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Accound of a self-government experiment in Spain.


From the blog 'Paths to Utopia':

"Apparently a lot of official maps don’t show Marinaleda, a village of 3000 people, set in the middle of the frying pan of Andalusia. Perhaps it’s a bureaucratic blunder . But the fact that the mayor describes capitalism as “A thieving and terrorist system. Thieving because it is based on expropriation and exploitation and terrorist because it uses violence to maintain the privileges of the few” probably means that it is more of a deliberate mistake. . The more successful a radical social experiment is the less we are likely to hear about it and the Spanish State certainly doesn’t want people to find their way to a good example.

As we drive down the main street, the back bone of the community, looking for the bar syndical where we are to meet friends of Kim and Carlos who are also visiting, we pass dozens of murals painted onto the bright white walls - A huge purple feminist symbol with the words “I Love You Free” - a fist rising up through a black and red world “Guerra Social contra el Capital”(social war against capitalism) . We cross streets with names that resemble the index of a revolutionary encyclopedia - Calle Ernesto Che Guevera, Calle Salvador Allende, Calle Ghandi, Avenida de la Libertad. Eventually we find the the bar and park the van. Three large arches of green steelwork frame the casa del Pueblo which houses the bar syndical. Written in large steel letters are the words “MARINALEDA - UNA UTOPIA HACIA LA PAZ – OTRO MUNDO ES POSSIBLE” (Marineleda - a Utopia towards peace - another world is possible) For a few seconds I feel like I’m back in a Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico and then I remember that I’m somewhere in Europe.

The bar is packed. This is clearly the point of gravity of the village. On the walls are large prints of the black and white photographs of the Brazilian Landless peasants movement by Sebastian Salgado, jubilant crowds wielding scythes and pitch forks. Next to these images, that were icons of the 1990’s alter –globalisation movement, two massive flat sceen TV’s blare out trashy Spanish pop video’s and a 24 hour news service. Between them a colour poster with a spoof lords prayer written by the Mayor. One of the lines reads “They call us idiots because we never tire in the struggle for Utopia.” There is already no doubt that our paths through Utopias should have made this unexpected detour.

Around a large table sit Kim and Carlo’s friends from the international anti-capitalist collective “Escanda”, based in the mountains of Asturias, together with a delegation of Columbian political activists. They are here on a special programme organised by the Asturian local government which host Columbian’s who have death threats looming. For six months they are given housing, a mobile phone and some money. In return they have to give talks across Spain about the political situation in Columbia. It’s a little respite from the shadow of paramilitary execution. Several of those in previous programmes returned to their death. It’s strange meeting all these young people, with smiling jovial faces, knowing that some of them might not be alive in a few months time.

A feast of grilled shrimp, chips, fried eggs and beer is spread across the table, all on the house, or rather a gift from the mayor (in fact every lunch for the following 5 days is paid for by the mayor). We eat and begin to hear stories of this village unlike any other in Spain. Stories of expropriating land, a mayor who answer to assemblies and full employment ( a rarity in this part of Spain). The enthusiasm however, is peppered with cynicism. After all, we are being told these stories by visiting Anarchists, whose distrust of anything that reeks of a communist leadership runs deep.

Spain’s 1936 social revolution was viciously destroyed by Stalin and the communist party. Being the only state willing to send arms to the Republicans, they wielded enormous influence and were thus able to deliberately derail the truly revolutionary processes that were unfolding and replace them with systems of centralised authoritarian power which ultimately wrecked the republican movements and lead to Franco’s victory and 36 years of a fascist military dictatorship. No wonder there is mistrust.

Marinaleda is clearly not anarchist, on paper it is more of a mini libertarian communist state with aspects of ecological thinking. On the surface it feels very similar to Murray Bookchin’s theories of Municipal Libertarianism, the practice of building revolutionary direct democratic institutions in ones own neighbourhoods. It will be interesting to see if Bookchin’s theory has become reality here. What ever the case is, Marinaleda’s history, which began just after the death of Franco and the transition to democracy, reads like a fairy tale.

Andalusia was suffering chronic unemployment , in Marinaleda’s case it was over 75%. The majority of the land was owned by a tiny elite of aristocratic landlords who farmed olives and cotton using huge agro industrial machines. The villagers eacked out a living as precarious agricultural day labourers, not knowing whether they would have work from one day to the other. Jobs like olive picking only lasted three months in the year. People lived in squalid cramped conditions, sometimes three separate families sharing the same house. Life was hard and many emigrated to the cities or abroad, villages across the region died.

In Marinaleda though they decided to do something about it. The party in power in the local council together with a radical agricultural union, the SOC decided to fight for their own land. In 1979 they started the struggled and took direct action to reclaim the local Count’s land. This included 700 people going on hunger strike for 13 days, trapping the Spanish president in a local village, 25 days of government building occupation in Seville, sabotaging the Counts farm machinery and most importantly occupying his land. After twelve long years a final push involved a non stop occupation of his fields for 90 days and nights. The Count gave up and sold the land to the Andulucian government. Not wanting to accept that it had been won through struggle, they invented a kind of legal song and dance which ended with 1200 hectares being given to Marinaleda. Many of the local land owners followed suit, frightened that their land was going to be subject to the same treatment, they sold it cheaply to Marinaleda council.

The mayor later described to us how one of the most beautiful moments of his life was the day when they were given the keys to the Counts Finca and let themselves in to the majestic farmhouse, which now boasts a huge mural on its façade saying LAND and UTOPIA. With their own land they were autonomous from the count, could create jobs and start to run their own lives..

That night the rain returns and the streets become brown torrents, we park the van next to the municipal gymnasium where the Columbians are being put up. Tomorrow, we are told, a general strike has been declared in the village.

The twisting shadows of trees sweep the parched football pitch as the sun rises. The village is quiet. This morning the Mayor has to go and give a statement to the court in the local town Estepa, he called a general strike so that there would be a crowd of support outside the court house. He and the council are on trial because Marinaleda’s local pirate TV station has been illegally broadcasting using Discovery Channel’s frequency. He risks a two year prison sentence for this.

A long convoy of cars heads out of the village through the acres of olive groves towards Estepa. Outside the court the streets are filled with people. Deep brown faces against glaring white Andulasian walls, young and old squeeze onto the narrow pavements, “the people are with you” they chant as the mayor, with a kind of revolutionary hybrid beard merging Kropotkin and Castro enters the building.

A couple of hours later he re-emerges, the crowd surges forward, he makes a brief statement, the Andulusian national anthem is sung by all and there is a vehicular exodus back to the village to hold an assembly. The Mayor has been in power for 30 years, his party the CUT has absolute majority of the council, but Marinaleda is ultimately run by village assemblies.

When we arrive back the car park next to the huge meeting hall is jam packed with cars, everyone wants to know how the trial went. It doesn’t last long, there are more speeches by the mayor: “They are trying to oppress our freedom of speech as poor people. The rich don’t want us to have the right to speak. They want to know who is doing the programming, paying the bills and I tell them, we are all volunteers, we are all one, the TV station is the villages, no one is in charge” He thanks everyone for striking and coming to support “the judge was a lot more lenient during the hearing, because he knew you were all outside” there is laughter. “Now we have taken the land from the count, we can do whatever we want, we are becoming more and more autonomous, nothing can stop us.” Once again the Andulusian Anthem is sung and everyone drives home.

That evening we eat in the gym with the Columbians, our camper van serving as kitchen. The few restaurants and cafes in town are closed due to the strike. Sitting in a circle over a large saucepan of pasta, we hear harrowing stories of social struggles in Columbia. One of the activists is a photographer carries with him boxes containing hundreds of photographs, he passes a selection of images around. Pictures of massacres, mass graves and assassinations, burnt and beaten bodies, teargas and police riots. The courage of these guys is incredible, such extreme violence everywhere around them, so many death threats and yet they keep struggling.

The next morning we are woken up by the sound of Columbian Guerrilla pop music coming from the Gym. It’s a bizarre blend of punk, trashy pop and umpa umpa folk music with a surprisingly jolly tone. Marinaleda feels very different this morning, the sound of shouting kids in the school playground and the siren from the olive oil factory are clear signs that the village has returned to work.

So, how did this place transform itself from a dying village of poor precarious day labourers into a thriving model of municipal libertarian communism ? Old sun bleached election fly posters, with the slogan “Be realistic demand the impossible” and a photograph of the mayor smiling beneath his beard, are plastered all over the village. Despite our reluctance to defer to authority figures, it seems he is probably the person who can give us one of the deepest insights into Marinaleda. We arrange an interview.

The Town hall is a large modern building, clad in white marble and tinted glass. The official Marineleda logo adorns it: a line drawing of an idyllic village under a baking red sun with a dove rising above it, set inside a large red, green and white circle with the words “Marnineleda: a utopia towards peace” embossed in gold. I never thought I would see the word Utopia engraved on the front of a town hall. In the UK Mayors tended to be lacklustre characters who appear at summer fetes and tawdry official functions looking ridiculous with their large golden chains around their necks. I never imagined meeting a mayor with such contagious charisma and radical politics, a mayor who has survived two assassination attempts, spent time in jail and celebrates direct action and direct democracy.

