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February 2, 2013

Interview Transcript: Marina Sitrin, Author Horizontalism Part 1

By Rob Kall

My interview with Marina Sitrin. It was an interview I avidly anticipated doing because of the knowledge she holds and the perspective she brings to the Occupy movement. She is the editor of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (2006) AK Press, published in numerous languages


Marina Sitrin by rob kall


My interview with Marina Sitrin. It was an interview I avidly anticipated doing because of the knowledge she holds and the perspective she brings to the Occupy movement.  She is the editor of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (2006) AK Press, published in numerous languages

Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, teacher, organizer and dreamer Marina holds a PhD in Global Sociology and a JD in International Women's Human Rights. Her work focuses on social movements and justice, specifically looking at new forms of social organization, such as autogestion, horizontalidad, prefigurative politics and new affective social relationships.

Marina has just completed with Zed Press, London UK, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism &Autonomy in Argentina (2012), and is co-editor of  the forthcoming, Insurgent Democracies: Latin America's New Powers.  Marina's work has been published in: The International Journal of Comparative Sociology, Znet, Yes! Magazine, Upping the Anti, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, alternet.org, and Prensa Latina, among others.    

Thanks to Don Caldarazzo  for help editing the transcript. 

Guest: Marina Sitrin

April 24, 2012

Rob:  And welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM, sponsored by OpEdnews.com and you can listen to other shows if you go to iTunes and look for my name, "Rob Kall," or go to OpEdNews.com/podcasts . My guest tonight is Marina Sitrin. She's the author of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina and it seemed like all the time when I was at the different Occupy Wall Street locales, the idea of horizontalism came at me, and almost always it was Marina Sitrin as the editor of this book whose name came associated with it. So, welcome to the show, Marina!

Marina:   Great. Thanks. It's nice to be here.

Rob:  Now, let me give a little bit more of a bio that I've collected on you. Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, teacher, organizer and dreamer. She holds a Ph.D. in global sociology, and a J.D., that's a legal degree, in international Women's human rights. Her work focuses on social movements and justice, specifically looking at new forms of social organization, such as autogestion, horizontalidad, pre-figurative politics and new effective social relationships.  She's the editor of Horizontalism: Voices of Power in Argentina, published in 2006 by AK Press, and that's been published in numerous languages. And she's just completed a new book with Zed Press, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina, that's going to come out this fall.

Marina:   Right.

Rob:  You're doing some really exciting stuff here. Now, the one thing on your website - you have a quote that I just love, and I love quotes. I'm going to borrow this and put it on the OpEdnews database. You believe in the power of imagination, and that most all things are possible. As Lewis Carroll reminds us in Through The Looking Glass, "Alice laughed. There's no use trying," she said, "One can't believe impossible things!"

"I dare say you haven't had much practice!" said the queen. "When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Marina:   / I do love that quote.

Rob:  / Great quote and reading the book, reading Horizontalism, which I have to say, is kind of "walking the talk," in terms of doing a book that's based on horizontalism and the values that have been manifested at the Occupy Wall Street general assemblies. This is not a book that you wrote and put your name on: it's a book that you kind of introduced, but then in walking the talk, you've created a place where a lot of voices could discuss and share their perspectives on what this is all about. And that's a really neat thing to do, and I don't know that I've ever seen it ever done before like this has been done.

Marina:   I think people have done different kinds of oral histories or tried to facilitate voices. I was really fortunate in working on the book in Argentina. I was living in Argentina and went there, not as an academic or as a researcher, but as someone who is also involved in movements. So I was involved in movements and talking to people and thinking together with them about the best way to make a tool that would be useful for other countries in Latin America, because the book came out first in Spanish and then in English. So, the way it's being used in the Occupy Movement now is the same way it was used in Latin America in 2005, when it came out there in Spanish and it set--helping people to see and hear the voices of real people living things that are similar, and having them share both the inspiring moments and things they're doing, and then some of the challenges. But I did it together with people in the movements, in talking to them and getting feedback. And so I was really fortunate that that's how it came out.

Rob:  Where are you from originally?

Marina:   I'm originally from the U.S. I had lived in Cuba, and my mother did as well for a period of time. And so I have family in Cuba, but I was born and raised outside New York City.

Rob:  Okay. So, let's talk about Horizontalism. Now the reason I'm fascinated with this is I call the Bottom Up Radio Show, because I believe we're in a transition from a top down to a bottom up world, and horizontalism has come back to me in a lot of different ways. When I would talk to some of the people in Occupy about them being bottom up people, they would go, "No, we're horizontal," And they would do it with vehemence and so, "No we're not bottom up, we're horizontal."

Marina:   Right.

Rob:  First, let's talk about horizontalism. What is horizontalism? And this is what you talk about in your first couple chapters, and what a whole lot of people talk about in the voices section.

Marina:   Right. And it's a tricky thing, because when I say really early on, the word exists in Spanish as "Horizontalizad," and I'm not being difficult, but it really doesn't have an English translation, and it's actually-- because in Spanish, it's not called "ismo." It's not an "ism." So, the politics of horizontalism is it's a relationship, and it's one that's ever-changing, and it's one that people form with each other. So, it's almost against the idea of "isms," but it felt like just using the word the word horizontal (or horizontality) was too descriptive, it wasn't getting at the fact that this is this kind of ongoing, changing relationship.

So it's a relationship where people are with one another in a way that is direct, that is - later people came to call it "Direct Democracy" and things like that. They didn't at first. Neither did people say "It's anti-hierarchy," but that is part of what it's about. It's about people speaking for themselves, listening to one another actively, not having power over each other, and creating relationships where they can voice what they feel and think and then together come up with ideas. So, it's a relationship-based concept, and when we talk about it in Occupy--I mean, I do think it is funny that bottom up, because to say it's horizontal or even before the movements in Argentina, we're talking about, Horizontalizad in 1994, you had this Zapatistas coming out into the public and then taking over hundreds of thousands of hectares of land and creating autonomous communities, which they continue in Chiapas in Mexico, and one of the things they articulated was that their politics were from below and to the left, and they say that's where the heart resides.

So, it's a very similar idea that they're going from below, but we don't want, actually, to form power above: to have a power over one another, but to create power with each other. To create it, whether that's horizontally, or there to the left where the heart is, but that same idea.

Rob:  Okay. That's very interesting. So, the difference is the idea of bottom up, because you don't want to go up, you want to stay at the bottom and comfortable--

Marina:   Well, it's not as much staying at the bottom. It's the idea of not wanting to have people have power over other people. So, it's the not wanting there to be an above other people, which means, everyone--it's shifting the idea of space. It's not that we all stay in a poor situation, or without housing, or that sense of below? But only that there aren't decision makers that aren't us. So, we all have an equal distribution of power.

Rob:  Okay. Now some of the people in the voices section on horizontalism talk about rather than it being in a relationship, being a process.

Marina:   Yeah, I think that would also be true and this is, I think, where it can be dangerous, too, when you start to name things, that they become things. And so if you see it as a process, it's constantly changing as people are involved, whatever that thing is that you're creating together changes. So, the danger is to come into an assembly, for example, in Occupy and people say, "Okay, we're horizontal. That's just the way it is," and it doesn't actually make it so to say it. You know, to say someone is a Feminist, or an anti-racist. It doesn't actually make it so because you put the word on it. So it's a constant struggle to create to whatever it is that that thing is.  I mean I think of horizontalism as a relationship, but as a constant changing process. I think both would be great.

Rob:  Okay. Yeah, I think that it's a combination of a relationship and a process, and it's constantly evolving, and I think you've made it clear in the book that creativity is--not you, but the voices in the book have made it clear; and I have to be careful about that, because this book is about a lot of people's voices, and you've collected and curated them, I think.

Marina:   I would see it like I was a bit of facilitator of a conversation, and if there are any errors, it's my fault, and I definitely organized things thematically. So, the chapters are organized by things like, "Horizontalism" or "Power" or "New Subjectivity." People talking about themselves as new actors and agents, protagonists in their life, and how they change as people, and so I organized those kinds of conservations around the chapter and the idea of subjectivity. Or people talked about feelings, and how a lot of what was being created was based on a foundation of trust and care for one another, and even love for one another. Not that you need to be friends, or that you don't get real angry or have conflict, but that kind of base feeling of trust. And so, as people were talking about that more and more, I organized a chapter on effective politics, because they talked about Politica Effectiva, which, again, so it's all people's voices in the movements in Argentina, but the thematic areas are one's that I placed on it. So, my fingerprint is on it, but it's everybody else's voices.

Rob:  And I want to get into a good number of those as we move through this interview. There's one phrase that I picked up on that seems to really resonate with me. It's called "The Politics of Walking." Apparently that comes from the Zapatistas?

Marina:   Uh-huh. / It comes from the--

Rob:  / Can we talk about?

