Monday, February 03, 2014

Francisco Franco, Robust Action, and the Power of Non-Commitment

(Warning: speculation about Spanish history during the Franco era by an amateur).

I’m currently in Spain, doing some research on Franco’s cult of personality. In preparing for this project, I recently read Paul Preston’s biography of Franco, which presents Franco as a selfish, vengeful, and ultimately petty tyrant who caused the death of hundreds of thousands of his compatriots. (If not for Hitler, Franco seems like he would certainly have been in contention for the “worst person of the 20th century” award). Yet despite the evidence of Franco’s political cunning (nearly four decades at the top of the Spanish political system puts him in the top 2-3% of all modern rulers in terms of sheer longevity), the portrait that emerges from Preston’s biography is emphatically not one of a decisive and Machiavellian political leader, but one of “astonishing personal mediocrity” (Kindle Loc 17636), a ruler who constantly procrastinated important decisions, acting reactively rather than proactively, and was rarely clear or even coherent about his commitments, to the despair of allies and enemies alike. How could such a person end up leading the winning side of a bloody civil war and becoming the effective ruler of Spain for more than three decades?

Preston argues cogently that luck played a large role, but it struck me while reading his book that one possible key to Franco’s “success” (measured simply by his ability to remain in power) is something that Padgett and Ansell called, in a classic article on the rise of the Medici in Renaissance Florence, “robust action,” action that cannot be easily foiled or prevented by your opponents. Since their ideas about what enables a political leader to act in this way seem to me to illuminate Franco’s spectacular longevity in power, it’s worth describing them in some detail.

Padgett and Ansell begin their article by noting that there is something puzzling about Cosimo de’ Medici’s power in Florence. Cosimo was clearly powerful, despite not holding formal political office, as his contemporaries (including Machiavelli) appreciated keenly;

Yet the puzzle about Cosimo’s control is this: totally contrary to Machiavelli’s portrait in The Prince of effective leaders as decisive and goal oriented, eyewitness accounts describe Cosimo de’ Medici as an indecipherable sphinx …

… Lest one conclude that this implies only savvy back-room dealing, extant accounts of private meetings with Cosimo emphasize the same odd passivity.’ After passionate pleas by supplicants for action of some sort, Cosimo typically would terminate a meeting graciously but icily, with little more commitment than “Yes my son, I shall look into that” (pp. 1262-1263)

Cosimo “never said a clear word in his life” (p. 1308). But not only was Cosimo inscrutable; his actions, especially after 1434,

… appeared extraordinarily reactive in character. Everything was done in response to a flow of requests that, somehow or other, “just so happened” to serve Cosimo’s extremely multiple interests. (p. 1263)

Padgett and Ansell argue, pace Machiavelli, that there were no “deep and ruthless machinations” that explain Cosimo’s political success. Cosimo really was a “sphinx without a secret” (a term coined by one of Franco’s ministers to refer to Franco); his actions really were reactive, not the moves of someone who could always see further ahead than his adversaries. But his actions were robust (not easily foiled or prevented) precisely because he could not be pinned down by them: others had to reveal their interests when acting in ways that he did not:

We use the term “robust action” to refer to Cosimo’s style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo’s sphinxlike character … is multivocality-the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. Multivocal action leads to Rorschach blot identities, with all alters constructing their own distinctive attribution of the identity of ego. The “only” point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism-maintaining discretionary options across unforeseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals [my emphasis]. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action.  Locked-in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of others’ successful “ecological control” over you … Victory, in Florence, in chess, or in go means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby. (pp. 1263-1264)

Padgett and Ansell insist that “not pursuing specific goals” is not merely a matter of strategic ambiguity. What is needed is a more radical lack of commitment to specific interests, or rather, a more radical incommensurability of one’s various interests, which they denote by the idea of “multivocality:”

But robust action is not just a matter of behaving ambiguously. Others are too shrewd not to see through behavioral facades down to presumed self-interested motivations. To act credibly in a multivocal fashion, one’s attributed interests must themselves be multivocal. (p. 1307)

In other words, in the face of unpredictable and changing conditions, too much commitment to specific objectives is damaging to one’s survival in power, as it allows others to predict your moves and to credibly paint you as acting selfishly against the interests of potential allies. To be sure, only some people are in a position to act in this way; not just anyone can “succeed” by acting reactively and inscrutably:

