Policing the Recession: Unemployment, Social Protest and Law-and-Order in Republican Barcelona, 1930-1936
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What follows is a social and cultural study of the Barcelona proletariat during the Spanish Second Republic (193 1-1936). Unlike many historical and organisational studies of working class groups and labour organisations, this study looks beyond the formal aspects of politics to locate praxis firmly within the wider socio-economic fabric of everyday life. In doing so, the emphasis moves away from an explanation of the opposition of the CNT-FAI to the Republic in terms of a fixed set of ideological shibboleths and the traditional anarchist opposition to authority. Instead, this study assesses the attitude of the CNT towards the Republic in terms of the failure of the authorities to eradicate the traditional patterns of social exclusion and their inability to satisfy the predominantly unskilled and unemployed supporters of the CNT-FAI in Barcelona. Particular emphasis is placed on patterns of social and urban exclusion and working class culture. I have set out to retrieve the historic experience of a specific sector of the Barcelona working class: the much-maligned unskilled, itinerant and immigrant labourers who, quite literally, built modern Catalonia. International economic collapse and internal political stability inside Spain during the late 1920s and the early 1930s meant that increasing numbers of these workers were unemployed. The experience of unemployment, its impact on the culture of the jobless and their everyday resistance to poverty, form the core of this study. This provides a starting point for a social history of crime and punishment in 1930s Barcelona. Particular attention is given to the anarchist attitude to crime and the way in which the FM encouraged illegal methods of internal funding. This study relies on mainly qualitative, rather than quantitative, analysis. While statistics are not entirely banished, the analysis is premised on the view that the plight of the unemployed cannot be adequately expressed numerically. Consequently, this work is overwhelmingly based on a rea1ing of the press from the 1930s. This aversion to hard-boiled empiricism is only in part justified by the practical reason that Spanish statistics, whether collated by the authorities or the labour movement, were notoriously unreliable. The methodological level of enquiry is also conditioned by an overriding concern with the revolutionary culture of the proletarian masses of Barcelona and the social processes that shaped this. By its very nature, such an object of study is not quantifiable, a point that is well reinforced by the classic studies by E.P. Thompson and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies on the English proletariat and policing and the more recent work by Dai Smith on the cultural universe of Welsh labour.' Following from these works, this study relies heavily on press reports, biography and oral sources in a bid to recuperate the social and cultural dimensions of popular consciousness. The epistemological essence of this approach has been presciently grasped by Paul Thompson, who observes that: 'social statistics, in short, no more represent absolute facts than newspaper reports, private letters, or published biographies. Like recorded interview material, they all represent, either from individual standpoints or aggregated, the social perception of facts; and are all in addition subject to social pressures from the context in which they are obtained. With these forms of evidence, what we receive is social meaning, and it is this which must be evaluated'.2 Social history has been criticised in the past for 'ignoring' politics. 3 Because the 193 Os was an era of intense political change and ideological conflict in Spain this study has been forced to transcend this shortcoming. This research places the social history of the unemployed at the centre of the political history of the CNT during the Republic. An example of this is the way in which the historic tensions between the CNT and the rival UGT are expressed through the conflict between the essentially unemployed and unskilled membership of the Barcelona CNT and the predominantly employed and skilled supporters of the UGT in the Catalan capital. This fusion of social and political analysis is also central to a full understanding of the experience of the Republic in Barcelona. This work is especially concerned with the extent to which the Republic represented a change for the Barcelona working class, not just in a political sense, but in social and economic terms. Clearly, the Republic 1 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, London, 1963 and Customs in Common, Harmondsworth, 1993; Stuart Hall, ci. a!., Policing the Crisis: Mugging. the State. and Law and Order, London, 1978; Dai Smith, Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales, Cardiff, 1994 2 Paul Thompson The Voice of the Past, London, 1978, p.96 Geoff Eley and Keith Nield, 'Why does social history ignore politics?, Social History, 5, 2, 1980, pp.249-271 11 established a set of constitutional and democratic guarantees that had rarely existed in the past. However, the primary concern here is with how the advent of the new régime affected the lives of the workers of Barcelona and to what extent it altered the previous patterns of social exclusion and oppression. While this study covers the period from the birth of the Second Republic in April 1931 to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, the focus of the narrative and analysis is concentrated heavily on 1931. This is justifiable because this was the key period for the future of the Republic. It was 'Republican Year Zero', a time of disproportionate importance, in which the newly-ensconced Republican authorities sought to establish a new political and social order capable of embracing those classes and social strata which had been excluded from previous regimes. Thus, 1931 was the year in which the Republican project of integrating the Barcelona working class would either succeed or fail. Equally, the concentration on the blend of social and political variables at play in 1931 is also valid as it facilitates a more sophisticated understanding of the complex trajectory of the CNT during the Republic. By assessing the real and shifting aspirations and hopes of the union rank-and-file, we supersede the caricatured image of the CNT and its supporters as robots who were guided by exclusively ideological and doctrinal concerns.4 Finally, because this study is not a political history of the convoluted institutional relationship between Catalonia and Spain in the 1930s, attention is paid to the often complex and shifting configuration of power in a quasi-federal state only insofar as it intersects the main area of study.
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