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Is this the world’s most radical mayor?

When Ada Colau was elected mayor of Barcelona, she became a figurehead of the new leftwing politics sweeping Spain. The question she now faces is a vital one for the left across Europe – can she really put her ideas into practice?

It was the early evening of 5 February 2013, and seated among grave-looking men in suits, a woman named Ada Colau was about to give evidence to a Spanish parliamentary hearing.

“Before saying anything,” she began, “I’d just like to make one thing clear. I am not an important person. I have never held office or been the president of anything … The only reason I am here is that I am a momentarily visible face of a citizens’ movement.”

Colau was there to discuss the housing crisis that had devastated Spain.

Since the financial crisis, 400,000 homes had been foreclosed and a further 3.4m properties lay empty.

In response, Colau had helped to set up a grassroots organisation, the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH), which championed the rights of citizens unable to pay their mortgages or threatened with eviction. Founded in 2009, the PAH quickly became a model for other activists, and a nationwide network of leaderless local groups emerged.

Soon, people across Spain were joining together to campaign against mortgage lenders, occupy banks and physically block bailiffs from carrying out evictions.

Ten minutes into Colau’s 40-minute testimony she broke from the script. Her voice cracking with emotion, she turned her attention to the previous speaker, Javier Rodriguez Pellitero, the deputy general secretary of the Spanish Banking Association:

“This man is a criminal, and should be treated as such. He is not an expert. The representatives of financial institutions have caused this problem; they are the same people who have caused the problem that has ruined the entire economy of this country – and you keep calling them experts.”

When she had finished, the white-haired chair of the parliament’s economic committee turned to Colau and asked her to withdraw her “very serious offences” in slandering Pellitero. She shook her head and quietly declined.

The “criminal” video became a media sensation, earning Colau condemnation in some quarters and heroine status in others.

A poll for the Spanish newspaper El País a few weeks later revealed that 90% of the country’s population approved of the PAH. The group’s work continued.

In July 2013, Colau was photographed in Barcelona being dragged away by riot police from a protest against a bank that had refused to negotiate with an evicted family.

 Tonnie Ch shared Rania Masri‘s post.

Two years later, that image went viral, powered by the extraordinary news that the same T-shirted activist had just been elected the new mayor of Barcelona.

On the day of her inauguration, Colau addressed supporters of all ages gathered on the cobblestones in Plaça Sant Jaume in Barcelona’s old town, thanking them for “making the impossible possible”.

Some waved the tricolour of the Second Spanish Republic, which was declared in the very same square in April 1931; its egalitarian ideals buried in the rubble of the civil war five years later.

The date of Colau’s victory – 24 May 2015 – was to be, in the words of one spray-painted graffiti slogan, “a day that will last for years”.

Colau had been elected mayor on behalf of Barcelona en Comú, a new “citizens’ movement” backed by several leftwing parties. She became the city’s first ever female mayor, and BComú the first new party to gain power after 35 years dominated by the centre-left PSC and centre-right CiU.

The date was not only significant in Barcelona. BComú was one of several new groups that had defeated the established parties to win power in eight major Spanish cities, including Madrid, Valencia and Zaragoza. These new “mayors of change” became symbols of hope for what progressives in Spain sometimes call la nueva politica.

It has become commonplace across the western world to talk of “new politics” in response to voter apathy, economic crises, corruption and the decline of established political parties.

In Spain, however, the phrase has a ring of truth to it. After years of social upheaval following the financial crisis, widespread uprisings against political and business elites have transformed the country’s political landscape.

Just as the Indignados, who occupied Spanish squares in their millions in the summer of 2011, inspired the global Occupy movement, it was in Spain, too, that this energy was first channelled into political movements capable of contesting elections, such as the leftwing populist party Podemos.

Colau has been involved every step of the way, and as mayor of the country’s second-biggest city, she now possesses real political power – arguably more so than Podemos, which came third in the Spanish general election last December. The question Colau now faces is a vital one for the left across Europe: can she put her radical agenda into practice?

When I first met Colau last autumn, she was in the middle of an unusual transition, adapting from grassroots activism to life as an elected politician.

Having started out at BComú’s spartan office, populated by young people hot-desking on laptops, she was now installed in Barcelona’s 14th-century city hall, with its marble columns, stained glass and Miró statues.

Her calendar had been taken over by a succession of official mayoral duties: gladhanding, exchanging gifts and small talk with dignitaries – death by a thousand micro-ceremonies. The demands on her time are especially intense, since it is central to BComú’s principles and media strategy that the organisation’s figurehead stays on the same level as her supporters, taking public transport and attending neighbourhood BComú meetings where possible.

In the weeks following her victory, Colau signalled what might be new about the new politics, with a series of headline-grabbing reforms.

“This is the end of a political class removed from the people,” she said, cutting expense accounts and salaries of elected officials. She announced she would reduce her own pay from €140,000 to €28,600, slashed the budget for her own inauguration ceremony, and replaced her predecessor’s Audi with a more efficient mayoral minivan.

(She was eventually blocked by political opponents from reducing her salary below €100,000 and has stated that she will donate the remaining sum to local groups.)

She suggested withdrawing the annual €4m subsidy to Barcelona’s Grand Prix circuit, restored school meal subsidies to the city’s poorest children, and levied fines worth a total of €60,000 on banks that owned vacant properties.

(At the posturing end of the spectrum of political action, she removed a bust of the recent King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, from the city hall’s council chamber.)

She also spent a night out with a homeless charity, helping to count how many people were sleeping rough in Barcelona (almost 900), met mobile phone company workers who were on strike, joined a demonstration against a controversial immigrant detention centre in the city, and returned to speak at the very same local assemblies that had brought BComú to power in the first place.

These initial moves encouraged Colau’s supporters, but the challenge most likely to define her time in office will be taming Barcelona’s tourist industry.

In its transformation, since the 1992 Olympics, into the self-styled capital of the Mediterranean, and the fourth-most-visited city in Europe, Barcelona has become a victim of its own success. In the old town, evictions are common – a direct result of rents being driven up by tourist apartments – and residents complain that their neighbourhoods have become unlivable. “You really can’t walk down some streets in the summer,” one local told me, “as in, you physically can’t fit.”

The scale of the problem is made clear by a few simple figures:

in 1990, Barcelona had 1.7 million visitors making overnight stays – only a little more than the population of the city;

in 2016, the number has risen to more than 8 million.

In the intervening period, infrastructure and accommodation have been improved and expanded – pavements widened, signage increased, tour buses rerouted – but the problem is a fundamental one.

Barcelona is a relatively small city. It is not London, Paris or New York. Major attractions such as the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell are located in the middle of residential neighbourhoods, not surrounded by the open space they need to accommodate millions of visitors.

As tourism has exploded, radically reshaping the city, the question of who Barcelona is ultimately for has become increasingly insistent.

“Any city that sacrifices itself on the altar of mass tourism,” Colau has said, “will be abandoned by its people when they can no longer afford the cost of housing, food and basic everyday necessities.”  (Beirut has already been abandoned with No tourists even visiting this city)

Everyone is proud of Barcelona’s international reputation, Colau told me, but at what cost?

“There’s a sense that Barcelona could risk losing its soul. We need to seek a fair balance between the best version of globalisation, and keeping the character, identity and life of the city. This is what makes it attractive – it is not a monumental city, and it is not a world capital like Paris – its main feature is precisely its life, its plurality, its Mediterranean diversity.”

“We want visitors to get to know the real Barcelona,” she said – “not a ‘Barcelona theme park’ full of McDonald’s and souvenirs, without any real identity.”

Even in the last few years, the change in Barcelona’s old town is noticeable. The area is no longer dominated by locally owned restaurants, decked with laminated pictures of sangria and tortillas, or little shops selling matador costumes and Gaudí tea towels.

Now its narrow cobbled streets are watched over by American Apparel, Starbucks, H&M, Disney and Foot Locker. Every now and then, as you stand in the Barrio Gotic and wonder whether the locals who refer to Barcelona as a “tourist theme park” are being hyperbolic, a bike tour – if you’re particularly unlucky, a Segway tour – will spin around a tight corner and you will have to jump to avoid being body-slammed into an oversized paella dish.

While visitors come for the Gaudí mosaics, al fresco drinking and tapas, there is another side to Barcelona’s culture – a history of barricades, pitched battles with police, and deeply held local neighbourhood identities – that long predates the rise of the tourist industry.

In the early 20th century, this rebellious side of the city earned Barcelona the epithet la rosa de foc (the rose of fire). It was there that the radical trade union, the CNT, was founded; by 1919, it had more than 250,000 members in Barcelona alone. That same year, a 44-day-general strike held in the city secured for Spain the world’s first national law on an eight-hour working day.

Colau is not shy about expressing her respect for this heritage. She was born in 1974, in the twilight months of Franco’s dictatorship, only a few hours after the execution of the prominent Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich – an event that Colau has described as formative.

Last autumn, she laid a wreath in honour of the anniversary of the execution of Catalan anarchist and educationalist Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia. It was, she said, thanks to the legacy of figures such as him that she, as an “activist, rebel and Catalan”, could become mayor of the city.

Colau grew up in Barcelona’s Guinardó neighbourhood, playing in the streets with her three sisters and other local children – the idealised Mediterranean upbringing where public space is everyone’s living room. She grew up in a politicised household and participated in her first protests, at the age of 15, against the first Gulf war.

