inefficiently with enough resources to begin with. When you do that, you don't really need markets and cash to access the resource base, and it would be an overhead to go that way just to run the "palace" (or temple or what have you). But the subsistence units were what you de

August 25, 2005 11:36 PM  

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