Horizontalidad and Territory in the Occupy Movements

Argentina's popular rebellion

The horizontal social relations of the Occupy movement are strikingly similar to the horizontalidad that emerged a decade ago during Argentina's popular rebellion. Here, workers protest outside the Supreme Court building in Buenos Aires in December 2001. AP Photo/Pablo Aneli.

Horizontal social relationships and the creation of new territory through the use of geographic space are the most generalized and innovative of the experiences of the Occupy movements. What we have been witnessing across the United States since September 2011 is new in a myriad of ways, yet also, as everything, has local and global antecedents. In this article I will describe these two innovations and ground them in the more recent past, looking back to Argentina’s popular rebellion of eleven years ago and its conception of horizontalidad. I do this so as to examine commonalities and differences, but also to remind us that these ways of organizing have multiple and diverse precedents from which we may learn.

Horizontalidad, horizontality, and horizontalism are words that encapsulate the ideas upon which many of the social relationships and political interactions in the new global movements are grounded—movements from Spain to Greece, and now most recently here in the U.S. Occupy movements.

Horizontalidad is a social relationship that implies, as its name suggests, a flat plane upon which to communicate. Horizontalidad necessarily implies the use of direct democracy and the striving for consensus—both processes in which attempts are made so that everyone is heard and new relationships are created. Horizontalidad is a new way of relating, based in affective politics and against all the implications of “isms.” It is a dynamic social relationship. It is not an ideology or political program that must be met so as to create a new society or new idea. It is a break with these sorts of vertical ways of organizing and relating, and a break that is an opening.

To participate in any of the assemblies taking place throughout the United States and in many places around the globe means to stand or sit in a circle, with a handful of facilitators, and speak and listen in turn. The point of these discussions, which are usually conducted with general guidelines and principles of unity, is to collectively attempt to reach consensus—a general agreement with which all can feel satisfied, even if it is not perfect—through the process of active listening. If one were to ask a participant about this process, which I have done countless times, they would most likely explain the need to listen to one another. Perhaps they would use the language of democracy, something like direct, real, or participatory democracy. Or maybe they would say that we do not have a society in which people can really participate, so that is what we are trying to do here, in this space and with this assembly. Often in these conversations, some version of horizontalism will arise. This current experience in the United States is strikingly similar to what took place in Argentina beginning in December 2001, where I then lived and compiled an oral history. This similarity requires reflection and historical grounding.

Argentina’s 2001 Rebellion and the Emergence of Horizontalidad

The word horizontalidad was first heard in the days after the popular rebellion in Argentina in 2001. No one recalls where it came from or who first might have said it. It was a new word and emerged from a new practice. The practice was people coming together, looking to one another, and—without anyone in charge or with power over the other—beginning to find ways to solve their problems together.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt] Through doing this together, they were creating a new relationship: both the decision-making process and the ways in which they wanted to relate in the future were horizontal. What this meant was, and still is, to be discovered in the practice of it. As the Zapatistas in Chiapas say, the meaning is in the walk and always questioning as we walk.

The rebellion in Argentina came in response to a growing economic crisis that had already left hundreds of thousands without work and many thousands hungry. The state provided no possible way out—and in fact quite the opposite. In the days before the popular rebellion, in early December 2001, the government froze all personal bank accounts, fearing a run on the banks. In response, first one person, and then another, and then hundreds, thousands, and hundreds of thousands came out into the street, banging pots and pans, cacerolando. They were not led by any party, and were not following any slogans. They merely sang, “¡Que se vayan todos! ¡Que no quede ni uno solo! [They all must go! Not even one should remain!]” Within two weeks, four governments had resigned, the minister of the economy being the first to flee.

In the days of the popular rebellion, people who had been out in the streets cacerolando described finding themselves, finding each other, looking around at one another, introducing themselves, wondering what was next, and beginning to ask questions together.

