Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Story Of Marinaleda, Spain's Thriving Model Communist Village

Despite the “big” failures of 20th century Communism, the 21st century boasts plenty of smaller, enduring victories against the neoliberal order. Marinaleda is one of those victories. Few of us have heard of Marinaleda, a small town of 2700 people, tucked away in Spain’s Andalusia region, around 100km east of Seville. The town’s official coat of arms states “Marinaleda – Una Utopia Hacia La Paz” (a Utopia towards Peace).

They are led by their charismatic mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, who has held the position since 1979 – re-elected time after time with an overwhelming majority.  In 2012, he became a household name in Spain after heading raids on local supermarkets to feed the Andalusian unemployed.  Mr Sánchez Gordillo’s CUT-BAI party belongs to the Izquierda Unida (“United Left”),the Communist-led coalition.

The fascinating story of this town in Southern Spain furnishes us with evidence of an embryonic, functioning, democratic socialism, which has managed to effectively struggle against the poverty and immiseration experienced in the surrounding areas of Andalusia. In Marinaleda, the residents have won and guaranteed greater rights for themselves – to pay, to housing and to facilities.

The core of Marinaleda’s communist ethic is a 1,200 hectare co-operative farm that was won through a decade of occupations and hunger strikes from the Duke of Infantado. The Duke’s property was just one of many instances in Spain of vast estates with arable land fenced off from the area’s surrounding, usually starving, population. The farm, known as El Humoso, sells its products internationally. Fair-trade and “socially aware” brands often get a bad rap by critical theorists. But El Humoso makes a compelling counterpoint to the likes of Starbucks and Tom’s Shoes. “Know that when you consume any product from our co-operative, you are helping to create employment and social justice,” says Gordillo.

The eight agricultural co-operatives on the farm concentrate on labour intensive crop production such as artichokes, peppers, beans and also wheat and olive groves. Every worker gets paid the same wage – €47 for a six and a half hour working day. It may not sound like a lot, but it's more than double the Spanish minimum wage.  Marinaleda, now has an unemployment rate of 5%. Spain, by constrast, has an unemployment rate of 27%.

Marinaleda, surprisingly, has no police. They didn’t abolish the police force, or violently expel its officers. Marinaleda had one police officer. When that officer retired, they never hired a replacement. Now, Gordillo has been known to chase down delinquent youths on his own and speak to their families. Surprisingly, it seems to work out.

A few times every year Marinaleda organize something called red and green Sundays. On these days everyone participates in making the town and the cooperative better for the whole. ‘Red Sunday’ means that everyone does something to improve the town – paint houses, fix pipes, improve pavements and similar jobs. ‘Green Sunday’ means that everyone works extra in the fields, harvesting, packing and so on. This free work benefits everyone who lives in Marinaleda.

Everyone in Marinaleda is employed and nearly everyone has a proper house. The housing policy is that once you have lived in Marinaleda for two years, you get materials to build your own house. The houses are built on municipal land, with materials provided by local and regional government. Local people pay just €15 a month while contributing an agreed number of working hours per month to the construction of the houses. This house cannot be sold, but given away to your children or to someone you choose. Just in recent years three hundred houses have been build.

As an example of Marinaleda’s socialist ideology and believing that power has to be put into the hands of local people, the local Council has created General Assemblies where around 400 to 600 local people meet 25 to 30 times a year to voice their concerns and vote on issues. A further example of the Council’s form of local democracy is the use of “participatory budgets” whereby each year the Council’s proposed investments and expenditures are taken to local areas for discussion.

Marinaleda certainly is a breath of fresh air in a dark Spanish crisis, and might motivate others to live differently.