Care is at the Heart, an Interview with Marina Sitrin
For this interview we (carla and Nick) sent Marina Sitrin a ‘preamble’ outlining some of the ideas behind our book Joyful Militancy (available here!), and then included a couple questions based on Sitrin’s other writings (especially Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular en Argentina). We do not include the preamble here because as time went on in the researching, interviewing and writing of the book our ideas and articulations shifted. For that, we are deeply indebted to all our interviewees who offered new insights and shed light on areas that needed reworking. Instead we have added a short overview about the book, below, so the interview can stand alone. Our website also includes the book’s introduction and other excerpts.
Joyful Militancy Overview
Why do radical movements and spaces sometimes feel laden with fear, anxiety, suspicion, self-righteousness and competition? In Joyful Militancy, we call this phenomenon rigid radicalism: congealed and toxic ways of relating that have seeped into radical movements, posing as the “correct” way of being radical. In conversation with organizers and intellectuals from a wide variety of currents, we explore how rigid radicalism smuggles itself into radical spaces, and how it is being undone. Rather than proposing ready-made solutions, we amplify the questions that are already being asked among movements. Fusing together movement-based perspectives and contemporary affect theory, Joyful Militancy traces emergent forms of trust, care and responsibility in a wide variety of radical currents today, including indigenous resurgence, anarchism, transformative justice, and youth liberation. Joyful Militancy, by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery, foregrounds forms of life in the cracks of Empire, revealing the ways that fierceness, tenderness, curiosity, and commitment can be intertwined.
carla & Nick (c&N): Based on what we’ve told you about the book project, can you tell us what resonates and what doesn’t?
Marina Sitrin (MS): I am so excited for this project. It all resonates deeply with things I have been thinking, witnessing, fearing and dreaming. The role of joy, in particular in the way you describe it, is often absent – though not entirely – from our conversations and constructions in the northern part of the Americas and Europe. I do see joyful militancy as closely tied with emotion, on the individual and collective level, and will get to that with some of the later questions. It is both a fairly large and abstract concept, and at the same time a very simple direct and emotive one. How do we feel when we participate in a movement or group? What are our relationships to others in the group? Does it feel open? Caring? Social? Is there trust? Why do we come back to assemblies and actions? Are people open to one another?
c&N: We have been told that “joyful militancy” or “militancia alegre” is a more common notion in Latin America. Do you know anything about the genealogies or origins of “militancia alegre” in Latin America?
MS: I don’t know of any specific genealogy, but there are for sure many examples of the practice and language of care, trust, love and affect throughout the history of movements in Latin America. I see joyful militancy as both a practice and an articulation – ideally both together. As a practice it does not always come with an articulation of the experience, and then there are those groups and movements that have the explicit language of care and love, but do not always practice it. My first exposure to it as a concept together with a practice was in Argentina in the post 2001 popular rebellion and all the social creation that transpired.
In Argentina, when people found themselves without even the basic means for survival, they turned to one another. They did this without political parties, intermediaries or any sort of hierarchy. People explained this moment in history as a rupture, a break with past ways of organizing, but also a break in their finding one another – looking to one another. The effects of the dictatorship maintained a hold on many aspects of daily life, including fear of the other and a culture of turning one’s back in silence. HIJOS, the children of the disappeared, had been organizing for a few years in this silence, with internal forms that focused more on social relationships than an “end”. Their argument is that, at least in part, it was people in society who allowed the dictatorship to take place, with what they call a social silence. They organize in neighborhoods, speaking to people, face to face, and trying to recreate community. Their internal forms of organizing are also focused on social relationships, and in particular horizontal and affective forms. They speak of love as a relationship necessary in their group’s internal relationships as well as the sort of movement that has to be built. HIJOS in many ways was a precursor to the forms of organizing a few years later with the neighborhood assemblies, unemployed movements and recuperated workplaces, among tons of other collectives and networks that emerged.
