“The Village Against the World” by Dan Hancox

Hancox_Village_Against_WorldISBN-13: 978-1-78168-130-5. “The Village Against the World” by Dan Hancox was published by Verso in 2013. I saw this in a bookshop shortly after publication and it intrigued me. Something about it immediately said “Transition” & “Totnes”, although it is about neither (strictly speaking). The village in question is the tiny ‘pueblo‘ (community) of Marinaleda, in Andalucía, in the southern tip of Spain, near Seville. What is unique about this community of 2,700 is its experiment in “utopia” – an anarcho-syndicalist community built around co-operation & the redistribution of land through struggle. The book is a gem and a must-read for anyone puzzling over how to make this world a better place.

Dan Hancox is no Noam Chomsky and this is no revolutionary handbook. Neither is it anthropology. Hancox is a journalist with experience on the Guardian and the Independent in London. “The Village Against The World” reads like an-easy going travelogue written for the glossy Sunday supplements. This is a story of the people the author meets and he retells the story of Marinaleda through their experiences. Despite the topic Hancox presents this community’s tale without any pre-judgement. We live in a world were the business-as-usual agenda would immediately dispense with such communities with a wave of the arm. In our world they are easily dismissed as some kind of communist Disneyland – an anachronism built around the beliefs of a few hippies trying to build a 1960’s commune. Hancox is right not to judge. It is a remarkable tale; no one should judge until they understand.

Marinaleda has been a thorn in the side of the Spanish political elite since the late 1970s. General Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist until his death in 1975. He left the country deeply divided between the landed aristocracy and the rural population who lived in third-world conditions. Spain entered a period which it called the great “Transition” – a Transition to democracy and modernity. From that period of turmoil there emerged stories of great struggles between people, who lived in utter poverty, and the great estates of the gentry.

Modern Spain is like other places in being split between the political conservative right and a socialist left. However neither faction seemed to have any good answers to the extremes of inequality that they inherited from Franco. In an act of desperation (in the early 1980s) the people of Marinaleda rose up to expropriate land from a local aristocrat. The big estates were benefitting from the EU Common Agricultural Policy; either not using the land or planting cash crops. Such modern mechanised agriculture had dispensed with the casual labour who occupied the local villages. In Britain we would relate to this as the history of the Industrial Revolution – a time when the rural population fled to the cities to work in the new factories. But what if that story is happening NOW… And what if there are no factories to go to? The people of Marinaleda could accept their fate or stay and fight. This village chose the latter. Through demonstrations, hunger strikes and marches they won themselves a parcel of land and set up a worker’s co-operative to farm it.

Today Marinaleda is a village in which “struggle” seems written into the DNA. They have had to fight for everything they have. But, it seems, they have won so much. They have very cheap housing, excellent sports and social facilities and a huge mural of Che Guevara[!!]. The community has a form of local democracy where anyone can turn up to a meeting and vote on a course of action. There are even Communist-inspired community clean-up days to keep the village uber-tidy. Although there is a tinge of communism about the place it has little to do with Marx or Lenin. The inspiration for the village Mayor, Sánchez Gordillo, is far more South American that northern European. The village has turned its back on the ruthless modernity of commercial capitalism. Although free enterprise can flourish in the village there is no place for large corporations. The villagers would simply not tolerate it. There are no advertising hoardings and no multinational branding.

Elements such as these remind us just a little of our own ‘Transition’ revolutionaries and their battles. Remember how much trouble Totnes got into when a noisy minority managed to keep Costa Coffee out of the town? It is an issue to which we shall return. Whereas the post 2006 anglo-Transition of Rob Hopkins talks about “manifestation” and “the power of doing stuff” the anarchists of southern Spain talk about the “propaganda of the deed“.

To understand why places like Marinaleda exist you have to understand the unique history and culture of Spain. [You also need to know a little bit more about what we call “communism”, socialism and the political left.] The author lays this all out for the reader so you don’t need more background reading. The context is all there. Historically the Andalusian culture rejected all authority from the outside. The region had a strong working class ethic built around a class of day labourers. A traditional feudal system kept these people landless through the time of Franco in a way that few in northern Europe could appreciate. They didn’t even belong in the traditional Union structure. They were a caste outside of the political establishment. Unpeople.

