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The tragedy of Puerto Rico

Lenin, four times

Rafael Bernabe situates the political challenges facing Puerto Rico— especially after the systemic crises that have brutalized the island, but which have also led to mass resistance and important electoral gains—within the international dynamics of crises and the ecological threat to humanity. Using some incisive words from the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin in 1905, Bernabe calls for a more explicit focus on capitalism as the problem, and the need to “organize pessimism” to retrieve the kernel of hope.  This article revisits some of the themes from “Manifiesto de la esperanza sin optimismo” [Manifest of Hope Sans Optimism], 80grados, November 24, 2017 and “Baile del realismo, el pesimismo y la esperanza” [Dance of Realism, Pessimism and Hope], 80grados, February 15, 2019. The article was written by Bernabe in Spanish and translated by Amaury Rodriguez, Tempest thanks both comrades for their efforts.

Puerto Rico’s present tragedy can be summarized with the following lines, written by Lenin in 1905: 

“The revolution may have matured without the necessary forces called to carry it out being sufficient; then society goes into decomposition and this decomposition sometimes lasts for decades.”

The main features of Puerto Rico’s crisis are palpable and well known and require little or no documentation: an economy that has not grown for a decade and a half; very high unemployment rates; low labor-participation rates and widespread poverty; inequality and the economic precariousness of individuals and families; environmental degradation; deterioration of infrastructure; persistent corruption in the contact zone of the private and public sectors; flourishing of the so-called informal economy and its illegal component with extremely high levels of violence.

But the intensification of this crisis after 2006 should not lead us to idealize the past. The evils listed above (others could be added) have worsened since then, but they did not arise at that time. What are the underlying causes of Puerto Rico’s present dislocation? The main determination can be briefly summarized: during the past hundred and twenty years, Puerto Rico, as a U.S. colony, has evolved under the impact of the free circulation of goods, money, capital, and people to and from the United States, in other words, the largest capitalist economy in the world. According to the apologists of free trade and capitalism in general, these are the ideal and most favorable conditions for economic development and for the leveling of the more backward regions (such as Puerto Rico) with the more advanced centers (such as the United States).

Yet, through the past century, this arrangement has never managed to create employment for a large part of Puerto Rico’s labor force, or a coherent productive structure for the home or export markets, or a balanced articulation between agriculture and industry, not to mention a combination of economic activity and environmental responsibility. Since the 1970s, half a century ago, Puerto Rico, far from catching up with its metropolis, has limped along with a third of the per capita income of the United States, and half the per capita income of the poorest state (Mississippi). Simply put: Puerto Rico’s present impasse is the result of a century-long, free trade capitalist experiment. More of the same is not going to solve its fundamental problems. It can only prolong and aggravate them.

The defenders of the present economic system love to pontificate about realism. But, to hope or expect that capitalism, decentralized market decisions, the free circulation of capital, competition between companies, the search of the highest profit by private businesses—to think that any (or a mix) of these features is going to bring about results different from what they have already produced since 1900 is the height of unrealism. It is a baseless fantasy, a severe case of wishful thinking.

The strictest realism leads to the opposite conclusion: Puerto Rico needs a democratically planned economy. Is this transformation possible in the near future? Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Which prompts us to return to Lenin’s text, while adding a few words that precede those already quoted:

“No, human society is not structured in such a rational and comfortable way…The revolution may have matured without the necessary forces called to carry it out being sufficient; then society goes into decomposition and this decomposition sometimes lasts for decades.”

And that’s where we find ourselves: confronted with the impossibility of that which is necessary.

It could be argued that there is more than one type of capitalism. Perhaps a regulated, coordinated, more planned, more endogenous capitalism can guarantee a more organic and balanced development for Puerto Rico, with less inequality and less environmental destruction. We have suffered from colonial capitalism: we need a more independent capitalism, less subservient to foreign capital.

