The Village Against the World
Posted on Nov 8, 2013
By Nomi Prins
Sánchez Gordillo, with “his trademark half-open shirt and prophet’s beard” and “almost messianic gestures,” is no stranger to polarized media attention. Charismatic and—until recently in his older age—tireless, he spent more than 30 years fighting alongside Marinaleda’s villagers for wealth redistribution, attracting and utilizing the press along the way.
Sánchez Gordillo became so well known that H&M, the clothing store chain, used his image as part of its “Zeitgeist” collection, plastering it on shirts with the words, “Food to the people! No world hunger!” But, as Hancox tells us, the company withdrew its design within four days, apologizing that it hadn’t intended “to take sides” and was “sorry if any customers have felt offended.” Even with capitalism ripping itself apart at the seams, “it was a sign,” Hancox writes, “of how charged the supermarket raids were ... that a message like ‘food to the people’ might be deemed ... offensive.”
In 1979, when Sánchez Gordillo was elected mayor of Marinaleda, the Franco era was over. Under Sánchez Gordillo’s leadership, farmers occupied part of a large estate, El Humoso, demanding possession of its land for farming that would provide locals with jobs. Surrounding land had been planted with labor-light crops like corn and sunflowers. The citizens of Marinaleda wanted to sow labor-intensive crops that would create more jobs, and establish a secondary processing industry. Their struggle was accompanied by a hunger strike in 1980 that drew the attention of the national press and TV, as well as the BBC, German TV, English, German, Catalan and French newspapers, and other media support. The event solidified Sánchez Gordillo’s nascent leadership. He became “la voz de los sin voz”—the voice of those without a voice. In April 1981, there was another hunger strike that secured a guarantee of four-days-per-week community employment for those without work. More strikes, protests and clashes with police continued for years.
Hancox recalls that Sánchez Gordillo once suggested to him that the House of Alba could invest their riches—from shares in banks and power companies as well as multimillion euro agriculture subsidies—to create jobs, but “they’ve never shown any interest in doing so.” It is not just the callousness of this inaction, but the bad economic sense that accompanies it, that so angered activists. If more people were employed, a more stable overall economic environment would arise—for everyone.
Finally in 1991, the slogan “the land belongs to the ones that work on it” was realized, as 1,200 hectares of land were expropriated from the Duke of Infantado and transformed into an agricultural cooperative, tending to labor-intensive root crops and olive groves, that provided every villager with work.
If this book was simply a one-sided leftist yarn, it would be harder to believe, but Hancox is careful to depict the positives and negatives of the village, its philosophy and its leadership.
External skeptics point out that nearly 70 percent of Marinaleda’s population lives off some form of subsidies from the EU, Spanish or Andalusian government. Others argue that Sánchez Gordillo tolerates no dissent, and that locals disagreeing with him or his philosophies have had to move to nearby towns. As one villager told Hancox of Sánchez Gordillo, “If you are not on his side, that puts you on the right, that makes you a fascist—and you are attacked, insulted and intimidated.” Hancox acknowledges that “unpicking the gossip from the facts is impossible,” but he concludes that whatever the concerns, elections are free and Sánchez Gordillo keeps winning them: “Again, and again, and again. He does so neither by slender, contestable margins, nor by margins so implausible that you’d be minded to send in UN election observers.”
Recently, the village has begun feeling, perhaps inevitably, effects of the broader economic crisis, as external subsidies are harder to come by, and demand for produce has waned. The question Hancox bids us to consider is whether the village can continue as it is. Its youth are increasingly unaware and uncaring of Marinaleda’s former struggle and history—and perhaps there’s more to life than farming. Without Sánchez Gordillo, will it possess the collective strength to continue fighting for its particular way of life?
This is part of a larger question: Is a collective ever truly a collective, or must it revolve around some critical center? Hancox points out several times, “Sánchez Gordillo is not everything.” But he is a lot. One villager tells Hancox, “Quite simply, everything that Marinaleda has won is thanks to Sánchez Gordillo. ”
“But one day,” Hancox replies, “well, the day will have to come when he. …” At this, the villager cuts him off: “When he’s no longer leader, in the future, the project will continue. The project is still the same, to create a Utopia, and that will continue.”
In the end, perhaps that utopian dream and its achievement, is itself the center. Marinaleda may not be perfect, or fully independent from its surroundings, but compared with the rampant economic decline of the rest of Spain and the rest of the world, it is a shining example of an alternative, with the ability to deflect many of the dangers of destructive speculative financial-political policy. That’s something to think about.
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