by Marina Sitrin and Emilio Sparato
New Languages from New Practices In Argentina
Marina Sitrin (US) and Emilio Sparato (Argentina)
How do we know when we are in a revolutionary period? We may know when the ways and words we once used to describe our social and political relations no longer reflect the ones to which we now actively aspire.
The growth over the last years of the autonomous social movements in Argentina has taught us that this is so. This is not to learn something entirely new. It is to see that those who have created and work daily to create the movements have learned and continue to learn.
It is also to learn something all the more remarkable now, in the wake of the“Enero Automo”(Autonomous January) of 2004. At this gathering, close to a thousand people from the movements of Argentina and from related movements throughout the Americas came together for the“Ronda de Pensamiento Autonomo”(Gathering of Autonomous Thinking) in the weeks preceding the World Social Forum. They came to celebrate and reflect upon the idea that another world is possible and that the movement of movements being created now in Argentina is already that other world.
Throughout those days we were reminded, repeatedly and conspicuously of this new world and of those like it that we will create based on direct democracy and autonomy. As a result of this pursuit of freedom, a new and beautiful language emerges from, rather than being created for our movements.
Old language carries with it a history- a history that in this case has been rejected in practice through a lack of usage and replaced with a practice of vision and hope in search for and in creation of something entirely new. It is through this new practice that new languages are being created. Through this practice that new conceptions are being imagined of the kinds of persons we are and aspire to be. We imagine through relationships we develop within the collectives and spaces we are creating. There are many in the movements who speak in this way, of a“rupture,”a political, historical and cultural break with past systems of“representation.”
The people of Argentina have endured a long history of their neighborhoods being dominated by those who purport to represent them and then profit from doing so. Perhaps most notably this concept of“representation”was seen under Peronism, in particular with what was a forced reliance on“punteros”- local neighborhood bureaucrats. This system resulted in a politics of“clientelism”where nothing could be accomplished without going through such“representatives.”
In Ledezma, Jujuy, in the North of Argentina we spoke with Maria Eva, an eighty-year-old woman. She explained how in the past she had to go through her local Peronist representative and work for the party if she wanted anything from a light bulb to the electricity needed to turn that bulb on. Now she speaks with tremendous pride at being a part of her neighborhood organization. Her neighborhood organization is one of the 33 neighborhoods in town organized in an unemployed workers, or“piquetero”, group. As a part of the community she participates in all decisions that affect her life and community. One of the ways this is done is through weekly neighborhood assemblies that use direct democracy and synthesis as a means of making decisions. Decisions are made on a town-wide basis once a week when the over three thousand people in the thirty-three neighborhoods come together in a mass assembly, where all have a voice in the form of direct democracy. The creation of directly democratic organizations, such as those in Ledezma, is a clear rejection of and decisive ruptures with past vertical organizational structures. They also are a rupture with the old concepts of“representation”.
Such ruptures from the old political ways arose publicly in the North and South of the country in the Nineties when unemployed worker’s movements and broader based popular movements organized against local governments and corporations. Many towns in Argentina came under domination by one large (often multinational) corporation intimate with local government and police. People understood that their economic crisis was not a freak of nature but was a direct result of the corporations and governments. By the thousands, Unemployed workers, generally led by women, took to the streets in Mosconi Salta and Cutral-co Neuquen and elsewhere, blocking major transportation arteries demanding subsidies from the government. Organizing was done directly by those in the streets, speaking each day and moment to decide what to do next- elected leaders played no roll. Similarly, thousands took to the streets to expel local governments in Santiago del Estero and Plaza Huincirl. Thousands of workers took over the cane fields and sugar refinery of Ezperanza in San Pedro Juyjuy and ran it collectively for over two years. These and other local movements represented a powerful and conspicuous rupture ways of organizing.
This rupture emerged again, more powerfully and conspicuously in the popular rebellion of the 19th and 20th of December of 2001. As with the previous experiences in the North and South, the experience of those in and around Buenos Aires was one of direct democracy and direct action. The rulers at the time declared a state of emergency, ordering citizens to stay at home. But in response to the repression clearly visible on television and in front of their windows, people all around the city spontaneously reacted by taking to the streets. Hundreds of thousands poured onto the streets of Buenos Aires, not to demand something new but to create it. It was a rebellion of workers and unemployed, and of the middle class and those recently de-classed. It was a rebellion without representation or parties from either the right or the left. In its wake four consecutive national governments were expelled; but more importantly, thousands of neighborhood“asambleas”(assemblies) were created on street corners involving at times tens of thousands of active participants. The unemployed workers movements grew and matured theoretically, and the dozens of occupied factories that existed at the time of the rebellion grew in only two years to include hundreds, taken over and run directly democratically workers.
