Horizontalism as a strategy: “taking over the state doesn’t lead to real liberation” (I)

By Dmitri Prieto

Marina Sitrin in Cuba.
Marina Sitrin in Cuba.

HAVANA TIMES — Marina Sitrin is a lawyer and has a PhD in sociology, but she prefers to define herself as “a writer, dreamer, and revolutionary”. She is well known among the emancipatory activists for editing the book Horizontalism on self-organization in Argentina after the 2001 collapse. Recently, she authored They Can’t Represent Us!: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy. We met first during her stay in Cuba.

HT: You lived in Cuba during your youth…

Marina Sitrin: Well, it was not really my youth as much as my young adulthood. Likewise, I did not live constantly in Cuba, but visited my mother and her husband regularly for around 15 years, coming to Cuba once or twice a year, often for long visits. I did live in Cuba from 2008 to 2009, but that was different — Since I have been mainly living in the US and only visiting Cuba for periods of time I cannot reflect on what life was like for Cubans except by regular observation.

For me it was a wonderful experience in many ways, opening my imagination to many possibilities (as well as problems) revolutionary struggles have when taking over the state is ‘the’ strategy.

As far as observations, my time in Cuba began during the end of the “special period” so it was also a challenge for many reasons – most of all in what I observed in the hard time people had of just trying to survive. So difficult in fact that many of my friends from those first years in Cuba have since left, not so much for political reasons as economic.

PORTADA-LIBROThe 1990s were so hard – basic necessities were even a challenge then, not to mention other things. Despite these challenges, most everyone I met was in various ways a supporter of the revolutionary process of Cuba, and quite proud of the accomplishments. That is not to say that people were uncritical – almost every single person was also critical of some or many things – they just also were revolutionary. I know that does not make sense to many people outside Cuba, but it was a sort of joke almost, where if I said really supportive things about the revolution everyone who I said it to would respond with harsh criticisms, and if I were critical they would respond in defense of the revolution — this is still true today.

HT: Your work on Argentina and Horizontalidad… another way of contesting oppression, of dreaming, of doing left-wing politics?

MS: I lived in Argentina after the economic collapse and during the early years of the construction of popular power in parts of society. I moved there after learning about this widespread phenomenon – horizontalidad. I had never heard the word in any language, not used as a social relationship as it is in Argentina (and now many other parts of the world).

After December of 2001 (when people responded to the economic crisis beating pots and pans and forced out five governments) people in Argentina spoke of creating another sort of power and new social relationships. Actually, before they spoke of it they just did it.

The thousands and hundreds of thousands who had been in the streets on the days of the popular rebellion reflect how they did not want to take over the state so as to make change – that that sort of politics had already taken place in many places and in their opinions did not lead to real emancipation.

Marina at Occupy Wall Street.
Marina at Occupy Wall Street.

People again and again would tell me that power lies elsewhere and has to be constructed by the people together. How that was and is done was also something new. People did not organize in political parties, with unions or even in traditional left groups – they came into the streets and from there organized assemblies together, standing in circles on street corners and in unemployed neighborhoods. They did not want to have power over one another, and wanted to make sure all opinions were heard and counted, organized in what they called horizontalidad.

Later people spoke of this as a non-hierarchical and directly democratic form, but at first it was part of a rejection of another way of doing politics and creating a new way to relate together.

I had moved there intending to write some articles and after meeting with people in the various movements and witnessing and participating in this horizontalidad, I decided to stay longer and record the history of what was taking place in people’s voices – thus the book, Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular was born in 2005, printed in a recuperated workplace. And then published in English in 2006, and most recently in Greek – translated collectively by people in assemblies there so as to be a tool for the movements.

HT: Occupy Wall Street…

I was a part of the NYC General Assembly movement, that became OWS once we occupied for more than a day in Zucotti Park. It was an incredible experience and in some ways a total shock, and in others it made and makes total sense. We are not represented – this is what people all over the world are saying in the various new movements (post 2011). We are not represented and we don’t want any ‘better’ representation, we want to decide things for ourselves. That is why Occupy took off in over a thousand cities, towns and villages in the US.

