more notes on ‘prefigurative politics’

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:

  1. 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.’
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Prefigurative politics can reference any one or a combination of the above. I am in favor of engaging with all of the elements of this interpretation of “prefigurative politics”—at least on some level—but I am nonetheless wary of the term itself. One important reason that I ultimately went with the first more limiting interpretation in constructing an ideal type of prefigurative politics is because this is the essence of what I have encountered the most, in practice, by people who use the phrase most emphatically—who explicitly espouse “prefigurative politics” as such. Not everyone, to be sure, and that is why I remain ambivalent about this choice. However, my choice is not based only on what I view to be the predominant usage of the phrase. The two words, put together, themselves can suggest such an interpretation; the “politics” part of the term infers an alternative or replacement to logics of power and contestation generally. Such an assertion is corroborated by another phrase that was frequently heard—intended positively—at Occupy: post-political. If some advocates of prefigurative politics conceptualize it in a less totalizing way than I have presented it, then my critique may not apply to their conceptions. Fine. However, this is not my own novel interpretation of the phrase; I am hardly going out on a limb. Among prefigurative politics’ most vocal and theoretically developed contemporary proponents, Manuel Castells, Richard J. F. Day, and David Graber seem to concur with my claim that it aims to replace—in Day’s words, to “render redundant”—strategic politics, especially if the latter is defined in terms of hegemonic contestation. These theorists might even agree with me on the essentials of the term’s definition; where we would disagree is on the question of whether such a concept could ever amount to anything other than a low plateau.

P.S. The second half of the BJS forum on power and prefiguration will be posted at on Monday, November 3rd.

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