Marina:   Sure. That actually comes from this Zapatistas, but it comes from even before the Zapatistas. It has so many things that the Zapatistas got known for saying, " Caminando preguntándonos," walking we ask questions.

   There's a very famous Mayan story, and it's called the story of questions, and it's been told and retold throughout history in indigenous communities in Mexico. And it's a story of two Gods and how they're attached physically, like they were Siamese twins. They're physically attached in their bodies, and they learned that they can't walk without first talking to each other. They must communicate to walk, and they have to figure out where they are going and how they're going where they're going, and there's this walking, asking questions. It's the only way to move forward is through asking, and that's how they tell that story. But even before this Zapatistas, this was something that's been used throughout Latin America in different ways at different times.

So, but yeah, the Zapatistas are the ones who are known most for it, and the idea is breaking from concepts of needing to have ultimate goal: "This is where we are going and this is The Path," but that as we are moving together, we figure out where we are going and that necessarily things have to change, because we're people and we're talking to one another, and as we start moving in one direction, whatever that is, we might change our minds a little bit, or the situation changes, and the world changes, and so where we're going and how we're getting there, needs to change. So, it can be this very beautiful metaphorical way of talking about things, but it's also a very sharp critique against formalism and political parties, which have "The Agenda," "The Goal," "This is 'The Path' and this is what you must do to win," and winning has already been defined before you even start walking. And this says, "No," that you can't have any kind of ultimately decided--I mean you can have loose goals. Obviously, you have equality and freedom and these kinds of things and frameworks, but not, "We must build the party to take power in this, that, and the other way, and this is how we're going to do it and this is what everyone must do." It's a rejection of that kind of politics.

Rob:  And this is something that was important in the beginning of the Occupy Movement, because there were so many people, particularly in the media, said that Occupy had to come up with goals. They had to come up with defined plans, and it was often a criticism of Occupy that they didn't. This seems to really be at the crux of that aspect of Occupy.

Marina:   Right. It is and it's a critique that we hear a lot less now in Occupy--that we don't have a list of demands or we're not serious, because we don't have this list of demands or ultimate goals. And for those of us in the Occupy Movement and what soon became tens, hundreds of thousands of people around the country involved in more than 1500 villages, towns and cities and we just wanted to come together with one another and figure out what we wanted. Whoever we were and whatever it was that we wanted to do, and it would be, not just against the idea of walking and asking questions, but it would be totally anti-democratic to say, "Okay, those of us in New York. I mean, who? A few thousand people in Liberty Plaza or Zuccotti Park are going to decide for the rest of the country what the demands are? Or, in a village in Northern California, they're going to decide the demands for the country? But actually, no! People need to come together and discuss with one another, and it might be that over time that some groups and spaces have certain goals they work towards and then they change those goals, or certain demands and change those demands. That's possible. But you can't start with a list of demands, you need to start with the conversation.

Rob:  And I think part of it is that, this whole idea of horizontalism, which includes autogestion, which is self taking control of things. It's a creative process. It's breaking free of what's been and creating something new. And to do that, you don't have all these preconceived ideas. So you have to be comfortable with what is without defining it in the beginning.  Am I getting that right?

Marina:   Yeah. No, that's exactly, "in the process." I mean, in tying it together which you just did, which I think is so important with this idea about the autogesti Ö¹ ón, In French autogestion, but it's what historically was seen as the idea of self-management. And then in the movements in Argentina, self-management, and organizing for our self, self-organization came together with the idea of horizontalism and autonomy. And so it's not just talking for talking. As beautiful as assemblies can be, and it's so nice to participate, that's not the only thing that it's about. It's actually about organizing our lives and our structure in our lives and doing something--whatever that doing means--but people coming together and figuring it out, so that autogestion in Argentina is used with unemployed folks who takeover land and build something on the land, or with workers who have their workplaces shut down for different reasons, usually economic reasons, that there's not enough profit being made, and they come together and they take over the workplace and they run it together with horizontalism, and without bosses and hierarchy and they call that autogestion. It's very concrete things that horizontalism is a part of this process, but it's people finding ways to survive together. It's not just an abstract sense of conversation.

Rob:  When I think of that term it summons up, for me, some of my past experience in the world of biofeedback. Biofeedback is a training process that enables people to learn more about how to control their bodies with their minds. To increase their voluntary self-regulation over their physiology--over their heart rate, their brain waves, their muscles. And using some simple technologies, this enables people, once they have the understanding that they can do it, to control themselves and their physiology better than they ever could before.

   And it seems to me that what happens with autogestion, is that with the process of horizontalism, where people's become more conscious that they are part of a community, that they are part of creating something, that it opens them up to see the possibilities.

