“Utopia: Know that the land of Los Humosos, found in the Genil lowlands, does not belong to anyone but to all the community and to the people who worked for years for a utopian society and for a better world—more just, egalitarian, peaceful, ethical, ecological, and humane. And we now have that. Know that when you consume our products you join in a great collective dream.” (Hill, 2014).
In the 21st century, it is very rare to find a society surrounded by the forces of global capitalism but refusing to adhere to the demands of the free market. And yet Marinaleda, a town in southern Spain, is doing just that, and has been for many years, ever since its mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo was first elected in 1979 at the age of 30. (Edgar, 2013). Marinaleda has a well-developed infrastructure, very low living costs, virtually full employment amongst its citizens, and for those who are temporarily out of work, they have a strong safety net to fall back on.
The town of Marinaleda, steeped in socialist traditions, has managed to form its own socialist economic system, albeit being slightly dependent on the central and regional governments for funding. Despite this, it remains virtually self-sufficient with high levels of employment and low levels of poverty. There is a strong importance of interdependence and community and not relying on ‘free market’ principles. Marinaleda owes its current system partly to its history of anarchism and also extreme levels of poverty and oppression during the Franco dictatorship which helped created a radical opposition. The process of enculturation ensures the system has continued from one generation to the next, although it is only a few decades old.
A society’s economic system is the cultural methods of allocating natural resources, the means of exploiting the resources through technology, the organization of work, and the production, distribution and consumption, and exchange of goods and services. Marinaleda’s economic situation is especially unique in Spain, considering the ongoing economic crisis, and the news about increased evictions and suicides regularly discussed in the Spanish media. (Bueker, 2013). With a population of nearly 3,000 (Edgar, 2013) It has been described as a thriving community with no poverty. In 2012, the town had only 5% unemployment, compared to the rest of Spain on average- 25%, and Andalusia, 34% (Hancox, 2012). There is full employment because if a resident loses their job, the cooperative hires them. (Burnett, 2009). In Marinaleda, there is no competition of who works the most, earns the most, and who makes the most profit by selling products. Everyone in the cooperative earns the same salary- $47 a day for six and a half hours’ work. (Hancox, 2013). Marinaleda tries to keep this the equivalent of public service wages. An advisor to the mayor described their philosophy, ‘If everyone works less, everyone can work.’ (Roth, 2013).
Marinaleda has created a municipal housing program with no mortgages. Once someone has lived in Marinaleda for two years, they get materials to build their own home. (Editorial, 2013). These are three bedroom houses, with a garden of 100 square meters built on municipal land with materials from the regional government, and only $15 a month for rent. The prospective owners donate about 450 days of their work to the construction. To prevent people from profiting, residents are forbidden from selling their houses, but they can give it to their children or to someone they choose. (Hancox, 2012). The town does depend heavily on money from the regional and central governments, despite considering the town to be autonomous (Burnett, 2009). The material for each home costs the regional government about $25,000 with a combination of state housing subsidy for building materials, free labor for construction and land given by the town. Community members come together with architectural plans provided by council to build a block of houses, with no sense in advance of which home will belong to which family.
There are extensive sports facilities and a beautifully maintained botanical garden. Marinaleda’s residents have access to a variety of social services, including free home care for the elderly, nursery schools cost $17 a month, (Burnett, 2009) and access to a public swimming pool is only $13 for the whole summer, all financed through the cooperatively run farms and factories. (Edgar, 2013). The Mayor stresses the importance of his belief of people over profit, “The whole idea of the place being somewhere good to live is that anyone can afford to enjoy themselves. You can’t have a utopia without some loss-making facilities.” (Bush and Wilton, 2014).
Different subsistence modes tend to foster different attitudes about land rights and access to natural resources. Farming peoples need to make claims to specific parcels of land that they cultivate. Ownership may be vested in a community as a whole or in individuals. Ownership of land tends to be most formalized among farming peoples, who expend a great deal of labour readying their fields for planting and need specific acreage to produce sufficient food. Societies organize subsistence strategies to utilize their land and resources efficiently. Marinaleda is horticultural because it has a subsistence strategy that focuses on small scale farming using a relatively simple technology. “In horticultural societies, families, kin groups, own or allocate land…horticultural surpluses are stored against famines and disasters, and are redistributed to those in need.’ (Bonvillain, 2013: 148-149). Farming provides people with a stable source of food. Rather than relying on the fluctuating bounty of nature, people grow their own groups. Marinaleda rejects concepts of industrial agriculture, “increased use of complex technology, leading to increased replacement of human labor with machinery and increased use of fossil fuels as sources of energy in production…tendency towards production among producers.” (Bonvillain, 2013: 174-178).
