Marinaleda: A 2017 commun-ish utopia

“Una utopía hacia la paz”

There are a dearth of articles about Marinaleda, that have been written and published in spits and spurts. Dan Hancox’s book and articles in the Guardian being some of the most recent and widely read. For those of us investigating what comes after capitalism, there is much written, however Marinaleda is top of the list of learning from example. These are people living by example, and providing an intriguing avenue for collective action towards a stable and supportive way of life.

As part of the Communes Research Commune world tour this year, we made a beeline for Marinaleda. As we got closer, it struck us all, that much of what we had read about, might be over. No one has written anything much about the place since 2012. It dawned on us all that we might be headed for a ghost commune.

Structural observations

On arrival, the first thing to notice is how absolutely normal everything looks. There are winding roads with normal looking houses and trees lining the main through road. We drove straight through the place and out the other side, before really seeing anything of note. On our second pass, the lack of shops and businesses was abundantly clear. Then we spotted the wall of murals that runs through the center of the puebla.

Atrapar tus suenos — La Utopia es possible’ — Follow your dreams, utopia is possible

The infamous graffiti wall of Marinaleda comprised a mix of old and recent, affirmative and declarative, political and emotional. We spotted one single cafe and stopped to get coffee. They told us that there is one restaurant in town where we could eat. On arrival there we asked around and found the one place offering overnight accommodations. And just like that, we found ourselves at home in Marinaleda.

Social Observations

We found it initially hard to make conversation with anyone. We had so many questions, but our initial experience was that people either didn’t have time for, understand or were fatigued, by our curiosity. Our gracious host however, was more than happy to share and as soon as we settled in, the conversation started to flow. They confirmed almost everything that we had heard. They told us about the creation of ‘autoconstrucciónes’, or self built houses, that everyone has jobs and if not, they have unemployment that they can live off. They told us to go to the local bar, ‘The Syndicat’ to meet people, which we of course did. The next day we went to the town hall and see what we could learn. It is a huge and simple — beautiful white building, with official signs that remind us “Marinaleda — Una utopía hacia la paz” and less official graffiti on the side of the building spelling out Utopia.

: U T O P I A graffiti on side of the town hall :

When we got there one of our friends from the bar was working there and took us for a tour of the local factory. On our return we were lucky enough to get an hour of time to talk with the former-now-retired Mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo. We sat in their office and talked about how things worked, lessons learned, how we could collaborate. Gordillo explained that each month, anyone who wants to raise an issue comes to one of the popular assemblies, that gather. Although we weren’t there long enough to get to participate in a meeting, we were told that there is a small group who coordinates the meeting, but anyone can put something on the agenda, and have it up for discussion amongst the 400–500 who tend to show up. The group discuss and vote on outcomes. This is important as the surplus from the pueblo belongs to every villager equally. Gordillo asked us about what brought us here and we explained that we are a community of people interested in post-capitalism. He laughed and said ‘Here, it has already arrived!’

Political Observations

What struck us as being most compelling about Marinaleda was the way that it seemed to defy rural poverty through the implementation of what might be called a ‘communish’ economy — a set of staple industries that were owned by the pueblo, with a very lightweight market economy augmenting these public staple industries. IT was explained to us that the intention is that everyone in the town is guaranteed a livelihood and a place to live through the income from the main industries in the town (whose profits are distributed equally to everyone who lives in Marinaleda) and a public housing program that allocates plots of land, architectural plans and building materials to new residents in need of shelter, asking for €1000 up front and a payback scheme of €15 per month (for ~ 30 years) to cover materials costs. We visited the publicly-owned canning facility where vegetables are processed, pasteurized, and put into jars and cans, nd spoke with one of the floor managers — a man named Antonio, who was born and raised in the pueblo, and who felt a personal solidarity with “La Lucha” (the struggle) that makes Marinaleda so different from its neighbors. We asked Antonio what happens when there is surplus, whether it was distributed to the cooperative members, and he said “of course not, if we have surplus then we hire more people.” Whether there are undesirable or unintended consequences of this policy that the town has to manage, we were not there long enough to understand all the details. But our dominant economic policies certainly have their own consequences, and the marinaleños have chosen another way that on balance, seems to be working for them.

The pueblo also engages in direct production of housing, allocating labor to the erection of more casita houses. The town’s staple industries consist of agriculture conducted on occupied land surrounding the town — primarily olives and various vegetables — and the canning, pickling and pressing of these products, which they sell to major distributors without labels, so that the buyers can put their own logos and brands onto the products.

One shocking aspect of the town is that the have literally zero police. We had read, before visiting, that they had no police in Marinaleda, but, still skeptical upon arriving, we asked the former mayor what the pueblo did about crime. “We have no crime,” he confidently announced to us. Even if his statement is only approximately true, this is an amazing accomplishment, in a country that has been a consistent underperformer in employment and economic recovery generally since the global recession of 2007–2008, which hit Spain particularly hard. It may also be that the town, being relatively small, would be able to leverage police in nearby towns if anything did ever happen.

To be sure, Marinaleda is not an example of the “fully-automated, luxury gay space communism” that many hope for — that is: a world where collectively-owned robots generate value and everyone’s needs are met without the need to toil. People in Marinaleda work very hard, and they work a lot. Most of the residents of the pueblo work the fields, and they work long hours — often in sweltering heat (southern Spain is very hot most of the year) — but, unlike most other places, they are not poor, even if they don’t have a lot of money. They live in decent houses, surrounded by a community and many free places to go and publicly-owned amenities. {public swimming pool (€3 per year membership fee); a sprawling, verdant park, fabulously landscaped and outfitted with park benches, shaded, built-in exercise equipment, and a large concert shell; a large indoor/outdoor sports center; a massive sports arena; a multi-storey cultural center for meetings and gatherings; a public community center with a bar, restaurant, boardgames, a pool table, a large outdoor sitting area, a big screen TV for watching movies or sports, and the presence of other Marinaleños. This cultural center — as well as the other public facilities offered by the pueblo — offered a rich ‘third space’ for the residents of the town. We were also struck by the practice of residents dragging indoor furniture out into the streets in the evening, where they would gather late into the night.} The pueblo offers more amenities than most modern cities, and for a tiny fraction of the cost. The pueblo offers a very high quality of life to its residents for free — if they want to spend money here and there on extravagances, they certainly may, but the ‘baseline’ of free collective life seemed to us, a rich and desirable existence.

Communes Research Commune

Written by

The Commune Research Commune collectively produces knowledge about collective living projects.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade