Interview: Rodrigo Nunes

Issue 35, Autumn 2021
written by
Rodrigo Nunes
illustration by
Ana Carvalho
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Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Neither Vertical nor Horizontal takes its starting point from both the promise and the limits of the 2011 insurrections (such as the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement). In many ways, these political initiatives were a response to what you call the historical ‘trauma’ of organisation, largely following the legacy of 1968 in rejecting the ‘vertical dimension’ of politics. Even before the evictions of the encampments, many were calling for a return to the ‘old politics’ and suggested we were witnessing ‘the end of horizontalism’. Can you take us on a detour through your history of organisation to place these recent events in context?

Rodrigo Nunes: The history of organisation that I propose in the book works on at least two different levels. On the one hand, I go as far back as the beginning of the modern age, and talk about the transformations in the modern idea of revolution, the history of which I examine from roughly the late 18th century up until our time, with special attention to what we could call the ‘golden age’ of the Organisationsfrage or ‘organisation question’. This ‘golden age’ is the time of the great debates that take place within and around Marxism from the end of the 19th century up until sometime after the Russian revolution, after which the Bolshevik experience is increasingly enforced as a model to be transplanted to other places, eliminating some of the exploratory plurality that had existed previously. So there is this longer historical span in the book, a deeper historical layer, but I also focus more closely on the more recent part of that history, which runs from the late 19th century to where we’re at now. It’s in this layer of history that’s closer to our time that I identify, first of all, what I call a trauma of organisation, or the fact that political organisation becomes a site of trauma. Any attempt to put a date on this is bound to be open to question, but we could perhaps name 1956 as the moment when this starts to crystallise, which is when lots of fellow travellers in the West break with the Soviet Union because of the invasion of Hungary by the forces of the Warsaw Pact. Disillusionment with the Soviet model, which of course had existed since the 1920s, starts accumulating from that point onwards, it gets worse and worse in the 1960s and 1970s, and then 1989 is the death knell, the moment after which it really becomes impossible to sustain any fantasies or denial regarding those historical experiences. 

Throughout this period, what became increasingly clear was that the closest thing the Left had found to a ‘victorious’ model of organisation and political action had in fact been a failure in all these places, like Western Europe, where it’d been expected to lead to a revolutionary transformation and didn’t, and an even worse failure in all the places where it looked like it had succeeded – where it’d managed to take hold of political power but ended up resulting in regimes that were far from being anything we’d want to hold as paragons of human emancipation. This had happened in way too many places for it to be just an accident, so people concluded that it must be an inherent vice in that model that led to all these disheartening outcomes. But this model – the party, democratic centralism, trade unions as ‘transmission belts’ and so on – had been dominant for so long that it had become practically synonymous with ‘organisation’ in most people’s minds. So it was organisation as a whole that was tarnished, surrounded by this fear that, the moment too many people gather in some sort of regular way and structures emerge or are deliberately instituted, bad things happen, and from there it’s always just a slippery slope away from the gulag. For people like us, who came of age, both literally politically, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this was practically the air we breathed, and this trauma instilled in us an instinctive fear of organisation, collectivity, permanence etc. That’s what I mean by organisation being a site of trauma.

The second thing I highlight in this more recent historical timescale is what I describe as a split between the 1917 and the 1968 Left. By ‘1917’ I don’t mean necessarily people who identify with the Russian Revolution, but a Left that looks towards what you call in your question the ‘vertical dimension’ of politics. In other words, a Left that is mostly oriented towards taking over the state apparatus, and therefore believes that one should organise primarily in the party-form, that still sees the party as an instrument for leadership and hegemony over society. Likewise, ‘1968’ is actually to a good extent a retrospective construction, the contours of which are in fact strongly determined by that very trauma of organisation that we were discussing. It’s true that most people who played a leading part in the politics of the 1960s and 1970s were critical of the established organisations in the international labour movement and of the Soviet bloc, but they didn’t quite correspond to this image we have nowadays, that they were all anarcho-desiring hippies who wanted to evade all sorts of discipline and hierarchy. That obscures all the continuities that they had with older forms of organisation in discourse and practice. But over time these continuities would be erased in favour of this image of 1968 as something that was radically distinct from the ‘1917’ model, which emphasised the horizontal over the vertical dimension, favoured forms of organisation outside, against, and beyond the state etc., and stands out as the moment when a radically different alternative existed. 

