Trans-Iberian

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Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Putting Alternative Politics into Practice

Por: | 05 de abril de 2016

Marinaleda2
Che Mural  in Marinaleda (flickr)

‘But what’s the alternative?’ This must be one of the most common ripostes to anyone expressing dissatisfaction with the political, economic or social status quo. The retort, sometimes curious, sometimes withering, shifts the discussion away from criticism (which, given the current political landscape, could be performed by an attentive eight-year old) and toward constructive proposals for an alternative model - an altogether far more complex task.  

The fact of the matter is that many people recognise the folly in the way we conduct our lives, caught in what seems like an endless chain of labour and consumption, but very few are able to envisage, let alone adopt, ‘another way’ of living. But several collectives (communes, comunidades, call them what you will) across Spain are proving that there is another way, a feasible, ecologically sustainable, socially-cohesive alternative.  

Before going any further, it is necessary to dispel a few myths and shatter a few stereotypes. The term ‘alternative lifestyle’ typically conjures images of nudists growing their hair, practising polyamorous relations and smoking hashish to find their latent spirituality. While there are undoubtedly communities that function (I use the term loosely) in this manner, to label all comunidades as hippy, happy and hedonistic is to miss the point entirely. Most, if not all, comunidades are political projects – though some may resist this classification. I mean ‘politics’ in its widest possible sense – not the casta of bloated men in suits, shouting empty promises and lining their own pockets – but the real, tangible politics of organising society on a community level.  

These communities take many forms, and their political ideas are far from homogenous. Marinaleda, an Andalusian village of around 3,000 inhabitants, is one such ‘community’ proposing (indeed, living) a socio-economic alternative. Under the leadership of Mayor Sánchez Gordillo, a man who takes inspiration from figures as diverse as Che Guevara, Mahatma Ghandi and Karl Marx, the village has become a kind of ‘communist utopia’. In 1991, the people of the village were granted a 1,200 hectare estate by the regional government after nearly a decade of strikes and occupations. This land was then cultivated according to the central tenet of Gordillo’s philosophy; to create the maximum amount of human labour possible. Efficiency, that pillar of modern Capitalism, became a dirty word, abandoned in the name of collective good and human dignity. Land was managed by cooperativas and decisions taken communally. Crops were chosen not for their yield, nor for the European subsidies they would elicit, but on the basis of jobs they would create. Today, it is clear that Gordillo’s strategy has paid dividends; unemployment in the village is all but non-existent (compared to a 34% regional average) and the sense of community has never been stronger (the village has no police force, and, evidently, no need for one).    

Gordillo
Mayor Gordillo (youtube)

In Catalonia, on the outskirts of the capital, lies another comunidad, pioneering a slightly different approach (and with a slightly shorter history). Can Masdeu was a deserted former hospital falling into ruin until it was occupied by a collective of local and international activists in 2001.They set about creating their own ‘utopia’ – a self-sufficient, ecologically-sustainable project, a ‘creative act of disobedience’ against urban life and its limits. Using non-hierarchical decision-making structures, the squatters oversaw the transformation of the hospital into a vibrant, environmentally-friendly living space. Using old Roman sewers, they created an irrigation system that allowed the cultivation of organic foodstuffs in the former gardens (following a permaculture design). A decade and a half later, the Can Masdeu comunidad is still functioning – flourishing, even complete with an educational action centre (PIC – Punto d’Interacción de Collserola) that hosts workshops and discussions about the politics of autonomy, the necessity of community and the importance of ecological sustainability. 

Sentados_a_la_mesa_en_Can_Masdeu
Mealtime at Can Masdeu (wiki)

Despite the ideological differences evident in the above examples, they share several founding principles that are common to most, if not all comunidades. As the name suggests, they are typically built around a concept of community that often seems lacking in an increasingly atomised and fragmented modern world. Sharing is the key word here; be it labour, time or space, communal needs take precedence over individual concerns. Inter-generational solidarity is strongly encouraged in both cases. Public space is endowed with the importance it deserves, rather than neglected, and left for private enterprise to devour and undermine. Individualism and personal gain are roundly rejected in favour of nurturing a strong community network that provides support for all its members. 

A second key principle is that of respect for the land. In the case of Can Masdeu, this means organic produce cultivated in an ecologically-sustainable fashion. In the case of Marinaleda, this means farming in a sustainable, almost pre-Industrial manner, with a long-term emphasis on creating and maintaining jobs rather than maximising profit. Activist and campesino would no doubt differ in opinion on many subjects, but both would agree that the land is to be maintained and respected, not poisoned, exploited and destroyed.  

A third tenet is a wholesale rejection of globalism, and a corresponding enthusiasm for prioritising local and regional concerns. Most comunidades view globalisation as an overwhelmingly negative force, on both an ecological and social level. For all the economic rationalities and free-trade rhetoric, the globalisation of trade has had, and continues to have, a catastrophic impact on the environment. Buying products that have been shipped or flown halfway round the world because they are cheaper than local alternatives is in no way sustainable. Additionally, focusing on the global market at the expense of the local or regional equivalent has had a devastating effect on small scale agri-businesses, and played a significant role in the decline of ‘community’ by culling independent local producers. The comunidades try to provide an alternative; quality produce, locally grown at an affordable price. 

It should be pointed out that the comunidades are not a uniquely Spanish phenomenon. They are present, in some form or another, in most (if not all) European countries, and throughout Latin America. However, due to political, historical, and geographic reasons, the ‘ideology’ (as outlined above) seems to gain particular traction across the Iberian peninsula. A strong ‘anarchist’ heritage, a widespread sense of indignación toward the ruling elite, high unemployment, and an agreeable climate no doubt play a significant part in their popularity. A second important ‘footnote’ that follows on from the previous statement is that the comunidades are not suddenly becoming popular. They are not a fad or passing phenomenon, and to dismiss them as such would be both disingenuous and factually inaccurate. 

By the same token, to claim the comunidades solve the contemporary socio-political malaise at a stroke is hugely optimistic. They do, however, provide a legitimate critique of a socially-fragmented, environmentally-indifferent, increasingly globalised world. What’s more, their very existence demonstrates that there is another way, another well from which to draw ideas in order to build an alternative future.   

 

For a detailed account of Marinaleda in English, see Dan Hancox’ account  ‘The Story of Marinaleda, the Communist Village Against the World’. 

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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