Rizal’s sociology of colonial society

Jose Rizal lived in Europe at a time when sociology, the scientific study of society, was just beginning to be formalized. It is interesting that he did not seem to have made the acquaintance of this new discipline.  His rich insights into the mechanisms and consequences of colonial society could have been framed better with the aid of sociological concepts.  But, more important, they would have added a vital area to the new science of society.  That field, so sadly missing in modern sociology, would have focused on the circumstances and self-understanding of subjugated peoples.

Rizal was a methodical observer of his own society.  This capacity for observation was sharpened even more by his experience as an expatriate Filipino.   Not only did living in Europe equip him with a modern liberal sensibility, it also gave him the necessary distance from which he could ponder the problems of his country. The life of an exile distilled his sense of nation.

In his two great novels, the Noli and the Fili, Rizal diagnosed the effects of Spanish colonial rule on the psyche of his people.  Two yeas after the publication of these novels, he wrote a long essay dissecting the same colonial tumor, in a more conceptual but no less polemical tone. The starting point of this strident and sardonic attack on Spanish colonial society was the reputation for indolence of the native Filipinos.  The essay, “La indolencia de los Filipinos,” appeared in the Madrid-based fortnightly publication “La Solidaridad” in five installments, beginning with the July 15, 1890 issue.  While replete with medical metaphors, this essay is easily the most sociological of Rizal’s writings.

The Filipino’s supposed indolence, said Rizal, is largely unexamined. Its claim to validity rests entirely on its mindless repetition as a catchall derogatory explanation. Its premise is that indolence – this “little love for work and lack of energy” — is a genetic quality of inferior races.

Being a scientist, Rizal was quick to point out that “it is not to be inferred from the misuse of a thing that it does not exist.”  “There must be something behind all this outcry,” he said, that it should continue to be expressed by so many. Thus, instead of denying its existence, he proceeds to deconstruct it in a performative display of erudition and linguistic command.  And he does so with an ironic and biting wit that is so clearly restrained in Charles Derbyshire’s English translation.

First, Rizal argues, there is the matter of the tropical heat, which forces anyone who toils the land in these parts to regularly pause for “quiet and rest,” in contrast to cold weather which “incites labor and action.”  Add to this the reality that the “poor colonist” is typically “badly nourished, has no hope, toils for others, and works under force and compulsion.”  The native has no choice, he says, but to adjust to his milieu. But doing so does not thereby make him unproductive. Nature has made the soil in his farms fertile.  He therefore need not work all day to make the earth yield its bounty.

But the inclination to indolence, which is real, is being reinforced by other factors, notably by “mis-government and backwardness.”  When the native sees that the fruit of his labor can be taken away from him anytime, he realizes that a productive farm is a virtual invitation to victimization.  So, in self-defense, he chooses a path that will not attract the attention of predators.  He becomes a minimalist, preferring to be seen as a lazy peasant who cannot adequately provide for himself than to be treated as a man who slaves “to satisfy the passions of another man.”

The Spanish rulers, of course, cannot see this.  Blinded by their own prejudices and arrogance, they try to correct the malady of native indolence by “attacking the symptoms.”  To extract more labor from the “lazy” native, they impose new taxes, round up people for forced labor, and coax them into working harder by alternating programs of “bloodletting” and “trifling reform.”  The result of this is a passive resistance that is misrecognized as indolence.

We were once a highly productive people, says Rizal.  “Wealth abounded in the islands.”  But colonialism not only failed to develop the islands’ productive capacity, it created the conditions for the local economy’s rapid underdevelopment (to use recent terminology).

First we lost the flourishing trade with our neighbors after the Spaniards took possession of our islands.  The colonial government replaced it with a galleon trade that contributed nothing to the country’s economy because this was basically a trade between Mexico and China. The exactions brought about by Spain’s expeditions against its imperial rivals decimated the native population, and sapped their strength.  This and the confiscation of their weapons in turn made them vulnerable to pirate raids from the South.  On top of all this, the constraints to economic activity created by all kinds of administrative restrictions killed the entrepreneurial spirit.  Finally, there is the penchant to imitate the manners of the Spanish aristocracy (tila ka Castila), which fosters a life of luxury without hard work.

The picture would not be complete unless we looked at ourselves, Rizal says. Our servile colonial consciousness has worked against us.  Two things are needed to reverse this situation, he concludes: first, education in freedom; second, inculcation of national sentiment. Without these, no reform is possible.  Yesterday, the problem was called indolence, today its name is corruption.  But Rizal’s analysis holds.