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Then and Now

It feels like the country, and the world, is in ferment, from Occupy Wall Street actions around the United States, to pitched battles in Europe over austerity measures that would mandate impoverishment, to unbelievably brave uprisings for an expansion of democracy in the Arab world. In New York these days our classroom examples have noticeably changed: We discuss the moral agency of New York Police Department officers over the use of tear gas and pepper spray, we talk of the transvaluation of values in Zucotti Park, and we explain the feminist process of horizontalism behind the General Assemblies. Some express concern about the term occupation, but it connotes an old trope used by Latin Americans to enact Montezuma’s Revenge, which is not just a reference to the diarrhea inflicted on tourists in Mexico City but, rather, the overrunning of conquered territories by mestizo and indigenous peoples, to reoccupy their own lands. This is our land, as someone once said.

Philosophical ideas are all over the movement. Libertarianism is a constant nuisance—the Ayn Rand crowd refuses to go away—but assorted worthwhile ideas are discussed in small groups. One of the most important of these is the idea of horizontalism, or horizontalidad, a concept [End Page 268] often credited to the protest movements of Argentina from 2001 in which workers and the unemployed resisted impoverishment policies with bodies, cooking pots, and factory occupations (Sitrin 2006). The exact origin of the concept of horizontalism is disputed, but it has clear connections to autonomous Marxism, anarchism, and the feminist critiques from the 1960s of hierarchical structures. Several months in, there are still no named leaders of Occupy Wall Street, no Mario Savio, or Abbie Hoffman, or Stokely Carmichael. Mayor Bloomberg has been struggling to set up sidebar negotiations with a “leadership” committee that exists only in his own mind. Horizontalism is an attempt to operate in an organized fashion, so that plans can be made and publicized, and statements can be agreed upon and issued to the press, but without a head that can be cut off, or bought off, or scared off. Thus horizontalism works through affinity groups and with rotating facilitators rather than sustained leaders, working groups rather than standing committees, and with spokes-councils organized as fishbowls for maximum transparency. Activists repudiate delegate assemblies, representational governance, and any decision-making structure that blocks direct democracy and limits participation. Whoever shows up to the General Assemblies takes part. The corporate media and the older generation of politicians and political theorists shake their heads, scoff, and criticize. Meanwhile the younger generation, using this supposedly ineffective decentralized methodology, has already changed the public domain of discourse, giving us all permission, as Jennifer Uleman wrote in an essay on the Feminist Wire, “to want things that it might otherwise seem childish or absurd to want (you know: fairness, justice, truth, beauty, love, music, sky, rest—that kind of thing).”1

Horizontalism is an interesting concept through which to reflect on feminism—its practice as well as its theory—then and now. Then, feminists were the ones, of course, who insistently raised issues of process, developed consciousness-raising in the form of epistemic working groups to generate new knowledge without experts or leaders or trained therapists, articulated the problems with identity-based authority (or lack of authority), and invented the form of the “affinity group” for direct action and civil disobedience as a way to intensify mutual support through emotional engagement. There was a lively debate, of course, and there were a number of feminists who also developed trenchant critiques of these new methods, pointing to the potential “tyranny of structurelessness,” as Jo Freeman called it, arguing that open systems opened doors to charismatic leaders [End Page 269] who could escape accountability. (As one young activist says to me today— in reality horizontalism always has hills and valleys, stronger and weaker players, in-groups and out-groups). Yet the demand that we pay attention to process, to the subtle and unstructured ways in which power operates to organize authority, and the demand that we consider the distribution of epistemic authority as a central political problematic, has...


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