Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Horizontalist" movements in Argentina

Marina Sitrin's Everyday Revolutions: Horzontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (2012) is an interesting account of various grassroots social activist movements in Argentina since the political and economic turning point represented by the debt crisis of 2001, including neighborhood groups organizing to deal with local problems and groups that occupied and operated abandoned factories in a quasi-legal arrangement. As Sitrin makes clear, she has been an active and enthiastic participant

We could call it an account of the exercise of People's Power in a particular context.

She's clearly fascinated with various terms affiliated with the movements she identifies with horizontalism, including the name itself, and she uses them in italicized Spanish, as though she thinks using them only in Spanish in an English-language book gives them a special aura. When the reference is to concepts or phrases that may have some special Argentine context, like piqueteros (militant and distinctly rowdy protest groups) or punteros (party bosses for the Peronist Justicialista Party), that may be sensible. Though why "horizontalism" isn't a sufficient translation, since the whole book is about explaining the phenomenon, is not at all clear. So besides horizontalidad, we have asambleísta (participant in a popular assembly), autogestión (self-management), autonomia (autonomy), compañero (friend, comrade, co-worker, buddy), encuentro (meeting, encounter), escrache ("outing" actions to expose criminals from the military dictatorship of 1976-83) and politica afectiva (affective politics). Ironically in a book celebrating popular politics, it is likely todistance the English-only reader from the concepts she's celebrating.

Sitrin is coming from some sort of more-or-less explicitly anarchist viewpoint, of a type that we would associate with the activists of the early Occupy movement.

And analyses like these are important, because international corporations have perfected the art of creating a qualitative gap between political elites and their voters in even the most democratic countries. The failure of traditional center-left parties, including in the US and Europe, to offer any meaningful alternative to neoliberal policies even when they get elected on a platform of doing so (as in France and the US in 2012) means that democracy requires alternative ways of expressing people's power.

But Sitrin also romanticizes these movements. There's a lot of pleasant theorizing about "love in politics and a love-based politics," "new forms of of politics and organizing," "rupture," "the sense of revolution is something affective and relational," etc. In one sentence where she uses the English words for favorite concepts, she writes, "People, by the many thousands, explain that they are creating themselves anew, and are finding ways to survive based on new principles of solidarity, horizontalism, affective politics, and new values." There's also marginally interesting discussions about creating new kinds of power, the difference between power-over and power-to, and so on.

Much of that is superficial hype. Yes, politics can be rewarding. Getting together with like-minded participants such as neighbors or fellow workers or students and working out solutions to common issues can be a positive experience. Protesting can be a rush. And it's a sign of the extent to which democratic publics in many countries have become to a large extent de-politicized that such experience may seem to many to be radically personally transforming. The old urban political "machines" in large American cities have become synonymous with corruption. But they did provide an avenue for regular contact of ordinary citizens with some kind of representative of the local government that represented a vehicle for addressing real needs.

And she finds herself stuck in some of the elementary dilemmas on 19th-century anarchists, such as how is leadership exercised in a "horizontal" organization? Even on the most technical, rational grounds, a ship needs a captain, an airplane needs a pilot.

Of course, anarchism is about the easiest kind of political philosophy for Americans to reject. In Argentina, at least, there was a mass basis a century ago among workers for anarchist ideas. So it's worth noting that one of the virtues of anarchists' thinking is that their perspective leads them to focus on base democracy movements that scarcely appear on the radar screen of our star pundits. Everyday Revolutions is a good example of that.

Sitrin's posture of extreme skepticism toward "the state" shows its limits. It's one thing for a neighborhood group to create its own community center or even occupy and restart an abandoned factory. Someone taking a different spin might point to these as examples of "entrepreneurial" spirit. But if an international financial crisis takes down your entire economy, that's something people need a responsible government to handle, not one captured by Big Capital. Neighborhood collectives can't run a national retirement or health-care system or bank deposit insurance.

And if you read closely, you can see in her own presentation that the "horizontal" groups she celebrates don't reject cooperation with the state to the extent she does. And in one case she describes with approval, the rejection of a state role in resolving a problem is highly questionable. It had to do with an abandoned warehouse converted by a neighborhood group in the city of Lomas de Zamora (Buenos Aires province) into a community center they called La Toma, where they held evening parties that she says banned drugs and alcohol:

The night after one such party a young woman from the neighborhood and an outside assembly participant approached a few members of the assembly and shared with them that she had been sexually assaulted right La Toma by one of the teens who recently had begun to attend the social events. The assembly members who were told decided, together with this young woman, that this was an issue to take up in the assembly and not, at least for now, to take to the police.

I participated in the assemblies for the next few weeks where this issue was addressed. The young woman came to the assembly with a few friends and had a few assembly people sitting with her in the circle. The accused young man also came to the assembly, having been told of the accusation. Similarly, he was there with a few friends, and a few assembly people sat with him. For the next few weeks discussions were held where each person was able to explain what happened and their feelings about it. Eventually, proposals were made and agreed upon for a sort of restorative justice. Among those resolutions were that the young man agreed to get support for his alcohol misuse, that he would not go to any of La Toma's parties until his alcoholism was under control, that he would meet with counselors on issues of sexual abuse, together with a few participants from the assembly who would go along to support him. He also had to meet with a few volunteers from the assembly on a weekly basis for the next few months, keeping them posted as to his participation in the various groups. If he failed to attend any of the agreed upon meetings he would not be permitted to enter the space of La Toma.

