Dear blog readers..

Im so sorry to once again fail to write daily updates.. lack of internet access has not helped here is a much too long piece about one of our stops.. sorry for being verbose ..

JJXX

 

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A Utopian Detour

“A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.”

 

Oscar Wilde. The Soul of Man Under Socialism

 

“Have you heard about the Spanish village which has no police or priests and is run by a radical Mayor?” asks Kim on our first night in the Merida Campsite. At first I think she is about to tell us a joke “We are thinking of going there after the anarchist school” she enthuses “why don’t you come, it will be perfect for your trip.” Isa and I looked at each other hesitantly, this would mean a detour from our meticulously planned route.

 

It took a long time to plan our journey, weeks of wading through descriptions of communities trying to decide which ones we should visit. In many ways it was encouraging to have so many to choose from, and these were just projects that weren’t centred around spiritual practices and gurus. If we had included those in our definition of Utopias then we would have had hundreds more to choose from.

 

The big question was – how many could we visit in seven months. We didn’t want to do an in depth study of a few, that would require joining a community for at least a year, neither did we want to do a whistle stop tour, ticking off dozens of projects like tourists on a package holiday trip round a utopian Europe. We decided, after much deliberation, to visit twelve and to spend at least a fortnight in the majority of them. This we felt would give us a taste of life there whilst allowing us to show a diversity of projects. We wanted to give a sense that when one scratches the surface, one can discover experiments in alternative everyday life spread across Europe. So we organised a strict schedule, working out in-between journey times and contacting each community with clear dates of arrival and departure.

 

But Utopia will never be found by simply following a planned and well worn path. It requires detours and distractions, misplacing maps and getting lost, going astray and forgetting where one is going. Expeditions that refuse to revel in the unexpected resemble the advance of an army rather than an adventure. The minute this journey ceases to be an adventure, we will lose sight of Utopia. So we decided to follow Kim’s suggestion and go to this priestless and policeless village. The detour became the route.

 

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The heavens open as we leave Merida. Huge lake like puddles form around the anarchist school. The kids immediately start to use this to their advantage by building bridges across them with brightly coloured plastic crates. They jump from one to the other dancing across the wobbly stepping stones, laughing as they try to keep balance. Above them children are throwing paper boats from the balcony, they fall through the air and land in the muddy water, bobbing up and down as the huge dark clouds of an electric storm approaches. We are sad to leave this place from which freedom seeps from every pore, but we have to move on and head south towards our unexpected Utopia, the village of Marinaleda.

 

As we drive across the Extramadura plains, lighting strikes a distant mountain, the heavy air shakes and shudders, rain batters on the vans roof. The night draws in and Carlos tries to teach us the words of “A las Barricadas” the famous anarchist song from the civil war. With its images of clouds and black flags its seems an appropriate thing to do to pass the time. We stumble through the words and try to find poetic ways of translating such passionate images into English. We soon give up.

 

I’m always fascinated by what I call people’s road to Damascus moments. The events that transform and radicalise people, the little slices of time which hurl us from one world into another, from one way of thinking into ways of thinking we never thought possible. Whenever I meet new people I will try to find a way of asking how they became politicised. So I ask Carlos. He described a hot humid summer’s night staying awake till dawn reading an anarchist text that his sister had leant him. “It was as if I had been hit by lightning and given the word of god” he says “except of course there was no God” he laughs “ or masters, only an understanding of the potentiality of human beings to run their own life. It seemed so beautifully obvious.”

 

Writing during the Spanish civil war, Sylvia Townsend Warner said of Anarchism that “the world was not yet worthy of it, but that it ought to be the politics of heaven.” The sense that we are not worthy, strikes me as a deeply distopian notion, related to the age old belief that sees humanity as an immutable mass of miserable beings. This vision of fallen humanity remains one of the greatest obstructions to the envisioning of a transformed world, time for a little textual detour.

 

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Detour Notes on a Short History of Human Self Hatred

 

”Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination. It is our light more than our darkness which scares us. We ask ourselves – who are we to be brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous. But honestly, who are you to not be so?”

Marianne Williamson

 

As a child I sang in the church choir, I don’t remember much from those Sundays, but an enduring image is from one of the prayers “We are not worthy to pick the crumbs from under thy table.” I remember imagining a shower of crumbs falling like a cascade from a huge wooden table and tiny naked human beings scrambling on all fours trying to eat them. Sunday after Sunday these words would be drummed into us, what kind of sense of self did such ritual generate I wonder? How differently would I have felt about myself as a teenager if every Sunday the priest had stood up and recited the words of Marianne Williamson.

