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.
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?