Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina

(1)  Can you tell ZNet, please, what Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina is about? What is it trying to communicate?


Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina is an oral history of the autonomous social movements in Argentina since the popular rebellion in 2001. It reflects the voices of many dozens of people who are recreating their lives and communities using horizontal forms of social organization. These movements range from occupied and recuperated factories, arts and independent media collectives, indigenous communities, neighborhood assemblies, feminist and queer groups and unemployed workers movements.


This book explores what people are doing, what motivates them, how they are relating to one another, and how they have changed individually and collectively in the creation process. It is not so much a movement of new actions, but rather a movement of new social actors, new subjects, and new protagonists. So many in the movements speak of how they have changed as individuals and how their communities have changed, based on these new ways of organizing and creating.


The book shows, in people’s own voices, that we can change our worlds, we are changing our worlds, and we can do so with love, trust, real democracy, horizontalism in this case, and autonomy.


 One of the things that is so unique and inspiring about the movements is not just what they are doing and how they are doing it, but the tremendous diversity of those participating in the horizontal movements, spanning social and economic classes and geographic locations.


(2)  Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?


This book comes from many years of working with people in the movements in Argentina. I first heard about the factory take-overs and hundreds of neighborhood assemblies in early 2002. In all honesty I was not sure that it was true. It seemed so much like something that I would want to be happening in the world that I thought maybe those writing about it were infusing some of what they wanted to see into the reality. Then I met people from the movements at the World Social Forum in Brazil. Wow. It was true. It was even more than what people were writing. So, I spoke with a number of people in the various movements and asked what they thought of my doing an oral history. I then found myself invited to stay in people’s homes and asked if I wanted to take the bus directly back with them. From there it was a process of over two years of living in, and traveling around, Argentina. It would not be right to say that I interviewed people. I sat and talked for hours with so many people, and from there created a book based in common themes that came up in the conversations. After I had an initial draft of the book in Spanish, I shared it with a few people in both the neighborhood assemblies and unemployed workers movements. They gave me feedback and I worked another 6 months on the book, including meeting more people in other movements, and eventually we had a draft. Finally I printed the book at Chilavert, a recuperated printing press, and the Spanish version of the book began to be distributed in 2005 in Latin America. This version of the book is a translation with an updated and modified introduction and preface.



(3)  What are your hopes for Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?


The book is already circulating in Spanish, and the main goal of it is to be a tool for people to use in other movements around the world. I hope that the book will inspire people. How could it not? It is the real stories of people reorganizing their lives and communities in the ways in which they desire, individually and collectively. Success … It will be a success if people are inspired and use that inspiration to reimagine and recreate their lives, or at least aspects of their lives. This is not a book of stories that one reads and then feels good and goes to bed. It is a book of stories of real people, stories that can be shared, learned from, and attempted in our own various contexts and circumstances. It is not a guidebook, but a book to inspire us to imagine beyond where we are … to imagine other paths and begin to walk those paths.


What would leave me wondering if it was worth the time? I guess if people read the book and see it as some sort of isolated exception. If people see it as something that can happen “there” and not imagine how various ways of reorganizing our lives can happen “here”, wherever here is. It is not a storybook or a history book. It is a tool, an inspiring tool.



Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina or the Spanish version Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular en Argentina, can be purchased through:










“Marina Sitrin has provided an invaluable service to scholars and activists around the world by compiling the testimonies of the participants in some of the most prominent and original Argentine popular movements. These activists speak of political passion, determination, solidarity, and new forms of horizontal organization. They also speak of frustration, obstacles, and repression. Overall, their voices show in startling detail the stubborn hope of a new generation of sufferers and fighters.”—Javier Auyero, author, Contentious Lives and Poor People’s Politics


“‘Another world’ is possible was the catch-phrase of the World Social Forum, but it wasn’t just possible; while the north was dreaming, that world was and is being built and lived in many parts of the global south. With the analytical insight of a political philosopher, the investigative zeal of a reporter, and the heart of a sister, Marina Sitrin has immersed herself in one of the most radical and important of these other worlds and brought us back stories, voices, and possibilities. This book…is riveting, moving, and profoundly important for those who want to know what revolution in our time might look like.”—Rebecca Solnit, author of Savage Dreams and Hope in the Dark


“A fascinating account about what is fresh and new about the Argentine uprising.”-John Holloway, author of Change the World Without Taking Power


“This book contains much more than the voices and ideas of the on-the-ground) architects of horizontalidad.  It offers a comprehensive analysis of the ideological and material dynamics of the movement, presented by the participants themselves, as they respond to the insightful analytic probing of scholar/activist Marina Sitrin.” – Michael Schwartz, author of Radical Protest and Social Structure


Preface to the English edition:


Translating we walk 


Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular, the original Spanish version of this book, was published in 2005 at Chilavert, a recuperated printing press, in Argentina. The printing process was collaborative, filled with compañerismo and love. As Candido, one of the compañeros from Chilavert you will meet in the book, often says: with solidarity and love all is possible. I am forever indebted to my friends at Chilavert for reminding me of all that is possible.  


