Prefigurative Politics
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Prefigurative Politics

Building Tomorrow Today

Paul Raekstad, Sofa Saio Gradin

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eBook - ePub

Prefigurative Politics

Building Tomorrow Today

Paul Raekstad, Sofa Saio Gradin

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Über dieses Buch

Many of us wonder what we could possibly do to end oppression, exploitation, and injustice. People have studied revolutions and protest movements for centuries, but few have focused on prefigurative politics, the idea of 'building the new society within the shell of the old'.

Fed up with capitalism? Get organised and build the institutions of the future in radical unions and local communities. Tired of politicians stalling on climate change? Set up an alternative energy collective. Ready to smash racism and the patriarchy? Root them out in all areas of our lives, not just in 'high politics'.

This is the first book dedicated to prefigurative politics, explaining its history and examining the various debates surrounding it. How can collective decision-making be inclusive? In what ways are movements intersectional? Can prefigurative organisations scale up? It is a must-read for students of radical politics, anarchism, and social movements, as well as activists and concerned citizens everywhere.

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Ours is an age of crisis and struggle. After the 2008 financial crisis, the banks were bailed out while the people were sold out. Wealth and power are controlled by a tiny minority. The media, telling us things are OK, are in the hands of a tiny oligarchy serving the needs of their corporate advertisers. Real wages are falling while the richest of the world line their pockets. Unemployment and precarity rise along with the misery and desperation they cause. Most people can’t even get an education without consigning themselves to a lifetime of debt. Far right movements aren’t just organising, they’re getting presidents elected to the applause of their corporate backers. Climate change is advancing at breakneck speed, and an estimated 150–200 species go extinct every 24 hours. Yet some people wonder why so many are rejecting capitalism…
At the same time, we’re seeing the rebirth and rise of radical movements fighting for a better tomorrow. The best description that many liberal pundits and academics – from supporters of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid to philosophers and sociologists – can come up with when trying to make sense of these movements is ‘resistance’. In fact, today’s social movements go far beyond mere ‘resistance’. ‘Resistance’ implies taking for granted the basic institutions that have led to our present problems. It offers no real alternative to the status quo. It implies a servile expression of the vain hope that making a fuss will convince the powers-that-be to go back to the way things were – to stop the current wave of welfare cuts and deregulation and return to the so-called golden age of welfare capitalism of the 1960s and ’70s. But that’s what gave us what we have now. The way things were was also deeply unfree, unequal, and undemocratic. The way things were was built on the back of worldwide imperial and colonial tyranny. The way things were also had major inequalities between rich and poor, a majority of the world impoverished and powerless, rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and more. That’s not something we should hope to get back to.
Our societies don’t need resistance; they need reconstruction.1 This is a book about what that can and should be like.
From a longer-term perspective, things look a lot more hopeful. In the past hundred years alone, radical social movements have won civil rights for people of colour, women’s rights, wage increases, and so much more. They have dramatically expanded basic rights and freedoms – such as freedoms of speech, press, conviction, and association. They won us the ten- and eight-hour working days, weekends, unemployment benefits, and sick leave. These achievements were the victories of activists and organisers who struggled against elite interests; people with jobs, kids, disabilities, caring duties, facing hate crime, and without many resources, taking on systemic hierarchies and exploitation – and winning. Just because that previous wave of movements has been receding doesn’t mean that the tide isn’t still coming in.
Every present grows from the struggles of the past, as every future will grow from the struggles of the present. Just like the things we enjoy now were won by the movements of yesteryear, it’s the movements of today that will give us a better tomorrow. We have recently seen a new wave of social movements from the Zapatistas, the Global Justice Movement, Occupy, the Movement of the Squares, the Indignados, and the Revolution in Rojava, to growing struggles around antiracism such as Black Lives Matter and anti-fascism, and a growth in radical unionism, often combining workplace and community organising. Despite their many different backgrounds and inspirations, these movements show a remarkable convergence. A major shift in how people are organising themselves and thinking about their lives, societies, and ways of mobilising appears to be taking place, which is not well understood or talked about as much as it should be.
Having learned much from both the practical experiences and the theoretical advances of the past hundred years, the politics these movements are developing converge on some important points. They have a better understanding of how power and social structures work and often emphasise non-hierarchical organising – having learned from the failures of more authoritarian approaches. They have learned as feminists and antiracists that class is not the only hierarchy worth addressing, and so tend to synthesise struggles focusing on class, gender, race, sexuality, and more, expressing a connected commitment to intersectionality. And they tend to show a preference for direct action. While few of these ideas are new, they are growing in influence and have given us better tools than ever with which to take on the forces of domination, oppression, and exploitation. These movements also tend to share a commitment to planting the seeds of the society of the future in the soil of today’s – the idea that today is called prefigurative politics.
Prefigurative politics has generated a lot of recent debate. Some activists and commentators are exceedingly positive, seeing prefigurative strategies as the solution to all of our problems. Others, equally mistaken, greet prefigurative politics with scepticism and scorn, implying it is naive and unable to seriously challenge existing powers. Despite the fact that prefigurativism frequently turns up in discussions among both theorists and activists, neither the idea of prefigurative politics nor the arguments for and against it are well-understood. This book seeks to remedy that.
After a brief historical overview, the book sets out the understanding of human beings and society that has informed prefigurative ideas for the past century and a half. Emphasising the importance of praxis, we argue that developing the right qualities through non-hierarchical formal organisations is necessary for reaching a free, equal, and democratic society. Formal organisational structures are not everything, however. As feminists, antiracists, and others have long pointed out, the personal is political. The political theories of revolutionary leaders are shaped by their personal experiences, even when they have professed themselves to be strictly scientific and objective. That is why we have to understand how different and intersecting social structures shape our experiences of the world in order to be able to change it. We show how this can work using practical examples. Finally, we look at the contested relationship between prefigurative politics and state power and at some common misconceptions and criticisms of prefigurative politics.

