This village provides a remarkable example of alternative “development”. It shows what a cooperative approach under local control and focused on meeting local needs can do. The village has no unemployment and a good quality of life, while the region, Spain in general and indeed much of Europe suffers the misery of “austerity” that conventional economic theory inflicts.
Spain is now suffering severely in the European economic crisis, with unemployment rates around 40% in the region of Marinaleda. For Spain as a whole for 16 to 24 year olds the rate is 56%. Spain has 4 million empty homes as 400,000 people have been evicted because they are unable to pay rent. Andalusia has been especially impoverished.
Much land in Spain is still in the hands of the aristocratic class, in Latifundia. It suits these owners to leave much of it idle, or to plant grain because this receives high EU subsidies. But it requires little labour.
The south of Spain has a strong village cooperative culture and anarchist tradition. The driving force behind Marianelda over thirty years has been Sanchez Gordillo, who has been mayor for a long time. He seems to have been a very energetic rebel leading many protests against the government and much successful agitation for assistance . They have conducted hunger strikes and many other campaigns. They managed to get the government to purchase 1200 ha from the local aristocarat and give it to the village. It is now the collective farm.
The village contains 2,700 people. It is made up of private houses but has much collective property and many cooperative arrangements. There is the large collective farm, and cooperative enterprises. The orientation is mutual assistance and collectivism. They regard the market as the enemy and reject production for profit as driving mechanisms, although there are many private businesses and they export some produce into the surrounding economy. You could start a café if you wished, but a Starbucks would not be tolerated. They know that mainstream economic structures and policy will never provide for the poor. They know that improvement for the rural poor in Spain cannot get far without large scale land reform
Conditions in the village are far better than in surrounding villages. For instance there is 40% unemployment in the region but there is little or no unemployment in the village.
Since 1980 a general assembly has been held, irregularly. There is direct voting to decide policy. It is not a centrally planned economy; the assemblies do not run everything. It is not regarded as a form of communism. A van drives around the town from time to time with a loud speaker announcing the work rosters for the next day. Once a month there is a Sunday working bee which improves the village.
They are very focused on rural activities and are against developing manufacturing or other industries. This seems to limit their options, but it comes from their deep peasant traditions and commitments. They opt for labour intensive ways, including types of crops, to create as much employment as possible.
The cooperative farm produces mostly for export, including olive products and vegetables. There is a cannery. Its profits are not distributed but are reinvested. All receive the same pay, which is twice the Spanish minimum wage. If a person becomes unemployed, the cooperative hires him.
350 houses have been constructed through cooperative village action. The government provides the land and materials but new owners do the building, with assistance from villagers. The village owns the houses, so speculative buying and selling is not possible. The builder’s labour is deducted from the amount he has to pay for a house. “Rent” is 15 euros a month, evidently another state subsidy.
There seems to be strong concern for quality of life, a slow pace, culture and leisure, and enjoying life. These seem to be stronger than in surrounding villages. They have communal activities, e.g., festivals and film nights, which are free (… just take a cushion to the amphitheatre.) There are carnivals which seem to involve all in parades, banquets, costumes.
They a do not like the church. In Spain the church has a long history of alignment with and support for the rich.
There is no crime and there are no police. Gordillo had them removed from the town long ago.
There is a lot for kids to do, much more than in neighbouring towns.
They are dependent on the state for financial assistance and subsidies. Their attitude to the state is ambivalent, being aware that it prevails over a bad economy and social injustice.
Gordillo’s “party” dominates the council, and the project. There is an opposition party but it seems that there is a problem re the acceptability of dissent.
The situation is becoming more difficult. Gordillo is not well, the European crisis has cut state funds for assisting villages and has reduced export earning capacity.
How reproducible is all this? They seem to be in an unusual situation. Their long history of agitation has won remarkably favourable treatment for them from the government, including the subsidies, and it would seem that other villages could not expect to get such an amount of assistance, especially now in times of “austerity”. There is also the problem that young people are less conscious of the thirty year struggle and probably not so committed. And times are getting harder.
Surrounding towns have not followed Marinaleda’s example. The reasons for this are not clear.
What could they go on to do? There does not seem to be a strong concern to spread the approach to surrounding villages, nor to publicise it as an alternative to acceptance of the conventional way, which for rural Spain means continued devastating poverty. Some outside commentators are holding it up as an alternative to capitalist “development”. There seems to be no disagreement that life in the village is far better than for most rural people in Spain, so it is not obvious why it is not being taken up everywhere.
It is not possible to be confident about this but it seems to me that there is a great deal that they could go on to do, to make their own situation more viable and self-sufficient and to reduce their dependence on the state and on having to earn export income. There seem to be many cooperatives they could set up to produce for instance timber, leather, paint, ceramic roof ties, baskets and containers, footwear, cloth, woollen products, tools, a foundry, glassworks, pottery ... from their own local resources. The focus on land and agriculture seems to thwart moves in these directions.
The book by Dan Hancox, A Village Against the World, Verso, 2013, is interesting and informative, but somewhat disappointing. It does not tell us much about the economic functioning, planning, problems, about disputes and problem solving, about how they see their project and what vision and goals they have for it. He doesn’t throw much light on why it is not spreading. The Wikipedia account is good, but again limited.
The head-on contradiction between conventional-capitalist “development and alternative-appropriate development is spelled out in my ‘Development; Their Way and Ours. http://socialsciences.unsw.edu.au/tsw/DevEggs.htm
The Chikukwa project in Zimbabwe is similar to Marinaleda.