Nothing is what democracy looks like: Openness, horizontality and the movement of movements

Rodrigo Nunes, 2005

Networked, horizontal forms have been at the centre of many of the political debates of the last ten years, and often been treated alternatively as the limit (by its enemies) and the solution (by its proponents) to the problems of organisation of resistance to global capitalism. This has unfortunately meant that critiques carried out 'from the inside' - i.e., by those who have experienced and share a general belief in them - have been much rarer than those carried out by partisans of other forms of organisation, resulting in much back-patting and triumphalism, but few discussions of anxieties and frustrations that seem widely shared; a problem that is only enhanced by the fact that so often it is felt that horizontality must be 'defended' from its detractors.(1)

It is this kind of internal critique that this paper attempts to do. In order to do that, it envisages a demystification of openness and horizontality, showing how it is often presented in complete absence of context and pointing to its inherent contradictions and dead-ends. The point of doing this is not to engage another debate along the lines of 'less' or 'more' horizontality, or horizontality versus verticality; the idea is rather to render these very notions problematic, and by affirming their problematic nature, to argue for a democratic practice that tackles this nature head on.

1 - Before openness and horizontality, there was openness and horizontality

One can start by asking the question why openness and horizontality have become so central recently. Two answers seem possible. The first one concerns the growing disappointment with real existing socialism that erupted in the 1968 events, was very present (and increasingly outspoken) in progressive movements all over the world, culminating in a strange aftertaste of consternation and indifference when those regimes crumbled down circa 1989. In this narrative we have a learning process where the lessons of Eastern Europe - whose mistakes were universalised, in either their practical or theoretical form, to almost everywhere through the work of Communist and Socialist parties of all shades - made subsequent waves of people struggling for social transformation wise enough to know what not to do, though still in the dark, and in some cases frankly disillusioned, as to what could be done. While this process is undeniable, it is clear that it alone cannot account for the move towards the open and horizontal organisation of struggles seen in recent years; in fact, one could say it is more capable of explaining the rise of identity politics, single-issue campaigns, NGOs and/or the sheer surrender of many people to the idea of an inevitability of the world as it is/was, and the neoliberal stance taken by many Left parties and trade unions.

What is relevant about the 'rise' of openness and horizontality is not that it means a substitution of a total theory of organisation with another one - that could maybe explain why people would value them highly - but the fact that something like 'network' has a place today in the vocabulary and practice of organisations that remain hierarchical, or why it is part and parcel of the practices of companies and highly valued in business and management circles. In other words, what is relevant is not that these ideas have become important, but that they have become practiced; even if we say that openness and horizontality are the new ideology - and an across-the-board one at that -, the ideology as such only exists because it has become (or is perceived as in the process of becoming) materially possible on a large scale.

The bulk of the answer therefore has to lie in a material process. One current narrative of this process identifies it with a restructuring in the most advanced sectors of capitalism (which, it is argued, exerts a hegemony that re-structures all other sectors), commonly called the passage from the Fordist to the post-Fordist model of production. This can be initially characterised by the transformation in the relation between the productive process and what is 'outside' it, consumption; gathering information about the market, circulating information that 'constructs' the market, the quantitative and qualitative increase of 'consumer relations' in relation to the overall productive process, going hand in hand with a 'singularisation' of the product -

We are witnessing today not really a growth of services, but rather a development of the 'relations of service'. The move beyond the Taylorist organization of services is characterized by the integration of the rela-tionship between production and consumption, where in fact the consumer inter-venes in an active way in the composition of the product. The product 'service' becomes a social construction and a social process of 'conception' and innovation. (.) The change in this relationship between production and consump-tion has direct consequences for the organization of the Taylorist labor of produc-tion of services, because it draws into question both the contents of labor and the division of labor (and thus the relationship between conception and execution loses its unilateral character). (2)

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