Horizontalism falls flat

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With the whole world being the capitalist mess that it is, new protests rise almost every day. Those that gain enough steam to turn into movements soon face key questions — “Who are our leaders? What are our demands?”

A good many protest spokespeople have answered these questions by rejecting, as a political principle, all leadership and concrete goals. They call this “horizontalism,” an anarchist-like theory which argues that organizing political dissent should be horizontal, that is, without “vertical” leadership, and that their primary purpose is to create friendlier social relationships.

Horizontalism envisions massive assemblies that take over public spaces and transform them into sites of direct democracy — where masses of people make decisions by consensus.

The term first emerged in Argentina as “Horizontalidad” during a massive popular uprising in 2001 that toppled five consecutive governments before the sixth government stuck, and the rebellion collapsed.

Identifying with Mexico’s Zapatista insurrections in the 1990s, horizontalism then caught on in the World Social Forum gatherings, in the massive assembly movements in Greece, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe, as well as in the Arab Spring. Horizontalism then came to the U.S. as the founding theory of Occupy Wall Street.

Horizontalism appeals because protesters are sick to death of the misery of austerity worldwide. Its dismissal of all leadership comes from an instinctive contempt of a large lineup of totally undemocratic governments that have failed to solve intense global crises.

How it works. The rise and fall of the U.S. Occupy movement provides some very good lessons about how horizontalism works, and doesn’t.

Occupy exploded on the scene in 2011. Its target was the financial elite, and its answer to growing inequality was to create daily protest spaces called General Assemblies where everyone could speak.

While these General Assemblies at first exhilarated people they quickly revealed limitations. Important and refreshing discussions got lost in the chaos of disjointed and never-ending talk. Those eager to make decisions and accomplish something quickly grew frustrated, and then started acting on their own. Occupy almost instantly turned into a network of informal and hidden leadership.

This revealed a universal truth of politics — that even in the most spontaneous of uprisings leadership always exists. The only question is whether or not it is good leadership.

Structureless organizing is not new. Writer Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structurelessness, a critique of the anarchist-leaning women’s movement of the 1970’s, perfectly applied to Occupy:

“Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about their lives; they aren’t very good for getting things done. It is when people get tired of ‘just talking’ and want to do something more that the groups flounder, unless they change the nature of their operation.”

The group Not An Alternative, which participated in Occupy in New York City, echoed Freeman with its criticism:

“The General Assemblies were notoriously dysfunctional. On the one hand, they were completely inclusive. … Consequently, there was no mechanism by which to hold people accountable. Someone with an agenda to disrupt or derail the discussion (for example, participating undercover police), could easily do so. …

“The General Assembly staged the act of decision-making … in actual fact, organizers with power worked outside the GA to achieve their outcomes. They circumvented the very process they themselves claimed defined and legitimated the movement. … They were leaders. Not only did the GA fail to acknowledge this basic fact but its mythology actively concealed it.”

No lasting power. Occupy showed that without structure or defined, open leadership, political protest efforts cannot survive. For example, when coordinated police raids disbanded Occupy encampments across the country with tear gas, billy clubs and arrests, the movement dissolved. Severed from their spaces and without recognized, accountable coordinators to bring people back together, the leaderless movement became memberless too, incapable of defending itself.

Argentinean masses were unable to take power, and their country is still at the mercy of global banks. In Europe, capitalist parties waited out the assembly movements, and remain in office to enforce more austerity. The public squares of the Arab world, once filled with multitudes of brave and hopeful protesters, are again under the control of vicious dictators and fundamentalists.

In short, not a single horizontalist-led insurrection has succeeded in achieving lasting change. For that, not just leaders are necessary, but revolutionary leaders.

Revolutionary leadership. Generally, good leadership is open, not secretive. Good leaders are truthful about what they stand for, committed to democratic debate, and can be held accountable for their acts under some form of agreed upon structure. Specifically, in the world of fighting for social justice and civil rights, good leadership is pro-revolution.

Anarchist academics like Marina Sitrin and David Graeber foster horizontalism with an explicit anti-party and anti-socialist message. This opportunistically turns protesters’ disgust with capitalist parties into an allergic reaction to all parties and groups — even ones committed to fighting for radical change! The Freedom Socialist Party, active in Occupy in numerous cities, was consistently challenged for being a leftist party and arguing for radical demands.

Horizontalism lambasts leftist parties and programs, largely because this not-so new theory is essentially not revolutionary. Activists who genuinely want fundamental change will find the following words of FSP co-founder Clara Fraser reassuring: Without a party, she said,

“No movement can endure, huge errors of strategy and tactics will be made, lessons will not be drawn, and frontline insurrectionists will not grow into leaders for all seasons.

“Only the revolutionary party can ensure that activists and agitators become political professionals geared and educated for the long haul. Only a party can help the militant strike or sit-in or electoral upheaval take the next leaps forward and aim for state power. Only the party can extend isolated insurgencies into constant, concerted mobilizations for the total revamping of society.”

In its heart, horizontalism is cynical and defeatist. Instead of working to take and keep power on behalf of working people, it reduces its goal to taking over public squares and running beleaguered neighborhood ghettos. Instead of building to overthrow capitalism, horizontalism settles for creating temporary mini utopias — what Sitrin calls “new social relationships” and Graeber calls “Bubbles of Freedom.” Bubbles, of course, pop. And social relationships remain divided between the Haves and the Have Nots.

Capitalism can tolerate protests. What the system cannot tolerate is effective revolutionary leadership and demands. Because this kind of leadership can guide the same anger that fuels the occupation of a park, and build it into a movement that is about occupying state power.

With the right leadership, movements can do more than “change the conversation” — they can change the system itself. This is the type of leadership the 1 percent dreads. And it’s just the type of leadership the 99 percent needs.

Elias Holtz was an early participant of Occupy. He is currently active in the NYC Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board. Follow him on twitter @EliasJoltz.

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