What’s important about this split, in my analysis, is the structure that ties the two ends together, which I describe as a double melancholia. I take the concept of Left melancholia – which was originally proposed by Walter Benjamin and has been developed more recently by several people, including Wendy Brown and Jodi Dean, whom I discuss at length in the book – to argue that, contrary to what all these people assume, we don't have a single Left melancholia but two. By the 1980s, both of these Lefts I described had been defeated, and the way in which both of them deal with that experience is by refusing to let go of their conviction and shifting the responsibility for the defeat onto the other side. This produces a stalemate in which, since one side has the other to shift the blame to, no one ever gets to question their own assumptions and come to terms with the limits that they have run up against, again and again, in history. 

This double melancholia therefore reinforces the split between the two Lefts, to the extent that it makes them define themselves in opposition to one another, making it impossible for the problem of organisation to be posed accurately. Because it’s obvious that it’s never a matter of choosing either unity or diversity, openness or cohesion, participation or quick decision-making capacities – concrete organisation and political practice always requires both. But melancholia locks the two Lefts in a situation in which one of them is always going to argue for one of the sides in those oppositions (unity, cohesion, quick decision-making), while the other will defend the opposite side (diversity, openness, participation etc.). Everything becomes either/ or. The upshot is that you eliminate the idea of balancing those contradictory demands, of negotiating trade-offs, of dealing with degrees, which is central to the question of organisation as I understand it. So you end up with a mindset that says, if A fails, then your only option is B, which was from the start defined as the opposite of A. Horizontalism has failed, so it must be the end of horizontalism, which can only mean its opposite, verticalism. You can only move from one pole to the other. For as long as we think in this way, I argue, we are unable to truly think about the question of organisation. 

Where are we now? After the 1980s you have two major global cycles of struggle. The first, starting with the Zapatista uprising of 1994, was the alterglobalisation movement. You could say that the anti-war movement in 2003 was both its high watermark and the beginning of a very swift terminal decline. Then you had a second wave at the start of the last decade, the 2011 cycle starting with the student movement in the UK and the Arab Spring. One of the things that was most surprising about the latter was how much its spontaneous organisational philosophy was an unwitting repetition of the alterglobalisation movement. There was almost no memory, and very little connection between the two, and for those of us who remembered the debates around the turn of the century, it was very striking to see that all these young activists apparently had no idea that a lot of what they were saying had already been said ten years before, nor any knowledge of how that had worked out (or failed to) a decade earlier. That was one of the main reasons for me to want to write this book: I wanted to free the younger activists to at least make their own mistakes, rather than making mistakes other people had already made without realising they were doing so. 

Both these movements clearly positioned themselves as heirs to the 1968 left; you could say the alterglobalisation movement was 1968 with listservs and SMS messages, while the 2011 cycle was 1968 powered by Facebook and Twitter. Yet in the end, not only had there been ten years of learning that hadn’t been passed on, the fact that people were operating within a mental landscape defined by the trauma of organisation and this double melancholia also severely limited what they were capable of thinking and doing. What I suggest in the book is in fact that 2011 may have been the last moment when it was possible to innocently and unproblematically believe that one could simply enact this retrospective construction that we have of what 1968 was. Barring another gap in collective memory that will prevent any lesson from being passed on, I think the experience of encountering the limits that people ran up against in 2011 has forced a reckoning. In the same way that after 1989 it became impossible to imagine that you could simply try to repeat 1917 and expect to succeed, I think we may one day recognise that 2011 was the 1989 of the 1968. That is, the point where it became obvious that there was no going back, one had to overcome this melancholic attachment to either 1917 or 1968, which means that one had to stop thinking in binary terms. 

