King Juan Carlos I of Spain’s announced abdication has instigated a flurry of commentary contrasting dictatorship and democracy. The consensus views the remaining non-honorary power of the dozen remaining monarchies in Europe, particularly in diminutive monarchies like Liechtenstein and the Vatican, as vestigial holdouts from the relentless trend towards the representative-democratic nation-state as “the end of history.” A beloved monarch’s role in leading a transition from the Franco regime’s capital-F Fascism to a conventional modern democratic state is an anomaly.
Yet Spain is a textbook illustration of two devastating criticisms of the consensus view made by anarchist Karl Hess in a July 1976 Playboy interview. First, when Hess denied “that the medieval monarchs were much different from our Presidents now,” and was incredulously challenged that “Surely, even as an anarchist you must be willing to admit that there are some differences between Presidents and kings,” he insisted: “Presidents achieve power by hoaxes and handshakes, while kings take the far less tiring route of being born. That is the only difference I can discern.” Second, while “Most analysts see the political spectrum as a great circle, with authoritarian governments of the right and the left intersecting at a point directly opposite representational democracy. But my notion of politics is that it follows a straight line, with all authoritarian societies on the right and all libertarian societies on the left,” with the opposite of both representative democracy and dictatorship being “a world of neighborhoods in which all social organization is voluntary and the ways of life are established in small, consenting groups.”
In his introduction to The Anarchist Collectives, Murray Bookchin scorned the mainstream liberal and Old Left interpretation of the Spanish Civil War as “a struggle between a liberal republic that was valiantly and with popular support trying to defend a democratic parliamentary state against authoritarian generals.” In fact, the ordinary people of Spain “viewed the republic almost with as much animosity as they did the Francistas,” and “were concerned not to rescue a treacherous republican regime but to reconstruct Spanish society.” Following Bookchin’s introduction is detailed primary documentation of their success when state power was pushed back enough to give them a fighting chance.
Far from being what the Old Left saw as a quixotic last stand of preindustrial “primitive rebels” against the tide of history, the Spanish anarchists seem ever more prescient of tomorrow’s post-industrial age.
The seemingly unstoppable power of the state and its plutocratic appendages — the modern successors of what Bookchin called the Spanish people’s “historic class enemies, ranging from the landowning grandees and clerical overlords inherited from the past to the rising industrial bourgeoisie and bankers of more recent times” — to crowd out alternative socioeconomic organization has always entirely stemmed from their ability to extract wealth involuntarily — in Franz Oppenheimer’s phrase, “political means.” The roots of the political means are steadily drying up as economic production becomes ever more localized and less capital-intensive, and correspondingly harder to efficiently levy tribute from. In the military realm, the might of the standing army is being increasingly challenged by fourth generation warfare techniques reviving the popular spirit of the voluntary, decidedly un-state-run Brigadas Internacionales.
Human-scale social organization decentralized enough to make Monaco look cumbersome, functioning without requiring any individuals to give up sovereignty over their personal lives, will bear out George Woodcock’s observation that “In reality, the ideal of anarchism, far from democracy carried to its logical end, is much nearer to aristocracy universalised and purified.”