Spain's pocket communist utopia, Marinaleda

Dan Hancox sez,

You may have heard about Spain's 'Robin Hood Mayor', Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo - who last week made global headlines after he led farm labourers into supermarkets to expropriate basic food supplies, which were then distributed to the massed ranks of the local unemployed (currently 34% in Andalusia).

The Spanish economic miracle has become a catastrophe; with a government whose cuts have pushed miners to armed conflict (firing home-made rocket launchers at riot police), an Economics Minister whose last job was director of the Spanish branch of Lehman Brothers, and a lost generation of 'indignados' with no homes, no work, and no faith in the system. And right in the middle of it all, Marinaleda, a self-described communist utopia led by the charismatic poet-rebel, Sánchez Gordillo: a town of landless labourers who for over 30 years since the death of Franco, have fought capitalism - and won. 'Utopia and the Valley of Tears' is their story, published this week. There is a short extract in The Guardian.

Utopia and the Valley of Tears: A journey through the Spanish crisis


  1. Mondragon, in the Basque country is also doing better economically than Spain because of its traditionally co-operative work model.

    The unemployment rate in the Basque Country is 15%, and lower in the province of Guipuzcoa, where Mondragon is based. The rate in Spain as a whole is now 25%.

    1. New York author Mark Kurlansky put it this way: “The Basque Country, too green to be Spain, too rugged to be France”. Great book, by the way:

  2. after he led farm labourers into supermarkets to expropriate basic food supplies
    Yes, well, revolutions tend to happen when the populace can no longer afford to eat. “Let them eat McDonalds!” Oh, sorry, that was the Olympics story.

  3. So what you’re saying is that they’re thieves who stole from a supermarket and squatted land owned by another.   Utopia?  Sure if you’re on the receiving end.  

    1. And how did that ownership come about? Most land ownership ultimately comes down to theft. I, for example, live on land that was once common and then “enclosed” about 200 yrs ago. Those who worked that land and lived off it had no compensation.

    2. Yeah, I’m sure the grocery store owners and workers are a little less rosy about how Utopian this whole enterprise is.  But, hey, pretty soon they’ll be out of business and the employees can go farm for a wage that they can never raise … sounds rad!

    3. “Andalusia is like Latin America: 2% of property owners own 50% of the land.”

      Sounds like you’ve got the thieves mixed up. But I’m sure that 2% just represent the only savvy, non-lazy people in a region of 8.5 million. Or perhaps they got this arrangement and keep it this way by other means……..?

  4. Like most Utopian communes, I suspect this one wouldn’t work so well if not surrounded by firmly non-utopian support functions (factories, power, water, pharmaceuticals, Apple Inc etc.). Only when they are 100% self sufficient can they said to be successful, same as hippies who drive to a protest against oil.

    For example – if there were no nasty supermarket to rob, what would they be eating? And why do they need to steal if the communist utopia is so successful in feeding itself?

    1. They assaulted the supermarket because a simple reason: appart from being a symbolic action, they’ve been asking markets to donate that food which, a few days from its expiration day, are thrown to the rubbish. If they only collaborate by giving it to homeless or unemployed people…

      1. Yeah, that sure makes sense economically…

        Oh, wait a minute… no it doesn’t, why ?

        In an ideal world, only people really needing that kind of help would benefit from it and the supermarket would have nothing to lose.

        But we are not in an ideal world and that means that very quickly people who could afford the food (but barely) will also elect to wait a few days to have it for free… and before you know it even those with a stable, well-paid job will be waiting to get part of their food for free, because they’ll see no reason to be sponsoring those not paying (as happened in France with healthcare and unemployment benefits, once not used by the middle and upper class on the ground they can afford it without burdening the system, but now extensively used on the ground that there is no reason that they should pay more and more without benefiting from it, furthering the financial problems).
        Worse, these lost volumes in sales will mean that the supermarket will, at each iteration of the process, order less and less food (the other solution would be to keep the same volume but rise prices, which would be even worse), meaning, first,  less food to distribute and ultimately closing down and not feeding anyone at all, paying or not.

        It’s a lovely idea, until you get your brain in marching order and start thinking beyond the very short term.

        That’s the trouble with collectivist utopias, ignoring human nature, history and the long term, Stalin and the Red Khmer had it right… the only way to make it work is to eliminate anyone not conforming to the model (in capitalist “utopias”, you just ignore and marginalize them).

        1. That is a huge amount of bullshit you are spinning from a situation you dont understand. Marinaleda’s people dont eat all day due to their daring raids of supermarkets or stuff like that. This is not their “plan” for the future. This is just a publicity stun  to highlight that nobody in goverment doing fuck all to care for the people that have lost all support in our current crisis, except find new ways to punish them. In their view, supermarket X going to throw food to the garbage bin while hundreds of families are hungry is morally wrong, and the hungry families have the right to that food, their need being before the need of profit of the supermarket chain.

          The interesting thing is how this plays up with the fact that Marinaleda collective farms actually sell their food to the supermarket chains that are now dragged into this. 

          Their communist utopia is not “lets wait for somebody to steal food for us”, is “lets organize ourself so we we work together and get the benefits together”. It may be naive given constrains like the one above, but not this stupid caricature of freeloaders people seem to have.

          1. Jesus, I was answering to Antonio’s proposal in general, not the specific publicity stunt that is the topic of the post, sorry for not making it clearer.
            It also explains why something that might seem like the decent, human thing to do, is actually destructive in the bigger picture, but you wouldn’t know about that, would you, only immediate needs are your concern.
            And yes, current austerity measures imposed in Greece and Spain are completely insane and as, if not more, destructive as this kind of thinking.
            Back to the topic, IF their model was to organize themselves, why should they steal something they sold instead of directly distributing it ?Oh right, because they wouldn’t get money too that way…I’m sorry, it’s actually worse, this stunt is morally bankrupt and makes of anyone actually defending it a worthless piece of scum for using the poor and hungry.The people needing that food deserve better than being used as pawns in an ideological struggle, they deserve a valid, stable, long-term solution.And no, to anyone with half a brain, the profits of the supermarket ARE important…The supermarket employs people, buys local production, it brings money and employment to the community and unless these people have a way (and are willing) to be self-sufficient, then the profitability of local businesses is a necessary evil.

            And no, I’m not saying these people are freeloaders, I’m saying HUMANS are freeloaders by nature.
            In any given situation, should it last long enough, almost ANYONE will chose to benefit from what they perceive as a benefit enjoyed by the majority at the detriment of themselves, even if they can afford not doing so.
            It’s not a way to paint the people involved in this particular example, it’s a reminder of what it is to be human.

            Oh, and have a look at the French “Restaurants du Coeur”, they didn’t grow that big just because there are more and more poor people in France who can’t afford food, but also because with the passing years, people who elected not to use them on account of being able to get by without them decided that there was no reason they shouldn’t benefit from it (and trust me, they are not abusing the system, they fully deserve that help, but 20 years ago they would have elected not to use it, that doesn’t make them freeloaders).

          2. Dont know why I cant reply to your post (too many indentations levels), but again, there is a lot of things you are assuming about the “stunt” that are not true.

            For instance, Sánchez Gordillo is mayor of Marinaleda, but the “stunt” was NOT on Marinaleda, but in some other not-communist-“utopia” towns, as part of his activities with the SAT union. 

            Are they right in do so? I dont think so. Does this solve anything? I dont think so. But if you push between 25 and 50% of the working population into despair and poverty, I fully expect people to gravitate toward this kind of stuff ,not because “human are freeloaders” or any other ideological fantasy – just because they are hungry and somebody else is throwing perfectly edible food to the garbage pile because hey, my profit… 

            People are not freeloaders – people want work and want stability. Take those 2 simple things from them and try to justify it while the same people doing that reap enormous benefits, evade tax, etc… and you will have a reaction, and it is not going to be pretty, and probably not going to be fair either… but it is going to be what we worked hard to get when we decided dismantling the safety nets for further private profits was the policy to follow

          3. Yep, Disqus is a complete pain… anyway…

            It’s one thing to read something, another entirely to understand it… As it’s one thing to mean something and another to write it in a way not misunderstood…

            I’m not exactly making the point you think I’m making, but I gather the reverse is true too, let’s just agree on the fact we both disagree on that kind of actions, for entirely different reasons, agree on the fact that the governments are not doing their jo, that we need to find a solution for the dispossessed the ongoing crisis has created and will create and give each other the benefit of doubt on points we disagree on, there’s no need to fight among us when we agree on what really matters.

            Do you have anything resembling the Resto du Coeur in Spain ? If not, the present situation might be a good reason to start; Unfortunately it will probably end up like ours, a temporary solution becoming a regular occurrence, still… that’s a way better solution (and in France, supermarkets regularly donate to the scheme).

      2. Oh, ok, they only assaulted the supermarket because the supermarket refused to give them food for free?

        Ok, sounds like this utopia is pretty self-sufficient.

  5. 3William56 , Marinaleda has 0% unemployed, they don´t need to steal.  They´re  making this simbolic actions 4 the 25% out of  work in Spain, most of them in Andalucía.  

  6. Another Spaniard here. I do not approve of Mr Sanchéz Gordillo actions; I feel they play to the fears of the right and will polarize things in a way that is not helpful, a “us vs them” axis that doesnt run at the real fault line it should – us citizens vs them politicians & financial elites.

    That said, apart from the fact that this “heist” was more of a publicity stun that actual robbery, there is the fact that… well, in any decent country this guy should be paying a heavy price for this, like, losing his seat as mayor and representative, things like that.

    But Spain is not a decent country. And he knows it. Its part of the publicity stun angle – it would be a riot, and not a laughing one, to have him charged  and sentenced for stealing food when we have thousands of cases of corruption from the lowest political positions up to the Royal Family that go on and nobody pays any price whatsoever – except probably anybody fool enough to actually investigate them. 

    In a country ruled by thieves, with the party in power being a house full of corruption, it is kind of bizarre for the same people that are under suspiction of massive multimillionary scams and use their connections to walk away free to go and ask for the “weight of the law” to fall on somebody stealing milk, cookies and rice for people without food.

    Still, this is a path I dont like to see us walking.

    1. I remember a few months back the king had fucked off to Africa for a $60,000 elephant hunt, and the prime minister had jetted off to Poland to watch a soccer match while the country was in the midst of economic bailout turmoil.  Just like a few of the people posting above, they simply DO NOT GET IT.

  7. I’m getting very weird Graham Greene vibes here.  Does anyone else have a frisson from Monsignor Quixote here?  The Communist Mayor making the grand gesture, then fleeing? The inevitable chaos to follow?  The total absence of personal responsibility?  The inevitable sacrifice of the innocents?

    Fuckit.  Vodka.  

  8. It might be more accurate to suggest that Marinaleda is a “utopia” supported in large part by national and regional subsidies, as it only brings in about 1/3 of what it spends. I think there are bigger fish to fry in my country, but Gordillo is certainly no saint or Robin Hood. In general, I agree with Jesús Couto’s post.

    Presupuesto 2009-2011, Ayuntamiento de Marinaleda:

  9. Kindle-less myself, I sure hope “Utopia and the Valley of Tears” will eventually be published in paper form.

    1. Aha, a little research and I answered my own question: extended version of book being published as a paperback by Verso next year.

  10. Supermarket profits are typically 4% or less.  If they could figure out how to discard less food, they would.

    Also highly ironic to see farm laborers stealing food from a supermarket, which is ultimately the source of their paychecks.

    Hard to see why this is something to celebrate.  More like a desperate, sad, and criminal act.

    1. For a contrast you can read that the current big news in Andalusia is the start of the regional parliament inquire on the “ERE” affair, where it looks like some PSOE bigshot used the funds for premature retirements subsidies to give millions to family and political friends, including 1 1/2 million € he got to his chauffer to “start a chicken farm” or something… and that chauffer has declared that all that money was invested in drugs and whores.

      The current system is crumbling, people are getting fed up with having to make sacrifices while the politicians behave like this, and in that climate, things like Sánchez Gordillo antics and Marinaleda “utopian communism” look positively robinhood-like. Which is a worry, as I dont think that kind of theatrical stuff is anything but a prelude for very nasty class hate, but again, it is not like the system has not worked hard to sow the seeds of that hate.

      So yes, there is a lot of sad desesperation in stuff like this… but it is not like it comes from nowhere…

  11. The planet Earth is a cooperative community, with various pockets of Capitalist, Socialist, Totalitarian and Communist experiments going on inside it. 

    Those will all eventually fail, and we will be left with what we started: a cooperative community, in some form, with either a ruined environs or somewhat intact.  Either way, with or without us, it’s a cooperative society and can never be anything else.

    1. Lemme go grab some popcorn…you just invited the Randoids in.

      (I totally agree with you, though.)

      1. They’re always around, waiting to strike.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about cisterns.  Seriously, this is related.  I have been thinking, what if fuckfaces actually succeed in ruining the USA?  Well, I’m going to need water to survive, and with water I can grow food.  So I’m thinking, hell, assuming it isn’t poisoned, water rains down from the sky all the time; I just need a way to trap and keep it fresh, without needing electricity to pump it up out of the earth.  CISTERN!  That’s where I’m coming from… the underlying reality of existence, not some ideology I’m trying to foist off on other people.  Maybe that’s debateable.

    2. You are aware that the system you suggest has almost disappeared as the main form of human organisation and others emerged because it doesn’t scale, right ?

      It works well up to the village/clan size, but it starts falling apart as you add more and more people until the point where by the city-state level, it simply isn’t working anymore.

      So, unless you end up in a situation with nations dissolved, city states as the largest economical/political entity and abandon all hope of efficient large scale operations and cooperation, cooperative community is not going to make a comeback as the major form of human organisation.

      1. So, unless you end up in a situation with nations dissolved, city states as the largest economical/ political entity and abandon all hope of efficient large scale operations and cooperation, cooperative community is not going to make a comeback as the major form of human organisation.

        I’m going to call that a religious belief.  Small political entities with primitive technology have pulled off some pretty major projects.

        1. Wait, what ? Seriously Antinous ?

          You are willing to dub the Ancient Egypt Kingdoms “small political entities” ?

          To you theocratic states representing one of the largest and most populous civilization at the time qualifies as a “small political entity” and fits into my description of “village/clan size” when even during the Old Kingdom period Egypt was far beyond that point ?

          Or is that an expression of the belief that these projects existed solely thanks to the cooperative community and not in any way thanks to the theocratic state that shaped Egypt ?

          I’m not saying that cooperative community disappeared and are not still playing an important part in local organization, I’m just saying that past a certain point, it’s not scaling and you need something else to go beyond that and mesh the various communities together.

          Easter Island moais would have been a far pertinent example to refute my assertion, even though one could argue that it was another project motivated by a religious organization of the community more than pure cooperation, however the community was at least the right size.

          1. To you theocratic states representing one of the largest and most populous civilization at the time qualifies as a “small political entity”

            Quite a bit smaller than some hundreds or even thousands of today’s cities. So, yes.

          2. That retort would work if I hadn’t made clear from the beginning what I meant when using the term (ie. up to a small city-state or a large clan).

            Ancient Egypt does not qualify under my definition of small political entity.

            Now, we might disagree on the definition of small political entity and work on rephrasing my assertions around a definition we’d both agree on, but don’t use childish tricks like applying someone else definition of a term when it’s correct interpretation in context is already given.

            If to you the Old Kingdom qualifies as a small political entity, then whenever you read “small political entity”, replace it with “large village/large clan/small city-state”.

            Besides, how does a theocratic state qualify as an example of cooperative community ?
            Sure, on a local, day-to-day basis, egyptian society operated as a cooperative community… as have done and will do every human communities… that never was the point here, the point being one of scaling ability…
            Once you reach a certain population you need another motivation to cooperate, because you can’t know and care about perfect strangers and work toward goals bringing you no perceivable gain.
            That’s when citizenship, faith and other concepts start being more important to organize the group than kinship, personal oath or neighborhood.

          3. Ancient Egypt does not qualify under my definition of small political entity.

            It’s fairly clear from this conversation that your definitions change to fit your argument.

  12. I was referring to the 7 billion people.  The totality.  The totality, contained within this planet’s atmosphere can never be anything but a cooperative.  Ultimately, the entire system must cooperate, and adjust, or it will disintegrate itself.  Which nature might do for us anyways, in the form of a disease.  Nature ALWAYS wins.  Either we cooperate with that plan, or we perish.  It’s that simple.

  13. As stunts go… The alluded food banks rejected the food because of its illegal origin and the break in the food preservation chain. Also, that supermarket chain already collaborates with those food banks in a far more extensive capacity than this kind of actions will ever manage.

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