The 2011 generation, or at least most of those who have remained active since 2011, has proved itself to be a lot more flexible organisationally, a lot less binary, a lot less stuck in “you have to be either vertical or horizontal, and you must admit only these organisational forms, but never those”. They are more pragmatic in their relation to institutions, alliances, and to electoral politics.

This is one of the points that I try to argue in this book, but it’s also something that I think has become clear to a lot of people who’ve been through the political ups and downs of the last decade, even some of those who initially thought they were the first in history to be going through all of this. I believe that a huge portion of this political generation that coalesced around 2011 has come to recognise that we’ve reached a limit, that there was so much we could do with the organisational thinking that we had, and this shift has been verified in practice. The 2011 generation, or at least most of those who have remained active since 2011, has proved itself to be a lot more flexible organisationally, a lot less binary, a lot less stuck in “you have to be either vertical or horizontal, and you must admit only these and these organisational forms, but never those”. They are more pragmatic in their relation to institutions, alliances, electoral politics etc. So another goal I had when I started writing was to provide a theory of organisation that was adequate to this moment, that could both draw a balance sheet of the experiences of the last decade and do justice to the collective learning that has happened in the meantime. The way to do it, I thought, was to start by undermining binary thinking, showing that the boundary between vertical and horizontal was a lot less clear-cut than people often thought.

And recognising that there’s initiative and centralisation in all action, it’s the degree in each case that matters; and saying to the horizontalists, there’s still centralisation in your work, it’s just a matter of degree, and the question is how to pragmatically balance those contradictory demands, how much participation comes with whatever authority or verticalism are needed within your practice, and so on.

Exactly. And the same thing we’re saying about the vertical/horizontal opposition, we could say about the opposition between organisation and spontaneity. I’ve already seen someone on Twitter responding to an interview I gave to a podcast saying, “well, this guy is all about organisation, he doesn’t seem to understand the point of spontaneity”. I’d hate it if people understood that this was what I was saying, because what I’m saying is not that we have to prefer organisation over spontaneity, but rather that all the things that people call ‘spontaneous’ are in fact things that can be described as being organised in their own way. The problem lies in people’s concept of organisation, which is too narrow and tends to involve all sorts of unspoken assumptions. I want to show that organisation is a much broader, more capacious phenomenon than people usually allow for, which is why the first step for me was to redefine the concept. Anyone who doesn’t pay attention to that, and assumes that when I talk about organisation I mean the same thing that they usually associate with this word, will probably misunderstand what I’m trying to do. 

It’s when movements are born – and a movement that’s still alive and developing is in a sense going through new births, bigger or smaller, all the time – that you can really see the point of indistinction that exists between spontaneity and organisation. Because spontaneity can only spread and produce effects the moment it becomes organised in some way or another, or the moment it starts taking on an organised form, however informal and fragile that may be. I don’t mean that “if you want to do something right, you have to get organised”, but something deeper than that: if we can identify a ‘spontaneous’ tendency as existing at all, it is because it has already started to acquire some degree of organisational consistency. It’s not just a desire in someone’s unconscious or a dream in someone’s head, but some kind of nascent coordination among people that exists publicly in the world. On the other hand, the only reason why there is something that starts becoming organised is because there was already a tendency in that direction, a tendency whose emergence you could describe as being spontaneous. The way an initiative that emerges somewhere can communicate itself to others is in itself an organising process, a process that produces organisation around the new direction that this initiative introduced; it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. In short: spontaneity can only produce effects because it starts taking an organised form, but organisation only exists because there was a spontaneous movement in some direction. 

Again, then, it’s never a question of choosing between organisation and spontaneity, in the same way that it’s not a question of choosing between vertical and horizontal: it’s a matter of degrees, how much organisation something needs in order to survive and thrive, and how much might just kill it. And at the same time, it’s a matter of recognising that organisations of all kinds, and individuals acting politically, whether they belong to organisations or not – in short, political action as a whole always exists within an ecology of different organisational forms, practices and initiatives that relate to one another. 

