Civil Disobedience and a Spanish Utopia

‘Civil disobedience is not our problem.
Our problem is civil obedience.’
Howard Zinn

I have now been on the Scottish Isle of Bute for three weeks. I spend a lot of my time outside and with my hands in the soil. When inside my hands are often on the keyboard, writing. One thing that being here does, is feed a dream.

I see a community forming. We are not owners but guardians of a land. We live in a seasonal rhythm, in harmony with nature and with each other. We work to regenerate and restore the earth and to make it a healthier and more beautiful place. We allow our talents, gifts and creativity to flow freely. We enjoy learning and we welcome our mistakes. We reconnect with nature. We discover new ground inside and outside of ourselves. We share and exchange what helps and strengthens us. We do this on the web, through meeting people and communities in the area, and by hosting experiences, workshops and events.

We do this because it makes us feel alive. Because it reminds us of who we truly are.

It’s not a new dream. It’s been brewing for a couple of years. With my decision to go on this trip (and in letting go of all other plans) the dream feels more alive than ever. It will hatch in its own time. I want to let it be dreamed and imagined until it’s ready for the next step.

Yesterday morning I was working in the garden. In the afternoon I was online, looking for stories of existing communities and of places. My host Monica told me about Spanish villagers who said: ‘To hell with greater authority, we’ll make our own society’. She couldn’t remember the exact name.

It wasn’t what I planned to look for but I wanted to know more. People who stand up for positive change without asking for permission, peaceful and uniting place get my heart pumped up.

A bit of searching led me to the Andalusian village of Marinaleda.

Marinaleda used to be plagued by extreme poverty. It was a farming community with no land, and with more than 60% of its inhabitants unemployed. People in Marinaleda sometimes went for days without food. But in 1979, 30-year old Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo was elected mayor. He decided he was having none of it.

In 1985 he tells Spanish 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.’

Today, this small and remote community has stood in defiance of Spain’s and Europe’s economic winds and political corruption for almost forty years. That’s 2,700 people, refusing to shut up and be told what to do, in a country of 47 million.

Starting with a successful ‘hunger strike against hunger’ in 1980, Sánchez Gordillo’s actions have found admiration and enemies across Spain and in the rest of the world. ‘I never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle,’ he says, ‘but I am a communist or communitarian.’

In 1991, after a decade of occupations, strikes and appeals, the village manages to legally get hold of a 1,200-hectare farm. The newly formed Marinaleda co-operative begins cultivation of labour-intensive crops. Not to create profit, but to counter the destructive effects that ‘efficiency’ brought on and to help as many people as possible make a life for themselves.

Communism has a tendency to overthrow private ownership and replace it with state ownership. It’s a shiny new cover, but the story remains. Marinaleda however, lives by its own rules. Journalist Dan Hancox has been following and writing about Marinaleda for years. He writes:

‘The town co-operative does not distribute profits: any surplus is reinvested to create more jobs. Everyone in the co-op earns the same salary, €47 (£40) a day for six and a half hours of work: it may not sound like a lot, but it’s more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Participation in decisions about what crops to farm, and when, is encouraged, and often forms the focus of the village’s general assemblies. In this respect, being a cooperativista means being an important part of the functioning of the pueblo as a whole.’

Starting your own business in Marinaleda is perfectly allowed, but if your name is Carrefour or Starbucks, don’t bother asking. ‘We just wouldn’t allow it,’ says Sánchez Gordillo.

In 2012 Marinaleda makes it to the media several times. First, Sánchez Gordillo occupies military land that he wants on loan, so that it can be turned into an agricultural collective. Soon after he organizes raids on supermarkets in nearby towns, to hand food out to poor families and to Food banks. Then he goes off on a three-week march across the south of Spain to call on his fellow mayors not to repay their debts.

Sánchez Gordillo allegedly states that he is happy to go to jail for his cause, seeing it as a way to spread his message further. In 2013, the regional court of Andalusia obliges, sentencing him and seven other Marinaledas to seven months in prison for ‘serious disobedience’. (I don’t think they did the time: In Spain, you don’t serve time for sentences under two years unless you’ve been convicted before.)

Marinaleda doesn’t do mortgages and boast near full employment. Yet, like anything in life, Marinaleda is not all roses and smiles. In his 2013 book The Village Against the World, Dan Hancox tells of ‘dissident voices, from the mainstream socialist party (…), to villagers who have felt pressured to leave. (…) Marinaleda’s economy is overwhelmingly reliant on government subsidies, and, like many Spanish employers, the co‑operative is currently finding it hard to pay its bills.’

Be that as it may, Sánchez Gordillo has been consecutively re-elected by an overwhelming majority since he first took ‘office’ in 1979.

Change almost never works from the start, and things don’t have to work completely to inspire change elsewhere. Hancox links the events surrounding Marinaleda to acts of resistance in other parts of Spain, ‘not just strikes and protests, but everyday behaviour — the occupation of vacant new-builds by those made homeless by their banks, firemen refusing to evict penniless families, doctors refusing to turn away undocumented immigrants.’

In Somonte, a village one hour’s drive from Marinaleda, a young farming co-operative sprung up in response to what Marinaleda has been doing. People are trying to regenerate 400 hectares of idle land that they first occupied in 2012, got evicted from by riot police and then reoccupied the next day. They were given the land, are now working it and are not without support. Hundreds of people ‘have visited at weekends or for short stays, from Madrid, Seville and many from overseas, bringing their labour and other resources, to help with the land, to build infrastructure or paint murals, donating secondhand farming equipment, furniture and kitchenware.’

Visibly, the ripple that Marinaleda sends out may seem small and insignificant. Most of Spain continues to struggle obediently and many young Spaniards still leave their country in search of a better life. But can you measure change on a chart?

For 2,700 Marinaledas, the ripple has been life-changing. For many others it may be the spark they need. I, for one, feel inspired. Marinaleda doesn’t give me a model to copy; it helps me remember that there is always a way.

Dominant thinking sees countries like Spain and Greece failing to keep up with the rest and going down the drain. But when the rest of us can no longer pretend, when the faults in our system catch up with us, we may end up being saved by the countries that had no choice but to find another way. Not through injections of money, but through people who create alternatives to the stories we know.

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