It seems appropriate to have read this book on the train back from celebrating the Liverpool bookshop News from Nowhere’s fortieth birthday party, since the shop and the village of Marinaleda, the subject of this book, share a utopian vision.
In the case of Marinaleda, the residents of this Andalusian pueblo turned their despair at poverty and landlessness into anger, occupied land near them and campaigned for land reform. Eventually the regional government quietly bought the land from one of the local mega-estates and passed it to the pueblo. But having the land was just the start. The local council, under the inspired leadership of Sanchez Gordillo, planted the area with crops that were labour intensive and which needed local processing – part of the grand plan which meant that local unemployment hovers around 5% while unemployment in similar pueblos has, in the current crisis, reached 40-50%. Marinaleda – with a population of under 3,000 also has communally built sports and leisure facilities and well-built, self-built, public housing. La Lucha, the struggle, has been waged for thirty-five years, often in the public eye, with mass hunger strikes, demonstrations and occupations to further the cause. And in turn the village supports other causes, the whole looked down on by murals of Che Guevara and socialist realist imagery.
Throughout, the council has been run by a small, local left wing party, elected and re-elected with substantial majorities. The council also organises cultural activities, rock concerts and decisions are taken by large mass meetings of the whole pueblo in which even children vote. That people are content is indicated by the consistent majority in favour of Gordillo’s party and the absence of crime in the pueblo. Indeed, the council breaks the national law by not employing police – there is no need for them.
Dan Hancox is wise enough as a writer to talk to the opposition, and there is some, though they come across as the kind of grumpy UKIP-types with chips on their shoulders. They moan that they don’t feel comfortable at community events – of course not, if they had their way there would not be any! More worrying is that the village’s progress has been based on the charismatic Gordillo, clearly now ill. Will there be a next generation of Gordillo supporters able to take the community forward? I’d like to think so, but Hancox indicates that young people, who benefit from la lucha but never lived through the hungry years, are attracted by the excitement of the cities.
I read the book in one sitting – train journeys are good for that – and have only three complaints. The first is the author’s overuse of the word unique. OK, the place is unique, and Andelusian culture is unique, and each pueblo is unique…. You get my point. The other is that Verso could have spent a little more on photographs. Elsewhere I’ve seen pictures of, for example, the housing in the pueblo and more images of the public spaces and surrounding countryside. The book gave me a feel for the place, but I wanted to see a bit more utopia while reading about it. My final point is the title, but the reverse is true in Marinaleda as the village is with the world, or at least wants a better one.