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Utopia and the Valley of Tears

Dan Hancox traces the history and importance of Marinaleda, a small communist utopia in Spain's Andalucia region

Dan Hancox has long been fascinated by Marinaleda, a small communist utopia in Andalucia, southern Spain. Last winter he travelled there to meet its crusading mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, and has since written a book, 'Utopia and the Valley of Tears', about his trip into the unknown. More recently, Gordillo has become the subject of international news, dubbed Spain’s “Robin Hood” after staging robberies at supermarkets to feed poor families suffering under Spain’s economic crisis. Andalucia is one of the regions hardest hit by the crisis, with 34-per cent unemployment. In Marinaleda, thanks to a system that values jobs over efficiency, unemployment is only six per cent.

The fascinating thing about Marinaleda is the message they’ve been pushing for some time: to make the lives of the people in this small town better

Dazed Digital: What brought you to Marinaleda?
Dan Hancox: I heard about it a number of years beforehand, but couldn’t work out a way of getting there. It was only last year that I was lucky enough to happen upon someone in London from Estepa, the nearest reasonably sized town. He couldn’t believe I had heard about this crazy local curiosity. But now Gordillo has risen to such prominence. He’s regularly on the front page of the Spanish newspapers – a kind of rallying figure for the anti-austerity movement. It has been amazing to watch him emerge in the struggle against [Prime Minister] Rajoy’s cuts, which are only just beginning.

DD: How successful do you think he can be with that?

Dan Hancox: It’s a good question – can this bizarre but completely, I think, successful experiment in creating a communist utopia in a small town be replicated? He would say; 'yes, of course it can be replicated all you have to do is struggle hard enough'. He is full of this fantastic rhetoric about making the impossible the reality. The conditions that allowed Marinaleda happen were unique to that town. After the death of Franco there was a lot of confusion. They took advantage of the situation but they struggled extremely hard. It took them about 12 years to get the land around the village by repeatedly occupying it and being arrested and being imprisoned and doing it again, as well as occupying airports and going on hunger strikes.

DD: Do you think the authorities will eventually get tough on Gordillo, because he is showing an alternative?
Dan Hancox: Gordillo must worry them immensely. The fascinating thing about Marinaleda is the message they’ve been pushing for some time: to make the lives of the people in this small town better. They did that during the Spanish economic miracle, when capitalism was bringing fresh riches to everybody. Its complete collapse has left Marinaleda standing strong, surrounded by places with abject levels of poverty and unemployment. As a beacon in the darkness of capitalism, it’s no wonder it’s shining stronger than ever.

DD: The end of the book feels like a bit of a call to action, to get people thinking of alternatives in the UK.
Dan Hancox: I think what has underscored the fight against austerity in this country is the constant argument of ‘Well this is what you are against but what are you for – what’s the alternative?’ This is part of the reason I was so eager to go and visit Marinaleda. How could you come up with an alternative to capitalism? Well someone already has! You could argue about how possible it is to apply the model they have there in other places, but in that context it works very well and that’s a really good starting point. Just a glimmer of possibility. The awareness of another way of organising economically and socially, with different principles other than ‘profit’ and ‘efficiency’. The crops that they grow in Marinaleda are deliberately not efficient. They want to create enough jobs for everyone, so they’re planting artichokes and tomatoes and other things that are quite labour intensive and need canning afterwards.

DD: Is it something you will go back to after this book?

Dan Hancox: I’m going back over the winter to write the full history of Marinaleda as a book for Verso which will be published at the end of next year. While I am in Spain I hope to meet the protesting miners, student protesters and visit the places where they have abolished money – they are now trading in kind in some villages in the north. There a lot of really interesting things going on in Spain at the moment and this is just the beginning.

Utopia and the Valley of Tears is available on Kindle now. Come back to Dazed Digital in the next few days for profiles on a new, creative generation of Spaniards. Check out the Dazed & Confused October issue for more such profiles, an introduction by Begona Gomez Urzaiz and a text by Dan Hancox, asking 'Is Spain heading for a revolution?'