The path to utopia
Politicians and media whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria. Savage welfare cuts while the super-rich live high on the hog. Deepening inequality and zero-hours contracts. Rapacious banks and untamed corporations. Corporate greed gouging the common weal. In these austere times, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, one can easily become discouraged. The joyous cacophony of community life in Bedford Falls can seem like a distant dream of the silver screen.
But wait: here’s a tale of two villages. Real places, inhabited by real people who have taken a stand against profit and materialism, racism and fear. Two villages.
Spain has been one of the countries hit hardest by the banking crash. At around 26%, Spain’s unemployment rate is the highest in the EU (and youth unemployment is nearly double that figure). In the wake of Spain’s property crash, hundreds of thousands of homes have been repossessed and half a million families have been evicted since 2008.
But, in Marinaleda, in impoverished Andalusia, the story is different. Unemployment is zero, with most of the villagers working for collectively-owned enterprises (growing food, building houses, working in shops, and running sporting, leisure and other basic services). Everyone works a 35-hour work week and earns a monthly salary of €1,128, at a time when the minimum wage in Spain is €641 per month. Many villagers rent a house of 90 square metres with a terrace for only €15 per month – a house that they have helped construct. Much of the land on which food crops are grown and houses are built is collectivised – once an estate owned by the aristocratic Alba family and awarded to the village by the regional government after a decade of occupations, strikes and appeals.
Sanchez Gordillo, Mayor of Marinaleda
For three decades Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has been Marinaleda’s mayor, after winning the mayoral election in April 1979 as a representative of the United Workers’ Collective, a communist farm workers’ organization that promotes government through popular assemblies and believes that Andalusia should be independent from Spain. ‘I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian’, Sánchez Gordillo has said, adding that his political beliefs were drawn from those of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che. In 2013, he drew international media attention when he and a group of the villagers entered a supermarket and seized food, which they distributed to the area’s food banks – an action justified by Sánchez Gordillo with these words:
We’re doing something new here: we’re insisting that natural resources should be at the service of people, that they have a natural right to the land, and that land is not something to be marketed. Food should not be speculated with either. It is a basic human right.
Workers at the farming cooperative in Marinaleda
Marinaleda is a village which has known terrible hardship in the past. But today the villagers grow beans, artichokes, peppers and produce high-quality olive oil. The workers themselves control each phase of the production while the land belongs to the community as a whole. There is a collectively-owned cannery, olive mill, facilities for livestock and a farm store. Gordillo says:
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.
The village coat of arms: ‘utopia to peace’
Marinaleda, with some financial support from the Andalusian regional government, has been able to offer three things that much of Spain is desperately wanting: employment, affordable housing, and a more participatory democracy. ‘The most important thing we’ve done here is to struggle and obtain land through peaceful means, and to ensure that housing is a right, not a business, says Sánchez Gordillo. ‘And as a village we work together, discuss and collaborate together: that’s fundamental for any society, too.’
Utopia lies at the horizon.
When I draw nearer by two steps,
it retreats two steps.
If I proceed ten steps forward, it
swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.
What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
It is to cause us to advance.
― Eduardo Galeano
The abandoned ship from which two hundred Kurds scrambled ashore in 1999 near Riace
In another desperately poor part of Europe there is a village that has welcomed migrants with open arms. Riace lies on a hill five miles inland from the coast of Calabria in the far south of Italy. Little more than two months ago, more than 300 African migrants drowned when their boat caught fire and sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The tragedy resulted in many expressions of horror – from Italian politicians, the European Commission and the UN secretary general. Pope Francis was appalled: ‘The word disgrace comes to mind. It is a disgrace. Let’s unite our efforts so that tragedies like this don’t happen again. Only a decisive collaboration of everyone can help and prevent them’.
In Riace, for more than a decade, the villagers have collaborated in opening their doors to migrants in a dramatic reversal of usual attitudes towards immigrants. Calabria is a poor part of Italy, where villages are dying as young people leave in search of work in the cities of the north. So, after two hundred Kurds scrambled ashore in 1999 from their sinking boat on the coast near Riace, Domenico Lucano – another left-wing mayor – encouraged the Kurds to settle in his village replacing the people who had left and reversing his village’s decline. Since then, more ‘people who come from the sea’, as locals put it, have been encouraged to settle in the village.
