News from Somewhere: Dan Hancox’s new book The Village Against the World is received well
Otro Mundo es Posible – another world is possible. This is one of the main slogans written on the walls of the village of Marinaleda, a rural communist utopia in Andalusia. Perhaps, we might define the town, as much as an ‘utopia’, as a real socialist community; what the town allows us to envisage is not merely utopian, but the actual, day-to-day workings of a different society: a re-imagined set of practices and customs for daily living and self-organisation. Dan Hancox’s fascinating story of this town in Southern Spain furnishes us with evidence of an embryonic, functioning, democratic socialism, which has managed to effectively struggle against the poverty and immiseration experienced in the surrounding areas of Andalusia. In Marinaleda, the residents have won and guaranteed greater rights for themselves – to pay, to housing and to facilities.
David Edgar, writing a review of the book for the Guardian, notes that Hancox re-proposes the possibility of realizing the ‘utopian’ – something which seems paradoxical, but which also struggles against the realist logic of prevailing political discourse, even on the Left. Similarly, in The New Internationalist, a reviewer argues that Marinaleda, and especially its charismatic leader Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, defy fashionable pessimisms:
With late capitalist malaise so prevalent and chronic that people have stopped believing in cures, this well-observed account of a village of 2,700 stout souls who think and live otherwise is a tonic.
The magazine Critical Theory are keen to emphasise the divergence that Marinaleda represents from established political identities linked to previous, more repressive attempts at realizing the communist ideal: “I have never belonged to the Communist Party of the hammer and sickle,” Gordillo notes, “but I am a communist.” ‘Despite the “big” failures of 20th century Communism, the 21st century boasts plenty of smaller, enduring victories against the neoliberal order.’ Marinaleda counts as one of these, and an important counter-model for our age. Red Pepper magazine writes that Marinaleda has much in common with new anti-capitalist movements for socialism and justice such as Occupy. Dan Hancox’s account will, indeed, be of great use to such activists, who are seeking ways of responding to the often repeated question: what comes after capitalism?
The Village Against the World describes the town in detail. The book is constructed through interviews documenting the daily lives and opinions of the villagers, as well as an account of Hancox’s own time spent there. Hancox recounts the history of the town and region, painting dynamic portraits of the protagonists in the town’s struggle, such as Gordillo. Dubbed in international media the ‘Robin Hood mayor’, Gordillo has pulled stunts and protests such as expropriating goods from supermarkets, and marching across the whole south of Spain. Hancox does not portray Gordillo sensationalistically; he situates him within the history of the small village, and their ongoing struggle for land and freedom. He ‘takes us beyond the wavering attention of the mainstream media to offer a substantive understanding of the actions, politics, history, and daily life of the marinaleños’ (Red Pepper).
Key moments in the history that Hancox details are given in the Guardian review:
Marinaleda's first major action was a 1980 "hunger strike against hunger", by 700 people for nine days, which won the equivalent of €25m from the government to keep the landless and largely unemployed peasantry going till the December olive harvest. Over the following decade, Sánchez Gordillo and the villagers pursued a longer-term goal of land reform, occupying and – in 1991 – winning control of 1,200 hectares of land owned by the absentee Duke of Infantado (the duke was paid off with an undisclosed sum by the regional government). The land became the El Humoso co-operative olive farm, whose workers are paid twice the Spanish mininum wage, and whose produce is processed in the village.
Marinaleda is an example of a type of government which ‘pursues maximum employment rather than maximum profit’; the unemployment rate is a mere 5% to the rest of Spain’s staggering 27%. ‘In a country brought to its knees by the scandal of property speculation, the Spanish Andalusian village of Marinaleda follows a different path, constantly asserting power from the bottom up, power for the people’ (New Internationalist).
Some might wonder whether this new life is likely to spread. David Edgar notes that ‘Marinaleda seems far removed from the young, international, urban and mobile networks of radicals – from Occupy to Spain's own indignados.’ But he is also keen to stress that aspects of its programme speak ‘compellingly both to the achievements and the limitations of the international youth movement.’ Red Pepper similarly close their review singing the book’s praises, along with the praises of the village:
The marinaleños actions, principles and tenacity are inspirational … [the book] will … hold fascination for all those in search of a utopia.
The book offers this and much more: it is not simply ‘News from Nowhere’, from a utopia which can never be realised, but concrete demands and proposals from a new type of society taking form in the real world.
If you want to know more about the book and the author, come to see Dan Hancox in conversation with Paul Mason at Foyles Bookstore on Tuesday October 15th. A chance to hear Hancox further discuss the successes and failures of Marinaleda in person.
Alternatively, Hancox will be speaking at the Bristol Festival of Ideas on Wednesday October 23rd.