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Cuba’s EcuRed: a socialist Wikipedia?

December 30, 2010

According to Reuters, the goal of Cuba’s new “wikipedia-like online encyclopedia”, called EcuRed, is to present the socialist country’s “version of the world and history”. That may be true, but it’s not exactly how the site explains itself:

EcuRed is a collaborative and solidaristic encyclopedia. It is a Cuban project that seeks universal reach and participation; it offers its participants an interactive space to publish open content. Its philosophy is the accumulation and development of knowledge with a democratizing and non-profit objective, from a de-colonizing point of view.

EcuRed es una enciclopedia colaborativa y solidaria. Es un proyecto cubano que busca alcance y participación universales; ofrece a sus participantes un espacio interactivo para publicar contenidos abiertos. Su filosofía es la acumulación y desarrollo del conocimiento con un objetivo democratizador y no lucrativo, desde un punto de vista descolonizador.

As of this writing, I’ve got more questions than answers, but my speculation is that the site is one part of the Cuban government’s ongoing preparations for a steady expansion of its citizens’ access to online services.

Recall that back in March of 2008, Raul Castro’s administration authorized the unrestricted sale of computers (and DVD players) to Cuban citizens. Despite this, the relatively high cost (due, in large part, to the US embargo) continues to ensure that private ownership of a personal computer remains a luxury reserved for the elite, foreigners, or perhaps those with especially successful relatives overseas. Earlier this year the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reported a total of 700,000 computers on the island of over 11 million inhabitants, which works out to 62 per 1,000 residents or just over one-third of the average penetration rate for the region. Of course, most of those computers are located in government institutions, which means they are highly monitored but also, according to the Cuban government, prioritized for social uses, “from health and education to government-operated computer clubs in every municipality” (Reuter’s paraphrasing). In other words, a computer in Cuba is meant to serve more citizens than a computer in capitalist countries.

Cell phones, meanwhile, were legalized one month later, in April of 2008. Here too, cost remains a massive barrier for most Cubans. As of 2008 a cell phone contract with the state-run monopoly, Cubacel, cost $120, or about six months salary for a state employee. A basic (voice and text) Nokia phone was going for $75, and local calls cost $0.30 per minute. (Here too, the US embargo is a major factor in keeping costs high.) Even today Cubans rely almost entirely on text messages and missed calls in order to avoid the cost of mobile voice communication (although the same can be said for the majority of the population in many other Latin American countries).

Even when Cuban citizens do have access to networked personal computers and/or mobile devices, it’s far from certain that they will be able to surf the open internet. The degree of access permitted by the Cuban government is the subject of much debate.  Some visitors to the island report that Cubans are unrestricted and may peruse foreign news sites, such as the New York Times and BBC, at will. Others claim that Cuban citizens are restricted to a tightly regulated intranet that blocks any content not specifically permitted by the State. I am not sure of the truth, but an October 2006 report, written by freelance reporter Claire Voeux and published by Reporters Without Borders, contains a concise and convincing account which suggests that Cubans may indeed access the “open” internet, though they remain severely limited by the lack of computers and bandwidth, the high cost of online minutes (unless they use a networked computer at work), and government monitoring and interference that can vary from place to place and time to time. Meanwhile, according to and as of this writing, Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Blogger, WordPress, and Facebook are all among the top ten Cuban web destinations, with El Nuevo Herald and the BBC occupying the 11th and 18th spots, respectively. Cubans are also apparently able to utilize mobile technologies to connect to the world wide web. Posting a Twitter message, for example, is possible if you can afford to spend one convertible peso (roughly $1.10).

The bandwidth issue is expected to be resolved, or at least drastically improved,  sometime in the second half of 2011, when an undersea fiber optic cable connecting Cuba, Venezuela, and Jamaica is finally installed. Currently, Cuba depends on costly and relatively slow satellite service. According to the Cuban government, this is largely the result of the US State Department’s refusal to permit Cuba to connect to a fiber optic cable linking Cancún, Mexico and Miami, Florida, despite its passing only 20 miles [32 km] from Havana. The new cable from Venezuela is projected to increase data and voice connection speeds by a factor of 3,000 and reduce Cuba’s satellite costs by 25 percent.

Most Cubans are not likely to be your Facebook friend anytime soon, but the promise of radically increased bandwidth and marginally increased access to digital networking technologies, in conjunction with new opportunities for income and other signals of expanding liberty, indicates that the Cuban government has begun to envision an online future for its citizens. How the Cuban internet will develop is an open question. China offers one model, but the EcuRed project indicates that Cuba is striking out on a path of its own design.