I would love to share quote after quote of people in the movements in Argentina. I was honestly a bit surprised at how much people spoke of love and care as necessary to create the sort of world they desire. But now, in retrospect, the fact that the forms of organizing are all about social relationships—paying attention to power, making sure people are heard and can speak, prioritizing voices often excluded and ignored, organizing events with food, drinks, music and other tools that make them more social—were crucial and often just necessary for survival. Care is at the heart of the new forms of organizing. Horizontalism as a relationship is all about a shifting relational form between individuals and a group – paying attention to both – now. It is not a means to an end, but the means are a part of the end, and the end keeps changing.
Another example from Latin America, and one that is more of a practice and less something talked about as a tenet around which they organize, is the Zapatista communities. Their forms of organizing are based in assemblies striving for all people to participate equally and in creating structures of care, from health care to food and education, and then also creating processes for alternative adjudication—all of this is deeply affective, even if they do not shout to the world that they are joyous and grounded in affect. The joy is seen in these affective practices as well as in the celebratory nature of many of day to day experiences.
I see the concepts of joyful militancy, affective politics and a care/love-based organizing as also directly tied to prefigurative politics, and that has a long history and roots in Latin America. By prefigurative I mean as much as possible creating the desired future alternatives in the present. This is an idea and practice that has roots all over the world, from the IWW in the US to the writings of W.E.B DuBois, and the practices of anarchists and autonomous activists in Latin America. It has become more popular and widespread, both in theory and practice, in the last twenty years with the rise of more autonomous and horizontal organizing, particularly in Latin America, but also with the Global Justice Movement and Occupy and movements of the Squares.
Going back to Latin America, while the more contemporary movements organize with affective politics as one of the hearts, consciously and intentionally, there is a long history of this sentiment as a part of organizing, including say the FORA in Argentina (the largest Anarchist federation in the world) which was a part of organizing Patagonia Rebelde, a free region in the south of Argentina in the early 1900s. While it was brutally repressed, the movement organized to create a free society then and there, rather than demanding or building towards a future society. This included all sorts of different social relationships which entailed care, trust and love as their foundation. This is a history that many contemporary movement participants have ideas about, but few have read about it in great detail. It is one of those funny things where historical memory is somehow imbued in current practice, even without a direct intentionality.
I also wonder about liberation theology and the role of love and care in Latin American movements today. Similar to the role of the memory of anarchism in Argentina, in some parts of Latin America, the liberation theologists actively supported revolutionary movements and for sure brought in the importance of love and care in the present – not just the future. Of course the Catholic church as a whole, like the communist parties, were all about the future and not the present.
c&N: You have described the work you do as a form of militancy. Can you say what you mean by this concept? What is militancy about, and what does it do?
MS: I also describe myself as a militant. I say this in part to counter the concept of activist, especially as it is understood in parts of Latin America, which is as oriented to NGOs – more ‘professional and paid’. In Spanish una militanteis often someone who was a part of something, such as a movement or group, though not something like Greenpeace. It describes a more direct action sort of politics. And, in English, as it sounds, it has a force or action orientation – not militaristic, that is not what I mean – but determined and maybe hard left. I am not sure exactly how best to translate it alone; I use it as an alternative to identifying as an activist and to indicate direct involvement and revolutionary politics.
As for the work I do, I tend to think of it as militant research, and by this I mean a form of research and investigation that is together with people in movement, so again, militant meaning a sort of direct participation and action. I try as best as I can to not only use interview-based work, but to be involved in those things I write about and to engage back and forth with movement participants (if I am not active in that movement all the time) so as to check and make sure I am reflecting what people are doing/thinking. Sometimes this leads to a lot more work or investigation, as happened in Argentina when I was close to finishing the book Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular en Argentina.1 I thought it was just about finished and circulated it with a number of movement participants. I got great feedback, and a few women from two different unemployed movements gently told me, compañera, you cannot publish this, it does not include the direct struggles of the Mapuche or Guarani, not in their own words. So, I took another many months, built relationships with a few indigenous communities in the far north, was fortunate to be joined by one of these two women when I went, and then was able to finish the book.
All together then, this sort of work can become a form of militancy as it can help connect people from different groups and movements who might not otherwise meet one another. For example, having developed relationships with more autonomous movements in Greece, and collaborating with a network of assemblies who translated Horiozntalidadinto Greek, we found that not only were the voices in the book useful, but there was an opportunity to create direct relationships. So twice I helped initiate visits of Argentines to Greece. The second such visit was a worker from a recuperated workplace who met with workers in Vio.Mein Thessaloniki, and after the visit and exchange of ideas the Greek workers decided absolutely to recuperate their workplace. They say that without the direct exchange of ideas they might not have done it. The sharing of movement contacts and relationships across movements, countries and continents is for me a part of being a militant who does militant research.
c&N: What’s been your experience of sad militancy2–meanness, shame, fear, guilt, and ideological purism–in movement spaces?
- What sustains sad militancy?
- What provokes or inspires it? What makes it spread?
MS: I have put off this question for second to last. And now am again taking a break, since as important as it is, it is such an ugly and sad part of our movements I am going to wait a moment before writing about it. I will answer it however, since it is also what has destroyed so many groups and movements – so utterly important.
Sad militancy can come from many places. First, and important to identify is when it comes from external forces, people who are paid to disrupt movements and do so in all sorts of ways from disrupting democratic processes and assemblies, to those who spread gossip and create divisions amongst people in the movement. This has been seen in so many movements historically and there is a great deal to learn from these experiences, particularly the disruption of the Black Panthers – and here I am thinking of some of the lesser known and insidious tactics such as “poison pen letters.”
I would like to end it there, but sad militancy is not just something that people from the outside are paid to do – and in fact, they are able to be paid to do it because we are so susceptible to it. On a basic level, the space a group or movement creates from the beginning is key – the tone and openness, or not, makes a big difference if one wants to focus on new relationships with one another. Along these same lines, ideological rigidity and hierarchies in ideas, formal and informal, create a closed and eventually nasty space for those not ascribing to the ideology or a part of the clique. People do not stay in movements that organize in this way, or if they do it is with a sort of obedience that is not transformative for society and instead creates versions of the same power and hierarchy – with people not being actors or agents of change, not to mention that dignity cannot grow or flourish.
My early organizing experiences were fortunately with anti-racist and later Central American Solidarity movements, with people who had been a part of the civil rights and later anti-nuclear movements, so they had a focus—at least in part—on social relationships and democracy. Later however, when I decided I needed to be a part of a revolutionary group that was organizing against capitalism as a whole, well, I found myself in a few different centrist socialists groups which were really soul deadening. It was all about ideology and guilt. One could never do enough, and could never know enough or quote enough of whomever was the revolutionary of the day (James Cannon, Tony Cliff, etc.). It was also politically all about the end and not the day-to-day. This even included women: one would think after the radical feminist movement these groups would get that relationships have to change now, but no, it was all about the future free society we all had to work for – accepting relationships as they are pretty much. I later came around some anarchist groups, thinking that they would be more open and focused on the day-to-day, as that is what I had read from the theory, but found the rigidity around identity too harsh and since I was not squatting or dressing a certain way I was kept at arm’s length – which was fine since I felt too rejected to try very hard.
Enough of these icky groups. I think the big question for today is how do we organize in ways that try to prevent sad militancy from creeping into our practice. Articulation of a joyful movement is important, and not as easy as one might think since there is so much resistance to the idea of feelings, which is also to say, relationships.
Many in Argentina reflected on this, especially men in the unemployed movements and workplaces who would joke that they would approach people on the street and ask if they wanted to join a “love movement” and get punched. But it was a real question of machismo they were addressing. I do not mean just men here either, though it is the joke. Social relationships are increasingly given lip service, but we often do not work on them in our movements in a way that makes them dynamic enough to really create an affective space. Relationships here means not only how we treat one another individually, but things like our democratic practices as a whole and how and if we adjudicate or resolve conflicts that arise. So first, talking about it and stating clearing that it is important. But then, some movements do this and still sad militancy sneaks in, or jumps in, depending … it often concerns democratic practices and questions of flexibility—it is crucial to be able to change our practices as well as our ideas. That does not mean to be without clear ideas that are collective, but to avoid the ideological traps that can happen. Autonomous and anti-authoritarian movements are hardly exempt from this. In Occupy we sometimes found people arguing they were more horizontal than others, or more autonomous … this creates a closed and defensive space.
