“El viajero reconoce lo poco que es suyo al descubrir lo mucho que no ha tenido y no tendrá.”
― Italo Calvino, Las Ciudades Invisibles
“The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
For many people longing for real alternatives to fake democracy and corporate oligarchy, the new politics arising in Spain over the last few years has been a wellspring of inspiration. In 2011, when the Indignados, the ‘outraged’, occupied the Puerta del Sol, Madrid, and other plazas across Spain, we watched and cheered, mostly because we wanted to see ourselves in them—regular people of every age, every gender, standing up, being heard, practising democracy, perhaps for the first time and clumsily, but they were participating in their own destiny in a new way.
A little over four years later, the new political space that cracked open during those days has widened into a new nationwide discourse and new possibilities. The citizen participation that started in the plazas has evolved into new grassroots political parties, such as Podemos (“We can”), and new practices have spread, like the asemblea that seems to be in use everywhere. More interesting is the blossoming of citizen-led initiatives of all kinds: economic and social, creating regenerative new models and resisting the injustices inherent in the current system. The lines dividing political, economic and social action that too frequently compartmentalise UK activism are blurring here, creating opportunities for experimentation and innovation.
How all of these developments are playing out is, for us, most interesting in Andalusia. It’s history of latifundia, foreign-owned industry, international tourism, peasant and worker movements, government corruption, and economic hardship, especially over the last several years of crisis and austerity, has made it a region of contrasts and a microcosm for what is happening in Spain, and, perhaps, southern Europe. It’s also been fertile ground for radical creative energy.
In part, this is what inspired Guadal: Journey to a Post Crisis Economics, a project designed to capture this energetic mood in southern Spain and the stories of people developing new models on the ground—and their learning—and share it with the people across Europe who are poised to do something new, too. It’s part action research, part documentary film, part solidarity building. We’ve just returned from three weeks of filming in 11 locations in Andalusia and interviews with people from over 20 community-led projects. There’s loads of work ahead of us but, so far, it’s been a wild ride and an incredible learning experience.
In a way, our journey started when Emilio Mula and I first met in Totnes, Devon, in early 2011. He’s from Málaga and I had just moved there from California. We were both involved in the Transition movement but it was our love for Mediterranean climate, permaculture, and avocados that bound our friendship. More than that, it seemed clear that there were natural points of connection between Andalusia and Devon: there were successful community-led projects here and there were successful community-led innovations over there. Surely, there must be opportunities to learn from each other and share the best of what each culture has to offer. We made a pact to build a bridge connecting the work of activists here and there, to cross-pollinate and try to help ‘the movement’ along in whatever small ways we could. He helped organise the first Transition conference in Spain in 2012, and has facilitated some interesting collaborations linking Totnes-based activists with those in Andalusia. But it wasn’t until last year when the idea for Guadal was finally hatched.
We wanted this to be more than just another guerilla documentary. We asked Jenny Gellatly, a friend and local activist with connections to Spain to join us, and together we developed Guadal into a much bigger vision. First, we wanted to make it an action research project. We were going to be visiting some very interesting projects and, as practitioners ourselves, we selfishly wanted to learn about what’s working there, what’s not, and what we could bring back to improve our initiatives and the work of our collaborators. How could we capture some of that radical Spanish magic and bring it back to the UK?
We wanted to include many more people into the process, so we experimented by open-sourcing part of the research. We asked some of the most interesting people in our networks to engage their curiosity and contribute some questions. People from Schumacher College, Transition Town Totnes, New Economics Foundation, NEON, Exeter Pound, Green Party, Finance Innovation Lab, Post Growth Institute, Permaculture Association, Shared Assets, and STIR Magazine all contributed questions.
Peter Macfadyen, then independent mayor of Frome, home of Flatpack Democracy, pitched in a question for Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, mayor of Marinaleda, the famous ‘socialist utopia’: “What’s your top tip for restraining the Ego in a situation of power?” Gordillo has been in office for 30 years in this rural town, where he has led a peasant revolution, of sorts, gaining control of land, building affordable homes, providing jobs for nearly everyone with agricultural and building co-operatives. When we posed the question during our interview, Mayor Gordillo chuckled and said, “The ‘ego’ can be a kind of sickness. All the big decisions, here, are made collectively in assemblies, so it’s impossible to impose myself in such a collective process.”
Secondly, we think of ourselves as being ‘of a community’ before being ‘filmmakers’ or ‘activists’—though, of course, we are playing those roles, too. But we’re interested in building solidarity and connection with others in that context, contributing to a pan-Europe activist community, perhaps. So, we are looking to build support organically among the people with whom we already share connection. We gathered together a dozen local friends with links to Andalusia who helped with organising and even donated some funds. We threw a ‘fiesta solidaria’ in Totnes Civc Hall to raise local interest (and more funds) and to connect people in our community with the some of the people we would visit. We skyped Alejandro Orioli, from Arboretum Marbella, and Chino Garachana, from Casa Invisible, into the party while a hundred of us drank sangria and ate tapas. Making these stories personal seems an important precursor for building real solidarity—for example, ‘we’re not just going to learn about Degrowth in Seville, but about the struggles Marcos had organising the Degrowth conference, and the successes that came from the personal relationships he built.’