According to TeleSur and Cuba’s Prensa Latina news service, EcuRed began in 2009 as a project involving experts from the Cuban Ministries of Informatics and Communications; Science, Technology, Environment; Education; Higher Education; and Public Health, as well as the National Institute of Health. TeleSur also highlights the “collaboration of scientists, workers, rural residents, and students”. The site itself is housed on servers managed by Cuba’s Computing and Electronics Youth Club (Joven Club de Computación y Electrónica / JCCE), which manages over 600 sites across the island for instruction in new technologies.

During the official launch ceremony on Dec. 14, the JCCE’s national director, Raúl Van Troi, stated that EcuRed “is a tool for ensuring that the world knows about Cuba” (“es una herramienta para que en el mundo se sepa sobre Cuba“). Indeed, most of the 20,489 articles available as of this writing seem to focus on various aspects of Cuban geography, society, and culture. For example, the categories with the greatest number of articles (as of this writing) are: Cuban Places (3,211); [Cuban] Place Histories (2,132); Cuban Revolutionary Martyrs (1,605); and Figures from Cuban History (966).

In contrast to WikiPedia, all of EcuRed’s “collaborators” must register with the site, and to do so they must have an email account ending with the .cu domain. In other words, despite EcuRed’s aspiration for “universal reach and participation”, only Cubans (or perhaps foreigners working within the Cuban economy) are able to contribute to the site. Further, those contributions will be closely tracked, with the user name and IP address displayed publicly and “all  information that a user has entered … stored in a database.” Of course, Wikipedia archives previous editions of articles and, I imagine, would be able to collect all of the changes made by a particular user or IP address. Wikipedia also makes public the IP address used by non-registered contributors. That said, Wikipedia is not a government with a history of suppressing speech deemed politically unacceptable, nor does Wikipedia have the ability or authority to do much beyond remove content or block users, even if it wanted to. The Cuban government, on the other hand, has the ability and (at least dubiously) the legal authority to respond in any number of ways, including monitoring the non-online activities of a contributor, denying them access to jobs or benefits, or throwing them in jail.

EcuRed’s policies do state that the stored information “will not be shared with third parties without [the contributor's] consent, except in cases that violate these policies” (“no será compartida con terceras partes sin su consentimiento, excepto los casos en que se violen estas políticas“). It’s not clear, however, who the “second party” (ie. the owner and/or manager of the site) is in this case. The JCCE? Or the entire Cuban government, including the State intelligence services? Moreover, the policies in question are worded so as to leave much room for interpretation. For example:

Articles will not accept content considered as: discriminatory, obscene, disrespectful, aggressive, propagandistic or promotional, tendentious, defamatory, or pornographic. Articles with these contents will not be published; EcuRed reserves the right to block access to offenders, and if pertinent, to notify the Internet service provider.

Los artículos no admitirán contenidos considerados como: discriminatorios, obscenos, irrespetuosos, agresivos, propagandísticos o publicitarios, tendenciosos, difamatorios, o pornográficos. Los artículos con estos contenidos no serán publicados; EcuRed se reserva el derecho de bloquear el acceso del infractor, y de ser pertinente, notificarlo al proveedor de servicios de Internet.

Propaganda, disrespect, and tendentiousness, of course, are largely in the eye of the beholder. The oppositional Diario de Cuba, for example, refers to the entire site as an “internet propaganda offensive” (“ofensiva de propaganda en internet“). A similar judgment is implicit in the article published by Spain’s generally conservative El País, which quoted the title of a subsection of the entry on Fidel Castro – “sickness and glorious return” (“enfermedad y retorno gloriosos“) – without referencing, for instance, the generally objective and subdued account of Fidel’s political and military opposition to the Batista dictatorial regime. El País also selectively quoted the article on former US President, George W. Bush, which mentions “a long family tradition of dirty business, traps and governmental intrigue” (“una larga tradición familiar de negocios sucios, trampas e intrigas gubernamentales“) and claims that Bush “applied all possible methods of dirty war: clandestine prisons, kidnappings, extrajudicial processes, telephonic espionage, and kidnapping of mere suspects (“aplicó todos los métodos posibles de la guerra sucia: cárceles clandestinas, secuestros de personas, procesos extrajudiciales, espionaje telefónico y plagio de meros sospechosos“). While it’s true that Bush didn’t apply all possible methods, and terms like “dirty business” and “dirty war” are perhaps overly subjective, references to secret prisons, kidnappings (aka extraordinary rendition), warrantless wiretapping, and extrajudicial detentions are nonetheless objectively true.

Of course, there’s much that EcuRed omits, and this is more worrisome than the particular phrasing of the information that it does contain. There is no entry, for example, on Oswaldo Payá, or any of the other Cuban dissidents that are relatively well known outside of the island. The historical account contained in the entry on the Manuel Márquez Sterling Professional School of Journalism (Escuela Profesional de Periodismo Manuel Márquez Sterling) tellingly and abruptly ends in 1962. The article recounting the history of journalism in Jagüey Grande, meanwhile, cuts off in 1955. As far as I can tell, there seems to be no article dedicated to the concept of press freedom, investigative journalism, or anything similar. Though I have no way of testing the hypothesis, I imagine that any attempt to create an article on these subjects would end in failure.

Additionally, not all of EcuRed’s articles are open to modification. Pages can be “protected” for multiple reasons, including “to protect modifications of articles considered very valuable, with a high [degree of] consensus, or with an elevated repercussion” (“para proteger modificaciones de artículos que se consideren muy valiosos, con un alto consenso, o con una elevada repercusión“). Of course, the policies do not specify how value, consensus, and repercussion are determined, nor by who. It’s probably safe to say that Fidel’s biography, for example, is not open to modification. As of this writing, there are 547 pages specifically flagged as in need of improvement, but I see no indication as to the number of pages that have been “protected”.

So how should we evaluate EcuRed at this early stage? To begin, it seems highly likely that, despite the site’s stated ambitions, EcuRed’s failure to allow universal participation will prevent it from acquiring anything like universal reach. Spanish-speakers planning a visit to Cuba may find the wealth of localized information quite helpful, as will some researchers, but beyond that it’s hard to see why one would choose EcuRed as a primary source for information about general topics or, for that matter, issues related to Cuban history and politics that are treated extensively elsewhere.

That’s not, however, to say that EcuRed doesn’t offer solid information. To take just one example, the biographical entry on US President John F. Kennedy is roughly 3,800 words long and includes discussion of his family background, education, military service, and political life. As far as I can tell (though I’m certainly no expert on JFK or the events of that period), everything in the article is factual. At the same time, however, there is a clear focus on issues directly and indirectly related to Cuba and Cuban socialism. The 306 words under the subheading “foreign policy” (“política exterior“) are entirely dedicated to US / Cuban relations. This is followed by 431 words in a separate section on the October 1962 “Missile Crisis” (“Crisis de Octubre“) that paints Cuba’s role in a positive light. For example:

Between the 26th and 31st [of October] there was an exchange of messages between Nikita S. Khrushchev and Fidel [Castro]. Those signed by the Soviet leader evidence the unilateral nature of his actions and the underestimation with which he treated the small country; meanwhile those of the Cuban leader warned of the dangers and stuck firmly to the revolutionary principles.

Entre el 26 y el 31 hubo un intercambio de mensajes entre Nikita S. Jruschov y Fidel. En los firmados por el dirigente soviético se evidencia la unilateralidad de su actuación y la subestimación con que trataba al pequeño país; mientras que los del líder cubano alertaban sobre los peligros y se apegaban con firmeza a los principios revolucionarios.

Further below is a 267 word subsection on “Cuban relations” (“relaciones con Cuba“) that recounts in a general manner Kennedy’s efforts to clandestinely destabilize Cuba. All other discussion of Kennedy’s foreign policy is treated in a mere 229 words under the subheading of “other actions” (“otras acciones“). Two of the four paragraphs in that section refer to Kennedy’s attempts to “restrain the deployment of multiform popular struggles in Latin America and the Caribbean” (“frenar el despliegue de las multiformes luchas populares latinoamericanas y caribeñas“). The remaining two paragraphs describe Kennedy’s interventions in Vietnam, including the deployment of 16,000 military advisors, the authorization of “free-fire zones”, the use of napalm and agent orange, and the 1963 military coup. Kennedy’s role in relation to Berlin, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or the Peace Corps, to cite a few prominent examples, are conspicuously absent. The majority of the 450 words dedicated to Kennedy’s domestic policy, meanwhile, refer to civil rights issues, thus reinforcing Cuba’s longstanding (and deserved) critique of the United States on that count while sidestepping all but the most superficial consideration of economic policy.

More important than what EcuRed will mean for those outside the island, however, is the question of what it will mean for Cuban citizens. As I hope to have shown, EcuRed shows little promise of expanding the range of information to which Cuban citizens have access. Neither a historical nor philosophical discussion of press freedom is in the offing. There will be no biographies of Cuban dissidents. Thorough treatments of liberal or anarcho-syndicalist economic models will probably not appear. Descriptions of NFL football, Disney World, iPads, and 3D Imax movies are unlikely.

Nonetheless, EcuRed – in conjunction with the Cuban state’s efforts to make internet access available in Post Offices (Correos de Cuba), cyber cafés, and community centers – should drastically increase the amount of information to which most Cubans have access, even if they are restricted to the island’s intranet or fearful of accessing outside sources. On an island where books and magazines, especially new ones, must surely be a luxury for most citizens, providing access to a massive trove of digital information is no small success. Nor can the information available through EcuRed be dismissed as merely socialist propaganda. There are entries on Buddhism (~1,000 words), rock’n’roll (~3,750 words), drugs (~12,000 words), internet connection technologies (~1,700 words), kung fu (~2,400 words), and many other subjects that hardly serve to foment a monolithic social understanding.

Meanwhile, the Cuban government has committed to digitizing all of the texts used in the country’s general and university education system and making them available via EcuRed’s “virtual library” (“biblioteca virtual“). At the moment, this appears to have been only very partially accomplished, but if and when it happens, Cubans across the island will be able, for example, to indulge their interest in chemistry or physics, learn new agricultural skills, study foreign languages, or learn musical theory. These may not be direct paths to the attainment of those political and economic freedoms that US citizens can find so glaringly absent in Cuban society, but one would be hard pressed to argue that they do not offer routes toward the type of individual self-realization that can truly and significantly improve one’s quality of life and fortify the social fabric of a nation.




what did the US want to know about telecommunication infrastructure in Paraguay? and why?

November 29, 2010

What did US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice want to know about Paraguay’s telecommunication systems?

Just about everything you’d need to data mine and otherwise monitor their entire national security apparatus.

“Information Infrastructure and Telecommunications” is one of five “priority issues” within the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF). A March 24, 2008 cable from Washington DC to the US embassy in Asunción, recently made available on WikiLeaks, included the following items among its broad request for information:

¶E.  Information Infrastructure and Telecommunications (INFR-4)

  • Details of telecommunications and information systems, networks, and technologies supporting Paraguayan national leadership, military, foreign intelligence and security services (FISS), and civil sector communications.
  • Define Paraguayan wireless infrastructure, cellular provider information, and makes/models of cellular phones and their operating systems.
  • Define Paraguayan satellite communications infrastructure, to include VSAT networks and use of point to point systems.
  • Information on communications practices of Paraguayan government and military leaders, key foreign officials in country (e.g., Cuban, Venezuelan, Bolivian, Iranian, or Chinese diplomats), and criminal entities or their surrogates, to include telephone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses, call activity (date, time, caller numbers, recipient numbers), phone books, cell phone numbers, telephone and fax user listings, internet protocol (IP) addresses, user accounts, and passwords.
  • Identify national and supranational telecommunications regulatory, administrative, and maintenance organizations.
  • Identify scope of Paraguayan telecommunications encryption efforts, details on the use of and efforts to acquire modern telecom technologies, regional and national telecommunications policies, programs and regulations.
  • Details on information repositories associated with RFID enabled systems increasingly used for passports, government badges, and transportation system.


lunch with the General: Brazil’s Minister for Institutional Security tight lipped on Venezuela

November 29, 2010

Among the cables made available by WikiLeaks is one sent on May 6, 2005 by the US Ambassador to Brazil, John J. Danilovich.

The ambassador offered a report of his lunch meeting with Brazil’s Minister for Institutional Security, General Jorge Armando Felix, whose status as “the country’s most senior intelligence official and the rough equivalent of national security advisor to the president” remained despite his having “much less influence than his predecessor from the previous government”. After all, how much influence can you expect from “an amiable, low- key individual [who] does not appear overly ambitious”?

The three subjects under discussion during the lunch, in order, were:

  1. the tri-border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay
  2. Venezuela
  3. US assistance for Brazilian security

Here is the full recap of the Venezuela conversation:

4.(S) Venezuela: Following the CT discussion, the Ambassador raised Venezuela and its president Hugo Chavez and noted that Chavez was disrupting Brazil’s efforts to play a leading role politically and economically in South America. General Felix nodded his head and appeared to be very carefully measuring his response. He then said that he had his own personal opinions about Chavez (which he did not share) that were different from the Brazilian Government’s position. That being said, General Felix said that he preferred keeping in line with the official position (though he did not elaborate on it either). Felix noted that whether one was pro- or anti-Chavez, he had become very much a part of the “Latin American” reality.

A diplomatic response, in the fullest sense of the term.

Here’s the Ambassador’s final assessment:

General Felix has always been a straightforward interlocutor, and his term at GSI has been highlighted by very cooperative, joint CT operations between RMAS and ABIN. All in all, his continued presence at GSI bodes well for U.S. interests.

US embassy in Honduras recognized Zelaya’s removal as an illegal coup

November 29, 2010

Among the WikiLeaks diplomatic cable disclosures, I haven’t seen the following mentioned in the mainstream press:

On July 23, 2009 the US Embassy in Honduras sent a cable to the Secretary of State that characterized the removal of President Zelaya as “an illegal and unconstitutional coup”. Here is the summary:

Summary: Post has attempted to clarify some of the legal and constitutional issues surrounding the June 28 forced removal of President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya. The Embassy perspective is that there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch, while accepting that there may be a prima facie case that Zelaya may have committed illegalities and may have even violated the constitution. There is equally no doubt from our perspective that Roberto Micheletti’s assumption of power was illegitimate. Nevertheless, it is also evident that the constitution itself may be deficient in terms of providing clear procedures for dealing with alleged illegal acts by the President and resolving conflicts between the branches of government. End summary.

The cable goes on to debunk the various legal arguments wielded by supporters of the coup. All in all, it is a much stronger condemnation than those offered publicly by top US officials – though Obama did call it an illegal coup – and further signals the degree to which the State Department was willing to let the matter slide in order to further US interests in the region. The State Department, as well as the IMF and World Bank, began restoring full diplomatic ties with Honduras early in 2010.

UPDATE: As ever, Bob Naiman was right on top of this and provides a wealth of context.

UPDATE: CNN is apparently the first and as of yet (11/30) only mainstream outlet to report this story.

the young Marx on press freedom – part 2

November 26, 2010

[Note: This is the second in a series. You may want to read part 1, which provides context, before continuing. Links to subsequent entries follow this post.]

The Rhine Province (red) within the Kingdom of Prussia (blue).

Karl Marx’s second article for the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Newspaper / RZ) appeared three days after his first, on May 8, 1842. Entitled “Opponents of a Free Press“, the article continued Marx’s review of the proceedings of the previous year’s Rhine Province Assembly. Marx’s concern with press freedom resulted from his involvement with the oppositional Young Hegelians, as well as his budding career as a journalist.

He begins by noting that the Assembly’s debate on press freedom serves as a microcosm for it’s behavior in general:

For we find the specific estate spirit nowhere more clearly, decisively and fully expressed than in the debates on the press. This holds good especially of the opposition to freedom of the press, just as in general it is in opposition to a general freedom that the spirit of a definite sphere in society, the individual interest of a particular estate and its natural one-sidedness of character are expressed most bluntly and recklessly and, as it were, show their teeth.

The debates provide us with a polemic of the princely social estate against freedom of the press, a polemic of the knightly estate, and a polemic of the urban estate, so that it is not the individual, but the social estate that conducts the polemic. What mirror, therefore, could reflect the inner nature of the Assembly better than the debates on the press?

Here is the beginning of a class analysis that views whole strata of the population (the estates) as coherent entities, each participating in social debates as a unified interlocutor with a single voice. The speaker is never just “the individual”. For the remainder of the article, Marx occupies himself with the argument advanced by the aristocratic, or “princely”, estate.

The aristocrats purported “that freedom of the press and censorship are both evils” of which censorship was the lesser. This conviction was so strongly held in Germany, they claimed, “that the Federation too, issued laws on the subject, which Prussia joined in approving and observing”. Marx paraphrases their “diplomatic” argument as follows:

Every restriction of freedom is a factual, irrefutable proof that at one time those who held power were convinced that freedom must be restricted, and this conviction then serves as a guiding principle for later views.

Marx recognizes this appeal to Tradition as the 19th century Conservative position par excellence: “Yes, views change and develop, but society must guide that development by appealing to Tradition.” The RZ, of course, was a Liberal newspaper. I’m not sure to what degree the radical Socialist perspective even existed as a coherent ideology at that point. (I’m employing Wallerstein’s delineation of the three ideologies to emerge in the nineteenth century, alongside the social sciences and the social movements, as a product of the capitalist world-system.)

The aristocrats’ next move rivals the best of Orwellian doublespeak, as they declare State censorship to have protected the press from the vulgar excesses of a freedom, which would have acted as “shackles … on our true and nobler spiritual development”. Marx responds:

But what an illogical paradox to regard the censorship as a basis for improving our press! … The spiritual development of Germany has gone forward not owing to, but in spite of, the censorship.

He then goes on to insist that “in the period of strict observance of censorship from 1819 to 1830″ the bottom fell out of Germany’s cultural output:

The press had become vile, and one could only hesitate to say whether the lack of understanding exceeded the lack of character, and whether the absence of form exceeded the absence of content, or the reverse…. The sole literary field in which at that time the pulse of a living spirit could still be felt, the philosophical field, ceased to speak German, for German had ceased to be the language of thought.