So you could say that in a sense the book does agree with the diagnosis of an ‘end of horizontalism’, provided we understand ‘horizontalism’ as being something different from ‘horizontality’. By ‘horizontality’, I mean the absolutely necessary and perfectly legitimate demand for a maximum of reciprocity in relations among people, so that no-one is coerced, deceived, or manipulated. That’s obviously a fundamental demand for any kind of emancipatory project, although it’s one that has to be applied in practical contexts where all sorts of other considerations apply. ‘Horizontalism’, on the other hand, I define as the belief that an absolute levelling of all power differentials between people is both possible and necessary, and that it is the ultimate goal of politics, to which everything else must be subordinated. So, if you can’t create a general assembly in which thousands of people are exactly on the same footing at all times, then you might as well not even start, because you’re already on the road to the gulag. I could agree that we’re seeing the end of horizontalism if we understand the end of horizontalism as not meaning a return to verticalism, or to a vertical kind of politics, but the overcoming of the opposition between vertical and horizontal, which also depends on us abandoning this one- sided, blown-out-of-proportion reification of horizontality that is horizontalism.

Without fully rejecting either the vertical or the horizontal, you propose ‘distributed’ organisation as a way of retaining different capacities and tactics that can act at certain strategic points. Or more concretely, that “successful processes of social change are never wholly centralised or dispersed, they are always distributed.” Can you define ‘distributed’ organisation and suggest what movements present an example of this during historical or recent events?

The first way in which I use this concept of the ‘distributed’ in the book is as a way to mediate or mitigate the opposition not between the vertical and the horizontal, but between what I call aggregate and collective action. By aggregate action, what I mean is there are kinds of social changes that happen mostly or primarily through transformations in individual behaviour, in social customs, etc., the perfect example of which would be the sexual revolution. That has happened, and continues to happen over time, in a way that wasn’t directed or decided by anyone in particularly, but merely the outcome of an accumulation of changes in individual behaviour, attitudes, habits, and so on. Or at least that describes one aspect of it, the way in which it is distinct from traditional political upheavals like the Russian or the Chinese revolutions. It wouldn’t in fact be true to describe the sexual revolution as being only that, because these minute transformations in individual behaviour and customs at several different times also ran up against pushback, or legal and political limits, which demanded a different kind of action which is properly understood as collective, that is, what happens when people decide to come together with the purpose of pursuing a particular goal. These examples from the sexual revolution, and you could also say the women's liberation or the gay liberation movements, actually demonstrate quite nicely that any movement is always a combination of aggregate and collective action. 

Even those movements that we retrospectively understand as having been these huge monoliths of centralised collective action, in which you had the party, the unions, a clearly defined leadership which everyone follows, they were never as simple as that. If we take, say, the Russian Revolution, at several different times it wasn't necessarily clear to any of the people who were actually involved in it who was in charge, who was running the show. Sure, it would become increasingly centralised as time went by, as if endlessly approximating an ideal point of maximum centralisation that can never really be attained. But this notion that back in the day there was total unity of purpose, everyone was pulling in the same direction, there was a single unbroken chain of command running from top to bottom and whatever the movement decided to do was done and so on, that’s another fantasy created after the fact, a nostalgia generated by the loss of the great mass organisations of the 20th century and the experience of defeat. The point of this concept of the ‘distributed’ as a term that mediates collective and aggregate action is precisely that movement ecologies always combine more organised and less organised elements, or more densely organised and more sparsely organised elements – regions that tend more towards aggregate or collective action at different times. What changes from movement to movement, and at different stages in the history of the same movement, is how these two tendencies combine; if the movement tends more towards collective or aggregate action, or is more centralised or decentralised. Social change always depends on both things, though.

Rodrigo Nunes is a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), Brazil. He is the author of two books and several articles, as well as an organiser and popular educator.

Issue 35, Autumn 2021
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