BOOK REVIEW: Marina A. Sitrin, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (London and New York: Zed Books, 2012), pp. xv + 256, £14.99; $24.95, pb.
By Pia Riggirozzi (forthcoming in Journal of Latin American Studies)
The crisis of 2001 in Argentina and the social protest that erupted with it was not simply a call to restore the capacity of the state to secure economic growth and development but more profoundly a redefinition of social citizenship. According to Sitrin, social mobilisation that emerged on the eve of 2001 must be seen as ‘politics in a different way’ (85). What is different, according to the author, is that expectations of social change became associated with alternative forms of organising protests through ‘horizontal’ collective action that escape traditional forms of control by the traditional parties, labour unions or the Peronist elite. These forms of collective action manifested in the Movement of the Unemployed, factory take-overs, neighbour assemblies, and street vendor movement, all rooted in local community activism and the practice of ‘direct democracy’ (8). It is a politics that not only refuses institutionalisation and hierarchical leadership but also imagines a new subjectivity. Sitrin explores how new politics of social protests, demonstrations and resistance in post-crisis Argentina has not been driven by concerted efforts to construct an effective political liaison with existing political parties or unionised groups, but rather by reclaiming ‘neighbourhoods and the workplace’. Sitrin explores, in an accomplished manner, how in the context of a profound political legitimacy crisis in Argentina, a new repertoire of social change and ‘social innovation’ emerged through the practice of solidarity, self-management and productive reorganisation.
The book offers a simple yet captivating narrative organised in eight chapters that cover three main defining features of post-crisis – and perhaps post-neoliberal – innovative models of social articulation: (i) horizontality, denoting a form of organisation that rejects traditional forms of political delegation and hierarchy structuring political parties and labour unions (ch. 3); (ii) affective politics, that is the imaginary or subjectivities framing new repertoires of social change, belonging and identity politics (ch.4); and (iii) autonomy, that is the capacity to reorganise and self-manage workplaces and engage with solidarity economies (ch. 5, 6). These concepts are applied to new forms of social activism that, at odds with historical forms of protest, not only called into question the morality of neoliberal democracy but were also moved by a desire to recover the work place and develop solidarity networks to provide services in the form of cooperatives and other communal ties. The breadth and scale of mobilisation, Sitrin argues, suggest an ambitious attempt to revitalise a different model of emancipatory politics where workers and neighbours challenge capital and the legitimacy of the state as the place for democracy and inclusion.
While this is a valuable contribution to the literature and the practice of social movements, democracy, and contentious politics outside state politics, the analysis over relies on actor-oriented and oral history-led explanations. This poses at least three fundamental concerns. The first concern relates to the transformative capacity of these movements. Horizontalism, as a category of analysis, captures ideas, subjectivities and affective politics embraced by new social movements in a context where the state, or traditional forms of political representation, offer no way out (p. 7-8). However, while the movements analysed have been highly significant creating new repertoires of contention and resistance in Argentina’s immediate post-crisis, it is not clear how transformative as a social project they can be in times of normalisation. Furthermore, the extent to which horizontalim can consolidate a ‘meta narrative’ or ‘master frame’, paraphrasing Snow and Benford (1988), of civic opposition and social change is left unexplored. These issues are of particularly significance and need to be thought in light of current changes in the political economy of post crisis as resource boom growth in Argentina, yet not only, has been highly consequential for contentious politics. A second concern relates to the relations between horizontal movements, contentious politics and the state. New horizontal forms of social contention can and have survived – the recovered factories is a case in point as described in the closing chapters of the book. But a theoretical speculation beyond politics of affection could have been offered to conceptualise how these movements relate to the state, beyond top-down forms of co-optation, which is the only politico-institutional dynamic considered in the book. Political and economic recovery after crisis means that horizontal movements are faced with the dilemma of how to adapt to changes in the political structures that seem to narrow the available potential of opportunities to preserve self-management and direct democracy. What explains political resilience in horizontal movements? Institutionalisation may require sacrificing a degree of spontaneity, a characteristic that initially brings esteem to horizontal groups. But nurturing a new, self-conscious (worker’s) identity within the larger labour movement is difficult to envisage. The analysis suggests that some movements are more susceptible than others to be absorbed by state ‘national-popular’ rhetoric and depoliticising tactics through the institutionalisation of workfare and social programmes, subsidies to state-sponsored cooperatives and to self-managing practices of workers in fábricas tomadas. But any inquisitive reader may wonder about synergies between internal characteristics of a movement and external political opportunities explaining pathways taken by horizontal movements vis-à-vis state politics beyond a false dichotomy between politics of state co-optation vs. horizontal groups autonomy. Finally, a deeper discussion about what horizontalism means in terms of post-crisis citizenship beyond the logic of individual cases is still pending. Horizontal social articulation denotes not only the complexities of a reawakened society and challenges of defining citizenship ‘from below’, but also, and more importantly, opens new questions about new models of social underpinnings of ‘citizenship from above’, or post-neoliberal corporatism, as inclusion is, essentially, a matter for the state.
Regardless of specific criticisms, this should in no way detract from its overall quality. This book is engaging and extremely informative of peoples’ ability to self-organise, socially and economically, in response to expectations of social change. It is timely for those interested in social movements, politics of dissent, social engagement and democracy across the globe. Its distinctive narrative is also a journey through social imaginaries and emotions.