She went on to study philosophy at the University of Barcelona and never considered becoming a politician. Later, she studied theatre for a year. When she was 27, she even appeared in a short-lived sitcom about three sisters called Dos + Una – she was the “una”, the eldest of two twins.

It was at the turn of the millennium, as the post-cold-war radical left began to coalesce around a series of anti-globalisation protests in the US and Europe, that Colau became more actively involved in politics.

She recalls speaking on the telephone to friends in Genoa during the 2001 anti-G8 protests, after a police raid had left 63 protesters hospitalised. It is this period, she believes, that laid the groundwork for Spain’s new wave of leftwing politics. “I got involved in 2001 with anti-globalisation movements, against the war in Iraq and the World Bank, and global warming,” she told me. “For hundreds of thousands of people, this was the beginning of their involvement with politics, and I still see the influence of this period at work today.”

Colau spent the first years of the new millennium embroiled in activism, protesting and campaigning against wars, poor housing and gentrification. While working for the PAH, she developed her distinctive style of speech, which rests on a sincere, if carefully crafted, populism. She has said that she wants to “feminise” politics and avoids macho or old-left rhetoric. It is hard to imagine her saying, as the Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias once did, that “Heaven is not taken by consensus – it is taken by assault.”

Instead, in speeches and interviews Colau returns again and again to a few central themes: human rights and democracy, participation, inclusion, justice. When I used the word “radical” at one point, she challenged it, “But what is radical? We are in a strange situation where defending democracy and human rights becomes radical.”

A key part of Colau’s appeal is that, unlike many politicians, she is not afraid to show emotion. The famous 2013 parliamentary hearing was by no means the only time she has cried, or been close to tears, on camera. At rallies during the mayoral election campaign, she used the whole stage, gesticulating and speaking passionately about the city’s most marginalised residents – women and children and pensioners and migrants and the unemployed – only letting herself uncoil from the performance once it was over and the BComú supporters were on their feet.

In person she is the same, speaking quickly and seriously, not seeming to pause for breath – then, when the message is delivered, she relaxes, often breaking out in laughter. When I met her on BComú’s symbolic 100th day in power, it was the middle of the Merce, Barcelona’s week-long autumn cultural festival. That week it genuinely felt as though the doors of the city hall had been thrown open to the people: normally protected by security guards, the courtyard inside was thronged with festival performers and their families, in traditional Catalan folk costumes of red shirts and white trousers; there were piles of rucksacks on the floor, excited children darting about, and a baby being changed on an ancient oak bench.

From the moment of her election victory, Colau had echoed the Zapatistas by promising to “govern by obeying the people”, and that night she delivered a speech of studied humility. “Never trust in our virtue or our ability to represent you completely,” she told her supporters. “Throw us out if we don’t do what we said we’d do … but be conscious that we can’t do everything on day one.” It was a response to the paradox at the heart of Spain’s new leftwing politics, which depends upon a small number of charismatic leaders.

In Barcelona, for instance, the remarkable collective victory against the establishment by a crowdfunded citizens’ platform, formed only 11 months before the election was built around the appeal of the one woman whose face was on all the posters

In one of her most high-profile speeches of the election campaign, at a rally in September 2014, Colau addressed the grey areas in Spain’s new populism. “They will ask us: ‘Who are you?’ Let’s not be so arrogant as to say we’re ‘everyone’. But we are the people on the street. We’re normal people. We’re simple people, who talk to our neighbours each day, who, unlike professional politicians, use public transport every day, work in precarious jobs every day, and who see how things are every day.” Colau still lives in a modest flat near the Sagrada Familia with her husband Adrià Alemany – with whom she wrote two books about the housing crisis – and her young son Lucas. With Gaudí’s gargantuan basilica at its heart, and three million visitors a year filling the pavements of an otherwise quiet, residential neighbourhood, it is an area that exemplifies Barcelona’s identity crisis.

As Colau has found out, the problem with being the people’s champion, is that not all the people want the same things. In one part of Barcelona’s old town, tensions over tourist excess have spilled over into outright hostility. Tucked away from the sea, Barceloneta’s narrow streets are lined with blocks of flats displaying the barrio’s blue and yellow flag, with a crest featuring a lighthouse and a boat. These days, they are often accompanied by another popular flag, bearing the stencilled Catalan slogan “Cap pis turistic” (No tourist flats).

For centuries, Barceloneta was a traditional working-class fishing district, until the beach on its perimeter underwent extensive regeneration for the 1992 Olympics. The area is now lined with expensive surf shops, rickshaw drivers, sellers of tourist tat and beach volleyballs. Locals complain that the cost of living has shot up and the hordes of tourists often make for bad neighbours.