One way to try and keep our movements and groups more open is to be more open ourselves. To call things out when we see them. Not in a hostile way, but in the sense of identifying it and talking about it collectively, in special assemblies or in the moment. This is tricky as it can come off as hostile and people can easily get defensive – we live in a society where we are all so very fragile that calling someone out almost always leads to defensiveness … so figuring out ahead of time how we will deal with these issues as they come up and sticking to it. I am thinking now of how Occupy Farms in Albany California, learning from some of the difficult and sometimes nasty things that emerged in Occupy, organized based on a few common agreements and to participate all had to agree. Things that included participation – not as a ‘work ethic’ sort of thing, but that if one was going to be a part of a collective farm, one had to be a part of a working group that did things (without creating ableist hierarchies, of course). This avoided people coming to just hang out and speaking in assemblies from a position of ideas alone without practice. In Argentina, when people were disruptive in assemblies, it was called out (this was learned first by having assemblies destroyed by disruption). People are told to stop, and if it does not work they are asked to leave. It is more complicated than that, but that is the essence for some assemblies. In the 15M they had a group of people that was always roving during assemblies to try and support those people who were disrupting, believing they needed support, and not to be silenced.
c&N: What’s been your experience of joyful militancy?
- What inspires/encourages/sustains it?
- How do you try to embody it?
MS: My first experiences with joyful militancy, without having a name for it at the time, were very specific and location-based. I went to Seattle in 1999 to participate in the protests. Later in the day, when the repression picked up, I found myself alone and scared for a moment – only a moment however as an experienced anarchist from San Diego helped me quickly join their affinity group. Not only did I come without an affinity group, but what I knew of them was from reading Murray Bookchin on the Spanish Revolution. It was all a wonderful idea, like assembly based decision making and councils, but I had no direct experience with them. I had been a part of a few different hierarchical socialist groups and left all of then in part due to the hierarchy and centrism, but also what for sure can be called sad militancy. I had witnessed mass assemblies and direct democracy, including in Tepotzlan Mexico where people had taken over the town in the later 1990s, but still had had no direct participation – I did not know what it felt like to be a part of it. Not until Seattle.
So, this wonderful person, whose name I have since forgotten, brought me into a small group and together we blocked an alley where delegates were trying to pass, and supported one another in the massive tear gas attacks by the police, as well as negotiated road blocks of burning dumpsters and projectiles launched to protect people from the police. It was quite scary, but I did not feel fear as much as energy. I was now with a small group of people who were taking care of each other, checking in with one another all the time and taking breaks to do so. And then that evening there was a spokescouncil and I felt that “aha” moment where it all made sense. The ideas I had read about with direct democracy and people caring for one another was all around me, even amidst the tear gas and injured people – perhaps even because of it – which brought up the stakes and made the care and trust all the more important. It was a short-lived experience, but has marked me forever.
As for longer, deeply grounded movements based in affective politics and joyful militancy, that for sure would be Argentina post 2001. While emerging from necessity, from a rupture in society that was both crisis and a newfound finding of one another on the streets, it continued in many of the movements, taking deep root and becoming the place from which people organized and mobilized. What sustained it in many places was concrete projects around which people were organizing, from running workplaces to maintaining popular kitchens or media groups, together with open discussion of what it was/is. Collective reflection cannot be underestimated, and by this I do not mean only having assemblies to discuss what we are doing or will do next – and not either reflecting on what we have done. But reflecting on the meanings behind what we are doing and why. Taking time to explore ideas and our feelings related to them. There were constant discussions and assemblies in all of the movements, from the recuperated workplaces during lunch and breaks to weekly gatherings within the unemployed movements and parts of the agenda of the neighborhood assemblies. There were also assemblies comprised of people from the different movements to discuss things together, like autonomy, autogestionand affective politics, and this was done in a way that reflected the politics of the movements, with openness and care, in the discussions and infrastructure – meaning there was food and breaks with music and murgas, helping to facilitate the celebratory and emotive elements involved in all of it.