These uses of direct action all entail taking over public space so as to be seen and heard. This is a fundamental rupture with Argentina’s past. It is a break from the history of silence and fear experienced throughout the country during the years of the military dictatorship (1976-1983), one which took over thirty thousand lives and which spawned the expression and mindset:“No te metas”(“Do not involve yourself”). The thousands upon thousands participating in direct action and direct democracy represent a decisive break from this. Graffiti throughout the cities now reads,“Despertate”(“Wake up”).
There is a real reawakening occurring in Argentina, not awakening as one
does each morning, but a rediscovery of our collective power and imagination.
It is an awakening to newly imagined social relations, and to new ways of
speaking. Let us look, then, at a few of the most important pieces of this
new language, some words“retaken”from old ways of speaking, some
words wholly new:
“Horizontalidad”is a word that encapsulates most directly the ideas upon which these new social relationships are founded. It is a word that previously did not have political meaning. Its new meaning emerged from a practice, from a new way of interacting that has become a hallmark of the autonomous movements. Horizontalidad is a social relationship that implies, as it sounds, a flat plane upon which to communicate. Horizontalidad requires the use of direct democracy and implies non-hierarchy and anti-authoritarian creation rather than reaction. This term that emerged initially in the unemployed workers’movements as a descriptive word for a practice was popularized with the expansion of the Asambleas, particularly in urban areas like Buenos Aires, after the popular rebellion of the 19/20 of December. When explaining how an asamblea or unemployed workers movement functions, it is very common to have people set the palms of their hands to face down and then to move them back and forth to indicate a flat plane; in order to indicate how it does not function, people join the tips of their fingers together to form a kind of triangle or pyramid. Horizontalidad in many ways are these hand gestures with the knowledge that they genuinely represent a new and powerful set of social relations.
Horizontalism is a living word, reflecting an experience that is ever changing. Months after the popular rebellion, many began to speak of their relationships as horizontal, as a way of describing the use of direct democracy and consensus in striving for a true freedom. Now, over two years after the rebellion, those continuing to build a new and revolutionary movement speak of horizontalidad as both a goal and a tool. It is a goal in the sense that there is a clearer understanding now that all of our relationships are still deeply affected by capitalism, and thus by the sorts of power dynamics it promotes in all of our collectives and creative spaces, in how we relate to one another in term of gender and race, information and experience, and so on. Horizontalism is a tool; on the other hand, in the sense that a danger is now more clearly recognized that language might become the politics and relationship, rather than a reflection of a living process.
Some in the movements feel that by describing oneself as horizontalist,
or autonomist the process and practice can get lost, and it becomes more
about name-calling. Even worse, there can be the possibility of hierarchy
in good names, for example I am more horizontal than you, or our collective
is the most autonomous. Horizontalism is used as a tool and not an end, in
part to avoid this occurrence. The goal ultimately is real freedom.
New Social Protagonism&Subjectividad
A friend from Chilavert, an occupied and producing printing press, clarified in a conversation recently that he is“not political,”but rather“an actor and protagonist”in his life. Chilavert, like hundreds of other occupied factories, functions as a direct democracy using asambleas to make decisions collectively. Decisions that range from whether or not all workers, despite different hours and tasks, should be paid the same, to questions about what to produce and how much. Many in the autonomous movements do not call themselves activists, but rather“protagonists.”Similarly, in Grissionopolis, a small occupied and producing factory, the workers have placed their machines in a circle with chairs in front of each machine. They are thus, consciously, a constant asamblea. At any time, anyone can sit in a chair and begin a conversation related to the running of their workplace. They are the subjects of their life and work. There are no bosses and no elected representatives.
It is a politic described by a language based on social relationships rather than an overarching theory. It is based in-turn on horizontal decision-making and cannot be separated from this is individual protagonists. Because of this new individual protagonism, a new collective protagonism also arises, the need for new ways of speaking of the“nosotros”(“we/us”) and“nuestro”(“our”), as it relates to the“yo”(“I”). The aspiration is a genuinely new conception of our individual selves through new conceptions of our collective selves.