The mayor intentionally promotes low productivity farm jobs, needing industrial processing to create more work, and grows labor-intensive crops like artichokes, hot peppers, broccoli, broad beans and wheat (Burnett, 2009). The number of workers depends on the season and there is a co-operatively owned factory that produces olive oil. The town cooperative does not distribute profits- any surplus is re-invested to create more job. (Hancox, 2013).
Every few weeks, the town holds a ‘Red Sunday’, where volunteers clean the streets or do odd jobs. Also on ‘Green Sundays’ everyone works in the fields, harvesting, packing etc. (Edgar, 2013).
There is no police, which saves $350,000 a year. (Hancox, 2012). Marinaleda still operates with some degree of central authority, but the local council has devolved power into the hands of those it serves. At the general assembly, an average of around 200-400 people discuss problems and find solutions. Minor crimes are addressed via this assembly. Decision making is done collectively and on a broad range of issues, from public works to management of the village cooperative. Gordillo has been regularly re-elected competitively. (Edgar, 2013)
It appears that Marinaleda has a good record of gender equality when it comes to political representation, “Women are over-represented on village council and in general assemblies.” And Gordillo notes “Everything we have won here, has been thanks to the women.” (Hancox, 2013, page 98(. Despite this, there are still traditional patriarchal gender roles used in the village, “Some aspects of Spain’s old fashioned gender roles persist (especially when it comes to housework)..” (Hancox, 2013, page 98). An expert in anthropology at the center of Andalusian Studies in Seville, said Mr Sanchez had brought social equity to an uneducated, economically oppressed community. But the vision is ‘anachronistic’, he says, as the future for Andalusia lays not in the fields, but in industry and services. (Burnett, 2009).
To understand how this town came to be so economically radical and reject free market capitalism, it is worth noting its history of activism and environmental conditions. Marinaleda was once an impoverished village that has been influenced by a rich anarchist history of the region. This would have made it easier for the town to break free from the rest of Spain as the naturalized concepts- ideas and behaviours that seem so natural to others would not have been as strong in this region. The importance of how historical socialist traditions influence a modern economic system in an area is also reflected in a small radical town in British Columbia, “the Utopian ideals and socialist beliefs of the original Finnish settlers have continued to inspire the community and emerge as even more important for the Sointulans' outlook toward economy and the natural environment.” (Saikku 2007: 7).
It is a town whose social fabric has been woven from very different economic threads to the rest of Spain since the fall of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970’s. In 1979, after the death of Franco, being a farming community with no land, (Blitzer, 2012) in a position of abject poverty and suffering from more than 60% unemployment, and after Marinaleda’s people frequently forced to go without food for days at a time, came hunger strikes and occupying of underutilized land. As Gordillo explains, “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." (Hancox, 2012). A week’s long occupation of a nearby reservoir began to convince the regional government to allocate them enough water to irrigate a tract of land. Gordillo founded a radical labour union and supported militant actions of landless labourer’s right after the fall of the Franco dictatorship. Aiming to build a veritable socialist utopia placed them in opposition to liberal capitalism. And yet over three decades they have constantly won. Marinaleda's first major action was a 1980 ‘hunger strike against hunger’, by 700 people for nine days, which won the equivalent of €25m from the government to keep the landless and largely unemployed peasantry going till the December olive harvest. (Edgar, 2013). In 1988, the people from Marinaleda waged a determined struggle against the brutal regime of larger-scale land owners who dominate Andalusia. The first victory was in 1991- 1,200 hectares of land they gained owned previously by the absentee Duke of Infantado. (Edgar, 2013). in 1985, Sánchez Gordillo told the newspaper El País: "We have learned that it is not enough to define utopia, nor is it enough to fight against the reactionary forces. One must build it here and now, brick by brick, patiently but steadily, until we can make the old dreams a reality: that there will be bread for all, freedom among citizens, and culture; and to be able to read with respect the word 'peace '. We sincerely believe that there is no future that is not built in the present." (Hancox, 2013).
It appears that timing had a keen part to play in the central government being more open to granting resources to Marinaleda, “Spain’s public spending had gone from an anemic 20 percent of GDP in 1960 to nearly twice that by 1980. This means that Marinaleda made its demands for resources precisely when the government, for the first time, had something to offer in response.” (Hill, 2014). I believe that Gordillo’s leadership in bringing and keeping the people of Marinaleda together in this collective cause is key to their success as one of the most significant characteristics of culture is that it is integrated. There is a tendency for peoples’ beliefs and practices to form a relatively coherent and consistent system, (Pryor, 2007) which is how the town has managed to keep its economic system. Through the process of enculturation, members have learnt to accept their roles.
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