One of the most significant things about the social movements that emerged in Argentina in 2001 is how generalized the experience of horizontalidad within them was and continues to be. Members of the middle class organized into neighborhood assemblies, as did the unemployed, and workers pushed to take back their workplaces. Horizontalidad and a rejection of hierarchy and political parties were the norm for thousands of assemblies taking place on street corners, in workplaces, and throughout the unemployed neighborhoods. And now, ten years later, as people come together to organize, the assumption is that their relations will be horizontal. This is true for the hundreds of assemblies currently taking place up and down the Andes, where workers are fighting against international mining companies, and for the thousands of bachilleratos—alternative high school diploma programs organized by former assembly participants and housed in recuperated workplaces.

Horizontalidad is a living word, reflecting an ever-changing experience. Months after the popular rebellion, many movement participants began to speak of their relationships as horizontal as a way of describing the new forms of decision-making. Years after the rebellion, those continuing to build new movements speak of horizontalidad as a goal as well as a tool. All social relationships are still deeply affected by capitalism and hierarchy, and thus by the sort of power dynamics they promote in all collective and creative spaces—especially how people relate to one another in terms of economic resources, gender, race, access to information, and experience. As a result, until these fundamental social dynamics are overcome, the goal of horizontalidad cannot be achieved. Time has taught that, in the face of this, simply desiring a relationship does not make it so. But the process of horizontalidad is a tool for the achievement of this goal. Thus horizontalidad is desired and is a goal but it is also the means, the tool, for achieving this end.

Participants in the Occupy movements in the United States—as well as around the globe, from Spain and Greece to London and Berlin—are using directly democratic assemblies. When I traveled through Greece and to London and Berlin in November 2011, I found that many activists in each place were even using the specific language of horizontal, horizontalism, and horizontalidad. They said they were using horizontal forms so as to create the most open and participatory spaces possible. And now, many months into the occupations, participants are speaking of the challenges to the process as well, similarly reflecting that horizontalidad is not a thing but rather a process and, as it was for the Argentines, both a tool and a goal.

In the months since the Occupy encampments began in the United States, there has been a tremendous interest in what occurred in Argentina. Sales of the book I edited, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, have spiked. Countless people tell me that what they read about Argentina is exactly what they are feeling, and that the forms of organization are remarkably similar. They then usually ask me how that is possible. Similarly in Greece, a few months into the occupation of Syntagma Square, the group SKYA (the assembly for the circulation of struggles), asked to translate my book into Greek. It has since been translated, and in November I traveled to Athens and met with various assemblies who were beginning to use the book as a political and popular education tool. Again, as in the United States, movement participants in Greece shared how the experiences of horizontalism in Argentina were so similar to the ways in which they were organizing.

Occupy’s Reclamation of Public Space

Not only are people in the current global movements organizing in ways that are horizontal, they are also doing so in open and public spaces. Part of this politics, as described by people all over the world, is the need to come together, do so without hierarchy, and do so in open spaces, where not only all can look at one another, but where a space in society is opened up and changed, whether that be a park or the occupation of a plaza. This opening of space is not limited to cities and large towns either. I have spoken to dozens of people involved in the movement in small U.S. towns and villages. They describe meeting on a street corner or in a local plaza, perhaps with only a few dozen people, but still in public space. In one such instance it is a village of only 300 people. The importance is being visible to others, and using and changing space. It is part of the politics of intervening in a larger conversation, but on our own terms.

The importance of the location of the Occupy movements—using public spaces to gather face-to-face—cannot be underestimated or seen as something coincidental. Rather, it is at the heart of the politics of the movements. The movements are choosing to gather together and decide their own agenda. The Occupy movements are not protesting the state or city governments and asking them to resolve the problems of society; the politics of these movements is that the state cannot fix the problems of society. Of course this is not to say that things cannot be made better, or that there are not countless things the Occupy movements want changed, such as access to housing, education, food, etc. Nevertheless, the crux of the politics is that the point of reference is not above, it is not to the state; instead it is across. It involves looking to one another in horizontal ways. And from that vantage point tactics and strategies are decided.

