Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Communist utopia in Spain?

While browsing the Interwebs, I came across a book about a small town called Marinaleda in Andalucía, Spain. The town was described as a communist utopia. Intrigued, I found a copy of the book to see what it was like.

“If you work it with your hands and water it with your sweat, the earth is yours, worker”

The book, Utopia and the Valley of Tears, written by Dan Hancox, an English author and journalist for the Guardian, is an account of the Hancox's trip to Seville, Marinaleda and nearby towns. It contains a sizable interview with Sánchez Gordillo, where the content of the communist experiment is revealed.

The town is no utopia, but I was a little deflated to discover that it's old-school communist too - not the communism I'm looking for. It could best be described as a "workers' paradise."

I got the impression that things in Marinaleda started out okay. First, they had to secure land:
We saw that the Duke of Infantal had the most lands – 17,000 hectares between Andalucía and Extremadura. So we fought the Duke for twelve years! We occupied his land, we cut off roads, and at the same time we pressured the government.
[...] the Marinaleños kept going and going – occupying, protesting, disrupting; direct action gets the goods, as the saying goes. After 12 years of struggle, with 1992’s Sevilla World Expo just round the corner and the authorities’ resolve finally weakening, incredibly, they won, securing 1,200 hectares of the Duke’s land.
Every communist movement has to secure land. Their method of expropriation seems entirely appropriate. It's what happened next that concerns me:
With the land they had won through occupation, they began planting, deliberately choosing crops that would need industrial processing, to create more work back in the town, in the factory. “Our aim was not to create profit, but jobs, so we created a complementary industry to transform our agrarian products: peppers, artichokes, favas, broccoli, olive oil and olives”. The idea, he says, is that “la tierra es de quien la trabaja” – the land is for those who work it. The town co-operative does not distribute profits: any surplus is re-invested to create more jobs. Everyone in the co-op earns the same salary, 47 Euros a day for six and a half hours of work (which they try and keep equivalent with public service wages) [...]
[Quoting Sánchez Gordillo:] our goal is to make jobs. Instead of pocketing the profits we reinvest them back into the project. That’s why we believe the land should belong to the community that puts it to work, and not in the dead hands of the nobility.
There are quite a few things wrong here.

1) Why would you want to deliberately increase the amount of work that Marinaleños had to do? The whole point of communism is to take the massive surplus generating power of machines to reduce work to the absolute minimum. What the Marinaleños are doing is the exact opposite. Though perfectly in line with (pre-)existing communism, it isn't a good approach. A better approach would have forged a path where machines are used and the work-day reduced.

2) What about the so-called non-workers? I assume they don't receive the salary. Some may say that "if you don't work, you don't earn" but have they really investigated what work is? Does the category of non-work extend to house-work? Do women house-workers only earn via their husbands? None of this is discussed, neither in the book nor other articles I've read.

3) "Land for those that work it" has been the catch-cry for colonists for the past five-hundred years, displacing indigenous populations and killing millions of people. Do you really want to be associated with that history and present day reality? Instead, what about "land for those who need to live from it"? In that way you include primitive, peasant, and industrial workers and can exclude those who don't need it (i.e., the nobility).

4) The fact that the co-operative re-invests profits to create more jobs is the very definition of capitalism, not communism. It is hardly a distinguishing feature of their form of organisation. If capitalists didn't re-invest their profit they wouldn't be capitalists. By doing the same, the Marinaleños are in no way distancing themselves from capital social relations.

As for the rhetorical "dead hands of the nobility" phrase, what is that supposed to mean? That because the nobility don't work, their hands are figuratively dead? Isn't that the same argument that the bourgeoisie use to seize power from the aristocracy?

Content of the work

A friend raised a good criticism of the type of work. It's not only tedious, but gruelling labour.
We walk over to the farm’s olive oil processing plant, where four or five men in blue overalls are working the machinery. The olives are stripped from the branches by the first machine, then cleaned by the next, then smashed into pulp, filtered, and filtered again. They produce 300,000 litres of olive oil a year.
Not only have the Marinaleños chosen labour intensive work, but generally fairly unappealing work.