Marina at Ocuppy Wall Street.
Marina at Ocuppy Wall Street.

Yes of course it was inequality and oppression in our daily lives – but the use of the “no!” to that oppression was to look to one another and begin to talk and imagine how things might be different – what it might look like if ‘we’ make the decisions that matter in our lives. And yes of course, this was really really messy, for all sorts of reasons.

But it was an incredible and beautiful first step – a moving of a muscle that had been laying dormant for so long it is still not really strong. But we have begun. Occupy continues in all sorts of ways in all sorts of places. Not often in the occupation of plazas as before, but in direct action housing groups, in the Strike Debt movement, in the resurgence of labor organizing from below, and most recently, just weeks ago, in Detroit where people are refusing to have their water shut off for non-payment (something that is beyond outrageous in the richest country in the world. That people would have all water cut off during the summer for non-payment … there is so much so horribly wrong with this I cannot even begin to address it here) so neighbors together with supporters are turning it back on – using collective direct action.

There are a myriad of examples of Occupy – it is not a thing but something that is relational – that is relationships and is seen in our ways of organizing and relating to one another – creating new worlds and smaller revolutions all the time.

4 thoughts on “Horizontalism as a strategy: “taking over the state doesn’t lead to real liberation” (I)

  • I believe that democracy -direct democracy -is the answer .
    Isolated islands of cooperatives and democratic movements in a vast ocean of democracy-crushing capitalism have little chance of surviving much less spreading.
    Capitalism’s hideous strength is growing, not dwindling and no democratic movement has a snowball’s chance in Hell of going up against that force.
    It will take the collapse of capitalism to achieve what we all want.
    You are likely caught up in that optimism that is so common in activists such that you are blinded to the power of your enemy.
    Murray Bookchin had it right.
    The heyday of activism when a movement could get hundreds of thousands out marching under red banners and when unions were led by very principled lefties passed away shortly after the 60s .
    Since that time the power of the oligarchy, those who own and control the country, has grown in its ability to have us think what they’d like us to think and to amass ever-greater wealth .
    This is not your grandfather’s capitalism . It is far more powerful and is in far greater control of you and the planet’s societies than you probably imagine.
    Again, capitalism has 20 years left to it at best given that super-human computing will be here in about 7 years and shortly after that, an end to all human labor through advanced AI and robotics AND an end to capitalism .
    In the meantime and by all means , you can and should fight the good fight for living wages (which you’ll not get under the existing capitalism ) and all manner of alleviating suffering but do so without even dreaming that you’ll achieve any serious success.
    (If you are interested in what will happen in the near future to the fast food industry I suggest Googling “Manna” by someone named ( really ) Marshall BRAIN .

    How many divisions do you have ?

  • Ms. Sitrin is clearly familiar with anarchist theory, and doesn’t claim, here or in any other place, to be inventing or discovering anything. I would encourage people to read the book, which she edited and consists of interviews with people who directly participated in the horizontal processes in Argentina, particularly before making baseless statements.
    Please, John, don’t respond to replies. Next time, be considerate, and think before you comment on something you are unfamiliar with.

  • Was there ever a time when the word “anarchy” was in favor? I don’t think so. Representative government is the best way to go. It’s how we do it that creates the drama. Like most other extreme left activists, I suspect that behind Marina Sitrin there was (or is) a hard-working capitalist or a trust fund somewhere paying the bills.

  • The bottom-up direct democracy of which “horizontalism” consists, is at the heart of classic anarchism ( not the TV show bullshit) . It is a pity Ms. Sitrin is unfamiliar with the writings of Kropotkin, Chomsky, Bookchin, Bakunin and the ZNet website and that anarchist beliefs and writings have long predated her book’s main theme of “horizontalism “.
    What she says is what every anarchist says; that direct democracy is the cure for most of society’s ills .
    I would suppose that using a new word or expression ( horizontalism) in place of the now-poisoned word “anarchy ” would make for better book sales.
    “Why I Love Anarchy” would simply never make the NYT’s best-seller list .
    I will not respond to replies.

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