The Spanish Town Where People Come Before Profit
In the south of Spain, the street is the collective living room. Vibrant sidewalk cafes are interspersed between configurations of two to five lawn chairs where neighbours come together to chat over the day’s events late into the night. In mid-June the weather peaks well over 40 degrees Celsius and the smells of fresh seafood waft from kitchens and restaurants as the seasonably-late dining hour begins to approach. The scene is archetypally Spanish, particularly for the Andalusian region to the country’s south, where life is lived more in public than in private, when given half a chance.
Specifically, this imagery above describes Marinaleda. Initially indistinguishable from several of its local counterparts in the Sierra Sur southern mountain range, were it not for a few tell-tale signs. Maybe it’s the street names (Ernesto Che Guevara, Solidarity and Salvador Allende Plaza, to name a few); maybe it’s the graffiti (hand drawn hammers-and-sickles sit happily alongside encircled A’s, oblivious to the differences the two ideologies have shared, even in the country’s recent past); maybe it’s the two-storey Che head which emblazons the outer wall of the local sports stadium.
Marinaleda has been called Spain’s ‘communist utopia,’ though the local variation bears little resemblance to the Soviet model most associate with the phrase. Classifications aside, this is a town whose social fabric has been woven from very different economic threads to the rest of the country since the fall of the Franco dictatorship in the mid 1970s. A cooperatively-owned olive oil factory, houses built by and for the community, and a famous looting of a large-scale supermarket, led by the town’s charismatic mayor, in which proceeds were donated to food banks, are amongst the steps that have helped position Marinaleda as a beacon of hope.
As the Spanish economy continues its post-2008 nosedive, unemployment sits at 26 percent nationally, while over half of young people can’t find work. Meanwhile, Marinaleda boasts a modest but steady local employment picture in which most people have at least some work and those that don’t have a strong safety net to fall back on.
But more than its cash economy, Marinaleda has a currency rarely found beyond small-scale activist groups or indigenous communities fighting destructive development projects: the currency of direct action. Rather than rely exclusively on cash to get things done, Marinaleños have put their collective blood, sweat and tears into creating a range of alternative systems in their corner of the world.
When money hasn’t been readily available – probably the only consistent feature since the community set out on this path – Marinaleños have turned to one another to do what needs doing. At times that has meant collectively occupying land owned by the Andalusian aristocracy and putting it to work for the town, at others it has simply meant sharing the burden of litter collection.
While still operating with some degree of central authority, the local council has devolved power into the hands of those it serves. General assemblies are convened on a regular basis so that townspeople can be involved in decisions that affect their lives. The assemblies also create spaces where people can come together to organise what the community needs through collective action.
“The best thing they have here in Marinaleda, and you can’t find this in other places, is the [general] assembly,” says long-term civil servant for the Marinaleda council, Manuel Gutierrez Daneri. He continues, “Assembly is a place for people to discuss problems and to find the solutions,” pointing out that even minor crimes are collectively addressed via the assembly, as the town has no police or judicial system since the last local cop retired.
In his time as mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has managed to leverage considerable financial support from the state government, a feat which Gutierrez Daneri attributes to the town’s collective track record for direct action. “If you go ahead with all of the people behind you, that is very powerful,” he says.
As a result, the small town boasts extensive sports facilities and a beautifully-maintained botanical garden, as well as a range of more basic necessities. “For a little village like this, with no more than 2,700 people, we have a lot of facilities,” says Gutierrez Daneri.
British ex-pat Chris Burke has lived in Marinaleda for several years, and he explains that access to the public swimming pool only costs €3 for the entire summer. Burke recounts Mayor Sánchez Gordillo saying to him, “The whole idea of the place being somewhere good to live is that anyone can afford to enjoy themselves.” Burke adds pragmatically, “You can’t have a utopia without some loss-making facilities.”
From Occupation to Cooperation
In 1979, Sánchez Gordillo was first elected as the town’s mayor. He led an extensive campaign to change Marinaleda’s course, which began with hunger strikes and occupying underutilised land.