Into this ultra-local, micro-patriotic environment came the anarchist philosophy of Banukin and Kropotkin in the second half of the nineteenth century. There was a “non-Marxist” side to the First International. This side (the one few of us are familiar with, the non-Soviet version) preached communism WITHOUT the centralised bureaucracy. This alternative was to be formed with a federated network of “equal but autonomous communities“. Step-up Andalusia. Most of us remain ignorant of Spanish pre-war history, the Second Republic and the anarchist uprisings in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia in 1933. All was swept away by the Spanish civil war. After Franco the landed-interests lost some of their protection and today’s anarchist labour movements were resurgent. Their philosophy was radical but disinterested in Soviet or Leninist dogma. Today there is no hammer and sickle flying over Marinaleda and it spurns Soviet-style centralism.

“The power of elites,” Sánchez Gordillo once said, “even when they call themselves leftists, is always a tyranny.”

For the people of such tiny Andalusian villages the central government in Madrid represents a far-off “inauthentic power, capable only of misunderstanding, and repressing, their way of life.” Hence in this small corner of the world the people have become “unstuck” from the Globalisation experiment. And Capitalism doesn’t like it, as Hancox phrases it:

“…capitalistic realist rhetoric keeps asking the same thing of dissenters: what’s your alternative? It’s a rather terse rhetorical question: capitalist language is all about competition, but it doesn’t like competitors.”

Marinaleda offers the competition. A community based upon mutual aid and collectivism, not profit. It has stood resilient against the 2008 financial crash. Only 5% of the village is unemployed whereas the nearby towns tolerate 40 to 50% unemployment. Another world is indeed possible and they have shown the way. Marinaleda follows Spanish law in most respects and elects orthodox councillors like everyone else. What is unusual is that Marinaleda has no Police and no Priests. Other aspects seem more familiar; from the outset of their revolution the people of the village declared “the sovereignty of food“. For them it is a right, not a business.

The troubles of the 1970s and 1980 are over for Marinaleda. They won their battles and reaped the rewards. The future those is an undiscovered country. Another kind of utopia. The journey is hard and not helped by the myths conjured up by their critics. At many times in the book you read about how northern politicians or the landed aristocracy branded the southern poor communities as feckless or engaged in fraud. It would be typical to hear of how these dirt poor day labourers were allegedly spending their money on cars. Shades of the “Demonisation of the Working Class?” Even worse the local Socialist PSOE party had campaigned on a platform of xenophobic populism. They blamed illegal immigrants for the lack of work in Andalusia. Rolls eyes to heaven. [Thankfully they paid the penalty for this at the ballot box.] This seems to be the same propaganda regardless of time, place, language or culture – if you are poor it is your fault.

However there are aspects of Marinaleda’s history and culture than seem at odds with its ideals. Whereas its battle for land and food sovereignty seems agreeable and ‘just’, their ongoing dependency upon regional government for aid seems at odd with their culture of independence. They see no contradiction in the struggle for more and more concessions from the taxpayers of the big cities. As such this Spanish Transition & revolution still has much to learn from the Peak Oil and Climate Change driven anglo-Transition from the north of Europe. The “utopia” of Marinaleda is not built upon environmental idealism or romanticism.

Although we can draw important lessons from this it still leaves this Andalusian village woefully unprepared for the future. Hancox’s time in the village was nothing more than a snapshot and he dwells little on whether this model-society would sustain. This is not a village building wind farms or erecting solar water heaters. Despite their clement weather the author describes no solar farms locally. There seems to be only the cooperative farm owned by the community and even that was losing money in 2013. Some villagers were even suggesting it might be more efficient under private ownership. Most of the farm’s output is olive oil for export as a cash crop. We get no sense that the village has planned out their long-term niche in economic terms. As such it comes over as a valuable experiment but one that is backward looking and reactionary.

So what of the opposition? The socialist PSOE Part also have some representation in local democracy. [There is very little interest in the conservative PP in the region.] Hancox talks to one local PSOE Councillor about the dark side of the Marinaleda. He points out that Andalusia’s long term weaknesses stem from a lack of industry. An agrarian utopia is all very well but it cannot supply everything we have come to expect in a modern mixed economy. Another problem was the near cult-of-personality that had built up around the long term Mayor Sánchez Gordillo. Marinaleda was not North Korea, far from it, but Gordillo’s followers dominate the political outlook of the town. Other people do not feel welcome and do not participate in local democracy. PP & PSOE voters dismiss the local neighbourhood assemblies in Marinaleda as a “talking shop for members of the co-operative“. Some had even left the village (allegedly) out of fear. They simply did not fit in due to some disagreement with the Mayor. However it is hard to know if this is simply not a facet of local life true for all the pueblos in Andalusia