Of course, robust action will not work for just anyone. For the flow of requests to be channeled, only some network structures will do. And for the resolution of judge and boss to be credible, coherent interests must remain opaque as far down as it is conceivable to peer. Contra Machiavelli, even Cosimo himself did not set out with a grand design to take over the state: this assumption reads history backward. … Cosimo’s political party first emerged around him. Only later, during the Milan war, did Cosimo suddenly apprehend the political capacity of the social network machine that lay at his fingertips. (p. 1264)

Most of Padgett and Ansell’s article then describes precisely the sort of network structure that makes robust action possible. Roughly speaking, their argument is that the Medici coalition contained inherently contradictory interests, yet it was constructed in such a way that its component parts could only act together through Cosimo: “Robust action by the Medici was credible precisely because of the contradictory character of their base of support,” yet “[t]he result was an awesomely centralized patrimonial machine, capable of great discipline and “top down” control because the Medici themselves were the only bridge holding this contradictory agglomeration together” (p. 1307). By contrast, the coalition of Medici opponents was both far more “coherent” and narrow in terms of the interests it represented (and hence more predictable in its actions) and less susceptible to centralized control (and hence less effective and disciplined).

Now, there are many differences between Franco and Cosimo de’ Medici. But the overall strategies that allowed Franco to survive in power during one of the most difficult periods in European history do present some interesting similarities to the strategies Padgett and Ansell describe in their article.

Let’s start with Franco himself, who if nothing else seems to have shared something of Cosimo de’ Medici’s inscrutability. Preston recites a litany of descriptions emphasizing this aspect of his character:

He was abundantly imbued with the inscrutable pragmatism or retranca of the gallego peasant. Whether that was because of his origins as a native of Galicia, or the fruit of his Moroccan experiences is impossible to say. Whatever its roots in Franco, retranca may be defined as an evasion of commitment and a taste for the imprecise. It is said that if you meet a gallego on a staircase, it is impossible to deduce if he is going up or down. Franco perhaps embodied that characteristic more than most gallegos. When those close to him tried to get hints about forthcoming ministerial changes, they were rebuffed with skill: ‘People are saying that in the next reshuffle of civil governors so-and-so will go to Province X’, tries the friend; ‘Really?’ replies the sinuous Franco, ‘I’ve heard nothing’. ‘It’s being said that Y and Z are going to be ministers’, ventures his sister. ‘Well’, replies her brother, ‘I haven’t met either of them’. The monarchist aviator Juan Antonio Ansaldo wrote of him ‘Franco is a man who says things and unsays them, who draws near and slips away, he vanishes and trickles away; always vague and never clear or categoric’. John Whitaker met him during the Civil War: ‘He was effusively flattering, but he did not give a frank answer to any question I put to him. A less straightforward man I never met.’ Mussolini’s Ambassador Roberto Cantalupo met him some months later and found Franco to be ‘icy, feminine and elusive [sfuggente]’. The day after first meeting Franco in 1930, the poet and noted wit José María Pemán was introduced by a friend as ‘the man who speaks best in all Spain’ and remarked ‘I think I’ve just met the man who keeps quiet best in all Spain’ (‘ Tengo la sospecha de haber conocido al hombre que mejor se calla en España’). (Kindle Locations 113-130).

To be sure, Franco, unlike Cosimo, made lots of public speeches during his life and said many well-documented things to ambassadors, ministers, and other political leaders. But one point that Preston’s biography brings out well is that it is very difficult to construct a coherent position for Franco from his public statements (though Preston tries valiantly). For one thing, he seems to have had no problems disregarding the truth when it was convenient for him to deny it, and he was alarmingly willing to change his position as circumstances or audiences changed. He could say anything with apparently complete conviction: he could be a monarchist one minute, a Falangista the next, and then assert his claim to being a true Spanish democrat. Yet Preston never quite succeeds in establishing that there was one thing Franco “really believed” underneath all the bullshitting and incoherence, some ideological commitment or fundamental interest beyond his maintenance in power that could account for the many different things he said. His key political talent, Preston notes more than once, was for “shroud[ing] his intentions in a cloud of nebulous vagueness” (Kindle Location 14849-14850). Since no one could be quite sure about his real commitments, these could be “read” in a variety of different ways at the time – as fundamentally sympathetic to the Falange, or fundamentally conservative and Catholic, or as those of an anti-communist warrior.