As for my personal attempts to try and embody a politics of affect and joyful militancy, I don’t know. On a very basic level, but one that really does mean a lot, and at the risk of being dismissed as unserious, I try and be open, smile, and really listen and ask questions with others in the movements. Welcoming people, asking about their lives and being friendly is a bigger deal than most people realize. Feeling welcome into a space that is new, feeling like people care about who you are and not just what action you are participating in is huge. On a more general level, I try and create space for others to speak and be heard, and in a way that is meaningful. This often means things like helping to make sure there is facilitation that allows and develops listening, as well as creating a warm climate and atmosphere around discussions, assemblies and other spaces. I like to think I try and reach out to younger and sometimes lesser experienced participants so as to help them feel heard and involved. This is almost always with younger women. In Occupy in New York, I shifted early on to focusing on the legal group since we did not have much of one when it began. A space or movement without legal support, especially in an action that is not legal in certain respects, is not serious, and for sure does not have affect and care at its core. We must protect all people in their/our bodies; this means legally and in the streets with affinity groups. Within the legal group of Occupy we quickly discovered that we not only needed to create legal support for the hundreds arrested, but also to create spaces of mediation for the conflicts coming up in the Plaza. I was a part of a legal subgroup, together with Safer Spaces, that was trying to set up a mechanism not only for mediation but also the adjudication of conflict. Without ways of resolving conflict within our movements we cannot say we take care, trust and affect seriously.
c&N: Because we think joy and sadness are always moving and shifting into new configurations, we are really curious about how these shifts take place. Have you seen spaces, conversations, or practices shift from joyful militancy into sad militancy, or vice- versa? What leads to these shifts?
I have seen movements go from joyful to sad, though it is usually soon before they break up as that specific form of movement. From my experience, this has often been when there is very specific activity on behalf of one or a few people who are extremely disruptive and their disruptions are not dealt with. Our culture of silence or even being polite and not wanting to say things out loud, at least not collectively is a real problem. It allows one or a few people to dominate groups of hundreds and event thousands as was the case with Occupy. This was not the only thing that happened with Occupy, but was among them. In Argentina I saw it happen with left political parties intentionally destroying horizontal assemblies (something that is much harder to do today since they have learned hard lessons and changed their practices). I also saw it with the role of money in movements: from the unemployed movements having to be “managers” of state money and deciding who gets it or not as the government never gave enough, to NGO money in movements creating divisions and finally, to what was for sure government intervention by way of paid disruptors who—when all the other forms of disruption did not work—used direct violence, burning homes and shooting at participants until the land-based movement dispersed. This however raises bigger questions about defense of movements, perhaps for another book.
In your book, Everyday Revolutions,3 you continually return to the rejection of ideology and how important this has been for movements to create communities based in love and trust. It sounds like in Argentina, what is being rejected is the traditional ideology of Marxism that tends towards vanguardism, hierarchy, and so on. Is there something about all ideology that gets in the way of love and trust across differences?
MS: After the 2001 economic collapse people in Argentina came together from all sorts of backgrounds, as well as networked across all sorts of social classes and identity based groups. The unemployed with the formerly identified urban middle class, the Guarani and Mapuche with media collectives and children of the disappeared (HIJOS) and workers recuperating their workplaces with all of the above. People organized in their locations and came together out of necessity. They forced out four governments in the first months of the rebellion with sheer popular power – people in the streets banging pots and pans (cacerolando). No one called people together, not unions or political parties, they did not have formal leaderships, banners or posters, or even united slogans in the beginning. They came together banging pots and pans and created the song – Que se vayan todos, que no quede ni uno solo (They all must go, not even one shall remain). And it worked. They forced out presidents, heads of the judiciary, economy and other ministries. There was a rejection of what was – of political parties and forms of hierarchy (power over) that people saw as responsible for the economic crisis and mass privatization which in part destroyed the economy.