We are also tapping into our networks of family, friends and ‘fellow travellers’ in Spain. We have received incredible kindness and generosity from dozens of people—all good friends, now—who provided money, meals, transportation, accommodation, logistics, equipment, connections, and support of all kinds. What we learned from our supporters, and from all those engaged in ‘the movement’ in one form or another, is that there is strong desire for connection, to be part of something bigger, but not just another big abstract idea. It’s a desire to be connected with everyone else co-creating a new cultural reality, populated and full of life, diversity, freedom and justice, across national borders, languages and ethnic traditions. (The ‘blessed unrest’?) And so, this new politics here goes much deeper than party politics and new parties like Podemos.
Finally, Guadal is a documentary film, or will be. We think our process—inclusive, community supported, network building—is unique and might point toward a new model of media production. Our intention is to keep the process going during post-production and once the film is complete, we’ll make it widely available to everyone who participated and to anyone with a broadband connection. We’ll show it at film festivals, too, and try to promote what we learned and the stories of what’s happening in Andalusia in whatever other ways we can. But we’re not there, yet.
These were the ambitious intentions we took with us when we headed off for Málaga in late June, 2015. We traveled through Almería to Granada, then to Marinaleda and Seville, then down to Jerez, then Tarifa, up the coast to Marbella, Coín and back again to Málaga. It was an intense three weeks of constant motion during a history-making heat wave that was over 40°C every day. We were robbed. We were rescued. One of us fell in love. One of us milked a goat. We shared stories with dreamers and doers, incredibly hard working changemakers and life loving activists. We slept in luxurious beds, fold-out couches, on floors, in squats and gardens, on concrete slabs and basketball courts. We saw the worst, most destructive kind of agriculture and the best, most regenerative kind. We swam with fresh water turtles—a unique species whose existence is threatened by mechanised olive plantations. We saw an infestation of jellyfish caused by climate change and overfishing—their predators mostly gone. We were invited to a butterfly ranch.
If Andalusia is a microcosm of what is happening in Spain, then perhaps Granada is also also a microcosm, perhaps of Andulusia, perhaps of something bigger. Our experience there foreshadowed the lessons we’d come to learn more clearly through the journey. Granada is cosmopolitan in a way that other Andalusian cities are not. The touristy, old part of town is full of students, young entrepreneurs, the educated, and the affluent from all over the world. As is the case in many places in Europe, new models and new initiatives come into being in a place via the hearts and minds of transplants, travelers, and immigrants. The role of the outsider in spreading innovation is vitally important and that story plays out here in Degrowth, Transition, Cooperativa Integral, all of which are growing here, now, because someone first brought the seeds across the border. But as in other cities, there remains a gap between the cosmopolitan and working class, the tony historic neighbourhoods and the industrialised peripheries.
There are initiatives of all kinds here, too, looking to change the system, overthrow it, or create alternatives within. In the recent past, egos, brand identities, and territoriality would keep them all separate and competing for recognition, participants, and power. Now, we’re told, diversity is valued, collaboration and co-operation welcomed. We met with several people who, altogether, seemed to have a hand in almost everything, perhaps one of the reasons for this shift. For example, Romu Benítez Rodríguez is one of the instigators of Granada en Transición and a social enterprise ‘hen house’ they started up, as well as his own social enterprise, El EcoSúper whole foods shop. He’s a member of Equo and Vamos Granada political parties, is helping co-organise an upcoming Degrowth conference, and is a supporter of El Chavico, a social currency started up by and managed by Cooperativa Integral Granaína.
If you’re exhausted after reading that list, you might think burnout would be a problem. It’s another familiar pattern for changemakers almost everywhere. When enthusiasm and capacity match up with what needs to be done, doers dive in and do it. For the psychologically unprepared, this can lead to unhealthy consequences. On the other hand, nothing of any consequence ever got started without a little extra effort. In any case, Romu and his friends seemed unconcerned about it, as we sat chatting, relaxed, sipping beers and nibbling tapas late into the evening. That he’s wearing a t-shirt with the image of Jeff Lebowski—The Dude—and the words, “the Dude abides,” is strangely appropriate.
The scene is emblematic of another pattern. While most of the people we met are involved in multiple projects, very often they are also part of a close circle of friends and collaborators that work, chill, and play together. They take care of each other. Perhaps this is another manifestation of the new politics, the new citizen. Activism, politics, livelihoods, entrepreneurship, personal relationships—the lines are blurred. It’s just life.