FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Going Horizontal at the US Social Forum

by BILLY WHARTON

If one political concept dominated the proceedings of the US Social Forum, it was horizontalism. Organizers mentioned it in relation to media access, workshops 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 – prepare 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 a 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 and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at whartonbilly@gmail.com

 

WORDS THAT STICK

 

February 09, 2016
Andrew Levine
Hillary Says the Darndest Things
Paul Street
Kill King Capital
Ben Burgis
Lesser Evil Voting and Hillary Clinton’s War on the Poor
Paul Craig Roberts
Are the Payroll Jobs Reports Merely Propaganda Statements?
Fran Quigley
How Corporations Killed Medicine
Ted Rall
How Bernie Can Pay for His Agenda: Slash the Military
Neve Gordon
Israeli Labor Party Adopts the Apartheid Mantra
Kristin Kolb
The “Great” Bear Rainforest Agreement? A Love Affair, Deferred
Joseph Natoli
Politics and Techno-Consciousness
Hrishikesh Joshi
Selective Attention to Diversity: the Case of Cruz and Rubio
Stavros Mavroudeas
Why Syriza is Sinking in Greece
David Macaray
Attention Peyton Manning: Leave Football and Concentrate on Pizza
Arvin Paranjpe
Opening Your Heart
Kathleen Wallace
Boys, Hell, and the Politics of Vagina Voting
Brian Foley
Interview With a Bernie Broad: We Need to Start Focusing on Positions and Stop Relying on Sexism
February 08, 2016
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Privatization: the Atlanticist Tactic to Attack Russia
Mumia Abu-Jamal
Water War Against the Poor: Flint and the Crimes of Capital
John V. Walsh
Did Hillary’s Machine Rig Iowa? The Highly Improbable Iowa Coin Tosses
Vincent Emanuele
The Curse and Failure of Identity Politics
Eliza A. Webb
Hillary Clinton’s Populist Charade
Uri Avnery
Optimism of the Will
Roy Eidelson Trudy Bond, Stephen Soldz, Steven Reisner, Jean Maria Arrigo, Brad Olson, and Bryant Welch
Preserve Do-No-Harm for Military Psychologists: Coalition Responds to Department of Defense Letter to the APA
Patrick Cockburn
Oil Prices and ISIS Ruin Kurdish Dreams of Riches
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange, the UN and Meanings of Arbitrary Detention
Shamus Cooke
The Labor Movement’s Pearl Harbor Moment
W. T. Whitney
Cuba, War and Ana Belen Montes
Jim Goodman
Congress Must Kill the Trans Pacific Partnership
Peter White
Meeting John Ross
Colin Todhunter
Organic Agriculture, Capitalism and the Parallel World of the Pro-GMO Evangelist
Ralph Nader
They’re Just Not Answering!
Cesar Chelala
Beware of the Harm on Eyes Digital Devices Can Cause
Weekend Edition
February 5-7, 2016
Jeffrey St. Clair
When Chivalry Fails: St. Bernard and the Machine
Leonard Peltier
My 40 Years in Prison
John Pilger
Freeing Julian Assange: the Final Chapter
Garry Leech
Terrifying Ted and His Ultra-Conservative Vision for America
Andrew Levine
Smash Clintonism: Why Democrats, Not Republicans, are the Problem
William Blum
Is Bernie Sanders a “Socialist”?
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
We Can’t Afford These Billionaires
Enrique C. Ochoa
Super Bowl 50: American Inequality on Display
Jonathan Cook
The Liberal Hounding of Julian Assange: From Alex Gibney to The Guardian
George Wuerthner
How the Bundy Gang Won
Mike Whitney
Peace Talks “Paused” After Putin’s Triumph in Aleppo 
Ted Rall
Hillary Clinton: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Gary Leupp
Is a “Socialist” Really Unelectable? The Potential Significance of the Sanders Campaign
Vijay Prashad
The Fault Line of Race in America
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail