Socialism in One Village

Spain's Marinaleda may not quite be a utopia, but it beats “reality” hands-down.

Ana Vigueras / Flickr

Back in 2003, a friend and I acquired jobs at an avocado packing facility in a village in Andalusia not far from where two of my father’s relatives were executed by Franco. For three and a half euros an hour, we stood by a conveyor belt and alternately clipped avocado stems, arranged the fruit in boxes, and arranged the boxes on wooden pallets.

Each activity was accompanied by unironic reminders from the factory bosses to work como una máquina, although they eventually realized that such rhetoric was less effective in increasing our output than the provision of boxed wine and cognac in plastic cups.

Our spare time was spent consuming the same refreshments in other venues where elderly villagers reminisced about periods of mass regional starvation and counted the number of days remaining until the Christmas lottery. Andalusia appeared permanently and inevitably repressed by the state, the aristocracy, the euro, and a host of related demons. Beyond palliative cognac and lottery ticket purchases, there seemed little that could be done.

Not once did we hear of nearby Marinaleda, star of a new study by Dan Hancox called The Village Against the World. A self-proclaimed “utopia towards peace,” the central Andalusian village currently boasts 2,700 inhabitants and some delusions of grandeur. Hancox notes, “In most parts of the capitalist world, ‘another world is possible’ is just an idealistic rallying cry. In Marinaleda, it’s an observable fact.”

The utopian experiment began following the demise of Franco, who had been “happy to let [Andalusia] rot” as punishment for the region’s anarchist tendencies. Radical ideology appealed to so many Andalusians because the class disparities in the region were so egregious — between landless laborers, whose “poverty was often fatal,” and the aristocracy, whose massive estates were often reserved for activities like firearms target practice rather than those that could help sustain human life.

Faced with grave food shortages and over 60 percent unemployment in the late 1970s, the citizens of Marinaleda decided to act. At the helm of the struggle was village mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, the proprietor of one of Hancox’s many satisfying metaphors: “a beard that could topple empires.”

Through the local fieldworkers’ union, the marinaleños defied elites with a seemingly unending sequence of strikes, land occupations, airport occupations, train station occupations, palace occupations, marches, and road blocks. A 1980 “hunger strike against hunger,” in which 700 villagers (including children) went without food for nine days, propelled Marinaleda into the international spotlight.

The state caved to villagers’ demand for an emergency payment to Andalusia’s unemployed and the marinaleños pressed on with the fight, gaining intermittent concessions throughout the 1980s and setting the stage for a stunning triumph in 1991: Marinaleda was awarded 1,200 hectares of farmland, formerly owned by Spanish royalty, by the Andalusian government.

The farm is now run by the village cooperative, which has typically paid workers more than double the Spanish minimum wage, and crops are chosen with the aim of maximizing labor opportunities rather than profit. The village also has an olive oil processing plant, a vegetable processing and canning factory, various stadiums and sports facilities, a park, an amphitheatre for film screenings, two schools, and 350 casitas — family homes built by the villagers themselves with government-provided materials and entailing a 15 euro-per-month “mortgage” payment.

Comparing this cooperative system to the housing situation in the rest of contemporary Spain, Hancox writes:

Nationally, up to 400,000 families have been evicted since 2008. . . . [U]nder Spanish housing law, when you’re evicted by your mortgage lender, that isn’t the end of it: you have to keep paying the mortgage. In final acts of helplessness, suicides by homeowners on the brink of foreclosure have become horrifyingly common — on more than one occasion, while the bailiffs have been coming up the stairs, evictees have hurled themselves out of upstairs windows.

Marinaleda’s unemployment rate of between 5 and 6 percent has also caught the attention of crisis-stricken Spain (where, for example, the national youth unemployment rate exceeds 56 percent), especially when Sánchez Gordillo updated his repertoire in 2012 to include the organized confiscation of goods from supermarket chains for donation to hungry families.

Continuously reelected since 1979 and a survivor of various assassination attempts and arrests, the mayor is described by Hancox as seeing “no. . . ] discrepancy in devoting as much attention and passion to the local specifics of the pueblo — the need to start planting artichokes this month, not pimentos — as he does to the big picture, persuading the world that only an end to capitalism will restore dignity to the lives of billions.”

Beyond vegetables and revolutionary slogans, Sánchez Gordillo is a subscriber to the notion of a “human right to joy,” as Hancox puts it, stressing that “we throw a lot of parties and party collectively.”

There’s also virtually no crime in the village, leading to the abolition of the police force in violation of national law. And there’s free wifi.

So just how excited should we be about Marinaleda?