The aristocrats’ final line of argument is to point to the ills of other nation-states that had instituted some form of press freedom. That Marx quickly disposes of this illogic is not surprising. The nature of his retorts, however, provides some insight into his developing views. The aristocrats dismiss press freedom in Holland as “unable to save the country from an oppressive national debt” and responsible for “bring[ing] about a revolution which resulted in the loss of half the country.” Marx dismisses the first barb for the absurdity that it is:

He blames the Dutch press, because of its historical development. It ought to have prevented the course of history, it ought to have saved Holland from an oppressive national debt! What an unhistorical demand! The Dutch press could not prevent the period of Louis XIV; the Dutch press could not prevent the English navy under Cromwell from rising to the first place in Europe; it could not cast a spell on the ocean which would have saved Holland from the painful role of being the arena of the warring continental powers; it was as little able as all the censors in Germany put together to annul Napoleon’s despotic decrees…. What a trivial way of behaving it is to abuse what is good for being some specific good and not all good at once, for being this particular good and not some other.

In response to the second accusation, that the free press incited revolution, Marx first points out that a free press is not a unified whole, but a multiplicity of voices. So which press – the reactionaries, the progressive, or some other – is responsible for the revolution? The more crucial point, however, is that it is nonsensical to view the press as causative in relation to revolution:

… the Belgian revolution appeared at first as a spiritual revolution, as a revolution of the press. The assertion that the press caused the Belgian revolution has no sense beyond that. But is that a matter for blame? Must the revolution at once assume a material form? Strike instead of speaking? The government can materialise a spiritual revolution; a material revolution must first spiritualise the government.

The Belgian revolution is a product of the Belgian spirit. So the press, too, the freest manifestation of the spirit in our day, has its share in the Belgian revolution. The Belgian press would not have been the Belgian press if it had stood aloof from the revolution, but equally the Belgian revolution would not have been Belgian if it had not been at the same time a revolution of the press. The Revolution of a people is total; that is, each sphere carries it out in its own way; why not also the press as the press?

The press in other words, is part and parcel of the revolutionary process. Marx’s characterization of the press as “the freest manifestation of the spirit in our day” is surely a reflection of his continuing entanglement with the Young Hegelians, but reveals the avante garde status that Marx accorded the press in relation to progress and revolution. Marx’s commitment to this belief is manifest in his labor as a journalist and editor.

Marx takes especial offense to the aristocratic attack against Switzerland, where press freedom had supposedly engendered a barbaric, irrational public sphere. Here is a quote from the aristocrats:

Finally, should it not be possible to find in Switzerland an Eldorado blessed by freedom of the press? Does one not think with disgust of the savage party quarrels carried on in the newspapers there, in which the parties, with a correct sense of their small degree of human dignity, are named after parts of an animal’s body, being divided into horn-men and claw-men, and have made themselves despised by all their neighbours on account of their boorish, abusive speeches!

Marx quickly points out the “Germano-centrism” of the argument:

The speaker finds fault with the Swiss press for adopting the “animal party names” of “horn-men and claw-men”, in short because it speaks in the Swiss language and to Swiss people, who live in a certain patriarchal harmony with oxen and cows. The press of this country is the press of precisely this country. There is nothing more to be said about it. At the same time, however, a free press transcends the limitations of a country’s particularism, as once again the Swiss press proves.

This is an interesting passage. Marx first appeals to the autonomy of the Swiss press, noting that it represents the Swiss people’s particular point of view and theirs only. This is a relativistic argument, however, and Marx seems to recognize the danger of this formulation: It potentially supports the entrenchment of national identities based on Tradition. That’s a Conservative argument that Marx didn’t want to make, so he tacked on a testament to the Swiss press’ “transcendence” of national “particularism” as a result of its freedom. Marx offers no evidence in support of this “proof”, however. He seems to want to have it both ways – national presses are inviolable expressions of the people’s sovereignty, yet they are also organs of progress that transcend the particularities of nations toward some perfect state of social expression. (Again, the teleological touch of the Young Hegelians.)

Marx’s identification of a free press with the people is clear:

What, therefore, was the accusation the speaker leveled against freedom of the press? That the defects of a nation are at the same time the defects of its press, that the press is the ruthless language and manifest image of the historical spirit of the people…. [the speaker] waged a polemic against the peoples and with noble dread repudiated freedom of the press as the tactless, indiscreet speech of the people addressed to itself.

What’s striking is the willingness with which Marx accepts the nation as the natural boundary of the public sphere and the free press as a national press. As Benedict Anderson made clear some 140 years later, this remained one of Marxism’s blind spots. Marx seems to have not fully grasped that national presses, even where free from censorship, were not a tool to amplify the popular voice. Rather, they shaped the popular into the national voice of an “imaginary community” that was always already in the service of the capitalist world-system.

Continue reading “the young Marx on press freedom”: part 3

the young Marx on press freedom – part 1

November 24, 2010

[Note: This is the first in a series. Links to subsequent entries follow this post.]

