“Utopias aren’t chimeras, they are the most noble dreams that people have. Dreams that through struggle can and must be turned into reality.” — Sanchez Gordillo
In The Village Against the World, British journalist Dan Hancox tells the real-life story of Marinaleda, a village of 2,700 residents in the Andalusian region of Spain. Marinaleda is remarkable because for the last 35 years the residents have lived and governed their village as a collective. Officially, they call their style of governance social-democratic. The village economy is largely communist, and the social structure is collectivist.
However, with the exception of their charismatic mayor, Sanchez Gordillo, most of the villagers know little to nothing about world-wide communism. They do not belong to the Communist Party or the IWW, and most have never read Marx. Instead, they have formed their village through struggle, through conversation, and with a simple ideology: ‘justice for all.’
The Marinaledans have done well for themselves. In 2013, Andalusia as a whole had an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent, yet in Marinelda,where the villagers are guaranteed work at the collective farm if they want it, unemployment was 5 percent. What’s more, villagers can purchase homes for as little as 15 Euros (20 USD) per month. There is free wifi throughout the village, and every villager can take advantage of the village athletic club. There are no police in Marinaleda because there is no crime. There are also collective meals, fiestas, and one Sunday a month a time to clean the streets together.
For these reasons, Marinaleda is often described by villagers and outsiders alike as a “utopia.” And this is what enticed Hancox to visit.
If you’re like me, you are skeptical about utopias. More often, I’m prone to think of utopia as, at best, unachievable, and, at worst, a thinly veiled opportunity for abuse. I come by this perspective honestly. My education, my socio-economic background, even the art and entertainment of our culture is stacked against utopia. In the U.S., the accepted history is that utopias are a failed social experiment and that collectivist dreams are nightmares pushed on unsuspecting populations by dictators and ideologues. Stalin and the Soviet Union; Castro and Cuba; Mao and China; Kim Jung Il and North Korea; Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam; Chavez and Venezuela.
Hancox attempts to deal with this Utopian tension in the Village Against the World. It is obvious that his sympathy lies with the villagers of Marinaleda. He wants to present them in the best light, and yet he comes to their utopia as an outsider, as someone for whom utopia is only a chimera.
The book is not a primer for revolution or utopia building, just as Marinaleda itself is not a how-to of city planning. In his exploration of the town, Hancox discusses some of the problems with the Marinaledan utopia: who gets to lead, how are resources allocated, reliance on federal subsidies, career opportunities for the young other than farming.
Marinaleda is not a perfect community by any means, yet what they have accomplished in alleviating poverty, moving toward a just society from the bottom up stands as a beacon to Spain and to the world. In this respect, they are the darling of radical politics for the moment.
The most important thing that can be learned from Marinaleda and from Hancox’s book is that questions must be asked. What kind of world do we want to live in? How can we create that world — not in the theoretical realm of “Washington” but in the every day world of our neighborhoods, our towns, our cities?
Marcel Proust famously wrote that “the ideal is not the real.” This is a truth that every idealistic dreamer must accept. Yet what Hancox and Marinaleda demonstrate is that utopia does not have to be only an ideal. The villagers of Marinaleda have achieved something extraordinary in their real world because they have struggled together for it. They looked at the world they were experiencing and asked, “how can we make this better.” Then, they set out to do so. They are a small and homogenous group, and they used this to their advantage. The changes they brought to being did not come from the government, but from the people, from the bottom up. They use the structure and resources of the statist government, but their actions begin and end with the people. This is a lesson we can learn and apply in our local government and even in our neighborhoods. We have the power to actualize our ideals. We have the opportunity to make real the ideal: whether that be fair housing, equal pay, healthcare, or poetry in the street. Utopia may not be perfect — nothing ever is — but it will be ours. Marinaleda shows the possibility, and this is the beauty of Dan Hancox’s book.