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17.11.12

A better world

Is there really no alternative? Is the current economic system the only possible option? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union it seems that one could be forgiven for thinking that the debate was closed. 

The dominant narrative today is of the absolute victory of global capitalism. Any alternative economic systems are seen as utopic and poorly adapted to the less than perfect human condition. 

No one can deny that capitalism has dragged millions out of poverty whilst other systems have fallen into the worst of totalitarianisms. However, from here must we concede that capitalism is the best - the only - possibility left for us to organise human life on the surface of the Earth?


Around 100km east of Seville in Spain lies a small town of 2,700 people called Marinaleda. It's one of many agriculture-based towns and villages in the province of Seville, surrounded by mile upon mile of flat, agricultural plains.

What makes Marinaleda different, indeed from anywhere else in Spain and possibly Europe too, is that for the past 30 years it has been a centre of continuing labour struggle and a place where a living, developing and actual form of socialism has emerged.

In the 1970s and '80s, in a struggle for jobs, workers in Marinaleda were involved in occupations and expropriations of land from local landowners.

They were led by a charismatic trade unionist called Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo of the Sindicato de Obreros del Campo (Agricultural Workers' Union). 

In 1979 the union activists established the Colectivo de Unidad de los Trabajadores - Bloque Andaluz de Izquierdas (Collective for the Unity of Workers - Andalusian Left Block, or CUT) and stood in the local elections on a radical socialist platform of agricultural reform. They were immediately elected and Sanchez Gordillo became mayor.

Since that day the party has held a majority on the local council.

In 1986 CUT became part of Izquierda Unida (United Left, or IU), the main political grouping of socialist, communist and green parties in Spain. Marinaleda Council currently has seven IU councillors and four from the reformist Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party).

Sanchez, who typically wears a Palestinian scarf given to him on a visit to the occupied country, is a history teacher, mayor, IU member of the Andalusian parliament, national spokesman of CUT and secretary for housing on the IU federal executive committee.

Marinaleda hit the news when its workers successfully expropriated a 3,000-acre estate from the Duke of Infantado in 1991. El Humoso, as the estate is known, was turned over to local people and now comprises eight agricultural co-operatives where the majority of local people work.

The co-operatives concentrate on labour intensive crop production such as artichokes, peppers, beans and also wheat and olives. Every worker gets paid the same wage - 47 Euros for a six-and-a-half-hour working day.

According to official statistics there are 130 registered unemployed in the town of 2,700, which, during a time of deep economic crisis and unemployment in Spain, must be the lowest in the country.

Marinaleda has also developed an utterly unique form of truly socialist housing provision. In contrast to the rampant speculation that has ruined the Spanish housing market, much of the high-quality housing in Marinaleda has been built on municipal land by local people themselves.

They subsequently become the owners of the houses paying just 15 Euros a month while contributing an agreed number of working hours each month to constructing more.

There's a clear agreement that they cannot sell the houses at any time in the future. The system means that house owners do not have mortgages and there is no possibility of financial speculation.

As an example of Marinaleda's socialist principles and believing that power has to be in the hands of local people, the local council has created general assemblies where around 400 to 600 local people meet 25 to 30 times a year to voice their concerns and vote on issues from festivals, town planning and sport to ecology and peace.

A further example of the council's form of local democracy is the use of "participatory budgets" whereby each year the council's proposed investments and expenditures are taken to local areas for discussion.On "Red Sundays" local people do voluntary work in the community.

Another example of the town's radical socialist policies is that they have disbanded the local police force, saving 260,000 Euros (£214,000) per year. This must be unique not only in Spain but also the rest of Europe.

On my admittedly brief visit to Marinaleda, the social and educational provision in the town seem impressive.

There are modern schools, a health centre that is comprehensively resourced so that people don't have to travel to get standard treatment, an active ayuntamiento (council building), a modern and well-equipped sports centre, home services for the elderly, a pensioners' centre, a large cultural centre, a swimming pool, a football stadium and an immaculate nature park and gardens.

Perhaps most impressive is the town's nursery, which opens from 7am to 4pm and costs just 12 euros (£9.90) per month per child. The social provision is outstanding.

The town also has its own radio and television broadcasts, recognising the need to oppose the mainstream and conservative media.

While providing a wide range of music, chat, news and cultural programmes, Radio/TV Marinaleda promotes an alternative ideology based on solidarity, generosity and collective spirit.

Radio and television are important aspects of the council's policy towards the diffusion of alternative political philosophies based on radical socialist thinking and solidarity activities in support of struggles in Palestine, Western Sahara and parts of Latin America.

There are streets in the town named after Che Guevara and Salvador Allende and others named Solidarity, Fraternity and Hope.

Together with many political murals and graffiti, these all play their part in raising political consciousness and providing alternative values to those promoted by capitalism.

On the town's official coat of arms it states: "Marinaleda - Una Utopia Hacia La Paz" (a utopia towards peace). One fascinating aspect of the town is that there is next to no commercial advertising in the streets.

The small local shops have no advertising outside or in their windows and even the bars have few beer adverts outside. It might not be a deliberate policy, but it stands in stark contrast with the rest of Spain.

In an era of rampant global neoliberalism and economic crisis, Marinaleda and the radical political path it has followed is a wonderful example of what can be done when people struggle together to pursue truly radical socialist policies.

The people of Marinaleda deserve the highest praise and support for what they have achieved over the past 30 years.

At a time when cynicism is endemic in politics, Marinaleda provides a refreshing example of what can still be done.

Another, better world is indeed possible 

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