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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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
Marina: Uh-huh. / It comes from
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 preguntÃ¡ndonos," 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
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
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 Ã³n, 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
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
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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--
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