LA ESQUINA CALIENTE (THE HOT CORNER) - A STUDY OF PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY IN ACTION AROUND THE WORLD
PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY vs REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.
Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.
This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.
Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.
In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.
In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…
Argentina's workers took over factories, citizens took over the streets—no one seemed to miss having a boss.
After the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, the workers of the closed Zanon ceramic tile factory in the province of Neuquén, Patagonia, organized themselves and restarted the factory. What was once a business of 262 workers, today has more than 400. And no bosses. From the start, the factory has nurtured its relationship with the surrounding community. In 2005, FaSinPat voted to build a community health clinic. The community had been demanding such a clinic from the provincial government for two decades; FaSinPat built it in three months.
The autonomous social movements in Argentina are part of a global phenomenon. From Latin America to South Africa to Eastern Europe and even in the United States and Canada, people are creating the future in the present. These new movements are built on direct democracy and consensus, and they make space for all to be leaders.
Within Argentina, they are also a “movement of movements.” They are working class people taking over factories and running them collectively. They are the urban middle class, or those who have recently lost that status, working to meet their needs in solidarity with those around them. They are the unemployed, like so many unemployed around the globe, facing the prospect of never finding regular work, yet collectively finding ways to survive and become self-sufficient, using mutual aid and love. They are autonomous indigenous communities struggling to liberate stolen land.
Horizontalidad is the word that has come to embody these new social arrangements and principles of organization in Argentina. Horizontalidad implies democratic communication on a level plane and involves—or at least strives towards—non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian creation rather than reaction. It is a break with vertical ways of organizing and relating.
The social movements in Argentina describe themselves as autonomous to distinguish themselves from the state and other hierarchical institutions. Autonomy also describes a politics of self-organization called autogestion, and direct, democratic participation.
Simply put, they reject the very idea of anyone having power over someone else. Instead, they work toward the goal of creating “power with” one another. They organize themselves in every aspect of their lives, both independently and in solidarity with others. It is a process of continuous creation, constant growth and the development of new relations, with ideas flowing from these changing practices.
Unemployed Workers Movement
Argentina has a long, rich history of rebellion, resistance, and self-organization. The recent movements developed in two cumulative waves that spread the new organizational concepts broadly in Argentina. The first, a movement of unemployed workers that emerged in the 1990s, adopted consensus decision-making early, but had little support from the Argentine middle class. The collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001 sparked a second wave of popular rebellion, during which the Argentine middle class, rapidly losing its status, linked up with unemployed and underemployed workers. Horizontalidad thus took hold across class lines.
The emerging rejection of old political ways gained public notice in the 1990s, when unemployed workers’ movements and other popular movements began organizing against local governments and corporations. Generally led by unemployed women workers, they took to the streets by the thousands, blocking major transportation arteries to demand unemployment subsidies from the government. In a decisive break with the past, this organizing was not led or brokered by elected leaders, or by any leaders at all. Instead, those in the streets decided day-by-day and moment-to-moment what to do next.
During the road blockades, people used direct forms of decision-making, and began creating new social relationships. Both the people and the movement are referred to informally as piqueteros, a name taken from “piquete,” the tactic of blockading roads. Distinct from previous forms of organizing, where there was always a person speaking for the group (most often without consent), in these early piquetes, people decided they would negotiate at the blockade itself. There are some cases of government officials being helicoptered onto the road to negotiate directly with the assembly at the blockade.
The definitive moment for the second wave of change occurred in the popular rebellion of the 19th and 20th of December of 2001, often referred to as the “nineteenth and twentieth.” Millions spontaneously took to the streets across Argentina and, without leaders or hierarchies, forced the government to resign, and then, through continuous mobilizations, proceeded to expel four more governments in less than two weeks. The precipitating incident was the government’s freezing of people’s bank accounts.
These protesters were not demanding something new, but were creating it. These days, many refer to this moment as a rupture with the past, a break from the deeply instilled fear and silence that was a legacy of the most brutal dictatorship in Argentine history, one that “disappeared” 30,000 people, often torturing them in the most horrific ways.
The popular rebellion of 2001 was comprised of workers and unemployed, the middle class, and those who had recently lost their middle-class status. It was a rebellion without leadership, either by established parties or by a newly emerged elite, a fact which formed part of the foundation of horizontalidad and other new organizing forms. It precipitated the birth of hundreds of neighborhood assemblies involving many tens of thousands of active participants.
People in neighborhood assemblies first met to try to discover new ways to support one another and meet their basic needs. Many explain the organization of the first assemblies as an encounter, as finding one another. People were in the streets, they began talking to one another, they saw the need to gather, and they did so, street corner by street corner, park by park. In many cases someone would write on a wall or street, “neighbors, let’s meet Tuesday at 9 p.m.” and an assembly was begun.
New Groups Replace Assemblies
The years after the rebellion have witnessed a significant decrease in neighborhood assemblies. Many early members predicted an eventual decline in participation and even felt it would not be a significant loss. Something, they explained, had changed in them as people, in how they related to one another. These changes could not be undone, even if the structures of organization changed.
