Civil disobedience and a Spanish Utopia

Civil disobedience and a Spanish Utopia cinema icons.jpg

'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 at An Tearman does, with Monica Brooks and with myself and with a lot of space, is nurture a dream.

This is what I wake up to in the morning (when it's not pissing down with rain:-).

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. We do this because it reminds us to who we are inside and because we feel called to do it.

This dream is not new to me. It's been brewing for a couple of years. With my decision to go on this trip — and in letting go of all plans — it feels more alive than ever. 

I want it to hatch in its own time. I want to allow it to be dreamed and imagined until it is ready for the next step. No rush, no goals, no plans. Action only when I feel the click inside.

Yesterday morning I'm working in the garden. In the afternoon I'm online, looking for stories of existing communities and of places where the one I see could happen. Monica tells me about a Spanish village that has decided 'to hell with greater authority, we'll make our own society'. She can't remember the exact name. It's not what I planned to look for but I want to know more.

People who stand up for positive change without asking for permission, acting from a loving, peaceful and uniting place, get my heart all pumped up. Their stories fuel my fire. 

So does this one.

Before this story begins, The Andalusian village of Marinaleda is plagued by extreme poverty. It is a farming community with no land and more than 60% of its inhabitants are unemployed. People here sometimes go for days without food. But in 1979, 30-year old Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo is elected mayor and he decides he's not having 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.'

Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo. Photo by IU Andalucía on Flickr, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.

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 who refuse to sit by and be told to stay in line, in a country of 47 million.

Starting with a successful 'hunger strike against hunger' in 1980, Sánchez Gordillo's actions find admiration and enemies across Spain and in the rest of the world. 'I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, 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. Different cover, same book. But Marinaleda lives by its own rules. Dan Hancox, who's followed and written about Marinaleda for years, writes in The Guardian:

'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. Sánchez Gordillo first occupies military land that he wants on loan to turn it 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. And then he goes off on a three-week march across the south of Spains 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 boasts virtually 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.'

He also speaks of a young Marinaleda-style farming co-operative in Somonte, an hour's drive from the village. People there are trying to regenerate 400 hectares of idle land that they occupied in 2012, got evicted from by riot police and then reoccupied the next day. They were given the land, they are now working it and they are not without support. Hundreds '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?

To me, civil disobedience has power because it liberates who we are inside. And the yes to who we are inside knows not of 'big' and 'small'. I can get as much of a kick from saying yes for small as for big things in my life. Touching that feeling of freedom and responsibility, through my own experience or through other people's stories, brings me further in not accepting what feels wrong, in doing what feels right and in feeling aliveness in my actions.

For 2,700 Marinaledas the ripple has been life-changing. For many others it may be the spark they need. I sit writing with inspiration: Marinaleda doesn't give me a model to copy; it helps me remember there is always a way.

And we're in need of 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 showing us alternatives to the stories we know. Peaceful, uniting alternatives — revolutions through love.

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