It’s past eight o’clock at night, he arrives dressed in a bright magenta short sleeved shirt. At first he spends a few minutes in the car park checking a pair of banners that have been prepared for an action against property speculation then unlocks the town hall and lets us in welcoming us into his office. A gigantic oak desk is framed by three large hanging flags, the institutional light green walls are adorned by massive aerial photographs of the village and a picture of Che Guevara. We sit down around a round table in the corner.

“Utopia is not just a word or a dream it’s a right,” he begins “and through struggle we realise our dreams”, his right hand gesticulates above the table “Our dream was to end unemployment and we thought that the best way to realise that dream was to have land, and land is not property or a merchandise, it’s a right.” We realise that we are in for a long political speech rather than an intimate chat, but his charisma is infectious and we settle down patiently to listen.

“So at first we organised ourselves politically and in a Trade Union. We are in an agriculture workers union, SOC, which is part of the Via campesina network – whose main goal is food sovereignty. Politically we organised through the CUP an anticapitalist and Andulusian nationalist party.”

One of the principal reasons for taking this journey in Europe was to show that there are Utopian practices taking place on our doorstep, that we don’t have to go far away to find inspiration in other cultures. One of the key inspirations for many of us in the alter-globalisation movement was the Brazilian Landless Peasants movement, the MST, which has reclaimed hundreds of thousand of hectares from rich land owners in Brazil. The MST was part of Via Campesina, which was an important network helping to globally coordinated the mobilisations of the 90’s. But until we visited Marinaleda, we had absolutely no idea that anything similar to the MST was happening in contemporary Europe.

The mayor continues his talk, pausing confidently between paragraphs so that our translator can keep up; “Since we started running for elections we have always had absolute majority in the council. But we don’t believe that power is neutral. When we got absolute majority we decided that power in the hands of the workers should be a counter power. In order for the power to be by the people, for the people and with the people we decided that the most important thing is participation. So we set up a structure so that the general village assembly became the highest decision making body The assembly decided that direct democracy was the way forward rather than representative democracy. In representative democracy, which we call opinionated democracy, people only express an opinion every four years when they vote, but with direct democracy we have the power to make ourselves heard every week.

Although direct democracy is better than representative democracy or as I like to call it ‘Bourgeois democracy’, we quite quickly noticed that political democracy is worthless unless you have economic democracy. So we decided to deal with the issue of ending unemployment . With unemployment one is paralysed, so we said OK we need to get land and we looked around the area to see who owned the most land and found out that the Duke of Infada had 16000 hectares… “

His bright blue eys, that radiate above the huge bush of beard, light up. “So we started fighting for his land, we occupied it hundreds of times, we disrupted the international airports of Malaga and Seville, we blocked the streets, we threw ourselves in front of the Duke’s Agricultural machinery, we had general strikes, hunger strikes. And after many years of struggle we got 1200 Hectares of land that now supports 8 cooperatives within it.

As soon as they occupied the land they converted much of it to pepper and artichoke fields, which requires manual labour to pick and therefore creates many more jobs than the industrial cotton plantations.

“Having land alleviated the situation but it did not end unemployment and we realised we needed industry so we built cooperative factories that processed the fruits of the land – olive oil factories, pepper and artichokes processing and this gave us full employment.

Now that we have political and economic democracy what about social democracy. We noticed that there was no housing and many social services missing. So we decided to turn all council held land into building land. Now we can offer land, materials, architect all for free to young people so that they can build their own houses. These self-builders, as we call them, have fortnightly assemblies with the architects where they discuss what the house will look like, how its going to be built, how much to pay. At the moment they are paying 15 euros per month which reimburse the materials costs. So far we have built 300 houses and we are building a further 120.”

He goes on to explain the setting up of free home help for the elderly, very cheap kindergartens and numerous sports facilities including two swimming pools ( unheard of in a village this size.)

“Our experience tells us that another world is possible, another society is possible, another way of living is possible and the only thing we need to achieve it is political audacity, the desire to fight for it and unity. Although I was one of the most intense dreamers, even I didn’t believe that we would achieve so much in such a short time. …What’s beautiful about this place is that it makes the impossible look possible. The left should be utopian and should invite people to dream and realise them and if they don’t do this then they are part of the system.”

