Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina – Excerpts from New Book

In late 2001 the Argentine economy collapsed. People’s bank accounts were frozen and the State offered nothing by way of a solution – the people went out into the streets, banging pots and pans, singing que se vayan todos (they all must go), and with popular power forced out four consecutive governments.

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted work from the new book, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina, by Marina Sitrin, Zed Books (September 18, 2012).

From the Preface

In late 2001 the Argentine economy collapsed. People’s bank accounts were frozen and the State offered nothing by way of a solution – the people went out into the streets, banging pots and pans, singing que se vayan todos (they all must go), and with popular power forced out four consecutive governments. While the governments were being forced out, and as a product of being in the streets together, they began to look to one another and organize in horizontal assemblies – on street corners, in workplaces and unemployed neighborhoods. Hundreds of thousands became engaged in autonomous self-organized projects (autogestión), finding ways to support one another and solve their problems – together and horizontally. Land and workplaces were recuperated, a barter network of millions of people developed and the movements linked with one another. The State and forms of representation were the problem; autogestión, autonomy and horizontalism were the tools for creating new subjectivities and dignity.

I never would have imagined, strong as my imagination is, that ten years after the popular rebellion in Argentina, millions of people around the world would be organizing in such similar ways. Much in the same way as in Argentina, people around the globe are rejecting representational politics, while simultaneously experimenting with forms of direct democracy, autonomy and direct action, from Cairo and Athens to Madrid, New York, London, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Reykjavik, and so many other thousands of cities, towns and villages around the world. In these thousands of locations people are using public space to assemble and create new relationships. Creating alternative forms of power – not looking to the State or institutional powers as their point of reference, but instead looking to one another. Often these people are using the language of horizontalidad, horizontalism or horizontality.  This myriad of occurrences makes the reflections on the lessons and challenges of the autonomous movements in Argentina all the more important and urgent. For example, what happened to the massive neighborhood assemblies, recuperated workplaces and unemployed movements there? Do they still practice horizontalidad? What sorts of structures have evolved? What about the question of autonomy and the relationship to the State? Have people begun to create a path that is “with, against and beyond the State”, as many claim they desire? The goal of these pages is to help answer these questions, and simultaneously open-up more questions, based in the current global practices – with the desire to go further and get closer toward freedom.

The Global Emergency Break

“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on the train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency break.” Walter Benjamin’s words, written decades ago, resonate perfectly with what has been going on across the globe from the 2001 popular rebellion in Argentina – to the 2010 – 2012 and ongoing uprisings and movements.

The Zapatistas emerged in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1994, declaring a resounding “Ya Basta!” (Enough!), in Argentina, in 2001 the popular rebellion sang, “Que Se Vayan Todos!” (Everyone Must Go!) and in Spain and Moscow the slogan was, “You do not represent us!”, and in Egypt they declared Kefaya! (Enough!). In that moment, the scream of ‘No!’ – these people pulled the emergency brake. In the US, we are the 99%, in Spain Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy!) and in Argentina it was/is Horizontalidad and autogestión. It is not about asking for power; it is about creating a different power. It is not about asking liberal democracy to be democratic, but rather, about creating real democracy.

From Chapter Five:

Power & Autonomy – Against and Beyond the State

It is the evening of December 21th 2001. Hundreds of thousands are in the streets of Buenos Aires, watching the helicopter that holds the president and Minister of the Economy take off. They have resigned. Dozens of government officials and members of the judiciary have resigned and are hiding out, no one even knows the official number. If they appear anywhere in public they are followed and harassed. They fear for their safety. Despite the State of Siege the people dominate the streets. In fact, because of the State of Siege even more people came out into the streets. They are singing and greeting one another. They are helping each other escape police repression. Many cafes and restaurants open their doors to everyone in the street. Food, water and refuge are provided. Many thousands of people are in the square in front of the Pink House, the same square where the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo have been walking twice a week since the dictatorship of the 1970s, bravely demanding the appearance of their children. These protestors, now both young and old, are survivors of the dictatorship and children of the dictatorship, they are all in the same square. All children of the same history. They are proudly and bravely demonstrating. In a flash, seemingly out of nowhere, police move in on a few hundred protesters, those closest to the Pink House …  the protesters run. They jump over the fence to the Pink House and get close to the doors. There is no one blocking the doors. There are hundreds of thousands in the street. The president has fled. Who is the government? What is the government? Should they go in? Should they take over? Is that where power is? …

They stop.

They turn around.

They go to back to the neighborhoods … look to one another … and begin

This chapter examines what movement participants mean whey they say they are rejecting power, creating alternative power, and doing so autonomously. It will discuss the definitional and sociological meanings of these terms and then distinguishes and expands upon these definitions. It also begins to engage with social scientists who critique the movements largely because of their different analysis of and strategy toward power.

[A] Power

Power was no longer located in a Pink House or in the State. Power was and is being created in and amongst people in the new autonomous social movements. No matter what tactics people were choosing in a particular moment, the consensus was clear, power, the sort of power they desire, the power they are creating, is not located in the State or formal institutions of power. What they are creating and theorizing are new and different forms of power. It is living and changing power, it is power as potential and capacity. Some people have come to call it potencia, distinguishing the relational and active interpretation of the word.[1] Others simply put it that power is a verb and not a noun. The State holds power as a thing, something to wield over others, when really power is a verb, something one creates, uses and shares. There are also many people and groups in the various movements who say they want to destroy power, all power, there is not the same analysis of power being potential and positive, it is seen as only something that is bad and is used against or over others. Over time, specifically the past ten years, many in the movements in Argentina who first argued for the destruction of all power, later came to have a more nuanced interpretation of power, seeing it as something positive if used in a horizontal way, yet still as a verb and not a thing.