Tourist misbehaviour peaked in Barceloneta one Friday morning in August 2014, when three exuberant young Italian men spent several hours wandering around the area naked. Photographs of the streaking holidaymakers quickly circulated on social media and a series of anti-tourist protests followed. When I visited last year, the area was plastered with posters put up by the city hall, asking in several languages “Do you know if you’re in an illegal tourist apartment?’ Another in the same series instructed: “Don’t use the street as a toilet.”

Colau’s stated priority is to move Barcelona away from what she considers “massified tourism”, with no thought for sustainability, strategic planning or input from the public. “Until now, all we have had were private initiatives doing what they wanted,” Colau told me. “This has led to a model that is out of control.” She added: “We suffered the same short-sighted model here with the real estate bubble. We are trying to prevent the same mistakes happening again with tourism.”

Soon after her election, Colau announced a year-long moratorium on new hotels and tourist apartments, disrupting over 30 planned hotel projects.

In March 2016, the city hall extended the ban, and is proposing to direct any future expansion to the periphery of the city, away from the over-burdened old town. City hall has also fined Airbnb and its rival Homeaway €60,000 each for advertising illegal tourist apartments – ones that had not been registered and were therefore not necessarily paying taxes or fees.

In April, city hall announced it was looking into a specific tourist tax levied on those not making overnight stays: cruise ship passengers and day-trippers. Many of these initiatives have come from Ada Colau’s new tourism council, which features input from ordinary Barcelonans, as well as the industry.

Even so, many locals are still unhappy. On the first day of the Merce, as the crowds gathered in Plaça Saint Jaume for Colau’s ceremonial opening of the festival, the Barceloneta neighbourhood association staged a protest. The locals, many of them accompanied by young children, faced the city hall waving blue and yellow flags, banging drums and blowing whistles.

“Life in Barceloneta has become unbearable,” Kico Casas bellowed to me above the din. He and his fellow activists are campaigning for a total abolition of tourist flats in Barcelona. “Speculation has led to so many rent rises,” said Casas, “and now we can’t afford to live in the neighbourhood our grandparents lived in. Meanwhile, the drunken tourists and their parties make ordinary life unbearable.”

On a demonstration the previous week, the Barceloneta neighbourhood association had marched to the city’s Airbnb offices, wheeling a cannon alongside them – a theatrical homage to the area’s marine heritage – and fired a fake shot at the apartment rental company. On that occasion they had singled out Colau, too, with a homemade banner reading: “Mayor: three months without solutions. Well?” It was the first time Colau’s core supporters, or at least one strand of them, had faced up to their champion.

On the other side of the old town from Barceloneta lies the Raval, another area with a long history of poverty and strident working-class solidarity. One afternoon, I attended a community discussion event here, which took place on ground where a factory once stood. The empty plot was due to have a luxury hotel built on it – instead, the site was occupied by local activist groups who had turned it into a “social space”, covered in graffiti art decrying police brutality and city branding of the “I ❤ Barcelona” variety.

A man named Manel Aisa took the mic to explain that he grew up on this very street in the 1950s, where his dad ran a bar populated by duckers and divers, radicals and sex workers. He explained that the week before, he had been walking through the Raval, when a group of young German tourists approached him and asked in faltering Spanish, “Is this a good area to invest in property?” He managed a laugh, recalling the cheek of the question. “I told them where to go – away.”

But the difficult truth is that for many Barcelonans – not just a wealthy elite of cruise ship owners, hoteliers and landlords – the tourist economy has been a source of salvation. “For the majority of people sharing their home, it’s about making ends meet,” Ricardo Ramos, spokesman for the Barcelona Association of Neighbours and Hosts, explained over lunch near Sagrada Familia. “We have pensioners who are trying to pay the mortgage, or the rent, and live on €400 a month – and that’s impossible in Barcelona. Some of these people would be on the streets within two months, without that extra income.”

Ramos’s organisation, which was founded in April last year, is supported by Airbnb. Its members have organised their own protests – with slogans, written in English, such as “Tourists come home!” , instead of “Tourists go home”.

Ramos explained that, as well as helping home sharers, the type of tourism encouraged by companies such as Airbnb generates income for small shops located outside the obvious tourist centres, and provides a more local and authentic experience than a fleeting walk around La Rambla and a night’s sleep in an international hotel chain. Airbnb points to a 2014 study that found that more than half of the company’s Barcelona hosts had used the platform to help pay their mortgage, rent or bills – in the process, generating €128m and creating more than 4,000 jobs in the previous year.

Like his opponents in Barceloneta and the Raval, Ramos argued that if Colau were really of the people, she would be supporting them: “Given that Mayor Colau comes from a socialist background, I don’t understand why empowering citizens to take action to avoid being evicted from their homes is so difficult to understand. We should be on the same side. Home sharing and tourism has been stigmatised in Barcelona – some groups of neighbours have been out on patrols, at night, to see where the tourist flats are. And Mayor Colau doesn’t stop it.”

