Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina

With Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales’ respective rises to power, the question debated in so many books and at so many World Social Forums over the past decade—which is the preferred revolutionary path for Latin America, taking state power and then changing the world, or changing the world without taking power—appears to be answered.  The state left has triumphed.

Yet if today this debate seems closed, a new book by New York City-based activist and lawyer Marina Sitrin, an oral history of Argentina in the years following the 2001 “Argentinazo” when myriad new and inspiring social movements rose out of the rubble of IMF-induced disaster in an attempt to re-construct their shattered country, brings us back to a time when anything seemed possible for those who wanted to “change the world without taking power,” to use John Holloway’s phrase.  Specifically, the book, titled Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (originally printed in Spanish by the worker-run printing press Chilavert, now available in English from AK Press) focuses on the emergence of a new political practice called “Horizontalism.”  As Sitrin explained in the introduction to a previous collection of interviews, “Horizontalism is…a relationship—a way of relating to one another in a directly democratic way while at the same time creating through the process of discovery.  The movements in Argentina are…about the process, about the revolution that can be achieved in the every day. The movements are not about taking power…but about creating ‘another power’ through social relations, through the process of creation.”

Through testimonies collected by Sitrin between 2003 and 2004, the book brings readers face to face with workers from occupied factories, indigenous Guarani and Mapuche activists, independent media-makers, piquetero groups, neighborhood assembly participants, and many others—the result is a compelling oral history that traces, through the words of participants themselves, the emergence of a novel political phenomenon, as well as vivid descriptions of the times out of which this phenomenon arose.  As Sitrin explains in the introduction: “there are many differences inside of and between [these] autonomous groups.  What this book examines are their common points.”  Thus, while the book includes chapters on topics such as “Repression” and “Women,” its raison d’etre is to arrive at a broad understanding of Horizontalism “by offering the direct testimony of participants…[by permitting] them to speak about what they are creating, why they are creating it in such a way…and of what it all could mean.” 

The first chapter, “Context and Rupture,” explores the conditions during the 1990’s leading up to the emergence of Horizontalism.  The interviewees characterize this era as one defined by political clientalism, decreasing economic and political power for ordinary citizens, and isolation and fear—in short, a society still struggling to overcome the effects of the 1976-1983 dictatorship.  The second part of the chapter focuses on the “Argentinazo” of 2001, the massive popular revolt of December 19 and 20, that ended in then-President Fernando de la Rúa fleeing the presidential palace, leaving the country technically government-less for a brief period.  It was during this revolt that Sitrin’s subjects locate the beginnings of Horizontalism.  “What I can tell you,” explains Ezequiel, a member of the Cid Campeador Neighborhood Assembly, “is that before December 19 and 20, the word ‘Horizontalism’ was not part of anyone’s political vocabulary…Rapidly it transformed into a concept that everyone used, knew, discussed, defended, or attacked, but it was very present.” 

As people went into the streets to protest the freezing of their bank accounts and the catastrophic collapse of the Peso, they also found themselves rejecting ‘politics as usual’ and losing their isolation and fear.  As Pablo, another neighborhood assembly member, explained,

"It was not an ideological decision, nor intellectual, nor academic, nor political. It was the most spontaneous thing, the most basic.  You went out into the street [on the 19th and 20th] and found yourself with others on a corner. It’s not that there was a decision to be horizontal, we simply found ourselves feeling a strong rejection of all that was known.  A strong rejection of political parties, of the form of political parties, of all those that were in the Government, and the State…We thought, we are going to do things ourselves.  We are going to do things together, democratically, in a direct way, because here we are all equal.  There are no bosses, we don’t want bosses, no one giving orders, we order ourselves, decide among ourselves, and well, someone said, ‘this is horizontal.’  So okay, this is horizontal because it’s not vertical.  We don’t want bosses, that’s why it wasn’t vertical. But its not part of any ‘theory of horizontality.’  No one invented it, it just emerged."                 

