It can be hard for those of us who see ourselves at the progressive end of the political spectrum to not feel like we spend all our time trying to stop bad things from happening; wars, austerity cuts, fracking, obscene banker bonuses... There is no shortage of things we want to put an end to – the worlds of national and international politics are basically made of such things, not to mention a fair bit of more local political discussions.
Thus, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves spending a disproportionate amount of our time fighting against, rather than building for, as though, without whatever the latest atrocity we are protesting, the status quo would represent the perfect world we dream of living in.
This may be a significant reason why more people aren’t inspired to take part in the kinds of opposition we do; they aren’t content to simply be against something, without at least an inkling of something inspiring to support, should we succeed in stopping the latest excess or atrocity.
Luckily, the bad news we spend so much time fighting isn’t the whole story – far from it, in fact.
Another story has been playing out in the south of Spain for more than thirty years. In the ashes of the Franco dictatorship, the Andalusian town of Marinaleda took the first steps towards a very different way of living together. Through a combination of hunger strikes, marches, land expropriations, media stunts and cooperative ownership, the town became what some describe as a ‘communist utopia’ in the middle of the economic wasteland that is most of Spain in 2014.
British journalist Dan Hancox spent time in Marinaleda trying to discover the town that exists between the hyperbolic descriptions of paradise readily dispensed by the town’s charismatic mayor, and the hate vitriol of the country’s more conservative elements. His story, published as The Village Against the World, is balanced, inspiring, and an enjoyable read.
The especially good news though, is that, all-in-all, the town lives up to much of its promise. Built on principles largely counter to those of the free market, Marinaleda has shown what it can look like for a town of nearly 3,000 people to live together in a sustainable, cooperative and democratic fashion, even if surrounded by communities and economies built on very different values.
Hancox’ doesn’t accept the glowing accounts of the town at face value, nor does he cynically poke holes through every minute inconsistency between rhetoric and reality. Instead, he gives space to both Marinaleda’s champions and its critics, and comes to the conclusion that the town is indeed imperfect, but far less so than any of its counterparts around Spain, where unemployment and poverty have been the dominant narratives since the global financial crisis took hold.
“Our aim was not to create profits, but jobs,” Marinaleda’s bearded leader, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo told Hancox. “This philosophy,” Hancox writes, highlighting the philosophical roots of the town’s political project, “runs directly counter to the late-capitalist emphasis on ‘efficiency’ – a word which has been elevated to almost holy status in the neoliberal lexicon, but in reality has become a shameful euphemism for the sacrifice of human dignity at the altar of share prices.”
Since Gordillo won the local elections in 1979 and became the town’s first elected mayor after the death of General Franco, he sparked a journey that few would have imagined possible. In the coming decades, Sánchez Gordillo led the occupation of farmland owned by a local aristocrat, eventually winning the community rights to it; supported local infrastructure development; opened a processing plant for olives (providing further local employment), and began to build basic homes for residents, who only pay 15 Euros per month for their mortgage.
While there is little in the way of public criticism of ‘el alcalde’ (as Gordlllo is affectionately described by his supporters), there is also minimal censorship of the town’s less-radical minority. Hancox effectively questions the contradictions of a town built on democratic principles, which isn’t entirely friendly to its own critics, but still comes to the conclusion that the costs of opposing Gordillo are relatively minor inconveniences, compared to the level of challenge the community faces from outside forces.
Marinaleda is a town that appears guilty of a certain degree of hero worship, a question that has led many to question its future, in a time after the aging Sánchez Gordillo passes on. It also has a critical, yet highly-dependent relationship on the wider state, which creates other vulnerabilities for the local project. However, this can’t hide what the town has been able to achieve.
Dan Hancox’ writing occasionally gets stuck in overly-extended anecdotal prose, but otherwise offers a beautifully winding journey into and around a kind of community that few of us have ever experienced. That said, I would argue that Marinaleda is in fact less unique than many might believe when reading Hancox’ book. A year spent in the south of Mexico introduced me to another town that had taken a similar approach; Capulalpam de Méndez, Oaxaca.
The people of Capulalpam had succeeded, through collective decision making processes and direct action, in evicting a Canadian gold and silver mining company in 2007. Not only that, they rebuilt the community on the basis of community-owned businesses, eco-tourism, and the ‘techio,’ a Zapoteco indigenous tradition, in which locals ‘pay tax’ by taking part a range of essential community services. The town’s leaders regularly denounce capitalist encroachment on their area and have taken a range of direct actions to fight-off the circling vultures of international mining, still hungry to rip the last traces of mineral wealth from the local hillsides.
...Which is all a way of saying that Marinaleda – like Capulalpam – may be unique, but that neither town’s story should be dismissed as pure anomaly (and thus something the rest of us are unable to learn from); quite the opposite. Like the Zapatista communities in Mexico, they encourage those inspired by their efforts to come and see how they have been able to do what they have done, in order to bring inspiration from these experiments back home with them.
And with that in mind, I’m planning a trip to the south of Spain. Thank you Dan Hancox for highlighting a much-needed example of the kind of reality all of us concerned about creating a better world could be fighting to grow. Let’s not let its learning pass us by!