The Changing Landscape of Development Education

Autumn 2007

Ruptures in imagination: Horizontalism, autogestion and affective politics in Argentina

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Marina Sitrin


In this article, Marina Sitrin will explore a new social creation in Argentina, sparked by a popular rebellion which began in December, 2001. Different from so many social movements of the past, this rebellion rejected political programs, opting instead to create directly democratic spaces.  This new social relationship has become commonly known as horizontalidad




A mass demonstration sings collectively ‘Oh, que se vayan todos, que no quedan, ni uno solo’ (oh, that they all must go, that not even one remains). Public art reads, ‘Ni Dios, Ni Patria’, ‘Autogestion’, ‘La Solución: Autogestion’, ‘Nuestro Suenos no Caben en Sus Urnas’, ‘La Verdadera Democracia Esta En Las Calles’, ‘Nunca Mas, No Te Metas’ and ‘Ocupar, Resistir, Producir’ (translated as ‘Neither God nor Country’, ‘Self Management’, ‘The Solution: Self Management’, ‘Our dreams do not fit in your Ballot Boxes’, ‘The True Democracy is in the Streets’, ‘Never Again will I not be Involved’, and ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce’). 

            These are expressions of grassroots mobilization and direct democracy from hundreds of thousands of middle class and recently declassed urban dwellers who have organized themselves into neighborhood assemblies in Argentina. This article will consider some of the stirring and enduring changes that have taken in place in Argentina in recent years, particularly in the period after December 2001 when a total economic collapse precipitated millions of people taking to the streets.  Within two weeks, this popular response to macro-economic mismanagement resulted in the collapse of five consecutive governments, while simultaneously creating new horizontal assemblies designed to meet local community needs.  The interview selections in this article are drawn from the oral history I published in Spanish and English (Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular en Argentina, Chilavert 2005, and Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, AKPress 2006).  The vast majority of interviews are based on relationships that I established, and maintain with participants in autonomous social movements and collectives throughout Argentina.  Most interviews were conducted between 2002 and 2005.

            These new assemblies rejected and reject hierarchical government and instead adopt forms of direct democracy and horizontalism. They enabled workers to take over and run hundreds of workplaces, from clinics and supermarkets, to print shops and daily newspapers. In addition, indigenous communities have been supported in reclaiming their land and unemployed workers have protested successfully in order to demand unemployment subsidies, while working together in their neighborhoods to feed the community through communal bakeries and kitchens, provide popular education and schools, and other essential services.  These movements of resistance and solidarity relate to one another on a fundamental level, as they are not trying to take state power, but instead seek to create alternative ways of living.

            Throughout history people have looked to one another when formal institutions are laid bare by reorganizing and reshaping their lives and communities. This is usually done in a way that is more caring and mutually respectful than was evident before. For example, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001 in New York, individuals looked to one another for help and solidarity rather than looking to institutions. Parks were transformed into spaces for public conversations, and this form of mutually supportive behavior has repeated itself frequently throughout history (Solnit, 2005). 

            I am sure that each person reading this can think of instances when we have looked to one another for mutual aid and support in the absence of formal institutions. This is not how we are taught to behave, but this break between the perception and reality of human interaction can shift people’s imaginations and ways of being so that they begin to organize differently as was the case in contemporary Argentina. For most people here it was not only the economic crisis that produced fundamental grassroots change, but a rupture in their relations with the state, and a period of reflection and understanding in which they viewed each other differently and helped to develop a new society. Severe economic troubles had affected the vast majority of Argentines for years before the period of total collapse. While the freezing of their bank accounts in January 2002 was a key moment for the middle class, workers in both the unemployed and indigenous communities had felt the effects of economic crisis for years, even lifetimes. The economic crisis served as a process of rejecting structures of power and antiquated ways of relating to one another. When people in Argentina spoke of what had so profoundly changed their society, most pointed to altered personal connections, or horizontalidad, rather than increased economic distress. Similar processes of societal change have taken effect in other parts of the world over the last decade and they are considered in the next section.


Contemporary rise of prefigurative politics


Over the past ten years the world has been witnessing an upsurge in prefigurative revolutionary movements: movements that create the future in the present. These new movements do not create party platforms or programs. They do not look to one leader, but make space for all to be leaders. They place more importance on asking the right questions than on providing the correct answers and resolutely reject dogma and hierarchy in favor of direct democracy and consensus. 

