Invention of the Market: The Political Economy of Everyday Life in Late Socialist Cuba

Armengol, Roberto, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bashkow, Ira, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Metcalf, Peter, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Damon, Frederick, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Owensby, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia

The Cuban people have faced a prolonged period of economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of favorable subsidies from the socialist bloc. In that time, the government has alternately initiated and curtailed market-oriented economic policies that promote small-scale entrepreneurship, known in Cuba as cuentapropismo. Such activity and the social arenas in which it takes place have grown tremendously since the early 1990s, touching nearly everyone’s life. Outside analysts tend to characterize this rapid growth in self-employment as evidence of the natural forces of capitalism breaking through the stranglehold of communist ideology, while the authoritative discourse of the socialist state itself often regards these changes as encroachments of “the market” necessary for the preservation of the communist project. In this dissertation, I demonstrate how creative entrepreneurship among low-income workers in urban Cuba is actually carried out through dense networks of reciprocity and coded in the moral principles of invento, or invention. Relying on ethnographic data collected in and around a large farmers market, I argue that the morality through which my informants construct their relationships is a form of “competitive solidarity” that produces, in effect, a subaltern political struggle against state socialism as well as global capitalism. While this might seem paradoxical, both capitalism and socialism share modernist assumptions about human nature that are at odds with the way ordinary Cubans live their lives. By way of contrast, I show how the state’s own discourse and ritual practices have of late promoted the values of possessive individualism, consumption, and capital accumulation, leading to an acute moral dissonance that has yet to play itself out.
What my informants playfully call invento is in this sense a grassroots “invention of the market,” in which relations of solidarity are realized through market transactions carried out in an ethos of gift exchange. These practices pose a challenge to the basic assumptions of formal economic theory — the abstract “invention of the market” that predominates in social science and takes the maximizing, self-interested individual as its starting point rather than its product. In this way, my reading of the political economy of everyday life in late socialist Cuba builds on a long history of anthropological critique questioning such assumptions, largely on the basis of cultural contexts where gifts are central and commodities are peripheral. But beyond showing how market exchange is always embedded in moral systems, this dissertation ultimately insists on theorizing markets themselves as already moral. This is to say, they are always organized with respect to variable moral premises that necessarily have political implications. In this light, alternative market paradigms — in Cuba and beyond — have the potential to foster a pragmatic oppositional politics. From a theoretical perspective, what I am proposing is that social science wrest the idea of “the market” once and for all from the straitjacket of idealized capitalism: In adopting a neo-Maussian framework, we can attend more closely to the reciprocal relations of mutual support and obligation that can and often do operate through markets, not just in spite of them.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Cuba, socialism, reciprocity, Special Period, entrepreneurship, markets, inventiveness, solidarity, morality, economics, politics
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