In convening a forum on power and prefiguration this past month for the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, I have had the opportunity to engage in a lot of deep and clarifying discussions—with readers and with the forum’s seven other authors. There is no way around the ambiguity of the phrase prefigurative politics and the fact that, as its usage has increased—and as it has become a buzzword within some contemporary social movements—the people who have come to use or identify with it now often intend divergent meanings. Is it accurate or useful, then, to interpret the phrase as I did in my article: “as a claim to replace strategic politics altogether?” I have debated this question for some time, in my own head and with comrades. Essentially, my choice was between interpreting prefigurative politics as either (A) an assertion that political contestation is unnecessary or obsolete—which I did—or (B) allowing a more ambiguous interpretation that references some form or other of ‘being the change you want to see in the world.’
Even though I went with the first option, it is worth unpacking the second interpretation of prefigurative politics. What are these prefigurative forms? Are there different kinds? I see at least four distinct concepts that the single term prefigurative politics sometimes references:
- participatory and horizontal organizational and decision-making processes: for some people this just means less hierarchy and greater levels of member input in decision-making; for others it means a very specific form of consensus decision-making (distinct from majority rules) and/or an ethic of ‘leaderlessness.’
- non-capitalist economic institutions: sometimes called parallel institutions or counter-institutions. Examples include collective workplaces without bosses, housing cooperatives, land trusts — shared projects that provide some kind of material benefit for participants, or even for the larger society.
- anti-oppressive group behavioral norms: this is about recognizing how we are socialized into many social systems of oppression (e.g., white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism) and attempting to establish less oppressive, more liberatory practices in our groups as we work for social justice.
- dramaturgical foreshadowing: here we dramatically express ‘the world as it could be’ in our public-facing actions. For example, blacks and whites integrating a lunch counter in the south foreshadows or ‘prefigures’ the world that action participants were working towards. In this case, the prefigurative elements of the action are part of a communications strategy aimed at morally moving broader audiences.
In case you missed it, the Berkeley Journal of Sociology relaunched on October 1st. I’m part of the collective of Berkeley sociology grad students who worked this past year to re-imagine the BJS’s mission, which ultimately led to the launch of a really great new website: berkeleyjournal.org — check it out! The idea is to publish articles that critically engage with unfolding events, political struggles, cultural trends, and so on — through a sociological lens. Our new tagline: “The point, after all, is to change the world.” I’m currently sharing the managing editor position with my friend and colleague Martin Eiermann.
I also have an article in the new print issue of the BJS. My article, “Can Prefigurative Politics Replace Political Strategy?” is part of a forum on ‘Power & Prefiguration.’ Here’s a teaser figure from my article:
You can read the whole article online here, the rest of the forum here, or you can download a PDF of the print version of the forum here (It shows off the great layout of our new print issue).
Finally, check back at berkeleyjournal.org on November 3rd for the second installment of articles in the Power & Prefiguration forum. And keep checking back weekly for new content. Maybe you’ll even decide to submit something yourself?
Strategic logic falls on deaf ears; upon ears that have heard enough strategic logics. From birth through youth, daily we are barraged with appeals to buy sugar cereal, candy, toys, and the latest gadgets. And before long we learn the essence of an elaborate manipulative logic whose central goals are private profit and power. We are repulsed by a logic that penetrates and colonizes most everything it touches, leaving injustice and alienation everywhere in its wake. Against this logic we attempt to scrap together art and poetry and, most fundamentally, community. We build a scrappy little alternative clubhouse near the perimeter of the always advancing logics of capitalism and bureaucracy. Our little clubhouse sometimes serves as a makeshift base of operations for our scrimmages with the authorities. Occasionally when the scrimmages heat up, the authorities will raid or burn down our meager fortifications. But we always rebuild. For the most part we are permitted to keep our little clubhouse. Defending it—its culture and meanings and rhetoric and symbols—becomes our prize.
And somewhere along the way we seem to have lost faith in the possibility of really winning against these logics and systems in the world beyond our little clubhouse; the possibility of gaining ground again in the terrain of society. The clubhouse becomes our starting place—the source of all of our reference points—and society is written off as a lost cause. And the logic of strategy? We don’t want to hear the logic of strategy in our clubhouse. This is a liberated, prefigurative and post-political space. We don’t need strategy or organization or leadership or money in our clubhouse. All those things remind us of the insidious logics against which we define ourselves and our projects.
Amongst other things it [the Paris proletariat] throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, cooperative banks and workers’ associations, hence into a movement renouncing an overthrow of the old world by means of its own great resources, and instead seeks to attain its salvation behind society’s back, privately, within its own limited conditions of existence, and hence necessarily coming to naught. It seems unable to rediscover revolutionary prowess or to renew its energy from fresh alliances… [emphasis in the original]
–Marx Later Political Writings (p.39)
It seems to me that in describing the feeble Paris proletariat, Marx was also critiquing a pattern wherein would-be political actors opt to build their own alternative projects from scratch instead of claiming and contesting existing structures, resources, social spaces, and cultures. That is to say they opt out of politics in favor of something far smaller; something that is consequential only to its self-selecting participants, and which can usually be ignored—perhaps not even noticed—by the rest of society and the existing power structures.
It is interesting to me that he names “cooperative banks and workers associations” specifically. I can imagine political potentials—not just cloistered alternatives—in such organizational forms.
This reminds me of some of the radical buzz today about “prefigurative politics” — a concept that I find useful through a strategic communications lens in the context of political struggle, but which is far too often treated as an article of faith; as if the prefigurative act will magically, by itself, without a larger strategic framework, bring about the new society. The allure of such projects can be self-expressive to the point of self-indulgence. It is fueled by a purism that seeks to avoid messes; a feeble longing to construct a more controllable, less contaminated, albeit miniaturized, microcosm of one’s Utopian vision.
Also published in Occupy! #5. Occupy! is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.
In late October of last year my cousin came down to Liberty Square, then home of a thriving Occupy Wall Street, to meet me for a drink. He arrived early so he could check things out for himself. I was eager to hear his impressions.
“What stood out to me,” he told me at a bar around the corner, “was how you all are recreating society—or creating a microcosm of society. It’s all there: a kitchen, a medical tent, a security force, a public library, and a whole alternative decision-making structure. It’s fascinating!”
Much has been made about the prefigurative aspects of Occupy Wall Street and the occupy encampments across the country, when they existed. The camps, for example, served as more than just a protest, more than just a tactic. Participants consciously prefigured the kind of society that they were striving to build. It was indeed a compelling moment for my cousin—or for any stranger—to witness. In the two months of the physical occupation of Liberty Square, newcomers like him could walk in off the street and join our world—could even speak up during a General Assembly meeting if they felt so moved. Everyone’s participation was welcomed. A modified consensus decision-making process is used in the General Assembly and in working group meetings so that decisions have to take into account everyone’s input and ideas, thus prefiguring a kind of direct democracy lacking in the wider world, particularly in the realm of mainstream politics.
“It’s kind of utopian,” my cousin suggested.
“I hope not!” I replied. Continue reading