“I think Mayor Colau doesn’t understand the difference between being in an election campaign, and being in power,” Ramos continued. “When you are in the campaign, you talk to your audience, that’s fine – but once you are in power, you rule for all citizens, regardless of whether they voted for you or not.”

With a minority government of only 11 of 41 councillors, Colau and BComú have required support from other parties to get new legislation passed. They have also faced hostility from the business community and media – not to mention an intransigent local bureaucracy.

The threat that BComú’s enemies posed to stable governance was clear from the outset – even before the mayoral inauguration, Jean Delort, the political representative for the Barcelona police, resigned in protest at the election of Colau. “For them, there are no decent police,” said one police spokesman. “We’re all torturers.”

BComú has encountered substantial opposition in the council chamber from established parties keen to block its more radical reforms and expose its inexperience.

In October, two parties which were nominally allied with BComú – the centre-left PSC and the leftwing Catalan nationalists ERC – voted to reverse Colau’s moratorium on new hotel building (it was renewed in March nonetheless).

The following month, the PSC leader Jaume Collboni described the measures as “indiscriminate”, accusing Colau of ideological purism and “profound ignorance of the terrain” in “a complex city like Barcelona”. He proposed that the novices in BComú would benefit from his party’s governing experience, and that only a co-governing pact with the PSC would stabilise the “extreme weakness” of Colau’s administration.

On 10 May, Colau finally relented, and announced just such a pact. BComú will be bolstered by the PSC’s four councillors, and Collboni will become deputy mayor. Perhaps more importantly than votes in the city council chamber, the PSC will give Colau’s administration access to a network of contacts, which includes influential bureaucrats, union officials, commercial and civil society associations.

As with any governing coalition, behind-the-scenes politicking and media spin will be vital in determining which party is judged to have been the “winner” from the deal; in the short term, it is hard not to see it as a defeat for Colau. In January 2015, four months before the election, she had ruled out just such a pact with the PSC, whom she called one of the “parties of the regime”, and as such, “part of the problem, not the solution”.

Some activists are sceptical about what this compromise will do to BComú; according to an article published last week in the leftwing newspaper Diagonal, the PSC pact is “like getting a dominatrix into bed, with the hope they will assume a submissive role”.

Events in Barcelona in the last few days risk further alienating some of Colau’s core supporters. The eviction of squatters from a former bank that they had turned into a social centre led to violent clashes with riot police. She angered some people by refusing to get involved in what she said was a private dispute (although she has also offered to find the squatters an alternative site).

These kinds of setbacks raise a bigger question for BComú supporters and those of other new parties such as Podemos: was it all worth the effort? Might they just have been better off lobbying for change from outside their various parliaments?

For some experienced observers, taking activist politics into the institutions of power was always going to be a challenge. Oriol Nel·lo is professor of urban geography at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and a former PSC representative in the Catalan regional parliament.

In last year’s municipal election, he backed Barcelona en Comú. Grassroots activists should not think of city hall “as a fortress”, he told me over coffee in a cloistered square in the Raval. “It’s better to think of it as a very complex arena, in which you can manage to conquer certain positions – knowing that these institutions are more likely, a lot of the time, to give way to other pressures, coming from the economic sector or from business.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything within the institutions,” he smiled. “You can change plenty of things.” For Nel·lo, Colau’s determination to rebalance the effects of tourism in favour of Barcelona’s citizens is one example of a reform that is both essential and achievable.

In the summer of 2016, Spain’s political scene is in a strange purgatory: the old is dying and the new cannot be born.

The rise of new parties on the left and right culminated in an inconclusive general election in 2015, without a decisive victor.

Six months of coalition talks resulted in stalemate, and so Spain will go to the polls again at the end of June; the results are likely to be equally unclear.

In the meantime it is Ada Colau, and her fellow mayor in Madrid, Manuela Carmena, who remain the most powerful proponents of ‘the new politics’ in Spain – a country where, despite a short period of economic recovery, unemployment remains above 22%.

Even after the compromise with the PSC, there is a sense among her supporters that Colau’s experience fighting for housing reform, occupying banks and blocking evictions with the PAH has given her the confidence and perseverance to see the project through.

It is, she told me, “a collective made up of the poorest people in Spain, people who have lost everything – not just their homes, or their money, but their hopes for the future.”

With nothing left to lose, they got organised, formed close bonds, supported new friends, joined in civil disobedience together, fought and kept fighting – and they won.

“It’s an experience I will never forget in my entire life,” Colau said, “because it taught me the most valuable lesson I have ever learned, which is that we will be whatever we want to be. To have a society that is more just truly depends on us, and on whether we get involved or not.”

