Review "They Can't Represent Us" - Labor Studies Journal

Sitrin, Marina, and Dario Azzellini. They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy. London and New York: Verso Books, 2014. 250 pp. $16.95 (paper).
Reviewed by: Mark Nowak, Manhattanville College, Purchase, NY, USA

For labor historians and labor educators, the concept of the factory occupation isn’t entirely novel. From the Flint sit-down strike at General Motors in 1936-37 to the occupations of Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008, workers have occasionally employed the technique to productive ends. Yet in the wake of Zuccotti Park, Tahrir Square, and the heightened use of occupation in political arenas around the world, a fresh and in-depth examination of this strategy would be most useful for the labor education classroom. This is precisely what Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini’s book
They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy provides.

Sitrin has written on these subjects before. Her first book, Horizontalism: Voices of
Popular Power in Argentina (2006), was one of the first detailed oral histories of Argentina’s recuperated factory movement (know to many via Naomi Klein’s documentary film The Take). Her 2012 volume expanded upon the earlier work, applying a  more comprehensive theoretical framework to the worker-run Argentine workplaces. They Can’t Represent Us! brings together the unique strengths of these previous books—in-depth interviews and oral histories, theoretical framework, and new vocabularies of the global social movements—into one comprehensive and up-to-date text that is sure to invigorate conversations in the labor education classroom.

In the introduction and first two chapters—“Grounding the ‘New’ Globally” and “It Is About Democracy”—Sitrin and Azzellini trace the new movements for popular power from ancient Athens to contemporary precursors such as the Zapatistas and Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement. They then introduce readers to an invigorating new vocabulary in which “today’s movements are finding or creating places where the new meets the old” (p. 15): horizontalidad (horizontalism), poder popular (popular power),
assemblies and encuentros, autogestión (self-administration), autonomy, and more. Following these first chapters, Sitrin and Azzellini dedicate one chapter each to the reinvention of democratic practices in Greece, Spain, the United States (Occupy), Argentina, and Venezuela. In the chapter on Greece, for example, readers learn about Solidarity Social Practice Clinic, which grew out of a hunger strike by 300 immigrant workers. In an excerpt from the authors’ interviews, we hear from Debbie, a volunteer at the clinic:

We are self-organized and operate in a horizontal way. We have a general assembly where everyone—no matter whether it is a medical practitioner, a secretary, or a technical engineer—is equal in the decision-making. ... We show [the patients] the way they can get involved, whether it is in cleaning, or maybe you are an electrician. ... We are not trying to help the state out in this time of crisis. We are trying to show a different path by being quite autonomous in the way we operate. (p. 81)

Overall, They Can’t Represent Us! is an energizing and well-researched compendium of rank-and-file social movement participants from new “laboratories for democracy” on three continents. Though educators will be disappointed that no index was included for cross-referencing new concepts and vocabulary across the book, the compelling first-person narratives and wealth of transnational comparative material from these generative struggles for participatory democracy will have much to teach students in the labor education classroom.