Part 1: The ideological crisis of bourgeois democracy and our generation

This article is part 1 of a two part series. We will publish the second part of this piece in the next issue of Workers´Voice and on this website.

In response to the last round of economic crisis of the capitalist system, a new wave of social movements has emerged. From the “Indignados” in Spain to the “Occupy” in the U.S, but also in Egypt, Brazil and beyond. These movements initially mobilized mostly the youth and unemployed with great success. One of the characteristics of these movements has been striving for rank and file democracy, or “participatory democracy”, or democracy “from below”, in response to the failure of bourgeois parliamentarianism.

The very existence of those movements at an international scale, and mobilizing a relatively similar layer of the precious youth is the sign of the beginning of a change of consciousness: young working people have begun to understand, because of this economic crisis, that the political institutions of the so called “democracy” not only do not represent their interests, but silence their voices. Capitalism does not rule alone, it has its ruthless handsome and freshly shaved allies.

First, there is not any grand narrative or myth to hold their hopes together anymore: there is not a “great boom” of prosperity, as the one after War II; no grand narrative of national liberation, nor any father figure, there is nothing to deconstruct or tear apart. The fall of the Berlin Wall showed the reality pretty naked, and the political imaginary of those born around that moment is more a desert than a sacred photo album. But second and foremost, the only thing there, for my generation, is the constant injury, the one that never quite heals before the next cut is carefully and clinically applied on your skin.

This is because most of the cuts and austerity measures have been imposed by “democratically elected” governments, against the will of thousands and sometimes millions that took to the streets their opposition to such brutal attacks. Since the 1990s, neoliberalism has sought to rule “in the name of democracy”, and the last crisis is only the best expression of that hypocrisy.

It is not by chance then that in Spain, one of the slogans of the “Indignados” was “they do not represent us”, “they” being both professional politicians and mass media, and “us” being the Occupy movements. These movements have tended to refuse any slogan or demands which would represent the movement, any form of delegation or public representation, or anything beyond the pure performative of “we are the 99%”.

For our new generation of fighters against austerity, privatizations, poverty and the devastating effects of a for-profit economy, the question of political “representation” has become truly problematic. This question, which the bourgeoisie seemed to have solved once for all in the 19th century with the “invention” of bourgeois democracy, “democratic” elections and the creation of chambers of “representatives”, is now more than ever in crisis.

The actual conundrum of democracy

However, it seems that the current social movements have not yet found a real way out of this ideological crisis of capitalism. Today, we are stuck in an antinomy (i.e. antagonism) or a conundrum which is presented with two equally problematic alternatives. On the one hand, we have the dead end of the existing undemocratic system of representation, where we are deprived from a voice on the real matters, such as the organization of our political economy, and where any popular initiative is smashed, like the one presented by the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca[1], in Spain; or the “frail” bills we have tried to pass in some states of the US, like the Oil Tax in California, or the California Nurses Association´s (CNA) proposal for a version of the Tobin tax, i.e. very modest scratches on profits in the heart of imperialism.

Or an even worse case can happen: a popular initiative is co-opted, appropriated and turned into a weapon against an independent movement, like it happened with the original Dream Act[2], or the 2012 Millionaire’s Tax in California[3]. There is no record of any successful victory, even a partial one, achieved by the working class within the institutions of bourgeois democracy, at least not for our generation. We always got the cops sent to us and a condescending talk about democracy, and we learned pretty quickly that thisbeautiful word was to be used, in the neoliberal phase of imperialism, as the ultimate weapon to impose austerity and privatizations.

New ideas of the social movements & ultra-democracy

In response to this gigantic failure of bourgeois parliamentarianism, of at least keeping an illusion of democracy for the newest generations, a set of reactive ideas, or even ideologies, have developed within the social movements which have confronted the successive governments of capital in times of crisis. These include :

(1) That true democracy cannot be institutionalized in any way;

(2) That radical democracy is incompatible with any form of representation, any sustained form of organization and constitution of a collective identity. Organization leads to bureaucratization and any stable identity trait is an oppressive tool of identification.

This ultra-democratism has confined “pure”, “real” and therefore “legitimate” democracy to the phenomenal and vanishing world of social movements. One that rises and disappears like a wave or at best like a tide, but one that is not there to stay, that cannot be spoken of, for to speak of it would be to fix it and kill it. In this world, democracy is not a form of power, of organization, or of speech – it is an experience. And not an experience of social classes, oppressed groups, or individuals, but it is, we are told, one of “multitudes”. What is left of that when the thrill is gone? The memory of it, and little more. Those who are not lucky enough to be able to participate in the show – they missed the taste of real democracy – but everybody needs to go back to the same shitty job when fun is over.

Yet for most of working people, struggle is not about experience or fun, but about the promise of a better future and the accomplishment of a real, economic, material and political change in their lives. Consequently, ultra-democratism can also lead to nihilism and despair for all of those (the majority) who see their aspirations for real change over and again renewed, only to be continuously crushed to a pure performance with no real strategy to defeat our ruthless enemies. And if all those workers said they feel betrayed by these youth movements, it would be hard not to blame them. But they do not say that.

What is Horizontalism?

In response to this ideological crisis several articulations of what a “real” democracy could look like are being experimented, tested and discussed. And we must take the time to analyze them carefully and draw the necessary conclusions. This is for our own survival in the midst of the economic disaster, which looms to repeat itself more and more often, and each time in a more devastating form. One of the articulations of this new aspiration for democracy has been often embedded in the formula of “Horizontalism”. And I would like to reflect here on the implications of such an ideology and propose a critique and an alternative model of rank-and-file democracy.

Horizontalism is a term often used to advocate for theconstruction of non-hierarchical relations amongst activists and within organizations. Horizontalism is also used as a synonym for direct or participatory democracy, one that wants to ensure the equal participation of all and prevent the bureaucratization of social movements.

The word dates from the late 90s and early 2000, and claims to be the distillation of the historical experiences of the Zapatista movements and the EZLN, which broke out in 1994 to oppose NAFTA, and later the 2001 Argentine revolution and the “spontaneous” workers assemblies and occupation of factories, and in some ways, the World Social Forum initially chose horizontalism as its ideological laboratory.

While the specific word is itself pretty recent, the political theory behind it has been elaborated earlier, in the late 60s and 70s. The aspirations behind horizontalist discourses are very clear and legitimate: in opposition to a form of democracy where only the rich have a voice, where men participate more than women, where a person’s race, along with their legal status, leads to systematic exclusions. The most advanced sectors of the past social movements, since the anti-globalization outburst, want to make clear that we need a form of democracy which is radically different in our movements and in society. One where we can equally participate, one that is “horizontal” in the sense that it creates a space where the inequalities of society are suppressed and everybody has a voice.

Yet, the problems posed by the demand for radical democracy and equality which lie beneath the horizontalist paradigma are complex, and to pretend that to advocate simply for “horizontality” in our assemblies to solve it would be naive. There is a necessary difference to be made between what some see as a “spontaneous” characteristic, and I would rather qualify as a conscious demand for more democracy, more equality and transparency which is articulated in the struggles of my generation and the different theories or ideologies that come to provide a more systematic understanding of how to achieve the urge. For whilst the urge is commonly shared by a youth whose future is daily destroyed by capitalism and who has lost any trust in the parliamentary system, there isa variety of ways to understand how to construct this radical democracy and which strategy we should take to ensure not only a present but also a future with full emancipation for all.

What I would like to discuss here is not the experiences and practices in the movement of direct democracy, as these practices are shared by many, and for sure by revolutionary socialists. First, I want to unfold what is contained by the theory of horizontalism in its ideology of spontaneity. And second, I want to propose an alternative path for not only radical but revolutionary democracy.

No matter how many times their advocates will deny it, what is often theorized as horizontalism goes beyond what it always pretends to be: a pure and simple “recording” of the “practices” of these new movements. For identical practices could obey to different political motivations, or to political instincts which are not theorized.

To be continued: Part 2: The hidden “Ism” of Horizontalism


[1] PAH– Movement of Mortgage Victims in Spain for a moratorium on foreclosures and a public housing plan

[2] The DREAM Act –Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors is an American legislative proposal first introduced in the Senate on August 1, 2001. This bill would provide conditional permanent residency to certain immigrants of good moral character” who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the United States as minors, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment.

[3] A California Initiative to increase Income Tax for Those Earning Over $1,000,000