In the 1980s, perhaps in reaction against the suffocating atmosphere of Thatcher’s Britain, there was a tremendous appetite for knowledge about and if possible direct contact with inspiring political and social movements in other countries. Many seemed to offer hope for the kind of progressive change that no longer seemed possible in the UK. With someone who quickly became a friend, Rhys Evans, I worked to establish a link with one of those. We jointly helped form the relationship that still exists between our city of Leicester and the town of Masaya in Nicaragua, following separate visits we both made to see the early fruits of the 1979 Sandinista revolution.
Among the various projects that we began to pursue, one that Rhys inspired and brought to fruition was a trip to Masaya by a brigade of young people that took place in 1988. But Rhys’s interest in particular had widened beyond Nicaragua to take in various other struggles for autonomy, one of which was taking place in Andalucía, Spain’s most south-western province.
We jointly paid a short visit there to see the activities of a rural trade union, called the SOC (‘Sindicato de Obreros del Campo’), which was trying to take over largely unused farmland on the huge estates owned by Spanish landed gentry such as the Duchess of Alba. The SOC wanted this land to benefit the poor day labourers who had no fixed work and were paid pitiful wages in a region where most employment depended on these absent aristocrats. We met their leader Diego Cañamera, a quietly inspiring character who was under threat of imprisonment for organising the land takeovers. We visited a model farm where the SOC was already attempting to practice what it preached, and was to feature as an experience in the development of the young people’s brigade just mentioned, who would go there to help clear fields and learn from the farm labourers’ political journey.
A year or two later I made another trip to Andalucía, again to visit the SOC and catch up on their political work. I was able to visit the small village of Marinaleda, where a SOC member, Juan Manuel Gordillo, had successfully become mayor and had begun to transform the community. I recall particularly the self-build housing scheme, where local people could get land and materials and, under instruction, build their own very attractive houses for monthly repayments of (what is now) only 15 euros. I visited several delighted housebuilders and occupants.
I have often since wondered what became of the SOC, its leaders, and the village of Marinaleda. The answers are provided in this new book, The Village against the World, by Dan Hancox, who has spent much time there on several different visits and clearly now knows the village and its people very well. Remarkably, Gordillo is still mayor after 34 years; although, according to Hancox, showing signs of strain, in part because he and the village have been cast in new roles since the financial crisis and the emergence of Spain’s indignados. Suddenly, Marinaleda gained new relevance as an example that had bucked the capitalist trend, a trend that had failed even more spectacularly in Spain (and of course Greece) than in the rest of Europe. Protestors and journalists had beaten a path to the village and Gordillo had become a political celebrity. This wasn’t just because of the history, but because the SOC (now reborn as the wider Andalucía Workers’ Union) has engaged in new forms of civil disobedience, taking over banks and peacefully raiding supermarkets to take away food to distribute to those who now can’t afford to buy it.
It is a remarkable story, even more so to someone who had a small taste of it near its beginning. Marinaleda stands out as an example, albeit one yet to be repeated even in adjoining villages and towns, and in a Spain that nevertheless elected a right-wing government last time round. Hancox gives us a well-written and entertaining story, although one that is light on criticism (and has a singularly misleading cover drawing of the ‘village’).
The limitations of what has really been achieved were to me highlighted by one of the subjects on which Hancox focuses: land reform and agricultural labour practices. On our first visit so long ago, Rhys and I were struck by the virtually feudal means of conscripting labour that then existed, not long after the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Labourers would present themselves for work on a daily basis, a number would be selected and the rest would return to their homes. Pay was extremely low, but the selection system also determined who was eligible for the even lower unemployment payments that were in theory available. Anyone who had not worked a certain number of days wasn’t eligible: this of course meant that trade union members and other troublemakers, who were never picked for work, were virtually penniless.
Incredibly, something like this system still obtains in the region, albeit that the trade union has succeeded in reducing its harshness. And of course, in the rest of the world, labour practices have regressed towards the model of rural Andalucía, with the introduction of zero-hour contracts and other horrors of neo-liberalism. It’s great news that Marinaleda survives and still inspires, but we need so many more examples of its kind.