Marina:   Uh-huh. Yeah.

Rob:  Is that?

Marina:   Yeah. I know, I think it is. I mean, that's where it's so dynamic and alive. Very much, I mean we're doing it together, but that it's in the process that more things open and more things become possible. And why so many people use different kinds of metaphors about walking and moving is because it's this kind of organic living-almost phenomenon that changes as you move with it.

Rob:  Can you give me an example, say from somewhere, where you've observed this happen, what that looks like?

Marina:   Of how people change along the way or--

Rob:  Of autogestion--of people engaging in it. It's something you engage in, isn't it?

Marina:   It's something you engage in and you make. I mean, it's - a concrete Something comes out of it. You know, on a big scale, I was in Argentina for a number of worker takeovers of workplaces, so one was what used to be a four star hotel, the hotel Bauen in downtown Buenos Aires. And when workers went into the lobby, they'd been locked out of their hotel and the management, the owners were planning to close it, or they'd closed it, but they were planning to close it permanently, and about 150 workers went in with people from the community and from other workplaces. And first they'd had assemblies, they'd had all the democratic discussions, and then the first stage was then to go in and take over. First, it was just the lobby, but as the beginning of taking over their hotel, and through the process of taking over the lobby, they then, with horizontalism, began to run--it took over a period of time--but began to run the hotel themselves, and it's now a running hotel in downtown Buenos Aires, run by workers using assemblies, and horizontalism, and autogestion totally, on making decisions themselves, and figuring it out as they go. And it's successful!

Actually, dome of the workers are making more than they did before, and they're happier. And it's not just making more monetary sense, it's that, people who are working in a lot of these spaces, whether they were cooperated places or other kinds of self-organized autogestionado spaces, you're the one making decisions over your lives with other people, and that process is much more meaningful than having some boss come and tell you what to do, and when to do it, and how much you're going to get paid or you're not going to get paid, or your vacation's cut, and people are actually deciding themselves. So, it's an incredibly powerful meaningful experience.

Rob:  This whole process in Argentina, which started on the 19th and 20th of December 2001, was a huge massive revolution, wasn't it?

Marina:   I would call it a revolution. I mean it's a revolution also in a sense of rethinking revolution. It was, that they had a total economic crisis, over a long period of the 90s, of privatization; it's very similar to what's taking place around the world now, especially in Europe, we have privatization, privatization, and more austerity measures, and it got to the point where the crisis was so big and the government was afraid that people in Argentina would do what people in the U.S. did in the 1930s, which was to go to their banks and pull all their money out, having no more confidence at all in the government anymore. So, what they did was to freeze people's bank accounts.

Rob:  / The government froze the people's bank accounts?

Marina:   / The government froze people's bank accounts. So, imagine tomorrow being told that your government doesn't believe you're not going to withdraw your savings, because they've created an economic crisis on speculation and their relationship with loans with the IMF and the World Bank and all of privatization. So, you don't have access to your money anymore, so that was the spark on the 19th and the 20th, where people went into the streets banging pots and pans, it's called the Cacerolazo.

   It was this overwhelming sense of crisis. So, it wasn't the "Okay, give us our money back, this is our demand." People went out in the streets by the hundreds of thousands, and eventually by the millions in the different cities. And what the banging the pots and pans turned into was people--not even a chant, it's partly a chant. It's actually more like a song and it's, "Que se vayan todos/que no quede ni uno solo," which is, "They all must go and not even one should remain," and they forced out four governments. You could just imagine the level of anger, frustration, and fear and everything that comes out of this: it was total desperation. And then from there, people began to organize in assemblies and in their neighborhoods, and those assemblies looked very much like what our--it's amazing how much, to go to one of the Occupy Plazas or parks around the U.S., and see hundreds of people or a thousand of people standing in assemblies and making decisions and creating food together. That's what that looks like in Argentina in those first--

Rob:  Now, I just want to read a couple lines from your book. You're talking about what happened when they closed the banks. You wrote, "Government buildings were destroyed as were the homes of government officials. Representatives were forced to leave office due to their fear of the rebelling population. These early rebellions remain significant, because they represent in a memory, an imagination of Argentines: the rejection of systems of representation in favor of direct action and other forms of democracy."  You wrote, "Millions spontaneously took to the streets, across Argentina, and without leaders or hierarchies, forced the government to resign. And then through continuous mobilization, proceeded to expel four more governments in less than two weeks."

Marina:   Right.