      This is not a conventionally translated or edited book. It has its own methodology, one from which I am never absent. I have attempted to work in the spirit of the new politics of affectivity. My aim as a translator and editor was, first and foremost, to facilitate the fullest meanings and sentiments of people in the social movements. Methodologically, I’ve done this through participation in those movements. The new politics taking shape in Argentina require new forms of translation, new ways of communicating political experiences. For a translator this poses a serious challenge.


      What I’ve chosen to do with this translation is to retain certain words that don’t make immediate sense in English, leaving room for new meanings and significations. This process requires the patience of an understanding reader. As many of the people I interview remind us, old words cannot define new things—a new language is necessary. However, a dilemma arises when that new language is developing within Spanish and we, who speak English, generally do not yet share the experiences that are creating a new vocabulary. This is where the patience comes in. We must try to listen to the experience before attempting to translate it into the language of our own experience.


       In traditional debates about translation, there are two options: one can try to be faithful to the literal wording of the original or one can create a new work entirely. The choice is between being loyal to the language or to the experience. This new translation should be neither. It is first and foremost a participatory political process. New movements put new demands and expectations on translators and editors. They demand participation. Language is one of the most delicate, and tricky, political tools. Words and expressions are filled with previously held emotions and meanings. They have histories. Their meanings change over time. The tricky thing about this oral history is that, not only have new words been created in Spanish to describe new experiences, but the meanings of older, fairly common words have evolved. Patience and openness is required on both counts. One must simultaneously be open to a new, unfamiliar vocabulary and also understand that familiar words might signify in new ways


      As Emilio, a seventeen-year old activist in Argentina at the time of our conversations, puts it: 


So, today we’re constructing something different. And, in the process, a whole new language and new forms of expression come into being. Horizontalidad, direct democracy, sharing and effecting one another’s movements, contamination, articulation, organizing in networks—these expressions are not often heard from the traditional left. … There are many words from the past that could define today’s situation, but since they’re old words used to define new things, they create confusion.  


      Below are a few examples of such words and expressions. It’s neither meant to be an exhaustive list, nor a thorough explanation of the new meanings, but rather a brief guide.




This word and it’s meaning are discussed in the introduction. By far it is one of the most widely used words coming from the new movements in Argentina. I have on occasion translated it as horizontality or horizontalism, but these are translations that miss the full sense of the word. Horizontalidad does not just imply a flat plane for organizing, or non-hierarchical relationships in which people no longer make decisions for others. It is a positive word that implies the use of direct democracy and the striving for consensus, processes in which everyone is heard and new relationships are created. Horizontalidad is a new way of relating, based in affective politics, and against all of the implications of “isms.”


Protagonism and subjectivity


Many people in the movements speak of themselves as protagonists, of a new subjectivity, and of social protagonism. This reflects not only people’s sense of self-activity and action, but of a social phenomenon in which people are deciding for themselves, breaking from a past of political party brokerage and silence. It also refers to a new collective sense of being, where, through direct democracy, new individuals and collectives are being born. 




On the surface, dignity is a word that is easily understood in English, but it has taken on important connotations in the movements in Argentina. Under Peronism, dignity referred to the good worker, who went to work, came home, returned to work the next day, and felt pride in this relationship as a worker with a boss. This word now, especially for those in the occupied and recuperated factories, as well as the unemployed workers’ movements, represents the self-organization and autonomy of working without bosses or hierarchy. Dignity is now created through by individuals and collectives.  




Autogestion is a word that has no exact English translation. Historically, the anarchist idea of self-management comes closest to its current use in Argentina’s movements. Autogestion is based not in the what, but in the how. It is the relationships among people that create a particular project, not simply the project itself. It is a word reflecting an autonomous and collective practice. When people in the movements in Argentina speak of autogestion they usually are implying directly democratic decision-making processes and the creation of new subjectivities along the way. I have sometimes left this word in Spanish to emphasize these many meanings.  


Política Afectiva


One way people in the movements describe the territory they are creating is through the idea of política afectiva, or affective politics. They are affective in the sense of creating affection, creating a base that is loving and supportive, the only base from which one can create politics . It is a politics of social relationships and love. To translate this term as “love-based politics” would miss many of the social relationships it implies.