The Judeo-Chritian tradition is based on a deeply pessimistic theory of innate limited ‘human nature’. We disobeyed in the garden of Eden and from that moment on we would be born sinners and must abandon all hope of self-improvement, happiness could only be found through the grace of God. It’s the root of the social forces that demand we defer fulfilment in the present, and sacrifice our lives now for the sake of some distant better future, whether it’s called the after life, heaven, a holiday or retirement , it’s basically the same thing.

 

Saint Augustine, one of the greatest influences in the Christian conception of human nature, described man as “corrupt and condemned” a being who lives a “death which has no end.” Faced with the threat of being burnt at the stake in this world or roasted on the spit of hell in the other if one tried to think otherwise, it was not surprising that visions of political hope rarely lasted in Medieval society.

The curse of original-sin and the abandonment of human self reliance was further developed by Luther and Protestantism, finding its pinnacle in Calvin who summed up the protestant passion for self hatred and imperfectability thus: “There is more worth in all the vermin of the world than there is in man, for he is a creature from whom the image of God has been effaced.”

 

Living in a state of pathological fear and insecurity, yet developing a philosophy which would dominate post seventeenth century politics, Thomas Hobbe’s believed that human beings ”naturally scramble for everything they covet” thus leading to a permanent war of all against all unless an absolute tyrant laid down the law. Left to their own nature human beings life would be “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” Such deep seated unhistorical and unanthropoligical notion that human nature is fundamentally bad what Historian of Utopias Stephen Coleman calls “Human Racism” was a perfect theoretical basis for defending the need for authority, social control and the state.

 

When eighteenth-century radicals such as William Godwin’s ideas of human benevolence and unlimited progress began to be popularised in the late 18th century Britain, the philosophers of doom responded. Reverend Thomas Malthus’ quasi-scientific account of the struggle for existence in a world where the earth’s resources would always be fought over by ever expanding populations, was written as a direct repost to Goodwin. For Malthus, Godwin’s belief that benevolence was the moving principle in society was “little better than a dream, a beautiful phantom of the imagination, ” poverty and misery were not social ills but part of natural law, humans would always compete in a world of limited resources.

 

It was Darwin’s chance reading of Malthus “for amusement”, in 1838 that proved to be the key that unlocked his world changing theory of evolution which finally toppled man from the apex of creation. If the gap between man, ape and worm was negligible then all the hierarchies between humanity and the rest of nature which Christianity and rationalist philosophers had tried to maintain came tumbling down. Man was not created, as Christianity believed, by god on October the 23rd, 4004 B.C, at nine o’clock in the morning, but had slowly evolved throughout millions of years. The church panicked, his books were banned. Darwin’s great proponent and populariser Thomas Huxley famously said in a debate with Bishop Wilberforce that he would rather acknowledge an ape for his grandfather than be a clergyman careless with the truth. The definition of human nature and humanities relationship to nature was radically thrown into question.

 

Although Darwin’s extraordinary conceptual leap laid the groundwork of our contemporary understandings of ecology as a web of life, a constantly changing interdependent system made up of relationships, it was his emphasis on struggle and competition within nature rather than cooperation that took precedent. The survival of the fittest, images of nature at war with itself rather than harmony, prevailed. It wasn’t long before those who wanted to justify capitalism, racism and imperialism used Darwin as the scientific underpinning to vindicate their horrors. Social Darwinism was born, Hobbe’s sinister view that the state of nature was a universal war was further confirmed and a youthful Adolf Hitler found inspiration.

 

Despite the last half century of work on ecology and systems theories which now emphasise the complex cooperative partnerships that are key for eco systems to sustain themselves, Darwin’s “nature red in tooth and claw” continues to dominate our popular image of nature, a cursory look at most natural history Television documentaries confirm this. Nature remains a battlefield, not the cooperative community which contemporary science shows it to be. And thus our negative self image as predatory brutes unable to share and cooperate is maintained. Such self doubt that we can run our own lives combines with self hatred creating a powerless current of self-fear, so easily exploited by elites, the very ones whose rule and domination have wrecked untold chaos on the world.

 

Whilst the young Hitler in Vienna conjured up images of a world where the will of the strongest needed to dominate the weak to avert chaos and catastrophe, Freud set the foundations for an individualistic society obsessed with the self by developing the ideas that inside us all were dangerous instinctual drives. The first world war confirmed Freud’s pessimism in human beings; humans were a sadistic species driven by irrational forces that could never be improved. The role of civilisation was to control our violent irrational desires. Freedom was an impossible ideal, because it was too dangerous to allow human beings to truly express themselves. They must always be controlled and would therefore always be discontent.

