Marinaleda: Andalusian utopia
By Tapani Lausti
Dan Hancox, Utopia and the Valley of Tears: A journey through the Spanish crisis. Kindle eBook 2012.
The name of Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo surged on to international news pages when his comrades entered a super market in a small town of Andalusia this summer and took away food products without paying for them. They were delivered to the needy who had suffered in the ever deepening economic crisis. Occupations of unused farm land followed and scuffles took place outside banks. Arguments and counter-arguments about the illegality or moral rights of the actions were aired all over Spanish media. Sánchez Gordillo was described as either Robin Hood or a maverick rabble rouser.
Sánchez Gordillo has been the mayor of a small Andalusian town Marinaleda for over three decades. The own has a history of confronting the mighty. After fighting for Duke of Infantil's unused land for 12 years, they managed to get 1,200 hectares of his land. It was turned into a cooperatively run farm. There is no unemployment in the town and there is no police. Streets are named after Salvador Allende, Che Guevara and other historical left-wing heros. One can see a lot of progressive slogans about alternative social order, a utopia.
“If utopia existed, I wanted to see it”, Hancox decided. His visit to Marinaleda took place a few months before the drama of the summer of 2012. (I myself and my partner visited Marinaleda a couple of years earlier.) Hancox had been interested in Spain since he read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia as a teenager. Not a bad start. Later visits to the country deepened his interest. Hancox sums up the political experience of Spain thus: “In Spain, non-authoritarian types of communism, in particular anarchism, that most idealistic of philosophies, chimed perfectly: individual freedom and mutual aid are both traits the Spaniards hold in high esteem.”
Hancox quotes Orwell's reaction when the writer arrived in revolutionary Barcelona in December 1936: “No one who was in Spain during the months when people still believed in the revolution will ever forget that strange and moving experience.”
With the help of Andalusian friends Hancox manages to obtain a long interview with Sánchez Gordillo. But before the visit to Marinaleda he talks to friends and acquaintances in Seville and Estepa, a town 15 minutes drive from Marinaleda. It transpires that the Marinaleños took part in large numbers in the M15 or indignados movement in Seville. (An Andalusia-wide M15 reunion was held in Marinaleda in November 2011.) Emma, a local hotel receptionist, describes to Hancox the enthusiasm of the participants in the Seville M15: “It was amazing, everybody was collaborating: syndicalists, students, people with babies, young people, old people.” (loc. 217)
Indeed, in the Seville gatherings which Hancox witnessed during his stay, there were “no card-carrying dogmatists trying to bring back everything to Lenin”, a scene familiar also to myself from political meetings in London.
Emma wanted Hancox to understand that the M15 experience has been something unique, it has been a source of a thrilling new feeling — the empowering head-rush of new possibilities. I can personally confirm this atmosphere having witnessed M15 gatherings in Madrid, Barcelona and Málaga, my current home town. The movement may retreat from the public eye but is operating in local communities. But the most important fact is that a genie has escaped from the bottle. People know that a society can be organised in a different manner. And as the crisis creates ever more unemployed and more and more people are thrown out of their homes for not being able to pay their mortgages, the system has arrived at crossroads, it either gives way to more “utopias” (Spain is buzzing with all kinds of grassroots ideas) or it has to try to repress the rebellions with police violence.
Emma is quite enthusiastic about Marinaleda. (When we took a taxi from Estepa — also a lovely place to visit — to Marinaleda those few years ago, even the driver approved of the utopia experience.) Emma marvels at the fact that the local people just broke down the gate and declared that they need the land. And indeed, once Hancox sits down with a couple of friends to talk to Sánchez Gordillo, the mayor cites Bakunin's idea of “propaganda of the deed”.
Listening to Sánchez Gordillo in his office, it becomes clear that Marinaleda had its M15 moment many years earlier: “For this counter-power to be effective, we realised that participation was fundamental. This is why we organised everything around an assembly — an assembly that was open to all workers, regardless of political affinity.” They also realised that political democracy didn't work without economic democracy. And the only way to obtain work was to obtain land.
The cooperative does not distribute profits, any surplus is invested to create more jobs. Everyone in the cooperative receives the same salary. Sánchez Gordillo is proud of the fact that in the action groups and the assembly at large women are in the majority. There is a house building programme in a do-it-yourself style, with materials provided. Once a month on a Sunday people gather to work for free to do whatever is deemed to be beneficial for the town. The larger world comes to Marinaleda when Palestinian children visit the town every summer. The town is also famous for its musical events with visitors coming from far away.
Sánchez Gordillo sums up Marinaleda's vision: “We're trying to put in place now what we want for the future. But we don't want to wait till tomorrow, we want to do it today.” And: “… there are other ways to do politics, other ways to do economics, another way to live together — a different society.”
Undoubtedly some youngsters, as Hancox points out, are more enthusiastic about the town's free wifi than Gordillo's poems about struggle or the long speeches which he presents on the local TV channel. One can question some details of Marinaleda life style. The idea of houses with a garage struck us a bit unimaginative. No anti-car mentality here. Neither are there any kibbutz-syle experiments of more collective life arrangements. (The anarchists' role in the early kibbutz movement is not widely known.) The mayor´s incredibly long tenure might rise eyebrows among young radicals. Be all that as may, Sánchez Gordillo seems a very pleasant person when seen on national or Andalusian television channels or on Marinaleda's own web site.
It is probably true that people who are not enthusiastic about the local utopia may not feel comfortable at airing their dissidence. The approval consensus about the road taken in Marinaleda seems overwhelming. Hancox detects enough genuine enthusiasm among the people he talked to to make the scene credible.
And the current crisis in Spain would seem to place Marinaleda on the right side of history.
- Expect more farm protests in Spain by Dan Hancox, The Guardian, 25 August 2012
- The Spanish Robin Hood by Dan Hancox, The Guardian, 15 August 2012
- As Spain's Recession Darkens, Alternative Economies Rise, Common Dreams, 28 August 2012
- A Job and No Mortgage for All in a Spanish Town by Victoria Burnett, The New York Times, 25 May 2009