An exploration of prefigurative politics including definitions, key concepts, examples, and challenges.
There are a multiple frameworks for understanding how different forms of activism complement each other in their collective impact. The goal of this article is to highlight those forms of activism that focus on living in the present in ways that help to prefigure aspects of potential better futures. Sometimes described as a prefigurative politics, these forms of activism experiment with ways of living as if specific aspects of an envisioned collective future are already possible. While limited by those aspects of futures we can conjure from the constraints of the present, these experiments each open-up the space of possibilities for further experimentation to build upon.
One of the distinctive features of prefigurative practices are the intentional approaches to connecting the means and ends of everyday actions. Through collective attempts to change the present they construct structures that anticipate a more just future. For instance, these experiments often prioritise cultivating more respectful relationships and just modes of collective decision-making as the foundations for further actions. At the same time, prefigurative practices maintain close connections with other forms of activism, including disruptive strategies, targeted campaigns, community organising, civil resistance tactics, and movements supporting cultural resistance. As such, prefigurative experiments often grow out of campaigning and community organising practices and can, in turn, provide support to those involved in disruptive and resistance tactics.
…prefigurative experiments: trying to contribute to projects and forms of life where we are able to live and relate differently with others, here and now, and supporting others doing the same. (carla bergman and Nick Montgomery, 2017)
Prefigurativism is a way of showing what a world without the tyranny of the present might look like. It is a way of finding hope (but not escapism!) in the realms of possibility. (Adrian Kreutz, 2020)
Prefiguration is a present embodiment of new social relations, allowing participants to try new decision-making structures that may lead to what can be considered possible futures. (Dosun Ko, et al. 2022).
Prefigurative politics is ‘the deliberate experimental implementation of desired future social relations and practices in the here-and-now’ (Boggs,1977) (Paul Raekstad and Sofa Saio Gradin, 2020)
The concept of prefigurative politics is useful for describing and analysing such experimental practices. However, attempts to articulate concise definitions of this term can obscure the many valuable accounts of how modelling aspects of desired futures today can create the seeds from which potential better futures might be cultivated. In the following, I instead aim to highlight the value of recognising the range of present practices that, regardless of the terms used, contribute to opening up the space of possibilities from within which we can co-create better futures.
It may well be the case that ‘another world is possible’ in the future only if growing numbers of people begin living in another world in the present moment. (John P. Clark, 2022)
What we need right now is an ability to recognise future visions with transformative potential but that are still in seed form. The future we need could be sprouting all around us, unseen: we need to be able to spot the future we want in unassuming little slivers, experiments, prototypes or what could be. (Jess Scully, 2020)
It wasn’t always this, and it won’t always be this… How can I find the most liberated position in the current reality? ( adrianne marie brown, Possibilities Podcast S3E5, 2019).
In the next section I’ll outline three of the foundational concepts that persist across varied accounts of prefigurative practices. I’ll then offer a short list of examples that, together, help to illustrate the range of ways in which experiments in how we live within our current constraints can open up space for additional possibilities in the future. Following this, I introduce some of the challenges these types of experiments can face and the various ways these challenges are being navigated by those involved in prefigurative practices. The final section offers a selection of further resources from which to start exploring prefigurative practices in more detail.
Three foundational concepts are worth highlighting from across the varied accounts of prefigurative practices:
- a commitment to aligning the means by which we enact change and the ends we hope to see as an outcome of our actions;
- a belief in the power of grass-roots experiments to transform the broader society; and
- an appreciation of the value of cultivating multiple views on what better futures are possible.
The commitment to aligning means with ends reflects a belief that the ends we reach emerge through the organisations, the social relations, and institutions that we build as a means of reaching those ends.
The term prefigurative politics refers to a political orientation based on the premise that the ends a social movement achieves are fundamentally shaped by the means it employs, and that movements should therefore do their best to choose means that embody or ‘prefigure’ the kind of society they want to bring about. (Darcy Leach, Prefigurative Politics, 2013/2022)
The way that we organise, the structures we build… affect our capacity to organise and create the possibilities for building (new) structures. (The Means Are the Ends, Episode 29 Bad Faith Ultra Leftists, 2021)
Building on this principle, prefigurative practices are often small scale experiments – localised efforts that emerge out of survival tactics and/or deliberate attempts to build on lessons from previous experiments in exploring how specific elements of potential societal change can be implemented in the present.