Main photograph by Dave Stelfox

A model village in Spain: And Communist too?

Marinaleda, in impoverished Andalusia, used to suffer terrible hardships.

Led by a charismatic mayor, the village declared itself a communist utopia and took farmland to provide for everyone. Could it be the answer to modern capitalism’s failing

 published in The Observer this Oct. 20, 2013

Spain’s communist model village

In 2004, I was leafing through a travel guide to Andalusia while on holiday in Seville, and read a fleeting reference to a small, remote village called Marinaleda – “a communist utopia” of revolutionary farm labourers, it said.

I was immediately fascinated, but I could find almost no details to feed my fascination. There was so little information about the village available beyond that short summary, either in the guidebook, on the internet, or on the lips of strangers I met in Seville. “Ah yes, the strange little communist village, the utopia,” a few of them said. But none of them had visited, or knew anyone who had – and no one could tell me whether it really was a utopia.

The best anyone could do was to add the information that it had a charismatic, eccentric mayor, with a prophet’s beard and an almost demagogic presence, called Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo.

Workers in the Olive groves of El Humoso, Marinaleda

Workers in the Olive groves of El Humoso, Marinaleda. Photograph: Dave Stelfo

Eventually I found out more. The first part of Marinaleda’s miracle is that when its struggle to create utopia began, in the late 1970s, it was from a position of abject poverty.

The village was suffering more than 60% unemployment; it was a farming community with no land, its people frequently forced to go without food for days at a time, in a period of Spanish history mired in uncertainty after the death of the fascist dictator General Franco.

The second part of Marinaleda’s miracle is that over 3 extraordinary decades, it won. Some distance along that remarkable journey of struggle and sacrifice, in 1985, Sánchez Gordillo told the 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.”

As befits a rebel, Sánchez Gordillo is fond of quoting Che Guevara; specifically Che’s maxim that “only those who dream will someday see their dreams converted to reality”. In one small village in southern Spain, this isn’t just a T-shirt slogan.

In spring 2013, unemployment in Andalusia is a staggering 36%; for those aged 16 to 24, the figure is above 55% – figures worse even than the egregious national average.

The construction industry boom of the 2000s saw the coast cluttered with cranes and encouraged a generation to skip the end of school and take the €40,000-a-year jobs on offer on the building sites.

That work is gone, and nothing is going to replace it. With the European Central Bank looming ominously over his shoulder, prime minister Mariano Rajoy has introduced labour reforms to make it much easier for businesses to sack their employees, quickly and with less compensation, and these new laws are now cutting swaths through the Spanish workforce, in private and public sectors alike.

Spain experienced a massive housing boom from 1996 to 2008. The price of property per square metre tripled in those 12 years: its scale is now tragically reflected in its crisis.

Nationally, up to 400,000 families have been evicted since 2008. Again, it is especially acute in the south: 40 families a day in Andalusia have been turfed out of their homes by the banks.

To make matters worse, under Spanish housing law, when you’re evicted by your mortgage lender, that isn’t the end of it: you have to keep paying the mortgage. In final acts of helplessness, suicides by homeowners on the brink of foreclosure have become horrifyingly common. On more than one occasion, while the bailiffs have been coming up the stairs, evictees have hurled themselves out of upstairs windows.

When people refer to la crisis in Spain they mean the eurozone crisis, an economic crisis; but the term means more than that. It is a systemic crisis, a political ecology crack’d from side to side: a crisis of seemingly endemic corruption across the country’s elites, including politicians, bankers, royals and bureaucrats, and a crisis of faith in the democratic settlement established after the death of Franco in 1975.

A poll conducted by the (state-run) centre for sociological research in December 2012 found that 67.5% of Spaniards said they were unhappy with the way their democracy worked.

It’s this disdain for the Spanish state in general, rather than merely the effects of the economic crisis, that brought 8 million indignados on to the streets in the spring and summer of 2011, and informed their rallying cry “Democracia Real Ya” (real democracy now).

Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, mayor of Marinaleda, attending a protest in Seville.

Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, mayor of Marinaleda, attending a protest in Seville. Photograph: Dave Stelfox

But in one village in Andalusia’s wild heart, there lies stability and order. Like Asterix’s village impossibly holding out against the Romans, in this tiny pueblo a great empire has met its match, in a ragtag army of boisterous upstarts yearning for liberty. The bout seems almost laughably unfair – Marinaleda’s population is 2,700, Spain’s is 47 million – and yet the empire has lost, time and time again.

In 1979, at the age of 30, Sánchez Gordillo became the first elected mayor of Marinaleda, a position he has held ever since – re-elected time after time with an overwhelming majority.