The movement’s not being about a specific “demand” is related to the above two issues. It is a horizontal movement that does this in a way that has to be face-to-face and in specific geographic locations. Sometimes, as with Occupy Wall Street, a place was chosen based on politics, and many assemblies occurred before the actual occupation to decide on the best possible locations (there was a list of eight potential sites in New York). Settling on Zuccotti Park was indeed a political choice based on its location in the Wall Street area and also its location in a privatized park. But the point was again not to make a demand. One of the first decisions of the Occupy Wall Street assembly was to rename the park Liberty Plaza, claiming it as a collective space—not asking that it be made public or demanding more public space in New York. Again, this supported the idea that the movement was not about the demand against or a focus on the “other” but about a focus on and among ourselves.

Argentinean Territories of Resistance

In Argentina the use of space and concept of territory was also central. This was true for the neighborhood assembly movement, the unemployed movements and the recuperated workplace movement. People spoke of this new place where they were meeting, one without the forms of institutional powers that previously existed. Here’s how one assembly participant described it to me:

I understand horizontalidad in terms of the metaphor of territories, and a way of practicing politics through the construction of territory; it is grounded there, and direct democracy has to do with this. It is like it needs to occupy a space.

Argentina’s recuperated workplace movement now involves close to three hundred workplaces organized under the slogan of “Occupy, Resist, Produce,” which are almost all run horizontally and without bosses or hierarchy, and are necessarily located in specific geographic spaces. Within this space of the workplace, workers speak of the construction of new territories. By this they are referring not only to the fact that they have occupied a space, but also to the ways in which they are running the workplaces together, and in solidarity with people from the community and other workplaces. The new territory is created in how they are running the workplace, not just in the fact of taking it over.

The unemployed workers movements first began as a protest, demanding an unemployment subsidy from the state, but shortly thereafter, in the midst of the protest, they began to create something different together. Their protest took the form of a blockade. Not having a place of work, the unemployed workers usually blockaded bridges or major intersections, with the intention of shutting down those major arteries. At the same time, while blockading, they were creating horizontal assemblies to decide what to do, as well as creating an entire infrastructure of food, health care, media, and child care, together opening up a new space on the other side, yet as a part of the blockade. Many began to refer to this space and new free territorio (territory). Raúl Zibechi’s book, Territorios en resistencia: Cartografía política de las periferias urbanas latinoamericanas, published by Lavaca in 2008, deals precisely with this issue. In a 2008 CIP Americas Program article titled “The Revolution of 1968: When Those from Below Said Enough!” he also spoke to the importance of territory, describing places that are rapidly becoming sites not only of struggle, but of organization:

The real divergence from previous time periods is the creation of territories: the long process of conformation of a social sector that can only be built while constructing spaces to house the differences. Viewed from the popular sectors, from the bottom of our societies, these territories are the product of the roots of different social relations. Life is spread out in its social, cultural, economic, and political totality through initiatives of production, health, education, celebration, and power in these physical spaces.

 Pulling the Emergency Brake

The Occupy movements globally have all begun with the same two features, which must be explored in depth and taken seriously: the creation of horizontal spaces and the opening of new territories in which to create new social relationships.

Walter Benjamin’s words from The Arcades Project perfectly fit what has been going on around the globe throughout 2011, and in many places before this as well. He wrote: “Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things are very different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race traveling in the train applies the emergency brake.”

The movements are about the shouting of No! Ya basta. ¡Que se vayan todos! They are about a collective refusal to remain passive in an untenable situation. And so we pull the emergency brake, and in that moment freeze time and begin to open up and create something totally new. What it is still is not totally clear, and that is a part of it—there is a desire to stop time and open something new, creating new relationships and more free spaces. What this looks like is being discovered as a part of the process as it is created, which is also how it is being created: horizontally and in geographic space.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


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