Misc 11/04/2021

When the rich were bourgeois

The Catalan fortunes of the 19th and 20th centuries promoted national projects in the face of an institutional vacuum

8 min
Historical image of the workshops of the Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima of Barcelona.
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BarcelonaThe great-grandfather of Juan Carlos I returned to Spain to lead the Bourbon Restoration thanks to three multimillionaires living in Barcelona: Antonio López, Ignasi Girona and Evarist Arnús. Through the Banco Hispano Colonial they advanced money for Alfonso XII to come from abroad. "These people dominated politics, finance and everything that could be vital in the country", said the influential historian Jaume Vicens Vives, who at the founding conference of the Cercle d'Economia, in 1958, explained an incident that illustrates the mood of those patricians: 1885. Alfonso XII dies. Panic on the stock exchange. All shares plummet. Arnús buys everything on sale in Madrid and Barcelona. Not out of instinct, but because his friend Práxedes Mateo Sagasta, head of the liberals, has told him that he has signed a pact with the conservative Antonio Cánovas de Castillo to alternate at the head of the Spanish government. It was the bipartisanship of the time. The next day, when the rest of mortals found out about the agreement, the stock market went into a tailspin. Arnús had made a fortune because he had taken all the money in circulation. But he broke up the securities he had bought and saved the vast majority of speculators from ruin. A gesture of political intuition", said Vicens Vives, "because Arnús had lived through the crisis of 1826 and knew that this gesture not only brought him peace but also prosperity".

Vicens Vives admired those men. "They are no more than forty: Güell, the Bonaplatas, the Tous, who have left a visible mark, not only in the portraits in Foment del Treball Nacional but also in the factories, in the Maquinista Terrestre and Marítima, in Industrial Spain". And he put them as an example to young pups of the Catalan bourgeoisie of the 50s and 60s to encourage them to get involved in the future of society while they were going through the last five years of Franco's dictatorship.

The industrial revolution

Those eighteenth-century businessmen praised by Vicens Vives carried out the Industrial Revolution in Catalonia, thanks in large part to the capital that many of them accumulated in their adventures in the Spanish-American colonies. The slave trade played an important role in many of these new fortunes, which boosted the country's economy despite the incomprehension, if not opposition, of the Spanish governments. Politicians and high officials of the Villa y Corte (what is now called the deep state ) argued that industry and the increase of the urban population were more harmful than beneficial to the economy and the welfare of the Spanish people than agriculture and the social peace of the rural areas. Those industrialists managed in 20 years to represent more than half of the total Spanish economy. Between 1850 and 1866 Catalonia financed two thirds of the Spanish railways; either private capital paid for it or there was no train. The same happened with infrastructures such as the Urgell canal, financed by Manuel Girona, the banker who never accepted noble titles because he said he preferred "treasury titles" and who is buried in the cloister of Barcelona Cathedral, after paying for the neo-Gothic façade out of his own pocket.

Not all americans returned with fortunes, recalls Francesc Cabana: "But those who did, left a record with a certain cockiness to impress their neighbours. One built a miniature Giralda or a small Havana capitol in Arboç; another a large park in Vilanova i la Geltrú; a large tower in Maresme; or spectacular porches near the port of Barcelona. And always with a palm tree in the gardens and a decoration in the houses that recalled their past in the Antilles". Barcelonians and tourists can now enjoy in the passeig de Gràcia or in Parc Güell of the masterpieces that the modernist geniuses built to satisfy the craving for ostentation of the nouveau riche, who sought social recognition and exchanges of influence in the Liceu and the Palau de la Música. The same goals that since the middle of the 20th century have been pursued by dozens of businessmen in the boxes of the Camp Nou.

Families like the Güell family hired the best architects for their projects, such as Gaudí

The industrialists sought maximum profit and, if they had always taken care to optimise the working conditions of the workers - from hygiene in the factories to fair wages - the 19th century would not have been so saturated with social conflict and Barcelona would not have been known throughout the world as the Rosa de Foc (the Rose of Fire). Even so, among some manufacturers there was a certain awareness of the need to share with employees something more than an exchange of wages for production power. Some thought of the most vulnerable, for example by mutualising old-age benefits, and so the Caixa de Pensions was born. In a speech, Josep Antoni Muntadas, considered the soul of Industrial Spain, expressed himself in this way: "El trabajo es el elemento moralizador de los pueblos, y tanto es así que, en las estadísticas criminales, de seguro que hallaréis en mínima proporción a los obreros. Séame lícito añadiros que el verdadero industrial trabaja y se afana por algo más que por la remuneración de sus capitales" ("Work is the moralizing element of the people, and so much so that, in the criminal statistics, you will surely find a small proportion of workers. Let me add that the true industrialist works and strives for more than just the remuneration of his capital").

The Tancament de Caixes

Cabana believes that the bourgeoisie, by definition, cannot maintain an attitude of frontal opposition to the Spanish or Catalan government. Even so, at the end of the 19th century, Catalan businessmen, fed up with the contempt they received from Madrid, allied themselves on two important occasions with political parties and socio-cultural organisations in Catalonia to demand a greater commitment to the Principat (Catalonia) from the State. The first time, with wisdom. The second time, with an outburst. In 1885, at an event to promote the Centre Català, various entities - from the Foment de la Producció to the Centre Excursionista - presented to King Alfonso XII the Memorial de Greuges (Memorial of Grievances) a text in defence of Catalan civil law and a tariff policy more beneficial to the local textile industry. Cánovas was on the point of resigning. Alfonso XII died a few months later without being able to keep his promises.

