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The Comuneros: The Revolt and Its Lessons

Mises Daily: Wednesday, April 06, 2011 by

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The Execution of the Comuneros of Castile, by Antonio Gisbert (1860)

The almost-lost story of the Revolt of the Comuneros is described (and often dismissed) as little more than an uprising of the citizens of the Kingdom of Castile against the monarchy in the early 16th century. Upon closer inspection, however, it's a historical episode rife with lessons for Austrolibertarians, carrying great significance in both theoretical and cautionary senses.

The Castilian region of Spain experienced an economic boom in the latter half of the 15th century owing to a combination of circumstances: protectionism between England and France in the aftermath of the Hundred Years' War; the social effects of the Great Schism; and the pronounced impact of the Black Plague on central and northern Europe. The region therefore stood ready to satisfy otherwise unmet Continental demand, which stimulated a primitive form of mass production. Innovations in the hydraulic press sped up aspects of the wool, ceramic, soap, leather, wine, book, paper, dye, sugar, jewelry, gold, and silver businesses.

The increased pace of manufacturing drove road and bridge improvements, while modernized, expanded transit networks led in turn to larger and more widely attended trade fairs. The critical role of fairs in Castile's economic growth — large meetings of producers, wholesalers, transporters, warehousers, and consumers — cannot be overstated, serving as they did the critical functions of promoting specialization and differentiation as well as fostering price competition.[1] This, in addition to the concomitant expansion of money, capital, and commodity markets, established an environment in which the most efficient, responsive, and agile firms grew to overtake and subsume inferior competitors.

There was an additional effect brought about by rapidly expanding markets: merchants managing to profitably provide goods and services to consumers at competitive prices became successful, and with success came upward mobility. Wealth and respect propelled many to positions of social prominence, and toward the end of the 15th century the savviest businessmen — accompanied by the values and ingenuity that had guided them in building successful enterprises — began to displace appointed nobles and dominate knightly associations throughout Castile.[2] In the communities they influenced, nascent features of a society based more upon contract and trade than upon royal appointment and status began to emerge.

The Castilian monarchy, meanwhile, faced rising costs associated with garrisoning troops in both Granada and Navarre in addition to those of upholding their sumptuous lifestyles — which included a coterie of influential, if controversial, Flemish courtiers and advisors. Consequently, the Crown aggressively expanded its extractive capacity. By 1504, when Isabella I was succeeded by Joanna the Mad, taxes had increased almost 350 percent in two and a half decades.[3]

Predictably, as taxes increased, tax evasion did as well: some individuals artfully evaded them, while others simply refused to pay. In response, the Crown added independent agents to their officially sanctioned tax collectors — tax "mercenaries" — who were essentially deputized subjects that would receive a cut of recovered loot on tips provided to the kingship.[4]

Animosities continued to mount throughout the first decades of the 16th century. With royal tax revenue continuing to decline against a backdrop of increasing military expenditures and the overhead associated with luxuriant royal lifestyles, the monarchy ratcheted up their expropriation efforts to still higher levels of predation. Brutal collection campaigns were soon accompanied by the creation of intrusive regulatory bodies and tariffs. Corruption and bribery erupted at every level of the royal administration, including an edict permitting select members of the landed aristocracy to expel subjects without due process; more than a few propitious merchants suspected of being tax delinquent fell victim to it.

Strange bedfellows emerged as the Council of the Inquisition, seeking to remain relevant after divorcing from papal control toward the end of the 15th century, found a new lease on life in the formation of a Gestapo-like partnership with the monarchy.[5] To their original mandate as auditors of individual faith and social purity was added a program of institutionalized repression rooted in sharing revenue from indulgences with the monarchy.

Furthermore, a paramilitary force called the Gente de Ordenanza (the "People of Order") was formed with the explicit goal of "giving the Crown a striking force with which to defeat its local enemies and consolidate power."[6] Not long after its establishment, with lower than expected enlistment turnout among the Castilian populace, its ranks were forcefully staffed via conscription. (Adding insult to injury, drafted troops were required to purchase their own weaponry and equipment.)