Again and again people who I spoke with while living there and those I’ve visited over the years insisted that they did not want to replicate the forms of organization that they saw as responsible … not only responsible for the crisis, but also all those groups and forms of organizing that were also seen as unable to respond sufficiently to these groups – so forms on the right and left. All political parties. So, yes, what you suggest with a rejection of Marxism as an ideology is true, but it was also true for anything that seemed to harken a pre-formed ideology or set of ideas. People wanted to create things anew – social relationships and forms of organizing. And this is where we get to some of the ideas in your next question. There were and continue to be consistent forms and ways of thinking about organizing and while it was in no way an ideology – there is an amazing consistency in the ways people across class and identity spoke and speak about these forms: new – rejecting the old – and creating something new in similar ways. I believe this is tied to what is being rejected, but will get to that next.
c&N: You continually point to the concepts of horizontalism, affective politics, autogestion, and autonomy as concepts that are widely shared among movements in Argentina. It’s clear that they’ve been central to constructing and sustaining movements, and warding off ideology and co-optation. You quote a number of movement participants who seem to refuse any concrete definition of the movements they’re part of, and you call these concepts “living words.” It seems clear that you and the voices you highlight are refusing rigid definitions of these terms–autonomy, horizontalism, love, and trust–so that they can be part of an ongoing discussion, and that this is different from an ideology. Can you say more about these differences? What is the difference between an ideological concept and a living word?
MS: First, the idea of a living word comes not from me, but people in the movements. I repeat it a lot since I love the way it captures what people are doing and striving towards, but it is for sure a concept that is also living and dynamic, from within the movements in Argentina. What is rejected is ideology, as I understand people in the movements, but this they mean any predetermined set of ideas or concepts that then are applied to life – to concrete situations. I don’t know that all ideology is rejected as an analysis for what is wrong in society – so elements of Marxism to explain capitalism … it is possible, but what is rejected is a set of ideas that will then “free” people or make for new social relationships. The focus of the movements is how people organize and relate now – in the day to day – and from there construct the future. This already implies a dynamic as the everyday changes, and thus the future, as related to the everyday, must change. The same is true for the ideas around which much of the organizing takes place.
Take for example Horizontalidad– a word that did not exist before in Spanish, or if it did it might have been used a few years prior by HIJOS, the children of the disappeared in Argentina… Horizontalidad was and is described as a relationship, a way of coming together without power over the other, as a way of having conversations and relating more generally. It is always described as a changing relationship since as people relate to one another they change and the group changes, thus the concept of the tools used also must change, thus the living part of the word. It is ever-changing and dynamic as it is used in life by people… It is not a description of a relationship either – not direct or participatory democracy, nor consensus – it is a relationship itself that might or might not use these other tools.
Similarly, autonomy and autogestion. Autonomy was used, together with horizontalidadand autogestion to articulate the focus of the movements being on and with one another – not looking ‘up’ but horizontally. Seeing power as something created together, and also as a live thing, not something to take or be given. Autonomy has been used to distinguish both movements and groups, as well as individuals. Deciding for ourselves or oneself. Not having a party or politician dictate what to do or how… autonomy is a practice and dynamic – not an ideology and theory – and the danger of calling it a theory is that it can become less “alive” less of a practice. In a number of movements, when offered ‘gifts’ and subsides from the state, they continued to call themselves autonomous while simultaneously organizing based on the agenda of the state, and eventually the splits within the movements became too big. But that is another story, and entails sad militancy: with the stagnation of autonomy, the trust and care within the movements also unraveled.
One of the things that I believe has helped keep autonomy and horizontalidadas living words is the practices connected with them. It is not abstract. To be autonomous and horizontal is related to concrete practice. So what is that practice? Those movements that self-organize, from the recuperated workplaces (of which there are over 350) to the self-organized unemployed movements (a handful still) and media networks and alternative outlets (of which there are around ) have all continued, even with challenges, and they all argue that part of their ability to face the challenges posed by the state has been their level of self-organization or autogestion. They also intertwine this practice of autogestionwith a practice of autonomy and every changing relationships of horizontalidad.