But who is going to create that directed, planned, independent, national, endogenous, self-centered capitalism? Certainly, it will not be the Puerto Rican business, employer, owner, or capitalist class. That class has never had its own political or economic project. It never had and has no will to resist, confront or defy U.S. capital. It has happily and humbly accepted the role of junior partner. They are the first to oppose any proposal to tax the profits of foreign corporations in order to invest the proceeds in Puerto Rico’s economy. In other words, they are the willing defenders of the very same interests that have progressively displaced them over a century of colonial rule. Of course, all talk of regulation or planning is anathema to them: they have embraced the neoliberal decalogue to the last comma. For this class, increasing “competitiveness” means, not higher productivity but lower pay and benefits. Thus, we can rest assured that, if another capitalism is possible, our capitalist class will not be the one to build it. This could only come about, if we are realistic, if working people were able to build a political movement capable of adopting government measures in that direction.1 

But is it realistic to think that a working class that organizes and mobilizes massively and actively, to the point of taking over the government, will calmly tolerate the daily injustices of capitalism and the petty despotism of the boss in the workshop and the factory? Surely, such a process of amending colonial capitalism will translate into a process of abolishing it, as Trotsky already explained many decades ago. But regardless of what Trotsky said, is the working class ready or in the process of preparing to implement its own agenda of economic development, be it by modifying or challenging the current economic rules? The answer, for now, is that it lacks such an inclination. This is what we need urgently, but it is not what we can count on at present. In which case it is in order to cite Lenin yet again, adding another passage to the quote we already visited twice:

“It would be wrong to believe that the revolutionary classes always have sufficient strength to make a revolution once it has matured under the conditions of economic and social development. No, human society is not structured in such a rational and comfortable way…The revolution may have matured without the necessary forces called to carry it out being sufficient; then society goes into decomposition and this decomposition sometimes lasts for decades.”

But we are not faced with a tragedy or process of decomposition in Puerto Rico alone. Humanity as a whole is facing situations that endanger its survival among which climate change, of course, stands out. Science tells us that it is necessary to limit the increase in temperature to no more than 2°C compared to the pre-industrial era. We are currently headed for an increase of more than 4°C, with “apocalyptic” consequences (collapse of industrial civilization, endangering the survival of humanity and other species). Addressing the problem requires immediate action to reduce CO2 emissions, stop deforestation, phase out fossil energy and replace it with renewable energy, reduce energy consumption, end reliance on private transportation, “re-localize” more production, none of which can be done without giving up the imperative of unlimited growth, without attacking the profits of the largest companies, without subjecting them to socially determined objectives, without replacing the logic of competition with ecological planning, among other initiatives. In short, without abolishing capitalism.

Is this what we can expect in the near future? It would be very optimistic to answer in the affirmative. So, let us revisit Lenin’s words one last time:

“The revolution may have matured without the necessary forces called to carry it out being sufficient; then society goes into decomposition and this decomposition sometimes lasts for decades.”

But in this case, decades of delay threaten humanity, not only with decomposition, but with irreparable damage and even extinction.

Some may feel tempted to recall the historical achievements, the material progress brought about by capitalism. But Marxism does not deny this. It is the first to recognize it. Whoever wishes to verify this should read or reread the first section of the Communist Manifesto. Capitalism creates the conditions for the emancipation of humanity from both economic exploitation and political oppression. It creates the conditions for emancipation, but it is not capable of realizing it. For that, capitalism must be abolished, substituting private ownership of the sources of wealth for communal property and the laws of the market for democratic planning. And, above all: it is clear that the progressive dimension of capitalism was long ago overshadowed by its destructive side (today, in times of climate change and pandemic, we could say its starkly catastrophic dimension).

Worse still: we must deal, not only with the consequences of capitalism, but also with the regressive responses to those consequences, including neo-fascism, xenophobia, exacerbated racism, anti-feminism, and homophobia (exemplified by figures such as Trump, Le Pen, Putin, Modi, Bolsonaro, and parties such as Vox in Spain and Proyecto Dignidad in Puerto Rico, among many others).

Therefore, the situation is serious. Extremely serious. The only thing left to us, as Walter Benjamin said in 1929, citing the Surrealists, is to organize our pessimism. Pessimism does not exclude hope. There is a solution to the problems posed by capitalism, even if it is not on the agenda in the immediate future.  The first fact is a source of hope, while the second blocks any facile optimism. We must fight to make that solution possible, basing ourselves on the ongoing resistances to the consequences of capitalism.

Against the impositions, dislocations, and disasters of colonial capitalism, Puerto Rico’s bourgeoisie never built an alternative social project. Nor has its working class. That double void is at the center of our tragedy, of our often-lamented sense of dispersion, our lack of widely shared orientation as a society. The bourgeoisie will never accomplish this task. Will the working class succeed where its antagonist failed? The shape of Puerto Rico’s future hinges on the answer to this question. Of course, a working-class project cannot ignore the different forms of domination that exist. It has to confront racism, sexism, homophobia, and the plight of immigrants. These issues are not external to the working class, so to speak, or solely a question of allied struggles, but rather part of the struggle to build a movement encompassing the concerns of the whole class, and not only some sections or parts of it (its white, male, heterosexual, non-immigrant sections, for example.)