Undoubtedly, whether capitalist, feudal or communist, dull and tedious work needs to be done. Thankfully, a lot of people like doing a lot of different things, we shouldn't all have to do horrible work all the time. What separates communism from other highly organised societies is the idea that we can reduce this labour to a minimum. We have seen that quantitatively and qualitatively, the town of Marinaleda are not attempting to do this.

“This is how we’ve built 350 homes.”

I don't like how Marinaleda works, but there is a definite attraction to the way they create housing for the community. Land is assigned and houses are collectively built. There are no mortgages.
The new houses have been built on land on the fringes of the town which was municipalised, made public property for just this purpose. “Once we had this land, we prepared it, negotiated with the Andalucían government to obtain materials, and then we called the people who needed housing. We give them land, materials, and architects for free, and they put in their labour from the beginning of construction to the end.” Each plot consists of 90 square meters for construction, and 100 square meters for a patio or garden – normally three bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, kitchen and courtyard.
Bourgeois houses, to be sure, but it's nevertheless an impressive feat, and appears to be a genuinely communist moment.
The rub: to prevent people from profiting, residents cannot sell their houses. (A Job and No Mortgage for All in a Spanish Town)
You can't sell your house? Good.

“You know you have to work on Sundays?”
One Sunday a month in Marinaleda is designated a Domingo Rojo (Red Sunday), where the townspeople work for free for the mutual benefit of the town [...]
[...] the dream that housing should belong to everyone, because you are a person, and not a piece of merchandise to be speculated with. The dream that natural resources, for instance energy, shouldn’t be in the service of multinationals but in the service of the people.
Why Sundays? Why not have every fourth Friday for collective projects? That you have to work on Sundays goes to the core of their form of communism. It is a workers' paradise, not an attack on work and the role of being a worker. And they go against two hundred years of working class activity on this. God may have given us Sundays (or Saturdays/Fridays depending on the god), but it was the working class that gave us the weekend and the eight-hour day. Why haven't the Marinaleños given themselves a three-day weekend yet? I guess, with a 6.5 hour work day (as opposed to the 7.5 hour Spanish standard) they have effectively done this. But the psychological effect of an extra day without work is much greater than one less hour a day.

Bourgeois criticism

I've read a few bourgeois criticisms of the Marinelda, none of which actually attempt to engage with the content of the project, but nit-pick with holier-than-thou hypocrisy claims, such as:
Analysts and political opponents dismiss Mr. Sánchez’ populist bluster, noting that while he portrays Marinaleda as a Communist oasis, it depends heavily on money from the regional and central governments it decries. The materials for each house, for example, cost the regional government about $25,000. (A Job and No Mortgage for All in a Spanish Town)
Where do these "analysts" (un-named, un-analysable) think a project like this is going to come from? Who cares where they get their money? Money has that wonderful property of leaving no smell. Maybe money comes from the forced labour of billions, yet it leaves no trace. Oh, guess what? The people living there are also labour-power created and nurtured under modern Spanish capitalist conditions. What hypocrites - they can't even attempt communism without having first come from a communist society!

The end

The book covers more than Marinaleda and Sánchez Gordillo. It touches on the economic crisis in Spain and the 15-M Movement and the Indignados. The author clearly has a sympathy with some sort of an idea of communism. It was enjoyable reading about his youth and engagement with communist ideas - reading Homage to Catalonia, distancing himself from Stalinism and all existing communism, etc. It was an enjoyable read about an aspect of Andalucian life that I was completely unaware of.

As for Marinaleda, I don't want to be overly critical. I think in some ways they've entirely missed the point. In other ways, they're attempting an inspiring communist experiment. The self-reduction they've done in supermarkets is certainly a critique of capital in practice. However, they must drop the 20th century ideology of workerism if they want to genuinely contribute to the movement of communism.

What the town of Marinaleda does is allow us to imagine how to create a new way of living. It'll need to be different from what the Marinaleños are doing, but it's an interesting point of departure.

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