Horizontalism and the Occupy Movements

This essay puts forward the basic premises around which the Occupy movements in the United States are organized, locates the movement globally, argues that the movements themselves are the ones that should determine their own success, and then distinguishes these positions from those that Michael Kazin puts forward in his article, “The Fall and Rise of the U.S. Populist Left.”

Kazin argues that the way to determine if the Occupy movements will be successful is if they articulate “what a better country would look like and what it would take to get there.” This, however, is the wrong way to evaluate the Occupy movements. The intention of the thousands of assemblies taking place around the United States, as well as in Greece and Spain, where I have been most recently, is to open spaces for people to voice their concerns and desires—and to do so in a directly democratic way. These movements emerged in response to a growing crisis, the heart of which is a lack of democracy. People do not feel represented by the governments that claim to speak in their name. The Occupy movements are not based on creating either a program or a political party that will put forward a plan for others to follow. Their purpose is not to determine “the” path that a particular country should take but to create the space for a conversation in which all can participate and in which all can determine together what the future should look like. At the same time, these movements are attempting to prefigure that future society in their present social relationships.

The Occupy movements throughout the United States, Spain, and Greece all have sought to use direct democracy to create horizontal, nonhierarchical social relationships that would allow participants to openly engage with each other. The term “horizontalism,” from the Spanish horizontalidad, was first used in Argentina after the 2001 popular rebellion there. In what we can now see was a dress rehearsal for the current global movements, Argentines, during an economic crisis, went out into the streets by the hundreds of thousands. Banging pots and pans (cacerolado) and serenading officials with “Que se vayan todos, que no quede ni uno solo” (“They all must go, not even one should remain”), the protesters forced out five consecutive governments. In the process, they formed the first neighborhood assemblies grounded in horizontalidad, a word that had not been used previously. Movement participants described horizontalidad as the most natural way to listen and to connect to one another. They rejected representative democracy and the empowerment of leaders that such delegation of authority entailed, for this kind of politics was thought to have caused the crisis in the first place. The spirit of horizontalidad simultaneously emerged in workplaces and movements of the unemployed and then into the fabric of countless social relationships, where it was seen as a tool to create more participatory and freer spaces for all—a process of awakening and empowerment similar to that which Eduardo Galeano portrays as occurring in Utopia. Horizontalidad has since become a word and expression used throughout the world to describe social movements seeking self-management, autonomy and direct democracy.

IN ADDITION to cultivating horizontalidad, Occupy movements have also created new territories in which forms of direct democracy can flourish. The alternative structures and actions of the Occupy movement have emerged in these new geographic spaces of assembly. Here basic necessities, such as food, legal support, and medical care are coordinated. Novel actions have included the occupation of homes in the United States to prevent evictions and of cash offices in hospitals in Greece so people do not have to pay the newly imposed cost of health care. Towns and cities across the United States have created barter networks, generated alternative adjudication processes, and instituted free childcare. I know of one village in Northern California where people are using an alternative currency and another town outside Albany, N.Y., that has set up a free medical clinic. This is all self-organized horizontally.

THE POINT of reference of the movements is not the state or politics conventionally defined. There is no desire to take over the state or to create a new party. The Occupy movements reject this form of representative politics, focusing instead on people taking control of their own lives and expanding the democratic spaces in which they live and work. The fact that the movements do not have the conquest of the state as their goal does not mean they do not want countless things changed. To the contrary, they want the power of corporations contained and even broken, access to housing and education expanded, and austerity programs and war ended. But democracy is the crux of Occupy politics, and democracy practiced in such a way so as to upend vertical political relationships and expand horizontal ones. From these new forms of horizontal relationships, located in neighborhoods, villages, workplaces, and schools, and giving rise to novel forms of direct action, the Occupy movements will continue to grow. The question for the future is not how to create a plan for what a better country will look like, but how to deepen and broaden the assemblies taking place and how to enhance participatory democracy in the process.

Upon what does Kazin base his argument that the Occupy movements so far have not succeeded or are in the process of fading away? The declining number of physical occupations? The mainstream media covering the movements less? Differences in the visions of the participants? A comparison with a movement that has profoundly different objectives? Many within the Occupy movement, as well as the participants with whom I have spoken in Greece and Spain, believe that they have succeeded in important ways: in changing national and global political discourses; in making concrete changes in individual lives; in restoring power to social movements from below; and perhaps most important, in allowing people to feel that society and the world can be different and that their agency can make that happen.

The Occupy movements have made democracy a live question. People have not felt represented in the “democracies” in which they live, and they have exposed the connection of governments to corporations. People around the world say, in our many languages, “We have woken up” and “We will not be put back to sleep.” Success, I believe, has to be decided by those people in struggle, those who are organizing for their own goals and dreams. And from this perspective, while there are many challenges ahead, the Occupy movements have been and will continue to be successful.


Marina Sitrin is a postdoctoral fellow with the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (AK Press) and the forthcoming Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (Zed Press).

Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.


The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.