Horizontalism and Territory

Horizontal social relationships and the creation of new territory, through the use of geographic space, are the most generalized and innovative of the experiences of the Occupy movement. What we have been witnessing across the United States since September 17th is new in a myriad of ways, yet also, as everything, has local and global antecedents. In this essay I will describe these two innovations, and ground them in the more recent past, specifically in the global south in Argentina. I do this so as to examine commonalities and differences, but also to remind us that these ways of organizing have multiple and diverse precedents, and ones from which we can hopefully learn.


Horizontalidad, horizontality, and horizontalism are words that encapsulate the ideas upon which many of the social relationships and political interactions in the new global movements are grounded—from Spain to Greece, and now most recently here in the US Occupy movement.

Horizontalidad is a social relationship that implies, as its name suggests, a flat plane upon which to communicate. Horizontalidad necessarily implies the use of direct democracy and the striving for consensus, processes in which attempts are made so that everyone is heard and new relationships are created. Horizontalidad is a new way of relating, based in affective politics and against all the implications of “isms.”1 It is a dynamic social relationship. It is not an ideology or political program that must be met so as to create a new society or new idea. It is a break with these sorts of vertical ways of organizing and relating, and a break that is an opening.

To participate in any of the assemblies taking place throughout the US, and in many places around the globe, means to stand or sit in a circle, with a handful of facilitators, and speak and listen in turn, usually with general guidelines and principles of unity, and then together attempt to reach consensus—meaning to reach a general agreement that all can feel satisfied with, but that is not necessarily perfect, on whatever issue is raised, all the while doing so through the process of active listening.  If one were to ask a participant about this process, which I have done countless times, she would most likely explain the need to listen to one another, perhaps she might use the language of democracy—something like direct, real, or participatory democracy—or maybe she would say that we do not have a society in which people can really participate, so that is what we are trying to do here, in this space and with this assembly. Often in these conversations, some version of horizontalism will arise. So similar is this current experience in the US to what took place in Argentina, beginning in December of 2001, where I then lived and compiled an oral history, that it is not only remarkable, it requires reflection and historical grounding.

The word horizontalidad was first heard in the days after the December 2001 popular rebellion in Argentina. No one recalls where it came from or who first might have said it. It was a new word, and emerged from a new practice. The practice was that of people coming together, looking to one another, without anyone in charge or with power over another, beginning to find ways to solve their problems together, and by doing this together, they were creating a new relationship. Both the decision making process and the ways in which they wanted to relate in the future were horizontal. What this meant was, and still is, to be discovered in its practice, or as the Zapatistas in Chiapas say, in the walk, and always questioning as we walk.

The rebellion in Argentina came in response to a growing economic crisis that had already left hundreds of thousands without work and many thousands hungry. The state provided no possible way out—and in fact offered quite the opposite. In the days before the popular rebellion, in early December 2001, the government froze all personal bank accounts, fearing a run on the banks. In response, first one person, and then another, and then hundreds, thousands, and hundreds of thousands came out into the street, banging pots and pans, cacerolando. They were not led by any party, and were not following any slogans, they merely sang, “Que Se Vayan Todos! Que No Quede Ni Uno Solo!” (They all must go! Not even one should remain!). Within two weeks four governments had resigned, the Minister of the Economy being the first to flee.

In the days of the popular rebellion people who had been out in the streets cacerolando describe finding themselves, finding each other, looking around at one another, introducing themselves, wondering what was next, and beginning to ask questions together.

One of the most significant things about the social movements that emerged in Argentina after the 19th and 20th of December is how generalized the experience of horizontalidad was and is: from the middle class organized into neighborhood assemblies to the unemployed in neighborhoods, and with workers taking back their work places. Horizontalidad, and a rejection of hierarchy and political parties was the norm for thousands of assemblies, taking place on street corners, in workplaces and throughout the unemployed neighborhoods. And now, ten years later, as people come together to organize, the assumption is that it will be horizontal, from the hundreds of assemblies currently occurring up and down the Andes fighting against international mining companies, to the thousands of Bachilleratos, alternative high school diploma programs organized by former assembly participants and housed in recuperated workplaces.