Karl Marx

In 1842, the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Newspaper / RZ) employed a 24 year old Karl Marx. In May, when he first appeared as a contributor, the RZ was an outlet for the pro-democratic, Liberal bourgeoisie of the Rhineland opposed to the authoritarian Prussian state. After Marx was promoted to an editor position in October, he pushed the paper in a more radically democratic direction, lending support to revolutionary and socialist ideas.

Heavy state censure marked Marx’s tenure and included the prohibition of his own work. Despite Marx’s resignation, the Prussian government ultimately shut down the RZ on March 31 of 1843. Given this context, it makes sense that much of Marx’s writing during that time concerned the Freedom of the Press.

Marx’s first article for the RZ, published on May 5, 1842, was entitled “Prussian Censorship” and written in response to a series of articles that ran in the official government paper Preussische Allgemeine Staats-Zeitung (Prussian General State Gazette). The articles editorialized that State censorship is necessary “in order to enlighten the public concerning the true intentions of the Government.” I don’t follow many of the references, but it’s clear that Marx thoroughly lambastes the PASZ position. It’s the last quarter of the article that most interests me, however.

Marx declares his intention to review the proceedings of the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly, which had met from May 23 to July 25, 1841 in Düsseldorf. Provincial assemblies had been introduced in Prussia in 1823, and they brought together representatives of three “estates” – the aristocratic, town, and rural. The election system skewed toward landowners, meaning the aristocrats of Rhine Province held 278 of the 584 parliamentary votes, the towns estate 182, and the rural estate 124. With a 2/3 majority required to pass a resolution, the Assemblies were hardly democratic – even after discounting the fact that land ownership, among other conditions, was a requirement for membership in the estates. That mattered little, in any case, since:

The competency of the assemblies was restricted to questions of local economy and administration. They also had the right to express their desires on government bills submitted for discussion. They were largely powerless (“advisory”) however, could only summoned by the Prussian government, and then they were held in secret. [sic] (Marxists Internet Archive)

The Sixth Rhine Province Assembly, however, was the first to be held under the newly crowned King Wilhelm IV, who had pledged to convoke the Assemblies every two years and lift the veil of secrecy. He made good on the latter pledge with the Royal edict of April 30, 1841 that authorized the publication of the Assembly’s proceedings. Over a year later, Marx wrote:

The publication of the Assembly proceedings will only become a reality when they are treated as “public facts”, i.e., as subject-matter for the press.

This is a crucial clue to understanding Marx’s attitude toward the press. Marx defines “public facts” as information made available to the press. Furthermore, he identifies press review as the ontological basis for open government.

Marx concludes the article by suggesting that the Assembly’s defenders of press freedom were clearly at a disadvantage, since they had never experienced true freedom of the press and could therefore only argue from their heads, not their hearts:

Goethe once said that the painter succeeds only with a type of feminine beauty which he has loved in at least one living being. Freedom of the press, too, has its beauty — if not exactly a feminine one — which one must have loved to be able to defend it. If I truly love something, I feel that its existence is essential, that it is something which I need, without which my nature can have no full, satisfied, complete existence. The above-mentioned defenders of freedom of the press seem to enjoy a complete existence even in the absence of any freedom of the press.

It’s clear, in other words, that Marx felt as if none of the representatives were arguing for a robust set of truly democratic press freedoms. His reference to the necessity for public access to State information is an indication of where his dissatisfaction lay. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, it remains a relevant point today.

continue reading “the young Marx on press freedom”: part 2, part 3

some notes on Wallerstein, Marx, social science, and Gadamer

November 20, 2010

Immanuel Wallerstein’s essay, Marxisms as Utopias: Evolving Ideologies (1986), parallel my interpretation of Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960) and reinforces the need to develop a normative basis for socialist structuration.

In the first two parts of the essay, Wallerstein substantiates his argument for viewing three distinct periods of historical Marxism. Here’s an overview:

  • the living Marx: 1840s – 1883; “chiliastic“; state would “wither away” under proletariat control
  • Orthodox Marxism: German Social Democratic Party (~1880 – 1920); Bolsheviks (~1900 – 1950); Kautsky + Lenin + Stalin; “Marxism of the Parties”
  • multiple Marxisms: 1950s – present; “era of a thousand Marxisms”; content often “diluted” (178)

In section III, Wallerstein goes on to note that:

As Marx taught us, sets of ideas linked to social movements are products of larger historical processes. It will therefore come as no surprise that the three eras of Marxism occur alongside three eras of social science whose periodization is roughly parallel…

An overview of three eras of social sciences:

  • era of philosophy: establishment of “a category of knowledge separated from theology” (180);  operated from moralistic perspective
  • scientific era: can be dated to French Revolution (1789 – 1815), which “impressed on everyone’s consciousness that institutions were transmutable”; application of (Baconian/Newtonian) scientific rationality and neutral stance; division of labor into specialized disciplines; both Liberal and Marxist perspectives operated within this framework
  • inchoate third era: post-WWII, “perhaps only in the 1960s”; “no obvious name”; “social science as interpretation of process”; neither “moral instruction nor value free” (182); “looks with some doubt on our received view of progress”; “progress as possible but not inevitable” (183)

Wallerstein struggled to articulate the goal of this new form of social science that would liberate itself from the ideologies of the 19th century without renouncing ideology altogether:

If we are to make progress, it seems to me we have not only to accept contradiction as the key to explain social reality but also to accept its enduring inescapability, a presumption alien to orthodox Marxism…. Our utopia has to be sought not in eliminating all contradiction but in eradicating the vulgar, brutal, unnecessary consequences of material inequality…. It is in this sense that utopia is a process…. neither a socially unattached intelligentsia nor a party, any party, can bring about this transformation – which is not to say, on the other hand, that they cannot play any role at all.

The task before us is precisely to place the activities of the intelligentsia (that is, social science) and the activities of political organizations in a framework in which, in tension and in tandem with each other, they illuminate the historical choices rather than presume to make them…. The intellectual task is to create a methodology that will seize the unseizable – process – in which A is never A, in which contradiction is intrinsic, in which the totality is smaller than the part, and in which interpretation is the objective. (184)

Gadamer’s magnum opus, Truth and Method, was published in 1960 – just as Wallerstein’s “third era” of social science was taking hold. Indeed, Gadamer was critiquing the social sciences, generally, and hermeneutics, specifically, for precisely the over-reliance on (Baconian/Newtonian) scientific rationality that Wallerstein cites as a decisive component in his temporal breakdown.

Gadamer founds his critique on a linguistic ontology. In other words, Gadamer sees language as fundamental to human awareness. His argument rests on the role of “understanding”, which results from the formulation of a question. Gadamer’s point is that we can only formulate the question required for understanding  based on some prior understanding or “tradition”. One’s state of being at the moment of forming a new question is a “horizon”. The question emerges from the horizon, organizes information, and then merges again with the horizon, sometimes leaving the horizon in a new form. As I interpret Gadamer, this process of questioning / understanding / questioning is continous and multiple, so that one’s horizon is constantly morphing. Not necessarily evolving in a teleologic sense – but certainly adjusting to the environment.

The environment, by the way, contains other humans who have their own horizons. Two or more humans can interface their horizons via dialogue. Dialogic interaction echos the process of understanding described above. It requires pre-formed horizons that formulate questions, seek information, and reform or reinforce their structure. This allows Gadamer to establish some normative ground.

Individual understanding of one’s environment requires some measure of “truth” – after all, we need to be able to trust ourselves if we’re going to use our own information and knowledge to survive. This truth is not absolute. Rather, it’s the state of our horizon at the current moment. This truth is based on tradition and always open to revision. But at the moment of action, we must act on some truth, and our current horizon is the truth at hand.

This conception of truth is then carried into dialogic interaction. We act on our own sense of truth, but that sense of truth – our own horizon – is always challenged by another’s sense of truth. In order to arrive at a sense of shared truth, we must make ourselves open to a reformation of our horizon based on our interactions. This is the normative basis of shared truth for human beings and the basis for Gadamer’s hermeneutic method. Of course, interlocutors can choose to act other than in an open manner. They can be closed and resistant to change, or downright manipulative. But the normative framework of shared understanding via dialogue requires us to categorize such behavior in ethical terms.

Gadamer intends this ethical framework, derived from the dialogic process of human understanding, to enable the methodology that Wallerstein seeks. Gadamer’s hermeneutic method is derived from his understanding of truth. Hence, Truth and Method. Social scientists must approach problems with a flexible set of methodological tools. Norm Denzin has referred to this as a bricoleur methodology. The use of these tools, however, is governed by adherence to a fairly rigid set of principles that lay out a dialogic process toward developing shared knowledge.

I think this is what Cliff Christians is getting at when he talks about proto-norms (cf. Communication Ethics and Universal Values). A methodology can’t address all possible contexts, but it should always respect certain principles. We can say the same for the vision of socialist utopia that, hopefully, will come to characterize this third period of Marxism and social science.

The vision should not seek to specify the organizational structure of a society, but rather the principles or proto-norms that should guide the structuration of society in a multiplicity of distinct contexts. This is what Wallerstein is getting at when he talks about a methodology “in which contradiction is intrinsic”. The structures developed in one sector of society may look very distinct to the structures developed in another. So long as they result in dialogic processes of meaning- and decision-making, the contradictions can be tolerated. We need a social science praxis that can make this clear.


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