This brings us to affective politics: a politics based in affect, trust, care and love, as people in the movements describe it. This is something I describe more earlier, but it cannot be left out of any question related to the dynamics of the movements and how they are rejecting ideology and instead are creating ever-changing dynamic relationships.
c&N: We have the sense that the situation in North America is a lot different Argentina and other places in Latin America. One of the most striking differences, from our perspective, is that the dense networks of love, care, and trust do not seem to exist in the same ways among the Left in North America, especially among European-descended settlers. What’s your impression of these differences, and what are the implications for movements in North America?
MS: Hmmm … I think a lot of this has to do with identity, class, experience and options in life. People who lack options, such as the unemployed workers in Argentina or the population facing a total economic collapse, have seemed to come together in very similar ways; both movements rejected hierarchy, power-over, and ideology while at the same time creating new ways of being together, self-organizing grounded in horizontal relationships and affect. As the movements continued over time it does seem like those that have self-organized out of necessity have lasted longer and continued with the same dynamic forms of organizing based in new social relationships.
Saying all this, I am now thinking about a conversation I recently had with two young people, one Mexican and one US, who had both been living in Oaxaca for years, collaborating with the Universidad de la Tierra and Gustavo Esteva in particular. They are now in another part of Mexico struggling to organize a social center, a small editorial (printing books and booklets) and a few other projects, all based in horizontal, autonomous and affective relationships. They are facing internal challenges for sure, and that is some of what we spoke about, but they continue and are quite motivated and really lovely, passionate, smart young organizers. They would be examples of people from the left, working with others on the left, to create these sorts of space – and while they need to self-organize to survive, it is not to the same degree as say the unemployed in Argentina. They could get other jobs, even if with difficulty … so maybe I am contradicting myself, or maybe the first response to organize with autogestion, autonomy and horizontalidad, developing and grounding in affect, is something that is first a response, but can also be something intentional, if one is very very careful with each step and moves slowly. And, if we could all spend years with Gustavo Esteva, learning and sharing, well, that would be a wonderful gift.
So, after being so wordy here, the conclusion is that while joyful militancy is easier to maintain in places where organizing is based in necessity and the rejection of ideology and pre-formed ways of organizing take root much faster, it is not impossible or even improbable in other spaces where people have less urgency and necessity in their survival questions and options … what it does require in these ‘left’ spaces is a lot of attention to maintaining relationships as flexible and ever-changing. Learning from our companeros in the global south.
c&N: Where do you see love, trust, horizontalism, and autonomy being generated and sustained in North America? Or, do you see other, alternative common notions that animate North American movements?
MS: While I do for sure see autonomy, horizontalism, affect, trust and love animating US and Canadian movements, it is not what occurs to me first for these regions. Too often, at least in the US, there is a sort of territoriality of left ideas and sadly ideologies, even in the more autonomous spaces, so rather than flexible and caring ideas guiding our actions and relationships we cling to ideas and notions such as autonomy as a rigid dogma – “I am more autonomous than you” using forms of comparison with actions and even life choices. It has even occurred more recently with horizontalism, so rather than seeing it as an ever-changing relationship that must change as people change and a group changes, it is used as a particular definition of a form of consensus decision-making. We saw this in particular around the Occupy plazas. I have no idea where this came from since it has nothing to do with the way Argentines use it, but instead people argued for horizontalism to mean absolute consensus, not the striving for consensus, but that all must discuss and agree with the exception of one. (Something impossible in groups of people who do not know one another and particularly large groups as we had in New York, with over a thousand or two thousand people in assemblies at times.) What this points to is the rigidity that people—even those who have not been organized in movement or groups before—tend towards, which is a sort of hierarchy of ideas instead of flexible open relationships … maybe we have not broken from the traditional forms of change on the left as many others have. Or maybe when we become more flexible, those who have preconceived ideas of how change should happen jump in so fast and occupy the space that it seems like that is the majority opinion when it is not. I could explore this more, but would rather begin to think about those spaces where people have organized in these more dynamic and open ways.
