I Am Not Giuseppe Fanelli

Dan Hancox, Utopia and the Valley of Tears: A Journey Through the Spanish Crisis

Kindle Edition, 76pp, £3.60, ISBN (ASIN) B008YF7DRG

reviewed by Jamie Mackay

Emerging from a wasteland of empty satellite blocks and ghost allotments Marinaleda, a small town deep in the Andalucian countryside, harvests an optimistic challenge to the symbols of boom-time arrogance that have thrown Spain into a downward spiral of debt and unemployment. Wireless internet is free. Swimming in the public pool costs €3 a year. The public daycare centre costs €12 a month. Housing costs €15 a month and is owned by the collective. Family businesses are actively encouraged while chain stores are banned. There is no police force and there are no holding cells. The population works for free on the weekly ‘Red Sunday’ and all the while, taxes and employment remain at a steady rate.

Part travelogue and part political history, Utopia and the Valley of Tears details Dan Hancox’s pursuit of this anarcho-communist oasis in the midst of crisis-ravaged Spain. With Seville at its centre, the author’s journey transposes the physical and ideological footsteps of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (Secker & Warburg, 1938), the schoolboy recollections of which fuel his search for a communism outside of the brutal systems of Stalinist domination. Like Orwell’s memoir, the book steers clear of the technical minutiae of Marxist theory; Hancox’s siren song is not mired by the dogmas of doctrinal purity and Stakhanovite fantasy, but grounded in the real possibilities afforded by non-state forms of communism to sensitively facilitate a collective human experience. From interviews with tourists and hostel workers to Marinaleda’s eccentric mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, the voices of the town’s advocates and critics are allowed to flow unfiltered through long passages of direct speech where Hancox is happy to act as a conduit.

The result is a curious brand of gonzo journalism, the authorial voice owing as much to Hunter S Thompson as to Orwell. Trivial details are magnified in the meticulous descriptions of the interviewees’ physical appearance – ‘his zip-up sports jacket has what I think is a small toothpaste stain on the shoulder’ – while occasionally, as in the author’s account of his speech to a small congregation of activists at a meeting in Seville, Hancox’s own self-deprecating awkwardness bubbles to the surface:

When Bakunin’s lieutenant Giuseppe Fanelli made his legendary first proselytising addresses in Spain, he did so in Italian and French, and even though none of the Spanish workers spoke these languages, the force of his presence, and the tumult of his rhetoric, tipped the first rocks tumbling in the anarchist avalanche. I am not Giuseppe Fanelli.

High theory enthusiasts looking to pinpoint the symbolic role of liquidity within the discourse of the European crisis might be put off by this shoegaze personability, yet the meandering style and hybrid cocktail of influences compliment the complexities of the subject matter. The portrayal of Spain is affectionate and avoids the manufactured empathy so frequently peddled by the mainstream press. Even at its most blithe – ‘We stopped mid-route for a beer and some tapas in a mosaic-adorned bar by the bull ring – you’re not really supposed to walk more than 20 minutes without doing this in Sevilla’ - there is a kind of subversive playfulness at work; an implicit challenge to the dominant presentation of anarchism in the UK as a black-bloc frenzy of smashed windows and millenarian teens drooling for violence.

But if the aroma of chorizo and Cruzcampo occasionally overpower the clarity of analysis, there is a valuable historical narrative here. Hancox situates the Indignados movement (also known as 15-M, after the historic demonstration of 15 May 2011) and their departure from the representative process not just as the idiosyncratic project of a new generation of activists but within the nation’s collective memories of fascism. The national el pacto de olvido (pact of forgetting) lingers in the background of Hancox’s journey as the anarchic scepticism of any form of centralised state is positioned against a competing and widespread nostalgia for Franco’s patriarchy. In this context, Marindela itself emerges as a useful paradigm through which to place the Indignados but is simultaneously presented as the consolidation of a long Bakunian tradition; the modern face of Spanish anarchism’s tireless fight against fascism. Meanwhile the unique birth of 15-M within this context is punctuated by hard-hitting statistics which, cutting through the summery prose, lend the lie to right wing slurs of a ‘club med’ mentality: ‘In Spain 75% of the debt is private […] their debt as a share of GDP was much lower than Germany’s, in the summer of 2008.’

As an ambitious comparative exercise the book inspires and frustrates in equal measure. There is, of course, no British Marinaleda and Hancox seems uncertain as to whether there ever could be. The identification of this with national experience is left undeveloped. Nonetheless several explicit jabs at resistance movements in the UK, from a disparaging judgment of Occupy LSX’s dogmatic adherence to ‘consensus’ to a thinly veiled criticism of the Socialist Worker Party, suggest the steep incline of Britain’s path to utopia: ‘There were no wavy hands to indicate assent, no serious disagreement, and no card-carrying dogmatists trying to bring everything back to Lenin.’ It is at moments of cultural collision that the book is at its most radical, and despite an air of aloofness, Hancox’s own position frequently merges with that of Gordillo: ‘The bourgeoisie is pro-democracy only as long as democracy doesn’t touch their pockets. And if it does? If it does, they stop being democratic: they send the police they start a war, they stage a coup.’ This is the residual anger that fuelled the author’s previous work, Kettled Youth (Vintage Digital, 2011): the hunger for a new form of politics in opposition to the naive lionising of a Keynsian ‘golden age’. For while patient with his subjects Hancox is anything-but with the institutional channels of British democracy, including the liberal advocates of the welfare state: ‘The centre-left approach, of a compromise with capitalism is kaput: if someone won’t meet you half-way, it’s not a compromise anymore.’

Meanwhile, as public services across the UK continue to be doled out to further dilute the role of politicians, it is easy to empathise, and at its best Hancox’s fleeting glimpse of a faraway alternative provides an important stimulus for a political culture so lacking in agency and long-term vision. Indeed despite a lack of confidence regarding the British left, Hancox for one is keen to emphasise the importance of dealing with failure: ‘I’ve become used to being disappointed by politics, radical or otherwise. But what pleasure is there to be had from being pessimistic, and having your pessimism proven right?’ His fierce commitment is a refreshing reminder that meaningful opposition can still be achieved through cooperative labour, mass demonstration and a furious adherence to the principles of deliberative democracy.
Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. He is a contributor to VICE, the New Statesman, and Il Manifesto among others, and author of The Invention of Sicily, which is forthcoming from Verso.