The Spanish town where people are more important than profit

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The Spanish town where people are more important than profit

Marinaleda is an experiment in group living, say Jen Wilton and Liam Barrington-Bush. And it’s also an alternative way of life – because people need one.

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Jen Wilton

In the south of Spain, everyone meets and relaxes together on the street. There are lively cafes by the road. And people put out chairs and come out to talk until late at night. In June it is 40 degrees Celsius, people cook seafood and eat late. This is very Spanish, typical of the area of Andalusia in the south. People usually live their lives in public.

But this place is Marinaleda. It looks like many other towns in the Sierra Sur (a range of mountains). But there are a few things that make it different. Look at the street names (Ernesto Che Guevara, Solidarity and Salvador Allende Plaza etc); the graffiti (hammers-and-sickles and A’s with circles round them) different ideologies from Spain’s recent past; the large head of Che on the outside wall of the sports stadium.

People say Marinaleda is Spain’s ‘communist utopia’, but it is not like the Soviet Union. It is a town created from very different economics to the rest of Spain after the dictatorship of Franco ended in the mid-1970’s.

Many things have helped Marinaleda become a centre of hope. There is an olive oil factory cooperative; houses built by the community and for the community; the mayor led a big group of people to take food from a large supermarket and give it to food banks.

The Spanish economy is still getting worse, unemployment is 26 per cent, more than half of young people can’t find work. But, Marinaleda has steady local employment. Most people have some work and people who don’t have work get support.

But more important than money is another power in Marinaleda. The power of direct action. We do not often find this power outside small-scale groups of activists or indigenous communities fighting against development projects that will destroy their land.

They do not on rely on money to do things. People from Marinaleda have put all their energy and emotions into creating a lot of different systems in their town.

When there is not enough money – very often – people from Marinaleda help each other. Sometimes this means they all take over land of the Andalusian aristocracy and use it for the town; sometimes it means collecting the rubbish together.

There is some central authority, but the local council has given the power to the people. There are regular meetings so people from the town can be part of decisions that affect their lives. At these meetings, people can also organize how to get what the community needs by working together.

‘The best thing they have here in Marinaleda, and you can’t find this in other places, is the assembly (meetings),’ says Manuel Gutierrez Daneri who is on the Marinaleda council. ‘The assembly is a place for people to discuss problems and to find the solutions,’ he says. The town has no police or legal system since the last local policeman retired, so the assembly deals with all crimes, even very small ones.

The mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, has got a lot of financial support from the state government. Gutierrez Daneri says this is because the town is so good at direct action. ‘It is very powerful if you do things with all of the people behind you,’ he says.

So the small town has a lot of sports facilities and a beautiful botanical garden, and many other things.‘For a little village like this, with about 2,700 people, we have a lot of facilities,’ says Gutierrez Daneri.

Chris Burke is British and he has lived in Marinaleda for several years. He says it only costs €3 ($4) to use the public swimming pool all summer. Burke remembers Mayor Sánchez Gordillo saying to him, ‘The whole idea of the place being somewhere good to live is that anyone has enough money to enjoy themselves.’ And Burke says, ‘You can’t have a utopia without some facilities losing money.’

From occupation to cooperation

In 1979, Sánchez Gordillo became the town’s mayor. He led a fight to change Marinaleda. This began with with hunger strikes and growing food on land which was not used. Manuel Martin Fernandez has been with la lucha (the fight) since the beginning. He explains how the community (in the assembly meetings) decided they had to do something to stop people leaving the town.

They began by occupying of a reservoir for weeks to convince the regional government to give them enough water for a piece of land. This was successful. Then they occupied 1,200 hectares of the land ready for use, which an aristocratic family owned. In 1991, the land was officially given to the town. ‘It took 12 years to get the land,’ Martin Fernandez explains, saying they won a victory.

Today, the local economy is fields of olives, artichokes, beans and peppers. The cooperative El Humoso manages the land and they created a factory to can the food on the edge of town.

‘Our aim was not to make money, but jobs,’ Sánchez Gordillo told British author Dan Hancox. He explained why the town chose to grow crops that need a lot of work to create more employment for local people.

The amount of work in Marinaleda changes seasonally and each year, like most agriculture. But Marinaleda gives the work to people who need it.

Dolores Valderrama Martin has lived in Marinaleda all her life and she has worked at the Humoso canning factory for the last 14 years. She explains that if 200 people want work, but they only need 40 workers, they will bring everyone together.

‘We call all of these people,’ she says. ‘We make groups of 30 to 40 people and each group works for two days.’

The cooperative is made up of nine separate groups. Valderrama Martin says they decide together the important things like who to give work to. Sometimes they ask the assembly. ‘But when there is no work they are unemployed, like anywhere else.’

Most of the town are not happy that there is not so much work, but there is a lot of support, direct action and they all help each other. So unlike other parts of the Spain, money from two months’ work can almost last a year.

Central to their ideas is what they do with housing. This is a great example of how group effort can fill the empty space where there is no money in the economy.

The houses that community built

When many young people think about buying their first house, money is the biggest problem. Even when the economy is good, you always need a lot of money. Young people today very often cannot get this.

But Mayor Sánchez Gordillo has partly removed housing from the free market in Marinaleda. There is a state housing subsidy for building materials, free labour for construction and land is given by the town.

Community members meet with architectural plans from the council to build a block of houses. No-one knows beforehand which home will belong to which family.

The houses – 350 in total, with twenty new houses being built at the time of our visit – become part of a housing cooperative. And citizens only have to pay €15 ($19) per month for mortgages, so this affects the work.

The direct action economy

Capitalism changes our relationships into business deals where we make money. But Marinaleda has a model of people helping each other. Local people work together for what they need. No-one needs so much money. It can be easy to forget, but money is simply a way of getting something done. It gives a reason for people to do things that they might not want to do for no money.

But direct action is for what everyone wants. It looks at what needs doing, based on who is there to do it.

Direct action does not have the gap between the consumer and the provider. It makes money unnecessary, because the people who want something done are the same as the people who are doing it.

Marinaleda has some problems, but it shows us that alternative economic models are not only possible, they already exist. There is graffiti on Marinaleda’s main road which shows a dream-catcher with a hammer and sickle.

The message says, ‘Catch your dreams – utopia is possible.’

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL:http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2014/08/28/spain-marinaleda-utopia/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).