Global media outlets covering the ongoing crisis in the eurozone periphery have tended to focus on the spectacular: violent strikes, massive demonstrations, the spectre of political extremism and swingeing cuts to public services. However, they have rarely given much coverage to changing conceptions of morality such as the one arguably represented by Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, the 60-year-old mayor of Marinaleda, a small farming cooperative community in Andalusia, Spain. Sánchez Gordillo has become internationally notable for participating in raids on supermarkets, the booty of which is intended for the poor and hungry; as a politician with legal immunity, he can avoid arrest, but Sánchez Gordillo has publicly stated that he would happily renounce his titles and face prosecution for his cause.
Initially we thought that Sánchez Gordillo’s gesture was merely an interesting response to a crisis that has seen an intensity of public treasury larceny that has resulted in not a few transfers from relatively poor to overwhelmingly rich, but on reflection his ‘people’s raids’ appear to possess a far deeper symbolism:
1. An Ominous Sign. For all the undoubted privations that its population has been subject to since 2007, Spain is still (for now) a First World country: its citizens are by international standards well-fed, housed and clothed. If – or perhaps when – Spain begins its descent into the New Second World category that many Mediterranean economies look like sliding into, will the Sánchez Gordillo school of thought become more mainstream? Will two wrongs making a right become an operational norm?
2. Civilisation and its Veneers. A reasonably prominent elected official in Western Europe – a region which for all its current problems is at least presently prosperous and, by global standards, an ‘open society’ – is brazenly subverting one of the most basic moral precepts that binds together even the most primitive of communities: Thou Shalt Not Steal. In 2003, Western television viewers mocked the looters of Baghdad – a city wrecked by two decades of wars, excoriating sanctions and plummeting living standards. We were really entitled to feel superior?
3. More of the Same. Closer examination of Sánchez Gordillo’s record at the helm of Marinaleda reveals a communist utopia that receives the bulk of its funding from one or more governmental agencies: the European Union, the Spanish central government or the Andalusian provincial administration; this position seems all too similar to that of the financial institutions that claim an exemplary status yet need a bailout just to make ends meet.