The conversation on protagonism and new subjectivity is just as widespread in the asamblea movement. To see oneself as an actor, when historically one has been a silent observer, is a fundamental break from the past. For many in the asambleas remembering the days when one did not even know their neighbors name, let alone speak about their children or parents, simply to meet and speak to one’s neighbor about the conditions in the neighborhood or economy is an enormous step.
In neighborhoods with unemployed workers’movements, there has been an equally powerful shift. Neighborhoods dominated by punteros claiming to“speak for the people”are increasingly rare as a new protagonism emerges and as power is placed back to the individual and the collective by rethinking it. A new protagonism is evident in the way in which certain words have been given new meaning. Under Peronism, the idea of“dignity”was the idea of the“good worker,”who goes to work, comes home, returns to work the next day, and feels pride in this relationship. The unemployed workers’movements have retaken the idea of dignity as one of their organizing principles under the banner of“Dignity, Horizontalism and Autonomy,”reflecting an experience of creating ones own present and future. Similarly, the idea of one’s“Compañero”has been reclaimed. Historically the left parties have claimed this word to refer to a group of people who are organized to fight for the party in addition to its more formal use,“El Compañero,”as one might refer to“El”Compañero Fidel, or El Compañero Compañero Lula, or other heads of state allegedly representing the people. In dropping the“El”from the word, the movements have given the word a new significance, in the spirit of the use of“sister”and“brother”in many indigenous communities.
Autogestion is a word that has no exact English translation. Historically, anarchists have spoken of“self-management”in a way that comes closest to its current use in Argentina’s autonomous movements. It is a word reflecting an autonomous and collective practice. Projects in autonomous spaces, for example, are“autogestionada”in the sense that they are self-created and self-managed. In the unemployed movement’s neighborhood bakeries, organic farms, popular schools and clinics are all autogestoniada. They are run collectively, horizontally, via direct democracy.
Autogestion is an idea and word based not in“the what,”but in“the how.“It is the relationships amongst people that create a particular project, not simply the project itself. For example a neighborhood assembly that decides to organize a neighborhood medical clinic and then from the assembly decides how to do it, coordinating such things as schedules, location, gathering of material etc., these spaces are autogestionada. This is a different situation from a medical clinic that is organized by the government. In the government kitchens neighbors sometimes volunteer to cook or pass out food, but they do not participate in any way in the decisions. The difference lies not in the act of food being distributed by the community, but who organized it and how the community directly participated in the entire process.
“Autonomy”is not a new word, though only a few years ago it
was a word seldom heard in Argentina outside of anarchist circles. It is
now one of the main threads that weaves together the occupied factories,
asambleas, and unemployed workers movements. Autonomy is used to describe
how those in the movements relate to themselves and to one another as well
as a means of distinguishing themselves from the left political parties.
Debates arose in a number of in deciding whether or not to call themselves“autonomous
neighborhood asambleas”, many felt it was redundant and the existence
of the asamblea made it autonomous. In testimony to the autonomy of the movements
stands the unfortunate actions of certain left parties in response. These
parties, threatened as they were by the movements’autonomy, infiltrated
many asambleas in order to control them; finding themselves unable to do
so they then set out instead to destroy them. In spite of the significant
damage caused, dozens of asambleas have survived, and are working now to
multiply and flourish with genuine autonomy.
In early January, close to a thousand people participated in four days of horizontal discussions in an expanse of land recuperated by the unemployed workers movement outside Buenos Aires. Enero Autonomo was a space for sharing theory and practice, for discussing new ideas and new language. This space was organized to exchange ideas and practices. The intention of the exchange was to create an even broader group of people and have more extensive conversations and sharing. This new language is still emerging, and emerging in complicated and beautiful ways.
The movements create an intentional space in which this language can emerge. One of the ways that those in the movements have found to describe the territory they are creating is the idea of“política afectiva”(affective politics).“Affective”in the sense of creating affection; creating a base that is loving and supportive- a base from which one can create politics. It is a politics of social relationships and love. To create this space one needs a sense of mutual respect and desire to create a space for listening and hearing. It is in the same spirit as how playing music before an action creates a common meeting space that allows us to work and create together. From such an“affective space,”all things are possible.