 

Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, took his uncle’s ideas about human nature and in the 1920’s developed many of the techniques of consumer capitalism that came to dominate the twentieth century. The inventor of modern Public relations and marketing, originator of product placements and celebrity endorsement, advocate of a share owning public, inspiration for Josef Goebells, CIA consultant and architect of Guatemala’s bloody coup, Bernays was also the first publisher and avid promoter of Freud’s writing in the United States. The now relatively unknown figure of Bernays was perhaps one of the most influential figures in the early rise of consumer capitalism, he realised that by linking consumerism with people’s unconscious desires, people could want things they did not need. Like Freud, he believed that citizens were too irrational to run society, but he thought that their inner selfish desires could be satisfied by making them buy products which would make them happy and thus docile, leaving the running of society to an elite. He called this the engineering of consent.

 

In 1928 President Hoover, the first politician to articulate the idea that consumerism had become the central motor of American life, told a group of Advertisers and Public Relations executives “you have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines which have become the key to economic progress.” The global historical system crash and reboot of the great depression and world war two simply strengthened this new dream. It didn’t take long for the elite to declare that society was abolished and only the selfish self was left, at last the masses with their dangerous animals drives were safely satiated; citizenship was effaced by consumerism, democracy became shopping and god gave way to GDP.

 

But the happiness machines had a tendency to break down and whilst inner lives were falling apart, relentless economic growth was decimating the planets life support systems. By the end of the century rates of depression were rising amongst young and old, self harm, eating disorders, drug addiction and suicide was blighting more and more peoples lives. And yet it wasn’t just the poor and destitute who seemed to be unhappy.

 

 

*

 

In 2006 two UK based NGO’s, the New Economics Foundation and Friends of the Earth, published “The Unhappy Planet Index”: it aimed to challenge the way wealth was measured. The conventional index of progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) takes neither ecosystems or human happiness into account, What “The Unhappy Planet Index” wanted to show was the ecological efficiency with which well being could be delivered. Could a happy society be built without levels of consumption that was costing the earth ? They brought together statistics relating to a country’s consumption of environmental goods and services (working out its ecological footprint, how much of the planets surface is needed to feed, house, clothe, absorb carbon dioxide etc.. based on an equitable share of the planet’s resources, measured in global hectares per person) , the life expectancy of its citizens and their happiness ( measured by asking people about how content they are about their lives) .

 

What they found was that well-being was not dependent on high levels of consumption. In fact the western world, beacon of consumer capitalism performed poorly. Of 178 surveyed countries, the G8, the proud promoters of market economies, scored atrociously: Italy coming 66th, Germany 81st, Japan 95th, UK 108th, Canada 111th, France 129th. The United States, top of the GDP index, came a miserable 150th. The worst hit countries were those who had recently adopted market capitalism and so nearly at the bottom of the pile came the G8’s new boy, Russia at 172nd. Not surprisingly, at the bottom were many sub-Saharan countries, bighted by extreme poverty and HIV/Aids.

 

No country achieved an overall high,. But at the top was the small pacific archipelago of Vanuatu made up of 85 small islands speaking 100 different languages with 65% of the population making their living from farming. Its ecological footprint was only1.2 global hectares of land used per person, compared to 9.5 for the United States, and yet its life satisfaction score was identical, a graphic illustration that a happy life necessarily involves sacrificing the health of the planet. If the whole world were to consume at the level of the United States we would need more than five planets to support it, three if we were all European , but just one, which is all we’ve got, if we all consumed happily like Vanuatu.

 

A great surprise, was Columbia coming second, a country whose extraordinary natural beauty, vivid cultural diversity and low ecological footprint tend to be overshadowed by the Western media’s obsession with its drugs war, fuelled, yes you guessed it, by the western worlds insatiable appetite for cocaine, which just happens to be media workers drug of choice.

 

Coming third is one of the few countries in the world to have abolished its army, Costa Rica. With more money to spend on health and education and one of the world’s richest biodiversities the central American country also boast an impressive conservation programme covering two thirds of the country. But it’s ecological footprint, at 2. 1 global hectares per person puts its consumption above the 1.8 average that the index (whose figures it admits underestimate the actual damage done) assumes is the equitable, sustainable level. Globally our average foot print is 2.2, which means capitalism is depleting the planets living stocks 23 percent faster than nature can regenerate them, if we continue to use GDP as a measure of well being, this figure will continue rising exponentially. In their vain attempt to keep the happiness machines from unleashing chaos, the money machines will have reduced the earth to a lifeless desert.

 

*

In William Morris’s Utopian novel “News From Nowhere” the protagonist , Guest, travels forward in time into a Britain fifty years after a revolution. What he immediately notices it that it is populated by people who exhibit “unanxious happiness” “none had a glimmer of unhappiness.” The miserable, competitive , selfish world faded away to be replace by a joyous cooperative society where people make it “a point of honour not to be self centred’. As he travels down the transformed Thames Valley he meets “lovely folk who had cast away riches and attained to wealth,” everyone displays an intense desire and pleasure in living, something Morris would call the Religion of Humanity.

 

Visions of cooperative people living contentedly without leaders continue to be regarded as unrealistic. Those who live happy peaceful lives, satisfied with their work and in touch with the natural world are considered at best cloud cuckoo land utopians at worst naive primitive simpletons who don’t understand that it’s a jungle out there and that to really live is to struggle for existence. Examples of such life styles if represented at all are relegated to the world of freaks, social outcasts and irrelevant subcultures. The road map of economic progress must not show such inconsequential aberrations of human nature.

 

The Spanish Civil war was one of the worlds most remarkable social revolutions, millions of people lived and worked collectively without hierarchy, whole towns and cities were run with popular assemblies and yet whilst it was happening the mainstream press showed a blind eye to the success story and reported on what they understood better, war and conflict. In 1937, when George Orwell , returned from the front impressed by the achievements of the anarchists, and published his Homage to Catalonia, it only sold 300 copies, the rest were remaindered to an anarchist bookshop.

 

What was perhaps most disturbing for mainstream society was the fact that amidst some of the most poverty stricken towns and villages in Europe people without coercion from rulers were managing their own lives, sharing what little they had and welcoming political refugees. Many villages were ignoring ancient boundaries and in one case 275 of them banded together in 25 federations speaking for 40,000 active members. Collectivisation increased the productive yield in many cases and anyone who didn’t want to join the collectives was allowed to continue working the land as an “individualists”. Persuasion by example, not force was the ideal in these experiments in free but equal poverty. Such practical examples of successful everyday living that disentangle poverty from misery, scarcity from competition, wellbeing from richness remain a threat to the grand abstract theories of “human nature.”

 

*

 

We are driving across Andalusia, its hard to imagine that during the civil war there were entire communities in this region that abolished money, collectivised land and developed barter systems. All we seem to experience are endless identical grids of olive plantations, grey green dots on a backdrop of dry white earth, a monotonous industrial monoculture that continues for hours on end.

 

Spain was the only country in the modern era where Anarchism developed into a large enough social movement that had the power to threaten the state and successfully manage huge areas of a country, during the 1936-39 civil war. Spanish Anarchism was rooted in popular peasant culture, a precapitalist collective village tradition. To many in the close knit rural communities and newer urban neighbourhoods Anarchist values were as much a way of life as a theoretical position. This long history of Self governing communes with their own laws and charters, created a fertile soil for the anarchist politics of the late 19th century. Pretty much every revolutionary Spanish political movement in the the sixty years previous to civil war was ostensibly anarchist in spirit if not in name.

 

Within a few months of the start of the war in 1936, approximately y three million people had set up collectivised communes. Popular assemblies involving the entire populations of villages including women and children were federated with towns and cities. Three quarters of the land in the state of Aragon was managed by collectives. In Catalonia, which had 60% of Spain’s industry, three quarters of the economy were under worker control. In Barcelona the factories and public services – telephones, transport, gas and electricity – were self managed by members of the CNT, the autonomous union that boasted one and a half million members at the start of the war.

 

One of the biggest questions concerning the Spanish Revolution was why did the experiment in mass anarchist organisation not last long, less than two years in most cases. Was it, as Hobbes and his historical cohort of human haters would have claimed, that people without leaders reverted to their naturally greedy uncooperative selves? Or was it something else?

 

Carlos explains to me that there was a popular mass of people across Spain who had Anarchist values deeply engrained in their culture and there was an ‘activist’ class, the organisers in the CNT. The CNT, was a deeply democratic autonomous structure, no delegate was ever paid and the right for a committee member to be recalled was taken for granted. Calling for self management and autonomy, they saw the state as the source of all social ills. “There is no such thing as revolutionary power, for all power is reactionary” it had claimed “Power corrupts both those who exercise it and those over whom it is exercised: those who think they can conquer the state are unaware that the state overcomes all its conquerors; there are no good and bad politicians, only bad ones and worse; the best government is no government at all… to vote for a politician is to renounce your own personality, your union is yourself.” The first ten months of the war following the 19th July Coup by general Franco, saw the CNT and FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) as the dominant organisations in Republican Spain, the country responded to their call for the collectivisation of all land and factories and the social revolution took off.

 

“But what happened” said Carlos “was that this activist class, started to be attracted to power and they started to make compromises with the government , it wasn’t long before the social revolution began to wither away.” In the September of 1936 in an extraordinary Volte-face, key CNT organisers joined the Catalonian government, they soon forgot that they were delegates and started to control the popular movements, believing that the social revolution had to be sacrificed for the war against Franco. Within a month a law was passed that whilst recognising collectives wanted them under government not workers control. The drift to centralised control had begun, Europe’s greatest Utopian experiment in self-management was over, Like so many histories of popular movements, it seemed that once again it was not the people, the popular base who were greedy for power, but those who decided to become their leaders. Perhaps the only absolute about human nature is that power corrupts, absolutely.