Since Sánchez Gordillo had dominated the Marinaleda revolution since the death of Franco. Few now could imagine it without him. He is their leader. Few are brave enough to speculate how it would continue without him. There was nothing malignant about the man but he has been at the top of his game for a very long time. He draw easy parallels to Venezuela’s former President Chavez. Elections are free and fair but there is tremendous loyalty to the Mayor built up through years of comradeship & shared struggle. Maybe it is time for the village to move on.

By 2012 the very local revolution in Marinaleda had become intertwined within the narrative of the global Occupy movement. The famous Mayor Gordillo of tiny Marinaleda became a folklore hero – a modern-day Robin Hood – when he lead a raid on local Andalusian supermarkets and distributed food to the poor and homeless. Sánchez Gordillo later said:

“People no longer care if it’s this party or another party, PP or PSOE; they want to change the system to one that isn’t capitalistic, with unions, parties and organisations that promote a different system, with human beings at the core. People are considered merchandise: while they’re profitable, they’re used, and when they’re no longer profitable, they’re discarded.”

It is hard not to agree with this sentiment. But still it is 2014 and Occupy is now fading away. Nothing has changed and we await the next big system crash in a world where Capitalism seems stuck in self-destruct mode. Nothing thrills me about this prospect. I am no fan of the alternatives and would prefer reform to revolution. But when you hit rock bottom where else is there to go but struggle?

The “Road to Serfdom” was written by the Austrian-born economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek in the 1940s. He warns of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of the economy through Soviet-style central planning. Somehow I am perpetually reminded of our road to serfdom as it plays out today. Not (of course) is this a road now paved with centralised socialism. Our road is paved with extremist, fundamentalist, state-Capitalism. It no longer matters which extreme you wish to pursue – the left or the right – the path to serfdom is guaranteed unless alternatives can be built. The village of Marinaleda started out in a post-Franco Spain with a political strata indistinguishable from the feudal system we read about in our history books. Their road to freedom was a form of ultra-local anarchism that had many inspirations. If anything it does prove that almost every myth we have come to belief about Communism is nothing more than the result of Cold War rhetoric.

Capitalism can chose to reform itself. That may work in some places. But where are such places in a Globalised & homogenised Global economy? So, maybe, just maybe, the village of Marinaleda is a glimpse of the future rather than a blast from the past.

So, what can the modern, northern-European, anglo-Transitioner, learn from this tale of a sleepy backwater in southern-Spain? Although I picked up this book expecting something like a more-sunny version of Totnes this is far from it. Its cultural and historical background is so foreign as to make it hard to draw comparisons. One is built upon endless social struggle against perceived oppressors, whilst the other is built upon green-tinged fears of the threats to our energy & climate security… However there are common threads.

They are both localist philosophies that start & end with local food security. They both spurn excessive centralised controlled and the intrusion of the corporatocracy. They prefer small enterprises and local worker-owned co-operatives as a way of organising the economy. [Note here also the Mondragon co-operatives in the Basque region of Spain much praised in Transition writings.] There is much to learn in both directions and we need this multitude of different experiments if we are to find our many roads to freedom.

What it proved to me is that you can reach the same economic conclusions as the Transition Movement even if you come from a very different place. You do not need Peak Oil. You don’t need a financial crash and you don’t need Climate Change. All of these make change imperative. But change will have to come anyway and there are better ways forward than the ill-fated path we are on today.

I hope that Marinaleda builds upon its success and starts to farm the wind and sun as well as the soil. I hope they win some economic independence from the big cities through some means of local currency as a form of monetary exchange. I hope the Transition movement might move beyond its environmental roots and a culture of fear (of climate change & peak oil) to adopt the wider benefits of the economic models it is pursuing. I believe we are largely there already. We just need to remain open minded.

I loved this book. It was a delightful read. A story of people and of struggle that can seem so alien to many of us. Yet it is an experiment that has worked; it holds so many lessons for those seeking roadmaps for whatever is to come. It remains a very human story. You will warm to the characters in the book. Sometimes earnest, at other times laugh-out-loud funny, you will not be disappointed.

Recommended. A small corner of a roadmap way from serfdom.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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