Resistance is underway. In Puerto Rico, labor, environmental, feminist, community, anti-racist, student, anti-colonial, and other initiatives are not lacking. But they are largely disconnected from each other. They are fragmented and mostly discontinuous. They lack the means of coordination and a minimum shared program. These struggles must be extended, democratically coordinated, and they must provide themselves with a means of political action, which includes, but is not limited to, electoral participation.

In 2019, for the first time in our history, we removed a ruler from office through mass mobilization from below. Since that moment, all the individual and institutional ideologues of the ruling class have tried to erase the “summer of 2019” from Puerto Rico’s memory. They wish to turn it into a unique, isolated event, without replicas in the future. We have to ensure the opposite: build more and better insurgent “summers”.2

Graffiti painted during protests of the summer of 2019 during the Puerto Rican leadership crisis. Along with the demands for Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation (renuncia) as governor, the number 4,645 is in reference to those that died during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Photo by Old School WWC Fan.

Needless to say, those of us who take a frankly anti-capitalist position do not turn the adoption of that perspective into a condition for collaboration. Quite the contrary, we want to join forces with all those who want to fight against the consequences of capitalism. We trust that this practice will demonstrate the need to abolish it. We need a united front that allows us to fight together, each one with their own flags and perspectives.

It is of course true that Puerto Rico cannot challenge global capitalism alone. But the imperative of capitalism’s unlimited and incessant growth is incompatible with a finite planet. All of humanity needs a “revolutionary change in social relations, and also in technology and ways of life”, as well as “ecological planning” as part of a “democratically planned socialist economy”3 , which is exactly what Puerto Rico needs. We are not alone. Our struggle is a front in that global fight. We have to build it and link it with its counterparts elsewhere, including the United States.

In Puerto Rico, we often hear declarations against our “political class”, “partisan politics” or how the political parties “divide the country”. These are, in the best of cases, half-truths, which almost always serve to hide other truly decisive realities. Political parties do not divide society. Society, to begin with, is divided into classes. We can eliminate political parties tomorrow and that deep social division will persist. The despised “politicians” or the so-called “political class” may govern but the capitalist class rules. Puerto Rico’s problem is not party politics, or parties in general, but rather the parties of that capitalist class, which are the ones that have governed and still govern Puerto Rico. The often-heard attack on “the politicians” or the “political class” is not enough: if the criticism stops at this point (as most political scientists, commentators, and analysts do) it becomes a means of shielding capitalism, of diverting attention and our indignation away from it, of making it invisible. No, our problem is capitalism. To combat it we need a program, and we need to organize ourselves to defend and promote that program, that is to say, we need, not to reject political parties as divisive or inherently corrupt but to promote a party of our own, with all the necessary safeguards against bureaucratization.

This also goes, in part, for the emphasis on colonialism as the source of Puerto Rico’s ills. Of course, colonialism and its consequences must be denounced. But there are enough independent capitalist republics around us to demonstrate that independence, while necessary, is hardly sufficient to address Puerto Rico’s needs.

Back in the 1930s, Max Horkheimer famously  wrote that “whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism.”  Today we can say to the many voices lamenting Puerto Rico’s situation while dwelling ad nauseam on the sins of our “political class”: whoever does not wish to talk about capitalism should not talk about corruption, or social decomposition, historical impasse or the crisis we are experiencing.

Let us be clear. Some voices affirm that there is no realistic alternative to capitalism. Such an alternative, they argue, is now unrealizable. We answer that they may be right. We may be indeed doomed to capitalism. In the passage quoted above Lenin does not state that the revolution is inevitable or certain, since the alternative would be decades of social decomposition. No, he says the opposite: it may very well be the case that the necessary revolution is not possible. The history of a nation or country can be that irrational and uncomfortable. But he warns us: in that case let us not deceive ourselves, what awaits us then are decades of decomposition. Such cleared-eyed pessimism should lead us to cling to the hope for change with redoubled energy.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Joe Piette; modified by Tempest.

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Rafael Bernabe View All

Rafael Bernabe is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and long-time socialist activist. He is the author (with César Ayala) of Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History Since 1898 and Walt Whitman and His Caribbean Interlocutors. In 2020 he was elected to Puerto Rico’s Senate for the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana.