The Village Against the World, by Dan Hancox - book review: why there is such a thing as society in southern Spain

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The village of the title is the anarchist-communist pueblo of Marinaleda in the heart of Andalusia in southern Spain. It's a good-news story in a country hit hard after the housing bubble burst in 2008. Whereas Andalusia has youth unemployment of over 50 per cent, Marinaleda's employment is reported to be 95 per cent. In Spain at large, nearly half a million families have been evicted since 2008. In Marinaleda, 350 new houses have been built by their occupants. In the face of a hollowed-out national democracy serving the interests of the elite, Marinaleda makes decisions in weekly open assemblies.

Can it be all it seems? Hancox is an enthusiastic and partial guide. His easy-going prose is a pleasure to read; the village and its characters well drawn. The charismatic mayor Sanchez Gordillo's beard is an "unruly socialist mess" and later, "a beard that could topple empires". And while Hancox is sympathetic he's not sycophantic.

While opponents might want to brush the project aside as a historical anachronism, its roots go deep. After a decade of forceful – but non-violent – struggle, the marinaleños were given 1,200 hectares of land in 1991. But Spain's anarcho-communist tendency stretches back beyond even the short-lived 1936 revolution to at least 1873, when Francisco Pi y Margall instituted what Hancox describes as "the world's first and only anarchist nation state". Indeed, some have argued that anarchism is the natural state of the country, particularly in the south where each village has its own distinct character and there is a strong tradition of mutual aid forged through the necessity of poverty.

Hancox visits a vast worker's co-op during the olive harvest and dresses up to join in the revelry of the pre-Lenten carnival. He leaves us with a set of conflicting signals about what might lie ahead for Marinaleda. A new wave of headline-grabbing direct actions in 2012 – the expropriation of essential food supplies from supermarkets for redistribution to the poor, occupations of military land and an aristocrat's palace, and a three-week march across the south calling for a debt strike by local councils – has given the project a new profile. But Marinaleda was born from grim circumstances and, as one resident suggests, "The crisis is not just here, but everywhere… this can be a beacon for the world if we remake it and start again."