However, holding official state-sanctioned positions of power was only a distraction from the serious business of la lucha – the struggle. In the intense heat of the summer of 1980, the village launched “a hunger strike against hunger” which brought them national and even global recognition. Everything they have done since that summer has increased the notoriety of Sánchez Gordillo and his village, and added to their admirers and enemies across Spain.

Sánchez Gordillo’s philosophy, outlined in his 1980 book Andaluces, Levantaos and in countless speeches and interviews since, is one which is unique to him, though grounded firmly in the historic struggles and uprisings of the peasant pueblos of Andalusia, and their remarkably deep-seated tendency towards anarchism.

These communities are striking for being against all authority. “I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian,” Sánchez Gordillo said in an interview in 2011, adding that his political beliefs were drawn from those of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che.

In August 2012, he achieved a new level of notoriety for a string of actions that began, in 40C heat, with the occupation of military land, the seizure of an aristocrat’s palace, and a 3-week march across the south in which he called on his fellow mayors not to repay their debts.

Its peak saw Sánchez Gordillo lead a series of expropriations from supermarkets, along with fellow members of the left-communist trade union SOC-SAT. They marched into supermarkets and took bread, rice, olive oil and other basic supplies, and donated them to food banks for Andalusians who could not feed themselves.

For this he became a superstar, appearing not only on the cover of Spanish newspapers, but in the world’s media, as “the Robin Hood mayor”, “the Don Quixote of the Spanish crisis”, or “Spain’s William Wallace“, depending on which newspaper you read.

A socialist mural in Marinaleda.

A socialist mural in Marinaleda. Photograph: Dave Stelfox

In the darkness of a winter morning, between 6 and 7am, Marinaleda’s workers are clustered around the counter of the orange-painted patisserie Horno el Cedazo. Here they stand, knocking back strong, dark coffee accompanied by orange juice, pastries and pan con tomate: truly one of the world’s best breakfasts, a large hunk of toast served alongside a bottle of olive oil and a decanter of sweet, salty, pink tomato pulp.

Pour on one, then the other, then a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and you are ready for a day in the fields. Those with stronger stomachs also knock back a shot of one of the lurid-coloured liqueurs arrayed on a high shelf behind the counter; the syrupy, pungent anís is the most popular of these coffee chasers.

All work in the Marinaleda co-operative in shifts, depending on what needs harvesting, and how much of it there is. If there’s enough work for your group, then you will be told in advance, through the loudspeaker on the van that circles the village in the evenings.

It’s a strange, quasi-Soviet experience, sitting at home and hearing the van drive past announcing: “Work in the fields tomorrow for group B“. The static-muffled announcements get louder and then quieter as the van winds through the village’s narrow streets, like someone lost in a maze carrying a transistor radio.

When the 1,200-hectare El Humoso farm was finally won in 1991 – awarded to the village by the regional government following a decade of relentless occupations, strikes and appeals – cultivation began.

The new Marinaleda co-operative selected crops that would need the greatest amount of human labour, to create as much work as possible. In addition to the ubiquitous olives and the oil-processing factory, they planted peppers of various kinds, artichokes, fava beans, green beans, broccoli: crops that could be processed, canned, and jarred, to justify the creation of a processing factory that provided a secondary industry back in the village, and thus more employment.

Our aim was not to create profit, but jobs,” Sánchez Gordillo explained to me. This philosophy runs directly counter to the late-capitalist emphasis on “efficiency” – a word that has been elevated to almost holy status in the neo-liberal lexicon, but in reality has become a shameful euphemism for the sacrifice of human dignity at the altar of share prices.

Sánchez Gordillo once suggested to me that the aristocratic family of the House of Alba could invest its vast riches (from shares in banks and power companies to multimillion-euro agricultural subsidies for its vast tracts of land) to create jobs, but had never shown any interest in doing so.

“We believe the land should belong to the community that works it, and not in the dead hands of the nobility.” That’s why the big landowners planted wheat, he explained – wheat could be harvested with a machine, overseen by a few labourers; in Marinaleda, crops like artichokes and tomatoes were chosen precisely because they needed lots of labour. Why, the logic runs, should “efficiency” be the most important value in society, to the detriment of human life?

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 6.5 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.

Where once the day labourers of Andalusia were politically and socially marginalized by their lack of an economic stake in their pueblo, they are now – at least in Marinaleda – called upon to lead the way. Non-co-operativists are by no means excluded from involvement in the town’s political, social and cultural life – it’s more that if you are a part of the co-operative, you can’t avoid being swept up in local activities outside the confines of the working day.

Private enterprise is permitted in the village – perhaps more importantly, it is still an accepted part of life.

As with the 7 privately owned bars and cafés in the village (the Sindicato bar is owned by the union), if you wanted to open a pizzeria or a little family business of any kind, no one would stand in your way.