 

Its going to be interesting going to this mythic radical village of Marinaleda, apparently the Mayor has been in power for 30 years. We have another days drive left to get there, so we stop off for the night on the edge of a steep valley. When we arrive we smell something strange, a sweet acrid smell that we can’t identify. The electric storm lasts all night, flashes illuminate the black sky, silhouettes of trees play hide and seek on the horizon. When we wake up, we realise that we have parked on the edge of an apocalyptic backdrop. Burnt eucalyptus trees stretch as far as the eye can see, a dead landscape of black charred ground and scorched stumps tumbles towards a roaring river, the only thing that is left alive are the ants.

 

 

 

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Apparently a lot of official maps don’t show Marinaleda, a village of 3000 people, set in the middle of the frying pan of Andalusia. Perhaps it’s a bureaucratic blunder . But the fact that the mayor describes capitalism as “A thieving and terrorist system. Thieving because it is based on expropriation and exploitation and terrorist because it uses violence to maintain the privileges of the few” probably means that it is more of a deliberate mistake. . The more successful a radical social experiment is the less we are likely to hear about it and the Spanish State certainly doesn’t want people to find their way to a good example.

 

As we drive down the main street, the back bone of the community, looking for the bar syndical where we are to meet friends of Kim and Carlos who are also visiting, we pass dozens of murals painted onto the bright white walls – A huge purple feminist symbol with the words “I Love You Free” – a fist rising up through a black and red world “Guerra Social contra el Capital”(social war against capitalism) . We cross streets with names that resemble the index of a revolutionary encyclopedia – Calle Ernesto Che Guevera, Calle Salvador Allende, Calle Ghandi, Avenida de la Libertad. Eventually we find the the bar and park the van. Three large arches of green steelwork frame the casa del Pueblo which houses the bar syndical. Written in large steel letters are the words “MARINALEDA – UNA UTOPIA HACIA LA PAZ – OTRO MUNDO ES POSSIBLE” (Marineleda – a Utopia towards peace – another world is possible) For a few seconds I feel like I’m back in a Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico and then I remember that I’m somewhere in Europe.

 

The bar is packed. This is clearly the point of gravity of the village. On the walls are large prints of the black and white photographs of the Brazilian Landless peasants movement by Sebastian Salgado, jubilant crowds wielding scythes and pitch forks. Next to these images, that were icons of the 1990’s alter –globalisation movement, two massive flat sceen TV’s blare out trashy Spanish pop video’s and a 24 hour news service. Between them a colour poster with a spoof lords prayer written by the Mayor. One of the lines reads “They call us idiots because we never tire in the struggle for Utopia.” There is already no doubt that our paths through Utopias should have made this unexpected detour.

 

Around a large table sit Kim and Carlo’s friends from the international anti-capitalist collective “Escanda”, based in the mountains of Asturias, together with a delegation of Columbian political activists. They are here on a special programme organised by the Asturian local government which host Columbian’s who have death threats looming. For six months they are given housing, a mobile phone and some money. In return they have to give talks across Spain about the political situation in Columbia. It’s a little respite from the shadow of paramilitary execution. Several of those in previous programmes returned to their death. It’s strange meeting all these young people, with smiling jovial faces, knowing that some of them might not be alive in a few months time.

 

A feast of grilled shrimp, chips, fried eggs and beer is spread across the table, all on the house, or rather a gift from the mayor (in fact every lunch for the following 5 days is paid for by the mayor). We eat and begin to hear stories of this village unlike any other in Spain. Stories of expropriating land, a mayor who answer to assemblies and full employment ( a rarity in this part of Spain). The enthusiasm however, is peppered with cynicism. After all, we are being told these stories by visiting Anarchists, whose distrust of anything that reeks of a communist leadership runs deep.

 

Spain’s 1936 social revolution was viciously destroyed by Stalin and the communist party. Being the only state willing to send arms to the Republicans, they wielded enormous influence and were thus able to deliberately derail the truly revolutionary processes that were unfolding and replace them with systems of centralised authoritarian power which ultimately wrecked the republican movements and lead to Franco’s victory and 36 years of a fascist military dictatorship. No wonder there is mistrust.

 

Marinaleda is clearly not anarchist, on paper it is more of a mini libertarian communist state with aspects of ecological thinking. On the surface it feels very similar to Murray Bookchin’s theories of Municipal Libertarianism, the practice of building revolutionary direct democratic institutions in ones own neighbourhoods. It will be interesting to see if Bookchin’s theory has become reality here. What ever the case is, Marinaleda’s history, which began just after the death of Franco and the transition to democracy, reads like a fairy tale.