As we leave his office I notice a VHS tape on his desk, it’s a copy of the classic Kirk Douglas film “Spartacus.” Whose epic holywood images of slave revolts and solidarity, the moment when the mass of rebel slaves all answer “I am Spartacus” to the roman authorities, I remember vividly from when I was a kid. I’ve always thought that romanticism was an essential ingredient for successful radical political organising, it makes one aim for the highest ideals rather than begin at the level of the mediocre. In the glossy campaign promises booklet that his party sends to every resident before an election, next to his portrait is a photo of a perfect blue sky. But what is extraordinary about this romanticism is that it is thoroughly grounded in the nuts and bolts of everyday life. The rest of the booklet explains everything from the fact that the village pays some of the lowest taxes in the region (partly due to the fact that they don’t pay for public services like rubbish collection but do it themselves as part of a collective work day “Red Sunday”) to the fact that free wifi for the whole village is being planned and that the olive oil factory is getting a brand new piece of machinery. Marinaleda clearly isn’t a micro subcultural Utopian experiment , but a long term struggle deeply rooted in working class experience that affects the daily lives of 3000 people . Romanticism followed by pragmatism has made it all possible.

On the way to the demonstration outside the court house we talked to Sara, a young woman in her twenties. She works as a picker in the pepper fields, earning 1500 euros a month, well above the average for agricultural labour in Spain. She believes in the process of the village and thoroughly supports it, but told us “It’s boring here, like any tiny village of 3000 people, it’s boring.” Despite the two night clubs, (including Palo Palo with its tacky 20 metre long gold electric guitar façade) two swimming pools and a local TV station that anyone can be part of programming, Marinaleda is still a rural village in the middle of nowhere.

It seems that one of the biggest problems at the moment is trying to keep participation and self management going. The second generation of Marinaledans, born after their parents struggle, have a much easier and less adventurous life. There is not much left to fight for.

One afternoon we are invited to a meeting of the apprentices school, which trains young people in building work and social care . A panel of 18 to 20 year olds, many wearing Che tee-shirts. as it is the 40 anniversary of his death this week, present their work to the packed auditorium in the town hall. We have heard a lot about the lack of participation by young people and when the time comes for a question and answer session one of the Columbian activists, who the night before in the bar had been trying to persuade us to join the international brigade of a leftist Columbian guerrilla group, stood up and gave a passionate speech to the youngsters. He described how in his country, going to an assemblea, participating in grassroots politics was a priveledge, Many young people were murdered for that priveledge. How could these Spanish kids take their situation for granted and not participate in building this radical project. There is tension in the hall, the fellow Columbians look uncomfortable at the outburst and one of the Schools staff tries to respond rather blandly. But everyone knows that he is right and that one of the central questions of every single historical struggle is how to keep the struggle going when it feels as if one has won.

Much activism is seen as a direct response to a crisis, once the crisis is sorted we can go home. Perhaps this is because we think that Utopia is a fixed place of perfection like paradise, which once reached means we can stop trying to get there, change stops and we can stop having to try and change things. But Utopia, as Wilde said, is not somewhere that one rests for long, one has to set sail again and again, keep on moving and realising that there is no such thing as static perfection, the world is always changing, and as such we must always keep wanting to change it.

Gloria, a jovial young mother who is in the process of building her own house as part of the self build scheme and also works in the pepper fields, confirmed the dilemma for us “ yes the participation has gone down, the situation is so different from what it was. Before people had nothing. now they have jobs, a house, a car – they are much more comfortable, they don’t go to the assemblies so much, they don’t need to take to the streets anymore.” “But What would happen if the Mayor fell down dead tomorrow ?“asks Isa bluntly. We really want to know how much the whole project rest on his personality and charisma. Gloria had been talking to us for over an hour about the self-build scheme. Barrio asselblies and the way elections work, but this question throws her, she suddenly becomes awkward and doesn’t want to answer.” well, we would be stupid if we let it all fall down if something happened to the Mayor.” She says after a long pause “He doesn’t need all this anymore, he has his life, his job in the school, his house. He doesn’t live off the land anymore, but we do and we would be very stupid if we let it all collapse.”

“what about the word Utopia in the village motto” – I ask “Is Marinaleda really a Utopia ?” “Its very difficult to achieve a word, but we have.” she replies, taking another drag of her cigarette “My parents never imagined that they could fight the powerful count and win, but we did and so we showed it is possible.”

“Is there anything left in your personal life that you would need to achieve

to reach Utopia” asks Carlos “ In Marninaleda ? “ she asks, taking a deep breath “No. ” She pauses again thoughtfully “There are things we could improve but things are great…. This is such a tiny village but look at how much we have achieved, we have stuff that no one else have.. for example every year we have ten Palestinian kids who come for the summer. In the whole of Spain there are only 50 of them who visit and yet ten of them chose to come here, and we aren’t even on the map” (

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