The end result was a very positive resolution where everyone concerned seemed satisfied and heard. The process was a lot more complex then space here allows me to describe. Included in the tensions and challenges were such things as the young man claiming that the young woman 'asked for it' by the way she was dressed, and that women usually push men away when they mean yes, etc. His friends who were with him were in complete agreement regarding these questions - at least at first. It was an amazing shift to see this tough street teen begin to listen to people around him on questions of gender and power, and that his desire to be a part of the assemblies and the occupied space was so great that he was willing to seek treatment and go to support groups with others from the assembly.
I find this story far more disturbing than inspiring. It's lacking in some key details, like the actual age of the assailant, the age of the victim and even the nature of the act, though by this description it was rape or attempted rape, admitted to by the teenage boy. But the bottom line is that the guy either raped or attempted to rape a woman, and he was not held legally accountable. And while it sounds like the assembly's demands on the kid were sensible, there's no mention of any actual professionals knowledgeable in either sex crimes or addiction being involved. Did the assailant have a prior police record? And what about security outside the center? Did they make any changes there, put in better lighting, what?

In other words, this puts us right back with elementary functions of the state. And, consensus or not, it doesn't seem to me based on the information provided that this was a legitimate function of such a group.

Sitrin does touch on something important, though, in emphasizing the role of such social movements in re-creating bonds and values of basic human solidarity that had been badly damaged by the state terror of the military dictatorship of 1976-83. As she describes the latter:

Juan Corradi called this a 'culture of fear' .... Some who were able, fled abroad, mainly for political reasons but for professional ones as well. Every level of society was monitored and censored. Artists, psychologists and architects were under particular attack, but no one was exempt. However, many others that did not leave lived in what the Argentine historian Luis Alberto Romero has called 'internal exile'. With this term he refers to people who hid out within Argentina, sometimes just by keeping a low profile, and others who literally were hidden in basements and attics, as with the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. He also refers to something much more profound affecting society at the time and future generations: those people who saw what was taking place and had the opinion of no te metas [don't get involved] or, when the brutality was impossible to ignore, with the opinion that 'they must have done something' ... . Between 1976 and 1978 the vast majority of people were 'disappeared' [i.e., the vast majority of those who were kidnapped by the dictatorship and were murdered where taken then]. One-third were women, hundreds of whom gave birth in captivity. The vast majority of all people [disappeared] were between fifteen and thirty-five. (pp. 25-26)

And she quotes Romero, "There were many victims, but the true objective was to reach the living, the whole of society that, before undertaking a total transformation, had to be controlled and dominated by terror and by language ... Only the voice of the state remained, addressing itself to an atomized collection of inhabitants."

This was an extreme form of de-politicizing the public. In fact, this is the phenomenon Argentine President Cristina Fernández addressed earlier this month on the anniversary of the 1976 military coup:

... the objective of the coup was not only a country without industries, a country where only finance capital ran things; it was also to install in every one of the Argentines that it was not worth it to be concerned with others, because if you concerned yourself with others something could happen to you. Better to be concerned with yourself, and if your were concerned with yourself, nothing would happen to you. Fear. And after fear follows egoism. Egoism is the child of fear. Don't ever forget it. Only those who are afraid can be egoists. Those who are not afraid are those who practice solidarity.
But Sitrin in clearly no fan of Cristina's, though she does admit, grudgingly, that the Kirchner governments since 2003 have done something important in prosecuting perpetrators of murder and torture during the dictatorship.

But because of his generally anti-political politics, Sitrin doesn't do a very good job explaining the larger political context in which all the movements she describes have operated. She seems to regard both Kirchners as almost as suspect as such a hardline neoliberal as Carlos Menem. And she really doesn't discuss the current opposition parties, the Radicals and the Socialists and their various allies like Mauricio Macri's PRI in Buenos Aires city, and the ways in which those parties also use militant citizens groups. She refers to a split among the militant piqueteros under Cristina's Administration. But without knowing how the Radicals and the PRI actively promoted that split and utilized them, you really can't understand what is going on with that.

Politics has different forms, and people do still manage to develop new ones. But what we know as politics will continue to involve political parties and arguments over the use of the state to distribute resources. Sitrin's anti-political stance has more than a passing resemblance to the Radical Centrism of someone like David "Bobo" Brooks. Consensus decision-making is possible in limited circumstances with, yes, leaders skilled in the process involved, as the Occupy Movement showed. But postpartisan agreement and the insistence quest for it in our current society are more often destructive than helpful. It gives veto power to the most intransigent and reactionary, who have no intention of playing by "postpartisan" rules, much less by consensus.

And as valuable and inspiring as the People's Power movement Sitrin describes are, there is still the worldly wisdom from Eric Hoffer, "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket." While that's no excuse to be cynical or apathetic, it is a reminder that popular movements can be volatile and their eventual end is always uncertain.

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