Horizontalidad is a living word, reflecting an ever-changing experience. Months after the popular rebellion, many movement participants began to speak of their relationships as horizontal as a way of describing the new forms of decision-making. Years after the rebellion, those continuing to build new movements speak of horizontalidad as a goal as well as a tool. All social relationships are still deeply affected by capitalism and hierarchy, and thus by the sort of power dynamics it promotes in all collective and creative spaces, especially how people relate to one another in terms of economic resources, gender, race, access to information, and experience. As a result, until these fundamental social dynamics are overcome, the goal of horizontalidad cannot be achieved. Time has taught that, in the face of this, simply desiring a relationship does not make it so. But the process of horizontalidad is a tool for the achievement of this goal. Thus horizontalidad is desired, and is a goal, but it is also the means, the tool, for achieving this end.

Occupy participants in the United States—as well as around the globe, from Spain and Greece to London and Berlin—organize with directly democratic assemblies, and many even use the specific language of horizontal, horizontalism, and horizontalidad.  They are using horizontal forms so as to create the most open and participatory spaces possible, while now, many months into the occupations, participants are speaking of the challenges to the process as well, similarly reflecting that horizontalidad is not a thing but rather a process, and as with the Argentines, both a tool and a goal.2

In the months since the Occupy movement began in the United States there has been a tremendous interest in what occurred in Argentina.3 Countless people come up to me or write to me to share that what they read about Argentina is exactly what they are feeling, and the forms of organization are remarkably similar. They then usually ask me how that is possible. Similarly in Greece, a few months into the occupation of Syntagma Square, the group SKYA (the assembly for the circulation of struggles) asked to translate Horizontalism into Greek. It has since been translated, and in November I traveled to Athens and met with various assemblies who were beginning to use the book as a political and popular education tool. Again, as in the United States, movement participants shared how the experiences, especially of horizontalism, were so similar to the ways in which they were organizing.

Territory and Space

Not only do people in the current global movements organize in ways that are horizontal, but they are also doing so in open and public spaces. Part of the politics, as described by people all over the world, is the need to come together and to do so without hierarchy and in open spaces, where not only all can look at one another, but where a space in society is opened up and changed, whether that be a park or an occupied plaza. This opening of space is not limited to cities and large towns either. I have spoken to dozens of people involved in the movement in the United States from small towns and villages, who meet on a street corner or in a local plaza, perhaps with only a few dozen people, but still in public space. In one such instance it is a village of only 300 people.4 The importance is being visible to others, and using and changing space. It is part of the politics of intervening in a larger conversation, but on our own terms.

The importance of location to the Occupy movement—consistently sited in public spaces so as to gather participants face to face—cannot be underestimated or seen as something coincidental: it is a at the heart of the politics of the movement. Participants at each site of occupation choose to gather together and decide their own agenda. Occupiers are not protesting the state or city governments and asking them to resolve the problems of society: the politics of the movement necessarily imply that the state cannot fix the problems of society. Of course this is not to say that things cannot be made better or that there are not countless things the Occupiers want changed, such as access to housing, education, food, etc., but the crux of the politics is that the point of reference is not above (it is not the state), but is across, (looking to one another and in horizontal ways). And from that vantage point tactics and strategies are decided.

Sometimes, as with Occupy Wall Street, a place was chosen based on politics. In the case of OWS, many assemblies occurred before the actual occupation to decide what might be the best possible locations (of which there was a list of 8 potentials). Settling on Zuccotti Park was indeed a political choice, both being in the Wall Street area and also being a privatized park. But the point was, again, not to make a demand. One of the first decisions of the assembly in OWS was to rename the park Liberty Plaza, claiming it as a collective space and not, for example, asking that it be made public or demanding more public space in New York. Again, we see the gaze of Occupiers focused not on demands of the “other” but on and amongst themselves.

