Book review: Horizontalism: Voices of popular Power in Argentina by Marina Sitrin (Editor) – published by AK Press

Published by AK Press (2006) $18.95

This book came out in Spanish a few years ago and now, an English translation let me read this for the first time. It’s no disappointment! Horizontalism is about the social movements in Argentina since the economic collapse of December 2001 — a part of the bigger movements for social justice sweeping across Latin America. What I really liked about this book is that it’s from the point of view of people participating in the movement. The movement is really different from a lot of others — from the ground-up and not imposed by elites or cadres. The 2001 economic collapse was an event that created a grassroots, mass uprising.

The book is divided into sections and based on interviews providing different perspectives on different subjects. One section deals with how people thought the country changed in December 2001 when hundreds of neighborhood assemblies suddenly appeared throughout the country. In a country where 30,000 people disappeared in the 1980s during the military dictatorship, all of a sudden no one, even the middle class, could get their money. Thousands of people in Buenos Aires took to the streets and banged pots into the night. From there, people began gathering in their neighborhoods to try to run their own lives outside of the failed money economy. They took over factories and other workplaces where the management had either fled or owed the workers large amounts of money and occupied unused buildings. This direct action flew in the face of the clientilism of Argentina.

The famous roadblocks of the landless MST movement in Brazil, where people blocked off roads across the country to shut down commerce, swept across Argentina. The popular slogan was “Oh, que se vayan todos!” (“They all must go!”, referring to the nation’s “democratically” elected politicians.) A sudden burst of anger brought down five Presidents in a matter of two weeks.

The process of “horizontalidad” became the main philosophy of the uprising. In the assemblies and collectives, people worked together for their common well being, equal in power at least in structure, often with consensus instead of voting. Several people interviewed in the book commented that while having a boss or simply voting for decision making might be easier, you disempower people when you go the easy route. There are several great lines about how the walk is just as important as the talk, and how bullshit speeches and posturing don’t take a group of people very far.

In an interview in the book, an interviewee described horizontalism: “There isn’t one right way; there isn’t anyone that has the truth and tells us what we have to do. It means seeing each other as equals, or trying to see each other as equals. It also means — and this is something that’s a challenge for the assemblies — learning to listen to one another. The assembly is like a game, it’s really interesting. Someone comes up with an idea and the idea is elaborated upon by someone else, then someone else expands or changes it, and then as you listen, another person improves the idea, or says something totally different. The initial person might say ‘no’ or agree, and this is how we move forward. It’s like the game where a group makes up a story together. One person says ‘the house’ and the next says ‘the house is’ and the next ‘the house is in’ and then ‘the house is in the mountains.’ If someone is in the assembly not listening, but talking, and trying to move forward with something elseā€¦ Or if that person just makes statements or speeches, which sometimes happens, things really don’t go anywhere.”

Another section is on autogestion, or workers’ self-management, focusing on how the explosions of December 19th and 20th gave worker activists — who had been fighting management for years on issues like safety, back-wages, and dignity on the job — a chance to demonstrate a different way of doing things. Workers who were owed tons of money kept factories, clinics, bakeries and distribution centers open, but kept the profits for themselves instead of giving it over to the boss. Nearly 200 companies were taken over in this fashion. Though they still operated under “the market,” the fact that they got rid of their bosses was a very important step. Many actually moved into the factories because “they didn’t have enough money to get home” and were sick and tired of walking all their lives. Some decided to make the workplaces into service centers for their neighborhoods instead of for the rich. Many of these efforts have been shut down since by the government and repression, but there are also many still operating today.

Another chapter deals with women. Before the uprising, machismo was very widespread in Argentina. Several people in the book note that amongst the first people organizing neighborhood assemblies and setting up road blockades were women who had traditionally taken care of the children. When men got involved, they talked more than anyone else. Many women’s collectives and groups started during this time as people realized it was okay to speak out against old forms of repression.

There’s a good chapter on repression by the state and it’s allies as well — I don’t want to give the impression that everything is lala-happy in Argentina or that revolutionary work has been completed. There were several instances of police killing people at the roadblocks, assassinations, and violent evictions of occupied spaces.

This is really a beautiful book. I give Sitrin a lot of credit for letting people speak for themselves. It’s very hard to say what will happen in Argentina in the next few years, or in Latin America, or the world for that matter, but I’m really glad I got a chance to read the experiences of these people in Argentina striving to create a world without oppression or hierarchy. They’re trying to build a world where everyone has the power to decide what is best for their community. The question is, how can we defend this new world from its enemies like the state or defenders of the old ways?

James Generic is a member of the Wooden Shoe Book collective, Philadelphia, PA.