A convergent genealogy? Space, time and the promise of horizontal politics today.

Author:Kiersey, Nicholas


Invoking anti-capitalist rhetoric yet refusing to issue demands, the horizontalist movements of 2011 seemed to embrace elements from both Marxist and anarchist strategy. More specifically, the prefigurative approach of the camps suggested that the protestors had an acute sense of the profound immanence or embeddedness of social power within processes of everyday life, a trope common especially in contemporary anarchist and 'post-' or 'neo-' Marxist discourses. However, while this common point of reference might indicate the potential for some degree of convergence between these two perspectives, it is important to understand the specific ideological commitments of contemporary horizontalist movements. As we argue below, the movements have tended explicitly to disavow grand ideology, eschewing commitment to any one set of theoretical principles. Their ideology, to the extent that they can be said to have one, must be deciphered from their actions.

This article thus explores the commitments of horizontalist movements via a genealogy of their practices, both discursive and non-discursive. While horizontally organised communities can be identified in a diversity of geographical sites throughout human history, this paper chooses for its starting point the moment of 'direct action'-style resistance which found global resonance around 1968. Of course, as a mode of political engagement, direct action long predates the events of 1968; the term was first used by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) around the turn of the 20th century (Thompson & Murfin 1976). It is in 1968, however, that we find the sharply articulated critique of centralised power and established hierarchies that would later shape the alterglobalisation movement in the 90s and the wave of occupations in 2011-12, as well as a number of stopovers in between. Critically, through their mode of organisation and their way of engaging with the world, the movements demonstrated the irreducibility of their own composition to a single common cause, or a single enemy (capital, the state, the dreaded '1%').

The guiding ontology of the movements thus established through a genealogy of their practices, the second and third portions of this article seek to evaluate the strategic opportunities available to the horizontal left from the perspective of two literatures, those of anarchism and autonomist Marxism. Addressing the strategic logic of the recent movements, the second section adopts an autonomist Marxist perspective in order to evaluate prefigurative strategy in the context of late-capitalist power. To be viable, the autonomists argue, a strategy of confronting contemporary capitalism must necessarily start with the recognition that it has stepped 'outside the factory', so to speak, subsuming skills and capacities of production, heretofore considered part of the 'life world', and aligning social desires with capitalist rationality to an unprecedented extent. By their rhetoric and their actions, the movements demonstrate a certain awareness of this change, and its implications for their struggle. Yet questions remain as to how this awareness should translate into effective strategy. Thus, whereas the Occupy movement's refusal to make any kind of plan for the seizure of power was criticised as especially naive, activists in Spain and Greece have been much more open to 'traditional' leftist questions, including those of central organisation and the party-form.

In order to grasp something of the stakes of these questions, we argue that the genealogy of horizontalism suggests at least two 'poles' of possible anti-capitalist strategy. In the third section, we thus outline the spatial strategy, concerned with securing access to democratic space and constructing temporary zones of autonomy from capitalist life, which we associate more with the anarchist tradition (Graeber 2002; Springer 2010, 2014), and the temporal strategy, concerned with the production of new political subjectivities and the transformation of common sense, which we associate more with the Marxist tradition (Hardt & Negri 2012; Luxemburg 2007; Virno 1996). Now, importantly, it is not our purpose in setting up this dichotomy to pigeonhole either approach. Nevertheless, as we seek to reflect on the basic stakes of 'leftist convergence', we find this to be a useful schematic. For, as the experience of many of the occupy camps attest, prefigurative politics is difficult in practice: many camps were hijacked by sections which exhibited little or no ideological commitment to horizontalist politics outside the site of the camp itself, and no real understanding of the need for longer-term strategy.

