Definitions of Horizontalism and Autonomy

Go to original at NACLA Report Fall 2014 Issue

More than merely a tool for assemblies, horizontalism is a new way of relating, based in affective politics and mutual empowerment.

Marina Sitrin

Horizontalidad, often translated as horizontality or horizontalism, was first used by the movements that emerged in Argentina in the wake of the 2001 economic crisis. It has since been adopted by social movements around the globe, and is used to describe new forms of social relationships that are developing in place of traditional methods of political organizing. Horizontalism encapsulates the shifting visions of justice upon which many of the new global movements are grounded—from Spain, Greece, Bosnia, and Brazil, to the U.S. Occupy movement.

Horizontalidad is a social relationship that implies, as its name suggests, a flat plane upon which to communicate. Horizontalidad necessarily implies the use of direct democracy and the striving for consensus, processes in which attempts are made to let everyone be heard.

More than merely a tool for assemblies, horizontalidad is a new way of relating, based in affective politics and mutual empowerment. Though often translated as horizontalism, its translation is at odds with all that “isms” imply. Rather than an ideology or political program that must be met so as to create a new society or new idea, it is a process. And as it breaks from exclusionary, vertical ways of organizing and relating, it is a break that is simultaneously an opening: in creating new forms of relating, the forms of relating themselves necessarily change the movement participants. Horizontalism as a process is therefore ever-changing, and at its best it forms the base for participatory, engaged democracy.

Autonomy is a word that many movement participants use to describe their political orientation. In general terms, autonomy often means that people have the capacity to make decisions about their own lives without having to subordinate these decisions to forces external to them, such as the state. As with horizontalism, autonomy moves away from the politics of “isms” and the building of political parties that aim to take state power: people look to one another and self-organize their futures.

Movements discussed in this issue, such as the Zapatistas, the water committees, the new movements in defense of land from Argentina to Peru, as well as the emerging movements in Cuba, all use the term autonomy, though generally without any direct ideological connection to the history of autonomous Marxism. This term is used in a way that is quite similar to the historical concept of indigenous autonomy, particularly with the Zapatistas and water committees, though it is different in that it is not a demand but an affirmation—a claim. Rather than petitioning the state for regional autonomy, or demanding an end to imperialist intervention, these movements have declared themselves autonomous. While this is also not something new in itself, declaring one’s autonomy, taken together with the number of movements throughout the Americas that are using the frame of autonomy together with horizontalism and autogestion, it becomes new. It is also new in the consistency of the movements not only seeing themselves as autonomous as related to the state, but also with regard to political parties and traditional forms of organization, including radical and revolutionary left parties.

More than anything, autonomy is a reactive term—being autonomous from those who might impose their will on you. In its essence, the concept of autonomy that people in today’s social movements are using is a “do it ourselves” approach to politics and social organization. This includes an increasingly complicated relationship to the state, most recently explained by El Vasco from the unemployed movement in Allen, in Patagonia, in the south of Argentina, as a “take what you can and run” sort of relationship. He asserted in late 2009 in a conversation in the movement’s self-organized center on squatted land, “the relationships with the state were always complex, the fact of putting forward autonomy necessarily implies not being trapped in the state agenda, but to look to satisfy concrete needs that you have and to take from the state all that we are able, as long as it does not get in the way of our sovereignty.”


Marina Sitrin is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the co-author of They Can’t Represent Us!: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy (Verso Books, 2014), Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (Zed Books, 2012) and Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (AK Press, 2006).


Read the rest of NACLA’s 2014 Fall Issue: Horizontalism & Autonomy