HorizontalismCory Panshin on February 6, 2011
I learned a new word this week — “horizontalism.”
I’ve actually run into it twice now, both times in the context of the Egyptian protests. The first use I spotted was from a poster in the anarchism forum at reddit, who wrote:
I finally heard on the Al Jazeera stream an answer from a real protester, instead of a talking head, to the question they keep flound[er]ing over, “Don’t the protesters need a leader?” — the answer finally came from a blogger who has been in the square, “the people are self organized, there’s no need for a leader to tell them what to do…people are feeding each other, cleaning the square, we all have the same demands, there’s no need for any leaders to tell us what to do”. …
People of reddit, and the anarchism subreddit specifically, I call on you to spread the anti-authoritarian / horizontalist analysis of what’s happening, the reality on the ground is different than how the media, yes even Al Jazeera, is playing it. The ‘international community’ is waiting to figure out who the new authoritarians they can interface with will be… but what is happening on the ground is a rejection of that failed model.
That post really jumped out at me because it sounded so much like what I’ve been saying here about the difference between the failing democracy vision, with its continuing reliance on hierarchical authority, and the completely self-organizing multiculturalism vision.
Then I saw the term used again by a blogger at BBC News, who commented, “Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.”
A little googling indicated that the term “horizontalidad” originated in Argentina, where new, non-hierarchical forms of social organization have been taking hold over the last decade. But it isn’t the source of the concept that interests me at the moment so much as its sudden dissemination as an explanation of what is happening right now.
Almost exactly a year ago, I did an entry titled “When the Vertical World Turns Horizontal,” in which I proposed that 1965 was the point at which a holistic “sense of the universe as an all-embracing whole” had first bubbled up to the surface of the cultural consciousness. I suggested that the Bob Dylan lyric, “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones,” referred to that dawning awareness and speculated that another such moment was now imminent — but this time involving the multiculturalism vision.
Right now, at the start of 2010, we’re coming close to the equivalent of that “Mr. Jones” moment, but we’re not quite there. Amazing things are about to happen, there is a sense of almost intolerable imminence — but they haven’t happened yet. And this time, of course, the primary vision will be not chaos but holism, which is in the process of moving away from an alignment with the failed democracy vision — and its model of progress through political reform — and into an alignment with the next social vision.
I’ve been referring to that emerging vision as “multiculturalism,” but I don’t know if it’s really the proper term. Relying on it may be as partial and one-sided as it would have been to think of holism in 1964 as “the ecology vision.” But multiculturalism is the aspect of the new vision that is most visible at the moment, so it’s the name I’ll be using until something better comes along.
I think we’ve finally reached that moment — and to everyone’s amazement, the center of it is not any Western nation but rather Egypt, where the protesters have been using Facebook and Twitter to create a revolution that combines the hivemind of the holism vision with the non-hierarchical organization typical of the multiculturalism vision.
It’s even possible that “horizontalism” may turn out to be the better name that I was searching for a year ago — though I’m not going to jump into using it until the term becomes better established. But meanwhile, there are a number of things I’m going to be following closely.
One is the way in which formerly marginal countries like Egypt and Argentina are now at the center of leading edge developments. This isn’t altogether surprising, since successful societies typically become attached to the visions associated with their success and find it difficult to let go of them and move on. But it does offer the possibility of further innovations coming from unlikely directions.
A second is the question of how the United States — which currently seems prepared to go down with the ship rather than abandon the discredited democracy-and-chaos partnership — will react to the coming changes. As I wrote last August:
“The transition will not be easy or painless. Some of the more flexible institutions of democracy will make the leap to a new way of operating, but others will dig in and grow ever more repressive as the democracy vision itself collapses. The resulting conflict will be one of the defining features of the next decade — and will not be fully settled for several decades more.”
And the third has to do with the interaction between the social implications of horizontalism and similar developments in our understanding of the natural world.
In the same entry where I proposed that we were approaching a “Mr. Jones moment,” I illustrated what I saw as a “radical new way of perceiving our place in the universe” by pointing to a recent article describing “horizontal gene transfer – in which organisms acquire genetic material ‘horizontally’ from other organisms around them, rather than vertically from their parents or ancestors.”
I noted at the time that the studies referred to in the article had focused on microbes, and I suggested that “the question of whether horizontal evolution is still at work in multicelled organisms such as ourselves — and whether all life on earth truly does comprise one single organism — has yet to be worked out.”
That question has now been answered, at least in part, by an article which appeared just yesterday on “jumping gene clusters.”
Rokas and Slot discovered that millions of years ago, a cluster of 23 genes jumped from one strain of mold commonly found on starchy foods like bread and potatoes, Aspergillus, to another strain of mold that lives in herbivore dung and specializes in breaking down plant fibers, Podospora.
The findings came as a major surprise, as there are only a handful of cases in recent evolutionary history where this type of gene transfer between organisms, known as horizontal gene transfer, has been reported in complex cells like those found in plants, animals and fungi.
“Because most people didn’t believe that such large gene clusters could be transferred horizontally, they haven’t looked for them and they haven’t been found,” Rokas said. …
Though researchers now generally agree that horizontal gene transfer is relatively common among simple organisms like bacteria, they have continued to assume that it remained relatively rare among complex organisms like plants and animals.
“The thinking has been that there is very little horizontal gene transfer among plants and animals except for a few big, ancient events and maybe the occasional transfer of a single gene here or there,” Slot said. “Our discovery suggests that the horizontal transfer of gene clusters may have been a big player not only in the evolution of bacteria but also in more complex organisms.”
The message of horizontalism appears to be one that we as a species are currently broadcasting very, very loudly in hopes of getting our own attention — perhaps even loudly enough for the United States to hear and heed it. I would certainly like to think so, because, as I wrote in conclusion a year ago, “Nothing at all can change until even the most clueless ‘Mr. Jones’ among us finally gets the message and joins the dance.”
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