(a) Prefigurative Politics Before It Was Named

Since we emphasise the importance of praxis, there is no better way to begin to understand prefigurative politics than to look at some practical examples. People have been practising prefigurative politics for far longer than the term itself has existed. Prefigurative politics is today particularly closely associated with certain strands of socialism, which we will look at in Chapter 2. It was to the politics of these movements that the term ‘prefigurative politics’ in its current sense was first applied in the 1970s. The practice of prefigurative politics, however, is likely as old as politics itself. To see why, we’ll take a brief look at some examples of prefigurative politics that didn’t employ the term.
In fact, we would argue that some of the most significant political movements of the last century have used prefigurative strategies, even if they didn’t speak of them in those terms. One important example is the struggle against colonial occupation, exploitation, and racism. From the Pan-African movement in the Caribbean, North America, Africa and Europe, to the Indian independence movement, activists of the global South have run huge and successful projects to undo colonialism, often using prefigurative tactics. To name just a few examples, Pan-Africanist organisations such as UNIA (the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in 1914 by the Jamaican-born organiser Marcus Garvey) have supported Black-owned businesses as a way for Black populations to become economically independent of white oppressors. Though they didn’t use the term prefigurative, UNIA started implementing a society in which Black people had financial independence directly, by providing financial support to Black-owned ‘cooperative grocery stores, restaurants, laundries, garment factories, dress shops’ (Vincent 1972: 102, cited in Marshall 2018) and much more, and by encouraging Black people to Buy Black. The legacy of this approach lives on today. For example, Black Lives Matter in the US runs a website helping people to locate their nearest Black-owned small businesses as a way to help provide jobs and economic security for Black people as an alternative to systemic marginalisation ( In the 1920s, UNIA had such massive economic clout that it was able to address even the supply chains and transportation systems that Black businesses were reliant on, creating its own transatlantic shipping company, the Black Star Line, which operated three ships carrying cargo and passengers between the US, the Caribbean, Central America and the African continent.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Indian liberation activists struggled against the long-standing and violent British colonial occupation by promoting prefigurative independence projects. The Swaraj (‘self-rule’) movement led by Mahatma Gandhi is most famous for this. Gandhi’s alleged quote ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world’ (which was most likely not uttered by Gandhi at all, see John 2011) has become something of a slogan of prefigurativism today. While Gandhi is not a good example of prefigurativism for several reasons,2 many other Indian liberation activists have supported the creation of egalitarian schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods in resistance to colonial white supremacy and dispossession of indigenous Indians (Ramnath 2011: 177–87). For instance, Rabindranath Tagore was an independence activist who resisted the colonialism, racism and discrimination of the British Imperial education system in India by founding a college in Santiniketan in West Bengal. The college admitted indigenous Bengalis, taught them in their native language, offered generalist rather than specialist education, and involved students in some of its decision-making – none of which were done in British colonial colleges. Tagore also founded a nearby agricultural school (Sriniketan), which later grew into a whole village that provided both jobs and education for people who had otherwise been excluded from the British education system (Bhattacharya 2014: 5).
From the 1960s onwards, US- and Europe-based liberation movements were often influenced by these practices. The Black Panther Party is one oft-mentioned example, and rightly so. They ran a series of Community Programmes in the 1960s and ’70s, the most famous being the large and successful breakfast programme, which at its high point provided free cooked breakfasts for 10,000 children every morning before school across several cities (Bloom and Martin 2013: ch. 7). While the kids ate their breakfasts cooked by volunteers using ingredients that local supermarkets had been persuaded to donate, the Panthers gave Black History lessons and read out Party messages. These breakfasts were a preview of the kind of society the Panthers were fighting for: a communist society where nobody went hungry, where Black people’s history was not forgotten or marginalised, and where neighbours came together to help each other and socialise, for free. Other Community Programmes included free health clinics, free food and clothing programmes, and a sickle cell anaemia research project. These implemented parts of the vision set out in the Panthers’ ten-point programme: ‘We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society … We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace’ (Black Panther Party 1966).
There were many sides to the Panthers’ strategy, not all of them prefigurative – from patrolling the streets in resistance to police brutality, to educational projects, protests and running for office in local elections. While their Community Programmes are often cited as a quintessential example of prefigurative activism, the Panthers were also an explicitly vanguardist organisation – a term drawn from Marxist-Leninism that often implies a more capable elite leading the movement from above (Clemons and Jones 2001: 29). We should also point out that Huey Newton and other Party leaders were heavily influenced by Maoism, which differs on a number of points from the strands of socialism that are more commonly associated with prefigurative politics (Newton 1974), notably on questions of taking existing state power and the value of vangu...