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Book Reviews ...

Reviewed: Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina by Marina Sitrin
Review by: James Generic (Posted: 2.3.2007)

                 People have been asking about this one for a long time. This book came out in Spanish a few years ago and was already heavily asked requested. Now, an English translation let me read this for the first time, and it's no disappointment! Horizontalism is about the social movements in Argentina since the economy collapsed in December of 2001, seemingly 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. It's really seemingly different from a lot of stuff, from the ground-up and not imposed by elites or cadres. It really seems like it's out of the grassroots struggles of Argentina, and the December 19 th and 20th 2001 economic collapse were just events that turned people out in mass in an uprising.

                 The book is divided into sections based on interviews, getting different perspectives on different subjects. The first section deals with how people thought the country changed in December 2001, and 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 the sudden when 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 places, took over factories and other workplaces where the management had either fled or owed the workers large amounts of money, and occupied buildings that were not being used, which flew in the face of clientilism of Argentina. The famous roadblocks, where people blocked off roads across the country to shut down commerce as protests of the poor of the country, also appeared across Argetina. The popular call was   "Oh, que se vayan todos!" ("They all must go!", referring to the nation's "democratically" elected politicians.) A sudden burst of anger from most people sick of the ruling class pretending to represent the will of the people brought down five Presidents in a matter of two weeks. The elites and political parties and financial organizations like foreign companies and the World Bank literally had no part in any of this upheaval other than being the target of anger, cast away like sand against the waves.

                From there, in the assemblies, a process of "horizontalidad" became the big philosophy. Before there would be a boss of any organization, and any real decisions would originate from above. But 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 commented that while having a boss or simple voting for decision making might be easier, you lose the power to the 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 doesn't take a group of people very far. It's really interesting how an idea is put together and made stronger by a group of people interacting and listening where the most powerful, well-done stuff happens.

"Martin S., La Toma and Argetina Arde (an occupied building and alternative media and art collective)

What does horizontalidad mean? First, that 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 else… 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 beforehand on issues like safety, being owed back-wages, and simple dignity on the job, a chance to show a different way of doing things. Owed tons of money, workers kept factories, clinics, bakeries and distribution centers opened, but kept the profits for themselves instead of giving it over to a boss. Nearly 200 companies were taken over in this fashion. Though they still operate under "the market," the fact that they have no bosses is a very important step since we still live in a capitalist world. The workers face evictions and fight tooth and nail to keep what they have gained. Many actually stayed in the factories because "they didn't have enough money to get home" and were sick and tired of being walked all over their entire lives. They decided to make the workplaces into services for their neighborhoods and communities instead of for the rich. Many have been shut down since then by the government and repression, but there are also many still operating today.

            Another chapter deals with women. Beforehand, machismo seemed very widespread in Argentina. Several people, especially women, note that amongst the very first people rushing to the forefront to get the neighborhood assemblies together and setting up road blockades were women, who had traditionally taken care of the children, and also the most hardcore activists in the fight for a better future were mostly women. It is also noted that as men started to take the lead of women, some started to go back to their old roles of men talking more than anyone else. But many women's collectives and groups start during this time, as people begin to realize it's okay to speak out against the old forms of oppression.

            It should be noted that there is a good chapter on repression as well by the state and it's allies, so not to give the impression that everything is lala-happy in Argentina or that revolutionary work has been completed. For instance, there was several instances of police killing people at the roadblocks, and then lying about it later on, saying they had been killed in accidents. People have been assassinated, and violent evictions of occupied spaces where owners had fled during the collapse are widespread. Only due to much pressure have local governments only accepted the ownership of the spaces by the occupiers. Sometimes, groups even reject government aid so they do not get tied to the state too much as well.

            I'm leaving out a lot of parts because I don't want to give away too much, but this is really a beautiful book and very nice to see it from the point of view of people actually doing the walk instead of just doing the talk. I really got to 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 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 place everyone has the power to decide what is best for their community and work and themselves, and actually trying to build such a world right now, in this world, like the old phrase "building a new world in the shell of the old." I do have some questions of how to defend this world from it's enemies, like the state or defenders of the old ways, and how they're doing this down in Argentina. For the most part, this book is incredibly inspirational to anyone who simply dreams of a better place right here on Earth.

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