Review: Utopia and The Valley of Tears

More and Hythloday discuss Utopia

What is this thing we call Utopia? A question rarely asked outside of academic circles. So-called ‘Common sense’ would have us believe that ‘utopia’ is synonymous with absolute perfection. Yet even the slightest probing of the actual practice of writing utopia demolishes this illusion. Thomas More, William Morris, even Edward Bellamy to some extent; all looked askance on the world they were writing. More’s coining- ‘the good place that is no place’- infers only the perfection of its own ambiguity.

More, like Dan Hancox in his recent work Utopia and The Valley of Tears, saw fit to explain his island through the medium of a supposedly ‘real’ report. Hancox is an investigative journalist whose previous work, Kettled Youth was an exploration of the protest movements of 2010 and 2011 and the futureless young who populated them, so his presentation of an investigative report blends seamlessly with his work in mainstream mediums like the Guardian. Hancox himself maintains that Marinaleda is a real place,though, like More’s original Utopians and many of their inheritors, its citizens hardly ever seem to leave. The recently deceased Ernest Callenbach and his Ecotopia share a similar journalistic conceit, though a more accurate but lesser known work by Albert Meister set in a mirror of the Pompidou is a more fitting comparison. Add to this that Hancox has collaborated with arch-pranksters DSG, noted for their tactical use of disinformation, and Valley of Tears starts to emerge as a work in the high tradition of of fictitious utopia.

Unlike other Utopias, however, Hancox looks to no noticeable MacGuffin or science-fictive novum to bring his utopia into being, but rather the end of Francoism, economic hardship, and simple rural isolation. One has to admit that its a rather elegant and believable manoeuvre. If, as Oscar Wilde said, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing”, then Hancox should be praised for placing Utopia squarely back within the map, the space, of the contemporary; in stark contrast to many Utopias written under late 20th century capitalism, which relied on faraway planets, prophetic visions or future economic collapses (j’accuse, Le Guin, Robinson, Piercy).

Annares: the Setting for U. K. Le Guins Anarcho-Syndicalist ‘ambiguous utopia’

The economic collapse, which in so much fiction, heralded the arrival of the coming society, is here. Writers can no longer rely on such a deus ex oeconomia to give justification for their visions; to be an author of utopia today is to position oneself in direct confrontation with the economic system. It is often forgotten that More spent book one of Utopia on a pseudo-socratic dialogue about the economic evils of his age, especially enclosure; “The increase of pasture,’ said I, ‘by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men…”.

The decision to set this utopia in contemporary Spain is a smart move: As Tudor England did, Spain today faces the spatial failure of capital as development projects shut down, countless houses are built which are never occupied yet thousands go homeless, and neoliberal follies squat on public space. Before the crash neo-liberalism never truly denied utopianism, but instead aggressively asserted that it was the only true utopia.

The ‘Mushroom’, Sevilla: the world’s biggest wooden structure.

In Hancox’s Marinaleda these economies reflect in the red mirror of communism. Yes, the orgy of house-building, but no profits, no reason other than need. Mass employment well above the national average, but in agriculture, decidedly material labour (contrast this with the recent announcement that a ‘digital media centre’ will create 4000 jobs in the London Olympic ‘legacy zone’). It is run, we are told, as a kind of ‘benevolent dictatorship’ by its Mayor, who represents a left version of what Slavoj Zizek terms ‘ubuist power’ we know better from Berlusconi or Johnson; a slightly ridiculous figure, with possible marital problems, a penchant for hyper-cliche imagery, but a ruthless realism and tenacity to bring forward his vision of the world; “Utopias aren’t chimeras, they are the most noble dreams that people have. Dreams that through struggle, can be and must be turned into reality”.

Unlike the island-founder Utopus, Juan Gordillo is not written as a leader with singular vision, but one who represents the plurality and multiplicity of the modern left, willing to reach out. “Above all,” Gordillo concludes, “we have learned from our own experience. All those systems of thought are valid, but we don’t have one system of thought: we take from several of them – and above all, from our practical experience.”. One suspects Hancox is drawing on William Morris’ words in News From Nowhere that “men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name”; in other words: fail, fail again, fail better. Given the historical tendency of the left to defend failed projects in their totality, Hancoxs decision to take this position yet still call his utopia communist is a significant ideological turn.

Spanish Anarchists in the Civil War

Written utopias are often depictions of whole nations, whole planets, or at the very least totally-self contained communities that constitute their whole world. Recent attempts to go look past this approach, such as Bruce Sterling’s ‘islands in the net’ and Hakim Bey’s ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ have become overcoded with neoliberal and individualistic tendencies. Unlike these, communism restores the common to the centre of a political project. Communism is also an active position; “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things”. A communist utopia in the post-soviet era is not a disengaged place to move towards, is is an active political recombination that is moving against.

15M, Sevilla

Moving against what? Marinaleda is written as an active participant in the 15M movement. This mobilization of millions in 2011 represents an ‘actually happening’ mass movement that took place, born out of frustration with mainstream institutional politics and its ability to deliver alternatives to austerity. It also provides the key to why Hancox has chosen to write his Utopia on such a small scale. Hancox attempts to plot the intersections between real left-wing movements from the traditional left in Spain, 15M, and the fictional Marinaleda; those familiar with his work on the way the grime scene in London fed into the student protests, and the ways the students chose to reject the purely representational politics of the NUS, will know the significance small groups can have in giving form to a movement while resisting the temptation of programmatic politics. Emergent work being done on the boundaries of the academy and social movements is starting to rethink the role these sorts of groups and forces have in ‘leadership’ in ‘leaderless’ movements.

Utopia no longer stands outside the world and calls to us, prescribing solutions- if it ever did. It is an active participant in the world and is in confrontation with the present state of things. Any written utopia has to contend with, and acknowledge, this ‘problem’. The fiction of Marinaleda is in the process of recognizing its reality as a utopia, but hasn’t quite got there…yet.

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