Finally, a general inflation swept through the land as the royal treasury, having to make up for the paucity in internal revenue, systematically debased the currency. Between 1400 and 1500, in fact, the Castilian maravedi lost 82 percent of its value against the gold Aragonian florin.[7]

The rapaciousness of a successive procession of monarchs led Castilians across a broad economic spectrum to reconsider widely held notions regarding the nature of the relationship between subjects and the Crown — which is to say, between individuals and the state. This was largely unprecedented; the prevailing viewpoint at the time — and, unsurprisingly, the view of the Crown itself — held that regardless of how unjust or tyrannical a king was, there was never justification for his subjects to overthrow him or withdraw from his mandate.[8]

Many Castilians — merchants and nonmerchants alike — found inspiration in the writing of philosophers De Valera, De Villena, and Arevelo, who controversially maintained that property rights and self-determination were the basis of a free, prosperous, and just society. Guided by these radical concepts, the disenfranchised people of Castile — merchants, guildsmen, nobles, and commoners alike — began to consider alternative modes of governance.

In 1516, Ferdinand, who had come to rule Castile when Joanna became mentally unstable, died. Charles I ascended to the throne. Three years (and untold sums of bribes) later, he was elected Holy Roman Emperor. Making arrangements to leave for Germany to assume this post, he opted to leave his former tutor, the Dutch cardinal Adrian of Utrecht, as regent of the Kingdom of Castile in his absence. Several weeks before leaving, though, Charles attempted to pass a number of "eleventh-hour" decrees, including yet another series of tax hikes and a handful of new duties on goods and property. Across Castile, long-simmering outrage finally boiled over.

"In Castile, largely unfettered markets led to general economic prosperity and improved standards of living, which had the secondary effect of displacing entrenched, nonproducing political agents."

The management councils of several prosperous Castilian cities — called comuneros (communities) — met in 1520 to discuss Charles's parting decrees, which they characterized as an effort "to filch their freedom, and [similar to] what [one] orders from a chattel slave."[9] In response, they issued a resolution: to reject all new taxes, repudiate foreign leadership, and, most notably, to self-govern in the event that the king continued to disregard their complaints.

In city after city throughout Castile between April and May 1520, royal representatives, bureaucrats, and staffers were ejected as the comuneros made good on their threat to form provisional governments. The individual comuneros subsequently united to form a junta (a union, or board) and sent a letter outlining their intentions to the absentee monarch.

The implicit goal had been reform, but perhaps recognizing the inherent contradiction in notions of "good government," comuneros in Toledo furnished the most radical idea yet: to move forward with "no legal government"; a proposal to form a "congress of cities" in a "radical programme" characterized by a "spirit of compromise" in place of coercion.[10] The comuneros would create a network of self-governed, independent city-states which would trade freely among one other, bound by a loose mutual-defense pact, emulating the small, autonomous microstates of the Italian Republic.[11]

Cardinal Adrian responded by fielding a military force to compel the seceding free cities to abandon their defiance, but at Segovia, the first target in the royal campaign, the militia turned his force back in a major public-relations disaster for the Crown.

It is beyond the scope of this writing to describe in detail the military campaign that followed. Despite some surprising victories early on, amid dwindling funds (most of which had been privately contributed by merchants and sympathetic nobles), diminishing support and adverse weather, the junta's army was routed by royalist forces at the Battle of Villalar on April 23, 1521. The next day, several of the comunero leaders were executed, "order" restored, and the secession effort relegated to the dustbin of history.

But despite the battlefield loss, the insurrection did bear fruit: a chastened Crown of Castile rescinded many of the grievous tariff and regulatory burdens in addition to drastically lowering tax rates. Numerous fiscal and constitutional reforms were implemented in the years that followed as well.

