The mayor who made it his mission to destroy the myth of capitalism
Amidst rampant unemployment and recession, an Andalusian town has been preaching an alternative to the current system
In this extract from his new book, journalist Dan Hancox goes in search of Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, the leader of Marinaleda
The town is a little-known "communist utopia" where another way seems possible
We drove the 15 minutes from Estepa through undulating olive groves, on a road almost completely empty of traffic, and then around the junction pointing to Marinaleda. Someone with delusions of grandeur had scrawled ciudad (city) underneath the town name. We crossed the "city limits" and at first glance, it appeared like any other small Spanish town: the idiosyncrasies don't jump right out at you, but slowly appear and multiply before your eyes, like ants on a hot pavement. It was very calm. It was very quiet. It was very plain. There weren't any signs indicating multinational brands: no advertising hoardings or visible intrusions of capitalism.
"Okay - welcome to Marinaleda," said Javi, as we gawped out the car window at the tranquility of it all, the ayuntamiento (council) building gleaming in the 4pm sunshine. A man of about 25 in smart jeans, black shirt, black jacket, black stubble and shades came out, surveying the scene with the confidence unique to those with the good fortune to have both youth and power on their side. This was Sergio, one of the town's councilors - later, his face jumped out at us from a wall, on the United Left election posters. "If Sánchez Gordillo takes forever to turn up, I'll call his cellphone," Sergio explained idly, fiddling with his sunglasses.
So we waited, and kicked our heels in the late afternoon warmth, dark clothes soaking up the dying light, as the shade-line crept diagonally up and over the ayuntamiento. "That's his house just over there," Sergio explained, and we toyed with the idea of just knocking on his door. A huddle of women in tracksuit bottoms power-walked down the main road in front of us, chatting away. In fact the town is so small that 20 minutes later they were back, going in the same direction, on their second lap.
We were immersed in light, bleached sun on bleached stone. It was so bright in fact, that squinting up at the town hall, I didn't even notice that from the corner of the ayuntamiento car-park, a short man in a zip-up Venezuelan football top had just ambled up to the entrance.
After a bit of explaining from Sergio, we are ushered inside the town hall; it isn't exactly palatial - the "benign dictator" notion had led me to wonder whether the town hall would be adorned with stuffed tigers and comically vulgar paintings. In the mayor's office, the walls are lime green, and the floors are cold grey marble: it's very clean, but not at all tidy. Sánchez Gordillo's desk is piled high with papers and books, and a framed portrait of Che Guevara speaking at a podium has been given prominent wall-space by the window. Behind his desk, either side of a framed aerial photo of the town, a trio of flags slumping dormant on their poles: one for Andalusia, one for the Spanish Second Republic, and one for the red, white and green stripes of Marinaleda itself.
In the back corner is a flip-chart covered with semi-legible multi-colored marker pen scribbles, bullet points and wonky arrows; this, it emerges, is the town's budget. It is beguilingly amateurish - I feel like this is probably what it would be like if I suddenly had to, you know, run an entire town. There's a ceiling tile missing, which, growing up in a climate where politicians happily spend 800,000 euros of public money on their wallpaper, is also rather endearing. The five of us sit on fake leather chairs around a round wooden table, rather than facing his desk - which is way too messy for the task at hand. It feels like this is where most of the work gets done anyway.
"Vale," he says, expectantly. Okay, I say, expectantly. Let's start at the beginning.
Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo was born in Marinaleda in 1949 - and was still in his twenties when "the struggle" began. When he was growing up, it was a village of jornaleros, or day laborers - farmers without land. "It was a village of migrants. They would go to Germany, or France; or for two months a year, to the wheat fields to the north, to look for work. Otherwise, they were unemployed. It was misery. The surroundings were all huge expanses of private land. Next to what is now the highway there are the lands of a marquis. Then on the way to Seville there are other cortijos (ranches) belonging to the Duchess of Alba. Andalusia is like Latin America: two percent of property owners own 50 percent of the land." These are the latifundios, the mega-estates.
In 1979 a newly formed anti-capitalist party, the CUT, won an absolute majority in the municipal elections, a majority it has maintained ever since. Even while participating in the standard Spanish electoral processes, Marinaleda's relationship with representative democracy is unique.
"When we got to the city council we realized we had to transform power," Sánchez Gordillo explains. "The power that had previously worked to oppress, could not also work to liberate." He refers to this as counter-power, an inversion of the existing pyramid: "The power of poor people against the power of the rich. For this counter-power to be effective, we realized that participation was fundamental. This is why we organized everything around an assembly - an assembly that was open to all workers, regardless of political affinity."
The assembly, attended by an average of 300-400 townspeople, takes place more or less weekly, throughout the year. "The starting point was political democracy. But we realized that political democracy without economic democracy doesn't work." With many families still mired in poverty, it was at this point that their focus turned to direct action. "The only way to obtain work was to obtain land." And so in the 1980s, the "struggle for land" began.
"Everything was drying up in the area. So the first struggle was to find water to irrigate the land. After many mobilizations we were assured there would be water. Then we started to fight for land itself. We saw that the Duke of Infantal had the most lands - 17,000 hectares between Andalusia and Extremadura. So we fought the duke for 12 years! We occupied his land, we cut off roads, and at the same time we pressured the government. We went to Málaga and Seville airports and shut them down: we broke the airport fence and went onto the landing strip. The police threw us out, and we'd do it again. We went to the Andalusian government in Seville, to the national government in Madrid, we did demonstrations on foot; all of this struggle was meant to pressure the duke and pressure the government, so those lands would be given to us."
He says it all so matter-of-factly; reeling off an itemized list of struggle like it was an instruction manual.
What's stunning about the success of the land seizures is the sheer stamina and persistence of their direct action. The Spanish government was never going to just hand over land, of course. But the Marinaleños kept going and going - occupying, protesting, disrupting - even going on a mass hunger strike. After 12 years of struggle, with the resolve of the authorities finally weakening, incredibly, they won, securing 1,200 hectares of the duke's land for farming.
"Our union gathers together people of many political stripes," Gordillo explains, "but we carry the torch of anarchism's direct action." He cites 5,000 years of Andalusian struggle for land, and thinks for a moment. "Even the assembly is direct action." (During the month of August, after we met, Gordillo's direct action hit the headlines once more, when he led a series of symbolic expropriations of basic food supplies from supermarkets.)
While he's explaining the history of the town, he keeps flicking his head down toward the blank paper in front of him, where his pencil is a blaze of activity, one eye closed in on a point of complete focus. He is drawing a bewildering series of illustrative hieroglyphics: putting key dates - '79 and '91 - in circles, drawing rectangles and seemingly random lines in every direction, twirling the pencil in his fingers like a cheerleader's baton.
In pre-utopian Marinaleda, up to three generations would live in the same household - and there was no such thing as public housing. But with reclaimed land, building materials from the Andalusían government, and a substantial amount of cooperative effort, housing has been another of Marinaleda's successes. "We give each family land, materials and architects for free, and they put in their labor from the beginning of construction to the end." Each plot consists of 90 square meters for construction, and 100 square meters for a patio or garden - normally three bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, kitchen and courtyard. "This is how we've built 350 homes."
And beyond the convivial, linoleum-carpeted oasis of the Andalusian home, there is more. Gordillo reels off a list of facilities, indexed by price: "Wireless internet is free. Swimming in the public pool costs three euros for the entire year. The public daycare center costs 12 euros per month - and the children also eat there. Housing costs 15 euros a month. Most taxes haven't been raised for years - some haven't been raised for 20 years."
Their latest, highly public contretemps with the Spanish nobility extended beyond the infamous Duchess of Alba to her son - and on this occasion, it was the nobles who started it. Cayetano Luis Martínez de Irujo y Fitz-James Stuart, the Olympic horse-riding Count of Salvatierra, made some blithe, provocative public remarks that enraged the Marinaleños. First, Cayetano said he agreed with a right-wing Catalan nationalist politician, that Andalusian workers were using government subsidies to get drunk, sponging off their wealthier Catalan brothers, and later, in a TV interview, he said that Andalusia was "a fraud." A similar outrage in the United Kingdom might have provoked a bit of stern letter-writing, but the people of Marinaleda had a typically direct response: they occupied Cayetano's land.
"He owns 14 cortijos between Córdoba and Seville, and the Duchess of Alba has 35,000 hectares. They receive so much help: together with the Queen of England she is the one who receives the most money from the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy]. The Duchess of Alba receives up to three million euros a year. So we occupied the cortijos and said he had to retract his comments." They made more demands: that Cayetano cease hiring illegal workers through private contractors who operate "like the mafia." And in the end, he agreed. In the subsequent PR climb-down, the count visited Marinaleda to hear them out.
The House of Alba could, Sánchez Gordillo argues, invest their vast riches (from shares in banks and power companies, and subsidies for their 20-odd palaces) to create jobs, but they've never had an interest in doing so. "That's why they plant wheat," he explains - wheat can be harvested with a machine; in Marinaleda, crops like artichokes and tomatoes are chosen precisely because they need lots of labor. Why, the logic runs, should "efficiency" be the most important value in society, to the denigration of those living in it? According to the Andalusian government's statistics, there were 111 people without work in Marinaleda in 2011; not perfection, by any means, but about six percent of the town's working population are unemployed, compared to a staggering 34-percent average across Andalusia.
If this is Asterix's village, pluckily holding out against the Romans, despite the enormous odds stacked against them, then the ever-growing dissent in Spain since the financial crash suggests a simultaneous discovery, across the vast reaches of the empire, that maybe everyone else has access to the magic potion too.
"The myth of capitalism has crumbled: that the market is an omnipotent god that fixes everything with its invisible hand. We've seen this is a great lie, a stupid fundamentalism: we've seen that at the time of crises, markets have had to revert to the state, and that states are putting money into the banks."
And by contrast, this is a utopia, to you? Utopia actually exists here?
"We're trying to put in place now what we want for the future. But we don't want to wait until tomorrow, we want to do it today. If we start to do it today, then it becomes possible, and it becomes an example to show others, that there are other ways to do politics, other ways to do economics, another way to live together - a different society."
He pauses, then says the words that send me halfway back to adolescence. "Utopias aren't chimeras, they are the most noble dreams that people have. Dreams that through struggle, can be and must be turned into reality."
This is an adapted extract from Utopia and the Valley of Tears: A Journey through the Spanish Crisis, by Dan Hancox, available now from www.amazon.com