Protestors in the Puerta de Sol, Madrid. Credit: Wikipedia/Carlos Delgado. All rights reserved.
“The greatest problem we have is that we can’t imagine any alternative. And that is the challenge: to invent, create and think as if we were living just after the collapse, if there is a collapse of capitalism, and how we will organize.” Ana, Observatorio Metropolitano and 15M, Madrid.
For the past ten years I have been travelling the world and talking with people like Ana, who are creating new social movements that challenge our conceptions of collective action. I lived in Argentina after the 2001 economic crisis and recorded an oral history of the rebellion that followed. I spent time with self-organized water users’ groups in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and with Occupy throughout the USA. And I worked with neighborhood assemblies in Greece and Spain, as well as with housing defense groups in the USA and Germany.
None of these examples are traditional social movements that formulate demands and then make claims on the institutions that are supposed to implement them, an approach that often placates the movement and leads only to temporary gains. Instead, these are much deeper attempts to reclaim our relationships to one another, and to reinvent ways of being that are rooted in horizontal solidarity, sharing, democracy and love.
“I guess for me I am a firm believer in the power of direct action and basically creating conditions where one would force the state to come to the negotiating table, and consequently making these changes, rather than the framework of demands which is perhaps a slightly less passive form of begging or petitioning, which I think often re-legitimizes the power of the state.” Matt, Occupy Wall Street, New York.
Matt’s observation summarizes what - for many critics - constitutes a weakness of these new movements, but which they see as a strength: they don’t attempt to sway public opinion or influence government policy, and they aren’t organized around a formal program. Rather than demanding a future which they know will never be given to them by others, their goal is to create their own futures together.
This happens in two ways. The first is through direct actions that keep people housed, fed and schooled; parks open and bus fares down; health care accessible; and life without perpetual debt a practical possibility. The second is by creating real democracy where people can actively participate and make decisions that affect their lives. But rather than asking other institutions to be more democratic, their approach is to declare them undemocratic and come up with working alternatives. Hence the slogans of these movements like You Don’t Represent Us and Real Democracy in Spain, The People Must Rule in Portugal, and You Can’t Even Imagine Us in Russia.
Relationships are being forged with powerful institutions like governments, banks and insurance companies, but not from the traditional position of protest movements in making claims. Instead, self-organized groups are making things happen - like preventing eviction from a home - which may lead to negotiations with the banks involved further down the line. This is different from organizing a protest in front of a bank demanding that they not evict a family, or protesting against their lending practices. It may seem like semantics, but actually it’s a central question of power and where it is located - in this case as something that is owned and activated from below, not something that has to be asked for from above.
“I remember looking in October at this New York Times public opinion poll, and the US Congress had a 9% approval rating and Occupy had over 60% approval. I think there has been in the US and globally a de-legitimization of existing social, political and economic institutions, and so people are looking for some kind of alternative to that. And we’re seeing it in each other - it’s really that basic. Just seeing one another, being able to speak and be heard, and in a horizontal way.” Marsia, Occupy Wall Street, New York.
Horizontalidad or horizontalism is a term that is widely used to describe these new social relationships. As these words imply, such relationships provide a flat plane on which to interact and communicate. Horizontalidad necessarily implies the use of direct democracy and striving for consensus through general assemblies and other similar models in which everyone is heard and new relationships can be created. These experiments are not ends in themselves, but tools that help to facilitate new relationships that are grounded in trust, sharing and open communication right throughout society.
“We would like to have this principle of horizontality and direct democracy applied to all areas of life, and a very important area is consumption. Right now the market is organized in a hierarchical way, so our relationship is as consumers. But here we want to promote a different sort of consumption. So, we are in touch with people who produce food and all different types of things, and we have a direct relationship with them, and we want to know what sorts of things they are producing, how they are producing it and to have as much control over what we consume as possible. ... There is no intermediary, no middle-man, and this works in many different ways. It also helps us to create new productive cooperatives so as to help meet our needs. So we begin with our needs, and from there we decide what we want.” Theo, Micropolis, Thessaloniki, Greece.
What Theo is describing is “pre-figurative” politics and practice - creating the future in the present by cementing equality and democracy at both the personal and the institutional levels, so that they can reinforce one another. New social movements may reject conventional models of representative democracy and capitalism, but they are equally focused on creating working relationships of care and support that concretize the alternatives they seek.
I saw this process at work in communities that were set up in squares, camps and plazas, where food, health care, legal support, libraries, child support, mediation, and many other services were provided. Direct participation, speaking to your neighbors, forming assemblies, deciding what to do and then doing it collectively - these were features of all the movements I worked with, without hierarchy or the election of formal representatives. And these principles had a profound effect on the people who practiced them.
“After what happened, Spain collectively feels different. If, for example, I think about my father, who was a person that wasn’t politicized at all, and now is a person that listens, with whom you can have a conversation at any time, who is well informed. These kinds of people are now making their voices heard, people who now take part in rallies and participate in things they never would have before.” Begonia, 15-M, Madrid.
Around the globe, people are organizing in horizontal ways that prefigure the world they desire, and in the process they are creating themselves anew. Those I talked with all spoke of being changed, of developing a new kind of confidence and dignity. The shame they may have felt after losing their job or their house was translated into anger, but combined with the knowledge and experience that they were not to blame. In fact, they were in the majority, and they could do something about the crisis even if it was not of their own making - they could organize with one another and create alternatives: not ask for them, but make them come alive directly. And that is power.
As Ernest told me from the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, an anti-foreclosure and anti-eviction network in Barcelona:
“15-M is something that will leave a mark on you forever. It has affected millions of individuals, one by one, people who will never be the same again. People know that they can achieve things, that if they join together with other people like them, they will change things, and this is very, very powerful. Of course, we don’t know perfectly the ways to do it, and it’s ok if no one knows, nor has the magic formula. Most important is that we are there, searching to find the moment in which we can break through. I think this is one of the strongest points of 15-M. I had goose bumps during those days. I couldn’t believe it. Plaza Catalunya was full of people who respected the schedule, speaking with megaphones, communicating together. There were moments when you cried, full of emotion. I never believed that I could see something like this in my lifetime, not even in my dreams, but there it was.”