Pasar Gratis is not only about experimenting with the production of an independent economic system. On market days, they also create spaces where people can gather, get to know each other, share stories, exchange knowledge and skills, and have fun together without having to spend money. So Pasar Gratis is not simply about creating space, it’s more about creating spaces that enable us to expand and strengthen solidarities. (Putri Permata Sari – Prefigurative Politics: Towards Climate Justice Seized On Our Own; translated into English by Fiky Dualay for Struggles for Sovereignty Blog, 2021).
Buen Vivir is experienced in the movement through horizontality, spirituality, and autonomy. These experiences are framed by the actors as pre-colonial practices that are reconstructed in the present, as they seek to decolonise capitalist modernity ‘so that there is a future’. This understanding reflects a cyclical temporality that inspires a processual, non-linear view of social change, which accompanies the indigenous women’s ‘prefigurative walking’… (Anja Habersang – Utopia, Future Imaginations and Prefigurative Politics in the Indigenous Women’s Movement in Argentina 2022).
Connecting people in the context of specific places – or strengthening the social ecology of a community – is both a strategy and an end in itself for Transition initiatives, to prepare for coming crises, to create alternatives in the present, and to work toward a “different way of living” on the planet and with one another. (Emily Hardt – In Transition: The Politics of Place-Based, Prefigurative Social Movements, 2013)
While each set of experiments may be narrow in scale or scope, they all increase the space of possibilities from which to collectively build better futures. Rather than attempting to prescribe a singular vision of the future, these experiments offer multiple avenues for exploring the different pathways opening up towards our possible futures through our everyday practices. It is through the combined impacts of these experiments that prefigurative politics has the potential to contribute to broader activist efforts to transform societal practices.
Instead of engaging with the state, prefigurative politics model or prefigure a future society at a micro level with the aim to instantiate radical social change in and through practice. In this way, activists’ future political ends are expressed through their means by creating experimental or alternative social environments in the present society. (Anton Törnberg, Prefigurative Politics and Social Change: A Typology Drawing on Transition Studies, 2021)
… a great many people and small groups are right now creating in their own lives the elements of a utopian world, and it offers a compelling vision of what the utopian world might be like if many such people where to join these elements together in a community that shaped them into an all-embracing way of life. (John P. Clark, The Impossible Community, 2022)
Examples of prefigurative experiments
While there are far too many to provide an exhaustive list, to illustrate the range of different ways in which prefigurative experiments are being implemented this section aims to highlight additional examples from a range of different contexts. These include:
- experiments in large-scale self-governance within permanently organised communities;
- experiments in carving out temporary space for new possibilities from within existing structures;
- small-scale experiments in collective approaches to resource-management;
- cultivating relationships that support system change; and
- experiments in directly solving specific social problems within specific communities.
Some larger scale prefigurative practices involve experiments in various forms of self-governance within permanently organised communities, such as:
- The Zapatistas, as described in A Beginner’s Guide to Building Better Worlds: Ideas and Inspiration from the Zapatistas and Zapatista Stories for Dreaming Another World
- The Internationalist Commune of Rojava – for some context, see Utopia and economic practice among the Kurds of Rojava by Sara Nocent, 2020
- Calafou – a cooperative collectively using 2.8 hectares of land with the aims of generating productive, technological and housing alternatives that are sustainable and respectful of the environment.
There are also community-driven and place-based experiments that help to carve out space within existing systems to create space and opportunities from which new forms of governance and economic systems might emerge, such as:
- The Aboriginal Carbon Fund (AbCF). An organisation building tools to re-centre traditional land management practices in carbon abatement and trading by creating the infrastructure indigenous-led industry.
- The Thunder Valley’s Community Development Corporation. A Lakota-owned not-for-profit entity finding ways to connect financial opportunities provided by community wealth building (CWB) approaches with traditional practices that focus on community and place.
- The ‘Forking the Government’ experiments initiated by the Sunflower Movement, vTaiwan process, and g0v (Gov Zero) community in Taiwan. For some descriptions of this approach see: Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement by Ming-sho Ho, 2019, and Taiwan’s revolutionary hackers are forking the government by Kate O’Flaherty 2018.