Though the revolt has been superficially chronicled outside Spain throughout the last five centuries, only a handful of books have been specifically dedicated to it, and many of those are out of print. Other than that, the primary commemoration of the uprising rests in historical archives throughout Spain. Efforts at analyzing the uprising, meanwhile, have been preponderantly statist in nature, most sketching an "industrial bourgeoisie" battling "aristocrats and merchants."[12]

In the last century, fascist General Francisco Franco's court historian José María Pemán minimized the uprising as "petty regionalism";[13] more recently, Gregorio Marañón described the Comunero Revolt as representing "vested economic interests … rebelling against a progressive monarchy."[14]

Considering the primary role that the quest for liberty and property rights played, the revolt strongly warrants analysis from the perspective of the Austrian School: in Castile, largely unfettered markets led to general economic prosperity and improved standards of living, which had the secondary effect of displacing entrenched, nonproducing political agents.

Ordinarily disparate social groups within Castilian society — businessmen, their employees, suppliers, and customers — engaged in cooperative, mutually beneficial trade. And because over decades the Crown trespassed upon individuals and enterprises to a greater and greater degree, interfering with peaceful trade and plundering the fruits of commerce, individuals of various walks of life representing a fusion of economic and social interests found common ground in resistance. They opted to pursue liberty and self-realization through self-governance.

So why, ultimately, did the revolt fail? As always, explanations are both numerous and multifaceted. First, warfare is an expensive and wasteful undertaking.[15] It rapidly outpaced even the wealthiest merchants' abilities to finance. Second, many of the junta's military officers were successful businessmen; despite their courage and commitment, they proved feckless officers and tacticians on the field of battle. But the primary reason for the rebellion's failure is one that freedom-loving persons of all stripes should take note of.

In the final desperate months of the revolt, the junta adopted many of the tactics of the very regime from which they sought to free themselves. They pillaged and sacked their own communities to procure rations and supplies that had grown scarce. Most tragically, with their war chest rapidly depleting, the junta levied a tax on the individuals of the very communities that had supported and championed their rescission efforts from the outset.[16] A loss of support followed, and the comuneros' once-inspired quest for liberty was extinguished.

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It's a powerful, cautionary tale for anyone recognizing and opposing the manifest evils that governments embody. This author sees great pertinence in the lessons of the Comunero Revolt applied to the present day, where governmental encroachment into personal lives, confiscatory economic policies, and military adventurism have led to a profound upswing in public suspicion of bureaucratic machinations. A time-honored, historically vindicated distrust of state power is a double-edged sword, however: while it is the animating force behind resurgent ideals of classic liberalism after a century of warfare and central planning, it also carries the potential for motivating well-intentioned but woefully misguided individuals and groups.

Almost daily, media outlets broadcast interviews and editorials wherein taxation and fiat money are accurately identified as instruments of tyranny, while equally authoritarian programs embracing imperialism, regulatory tinkering, and social engineering are either ignored or, in the most grievous cases, endorsed.

One would do well in these times — as would have the comuneros — to heed the words of Ludwig von Mises: Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito. Proceed boldly against evil, but, equally important, do not give in to evil in the process.

Notes

[1] Stephen Haliczer, The Comuneros of Castile (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), p. 16.

[2] Ibid., pp. 26–27.

[3] Ibid., p. 53.

[4] Ibid., pp. 50–51.

[5] Ibid., pp. 42–43.

[6] Ibid., p. 34.

[7] Peter Bernholz, Monetary Regimes and Inflation: History, Economic, and Political Relationships (Northampton: Edward Elgar Press, 2003), p. 28.

[8] Haliczer, p. 140.

[9] Henry Latimer Seaver, The Great Revolt in Castile (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1928), pp. 64–65.

[10] Ibid., pp. 101–102.

[11] Joseph Perez, Los Comuneros (Madrid: La Esfera De Los Libros), p. 164.

[12] Haliczer, p. 8.

[13] Ibid., p. 7.

[14] Ibid.

[15] "[E]xpensive and wasteful": this perhaps explains why governments are so "good" at and eager to go to war.

[16] Haliczer, pp. 196–197.