The remaining assemblies work on a variety of projects, helping facilitate barter networks, creating popular kitchens, planting organic gardens, and sometimes taking over buildings—including the highly symbolic takeover of abandoned banks, which they turn into community centers. These occupied spaces house many things, including kitchens, small print shops, and day care areas. They may offer after-school help for kids or free internet access and computer usage—one even has a small movie theater.
A number of new groups have emerged, including political prisoner support groups, anti-repression organizations, collectives of street artisans, and high-school student groups. All of these began with the basic consensus that they would organize based on horizontalidad and autonomy. Like earlier groups, these new formations absolutely reject political parties and hierarchical organization. The experience of the neighborhood assemblies continues as a living part of an overall continuity.
Relationships Among Movements
Just as the popular rebellion sparked the growth of neighborhood assemblies, it also inspired the unemployed workers movements. A network grew among those in various autonomous movements, a network that crossed class lines and class identification.
Before the 2001 rebellion, the middle class considered the piqueteros’ use of road blockades an annoyance, at best. There was a general consensus that the unemployed were to blame for their own economic and social condition, and that drastic methods were justified in suppressing them. After the rebellion, joint actions with middle class groups were organized, including bridge and road blockades. The same middle class people who had hated the piqueteros for disrupting daily life were now supporting blockades as a necessary action for re-establishing economic viability. At the same time, many piqueteros, who in the past had seen the middle class as partly responsible for the dire economic situation, were now organizing side by side with them.
The dozen or so occupied factories that existed at the start of the 2001 rebellion grew in only two years to include hundreds of workplaces, taken over and run by workers, without bosses or hierarchy. Almost every workplace sees itself as an integral part of the community, and the community sees the workplace in the same way. As the workers of Zanon, a ceramic factory say, “Zanon is of the people.”
Workplaces range from printing presses and metal shops to medical clinics, from cookie, shoe, and balloon factories to a four-star hotel and a daily newspaper. Participants in the recuperated workplaces say that what they are doing is not very complicated, despite the challenges, quoting the slogan: “Occupy, Resist, and Produce.” Autogestion is how most in the recuperated movements describe what they are creating and how.
This movement continues to grow and gather support throughout Argentina, despite threats of eviction. So far, each threat has been met with mobilization by neighbors and various collectives and assemblies to thwart the government’s efforts. In the example of Chilavert, a printing press, the retirement home across the street came out and not only defended the factory from the police, but insisted on being the front line of defense. The recuperations are hugely popular, and many outside the movements explain them quite simply, saying that there is a lack of work and these people want to work.
Over time, recuperated workplaces have begun to link with one another, creating barter relationships for their products, and collective links to the global workplace. For example, a medical clinic will service members of a printing factory in exchange for the free printing of their material. This has happened on a global level, as well.
New Movements Internationally
While movements of such rapid growth, diversity, and popularity are not unprecedented, the most significant innovation in Argentina may be that disparate groups are creating global networks of exchange and communication. Argentine movements have made significant connections to the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil, with each sharing experiences and strategies for land take-overs, forms of traditional medicine, and tools for democratic practice.
The Zapatistas have also consistently engaged in exchanges. Since the 2001 rebellion, a number of people from unemployed workers movements have been invited by the Zapatistas to spend time in the autonomous communities in Chiapas, exchanging ideas and experiences. Despite limited resources, dialogue between various movements has been long and varied.
During the past three years in Buenos Aires, autonomous movements have held an annual gathering called Enero Autonomo (Autonomous January). Groups came from all over Latin America, including Mujeres Creando from Bolivia, and autonomous groups from Brazil. Participants also included various collectives and community-based organizations from Europe and the United States. This linking process has gained momentum over the past few years, and all signs indicate that this growth is accelerating.
Horizontalidad and direct democracy are important models for building a new society, one basis for which is the creation of loving and trusting spaces. From this space of trust and love, using the tools of horizontalidad, a new person—who is a protagonist in her or his own life—begins to take shape. This is not random, it is a conscious process of social creation. Women, in particular, have created new roles for themselves. Based on this new individual protagonist, a new collective protagonism appears, which changes the sense of the individual, and then the sense of the collective. From this relationship arises the need for new ways of speaking, a new language.
Ideas and relationships cannot occur in a vacuum. They take place in real places, in “territories” that are liberated from hierarchical structures, and involve real people. These territories are laboratories of social creation. The new movements in Argentina are examples of these laboratories.
Marina Sitrin is a writer, teacher, student, dreamer, and self-described militant, who has participated in numerous anti-capitalist and visionary movements and groups. She is working on a new book, Insurgent Democracies: Latin America’s New Powers (Citylights Press, 2007).
This article is based on the Introduction to Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (AK Press, 2006), a collection of first-person narratives of the people who lived through, and created, the events recounted here. Horizontalism was published first in Spanish by Chilavert, a recuperated print house in Argentina.