            Where are these new social movements located? They can be found in the autonomous Zapatista communities of Chiapas, Mexico, where indigenous communities organize autonomously from the state, working to meet their basic necessities while using consensus-based decision making to create themselves anew. They are also in the mass organizations in rural Brazil, where the landless movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra - MST) has been reclaiming the land and reconstructing their communities. They are in the shanty-towns of South Africa, where ‘poor’ women and men use direct action and direct democracy to take back electricity, housing, water, and other resources denied them by corporations and government. They are in India too, where thousands of people are coming together to protect the environment and prevent the construction of dams, using mass direct action and participatory decision making. They are the indigenous groups in Ecuador and Bolivia that are resisting privatization and helping to prevent environmental destruction through mass blockades and mass democracy. They are in the social centers in Italy, providing direct services and meeting spaces for those involved in direct democracy projects. They are in the many direct action groups in Eastern Europe, working to abolish borders on the principal that no person should be considered illegal. They are also in the autonomous groupings around the USA and Canada, groups that begin with the assumption of consensus decision-making, anti-hierarchy, and anti-capitalism. These new movements are part of an international trend toward popular democracy and direct participation and yet operate at community levels.

            The autonomous social movements in Argentina are yet another part of this global trend. They have constructed new types of networks that reject the hierarchical – ‘power-over’- template bequeathed to them by established politics in favor of organization on a flatter plane, with the goal of creating a ‘power-with’ or more egalitarian model. Embedded in these efforts is a commitment to value both the individual and the collective and simultaneously, separately, and together these groups are organizing in the direction of a more meaningful and deeper freedom, using the tools of direct democracy and direct action. Together, they are constructing a new sort of popular power.

            Horizontalidad is a word that has come to embody the new social arrangements and principles of organization that have resulted from these movements in Argentina. As its name suggests, it implies a flat plane upon which to communicate. It entails the use of direct democracy and strives toward, creating non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian structures. It is therefore a break from vertical methods of organizing and relating. Horizontalidad is a concept embodying an ever-changing experience and months after the popular rebellion, many movement participants began to speak of their relationships as horizontal in describing how new forms of decision-making evolved. Years after the rebellion, those continuing to build new movements speak of horizontalidad as a goal as well as a tool.

            Our relationships are still deeply affected by the power dynamics of capitalism and hierarchy, particularly in how we relate to one another in terms of economic resources, gender, race, access to information and experience. Until these fundamental social dynamics are overcome, the goal of horizontalidad cannot be achieved. In the face of these constraints, we need to pro-actively develop the networks and relationships that are required to achieve horizontalidad. While horizontalidad is the desired end, it also supports the process and provides the tools for achieving this ultimate goal.

            I use the term autonomous to describe the social movements in Argentina because this is how they identify themselves. Autonomy distinguishes a person or group from the state and other hierarchical institutions, and is also used to reflect self-organization, autogestion, direct participation and democracy. This use of ‘autonomy’ is not meant to address, or reflect, any direct relationship to the autonomous Marxist currents.

            The movements today are prefigurative and focus on social relationships in the present as well as the future. They differ markedly from past movements, which generally demanded reforms from the state or aimed to assume state power and introduce more enlightened government. The research and oral histories I conducted in Argentina showed that contemporary autonomous movements are placing their energies in enhancing their organizational structures and capacity, using horizontalidad and autogestion. Most of the movements are anti-capitalist, and some are anti-state, but their strategy for the creation of a new society is not grounded in either state dependency or in assuming state control. 

            Over the past six years, the autonomous social movements in Argentina have begun to articulate new and revolutionary politics and engage in new forms of expression and organization. These movements comprise a mix of the political and anti-political with the former tied to the hierarchical structures attached to political parties making decisions for people and thereby taking away their agency. By comparison, Argentina’s anti-political social movements are engaged in the politics of everyday life and have evolved more participative and horizontal forms of decision-making. These movements aim to create the future within the present, through new directly democratic relationships. They reject hierarchy, bosses, managers, party brokers, and punteros (leaders) and try to construct a better environment through autogestionandose (working together), in communities, neighborhoods, work places, schools and universities. While there are many differences in how campaigns are delivered here, I will focus below on some of the commonalities.


Why Argentina? Why now?


Why have these new social movements emerged in Argentina over the past decade? Why the mediums of horizontalism or self-management? While there are many possible explanations, from the global context to the local, I will address one: the shift in people’s individual and collective imaginations, a rupture that is part of a process of new understanding.

Cite article as: Sitrin, M (2007) 'Ruptures in imagination: Horizontalism, autogestion and affective politics in Argentina', Policy & Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 5, Autumn, pp. 43-53.