Capitalism in Catalonia

The "anarchists" of Catalonia frequently and spectacularly failed to live up their ideals: they introduced government, terror and killing fields, they imposed socialism by violence, and they engaged in exploitation.

But the most interesting thing is what happened when they did live up to their libertarian ideals.

Two months before the revolution, the CNT voted that collectives should be free each to pursue its own goals, that industry should be collectivized rather than socialized or nationalized, but they expected that people would spontaneously act in a socialist fashion. But the workers did not spontaneously act in a socialist fashion. Instead collectives and individuals acted in a capitalist fashion, each pursuing profit in competition with all the others. This led to highly unsocialist outcomes, outcomes that many in the CNT found unacceptable. Ronald Fraser in Blood of Spain, page 231:

In February 1937, four months after the [collectivization and socialization] decrees approval, a joint CNT-UGT textile union conference agreed that the experience demonstrated that the collectivization of individual plants had been mistaken, and that it was necessary to proceed to the total socialization of industry if ownership of the means of production was not once more to lead to the exploitation of man by man."

On the same page

The woodworkers' union weighed in with its criticism of the state of affairs, alleging that, while small, insolvent workshops were left to struggle as best they could, the collectivization of profitable enterprises was leading to "nothing other than the creation of two classes; the new rich and the eternal poor. We refuse the idea that there should be rich and poor collectives. And that is the real problem of collectivization".

Ronald Fraser in Blood of Spain, page 231, cites Juan Andrade, of the POUM executive (POUM was anti Stalinist communist, not libertarian socialist)

[...] the collectives were treated as private, not social property [...]
[...] Had it gone on like that, there would have been enormous problems later, with great disparities of wages and new social classes being formed. We also wanted to collectivize but quite differently [from the libertarian socialists], so that the countries resources were administered socially, not as individual property.

In Catalonia, while the libertarian socialists had power, the entertainment industry was socialized, but for some time the collectives were left with substantial real power over their individual theaters, so that in practice this was closer to collectivization than socialization, which meant that at first there was a free market in entertainment -- at first the people went to see what they wanted to see, rather than what their masters decided would be good for them to see. Naturally they wanted to see certain singers and not others. The theater industry democratically and freely voted that everyone would have the same wage: 15 pesetas, long holidays, and lots of benefits. Blood of Spain, page 222:

As a demonstration of the efforts being made, let it be realized that the greatest of opera singers, like Hipolito Lazaro, and the most humble of workers are going to get the same daily wage.

Blood of Spain, page 224 then quotes Hipolito Lazaro as saying to the Tivoli theater collective:

We are all equal now, and to prove it we all get the same wage. Fine, since we are equal, today I am going to collect the tickets at the door, and one of you can come up here and sing.

After a spot of haggling, his pay went up to 750 pesetas. Someone else got 500 pesetas, and everyone else got the short end of the stick. So if you have liberty, you will not have equality. He was able to get 750 pesetas because he was free to leave or to refuse to work as directed, same reason as I get rather good pay today.

If the workers are free to organize as they choose and use capital as they choose, they will use it for profit, and you will have a free market system that will turn back into capitalism in two or three years -- indeed it only took two or three months for alarmingly powerful signs of capitalism to reappear in Catalonia.

If this problem is solved by "coordination" that forcibly prevents them from acting in the way most profitable to each particular person or small group, then you have a single all powerful monopoly state, and it is back to the killing fields, as also happened in Catalonia.

Some of the anarchists were sincere, and genuinely sought to find a middle course between capitalism on the one hand and killing fields on the other hand.

They did not find it, despite vast and varied experimentation both with free markets and with killing fields.

Economic decisions like "What will we price these goods at", "what will we produce", "what job will Joe work at" affect everyone. If you permit people to do what they wish to do, then the voting does not count for anything, because the minority simply refuses to comply. If you force people to work at the job by the threat of violence, then the vote also does not count for anything, because people are too frightened to vote in a politically incorrect manner.

All three of these problems (liberty rendering the vote impotent, violence crushing individual liberty, and an atmosphere of violence perverting the vote) happened in Catalonia. At first the problems were mostly liberty frustrating socialism. Later socialism crushed liberty.

Entrepreneurs do not exercise power because they own capital. They mostly do not. They exercise power over other people's capital and other people's labor, because they made it pay better than others, so other people chose to put assets in their power, and other people chose to work for them. The shareholders only fire the management when the company is in grave crisis. They do not exercise control over what specific detailed things the company does with the shareholder's capital. They change managements less frequently than an employee changes jobs.

Bill Gates does not get immense compensation merely because he owns a lot of Microsoft stock. He also gets immense compensation because the shareholders, many of them Microsoft employees, believe he makes Microsoft what it is. Presumably if the shareholders were all Microsoft employees they would probably still believe that.

Collectives, normally in the form of large partnerships, are perfectly consistent with capitalism, and indeed are very common. Some such partnerships grow quite large, though usually they are under ten.

Usually such folk are lawyers or stockbrokers or some such, rather than ordinary workers, perhaps because such folk are more comfortable with the complexities of managing a firm, but there is nothing stopping people in less well rewarded professions from making such arrangements, and sometimes they do.

I am sure many such partnerships continued to flourish during Pinochet's terror, and did not cause him to lose any sleep whatsoever.

If collectives interacted by the free market, as they did at first in Catalonia, some would prosper and some would go broke. To maintain equality during these kinds of free market reorganization, during capitalism's creative destruction, to ensure that successful cooperatives did not "exploit" other folk by setting onerous conditions before one could become a full partner, would require a vastly powerful central body that would find itself meddling in the fine details of interactions between one person and another and their management of capital.

And once again we are back to actually-existent-socialism.

To prevent people from volunteering to be "exploited" you have to have a vastly powerful central power with authority to meddle in the petty details of pretty much everything.

In real life enterprises organized in this manner they usually do set onerous conditions, and often as the full partners grow older and less active, the firm comes to resemble the standard arrangement of shareholders and employees, or is formally reorganized in this fashion.

Now one can reasonably say that much of the bad stuff that happened in Catalonia was done by people who were monsters, not done as a logical consequence of the principles of libertarian socialism, but the reason the monsters were able to take power and act freely is that the those who sincerely believed in libertarian socialism wanted something that was logically impossible, and had no clear idea how to get it, and so they allowed those who knew what they wanted and how to get it to do as they pleased.

These documents are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License