Horizontalidad is a word that emerged in the days and weeks of the popular rebellion in Argentina. A rebellion that began on the 19th and 20th of December of 2001 and continues in many ways to this day. Horizontalidad is a living word, reflecting an ever-changing experience. While I have translated it as horizontalism, it is more of an anti-ism. Horizontalism it is not an ideology, but more of a social relationship, a way of being and relating. It comes from a new practice in Argentina, a practice that as of yet we do not have in the English language … not yet anyway.
Horizontalidad is a word that encapsulates most directly the ideas upon which the new social relationships in Argentina were founded. It is a word that previously did not have political meaning. Its new meaning emerged from a practice, from a new way of interacting that has become a hallmark of the autonomous movements. Horizontalidad is a social relationship that implies, as it sounds, a flat plane upon which to communicate. Horizontalidad requires the use of direct democracy and implies non-hierarchy and anti-authoritarian creation rather than reaction. It is a break with vertical ways of organizing and relating, but a break that is also an opening. When explaining how an asamblea or unemployed workers movement functions, in the months and even years after the rebellion it was common to have people set the palms of their hands to face down and then to move them back and forth to indicate a flat plane, as well, in order to indicate how it does not function, joining the tips of their fingers together to form a kind of triangle or pyramid. Horizontalidad in many ways is these hand gestures with the knowledge that they genuinely represent a new and powerful set of social relations.
The popular rebellion of the 19th and 20th of December was comprised of workers and unemployed, of the middle class, and of those recently de-classed. It was a rebellion without leadership, either from established parties or from a newly emerged elite. Its strength was reflected in the fall of five consecutive national governments in two weeks. It precipitated the birth of hundreds of neighborhood assemblies involving many tens of thousands of active participants. It also deepened those unemployed movements that existed and inspired the birth of dozens more over the first year alone. Similarly with the recuperated work places, those few that existed at the time of the rebellion expanded to the hundreds that exist today in the course of a few years. Significant in all of these movements is their use of horizontalidad, as a means of making decisions and as part of an overarching creation of new social relationships and people. Horizontalidad is a necessary part of this creation.
Horizontalidad as a Tool and a Goal for New Subjectivity
Horizontalidad is a living word, reflecting an experience that is ever changing. Months after the popular rebellion, many began to speak of their relationships as horizontal, as a way of describing the use of direct democracy and consensus in striving for dignity and freedom. Now, almost 9 years after the rebellion, those continuing to build a new and revolutionary movement speak of horizontalidad as both a goal and a tool. It is a goal in the sense that there is a clearer understanding now that all of our relationships are still deeply affected by capitalism, and thus by the sorts of power dynamics it promotes in all of our collectives and creative spaces, in how we relate to one another in term of gender and race, information and experience, and so on. Horizontalism is a tool, on the other hand, in the sense that a danger is now more clearly recognized that language may become the politics and relationship, rather than a reflection of a living process. This is an active conversation.
Ezequiel, in 2003, then a participant in the Asamblea Cid Campeador, shared his feelings on the origins and meaning of horizontalidad:
“The first thing that I want to say is that I do not know where the idea of horizontalidad comes from. What I can say is that before the 19th and 20th of December this word was not a frequent part of our political vocabulary, not at all, maybe some people and small groups used it, but it was not common, and then rapidly it transformed into a concept that everyone uses, knows, debates, defends or attacks. …
I believe that part of the impulse towards horizontalidad was related to this, this inability to trust officials, this feeling that all leaders that existed were corrupt by the mere fact of being leaders. Regardless of who held whatever formal position, inevitably s/he was corrupt, had abandoned you, and was totally separate from your problems and necessities. This reaction seemed specific and defensive, I think that in practice, later, it transformed into another thing. There is a phrase that I think works here, which is “bringing virtue out of necessity.” Here the necessity was to go out and ask one another what is going on, since your neighbor was the only one who was going to respond to you.