Horizontalism, then, is presented as an organic ideology, or better yet a sensibility, that was founded on a collective experience of political impotence (the years following the Dictatorship) and came into being through the collective transcendence of this impotence (the 2001 Argentinazo).  But beyond its origins, what features define Horizontalism, and how is it practiced?  In the first place, the interviewees tell us, Horizontalism is about rejecting the hierarchies and authoritarianism of Argentina‘s traditional left parties.  It is thus foremost, as evidenced by the name itself, an organizational ethic.  From this belief that the only way to ethically organize is on non-vertical terms stems Horizontalism’s praxis of emancipation: only by constructing non-hierarchical environments, by creating intimate political relationships (política afectiva, the “politics of affection,” they say in Argentina) where freedom can be realized on a day-to-day basis, can a political practice and culture, one that equally prioritizes gender, race, age, and wealth-based considerations, be constructed.  “For me,” says Ezequiel, “Horizontalism is much more than just a form of organization.  It is not simply that we all have the right to speak, or a right to vote [in an assembly].  It is building a culture where everyone is aware of justice, perceives that you formally have the same rights as me, but also insures that you actually have the conditions to enjoy that right.  This is a complete change of culture.”

The testimony of those in Horizontalism suggest that to carry out this “complete change of culture” requires eschewing programs and universal truths.  As the intellectual-activist collective, Colectivo Situaciones, explain, “The politics of Horizontalism is that there are many people thinking, producing, creating, researching…[It’s not about] what is a correct assembly, or how should a movement be in order to be accepted by those that have the authority to say what is Horizontalism and what is not…Horizontalism is a tool when it is a question.”

Thus a central idea of Horizontalism is to work towards creating non-hierarchical environments in which truths, that is to say political solutions, can be collectively constructed in response to specific problems or situations.  “Walking we ask questions,” one interviewee says, quoting the Zapatistas.  And here we find the key positive practice proposed by those activists that make up Horizontalism’s narrative:  the desire to construct a culture of “protaganism,” where communities work to create the conditions in which individuals and collectivities can reclaim their agency and power and where they can come together to create change.  A squatter and assembly member declares: “we are historical subjects, we’re through being passive subjects—that is what the vote, the system, offers us—we’re through being marginal, unemployed, excluded subjects…We control our own lives.”

One challenge of Sitrin’s project is the difficulty of portraying a complex political practice that eschews universalist truths, and that attempts to do so through myriad different voices.  About a year ago, in Argentina, I asked a handful of Buenos Aires academics what they thought of Horizontalism (the idea, not the book).  “It’s a fantasy, a fiction,” they unanimously replied.  “Where do you see it?  Where is its force?  It’s no more than an anarchist, autonomist fiction projected onto Argentina.”

One reason for this curious response, I imagine, is Horizontalism’s break with traditional left politics in the land of Evita—the flags, the party hierarchies, the Peronism—all of these things Horizontalism has resolutely abandoned, and for this stodgy leftist academics are blind to it.

Yet another possible reason for this response could speak not of academics’ out-of-touch paradigms, but rather to a practical problem of Horizontalism.  Because this political practice generally rejects asserting generalized truths and programs—even “answers,” according to Colectivo Situaciones—it appears unable to offer a coherent counterpoint to the rapidly occurring re-emergence of hierarchical left politics in Argentina.  Today, as many of the country’s new social movements re-embrace old-style party politics under President Kirchner’s “leftist” Justicialist banner, and as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo similarly get into bed with Kirchner, such a counterpoint may be exactly what Argentina needs.

And of course, this is the greatest strength of Sitrin’s book: by putting together so many voices and ideas about Horizontalism together in one place, Sitrin offers us a cohesive and inspiring example of a different way of doing politics.  She also reminds us that the debate over how to change the world—through taking state power or by rejecting it—is anything but closed.

Wes Enzinna is an independent writer currently living in Cochabamba, Bolivia.  Many of the quotations in this review are taken from the Spanish edition of Horizontalism, titled Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular en Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chilavert, January 2005. Buy the English version from AK Press: http://akpress.org/2006/items/horizontalism

This review was originally published in Z Magazine, November, 2006