 

Andalusia was suffering chronic unemployment , in Marinaleda’s case it was over 75%. The majority of the land was owned by a tiny elite of aristocratic landlords who farmed olives and cotton using huge agro industrial machines. The villagers eacked out a living as precarious agricultural day labourers, not knowing whether they would have work from one day to the other. Jobs like olive picking only lasted three months in the year. People lived in squalid cramped conditions, sometimes three separate families sharing the same house. Life was hard and many emigrated to the cities or abroad, villages across the region died.

 

In Marinaleda though they decided to do something about it. The party in power in the local council together with a radical agricultural union, the SOC decided to fight for their own land. In 1979 they started the struggled and took direct action to reclaim the local Count’s land. This included 700 people going on hunger strike for 13 days, trapping the Spanish president in a local village, 25 days of government building occupation in Seville, sabotaging the Counts farm machinery and most importantly occupying his land. After twelve long years a final push involved a non stop occupation of his fields for 90 days and nights. The Count gave up and sold the land to the Andulucian government. Not wanting to accept that it had been won through struggle, they invented a kind of legal song and dance which ended with 1200 hectares being given to Marinaleda. Many of the local land owners followed suit, frightened that their land was going to be subject to the same treatment, they sold it cheaply to Marinaleda council.

 

The mayor later described to us how one of the most beautiful moments of his life was the day when they were given the keys to the Counts Finca and let themselves in to the majestic farmhouse, which now boasts a huge mural on its façade saying LAND and UTOPIA. With their own land they were autonomous from the count, could create jobs and start to run their own lives..

 

 

That night the rain returns and the streets become brown torrents, we park the van next to the municipal gymnasium where the Columbians are being put up. Tomorrow, we are told, a general strike has been declared in the village.

 

 

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The twisting shadows of trees sweep the parched football pitch as the sun rises. The village is quiet. This morning the Mayor has to go and give a statement to the court in the local town Estepa, he called a general strike so that there would be a crowd of support outside the court house. He and the council are on trial because Marinaleda’s local pirate TV station has been illegally broadcasting using Discovery Channel’s frequency. He risks a two year prison sentence for this.

 

A long convoy of cars heads out of the village through the acres of olive groves towards Estepa. Outside the court the streets are filled with people. Deep brown faces against glaring white Andulasian walls, young and old squeeze onto the narrow pavements, “the people are with you” they chant as the mayor, with a kind of revolutionary hybrid beard merging Kropotkin and Castro enters the building.

 

A couple of hours later he re-emerges, the crowd surges forward, he makes a brief statement, the Andulusian national anthem is sung by all and there is a vehicular exodus back to the village to hold an assembly. The Mayor has been in power for 30 years, his party the CUT has absolute majority of the council, but Marinaleda is ultimately run by village assemblies.

 

When we arrive back the car park next to the huge meeting hall is jam packed with cars, everyone wants to know how the trial went. It doesn’t last long, there are more speeches by the mayor: “They are trying to oppress our freedom of speech as poor people. The rich don’t want us to have the right to speak. They want to know who is doing the programming, paying the bills and I tell them, we are all volunteers, we are all one, the TV station is the villages, no one is in charge” He thanks everyone for striking and coming to support “the judge was a lot more lenient during the hearing, because he knew you were all outside” there is laughter. “Now we have taken the land from the count, we can do whatever we want, we are becoming more and more autonomous, nothing can stop us.” Once again the Andulusian Anthem is sung and everyone drives home.

 

That evening we eat in the gym with the Columbians, our camper van serving as kitchen. The few restaurants and cafes in town are closed due to the strike. Sitting in a circle over a large saucepan of pasta, we hear harrowing stories of social struggles in Columbia. One of the activists is a photographer carries with him boxes containing hundreds of photographs, he passes a selection of images around. Pictures of massacres, mass graves and assassinations, burnt and beaten bodies, teargas and police riots. The courage of these guys is incredible, such extreme violence everywhere around them, so many death threats and yet they keep struggling.

 

 

****

 

The next morning we are woken up by the sound of Columbian Guerrilla pop music coming from the Gym. It’s a bizarre blend of punk, trashy pop and umpa umpa folk music with a surprisingly jolly tone. Marinaleda feels very different this morning, the sound of shouting kids in the school playground and the siren from the olive oil factory are clear signs that the village has returned to work.

 

So, how did this place transform itself from a dying village of poor precarious day labourers into a thriving model of municipal libertarian communism ? Old sun bleached election fly posters, with the slogan “Be realistic demand the impossible” and a photograph of the mayor smiling beneath his beard, are plastered all over the village. Despite our reluctance to defer to authority figures, it seems he is probably the person who can give us one of the deepest insights into Marinaleda. We arrange an interview.