The other event that once again showed a singular commitment of the employers' association to the rest of Catalan society took place in 1899, with the so-called Tancament de Caixes (Closing of the savings banks). The guilds began by protesting against the increase in taxes. Foment del Treball, outraged that the executive had broken its promise to establish an economic agreement in Catalonia, decided in favour of the guilds, who a few days later refused to pay the tax for the last quarter. The mayor of Barcelona, Dr. Robert, resigned in order not to seize the defaulters as the Treasury demanded. The guilds ended up losing the boycott two and a half months later, although they considered it a moral victory.

The business community has also filled dark pages. The financing of the pistolerismo and the political and economic endorsement of the two dictatorships of the 20th century are the most shameful. The starting pistol is usually fired in the Canadian strike of 1919, at a time of expansion of the National Confederation of Labour (CNT). The attacks by the anarchists, on the one hand, and the mercenaries in the service of the State and the employers' sewers, on the other, caused 226 deaths between 1916 and 1923, the year of Primo de Rivera's coup d'état.

Law, order and dictatorships

The dictatorship of this general was consented by Alfonso XIII and as favoured by the business elites in need of law and order as the rebellion of Generals Mola and Franco that put an end to the Second Republic through a civil war that took the lives of more than half a million Spaniards. The peace of the cemeteries and the order of the barracks returned to a demoralised, bled and repressed country. Many businessmen who had had their factories expropriated recovered them. During the post-war period, favouritism and corruption generated fortunes that grew in the shadow of the straperlo.

By the middle of the century, Franco's autarchy had run its course. The economy was struggling to dig itself out of the hole, in a Spain isolated for having supported the losers of the last global conflagration. A sector of the Catalan business community needed the country's windows to open. And not only to be able to export more, but also because reforms were needed. One of those who dared to express this to the children of the bourgeoisie who had fled to Burgos or France during the Civil War was Vicens Vives, a personality who, if he had not died prematurely at the age of 50, could have become president of the restored Generalitat, as Jordi Pujol himself acknowledged. "In the present situation", he told them in 1958, "you, because of who you are and what you represent, must assume certain responsibilities, you must produce a reflection that will move the country forward". A few of these puppies of neo-capitalism, headed by Carlos Ferrer Salat, Joan Mas Cantí, Carlos Güell de Sentmenat and Artur Suqué, took on responsibilities and founded the Cercle d'Economia. Francesc de Carreras, son of Narcís de Carreras, who was president of FC Barcelona and La Caixa, confessed his "surprise" at this attitude: "They were good children from Barcelona, potential posh belonging to the high bourgeoisie. The normal thing would have been that they would have limited themselves to skiing in La Molina, playing golf in Puigcerdà or riding horses in the Polo. Well, they probably did all this, but they also dedicated themselves to work and spent time and effort on matters that went beyond their strictly private interests".

The then president of the CEOE, Carlos Ferrer Salat, voting in the Foment del Treball elections in May 1978, in Barcelona.

Ferrer Salat and his colleagues went so far in fulfilling their master's mandate that, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, they became involved in the merger of the chambers of commerce and industry (separated since 1912), revived Foment del Treball, introduced the young chambers in Spain, founded the Bank of Europe and promoted constant meetings with the most open-minded ministers and technocrats of the Franco regime to prepare the transition of the economy, first, and of politics, later, in the face of the inevitability of the hecho biológico (biological fact) - the euphemism used to refer to the death of the dictator.

Close to politics

The revolving doors that connect the activities of some businessmen and active political careers have almost always worked. It started when the manufacturers of the eighties realized that professional politicians were no good for them as intermediaries in Madrid. They needed some of them to be their own representatives in the Cortes: if you want to sleep well, make your own bed. If Francesc Cambó was one of the pioneers, we could consider Josep Sánchez Llibre (from Duran i Lleida's right-hand man to head of Foment del Treball) and Joan Canadell (from the Chamber to the Parliament) as his last epigone.

The most restless members of the Cercle d'Economia (who also strolled around the Eqüestre and the Liceu) also spoke out in the first elections of democracy. They founded the Centre Català, which would compete (unsuccessfully) for the same electoral niche with a myriad of small moderate associations, some with mutant Francoists (Samaranch, López Rodó) and others favoured by conservative businessmen (Josep Maria Figueras) or with personalities who had stood out for their fervent Catalanism, such as the banker Pujol and the economist Trias Fargas. The introducer of natural gas in Spain, Pere Duran Farell, who was unsuccessfully sought by many parties during the Transition, exemplifies the executive committed to corporate social responsibility through art and culture.

In the last 40 years, two employer initiatives stand out. The first, following the first Catalan regional elections, when Foment financed different anti-Marxist forces (including Heribert Barrera's ERC) to prevent the socialists and communists from repeating in Catalonia the victories they had obtained months earlier in the Catalan parliamentary and local elections. The other gesture, one of the last in which the bourgeoisie did not limit itself to looking after its pecuniary interests, took place during the Barcelona Olympic bid race, when a hundred large companies contributed 930 million pesetas (5.6 million euros) to sponsor the international campaign in favour of the Games, headed by Ferrer Salat and Leopoldo Rodés.