One obvious way in which Franco avoided being pinned down to some particular goal was by often acting through intermediaries, which made it possible for him to deny responsibility. For example, he was cautious not to seem to have sought the posts of commander in chief or head of state; as Preston puts it, “[w]ith his customary caution, Franco preferred to let others make the running and wait for the new honour to be thrust upon him” (Kindle Locations 4093-4094). But as with Cosimo de’ Medici, the point is not that Franco had plotted for a long time to gain supreme power; on the contrary, his early life suggested that he was destined to be a career military man. He was promoted rapidly, and enjoyed his many positions – in particular, he appears to have been very happy as director of the military academy in Zaragoza. For a while it was even a bit iffy whether he would participate in the military rebellion that led to the civil war; it was only when circumstances made supreme command clearly possible that we can even speak of Franco pursuing that option at all, and then only in fairly indirect ways.

More broadly, Franco’s terminal unwillingness to ever close off options made it seem like he was constantly procrastinating important decisions. The most obvious example of this is the question of restoring the Spanish monarchy (one aim of the military rebellion that led to the civil war), which Franco successfully postponed for decades, in part because it would commit himself to a definite course of action, splitting his coalition. But the same was true of his neutrality-cum-covert-support for Germany and Italy in WWII (Preston has some amusing passages where Hitler and Mussolini rage against Franco’s inability to make clear commitments to enter WWII on their side), or of his actions during the civil war.

The latter provides one striking example of the contrast between robust action and non-robust action. Franco was highly dependent on material support from Germany and Italy for his war effort. And Mussolini and Hitler both had serious doubts about Franco’s abilities to lead the nationalist side to victory. So early on, German and Italian military forces sent to aid the nationalist side were only nominally under Franco’s command. But when the one of the three divisions of Black Shirts sent by Mussolini was defeated at Guadalajara, in part due to Franco’s failure to keep his word to mount a simultaneous attack in the Jarama front, Mussolini was too committed to Franco’s victory to do anything about it except continue supporting Franco, and even accede to put the Black Shirts under Franco’s command. As Preston puts it:

Mussolini could see that he had been used but he had little choice but to continue supporting Franco. Guadalajara had smashed the myth of fascist invincibility and Mussolini found himself committed to Franco until the myth was rebuilt. Equally, however galling, it was now clear that it made more sense to work with Franco for a Nationalist victory than independently. Shortly after his letter of exculpation [a letter Franco wrote to Mussolini to explain why the promised forces did not materialize during the battle of Guadalajara], Franco had requested help for a huge assault on Bilbao. Ignoring remarks made by Roatta [the Italian ambassador commander of the Black Shirts in the civil war at the time] about the miraculous appearance of the necessary forces for Bilbao which had never materialized during the battle of Guadalajara, Mussolini ordered his commander henceforth to obey the instructions and directives of Franco. Italian forces would henceforth be distributed in Spanish units and subject to the command of Franco’s generals. When Cantalupo informed him of this on 28 March, Franco was delighted. The Italian Ambassador found him as if ‘freed of a nightmare’. Franco asked him to inform the Duce of his ‘joy at being understood and appreciated’. (Kindle loc 5320-5329).

Franco had (whether by design or not; Preston is of two minds about this) managed to shape the “choice context” of Mussolini so as to induce him to commit himself to Franco’s victory, while retaining some freedom to pursue his own independent policy, despite his material dependence on Italian and German aid.

But what enabled Franco to avoid commitment to specific goals while others could not? What made it possible for him to say to Don Juan (the exiled heir to the Borbon throne) in 1954, that “I don’t find governing an onerous task” and “Spain is easy to govern”? (Kindle loc 14428-14429). Part of the answer to this question – in a sense the more superficial part – is that, as Preston notes, Franco was very good at gauging the price of people:

For nearly forty years he would use [his very extensive formal powers] with consummate skill, striking decisively at his outright enemies but maintaining the loyalty of those within the Nationalist coalition with cunning and a perceptive insight into human weakness worthy of a man who had learnt his politics among the tribes of Morocco. The ability to calibrate almost instantly the weakness and/ or the price of a man enabled Franco to know unerringly [a bit of poetic license, but we’ll let that pass] when a would-be opponent could be turned into a collaborator by some preferment, or even the promise of it – a ministry, an embassy, a prestigious military posting, a job in a State enterprise, a decoration, an import licence or just a box of cigars. (Kindle loc 6251-6255).

And like any other successful dictator, he then used this knowledge to play people against one another and thus prevent them from coordinating against him:

The ‘families’ of the Nationalist coalition would be manipulated like friendly tribes, bribed, enmeshed in competition among themselves, involved in corruption and repression in such a way as to make them suspicious of one another but unable to do without the supreme arbiter. (Kindle locs 7395-7397).