Riace’s eco-traditional refuse collection
Instead of watching the sea-borne migrants get packed off to one of Italy’s grim immigrant holding centres, Lucano offered them houses in the village that had been abandoned as the local population dwindled. After all, he said, ‘My parents always taught me to welcome strangers’.
In the last few years, following the Riace model, five small villages, have joined to offer immigrants arriving from across the sea a warm welcome along with homes in empty buildings. In Riace this October, the Guardian reporter found two men leading two donkeys pulling carts through the narrow streets: Riace’s eco-traditional refuse collection. One of the men was Italian, a man whose ancestors built the village a thousand years ago; the other an immigrant from Ghana who, with his wife and two sons made the dangerous crossing to Lampedusa.
Before immigrants like this arrived in Riace, buildings were empty and falling into disrepair; Riace was turning into a ghost town. But the migrants from Africa rebuilt them fro their families. Their presence meant that the village school, threatened with closure, stayed open as well.
Riace’s school was able to stay open because of the immigrants’ children
The immigrants – from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan – do jobs that Italians no longer want to do: they look after old people, or work in the olive groves for the olive oil cooperative. A Somali has opened a restaurant, while others work as translators or in shops and workshops. One settler makes traditional Riace pottery decorated with fine coloured stripes – suggesting that immigration, rather than diluting local culture, can help the rural way of life and craft traditions to survive.
The financial aid that asylum-seekers receive also feeds the local economy because this money is mostly spent in local shops. Since these benefits often arrive late, Riace prints its own banknotes with pictures of Martin Luther King, Che Guevara and Gandhi on them. You can buy groceries and clothes with this currency. Every so often the retailers cash in their Gandhis for real euros. When Mayor Lucano ran for election he had a slogan: ‘The poorest people in the world will save Riace and we will save them.’
Perhaps one day the world, our world, won’t be upside down, and then any newborn human being will be welcome. Saying, ‘Welcome. Come. Come in. Enter. The entire earth will be your kingdom. Your legs will be your passport, valid forever.
– Eduardo Galeano
The sign at the entrance to Riace reads ‘village of welcome’
The Mayor of Riace eats with a refugee family
These days – to return to the seasonal analogy of It’s a Wonderful Life – we all live in Pottersville. But the example of these two villages suggests we can live a different way, adhering to less selfish, less materialistic values, less beholden to private profit. Some may regard extolling the example set by the villagers of Marinaleda and Riace as misguided utopianism. But I know where I would rather live.
Il Volo (Flight)
This YouTube video is a clip from a Il Volo, documentary dedicated to Riace in 2009 by the German film director Wim Wenders (no subtitles, unfortunately). This explanation is from the Mubi website:
Wim Wenders’ film Il Volo (Flight) documents an admirable example of a welcome that began over 10 years ago in Calabria, when a group of Kurds settled down in Riace, on the Calabrian coast. The German director’s initial project, a seven-minute short from an original story by Eugenio Melloni, turned into a 32-minute hybrid of documentary and fiction after Wenders met a young Afghani refugee. Il Volo became a firsthand account, with Wenders’ off-camera narration, of immigration as a resource. ‘What was happening to these people was much more important than the fiction I was making,’ said Wenders, in Rome to present the film. Commissioned by the Calabria Region and co-produced with the local Film Commission and with support from the High Commissioner of the United Nations, the film was shot in 3D.
AFP news agency report on Riace
Follow link to open in YouTube
- Spain’s communist model village (Guardian)
- Spanish ‘Robin Hood’ mayor vows to continue food raids (Telegraph)
- Workers’ cooperative defies crisis (Press Europe)
- A Job and No Mortgage for All in a Spanish Town (New York Times)
- 27% of Spaniards are out of work. Yet in one town everyone has a job (Independent)
- The Village Against the World: new book about Marinaleda by Dan Hancox (Amazon)
- Italian mayor saves his village by welcoming refugees (BBC)
- The tiny Italian village that opened its doors to migrants who braved the sea (Guardian)
- Migrants bring new life to a village in southern Italy Guardian
It’s a Wonderful Life: previous posts