Political Engineering & the Francoist Landscape

A review of Political Engineering: Science, Technology and the Francoist Landscape (1939-1959), by Lino Camprubí Bueno.

How may scientists and engineers shape political economies in totalitarian regimes? Lino Camprubí’s dissertation answers this question by focusing on the role of science and technology in Spain during the early years of Franco’s dictatorship. His main thesis is that, despite the fact that scientists have been traditionally represented in such regimes as working under or despite official policies and rhetoric, many of them actively participated in shaping these regimes. Indeed, Camprubí’s work fully incorporates scientists and engineers as relevant actors in producing political mandates and in the making of states, particularly through landscape transformation. As the author points out, “early Francoist engineers linked economic self-sufficiency to authoritarian control of the population and means of production” (p. 10).

The dissertation is structured in five chapters. Beneath this structure lies a spatial —rather than chronological — narrative that focuses on material objects and its circulation between laboratories and Spanish landscapes. The text makes clear how the development of applied science became a priority and how the political economy and the scientific and technical structures of the new totalitarian state co-evolved during these years. The first chapter deals with Costillares, a coal silo built in the early 1950s as part of a new engineering laboratory for the Technical Institute for Construction and Cement (ITCC) in Madrid. “If there was ever ‘big science’ in Francoist Spain, this is where it was done,” claims Camprubí (p. 26), who also identifies Costillares with an important tool and a model for the desired industrialization of Spain. As he points out, coal and cement — the inputs to the silo — had to become key components for the transformation of the Spanish political economy­ during Franco’s regime.

His description of the silo and of its symbolism also reveals the active role played by engineers in the shaping of Franco’s regime and in the transformation of Spanish landscape during these years. As he argues: “Economically, institutionally, and conceptually, Costillares was made possible by the emphasis that engineers with political positions […] put on Spain’s industrialization. For them, state-funded research on native raw materials and industrial production formed a continuum. Coal and cement became simultaneously scientific objects and resources for the retooling of the Spanish political economy. Engineers put them at the center of the Francoist regime” (p. 41). Camprubí’s reconstruction of the engineers’ activities helps the reader to understand how they saw political engineering as an integral part of their profession. As he concludes, rather than working under Franco’s dictates, they benefited from the opportunities that the new authoritarian regime provided for the development of their own industrializing projects.

The second chapter deals with the Christian concept of autarky developed during the early years of the Spanish dictatorship. Franco’s regime aimed for a new political economy based on National-Catholicism and on scientific and technological development. Both elements influenced each other and were crucial for a national program of moral and economic transformation, which was understood in terms of the redemption of the country. Scientists and engineers played an active role in shaping such a program, as the political and financial independence hoped by the new Catholic state was dependent on the industrialization of the country. Therefore, links between science and religion became particularly strong, as Lino Camprubí shows focusing on the relationships between laboratories and churches. As he points out, “architects built churches inside laboratories, industrialists and political leaders favored the simultaneous development of churches and laboratories, and agronomists conceived of churches as laboratories” (p. 130). Indeed, the Spanish landscape was transfigured by churches and laboratories that were conceived to redeem Spain from and economic and social point of view, by means of a network of technical projects and rural Catholic cities.

In the third chapter Camprubí focuses on rice production to unveil the links between agricultural research and state corporatism during the early years of Franco’s dictatorship. Rice was a basic food during the post-war time of shortages. And as the author points out: “In order to ensure enough rice to meet demand while avoiding expensive imports — that is, in order to assure rice self-sufficiency — the authorities took over control of the cereal’s production and distribution” (p. 147). Rice producers were forced after the Civil War to reorganize themselves around the National Vertical Union of Cereals, which hierarchically unified the government with capital and labor. The Spanish Trade Federation of Rice Planters (FSAAE) became the state’s agent. It was in charge not only of collecting rice from producers, inspecting planters and stores, providing fertilizers, advancing payments and ensuring transportation and social support for workers, but also in testing the quality of seeds and supplying the most appropriate for producers.

In this context, as Camprubí convincingly argues, laboratory scientists engaged in rice breeding were crucial agents within the corporatist political economy, shaping and organizing the state intervention. Rice geneticists not only certified the quality of seeds, but also produced and distributed new ones, becoming “key actors in rice standardization and homogenization in the service of autarky” (p. 153). In fact, the circulation of seeds supported and benefited from the new structure of vertical unions. As the author shows, scientific research was entirely dependent on the vertical structure of the new Spanish rice production and distribution system, in which geneticists played a crucial role.

The image of Franco inaugurating and christening yet another reservoir emerges in the reader’s mind in the fourth chapter, when Camprubí explains the role played by scientists and engineers in the negotiations between industrial and agricultural uses of water. The author focuses on the transformation of the river Noguera Ribagorzana, in the Pyrenees, to present two different and divergent models for the autarkic state, mainly established in technical terms: “one that favored agriculture as the basis for industrialization and one that presented industrialization as the solution to all agricultural problems” (p. 223). Camprubí makes here clear the contribution of engineers in shaping the new autarkic political economy. Scientists and engineers aimed for geological and hydrological control, as the use of sophisticated physical scale models illustrates. Furthermore, they demanded political control over the Noguera’s waters: the project required the circulation of materials and skills between the laboratory and the river system and involved important landscape transformations. As Camprubí claims, this technical imperative of total control emerged as an exemplary model for a totalitarian organization of the country’s political economy.

Finally, the fifth chapter looks at the industrialization of construction in order to explore the relationships between state and private production. The author focuses on how engineers attempted standardization to guarantee specific conditions of quality and safety to mass-produced pre-stressed concrete structural units. However, as Camprubí claims, such standards have to be understood not only as techno-scientific objects, but also as political tools. Indeed, despite the final failure of the so-called Blue Point, the application of standards had to allow engineers endorsing the transition from a corporate regime to a regulatory state. Standardization was expected to change ways of production, driving private industrialists towards a model of construction supervised by state-employed experts. Furthermore, the circulation of standards for pre-stressed concrete structural units — from the laboratory to workshops and construction sites — went beyond Spanish borders. Standardization was prepared following specifications and systems employed in other countries. The establishment of such international exchanges helped experts to overcome political barriers and, as the author proves, confirms the central role of engineers in the transformation of Spanish political economy.

In summary, the dissertation explores the Spanish landscape, in which one identifies a heterogeneous group of technical objects and artifacts that were spread all over the Spanish territory in the name of industrial progress and redemption. As Lino Camprubí proves, these attempts to transform Spain into an industrialized and productive country meant a very active participation of engineers in the construction of Franco’s regime: “Rather than surrendering technical rationality to an irrational preexisting regime, they made their own interpretation of technical rationality a central part of the building of the new regime” (p. 287). No doubt, the publication of this work would make a crucial contribution to our understanding of the history of Spain under Franco’s dictatorship during its early years. In this sense, Camprubí contends that the history of political economy during the early years of Franco’s regime should be written as the history of science and technology. As the author claims: “It is not that science was autarkic, but that autarky was scientific and technological” (p. 291).

Pedro Ruiz-Castell
Institut d’Història de la Medicina i de la Ciència López Piñero
Universitat de València – CSIC

Primary Sources

Archival collections used include: Archivo General de la Administración, Archivo de la Residencia de Estudiantes, Archivo Histórico Instituto Eduardo Torroja de las Ciencias de la Construcción, Sociedad Española de Patrimonio Industrial, Laboratorio de Hidráulica, and Laboratorio Central de Ensayos de Materiales.
Published primary sources include: newspapers, magazines, books, and scientific and technical journals and reports.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2011. 326 pp. Primary Advisor: M. Norton Wise.


Image: Canelles dam, built under the ENHER-INI hydroelectrical system on the Noguera Ribagorzana river. Photograph by Xaf, Flickriver.