The Politics of Walking


Similar to the Zapatistas and other movements, many in Argentina speak in terms of process and the walking. The Zapatistas often refer to the importance of the walk, and not the goal or destination per se. Without much contact between the movements in their inception in Argentina, the Argentines are speaking similarly. For the reader at times this may seem frustrating. One may want the speaker to just say that something is a certain way, but in fact the “way” that it is, is that of a walk, of a process. I’ve consciously used the progressive a great deal in my translation. People will say, “we are creating,” rather than “we have created.” This is a part of the new politics. Similarly, many people introduce ideas by saying that they believe certain things, not that they think them. This may seem like a minor issue, but believing something implies an emotional commitment in an ongoing process, while thinking implies that the process is over. 


Excerpt from the chapter Horizontalidad:


   Pablo, Asamblea Colegiales (a neighborhood assembly)


   No one was obeying some idealogical command. People simply met on a street corner in their neighborhood, with other neighbors who had participated in the cacerolazos. For example, in my assembly, in the neighborhood of Colegiales—and I know many other cases—someone simply wrote on the sidewalk, in chalk, “Neighbors let’s meet here Thursday night.” Period. Who wrote this? No one knows. In the first meeting there were maybe 15 people, and by the next week it was triple that. Why did it increase in this way? It wasn’t an ideological decision, or an intellectual, academic, or political one. It’s like asking why people went out to cacerolas. It was the most spontaneous and elemental thing, to go out in the street and meet others on the corner. It isn’t that there was a decision to be horizontal—it’s not that there was a decision to use direct democracy as if someone had just thought it up. It wasn’t a decision. We simply came together with a powerful rejection of all we knew. A strong rejection of political parties and their structures, a strong rejection of all those who represented the State or who wanted to occupy positions in the State. We made a specific decision that we are going to do things for ourselves.

      To understand this phenomenon requires more than calling it “direct democracy.” Naming it is an interpretation. To call this new relationship direct democracy is technically correct, but “direct democracy” wasn’t in people’s vocabulary back then. The initial vocabulary was simply: Let’s do things for ourselves, and do them right. Let’s decide for ourselves. Let’s decide democratically, and if we do, then let’s explicitly agree that we’re all equal here, that there are no bosses, that we don’t want bosses, and that no one can lead us. We lead ourselves. We lead together. We lead and decide amongst ourselves. Someone said, this is horizontal, and well, yes this is horizontal because it’s not vertical. We don’t want bosses, and because of this it isn’t vertical, but it isn’t part of any theory of horizontalidad or direct democracy. Like the cacerolazo, no one invented it. That was a way to protest. It just happened. We met one another on the corner and decided, enough! Enough of this, let’s start everything anew. Let’s invent new organizational forms and reinvent society.

      It was a huge challenge. Where would we begin with the assembly? How to begin? What would we need? These questions generated an agenda, a new agenda, an infinite agenda that was the same as a new agenda. It was really difficult to prioritize ideas. For example, what should come first? Is one thing more important than another? Where should we concentrate our energy? In one thing? Three? Ten? All of them are important. It’s really difficult to generate an agenda and to create a methodology. Beyond our saying, ok, there are no bosses and no leaders, there are no structures, there are questions. How are we going to function? Who speaks first? Who speaks next? Who decides who will speak? Are people asked to speak? Or, what happens if one person talks a lot? Some rules have to exist, like a speaking order, for example. From that realization, began to get difficult. To transform the rejection, the “que se vayan todos” into constructive practices, ones of new sociability and new forms of organization, not ones like the State, but new forms… This was really difficult.

      Project-based groups soon began to form in the neighborhood assembly. One group planted a garden, another group figured out how to buy things directly from producers, another created a health project, another a group of political reflection and study, and still another planned cultural activities. These smaller groups depended not on an agenda, but on the initiatives, capacities, and skills of the individuals who decided to be involved.



  Carlos G., and Julian, Zanon (an occupied factory)


   Carlos: We try to make decisions using consensus. In the assemblies, we try to create a space where each person and position is heard, so that whatever decision we make is ultimately based on all of our opinions, or at least the majority. Here in the plant, we’re organized into different sectors based in areas of work. Every day, each sector has a meeting. The factory-wide meetings, where each group shares what they’re doing, are on Wednesdays. This is where we make decisions, including ones like paying everyone the same 800 peso salary.


   Julian: Something we’ve observed is that each assembly is increasingly participatory. We’ve seen all the compañeros go through a sort of waking up process. It’s not just talk—everyone is putting their all into this. In this waking process, new critiques are constantly developing, and in a way that is a part of always moving forward, towards the north. It is from there that we put aside our differences and try to get to this north, the solution to this conflict. This is how we organize ourselves.

