Community has to be small, or it becomes bureaucracy…

A socialist mural in Marinaleda.

I have never been a communist, not really.

However, I remember vividly the moment when the idea of communism took hold of me. I remember the discussion as a 15 year old boy around how it might be possible to live a different way- where our lives were not controlled by the profit principle, and where we shared what we have in order to live in harmony with one another, not in competition. It was electric.

Alongside all this was a whiff of something else- radicalism, danger. Our heros were no longer empire builders, but rather the challengers of injustice, the small people who stood in front of tanks or challenged corrupt authority only to be shot in their pulpits. There was a possibility of change, of things being better, simpler, more human.

It was also impossible to ignore the fact that communism seemed to fit remarkably well with the ideas of another radical, called Jesus.

Some people say that ideas like this are dangerous. Perhaps they are. For most of us however, they became the background hum of guilt inside our middle class lifestyles. Slowly our radicalism was buried by salaries, mortgages and the shopping run. It survived only in a few donations to charity, the odd sponsored third world child and the choice of newspaper we read.

I never believed in the inevitable rise of man towards utopia. I always doubted that capitalism would be defeated. Partly this was because we had little reason for optimism after Stalin’s purges and Mao’s cultural revolution. Like many I started to believe that Communism could not survive its encounter with broken humanity- that greed and corruption would always mean that the psychopaths would rise and that without the sharp edge of competition for personal gain we become blunted and lazy, leading to a slow decline. Capitalism was not perfect, but perhaps it could be managed I thought, to mitigate against some of the more damaging effects. Social welfare systems, health systems, progressive taxation to redistribute some wealth, protection under law for workers in employment, education for poor kids to give them a fair start. Democracy as the best compromise solution.

Perhaps these ideas are dangerous too however. They mean that certain hierarchies of unequal power and wealth remain fixed and unchanging. However, what real alternatives are there? Communism is bankrupt after all.

Meanwhile the world is in turmoil. Markets rise and fall, governments react paradoxically by blaming poor people for the excesses of the rich and powerful. All those things that might be seen as mitigations on the pursuit of profit are being slashed- education, health, welfare, social housing, unionisation.

In Europe, this is no where more apparent than in Spain. This from here;

Spain experienced a massive housing boom from 1996 to 2008. The price of property per square metre tripled in those 12 years: its scale is now tragically reflected in its crisis. Nationally, up to 400,000 families have been evicted since 2008. Again, it is especially acute in the south: 40 families a day in Andalusia have been turfed out of their homes by the banks. To make matters worse, under Spanish housing law, when you’re evicted by your mortgage lender, that isn’t the end of it: you have to keep paying the mortgage. In final acts of helplessness, suicides by homeowners on the brink of foreclosure have become horrifyingly common – on more than one occasion, while the bailiffs have been coming up the stairs, evictees have hurled themselves out of upstairs windows.

When people refer to la crisis in Spain they mean the eurozone crisis, an economic crisis; but the term means more than that. It is a systemic crisis, a political ecology crack’d from side to side: a crisis of seemingly endemic corruption across the country’s elites, including politicians, bankers, royals and bureaucrats, and a crisis of faith in the democratic settlement established after the death of Franco in 1975. A poll conducted by the (state-run) centre for sociological research in December 2012 found that 67.5% of Spaniards said they were unhappy with the way their democracy worked. It’s this disdain for the Spanish state in general, rather than merely the effects of the economic crisis, that brought 8 million indignados on to the streets in the spring and summer of 2011, and informed their rallying cry “Democracia Real Ya” (real democracy now).

For most of us, all this is happening on a scale that makes it impossible for us to fully grasp. We might focus on one small injustice, even raising voices of protest, but the entirety of the system is unchallengable, because it is too big. So what we have even in Spain is the call for better capitalism, better democracy, but no clear idea of what this might look like.

All of which is a long pre-amble to the reason for this post.

What exists at a human scale that might still gather real alternatives to all this naked profit-and-loss-boom-and-bust madness that we are dwarfed and diminished by?

For a long time, the idea that ‘communism does not work’ has irritated me. The smug example that is usually used to prove this dictum are Soviet Union collective farms- spectres of mass crop failure, starvation, forced labour and perhaps the worst sin of all, lack of productivity.

Today however, I read this about a small Spanish village called Marinaleda ;

When the 1,200-hectare El Humoso farm was finally won in 1991 – awarded to the village by the regional government following a decade of relentless occupations, strikes and appeals – cultivation began. The new Marinaleda co-operative selected crops that would need the greatest amount of human labour, to create as much work as possible. In addition to the ubiquitous olives and the oil-processing factory, they planted peppers of various kinds, artichokes, fava beans, green beans, broccoli: crops that could be processed, canned, and jarred, to justify the creation of a processing factory that provided a secondary industry back in the village, and thus more employment. “Our aim was not to create profit, but jobs,” Sánchez Gordillo explained to me. This philosophy runs directly counter to the late-capitalist emphasis on “efficiency” – a word that has been elevated to almost holy status in the neoliberal lexicon, but in reality has become a shameful euphemism for the sacrifice of human dignity at the altar of share prices.

Sánchez Gordillo once suggested to me that the aristocratic family of the House of Alba could invest its vast riches (from shares in banks and power companies to multimillion-euro agricultural subsidies for its vast tracts of land) to create jobs, but had never shown any interest in doing so. “We believe the land should belong to the community that works it, and not in the dead hands of the nobility.” That’s why the big landowners planted wheat, he explained – wheat could be harvested with a machine, overseen by a few labourers; in Marinaleda, crops like artichokes and tomatoes were chosen precisely because they needed lots of labour. Why, the logic runs, should “efficiency” be the most important value in society, to the detriment of human life?

The town co-operative does not distribute profits: any surplus is reinvested to create more jobs. Everyone in the co-op earns the same salary, €47 (£40) a day for six and a half hours of work: it may not sound like a lot, but it’s more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Participation in decisions about what crops to farm, and when, is encouraged, and often forms the focus of the village’s general assemblies – in this respect, being a cooperativista means being an important part of the functioning of the pueblo as a whole. Where once the day labourers of Andalusia were politically and socially marginalised by their lack of an economic stake in their pueblo, they are now – at least in Marinaleda – called upon to lead the way. Non-co-operativists are by no means excluded from involvement in the town’s political, social and cultural life – it’s more that if you are a part of the co-operative, you can’t avoid being swept up in local activities outside the confines of the working day.

Private enterprise is permitted in the village – perhaps more importantly, it is still an accepted part of life. As with the seven privately owned bars and cafés in the village (the Sindicato bar is owned by the union), if you wanted to open a pizzeria or a little family business of any kind, no one would stand in your way. But if a hypothetical head of regional development and franchising for, say, Carrefour, or Starbucks, with a vicious sense of humour and a masochistic streak, decided this small village was the perfect spot to expand operations, well – they wouldn’t get very far. “We just wouldn’t allow it,” Sánchez Gordillo told me bluntly.

This is one tiny village, even if others are starting to copy what they have done. I am sure it is no utopia. People will squabble and fall out and scratch at one another. The Mayor probably has too much power and charisma and it may well all go to his head.

What it leaves me with mostly is this- community works only in the small scale.

Love is only possible in the press of real relationships. It can not exist in abstract theory. It is not real unless tested in actual shared lives.

We all need to believe in something bigger, something better. For this village it has become a unifying factor. They see themselves as an egalitarian oasis in a mad unsustainable capitalist desert. I admit I am inclined to agree. I liked what the Mayor had to say- “I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian,” Sánchez Gordillo said in an interview in 2011, adding that his political beliefs were drawn from those of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che.

All this to me is a call back towards real community- let us forget the big scale, the macro economic choices of a distant and devalued government. Let us live an alternative- called community.

How this looks in your locality will have to be different to mine- but the central ideas will be the same, be they the ‘Christian heresy’ that is communism (according to CS Lewis) or actually those words of Jesus that we conveniently ignore.

Where did I put those olive seeds?

The new rise of Communism?

I am interested in ideas. I think they can change everything and that perhaps above all, we live in a time when ideas are desperately needed otherwise how will anything change?

The Bible is the best selling book of all time- we all know that. But how about the second best selling book? It might surprise you to know that it is this one;

There is an irony in measuring the success of political or theological ideas by the sales of their sacred texts, but nevertheless the permeation of these ideas into the consciousness of modernity has been in no small part due to the  information revolution of a former age- the printing press.



I am aware that to many (particularly those who read this blog on the other side of the Atlantic) these words are something close to being taboo. They are regarded as dangerous, evil words. They are also perhaps regarded as defeated words- finally overcome by the rise of the forces of light and truth (revealed in the holy form of democratic capitalism.)

This is less the case in the UK, where socialism is a political term divorced from it’s original meaning as painted by Marx and Engels. This from here;

 Socialism is defined as a mode of production where the criterion for economic production is use-value, and is based on direct production for use coordinated through conscious economic planning, where the law of value no longer directs economic activity, and thus monetary relations in the form of exchange-valueprofitinterest and wage labour no longer operate. Income would be distributed according to individual contribution. The social relations of socialism are characterized by the working-class effectively controlling the means of production and the means of their livelihood either through cooperative enterprises or public ownership and self management, so that the social surplus would accrue to the working class or society as a whole.

Marx saw socialism as the inevitable consequence of greed, oppression and unfair distribution of the power and assets within post agricultural societies. He thought that the tensions created were so great that change was inevitable.

Except that it did not quite work out like that did it?

However the story of Communism is not over. There is a fascinating article in the Guardian entitled ‘The return of Communism’;

Today, 164 years after Marx and Engels wrote about grave-diggers, the truth is almost the exact opposite. The proletariat, far from burying capitalism, are keeping it on life support. Overworked, underpaid workers ostensibly liberated by the largest socialist revolution in history (China’s) are driven to the brink of suicide to keep those in the west playing with their iPads. Chinese money bankrolls an otherwise bankrupt America.

The irony is scarcely wasted on leading Marxist thinkers. “The domination of capitalism globally depends today on the existence of a Chinese Communist party that gives de-localised capitalist enterprises cheap labour to lower prices and deprive workers of the rights of self-organisation,” says Jacques Rancière, the French marxist thinker and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris VIII. “Happily, it is possible to hope for a world less absurd and more just than today’s.”

That hope, perhaps, explains another improbable truth of our economically catastrophic times – the revival in interest in Marx and Marxist thought. Sales of Das Kapital, Marx’s masterpiece of political economy, have soared ever since 2008as have those of The Communist Manifesto and the Grundrisse (or, to give it its English title, Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy). Their sales rose as British workers bailed out the banks to keep the degraded system going and the snouts of the rich firmly in their troughs while the rest of us struggle in debt, job insecurity or worse.

We stand on the brink of something new.

What shapes this new thing will be an amalgam of political and economic vested interests, expediency and (just perhaps) the power of the idea. Ideas of course can be dangerous and Communism, with its appeal to the highest moral human purpose, might well be the most dangerous of all. But much of what is in there might be regarded as a natural progression of the teachings of Jesus. C S Lewis called Communism ‘a Christian heresy’ after all.

But what form might these ideas have to carry us forward?

One of the ‘full stops’ to any debate about Communism that I have heard is this one- it can never work, because of basic human nature. We will only work for our own advantage. Without the possibility of the accumulation of individual wealth, even at the cost of others, human society will naturally degenerate and wither into unproductivity.

This is such a depressing idea- that despite the odd individual expression of selfless altruism, humanity is essentially greedy, self serving and only motivated by gaining ascendency over the other. Jesus had a few words to say about this I think.

What other forms of human productivity and exchange might form the currency between us? The Zeitgeist movement have had considerable discussions already about the possibilities of societies without money. However, some of the Communist analysis of the economic processes that have fuelled our current crisis has centred around the ‘Law of Value’;

In his formidable new tome Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Slavoj Žižek tries to apply Marxist thought on economic crises to what we’re enduring right now. Žižek considers the fundamental class antagonism to be between “use value” and “exchange value”.

What’s the difference between the two? Each commodity has a use value, he explains, measured by its usefulness in satisfying needs and wants. The exchange value of a commodity, by contrast, is traditionally measured by the amount of labour that goes into making it. Under current capitalism, Žižek argues, exchange value becomes autonomous. “It is transformed into a spectre of self-propelling capital which uses the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its temporary disposable embodiment. Marx derived his notion of economic crisis from this very gap: a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory self-generating mirage of money begetting more money – this speculative madness cannot go on indefinitely, it has to explode in even more serious crises. The ultimate root of the crisis for Marx is the gap between use and exchange value: the logic of exchange-value follows its own path, its own made dance, irrespective of the real needs of real people.”

Is it really possible to value products by the labour that goes into making them?

And can we really disentangle the financial system that appears to have taken on a life of it’s own, a bit like Frankenstein?

Whatever the horrors that ideas like Communism may have unleashed in the past, I still hope that ideas will emerge that  will be a path that people can travel again.

Where is the new ideology?

It is an old academic political discussion- the end of Ideology– by which I mean the end of the time of battling grand political/economic theories that inspired and fuelled our attempts to understand and shape our society. Thatcher put an end to all that in the UK- not because she had no ideology, but because she cleared the field of all opposition. Capitalism and ‘The Market’ triumphed and gifted us with the so called free movement of capital, trickle down, neoliberalism and globalisation.

Over the next 20 years, nation after nation fell in line, cajoled by the promise of great wealth or manipulated by powerful organisations who needed scarce resources or a new market.

None of this is a surprise, but what is more noticeable is the lack of viable alternative. Sure there are voices of protest- not least the Occupy Movement- but to demand change is not necessarily the same thing as proposing an alternative (I know that the OM are in discussion about all sorts of issues, but I would suggest that no real coherent alternative ideology has yet emerged.)

There was an interesting article in the Guardian today by Aditya Chakrabortty. Here are a couple of quotes;

When the history of how a good crisis went to waste gets written up, it will surely contain a big chapter on the failure of our academic elites. Because just like the politicians, the taxpayer-funded intellectuals at our universities have missed the historic opportunities gifted to them by the financial collapse. And it will be the rest of us who pay the price…

…So have the non-economists grasped their moment? Have they hell. Look at the academic conferences held over the past few weeks, at which the latest and most promising research in each discipline is presented, and it’s as if Lehman Brothers never fell over…

Chakrabortty did a search of recent sociological and social science conferences and academic papers and concluded that pretty much the disciplines were not interested in challenging the core assumptions of the dominant ideology.

So where is the challenge to come from, if not from the academic elite? And more importantly, where are the alternative ideologies going to emerge from?

I watched the two Che Guevara films recently- a time when ideology believed that revolution was possible and even worth killing for. Revolution meant overcoming the ruling elite, empowering the poor and dispossessed and bringing egalitarian justice to society. Whilst I abhor the violence, most of us will instinctively feel the pull of these ideas.

Most of us too will have heard the spoilers- the voices that suggest that such ideas are unrealistic, unobtainable, work against human instincts and have been proved to serially fail because of the repeated failures of communist regimes throughout the world. Therefore the only option left is to continue as we are- with a few tweaks to satisfy the left field.

I want to raise my own voice in protest at this hopelessness. I want to invite my friends into a journey to find a new kind of ideology. We are not there yet, but I think we have some clues;

Start small. Start local.

Buy less, want less, make more.

Reduce waste, increase sharing and holding things in common.

Increase joint social enterprise.

In all things be aware of the impact on those who have little.

In all things be aware of the impact on the environment.

For me, the other academic/social/political group that has been near silent in the offering of a viable alternative is this one- the Church. Because as I look at the economic list above, it seems to me to be also a SPIRITUAL list. Without the life of the Spirit within us, we are mere animals, scratching and scraping at one another for the meatiest parts of the carcass.

So perhaps it all comes down to the word Love. If Economics are subordinate to love, then what might the theories look like? If political science was shaped by love, how might we organise ourselves differently? Even as I write this I feel the rise of cynicism, but- love remains.

I think this is the ideology of the Kingdom of God, and the viral vitality that we can and should bring to all these debates. And we do not have to wait until the universities write papers and hold conferences- because we can make our own small economy now- here.

Liberation theology, Capitalism and Communism.

For years I have heard stories about the Roman Catholic clerics who defied the worst despotic regimes of South America in the 1060’s and 70’s. Bishop Romero gunned down in his Cathedral, Priests and Nuns who chose to live alongside the poor and oppressed, and to try to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Out of this melting pot was born a new way of understanding the words of Jesus, known as ‘Liberation Theology.’

Pope John-Paul spoke out against this movement. He grew up in so-called Communist Poland, and liberation theology sounded too much like communism to him. As a social sciences graduate who was also a Christian, the critique offered to Western Capitalism by socialist writers, and even by old Marx himself always resonated with me. I think it was CS Lewis who called Communism a ‘Christian Heresy’.

The 1980’s and 90’s saw an end to the old ideological divides in Europe- everyone became a free marketeer it seems. The Labour party in Britain stopped talking about ‘poverty’, lest it scare off the middle class (Bourgeois!) vote. Instead we talked about educational attainment, and ‘social exclusion’.

But, as Jesus said, the poor are still with us. A recent WHO report has pointed to the growing health inequalities in the UK, and commentators have raised again the issue of inequality of income as the main causal factor.

And if we look broader than the boundaries of my own country we see global economics are managed by the ‘free market’- but in this system, as in all others, there are winners and losers. The system, say many, is rigged against those who have not, in favour of those who have.


Liberation theology is a Christian movement of protest and support for the poor. They would point us to the words of Jesus – yes the poor may always be with us, but our best service to Jesus is to serve the least.

  • The call is to see people. And to see them as the beloved of God.
  • The cause might be varied – but as Mother Theresa put it, “We rob our brothers by all that we own”.
  • The solution is to learn how to love – and to live this out wherever you are – in the slums or in the boardroom.

Here is a definition culled from the good old BBC (from here.)

“Love for the poor must be preferential, but not exclusive.”Ecclesia in America, 1999

Liberation theology was a radical movement that grew up in South America as a response to the poverty and the ill-treatment of ordinary people. The movement was caricatured in the phrase If Jesus Christ were on Earth today, he would be a Marxist revolutionary, but it’s more accurately encapsulated in this paragraph from Leonardo and Clodovis Boff:

“Q: How are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice?

A: There can be only one answer: we can be followers of Jesus and true Christians only by making common cause with the poor and working out the gospel of liberation.”
Leonardo and Clodovis Boff

Liberation theology said the church should derive its legitimacy and theology by growing out of the poor. The Bible should be read and experienced from the perspective of the poor.

The church should be a movement for those who were denied their rights and plunged into such poverty that they were deprived of their full status as human beings. The poor should take the example of Jesus and use it to bring about a just society.

Most controversially, the Liberationists said the church should act to bring about social change, and should ally itself with the working class to do so. Some radical priests became involved in politics and trades unions, others even aligned themselves with violent revolutionary movements.

A common way in which priests and nuns showed their solidarity with the poor was to move from religious houses into poverty stricken areas to share the living conditions of their flock.

I believe that Jesus always had a bias towards the weak and the poor. Any reading of the Sermon on the Mount has to twist theological somersaults to deny this. And I can not subscribe to the idea that International Capitalism, propagated with such enthusiasm by the ruling Christian west, will have much currency in the Kingdom of God.

But neither do I have any faith in a coming Marxist utopian revolution. I would rather hope for Christians who plant hope and beauty in the broken places.

Where the poor people are.

The challenge is for the rest of us to find out what that means for us.

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