But if a hypothetical head of regional development and franchising for, say, Carrefour, or Starbucks, with a vicious sense of humour and a masochistic streak, decided this small village was the perfect spot to expand operations, well – they wouldn’t get very far. “We just wouldn’t allow it,” Sánchez Gordillo told me bluntly.

Marinaleda’s alternative is decades in the making, but other anti-capitalist alternatives are sprouting in the cracks of the Spanish crisis, in the form of numerous quotidian acts of resistance, 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.

There is also a new Marinaleda-style farming co-operative in Somonte, a collective farm established on occupied government land in 2012, only an hour or so’s drive from the village. When I visited Somonte earlier this year, I met Marinaleños who had left their home to bring Sanchez Gordillo’s message of “land belongs to those who work it” to new terrain.

When I visited in February this year, a young man called Román strode bare-chested through the endless fields to greet us, looking strong but tired – they work from dawn until dusk, stopping only to dip into much-needed cauldrons full of pasta, rice and bean stews; surplus vegetables are sold on market day in nearby towns.

They were growing beans, pimentos, potatoes and cabbages when I visited, planting trees and trying to resuscitate 400 hectares of idle land – as best they could, with only two dozen pairs of hands.

Paradoxically, in light of Spain’s staggering unemployment figures, they still need more people to join their co-operative, and have more farmland than they can currently cultivate.

One of the murals painted on the Somonte barn wall contained a telling slogan, alongside portraits of Malcolm X, Geronimo and Zapata:Andalusians, don’t emigrate, fight! The land is yours: recover it!” It’s a message cried somewhat into the void, as thousands of young Spaniards scurry down the brain drain to Britain, Germany, France and beyond.

But Somonte is not without support. Hundreds of people 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.

As we strolled past a small collection of chickens and goats, Florence, a French woman who had been living in Marinaleda before joining the “new struggle” in Somonte, explained that the land was some of the most fertile in Spain, but had for decades been used by the government to grow corn, to bring in European subsidies – it created next to no work, and no produce; the corn was left to rot.

Those 400 wasted hectares were about to be auctioned off privately by the government when the Andalusian Workers’ Union turned up in March 2012; they occupied it, were evicted by 200 riot police, and in true Marinaleda style, returned the next day to start again. The auction never took place. Somonte is now 18 months old, growing slowly but steadily, and is the kind of Marinaleda domino effect that the crisis may yet bring more of.

No one ever forgets “that strange and moving experience” of believing in a revolution, as George Orwell reflected after arriving in Barcelona on the brink of civil war to a society fizzing with energy as it fleetingly experienced living communism.

Marinaleda is neither fully communist nor fully a utopia: but take a step outside the pueblo and into contemporary Spain, and you will see a society pummeled, impoverished and atomized, pulled into death and destruction by an economic system and a political class who seem not to care whether the poor live or die.

Sánchez Gordillo’s achievements are more than just the concrete gains of land, housing, sustenance and culture, phenomenal though they are: being there is a strange and moving experience, and, as Orwell suggested, an unforgettable one.

In the 8 or so years I have known about Marinaleda, I have sometimes had to remind myself of the gap between the grandiose claims made about the village, by left and right alike, and the humble size and intimacy of the place itself. It is a village which means so much to so many people, across the world; but it has only 2,700 inhabitants, and whole hours can pass in which the only noise emanates from a motorcycle speeding down Avenida de la Libertad, or the vocal exercises of a particularly enervated rooster.

It is both poignant and appropriate that Sánchez Gordillo seems to see no bathos, or discrepancy, in devoting as much attention and passion to the local specifics of the pueblo – the need to start planting artichokes this month, not pimentos – as he does to the big picture, persuading the world that only an end to capitalism will restore dignity to the lives of billions.

The indignado movement had informed not just Spain, but the world, that millions of Spaniards were unwilling to brook the crisis. They were desperately looking for an alternative to the current system – and yet, in their midst, there was already one in operation.

Faced with the massed ranks protesting in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, in Wall Street in New York, and outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the damning questions rang out from conservatives and liberals: “What’s your alternative? What’s your programme? How would it work in practice?

They may have ignored the village before, or dismissed it with a chuckle as a rural curiosity run by a bearded eccentric; but they can do so no longer. “What’s your alternative?’ bark the dogs of capitalist realism. Increasingly, the indignados are able to respond: ‘Well, how about Marinaleda?'”

This is an edited extract

Dan Hancox is speaking at Bristol Festival of Ideas on 23 October; details at

Note:  How to reduce the need of exchanging monetary currencies to the bare minimum? A revolutionary step would be to convince and train the community members to barter their skills for the idiosyncratic life-style of each person comfort zone?




June 2023

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