 

The Town hall is a large modern building, clad in white marble and tinted glass. The official Marineleda logo adorns it: a line drawing of an idyllic village under a baking red sun with a dove rising above it, set inside a large red, green and white circle with the words “Marnineleda: a utopia towards peace” embossed in gold. I never thought I would see the word Utopia engraved on the front of a town hall. In the UK Mayors tended to be lacklustre characters who appear at summer fetes and tawdry official functions looking ridiculous with their large golden chains around their necks. I never imagined meeting a mayor with such contagious charisma and radical politics, a mayor who has survived two assassination attempts, spent time in jail and celebrates direct action and direct democracy.

 

It’s past eight o’clock at night, he arrives dressed in a bright magenta short sleeved shirt. At first he spends a few minutes in the car park checking a pair of banners that have been prepared for an action against property speculation then unlocks the town hall and lets us in welcoming us into his office. A gigantic oak desk is framed by three large hanging flags, the institutional light green walls are adorned by massive aerial photographs of the village and a picture of Che Guevara. We sit down around a round table in the corner.

 

“Utopia is not just a word or a dream it’s a right,” he begins “and through struggle we realise our dreams”, his right hand gesticulates above the table “Our dream was to end unemployment and we thought that the best way to realise that dream was to have land, and land is not property or a merchandise, it’s a right.” We realise that we are in for a long political speech rather than an intimate chat, but his charisma is infectious and we settle down patiently to listen.

 

“So at first we organised ourselves politically and in a Trade Union. We are in an agriculture workers union, SOC, which is part of the Via campesina network – whose main goal is food sovereignty. Politically we organised through the CUP an anticapitalist and Andulusian nationalist party.”

 

One of the principal reasons for taking this journey in Europe was to show that there are Utopian practices taking place on our doorstep, that we don’t have to go far away to find inspiration in other cultures. One of the key inspirations for many of us in the alter-globalisation movement was the Brazilian Landless Peasants movement, the MST, which has reclaimed hundreds of thousand of hectares from rich land owners in Brazil. The MST was part of Via Campesina, which was an important network helping to globally coordinated the mobilisations of the 90’s. But until we visited Marinaleda, we had absolutely no idea that anything similar to the MST was happening in contemporary Europe.

 

The mayor continues his talk, pausing confidently between paragraphs so that our translator can keep up; “Since we started running for elections we have always had absolute majority in the council. But we don’t believe that power is neutral. When we got absolute majority we decided that power in the hands of the workers should be a counter power. In order for the power to be by the people, for the people and with the people we decided that the most important thing is participation. So we set up a structure so that the general village assembly became the highest decision making body The assembly decided that direct democracy was the way forward rather than representative democracy. In representative democracy, which we call opinionated democracy, people only express an opinion every four years when they vote, but with direct democracy we have the power to make ourselves heard every week.

 

Although direct democracy is better than representative democracy or as I like to call it ‘Bourgeois democracy’, we quite quickly noticed that political democracy is worthless unless you have economic democracy. So we decided to deal with the issue of ending unemployment . With unemployment one is paralysed, so we said OK we need to get land and we looked around the area to see who owned the most land and found out that the Duke of Infada had 16000 hectares… “

 

His bright blue eys, that radiate above the huge bush of beard, light up. “So we started fighting for his land, we occupied it hundreds of times, we disrupted the international airports of Malaga and Seville, we blocked the streets, we threw ourselves in front of the Duke’s Agricultural machinery, we had general strikes, hunger strikes. And after many years of struggle we got 1200 Hectares of land that now supports 8 cooperatives within it.

 

 

As soon as they occupied the land they converted much of it to pepper and artichoke fields, which requires manual labour to pick and therefore creates many more jobs than the industrial cotton plantations.

“Having land alleviated the situation but it did not end unemployment and we realised we needed industry so we built cooperative factories that processed the fruits of the land – olive oil factories, pepper and artichokes processing and this gave us full employment.

 

 

Now that we have political and economic democracy what about social democracy. We noticed that there was no housing and many social services missing. So we decided to turn all council held land into building land. Now we can offer land, materials, architect all for free to young people so that they can build their own houses. These self-builders, as we call them, have fortnightly assemblies with the architects where they discuss what the house will look like, how its going to be built, how much to pay. At the moment they are paying 15 euros per month which reimburse the materials costs. So far we have built 300 houses and we are building a further 120.”

 

He goes on to explain the setting up of free home help for the elderly, very cheap kindergartens and numerous sports facilities including two swimming pools ( unheard of in a village this size.)

 

“Our experience tells us that another world is possible, another society is possible, another way of living is possible and the only thing we need to achieve it is political audacity, the desire to fight for it and unity. Although I was one of the most intense dreamers, even I didn’t believe that we would achieve so much in such a short time. …What’s beautiful about this place is that it makes the impossible look possible. The left should be utopian and should invite people to dream and realise them and if they don’t do this then they are part of the system.”