Rob:  Now this--

Marina:   Much more dramatic when you read my words than what I just said, I guess.  Yes.

Rob:  In 2001, this was way before the Arab Spring, but it is a precursor to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and other places.

Marina:   Very much; and then it's even more similar over time, I think, to what's been happening in Greece and Spain and the U.S., and in some other places.

In Egypt the struggle still is about a centralized government, but in Argentina, and so many other places, people did say, have been saying, "We actually don't want hierarchical power. We don't want to look to institutions of power to solve our problems. Of course, we want health care, we want people not to be a evicted, but that that we're not looking to put in a new government to solve the problem, to make the answer. We're actually going to look to one another, and form assemblies, and use forms of direct democracy and indirect action to meet our needs." So, similarly in Argentina, with people taking over land, or taking over buildings - In the U.S. and in Spain, the massive movements have been around preventing people from getting evicted, and preventing them from being foreclosed on, and that's a very similar kind of direct action and to protect people's lives.

Rob:  You wrote that protesters were not demanding something new, but were creating it.

Marina:   Yeah.

Rob:  I think that's so important. It seems like so much like what has begun with the Occupy Movement. The other thing you write a little on is that, "Political parties created front groups, false neighborhood assemblies in this case, so that they would have the right to speak at the assemblies," and it seems like that's going on too. We're seeing that with the Occupy Spring or 99% Spring that there are actually front groups representing the moderate liberals and democrats trying to horn their way in and tap the power of Occupy, or maybe not tap it, but diffuse it.

Marina:   Yeah, I do acknowledge it's going on here. I think it's not at the same level of Argentina, or it's not insidious. I think there the difference is, in the U.S., they're honest about what they're doing. They might be using the slogans of Occupy, but they say who they are. They're MoveOn, they're the Democratic Party, where in Argentina, these were small left political parties who pretended they were a neighborhood assembly, and put forward an agenda as a neighborhood assembly, but actually they were something else, and that's also something they're facing in Greece: it's much more like what happened in Argentina. I do hear you, that it is very similar, and problematic, but the Democratic Party is the Democratic Party or they want to get people into office, and I think they will say that out loud. So, we can deal with it on their terms.

Rob:  I'm reading what you wrote about how the government would offer things or space to the movement. It reminds me of how in New York and in LA, physical space was offered if they would leave the environs that they had occupied.

Marina:   Right, which it is not well intended when they do that. It's both for some semblance of control, but the other thing that that does, and it's an important warning, always, and things we can learn from other experiences, whether it's the government offering space, or even what would seem like a well meaning non-profit offering a lot of money; what that does though, if you have an assembly in a group that's making decisions democratically and we're coming up with our own agenda, if someone from the outside offers space or money or something else, it actually changes our agenda to not be our agenda. So I saw, often in Argentina, when the government would offer space, for example, that then, rather than talking about the health clinic that they were self-organizing in the neighborhood, it was a back and forth and a back and forth debate about whether or not to accept the space of the government. So the government was able to side-track a discussion without even physically being there, and that's something we have to be really careful of here.

Rob:  Yes, this book is a treasure. You write in here about how the Piqueteros would use road blockades and it would be an annoyance to the middle class.

Marina:   Uh-huh.

Rob:  And then, once the big day came, the same middle class people who had hated the Piqueteros for disrupting their daily life, were supporting the blockades as a necessary action for re-establishing economic viability.

Marina:   Uh-huh.

Rob:  And it seems to me like, this again, is something that we've seen in the States. How some of the actions by the Occupy people have been annoying and inconveniencing, causing traffic during rush hour for example--

Marina:   Right.

Rob:: And, with the timing, setting things up so that people would end up being against Occupy - and this is what happened in Argentina apparently.

Marina:   Uh-huh. Yeah, I mean that part is always complicated. In Argentina then they came up with the slogan, later it was "Piquetero y cacerola una lucha sola" and the Cacerola is the banging pots and pans. So, then later this was the slogan of the people who banged pots and pans and the people who do the road blockades; you know, It's the same struggle, but it's always a tough line. I think on May Day there's going to be roads and bridges and different transportation routes blocked, and there will be some people who are very frustrated because of that. And it's a hard decision to make when you're wanting to slow things down and affect business as usual. And at the same time there's sometimes individuals in that process who get frustrated by it, so it's always a tough line.

Rob:  Now, let's talk about those banging pots and pans. What's the word that is used for that again?

Submitters Bio:

Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind.  Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives  one person at a time was too slow, he founded Opednews.com-- which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big)  to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project. 

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