Divide et impera is, of course, the oldest trick in the book; and Franco was good at it, in the (base) sense of using it well to remain at the top of the political system despite not being very much loved, or even very much respected, by those below him. In a revealing anecdote, Preston notes the clever way in which Franco used the corruption of his ministers as an instrument of control:

Franco showed no interest in putting a stop to graft as opposed to using knowledge of it to increase his power over those involved. He often repaid those who informed him of corruption not by taking action against the guilty but by letting them know who had informed on them (Kindle locs 14795-14797).

Here we see also a way of not foreclosing any options: both the denouncer and the denounced remain dependent on Franco, yet the onus of action is put on them, not on Franco. A similar logic of inaction applied to his agents of repression during the civil war and beyond:

Franco was aware that some of his subordinates enjoyed the bloodthirsty work of the repression. His Director-General of Prisons, Joaquin del Moral, was notorious for the prurient delight he derived from executions. General Cabanellas protested to Franco about the distasteful dawn excursions organized in Burgos by Del Moral in order to enjoy the day’s shootings. Franco did nothing. He was fully conscious of the extent to which the repression not only terrified the enemy but also inextricably tied those involved in its implementation to his own survival. Their complicity ensured that they would cling to him as the only bulwark against the possible revenge of their victims. (Kindle locs 5169-5174).

Yet I suspect the deeper reason for Franco’s ability to act robustly went beyond Franco’s particular political tactics. What enabled him to be so effective at using divide et impera seems to me to be the fact that his supporting coalition – made up variously of Falangists (Spanish fascists), Carlistas, other monarchists, conservative Catholics, and the military – was inherently contradictory (as was the supporting coalition of the Medici in Padgett and Ansell’s view), yet could only act together through him. For example, Falangists were skeptical of the monarchy, and in theory had a reformist economic programme, a promise of a grand “social revolution” to which other conservative elements of the coalition were implacably opposed. Monarchists differed among themselves about who should be placed on the throne, and differed about when the monarchy should be restored. The army, which was the group best positioned to overthrow Franco (its senior commanders having “elected” him in 1936 as Generalissimo), had its own divisions and in any case was fearful of another civil war. And so on. Yet Franco’s inscrutability – which, interestingly, was not nearly as much in evidence when he was merely a career military man, and could thus afford to have opinions – allowed him to represent all of these disparate interests with enough credibility that those concerned could at least pretend to themselves that Franco was ultimately working for their ultimate aims. (Of course, you’d need a proper network analysis to make the Padgett/Ansell claim rigorously; for one thing, we’d also need to know whether the various components of the Francoist coalition had few linkages with one another, so that they could act together only through him. This I can’t tell on the basis of the evidence in Preston’s book).

Signs of Franco’s excessive commitment to a particular goal or group were sometimes even interpreted by shrewd observers as political mistakes. For example, when in 1945 Franco’s public support of the Falange seemed to  be attracting much international criticism, José María Pemán wrote in his diary: ‘if they had told me that Franco had a lover it would have seemed bad, not to say strange, but this is worse: he has got a conviction.’ But, as Preston notes, “[i]n fact, the normally shrewd Pemán was wrong. Franco may have had an emotional commitment to the Falange but it did not undermine his capacity for ruthless calculation. He had in fact worked out that there was more benefit to be derived from keeping the Falange. Not only was it a massive bulwark of support but international criticism of it also helped him capitalize on mass resentment of foreign ‘interference’.”  (Kindle locs 12440-12446). I am not sure that Franco “worked out” these benefits consciously, but it is interesting to note that Pemán saw the sign of commitment to a cause as a political mistake because it would box Franco in and close off certain courses of action. Franco’s political strength lay precisely in credibly not being for one or another part of his coalition, and this was made possible because he seems to have had no firm underlying convictions beyond, perhaps, his commitment to a picture of himself as savior of Spain. (Was his support for the Falange in 1945 sincere, or the result of a calculated gamble? Is this question even answerable?). Or conversely, we may say that because his self-image as savior of Spain could “contain multitudes” without being threatened (Franco was rarely bothered by inconsistency) that his interests were themselves “multivocal” in the Ansell and Padgett sense.  

We might also look at the eventual decay of the regime through this lens. By the end of the 60s socio-economic changes (including rapid economic development) had eroded the original Francoist coalition, and key “ideological” questions had been finally settled (e.g., the succession was finally settled on Don Juan Carlos - the current King - in 1969; the “falangist” revolution had been definitively shelved; etc.). Franco was thus less and less able to represent a diversity of interests “mutivocally;” he had, in a sense, finally been boxed in by his own success. This made Franco less and less relevant as the lynchpin of the major coalition that controlled the state, and the institutional changes he had intended to perpetuate his regime did not last. (This is an important contrast to the story Padgett and Ansell tell about the Medici).