      There are so many discussions in every assembly that it feels like we’re flying. For example one person presents an idea and… Pa! Pim! Pum! We explode talking, and it all goes great. Through everything that happens, we’re always united. In the first assemblies, we had to vote about unity, but now we’re living it and applying it every day. It’s more than a vote.

      Before we took over the factory, the only thing we had to do was work, and we didn’t worry about the rest. But now with this, with this conflict, we have to move forward, and we know that the company isn’t going to solve any of our problems. Of course, them solving our problems for us isn’t what we want. It’s like an older compañero said: we shouldn’t wait for the very people who tortured us to solve things for us. We understand that now.

      Every day we all participate more. We all have the possibility to speak and seek solutions, to be more active and create change together. We can see this in how we make decisions. For example, one person throws out an idea, and then another puts out a different one. People discuss the ideas, and there’s a conflict that someone else clears up, but someone else disagrees. Eventually, we’ll all come to a conclusion together.


Excerpt from the chapter Autogestion:


Liliana, Brukman (an occupied factory)


We are all older women here, almost all of us are over 40, and our only source of employment is this factory. What we know how to do is work with the machines that are inside.

     Because of this whole experience I have now begun wonder why the worker always has to keep quiet? The boss doesn’t pay you, the boss owes you money, and you’re the one that has to leave, to hang your head and go. Well, we made the decision that we weren’t going to be quiet anymore. They’ve done a lot of things to us and I believe that, well, enough already with staying quiet. No? All our lives we kept quiet. In the past, we would have left and looked for another job. I don’t think that way anymore. I want to be clear about that. I want all this corruption that’s carried out against us workers to stop. We, as workers, have stopped being stupid, and that’s it. We’re steadfast.

      In reality, for us it wasn’t a factory occupation. We stayed on December 18, 2001 because we didn’t have enough money to get home. Where were we going to go with two pesos when the bus costs four? Together, everyone in the factory thought about our situation, and decided to stay to see if the bosses would decide to give us a little money so we could celebrate the holidays with our families. The bosses had families, too, so they understand the desire to be together on the holidays. This wasn’t an occupation at first, but it became one without us intending it. We waited two months for the bosses to come back. We went to the unions, the Ministry of Work, all with the intention of getting the boss to come back and offer us a solution. He never came. So we decided to work. That’s how it started, and we were doing a really good job, working well. We even paid the electric bill. The boss had a deal where he could owe money to the electric company without them cutting off his power. They told us that they wouldn’t only cut off our electricity, but that in order to keep the power on, we also had to pay the boss’s debt of 7000 pesos. We did it, and we paid the water bill and the gas bill—which is the most important—and that’s how we worked. But what we were doing bothered them from the beginning and they came around all the time to harass us. They claimed we were destroying the machines, for example, but that didn’t make sense since there was a ton of media people around us and they saw that nothing was broken. Why would we break the machines in the first place? How would we eat? How would we pay for everything? We were working, despite the boss’s lies.

      So many of the unemployed workers movements have come to support us. What we’ve done is pretty big. We’re an example of how to fight for a workplace, an inspiration for the unemployed making 150 pesos, which isn’t enough for a family. What a worker needs is to work. 

      We aren’t political. We’re surrounded by politicians, but that isn’t the type of politics that makes sense to the women workers of Brukman. What we want is to work, and we struggle for our work, for our livelihood. Especially women—women think more about their children. I think that women are better fighters than men, and this pushes us to continue fighting for our livelihood. 


Excerpt from the chapter Protagonism:


Paula, feminist and GLBT collectives

The best part about the assemblies is that they let people do politics in a different, nonpartisan way. This new relationship has given way to very deep changes in people’s subjectivity.

          The way people get together in their neighborhoods now and talk about things, listen to each other, with everyone’s opinion having the same value, is profoundly important. In political parties, it’s not like this. In political parties, some people’s opinions are valuable, and some aren’t. I believe we are constructing a new way of being political, which is really positive.

          If the assemblies disappeared, it wouldn’t be so terrible. I say this because there’s something happening in people right now, a real change. And this is really important for building whatever kind of future, it doesn’t matter what kind exactly. I think this is the most important thing with respect to the neighborhood assemblies, which is that they have created a profound change in people’s subjectivity. People who believed they were never going to do anything again, all of a sudden did. This is especially important considering our society, which teaches us that nothing done collectively matters, and that the only important thing is the individual. Just the fact that people have started to realize they can do things collectively is really important. They feel like if they can gather ten, twenty, or thirty people together, they can do something, they can change something, even if it’s small, this, just this, is really important. This change is an extremely deep subjective change, because people are questioning this individualism that has been so entrenched in us since the end of the last century. While the neighborhood assemblies aren’t everything we’d like them to be, I believe much of this change is related to the assemblies.


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