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(en) The Spanish Robin Hood - Libertarian communist utopia of Marinaleda
Fri, 17 Aug 2012 20:33:24 +0300
When Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo led a farm labourer's raid on a supermarket he was
redistributing wealth to the poor. You'd expect nothing less from the mayor of the
communist utopia of Marinaleda ---- 'Utopias aren't chimeras, they are the most noble
dreams that people have' … Mayor Sánchez Gordillo. Photograph: Cristina Quicler/AFP ----
Last week, and not for the first time, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo found himself in the
Spanish headlines. Dubbed "Robin Hood" by El Pais, Sánchez Gordillo, the mayor of a small
town in rural Andalusia, led farm labourers into supermarkets to expropriate basic living
supplies: they filled trolleys with pasta, sugar, chickpeas and milk, left without paying,
and distributed the loot to local food banks. His reasoning was blunt: "The crisis has a
face and a name. There are many families who can't afford to eat."
It's hard to overstate how close to the brink Spain is at the moment. Unemployment is at
25% nationally (higher than Greece), 34% in Andalusia and 53% for 16-to-24-year-olds;
miners in Asturias are firing homemade rocket launchers at riot police; repossessions and
the collapse of the construction industry have left 800,000 empty homes, and, last May,
the 8 million-strong indignados protest movement, a forerunner of Occupy, announced its
total lack of faith in parliamentary democracy to solve any of these problems. And this is
just the phoney war: last month, the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, announced spending
cuts of ¤65bn (£51bn) over the next two years.
In the heart of it all, like Asterix's village in Gaul implausibly holding out against the
Romans, is Sánchez Gordillo's town, the self-described communist utopia of Marinaleda.
With a population of 2,600, the town has virtually full employment, communally owned land
and wage equality. Over the past three decades, the townspeople have built 350 family
homes with their own hands. Residents pay a "mortgage" of just ¤15 a month towards their
homes, but have no opportunity to profit from selling them on.
When you first arrive, Marinaleda looks the same as any small town in rural Andalusia,
with olive groves stretching towards a dusty horizon, children kicking footballs against
worn stone walls and parasols fluttering gently outside tapas bars. Soon, you begin to
notice the little differences: the lack of advertising or brand names, the streets named
for Fermín Salvochea, the 19th-century anarchist mayor of Cadiz, and for Salvador Allende,
Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda.
In the mayor's office hangs a framed portrait of Che Guevara, along with three flags: one
for Andalusia, one for the Spanish Second Republic (the elected government displaced by
Franco's military coup), and one sporting the red, white and green of Marinaleda itself;
it's very clean, and endearingly untidy. In one corner is a flip-chart covered with
semi-legible marker pen scribbles, bullet points and wonky arrows; this, it transpires, is
the town's budget.
Sánchez Gordillo was born in Marinaleda in 1949; back then, he explains, it was a town of
migrant workers. "They would go to Germany, or France; or for two months a year, to the
wheat fields to the north, to look for work. Otherwise, they were unemployed. It was
misery. The surroundings were all huge expanses of private land. Andalusia is like Latin
America: 2% of property owners own 50% of the land."
After Franco's death in 1975, Marinaleda began struggling towards its own definition of
freedom. Organising around a new trade union, a new workers' party, and with weekly mass
meetings, the townspeople began occupying some of the land around the village, owned – and
unused – by the Duke of Infantil. The police would arrest or evict them, and they'd start
all over again. They blocked roads, broke into and shut down Malaga and Seville airports,
marched on Madrid, and went on mass hunger strike. Sánchez Gordillo has been to jail seven
times, and survived two assassination attempts by rightwing extremists.
After 12 years of persistent struggle, with 1992's Seville World Expo just round the
corner and the regional authorities' resolve finally weakening, incredibly, they won,
securing 1,200 hectares of the duke's land for their farming cooperative.
"Our union gathers people of many political stripes," Sánchez Gordillo explains, "but we
carry the torch of anarchism's direct action." He cites 5,000 years of Andalusian struggle
for land, and thinks for a moment. "Even the weekly assembly is direct action."
The town's relationship with the state is complicated. They are still subject to Spanish
electoral law (Sánchez Gordillo is re-elected with a huge majority each time), but have
abolished their police force. "By law, due to the number of inhabitants we have here, we
should have around four to seven cops," he tells me. "But we don't want police here.
Because we have our voluntary work, because we fight together, because we make our lives
together, there is a high degree of coexistence. When we plant trees, we do it together
too." Sánchez Gordillo's articulation of what "community" can mean is striking, when you
consider how blithely the word is used by politicians across the west.
"Utopias aren't chimeras, they are the most noble dreams that people have. The dream of
equality; the dream that housing should belong to everyone, because you are a person, and
not a piece of merchandise to be speculated with; the dream that natural resources – for
instance energy – shouldn't be in the service of multinationals, but in the service of the
people. All those dreams are the dreams we'd like to turn into realities. First, in the
place where we live, with the knowledge that we're surrounded by capitalism everywhere;
and later, in Andalusia, and the world."
Leaving the gleaming white town hall building and departing into the dusk, you find a
metal arch spelling out the slogan OTRO MUNDO ES POSIBLE. Another world is possible. In
Marinaleda, the words represent not an aspirational mirage, but a statement of fact.
• Adapted from Utopia and the Valley of Tears: A journey through the Spanish crisis, an
ebook available from amazon.co.uk from 20 August.
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