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The Village Against the World follows on from last year’s e-book, Utopia and the Valley of Tears, in which Dan Hancox’s travels to Spain took in the self-proclaimed communist village of Marinaleda and the 15M movement beyond it. Upon returning to Marinaleda, and making the transition from e-book to physical book, Hancox gives himself more time and space to discuss the tiny village’s four decades spent raging against global capitalism.
Since Hancox’s last visit, Marinaleda and its extrovert mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, captured international media coverage when he was part of a group that refused to pay for ten shopping trolleys filled with food and then distributed them to the area’s poor. This stunt (and Gordillo is happy to describe it as such rather than make grander claims for the action) encapsulates the approach the villagers have used over the years to win concessions from the state and build their utopia: direct action with Gordillo at the forefront, a simple message that resonates with many and skilful use of propaganda.
The media, keen for a fresh angle on the Spanish crisis, turned their eyes to the ‘Robin Hood mayor’ and the village of 2,700 people. But this was only a glance at an ongoing struggle for land and freedom in the south of Spain. Hancox’s book takes us beyond the wavering attention of the mainstream media to offer a substantive understanding of the actions, politics, history, and daily lives of the marinaleños.
Of course, it’s not just the media who want a piece of utopia. Speaking to a packed room last year at the Cuts Café, a squatted social centre hosting discussions and workshops in London, Hancox described his first short visit to Marinaleda to a crowd eager to hear about concrete examples of living beyond capitalism. Hancox himself writes that he was drawn to Marinaleda in search of alternatives to capitalism. As the economic crisis has intensified, the 15M movement and other anti-cuts activists have looked to the village that gives the lie to the ‘There Is No Alternative’ mantra.
Marinaleda shares much with these anti-austerity movements. Prefigurative politics is at its core in the struggle to meet basic needs, along with a commitment to direct action and a preoccupation with the land. As Sánchez Gordillo explains: ‘Because we fight together, because we make our lives together, there is a high degree of good neighbourliness. When we plant trees, we do that together too.’
Many of the fights of the marinaleños, from the initial land occupations and a mass hunger strike to the recent supermarket expropriations and Sánchez Gordillo’s march across the south of Spain, have been documented by the media over the decades, and are recalled by villagers in the book. Hancox’s attention, however, focuses on the details of daily life. Free wireless internet and almost free living accommodation, week-long parties that draw people from nearby towns, ‘truly one of the world’s best breakfasts’ and an anarcho-communist ska punk band all help to make Marinaleda a unique place. These significant material gains and Marinaleda’s distinct atmosphere are being achieved through collective struggle. ‘We won,’ one marinaleño tells Hancox. ‘Everything is cool now,’ another remarks.
As much as Hancox has an affinity with the village and its people, he is careful to look beyond the confident claims and soundbites of Sánchez Gordillo and his supporters to the lived reality in the village, collecting together a diverse range of thoughts and perspectives of the locals and exploring the contradictions of the project. He even embarks on a movie-style meet up on a desolate dirt layby to encounter one of the ‘opposition’ in Marinaleda.
Yet Hancox does not apply this caution when describing the region’s fascinating and tumultuous history, falling into a sort of historical determinism. He suggests that the area and its people are inherently radical, that this explains their recent struggles and their spirit. He implies that the UK, without the baking sun, rugged hills and history of hiding bandits, could not expect a project of this kind. Yet, as Hancox describes, many villagers, although not claiming to identify with communism, express a desire for freedom and autonomy over their lives, a yearning that is antithetical to capitalism. It is a desire that is felt everywhere and, as Hancox shows in the south of Spain, throughout time.
The villagers of Marinaleda have managed to create considerable autonomy from capital and the state, housing themselves according to their needs and supplying Hancox with free beer surpassing his needs. Utopia is still some way off – ‘you know you have to work on Sundays?’ – while gender is discussed only fleetingly.
But the marinaleños’ actions, principles and tenacity are inspirational. Telling the history and present of this ‘ragtag army of boisterous upstarts’ sensitively and engagingly, Hancox’s book is perhaps most valuable for the village itself – its historical archive currently consists of a 2011 election booklet for the local union. It will also hold a fascination for all those in search of utopia.