Citing Orwell’s reflections on “‘that strange and moving experience’ of believing in a revolution,” Hancox offers the reader a rare chance to believe, to relive his own encounter with the village and the mayor who “drained the capitalist-realist defeatism out of me and carried me halfway back to adolescence.”

Given the details of life there, the designation of Marinaleda as a “utopia towards peace,” the slogan emblazoned on an archway over the town’s main thoroughfare, seems to reflect reality. The propaganda of other subversive locales, like the billboards in Cuba affirming that thousands of children die everyday in the world but that not one of them is Cuban, don’t inspire the same confidence.

Hancox’s assessment of the village isn’t uncritical. He argues that Marinaleda is not fully communist nor totally utopian. Private enterprise is permitted to an extent, barring attempted incursions by, say, Starbucks. And Sánchez Gordillo’s utopian narrative inevitably simplifies the struggle and exaggerates the level of public cohesion in the village.

According to Mariano Pradas, one of two elected councilors who don’t belong to Sánchez Gordillo’s party Izquierda Unida, Marinaleda’s general assemblies, where citizens participate in town decision-making, are procedurally democratic, but are only attended by marinaleños who recognize that attendance will lead to procuring work and staying on the “right side” of the town’s leadership.

But it’s difficult to contend that the “right side” is not, in fact, right when, as Hancox points out, Spain outside Marinaleda consists of “a society pummeled, impoverished and atomized, pulled into death and destruction by an economic system and a political class who do not care, and have never cared, whether the poor live or die.”

Another complication arises from the paradoxical nature of Marinaleda’s relationship with the state and the regional government. Hancox explains that many of the town’s amenities, which have enabled the marinaleños to obtain leisure opportunities and infrastructure that would normally be allocated to a village five times its size, have come through protest and sizable financial demands made of the Spanish administration.

At the same time, the state is defied and despised for “its intrusions, its determination to throttle their liberty, rights and local culture, and its historic enmity to the autonomous spirit of the pueblo.” (Of course, when a system is characterized by profit obsession, inhumanity and rampant elite corruption, demands of meager financial contributions to the general wellbeing of the populace seem completely justified. Why the hell not demand an indoor swimming pool complex?)

The perils of depending on the state to maintain one’s utopia have become increasingly apparent during the crisis. Spain’s budget cuts have naturally affected Marinaleda’s incoming funds and compounded problems of recent poor harvests. Still, if Spain were to hold a crisis-weathering competition, utopia would beat reality hands-down.

Remarking on the less-than-ringing endorsements of work in the fields and on the factory production line from the citizens of Marinaleda, Hancox observes that “[a] change in socio-political context or labor organization, however dramatic, does little to change the nature of work itself.” He adds:

“But not a single marinaleño I met neglected to mention the socio-political context of that work, the history of the struggle to create it, or the parlous situation in the rest of crisis-hit Spain. The lament about work being boring, tiring or unstimulating was always followed by a ‘but’: but at least we have it here. But at least we have it now. But at least we have it together. But at least we fought and won it for ourselves.”

At the very least, then, we might say Marinaleda is a utopia-in-progress. Far from being the least-bad option, it’s actually pretty damn good.

Sánchez Gordillo’s recent illness has prompted speculation over the project’s sustainability in the absence of its iconic mayor. Despite Marinaleda bordering on a leadership cult around Sánchez Gordillo, Hancox notes the town’s “politics are, above all, the primacy of people power.” This power just happens to be executed “most passionately, and most successfully, when Sánchez Gordillo is holding the megaphone.”

The confluence of historical, personal, and environmental factors that has enabled a complex communist experiment in a minute Andalusian village clearly isn’t entirely replicable on a mass scale. But the idea that neoliberalism can be effectively contested is exportable.

According to Hancox, the Spanish crisis made it impossible to dismiss Marinaleda as “a rural curiosity run by a bearded eccentric”; instead, it became an alibi for protesters in confrontation with the neoliberal establishment: “‘What are your demands? What is your alternative?’ barked the dogs of capitalist realism. And, especially in the south, the indignados were able to respond: ‘Well, how about Marinaleda?’”

For Hancox, the reality of Marinaleda was once again made vivid in a discussion with an olive oil factory employee nicknamed El Bigotes (“The Mustache”) of the village’s first years of struggle. El Bigotes “transmitted a similar excitement to that I’ve seen on the faces of young members of Spain’s indignados: the intense thrill that comes from determinedly standing together against the status quo and announcing you are going to make something new. The ineffable, irrepressible subjectivity of solidarity.”

That kind of effervescence is the stuff that makes a life in struggle worth living. Marinaleda — that “liberated space, a laborers’ island in a sea of latifundios” — is a reminder that the only way to make the world right is to make it left.