From Chapter Six:

Autogestión, Territory and Alternative Values

The autonomous movements in Argentina, as with the Zapatistas of Chiapas, are autogestiónando, self-managing and self organizing, many aspects of their sustenance and survival. It is not only that people are making food together and doing so using horizontalidad, or running a factory together, producing metal or ceramics, or creating new schools and forms of cooperative education, all of which they are, but by doing this together, creating new relationships to production and sometimes even exchange, and in the process creating a new set of value relationships – ones that push and break with the rules of capitalist forms of production. Value is, perhaps, no longer something that is defined by the capitalist market or capitalist economic relations. The value of what is created, and how, in the autonomous communities is not measurable by the market or the system of value exchange. As seen with the system of barter, described in chapter 3, where the value of the good or service exchanged is decided by those involved in the process, and on their needs, rather than the market value placed on that good or service. Or, as in the case of the unemployed movements developing schools where what is taught and how is decided by the movement and the community, and the only “cost” of the education is participation. And again with the recuperated workplaces, where time and again, solidarity is the choice over extra labor hours, or even in place of labor time. These new relationships are still quite new, and still exist under capitalist relations, but these new forms, as will be discussed in this chapter, create new ways of being, individually and socially, and demonstrate the beginning of breaks in the capitalist mode of production.

This chapter will detail what autogestión is, what the specific movements are developing using autogestión, and then reflect on the possible meanings and implications with respect to capitalist modes of production. Movements discussed are: the recuperated workplaces, creating within the spaces of a factory or workplace; the unemployed movements, creating on and within the urban peripheries, building homes and producing various forms of self sufficiency; the neighborhood assemblies, focusing in particular on the elaborate barter network developed, where goods and services were bartered by millions of people; and last, the autogestión in day to day creation with art and media groups. I will then explain the importance of territory, as specific geographic location, in this creation. Finally I will show that taken together, autogestión, horizontalidad and the creation of new subjectivities in territories, creats a new sort of value production, one sometimes outside the system of capitalist domination, – breaking from the profit motive, alienation and capitalist relationships in the day to day relationships to production.[2]

Table of Contents



Introductory Chapter: From Ruptures to revolutionary Landscapes

.1         19th and 20th December 2001, Argentina – A Crack in History

.2         Walking … and Slowly

Chapter One: Historical Context Argentina

1.1       1990s, HIJOS and the Escrache

1.2       1960s and 1970s Revolutionary Armed Struggle

1.3       Peronism and Evita’s Corpse

1.4       Radical Labor Movement

1.5       Conclusion

Chapter Two: Popular Rebellion and Rupture

2.1       Rupture – To Break is to Open

2.2       Rupture and Creation in Geographic Space and Time

2.3       The Future in the Present – Forms of Creation

2.4       Argentina

2.5       Rupturing “no te metas” and fear

2.6       From Dignified Worker to Dignity

2.7 Mapping New Movements

Chapter Three: Horizontalidad

3.1       The Story of Questions

3.2       Argentina

3.3       Origin of Horizontalidad

3.4       Challenges to Horizontalidad

3.5       Horizontalidad Continues as a Tool and Goal

Chapter Four: Affective Politics & New Subjectivities

4.1        Protagonism, Subjectivity and New Language

4.2         Affective Politics

4.3        Decision Making & Affective Politics: SNCC and Feminism

4.4       Personal is Political

4.5       Beloved Community

Chapter Five: Power & Autonomy – Against and Beyond the State

5.1        Power

5.2        Power and the State

5.3        Rejection of the State?

5.4        Autonomy

5.5        Autonomy and Conflict Resolutions

5.6        Autonomy in Chiapas, Mexico

5.7        Conclusion

Chapter Six: Autogestión, Territory and Alternative Value

6.1       Conceptualizing Autogestión

6.2       What Autogestión looks like in Argentina

6.3       Empresas Recuperadas

6.3.1   Origin in Argentina

6.3.2        Numbers

6.3.3        Organization of Recuperated Workplaces

6.3.4        Relationships to the Neighborhood and Community

6.4      Legal Relationship to the State

6.5      Challenges to Autogestión

6.6      Specific Workplace Examples

6.6.1        FaSinPat

6.6.2        Brukman

6.6.3        Chilavert

6.6.4        Clinic IMMEC and Medrano

6.6.5   Hotel Bauen

6.7       Autogestión and Other Value in the MTDs

6.8       Barter

6.9       Territory & New Value

Chapter Seven: The State Rises: Incorporation, Cooptation and Autonomy

7.1        What is a State without Legitimacy?

7.2         Hegemony and Social Consensus

7.3              Direct Repression

7.4        International Legitimacy

7.5        Divisions Deepening Hegemony

7.6        Human Rights

7.7        Money and Services as Control

7.8        Movements Dance with Dynamite

7.9        Conclusion: It’s a War – Not a Dance

Chapter Eight: Can One Measure Success? Affective or Contentious Politics

8.1              Dreams, Dignity and a Yard Stick

8.2        Hijos of the 19th and 20th

8.3        Sociological Framework to Understand Movements Success

8.4        Social Movement Theory and Contentious Politics

8.5        Cultural Challenges to Contention

8.6       Chiapas, Mexico – Zapatista Example

8.7       Generalizing on the Question of Power and the State

8.8       New Social Relationships, Other Value & Autonomy

Conclusion: Conclusions, Implications and Applications




[1] Potencia in Spanish means power, capacity and ability – distinct from the Spanish poder, meaning power, might and authority.

[2] As is explored later in this chapter, the argument here is not that the new relationships are beyond capital, but that the relationship to production specifically is changing and not based on capitalist value, ie. profit and money alone.