If anyone had now the ability to represent contradictory interests “multivocally” and engage in robust action, it was Juan Carlos, who seems to have learned a few things from Franco. Apparently when Franco told Juan Carlos that he had finally decided to settle the succession on him, “Juan Carlos replied ‘rest assured, mi general, I have learned much from your galleguismo (Galician craftiness).’ As they both laughed, Franco complimented him, ‘Your Highness does it very well.’” (Kindle locs 16666-16669). Both Franco and many other people could project their ideas onto the king, who turned out, unexpectedly for a lot of people, to be a leading force in the transition to democracy. (Or am I completely off here?)

Ultimately, all this suggests to me the limits of appealing to belief in explaining political action. To attempt to explain Franco by reference to his specific ideas is to miss the possibility that it was their basic inconsistency that made him able to avoid being "boxed in."

Update 2/3/2013: Fixed some typos.


  1. Anonymous10:26 AM

    Very interesting! Certainly the Spanish king seems to have learnt something, since he clearly has succeeded so far in convincing many people that a Monarchy is some kind of local optima.

  2. Anonymous1:38 PM

    A brilliant essay. I'm reminded slightly of long-time Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who maintained a similar distance from both the nationalist and federalist wings of his coalition. There's a book, "The Trickster", that outlines precisely this sort of maneuvering.

    1. Thanks! I don't know anything about Bourassa, though I suspect these tactics are not uncommon among successful politicians.

  3. For another use of Padgett & Ansell, see D. Nexon 'The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe,' e.g. 114ff.

    (I'm not altogether sure that P&A and Nexon are using 'multivocality' or 'multivocal signaling' in *precisely* the same way, but that's another matter and I cd be wrong about that.)

  4. A very interesting read. I'm convinced that becoming the crucial node in a network representing the various disparate elements of his support coalition was the key to Franco's longevity in power. Without this position, being vague wouldn't have worked (after all, many vague people fail to become dictators). It would be interesting to consider which strategies help one build such a network; it seems they could easily be quite different than Franco's strategy for maintaining his built network.

    1. Thanks Shaun. One point Preston makes is that Franco was in the right place at the right time: the nationalist coalition coalesced around the army, and Franco controlled the most effective part of it (the Moroccan army) and had the best contacts with the Germans and the Italians. But he didn't consciously set out to build his coalition. Padgett and Ansell make a similar point about Cosimo de' Medici - he didn't consciously set out to build his party, but it grew up around him as a result of the pattern of alliances etc.

  5. Anonymous11:01 PM

    Brilliant as ever! Franco's regime had a lot of things in common with bonapartism (contradictory forces united around a common and hieratic leader) but many of this non- committed style probably is culturally based in the Imperial monarchist traditions. As you can find in classic Spanish literature (ie:«Fuenteovejuna») the emperor used to be represented as a mediator between noblemen and people but also as a judge of his own representatives and civil servants, a last opportunity defence for the ordinary people (bourgeois and peasants) in front of power. I think this traditional cultural shape, could be the model for his non-commitment

    1. Thanks David! Had not thought of Fuenteovejuna, which I read a long time ago. But Franco definitely attempted to draw on the Spanish monarchical/imperial tradition; he took a lot of the traditional prerogatives of the monarch, according to Preston at least.

  6. I was reminded of a story which my Spanish teacher told us about the Generalissimo (then still in power, just about). Supposedly he was reviewing the troops at an army base when a soldier threw a mess tin in his face and said "this is the kind of muck they give us to eat - see how you like it!" or words to that effect. Franco said nothing, wiped his face and carried on the review as if nothing had happened. Afterwards he gave orders: the commander of the base to be court-martialled, the cook to be sacked, the soldier to be shot. (I can still hear the tone of my teacher's voice as he reached the end of the story; he got quite excited.) I guess the point is that inscrutability and unpredictability are a powerful combination, but they're particularly effective when combined with remorseless brutality.

    1. Interesting story, Phil. I've read similar stories, especially about Franco's time in Morocco, when he acquired a reputation for ruthless brutality.

  7. I concur on the brilliance, I found this most illuminating (and infuriating to find Prestons book is no longer available on Kindle). It made me want to back and re-read the literature on William the Silent, who iirc also had a coalition of very disparate interests form around him, without or despite his own efforts.

  8. This was a really enlightening essay--I've always felt the skills that let you get high in politics and the skills that let you effectively govern aren't necessarily linked, and this seems like a key example of the same.