Historically, there are tons of examples from the history of the US as well as around the world – we just have to look for them and listen well. For example, SNCC was grounded in participatory and direct democracy, with attempts at creating leadership and horizontal relationships, as well as beloved community overall. The radical feminist movement is fairly well known for working on more affective and care-based ties, focusing on sharing personal stories and creating atmospheres of openness within the movement. Following chronologically is the Anti-Nuclear movement in the 1970s and 80s that in many areas was based in direct democracy and affinity groups, making sure to take care of each person bodily as well as with emotional support. I could go into many more examples, though that perhaps is for another project.
c&N: A common perception we’ve been grappling with is that joyful militancy is naïve—a failure to appreciate how bad things are (if you’re not sad/angry/cynical, you’re not paying attention) – how do you react to this?
MS: That is total nonsense. And I do not call many opinions nonsense, really, almost none. But from my experience, those people from whom I have learned about joyful militancy and affective politics are people in unemployed movements, people living in situations such as shanty towns, with nothing to live on and no real future prospects. Or, workers facing a life of unemployment taking over their factories. Or women in the Southern Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the south of the US. Here of course I did not participate, but have spoken to people who were involved in the movement and I read a great deal, and the concept of Beloved Community was key to what they were trying to construct. Inspired in part I believe by this form of organizing is now Black Lives Matter, who are best known for their interruptions in business as usual; less known is that the organizers try and ground their organizing explicitly in the politics of care and love. Black Lives Matter as a hashtag created by co-founder Patrisse Cullors was made famous almost instantaneously, though lesser known is the simultaneous “love letter” that was written by Alicia Garza, the other of the three women co-founders. Written to “Black folks” it speaks of the importance of loving oneself as well as organizing based in love. And recently, in interviews I have done and read with people who are spending lots of time in Rojava, from Janet Biehl to Kurdish women militant researchers, they all speak of the joy, happiness, laughter and smiles that fill the spaces of self-defense and creation that are the autonomous Cantons of Rojava. Women there speak of the importance of this care, joy and laughter. If they do not appreciate how “bad” things are, then, well, shit, no one does.
I do not write this to dismiss the question, it is an important one, and one I get all the time. Affect is not seen as serious. Both due to what people think is something “soft” or not looking to the bad, but also I think it is a deeply gendered and race-based argument. The people I know who are or did ground their organizing explicitly in affect, joy and beloved community are on the margins of society – they are women in groups and networks all over the world, the unemployed and queer movements in Argentina, SNCC in the US and currently the coordinators of Black Lives Matter, women in Rojava … I could go on and on, but the reality is the opposite of the argument being put forward. I do not want to place ideological or identity boxes on those posing these questions, but from my experience they do not come from similar backgrounds as the movements and networks I just mentioned. And last, forget academia. The idea that affective politics or love based organizing is seen as serious in social movement theory is just, well, not happening. I have been asked so many times, “what is that?” and then told to remove it from articles (which I refuse). Emotion yes, and negative emotion, for sure, but love and affect, no, it is seen as not serious. Who dominates the academic world? Some real similarities with those on the left also making the critique. But, I don’t want to spiral into who is to blame for not taking it seriously; it is not particularly useful. Most important is to do what you both are doing, which is bringing this form of organizing more into the public discourse as an option for organizing.
1 The English translation of this book, edited by Marina Sitrin, was published as Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Oakland: AK Press, 2006
2 Earlier in our process of researching and writing the book, we were using the concept of ‘sad militancy’ to describe the ways that radicalism can be intertwined with shame, fear, guilt and ideological purism. We later changed ‘sad militancy’ to ‘rigid radicalism’ in the book, in order to avoid confusion with the emotion of sadness.
3 Marina Sitrin. Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina. London: Zed Books, 2012.