 

As we leave his office I notice a VHS tape on his desk, it’s a copy of the classic Kirk Douglas film “Spartacus.” Whose epic holywood images of slave revolts and solidarity, the moment when the mass of rebel slaves all answer “I am Spartacus” to the roman authorities, I remember vividly from when I was a kid. I’ve always thought that romanticism was an essential ingredient for successful radical political organising, it makes one aim for the highest ideals rather than begin at the level of the mediocre. In the glossy campaign promises booklet that his party sends to every resident before an election, next to his portrait is a photo of a perfect blue sky. But what is extraordinary about this romanticism is that it is thoroughly grounded in the nuts and bolts of everyday life. The rest of the booklet explains everything from the fact that the village pays some of the lowest taxes in the region (partly due to the fact that they don’t pay for public services like rubbish collection but do it themselves as part of a collective work day “Red Sunday”) to the fact that free wifi for the whole village is being planned and that the olive oil factory is getting a brand new piece of machinery. Marinaleda clearly isn’t a micro subcultural Utopian experiment , but a long term struggle deeply rooted in working class experience that affects the daily lives of 3000 people . Romanticism followed by pragmatism has made it all possible.

 

***

 

On the way to the demonstration outside the court house we talked to Sara, a young woman in her twenties. She works as a picker in the pepper fields, earning 1500 euros a month, well above the average for agricultural labour in Spain. She believes in the process of the village and thoroughly supports it, but told us “It’s boring here, like any tiny village of 3000 people, it’s boring.” Despite the two night clubs, (including Palo Palo with its tacky 20 metre long gold electric guitar façade) two swimming pools and a local TV station that anyone can be part of programming, Marinaleda is still a rural village in the middle of nowhere.

 

It seems that one of the biggest problems at the moment is trying to keep participation and self management going. The second generation of Marinaledans, born after their parents struggle, have a much easier and less adventurous life. There is not much left to fight for.

 

One afternoon we are invited to a meeting of the apprentices school, which trains young people in building work and social care . A panel of 18 to 20 year olds, many wearing Che tee-shirts. as it is the 40 anniversary of his death this week, present their work to the packed auditorium in the town hall. We have heard a lot about the lack of participation by young people and when the time comes for a question and answer session one of the Columbian activists, who the night before in the bar had been trying to persuade us to join the international brigade of a leftist Columbian guerrilla group, stood up and gave a passionate speech to the youngsters. He described how in his country, going to an assemblea, participating in grassroots politics was a priveledge, Many young people were murdered for that priveledge. How could these Spanish kids take their situation for granted and not participate in building this radical project. There is tension in the hall, the fellow Columbians look uncomfortable at the outburst and one of the Schools staff tries to respond rather blandly. But everyone knows that he is right and that one of the central questions of every single historical struggle is how to keep the struggle going when it feels as if one has won.

 

Much activism is seen as a direct response to a crisis, once the crisis is sorted we can go home. Perhaps this is because we think that Utopia is a fixed place of perfection like paradise, which once reached means we can stop trying to get there, change stops and we can stop having to try and change things. But Utopia, as Wilde said, is not somewhere that one rests for long, one has to set sail again and again, keep on moving and realising that there is no such thing as static perfection, the world is always changing, and as such we must always keep wanting to change it.

 

Gloria, a jovial young mother who is in the process of building her own house as part of the self build scheme and also works in the pepper fields, confirmed the dilemma for us “ yes the participation has gone down, the situation is so different from what it was. Before people had nothing. now they have jobs, a house, a car – they are much more comfortable, they don’t go to the assemblies so much, they don’t need to take to the streets anymore.” “But What would happen if the Mayor fell down dead tomorrow ?“asks Isa bluntly. We really want to know how much the whole project rest on his personality and charisma. Gloria had been talking to us for over an hour about the self-build scheme. Barrio asselblies and the way elections work, but this question throws her, she suddenly becomes awkward and doesn’t want to answer.” well, we would be stupid if we let it all fall down if something happened to the Mayor.” She says after a long pause “He doesn’t need all this anymore, he has his life, his job in the school, his house. He doesn’t live off the land anymore, but we do and we would be very stupid if we let it all collapse.”

“what about the word Utopia in the village motto” – I ask “Is Marinaleda really a Utopia ?” “Its very difficult to achieve a word, but we have.” she replies, taking another drag of her cigarette “My parents never imagined that they could fight the powerful count and win, but we did and so we showed it is possible.”

 

“Is there anything left in your personal life that you would need to achieve

to reach Utopia” asks Carlos “ In Marninaleda ? “ she asks, taking a deep breath “No. ” She pauses again thoughtfully “There are things we could improve but things are great…. This is such a tiny village but look at how much we have achieved, we have stuff that no one else have.. for example every year we have ten Palestinian kids who come for the summer. In the whole of Spain there are only 50 of them who visit and yet ten of them chose to come here, and we aren’t even on the map”

 

 

 

 

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