In Argentina we have had a political culture that is very hierarchical, especially in the years of Peronism, which was a movement always based in a strong leadership figure. In general as well, including in the more emancipatory groups on the left, their organizational structure was always based in the role of a strong leader with a fierce hierarchy. For example in the 70s in Argentina practically every left group organized hierarchically, from those that were armed, to those against arms, all had hierarchy, leaders, and the like. I think one of the changes we see now is that there is much less trust in these types of organizational structures.
Two things seem to come together in the assembly: the rejection of representation in general, whatever form of representation, and the search for a way to make decisions ourselves, using direct democracy and a horizontal decision making process, that is to say with all aspects of equality. These things have come together in such a way that I don’t think they can be separated. Maybe the concept of horizontalidad is that of equality, for all to be on the same level, in everything.
Neka, from the Unemployed Workers Movement of Solano in 2004, shared:
“First we began learning something together, it was a sort of waking up to a knowledge that was collective, and this has to do with a collective self-awareness of what was taking place within all of us. First we began by asking one another, and ourselves questions, and from there we began to resolve things together. Each day we continue discovering and constructing while walking. It is like each day is a horizon that opens before us, and this horizon does not have any recipe or program, we begin here, without what was in the past. What we had was life, our life each day, our difficulties, problems, crisis, and what we had in our hands at the time was what we used to go looking for solutions. The beginning of the practice of horizontalidad can be seen in this process. It is the walk, the process of questioning as we walk that enriched our growth, and helped us discover that strength is different when we are side by side, when there is no one to tell you what you have to do, but rather when we decide who we are. I do not believe there is a definition for what we are doing, we know how it is done, but we are not going to come across any definition, in this way it is similar to horizontalidad. More than an answer to a practice, it is an every day practice.
My personal perspective has to do with the idea of freedom, this idea of discovering that we have collective knowledge that brings us together, that give us strength, that bring us to processes of discovery. This is beyond revolutionary theories, theories that we all know and have heard so often, theories that are often converted into tools of oppression and submission. The practice of horizontalidad can give the possibility of breaking with this and creating something that gives us the security that we can self-organize, and do it well, and do so far away from those that try and tell us politics must be done in a particular way.
Constructing freedom is a learning process that can only happen in practice. For me, horizontalidad, autonomy, freedom, creativity, and happiness are all concepts that go together and are all things that both have to be practiced and learned in the practice. I think back to previous activist experiences I had and remember a powerful feeling of submission. This includes even my own conduct, which was often really rigid, and it was difficult for me to enjoy myself, which is something sane and that strengthens you, and if you do it collectively it is that much more so. Like under capitalism, we were giving up the possibility of enjoying ourselves and being happy. We need to constantly break with this idea, we have life and the life that we have is to live today, and not to wait to take any power so that we can begin to enjoy ourselves, I believe it is an organic process.
Horizontalidad is what permits us contact with reality that is has been totally interfeared with, so now you can hear distinct voices that look at reality from distinct places and necessities. The formal left, or left parties, try and annul these differences, seeing us and trying to make us one thing and then from that place construct a power. That power of course would be surreal and anti-natural and would oblige all of the world to submit to a boss, this boss could be a capitalist or some type of trotskyist. But here also appears the possibility of beginning of initiating what is the truth in the situation, and from there suggesting responses that are real. It is from here, on a small scale, because that is our world, we begin to transform ourselves.”
And Candido, from the recuperated print shop of Chilavert, in 2003 reflected:
“In Chilavert we are in a permanent assembly …. This is one of the small differences with a recuperated factory and any other type of workplace. We take care of one another, and make decisions amongst all of us.
Here we always try and be the most horizontal possible, with all compañeros participating equally. Horizontalidad means getting to the base, and when you get to the base and you say we all work together or we will all go to hell, there is no other option. And as a part of this getting to the bottom, we all together begin to row to the top and then we float.”
The above quotations are taken from the book :
Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina