As a teenager during the environmentalist, prison industrial complex and anti-sweatshop movements that built up to the crescendo that was the Counter Globalization movement, I got my first taste of horizontalist process. It was empowering and stifling. It was inefficient and radical. It stuck with me.
For years after, I had sometimes incredibly wonderful experiences and often trying ones with what is essentially an anti-authoritarian style that tries to get us accustomed to the kind of world we want to build over the ashes of the old. Some people call it democratic, direct and participatory democracy, but politically its early proponents tended to shy away from such language. We weren’t trying to let a majority vote dominate. We wanted everyone to place down stones to build a road together towards each destination.
It is elemental to the space-occupying global uprising we now find ourselves in. And while some of the participants who have spread horizontalism continue to be so, most of its users are no longer anti-authoritarians, anarchists, autonomists, or libertarian marxists. They’re liberals. Amid these progressives there are those who fear a world that is based at large on the horizontalism they are participating in today, but there are many more progressives that are beginning to experience how we are running our people power as the seeds of a new way of decision making and administration.
But we don’t grow without honesty. There is a mythos that rejects the terms of leadership in Liberty Plaza and across the uprising. Just because you deny something in word doesn’t mean it seizes to exist in deed.
When I arrived in Madrid, two weeks into the four week occupation of Plaza del Sol by thousands of indignados, there was a sense of centralization. All media voices were controlled by the Media Commission. Indignados privately mumbled to me about the increasing degree to which some core people who had been there from the start were an inner circle. Assemblies were somewhat controlled. For better, to get over repeititous concerns by newcomers or speakers not in their right minds. For worse, preventing an easy conduit through which the uninitiated could participate and shutting out some proposals. But the assemblies were efficient, got a lot if shit done, and were still a consensus-based model of direct democracy.
Julius Nyerere, the first president of independent Tanzania and by his own admission a failed builder of African socialism, argued that “leaders must not be masters.” It’s a potent claim. There is a distinction. Leadership does not have to indicate permanence, unquestionability, domination. It can be very temporary. I can accept your lead to the train station. You can lead a workshop. Some people with flags and drums can lead a march. Anyone can be a leader.
Horizontalism, at its weakest, rejects such language without admitting that every structure requires at least temporary instances of leadership and respect for experience. You bottom-line rather than lead. You’re a facilitator, not a leader or a teacher. You form a working group, not a committee. But in point of fact, these distinctions are tenuous.
Without admitting that some of these terms are simply temporizing ways to say leadership, we fall into a trap. We are disingenuous with ourselves and those around us. Inner circles and cliques arise. Workaholics at best, and opportunists at worst, take on too many responsibilities without fostering those skills in enough people around them and stepping back. People become defensive and feel accused if anyone dare suggest they are too central a figure in this or that, or doing too much work.
If we are honest, on the other hand, you or I might not get defensive. If someone is particularly good at what they have focused on, and there is no need to ask them to lessen their control, then we don’t need to do so. If we accept that some people have leadership roles, in the spirit of horizontalism, we then give them the responsibility of all good leaders and organizers: the responsibility of making more leaders and organizers. Of imparting their capacities upon the willing and capable. If we are all leaders, none can be our master.
Leadership is not a bad thing. It is not an enemy to liberty. It is not a cardinal sin whose name we dare not speak. And if we treat it as such, we get caught up in our own mythology without accepting responsibility and learning to grow.