In Argentina the use of space and concept of territory was also central. This was true for the neighborhood assembly movement, the unemployed movements, and the recuperated workplaces. People spoke of a new place where they were meeting, one without the forms of institutional powers that previously existed. As one assembly participant described:

I understand horizontalidad in terms of the metaphor of territories, and a way of practicing politics through the construction of territory, it is grounded there, and direct democracy has to do with this. It is like it needs to occupy a space.5

The recuperated workplace movement, now numbering close to 300 workplaces, organized under the slogan of “Occupy, Resist, Produce” are almost all run horizontally and without bosses or hierarchy, and are necessarily located in specific geographic spaces. Within this space of the workplace, workers speak of the construction of new territories—and by this they are referring to not only the fact that they have occupied a space, but the ways in which they are running the workplaces together, and in solidarity with people from the community and other workplaces. The new territory is created in how they run the workplace, not just in the fact of taking it over.

The unemployed workers movements first began as protests demanding an unemployment subsidy from the state, but shortly thereafter, in the midst of the protests, they began to create something different together. Their protest took the form of a blockade: not having a place of work, they took to bridges or major intersections, with the intention of shutting down that major artery. At the same time, while blockading, they were creating horizontal assemblies to decide what to do, and developing an entire infrastructure of food, health care, media, and child care, together opening up a new space on the other side, yet as a part of the blockade. Many began to refer to this space as new, free “teritorio” (territory). Raul Zibechi’s book, “Territorios en resistencia: Cartografía de las periferias urbanas latinoamericanos,” published in 2009, deals precisely with this issue. He speaks to the importance of territory as places that are rapidly becoming sites not only of struggle, but of organization. As Zibechi describes elsewhere:

The real divergence from previous time periods is the creation of territories: the long process of conformation of a social sector that can only be built while constructing spaces to house the differences. Viewed from the popular sectors, from the bottom of our societies, these territories are the product of the roots of different social relations. Life is spread out in its social, cultural, economic, and political totality through initiatives of production, health, education, celebration, and power in these physical spaces.6

Emergency Breaks and Now Time

The various sites of the Occupy movement have all created the same two features, and ones that must be explored in depth and taken seriously: horizontal spaces and new territories in which to create new social relationships.

“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on the train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency break.”7 Walter Benjamin’s words perfectly illuminate what has been going on around the globe throughout 2011—and in many places before this as well, such as with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico and in Argentina. The movements are about shouting “No!,” “Ya Basta!,” “Que Se Vayan Todos!,” about the collective refusal to remain passive in an untenable situation. And so we pull the emergency brake, and in that moment freeze time and begin to open up and create something totally new. What it is still is not totally clear, and that is a part of it. There is a desire to stop time and open something new, creating new relationships and more free spaces. What this looks like is being discovered, as a part of the process, as it is created, which is also how it is being created, horizontally and in geographic space.

  1. My choice to translate horizontalidad into horizontalism in 2005 was perhaps in error, it is actually an anti-ism, and the use of horizontalism might now have created some confusion. At the time the decision was made thinking that it would be a play on the word, and that translations such as horizontality did not sufficiently reflect a changing relationship.
  2. I traveled to Greece, London, and Berlin in November of 2011 and spoke with people in the various Occupy movements.
  3. This is reflected even in the increase in sales of Horizontalism, the book I edited on popular power in Argentina.
  4. This village, Point Reyes, located 30 miles north of San Francisco CA, has since created an alternative option to the use of the police with a conflict resolution team, as well as promoted the use of alternative currency and has obtained the necessary number of signatures to force out their one bank and now will have a credit union.
  5. Marina Sitrin, ed., Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (Oakland, CA and Edinburgh, Scotland: AK Press, 2006), 60.
  6. Raúl Zibechi, “The Revolution of 1968: When Those From Below Said Enough!,” Americas Program, March 6, 2008, http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/662.
  7. Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 402.

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