(This article was published by Enclave Magazine on September 1st, 2020, under the title “The Consent of the Colonized”).
The most salient feature of the regime that keeps Puerto Rico subordinated to the United States is its longevity. What accounts for the acquiescence of Puerto Ricans to that regime? How has that consent been reproduced for generations, up to the present day?
Here, I examine the usefulness of the concept of hegemony in explaining the consent to American domination over Puerto Rico. My contention is that the explanation lies, not in the domination strategies emphasized by theoreticians of hegemony, but in the historical and cultural circumstances of the subordinated nation. Since I do not expect to display anything approaching bullet-proof arguments, I will be satisfied if they are worth pondering and debating.
Hegemony and the Satisfaction of Needs
Efrén Rivera Ramos (The Legal Construction of Identity: The Judicial and Social Legacy of American Colonialism in Puerto Rico (2001)), and Steven Lukes (Power: A Radical View (2nd ed. 2005)) have examined “hegemony.” Lukes calls it “power as domination,” defining it as “the power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things.”
That type of power requires probing, Lukes elaborates, “how do the powerful secure the compliance of those they dominate –and more specifically, how do they secure their willing compliance?” For him, power as domination works as long as it creates in the subordinated group the perception that its interests are being advanced.
For both scholars, the material foundation of hegemony is connected to the satisfaction of needs. They also point to the importance of creating the perception that the dominant group “incorporates the demands” of the subordinated one. I proceed to examine that theoretical framework in the case Puerto Rico’s relation of subordination to the United States.
First, at the turn of the twentieth century, the image of the United States as a liberal champion of human rights bedazzled the Puerto Rican elite, and attracted the oppressed classes. However, it is also true that monarchical, illiberal Spain had not faced in Puerto Rico the unrest and governance problems that it had in Cuba. Hence, in searching for explanations accounting for the stability of American rule over Puerto Rico, that history cannot be underestimated; much less ignored.
Second, since 1900, the United States has displayed little or no interest in “incorporating the demands” or satisfy the needs of Puerto Ricans or their elites. In the political realm, Puerto Rico is still in the same colonial limbo in which it found itself with the enactment by the U.S. Congress of the 1900 Foraker Act.
Since then, the three branches of the U.S. government have worked in tandem to attain the objective that was expressly articulated from the outset: To indefinitely keep Puerto Rico as a colony (as an “unincorporated territory”); and never to carve a path leading either to statehood or independence.
In short, the political needs that Puerto Ricans have articulated, and demanded the U.S. government to satisfy, have been ignored. Given that truth, perceptions among the subordinated people, in which the United States shines as a beacon of democracy, fairness and justice, suggest the presence of cultural features that have facilitated the hegemony of the American empire. Those features are, I sustain, independent from whatever “domination strategies” the hegemonic nation has implemented.
It is not less true that the strategies identified by Rivera Ramos –the ideology of the rule of law, the discourse rights, the dogmatic image of liberalism and democracy– are an integral part of the rationalizations and justifications for the subordination (what Rivera Ramos calls its legitimation). But, I sustain, they do not cause the acquiescence to subordination.
Third, in the social and economic realm the situation has not been much better. There has not been a satisfaction of economic or social needs, such as a more dignified life, with less exploitation, less desolation.
Besides political ignominy, the first four decades of the twentieth century were characterized by economic ruin and widespread suffering, while American capitalists made millions. The first meaningful resistance in the 1930s came from the Nationalist Party, which was swiftly crushed. But, the balance was one of resignation in the face of widespread misery.
Today, Puerto Rico is under a new wave of impoverishment. The chronic crisis of the post-war model of American capitalist, largely industrial expansion, has lasted for more than five decades. That deterioration has been joined by all kinds of material, psychological, and ideological palliatives and rationalizations, all in the context of a society in which, as José Luis González put it, “misery has been disguised as opulent consumerism and dismay as indifference and frivolity.”
In sum, the United States has not allowed Puerto Rico to attain political or economic development; and the satisfaction of needs is an illusion, which in turn is tied to a static, fearful, and myopic society. Those are part of an array of cultural and cognitive maladies, which antedate, and are independent from, the “domination strategies” of the hegemonic nation.
Other Psychological, Historical and Cultural Clues
Another factor to consider is the psychological need for self-esteem. In the case of Puerto Ricans, the sense of self-worth has dispensed with attaining a separate, political nationhood. On the contrary, such need has, to a large degree, been tied to the domination of the American empire.
There is the perception that we have partaken, however modestly, of American global power; a view which is reinforced by the presence of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans in the United States armed forces and wars. Then there is the no less crucial perception that all that is American is about good, progress and modernity, a view that began to develop in the early twentieth century. Given the current desolation, that perception is also revealed as folly.
Recent developments, and others still to crystallize, may weaken those and other factors in the equation of our consent to colonialism; or may not. After all, Puerto Rico finds itself today weakened, still plagued by tribal divisions, a simplistic worldview, and ancient fears; all in the context of a social, economic, ethical, and demographic dead end.
After 122 years of U.S. colonial rule, we are still fearful of independence. Some authors account for that dread by pointing to old class resentments. But the question is whether that is a post hoc justification, based on feelings and perceptions that developed more than 170 years ago. That rationalization is disconnected from new circumstances of imperial exploitation, which began to unfold immediately following the 1898 cession of Puerto Rico to the United States, and are still present in 2020.
Meanwhile, eight generations of Puerto Rican politicians have been aware that their political viability rests upon tempering aspirations, ambitions and actions, in order not to offend a conservative electorate, allergic to the prospect of substantial changes. In turn, that electorate has denied our politicians the possibility of extorting American actors by pointing to a latent, vibrant desire of opting for independence. Those attempts of extortion have taken place, and have never been fruitful. The timidity and paralysis of Puerto Ricans and their politicians still reinforce and cancel each other, in a vicious feedback loop.
Puerto Rico has Signs of Being a Static Society
Given that framework, what if the central explanation for 120 years of colonial limbo is a visceral, preexistent tendency toward stagnation? I propose that such stasis is due to, among other factors, fear and old social divisions, and the absence of optimism –that is, lack of an ethos of critical thinking and innovation.
Following David Deutsch, optimism in this context refers to the internalization that, although problems are inevitable, they are also soluble. In that vein, the toolkit for solving problems includes, not only a widespread praxis of criticism and innovation, but the dynamic, relentless search for good explanations. Dynamism and optimism go hand in hand.
In sum, I propose that the acquiescence to colonial domination comes from ways of being, of doing and not doing, which are embedded in our culture through the transmission from brain to brain, and enactment, of ideas and whole worldviews. The transmission mechanisms of what we call “culture” are hard to detect, which makes them even more formidable.
As the dominant, exploitative nation, the United States benefited from finding in Puerto Rico a certain cultural and social order. That order had been coalescing in the subordinated nation for hundreds of years, and it is characterized, among other things, by the kind of pessimism that is typical of static societies. Given the inherent stability of a static culture, Puerto Rico did not require specific, elaborate domination strategies, which the United States implemented anyway, mostly by default, as it brought them along.
I propose, therefore, that the theoretical frameworks of Rivera Ramos and Lukes are of limited use in explaining our continuous, multigenerational acquiescence to American colonial rule. Despite the talent of its people, Puerto Rico is mostly a static culture, full of fears and divisions, lacking an ethos of criticism, innovation and optimism. As such, it has not required “domination strategies” to be ruled and exploited, because it has already been under the thumb of its fears, taboos, and deficit of critical thinking.