Spain is not merely a cultural museum for outsiders

One book that recognises this, and one that fails to do so.

The Village Against the World
Dan Hancox
Verso, 288pp, £14.99

The Train in Spain: Ten Great Journeys Through the Interior
Christopher Howse
Bloomsbury Continuum, 256pp, £16.99

One consequence of the eurozone crisis has been a shift in British perceptions of southern Europe. The return of widespread poverty to countries previously seen as perpetual holiday zones has revived memories of the old continental divide between the industrialised north and the fundamentally peasant, agrarian south, where Greece, Spain and Portugal laboured under postwar fascism. So the publication of two new books about Spain, both from the serious end of freelance journalism, seems to be particularly opportune.

Yet neither book pretends to offer an analysis of that country’s current situation. Instead, Dan Hancox’s The Village Against the World tells the story of Marinaleda in Andalusia, a communist community of 2,700 people functioning – just – within the contemporary state. As Hancox shows, the experiment has real significance in raising Andalusian political awareness and as a model of how to redistribute agricultural wealth and control.

Local knowledge of individual rights and of the needs of Andalusia as a whole springs from the region’s historic and contemporary rural poverty. In the 1930s, on estates belonging to the family from whom the marinaleños would eventually win independence, “Starving labourers who attempted to plough the fallow land were beaten by the police.” In the 1980s, 50 per cent of Andalusian farmland was owned by 2 per cent of the area’s families.

One of the questions to which Hancox returns in his thoughtful, take-nothing-for-granted account is whether tough conditions necessarily produce resistance or whether effective action needs a charismatic leader such as Marinaleda’s mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo.

So this engaging book is as much a study of idealism in practice as it is of life in a highly unusual pueblo. Hancox lets us experience village routine without pretending to know more than he does or resorting to “funny because it’s foreign” clichés. When he encounters a heatwave, for example: “You try and sweep the dust off your patio, one marinaleña told me, and find yourself dripping sweat straight on to the floor you’re supposed to be cleaning.”

The respectful, intelligent writing places the villagers at the centre of their own story – and that story is fascinating. The Village Against the World discovers the near-feudal patterns of Andalusian land ownership, recounts the pueblo’s struggle with the local landowner and ends with questions about whether Sánchez Gordillo will continue to lead the village in years to come.

Marinaleda’s struggle first became widely known in the 1980s. In 2012, it was back in the news when Sánchez Gordillo led a series of symbolic raids on Andalusian supermarkets, “redistributing” goods to impoverished locals. These gestures of solidarity with the poor beyond its own community illustrate what Marinaleda stands for: a belief that the land “belongs to those who work it”, in “the sovereignty of food” and that food is “a right and not a business”. Its project is utopian, not locally self-interested; its resistance is not only to the state but to the workings of global capital. The village-owned olive-pressing factory, bars and outdoor theatre that Hancox visits are the fruits of a six-year campaign of land occupations, hunger strikes and battles of principle that finally ended in 1991, when the government granted the villagers 1,200 hectares from the duke of Infantado’s extensive estates.

Landowners also feature in Christopher Howse’s The Train in Spain: “Born in 1926 . . . the 18th duchess of Alba . . . inherited seven dukedoms, 19 marquessates and 23 titles . . . She attracted attention by her wealth, gusto and mischievous disposition . . . Her palaces and works of art were breathtaking.”

Howse isn’t interested in the cost of those “palaces and works of art” or the workings of Spanish society. Legends, architecture and the local history of the wealthy cram the pages of his tourist guide with busily researched detail. To some extent, this justifies the astonishingly brief introduction to the book and its raison d’être. “This is a book about Spain, not about trains,” the first sentence reads, before Howse, in the next, boards a “single-carriage train . . . in the foothills of the Pyrenees”.

But is it? This is not a study of how Spain became its contemporary self. It isn’t concerned with climate or citizenship, cultural life or economics. It doesn’t even reveal Howse’s passion for Spain: curiously, this travelogue omits the first-person singular. The omission produces stylistic distortion. When Howse and his companion eat in Sahagún, “Only a man and a woman were dining . . . They ate a plate of jamón, then a leg of lamb. There were kidneys on the menu, too.” It also seems to distort the book as a whole, making it feel oddly purposeless.

Slow travel is about quality, not quantity; flavour, rather than flavourlessness. Trains allow their passengers to see the context of a country’s great cities, the influences and resources that have produced local culture and Culture. The traveller sits right next to a country’s citizens instead of observing them from a hotel terrace.

Yet the coherence and chaos of contemporary life – and of the forces that shape it – are missing from Howse’s account. It’s as if he has forgotten that Spain is a society that exists for itself, rather than a cultural museum for outsiders. Perhaps he travelled first class.

Fiona Sampson is the editor of Poem. Her latest book is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10)

Mayor of Marinaleda and member of the regional Andalusian parliament representing the United Left (IU) party Manuel Sanchez Gordillo (R) embraces an activist of the Andalusian Union of Workers Union (SAT) as they take part in a protest. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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