Offering spatial and temporal strategy as two key conceptual reference points for understanding horizontal politics, then, we conclude by agreeing with those Marxist critics who argue that a longer-term strategy of engaged withdrawal, or 'exodus', is likely the most profitable avenue for the movements right now. Strategies of exodus, as we shall discuss, are those that pursue, in the face of late-capitalist power, the creation of sustainable parallel forms of community and structures of power that can provide longer-term support for radical politics. Such a strategy, we argue, is especially pertinent in the aftermath of the Greek 'Oxi' vote of 2015. Decrying Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Syriza for his perceived betrayal, many vanguardist critics have called for a 'Plan B'. That is, a state-led 'Grexit' from the Eurozone. From the perspective of the movements, however, in the context of an uneven but global capitalism, there are many reasons to be cautious of such a pursuit. Putting a premium on the survivability of Europe's tenuous horizontalist foothold, it may well be that this is a time for a certain methodological promiscuity.

A brief genealogy of prefigurative politics

By 'horizontalist politics', we refer to a culture of protest that seeks to bypass traditional channels of political representation and mediation, through the embrace of relatively flat or immanent structures of organisation. For us, the recent cycle of global struggles, starting in Tunisia in late 2010, but stretching through Zucotti Park in September 2011 and as far as Hong Kong, in September 2014, marks the most explicit instance of such politics in history. Much was made of the 'horizontality' of Occupy. Observers and sometimes participants expressed frustrations with the supposed organisationlessness and leaderlessness of the movement, sometimes because there were no clearly articulated 'demands' to which the camps could be attached (Dean 2012a), and sometimes because the camps harboured hidden striations and unaccountable power structures (Shehan 2012). On the other hand, it was this same 'horizontality', or the attempt to live up to its ideals of open communication and decision-making, that politicised millions of people hitherto isolated in their singular stories of debt, precarity and powerlessness. In this section, we want to sketch out the historical contours of horizontalist politics as an impulse or desire that stretches back to the 19th century, if not earlier, but which eventually comes to shape, we believe, the three most recent waves of mass struggle: 1968; the alter-globalisation movement of the late '90s and early 2000s; and Occupy.

It might not be controversial to say that the tradition of rogue contestation of power, when official channels of dispute were closed off, or when they did not exist, has always been a part of human life. Wildcat anti-authoritarianism, which strikes not only at those in power but, in its most ambitious form, against the very idea of concentrated, established power, does not lend itself to easy ideological mapping. Its ostensibly progressive values notwithstanding, it is not the invention of socialism. In some ways it predates it and, in the modern context, it has often occupied a position tangential to it. Examples of wildcat anti-authoritarianism include: the 'heretical' movements of 12th and 13th century Europe that sought greater autonomous organisation of daily life, property and sexual relations (see Federici 2004); the Peasants' War of 1525-26 in central and southern Germany against the landed aristocracy (see Luther Blisset's novel Q); the Diggers and the Levellers of the English Revolution, seeking self-government, extended suffrage and egalitarianism (Lowes 2006); the Quaker movement in the 1950s, which is often credited with inventing consensus decision-making (Graeber 2010: 125); and, naturally, indigenous 'stateless' societies from all over the world living out alternative conceptions of sovereignty and stewardship.

Various iterations of a 'modern' and more explicitly politicised (i.e. leftist) antiauthoritarianism can also be identified, from the Paris Commune to the groundbreaking organising of the anarchist International Workers of the World (IWW) syndicate around the turn of the 20th century (responsible for introducing the 8-hour workday in the USA), the US civil rights movement, anti-colonial guerilla focalism, radical feminists, rank-and-file strikes and work stoppages, anti-nuclear activism, anti-fascists, squatters, punks, deep ecologists and, finally, occupiers. The list of such cases is very long, and we have no wish to draw a straight line between them all. Not only do their contexts and points of contention vary, but their tactics were also, in many cases, as distinct as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger vs. colonised people taking up armed struggle in remote areas. Nonetheless, we want to insist that, in spite of this diversity of tactics, these movements share a core set of principles that distinguish them from, and even place them in opposition to, politics as government. In Katsiaficas's terms, they are marked by 'antiauthoritarianism, independence from existing political parties, decentralized...

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