The Cuba Economy

cirque II.bmp

Contemporary culture, someone told me, will one day resemble Cuba before the revolution. It will be a place of extravagance and spectacle.

Cirque Du Soleil is a case in point. It’s a kind of Barnum and Bailey on speed meets Siegfried and Roy on ecstasy. Hold the tigers, unleash the lizards (as above).

Cirque is just 20 years old, but it now has three continuous shows in Las Vegas. Last year, 7 million people saw a Cirque show.

How fast things move from the margin! Twenty years ago, Cirque was kook central. Ten years ago, it was a minority taste. Now it’s part of the charmed circle of bourgeois taste, and standard Vegas fare. If we are moving towards Cuba before the revolution, we are traveling at speed.

The anthropological conditions for this economic transformation are clear. We are a culture that is steadily re-embracing theatre, mystery, the sensory, the ineffable and the sublime. We are committed to Max Weber’s “re-enchantment of the world” and in a consumer culture, re-enchantment can be had for $75 a ticket.

Cirque comes from Montreal. It is now probably Canada’s most robust cultural export. But it is not in any sense Canadian. It is fully, manifestly Quebecois. In Canada, only the francophone community could have created such a thing.

Indeed, Canadian anglophones remain uncomfortable with the francophone gift for theatre. They see it as cheesy on the one hand, and frightening on the other. Thus did they refuse the extraordinary opportunity for cultural partnership their neighbors made available. No, Canada’s English-speakers remain steadfastly committed to the grey and the ordinary. They are, in the famous phrase, “as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.”

Not much here for export! And for its role as a plodding supplier of raw resources to the international economy, Canada has paid a price. Increasingly, it looks like Cuba after the revolution. (Those who doubt me should check out the health care system.) People who give up their resources, but hold on to their emotions, have no real place in the Cuba economy.

So what if the Cuba economy is a new source of the wealth of nations? This will be bad news for those countries who prize self control and polished constructions of the social self, and good news for those who are more inclined ‘to let it rip.” You can be polished or you can be Polish, and the choice will cost you.

The Cuba economy is not a marketplace for the shy, the retiring, the emotionally convoluted or the creatively unforthcoming. You can’t export what you do not have. (I’m quite certain that’s in Samuelson somewhere.)

This is particularly bad news for the likes of Disney, a company that has specialized in fun without danger and “spectacle lite.” The rise of Cirque must have struck them like a Christensenian discontinuity. Suddenly, taste shifts and you lose Las Vegas and huge venues in New York, Paris and Tokyo. Worse, you look old, tired and trite. We may rest assured that a Disney person looked in on Cirque 10 years ago and thought, “No threat here. This is a minority taste.” Welcome to the Cuba economy.

Empire was once a game of self restraint. Emotional control was the order of the day. The refusal of spontaneity was a competitive advantage. It was the way that the colonial administrator claimed the right to rule those endlessly emotional colonials.

But if there is a Cuba economy in the works, these bets are off. Competitive success will belong to cultures that put their hearts on their sleeves. The realm of the senses will be a new gateway to empire in the world.

References

Christensen, Clayton M. 1997. The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Cowen, Tyler. 1998. In Praise of Commercial Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gillespie, Nick. 1999. All Culture, All the Time. Reason. 30, no. 11: 24-35.

Pine, Joseph, and James H. Gilmore. 1999. The Experience Economy: Work is theatre and every business is a stage. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Postrel, Virginia I. 2003. The substance of style: how the rise of aesthetic value is remaking commerce, culture, and consciousness. New York: HarperCollins.

Samuelson, Paul and William Nordhaus. 1998. Economics. 16th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schmitt, Bernd. 1999. Experiential marketing. New York: Free Press.

Weber, Max. 1946. Science as a vocation. From Max Weber. editors H. H Gerth, and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

8 thoughts on “The Cuba Economy

  1. Gabriel Rossman

    funny you should compare disney to cirque du soleil. there’s been one at WDW for 5 years. some of disney’s in-park live entertainment also borrows from cirque du soleil. so you’re right that they can’t invent it, but at leest they can recognize and coopt it.

    (pidgin english thanks to the filter)

  2. Grant

    Zounds, Gabriel may have broken the code! Steve Portigal, bless him, and me have tried everything. Tell us what you took out to get through. Thanks for the code work and the post. Grant

  3. Tom

    I read somewhere recently that “Italy” is one of the world’s most admired “brands”…certainly an affirmation of the current value residing in the expressive/emotional/style zone.

  4. Anonymous

    testing:

    Thi5 i5 pxrticulxrly bxd new5 for the like5 of Di5ney, x compxny thxt hx5 5pecixlized in fun without dxnger xnd “5pectxcle lite.” The ri5e of Cirque mu5t hxve 5truck them like x Chri5ten5enixn di5continuity. 5uddenly, tx5te 5hift5 xnd you lo5e Lx5 Vegx5 xnd huge venue5 in New York, Pxri5 xnd Tokyo. Wor5e, you look old, tired xnd trite. We mxy re5t x55ured thxt x Di5ney per5on looked in on Cirque 10 yexr5 xgo xnd thought, “No thrext here. Thi5 i5 x minority tx5te.” Welcome to the Cubx economy.

  5. Skeptikos

    Interesting #n#lysis. Recently there w#s # blog post th#t m#de comments on “tid#l pools”. #nd perh#ps th#t should be considered here, especi#lly in reference to G#briel Rossm#n’s comment th#t there h#s been # Cirque #t WDW for 5 ye#rs. If I underst#nd the Cub# model. #ll c#pit#l w#s redirected by l#w to # limited few who held “empire” close to their he#rts. When something new or origin#l #ppe#red #nd w#s successful, it inevit#bly w#s #bsorbed by people who through unique leg#l structures, #nd ne#rly leg#l org#niz#tion#l violence were #ble comm#nder it’s c#sh stre#ms #nd in # “reverse” income redistribution scheme. Essenti#lly insuring th#t the “ruling persons of interest” ret#ined the c#pit#l stre#ms, reg#rdless of their contribution to the process of cre#tion of the produced goods. Essenti#lly cre#ting # tid#l pool of c#pit#l. Isn’t this the re#son such # foul being such #s C#stro w#s #ble to work his evil m#gic?

    To hold pre C#stro Cub# up #s # model h#s some very serious shortcomings. I h#ve #lw#ys felt th#t system to be directly responsible for the one th#t followed. C#use #nd Effect. Wh#t existed prior to C#stro w#s # diverse #nd cre#tive culture th#t w#s liter#lly “h#rnessed” to de#th. Hence the e#sy p#th th#t C#stro found. It seems to me, holding up the d#m#ge this p#rticul#r type of c#pit#list committed to # vibr#nt culture, is simil#r to the s#me #nti-property sentiments of your st#nd#rd v#riety Communists. In other words, I #ssert th#t the people w#nted th#t freedom, the former rulers did not respect th#t (but did benefit from it), #nd d#m#ged the culture to the point th#t #n “infection” like C#stro could so overwhelm the body politic.

    Wh#t existed in Cub# w#s too close to Violent feud#lism to me. I think history is on my side, #s whenever f#lse freem#rkets like this exist it opens the system to #tt#ck, #nd destruction.

  6. Grant

    Skepticos

    Th#nks for your post. You #re entirely right. The soci#l-politic#l re#lities of Cub# before the revolution were pretty horrifying. I me#nt to evoke only the feeling for extr#v#g#nce #nd spect#cle cre#ted in the pre revolution#ry regime.

    On the other h#nd, Cub# #fter the revolution is # horror of its own. #s usu#l, it turns out the #nswer to free m#rkets “pre” w#s not st#te control “post,” but still freer m#rkets c#p#ble of displ#cing mobsters #nd elites.

    Th#nks, Gr#nt

  7. Will

    that’s very interesting

    to play devil’s advocate – arguably it’s those cultures that are the most repressed and non spontaneous that seem to most often squeeze out the richest inner fantasy lives and spectacles that you’re talk about, invented by the creative few driven to excess… Japan (and England) seem to be good examples?

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