Revolution? No thanks, we’re autonomists!


This is the first in a series of critical notes on Marina Sitrin’s “Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina” (Zed Books, 2012).

Marina Sitrin is one of the most prolific, visible, and eloquent theorists of “horizontalism” and “autonomy” (hereafter referred to jointly as horizontalist autonomy). Thanks to her years of activism and journalism in Argentina and the U.S., and the writings and speeches based on them, I believe she now surpasses John Holloway as the most prominent exponent of the “don’t take power” school of thought.

So a critique of her works is not meant to single her out as politically worse than any of the school’s other thinkers or practitioners, just as the most (at least for now) important.

As I write this, teachers in Greece are preparing for a strike tomorrow (Tuesday, May 14), likely to be followed by another strike on the 17th, and the distinct possibility of solidarity strikes on both days. The government has responded by threatening to impose—for the third time this year—“mobilization” orders, in essence breaking the strike by enrolling all teachers overnight into the military, AND thus making it “illegal” for them to walk off their jobs.

What would the theory of horizontalist autonomy advise the strikers to do in the face of the government’s threat? What would these theories have to say about the hope of Greek workers in general to build a different society, one in which their own ruling class, and their partners in the “Troika,” can no longer exploit them—in which in fact there is no ruling class?

In the introduction to the book, Sitrin says (referring to movements she has studied in Argentina and elsewhere): “These movements define themselves as autonomist precisely because they do not want to take over the state, and see themselves in a position different and separate from the state, therefore autonomous. They do not desire state power, as many left-wing groups and political parties have in the past, but rather want to try to create other forms of horizontal power with one another, in their communities and workplaces. This concept of power and revolution is about a total transformation of society, but one that takes place and continues to expand from below. As the Zapatistas in Mexico say: ‘From below and to the left.’”

The movements in Argentina, she writes, “are prefiguring the change that they desire.” They are “creating horizontal relationships … with a focus on that relationship deepening and expanding. This conceptualization of revolution as an everyday transformation, not a storming of the Bastille, is an important distinction put forth at the outset of the book.”

Now Greek workers—and those of many other countries on the continent—have engaged in repeated general strikes in recent years, none of which have yet substantially altered the balance of power, much less overthrown the state. Millions of Europeans are wondering what changes in strategy, tactics, and goals might reverse that situation.

Clearly, Sitrin would not recommend to them that they try to overturn the states that have tried to crush or outlaw their strikes, the states that have imposed the savage cuts demanded by the IMF and the corporations. For her, Greek and other workers should “prefigure,” they should “transform,” and not with a long-term vision, but simply on an “everyday” basis.

But let’s leave aside even the question of trying to dismantle such pernicious states. Sitrin’s advice is of even more immediate danger: While acknowledging the repressive role of the state, and the concrete consequences that role has for the very movements she defends, she has no suggestion at all for how these movements might defend themselves. Or to be more precise, her advice is to sidestep the state, to avoid confrontation with it.

On page 12 she writes: “In the later sections of this book I discuss what happens when the state becomes cognizant of a society moving ahead without it. It is in these moments that those creating these vast new landscapes face some of the most serious challenges. It is most often, in this time of reaction to and from institutional power, that autonomous communities are defeated. Inherent in the role of the state is its resistance to people organizing outside of it, much in the same way as corporations resist parallel economies; it is here that often these institutions apply direct repression and cooptation, or a combination of the two.”

Her answer to this threat is simply to point with satisfaction to the beginnings of signs that those movements that have been repressed and/or coopted have begun rebuilding themselves. That’s it.

What’s worse, Sitrin takes this approach a step further, and argues for a more general approach of non-confrontation. On page 13, in the section, “Challenging the contentious framework,” she criticizes sociologists studying social movements who assume the latter are always “in a contentious relationship to the state, or another form or institution with formal ‘power over,’ whether demanding reforms from or desiring another state or institution.”

This framework, she argues, “is not sufficient in explaining these contemporary, autonomous social movements, because of these movements’ choice not to focus on dominant institutional powers (such as the state), but rather to develop alternative relationships and forms of power. This reconceptualization of power is linked to the nonhierarchical and directly democratic vision of their organizing.”

This should sound familiar to those who remember the heated debate within the Occupy movement around whether to place demands on the 1% or its state, with the overwhelming majority of those most frequently active—usually heavily influenced by anarchism—arguing against placing demands for just the reasons Sitrin spells out.

Elsewhere in the book Sitrin argues for “everyday revolutions” not as preparatory steps, as building blocks, to a revolution to change society as a whole, but rather as superior substitutes for such a revolution. She explicitly counterposes storming the Bastille, or soviets taking power through an insurrection, to building co-ops and self-managed factories and participatory neighborhood health or education groups, all busily occupying (pun intended) themselves with their little everyday revolutions, and spreading their example bit by bit—and not, god forbid, preparing themselves for what Sitrin herself sees as an inevitable attack by the state!

For revolutionaries, those struggles—like the ones engaged in by the heroic teachers of Greece—are means of accumulating the self-confidence needed for workers to take power as a class through their democratic organs of struggle. But for Sitrin, they must limit their scope and ambitions (in much the same way as the liberal wing of Solidarnosc demanded a “self-limiting” revolution—one that ended up handing power back to Capital against the wishes of genuine Polish revolutionaries).

In future posts I’ll look at some more examples of problems with horizontalist autonomy as revealed in this book. Let me just close here by noting in passing that given all the above, it’s not surprising—although extremely disquieting—to read on pages 99-100 a passage from Grace Lee Boggs explicitly counterposing Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X, insisting that the (supposed) absolute nonviolence of the former should have been adopted by the Black movement of the 1960s, and even blaming its downfall at least partly on their failure to have done so.

Photo: Occupy Wall Street.  By Tony Savino / Socialist Action

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