Going Horizontal at the U.S. Social Forum

If one political concept dominated the proceedings of the US Social Forum, it was horizontalism.  Organizers mentioned it in relation to media access, workshop panelists offered it as an alternative to top-down NGOs and political parties and participants already engaged in politics employed it as a measurement of their own groups’ internal functioning.  To some, horizontalism represented more of an abstract democratic sense informed by anarchist sentiments.  For others, it meant thinking through power relations that operate inside the new structures they sought to set up – frequently things like cooperatives, community supported agriculture or community gardens.  Kandace Vallejo an organizer with the Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA) offered a more concrete definition.

Vallejo spoke as part of the panel I helped to organize for the Socialist Party USA at the Social Forum.  SFA is an ally organization to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization that represents farm workers throughout the state of Florida.  Vallejo spoke about CIW’s remarkable string of victories at a moment when nearly all of organized labor seems to be in deep retreat.  Multinational food giants such as Taco Bell, McDonalds, and WholeFoods have all yielded to the demands of this organization.

Vallejo presented these successful campaigns as a part of a larger process of trial and error.  At first, workers in the region did what workers everywhere do – prepared to fight their bosses.  This meant organizing against the growers.  However, CIW soon realized that multinational food corporations held growers hostage by their demands for cheap produce.  In response, the focus shifted to these companies and, in the process, the CIW needed to call on external ally organizations to assist the organizing.  High-profile campaigns ensued as picket lines were thrown up in front of Taco Bell and other food chain stores throughout the country.

How could the CIW maintain this broad network of allies and still keep the focus on the workplace struggles?  The driving force behind these campaigns, Vallejo related, are the workers, themselves.  The initial organizing was quite challenging since workers came from radically different historical traditions in Haiti, Central America and Mexico.  Eventually, after struggling together, the workers devised a three-prong system for organizing – popular education, the identification and development of leaders, and mass mobilizations.

Vallejo described the manner in which popular education played a critical role in mobilizing both the workers and the surrounding community.  By employing graphic art and a low power radio station, CIW is able to reach beyond the worksite and enter into the everyday lives of people in the region.  Organizers employ the notion of “accompaniment” to express their desire to march with the community not over its head or not in an attempt to force changes that they see as desirable, but the community does not.

However, the internal workings of the CIW express the clearest ethic of horizontalism.  Vallejo spoke about the yearly assemblies of CIW members in which major decisions about campaigns and the election of representatives take place.  Further, elected leaders are held to a similar position as that of workers, themselves, as no salary exceeds three times the average worker and staff must spend ¼ of the season working in the fields.  Such measures are meant to prevent the formation of elitism amongst officials and are a far cry from the way a typical trade union operates.  CIW members work side-by-side with their representatives thereby placing real limits on vertical hierarchies within the worker’s movement.  This type of organization also allows the campaigns to flow from the bottom up as ally organizations express solidarity with real organizing conducted by the farm workers themselves.

The next test for the CIW and its allies will come as they continue a campaign that targets the Trader Joe’s chain.  Once again a corporation that markets a sense of sustainability to its consumers has proved to be resistant when farm workers come knocking.  And so, again, the CIW will roll out its networks of allies in order to employ mass mobilization as a tactic to lessen exploitation and defend the base level organizing underway in Florida.

The CIW was not the only organization advertising its horizontal structures.  Many other workshops offered the argument that transforming a society based on hierarchy would require a grassroots democratic response.  Such a response aims at simultaneously challenging the non-profit and NGO sector and the political party formations that rest on vanguardist or hierarchical assumptions.  So, as the latest version of the US Social Forum draws to a close, a message from below is beginning to materialize – the self-organization, self-reliance and self-determination that horizontalism allows will be a fundamental part of any attempt at social transformation in the US.  Exploitative vertical institutions such as multinational corporations beware.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: whartonbilly@gmail.com. Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.

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  1. John Andrews said on July 1st, 2010 at 10:33pm #

    Horizontalism sonds a bit like a system I wrote about some time ago that I call Lateral Administration – with basically the same aim in mind: removal of hierarchy.

    Whilst I’m moderately pleased to see that horizontalism is achieving some success I have to say that I think it can be further improved by scrapping the concept of ‘leaders’. By definition leaders remove decision-making authority from the people which, providing the people are properly informed, is not acceptable.

    This vital condition – that the people are properly informed – can never be guaranteed whilst ‘leaders’ exist. The proof of this is happening right now in Britain, where the country’s new leaders are presenting an elaborate illusion of open government by ‘consulting the people’. It is of course a charade whereby the government’s pre-existing plans can be sold by carefully selecting those public suggestions that happen to conform with those pre-existing plans, which are then marketed as being a response to ‘the will of the public’. Whilst leaders exist such cynicism is guaranteed.

    Perhaps this explains why horizontalism is enjoying some success: it still has leaders, and therefore cannot be very different to the corrupt system we we already have.