- The Welcome to Frome Project, described in an Upstream podcast series as aiming to explore “the barriers, possibilities and potential for moving the town’s economy from one that had been focused on blind growth to one centered on wellbeing for all.”
- NAIDOC. An organisation focused on celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that formed from, and builds on the awareness-raising activities organised by Aboriginal groups during the 1920′s.
Another form of prefigurative practice is the formation of cooperatives that experiment with collectivising specific resources and forms of production within existing communities, such as through:
- Mutual-aid and local resilience practices. For an influential example, see the Free Breakfast for Children programs, education programs, and community health clinics initiated by The Black Panthers.
- Worker-cooperatives committed to sustainable enterprise. For local examples see the Earthworker Cooperative Network, and for historical and international contexts see the Upstream Podcast’s documentary on Worker Cooperatives.
- Community-based collaborative living. For examples of different approaches to this, see the Tamara project in Portugal, the Commonground settlement on lands of the Taungurung People in Australia, and the international collection of Embassy Network houses.
Other approaches focus on building community in ways that cultivate relationships that contribute to systemic changes within society. This includes:
- Efforts to develop, implement, and share ways of creating community beyond the divisions created by punitive criminal justice systems. For examples, see the Second Life Project and other transformative justice approaches.
- Effort to build communities resilient to climate change. For some examples, see In Transition: The Politics of Place-Based, Prefigurative Social Movements by Emily Hardt, 2013
- Efforts to cultivate queer kinship practices. For some examples, see Queer Kinship: Race, Sex, Belonging, Form edited by Tyler Bradway and Elizabeth Freeman, 2022.
Similarly, many direct actions are conducted in ways that reflect aspects of the society that is hoped for in the future, including using facilitated consensus decision making practices when organising acts of resistance as this contributes to the broader goal of building a future with more equitable governance practices. While often associated with disruptive resistance tactics, such as non-violent direct action and obstructive direct action, direct actions can also form an important element of many prefigurative practices. As with other practices, the goal of such direct actions is to help create alternative futures by directly changing the present ourselves. For example, Food Not Bombs is considered a direct action as they act to directly solve the social problem of people going hungry despite food being available.
[Community-based collaborative housing] might be prescient forms demonstrating distinctive directions beyond capitalism whilst compromising in certain ways within prevailing governance and economic systems simply in order to survive. (Anitra Nelson, 2018).
Challenges for prefigurative politics
Navigating the tensions between present and future
One of the challenges for prefigurative practices is acknowledging the contradiction that “on the one hand, developing entirely liberatory social relations is never fully possible in a context of domination; on the other hand, developing such social relations is crucial to building visionary movements capable of transforming the world.” (Chris Dixon, 2014)
This contradiction is particularly noticeable in efforts to develop decision-making practices within which everyone can meaningfully participate while still living in a society that privileges a small group of people over everyone who differs from this minority in any way. For instance, studies of past prefigurative experiments show how well-meaning people often seek to change things for the better, supposedly for everyone, without the active involvement of those with less privilege than themselves. Making decisions without the full participation of members of the group(s) affected by those decisions can actually reinforce the systems of oppression they seek to dismantle – as disability activist demands such as ‘nothing about us, without us’ help remind us. Meanwhile, ensuring everyone can fully participate in prefigurative experiments requires dismantling the power differences the systems that marginalise some groups of people and privilege others.
It is partially because of the tensions this contradiction creates that prefigurative practices are positioned as experimental. Prefigurative politics are necessarily imperfect efforts at modelling potential better futures. While these experiments can create new challenges, even as they try to resolve old ones, each experiment opens-up space for further testing of alternatives to entrenched systems. Continually building upon these experiments can help to create viable alternatives to the dominant unjust systems. Along the way, the more we can genuinely incorporate a diverse range of perspectives in imagining and implementing prefigurative experiments, the closer we can get to aligning our means with our ends.
… trying to drive change on behalf of others isn’t working. In fact, it is perpetuating the very inequalities it is trying to address. Learning to work together, in active solidarity, when our experiences, insights and ideas might be very different, is hard – but it is a critical challenge of our time. (Sheila McKechnie Foundation, 2022)
The point… is not that radicals with some form of privilege should always take direction or await requests for help from those on the other side of that hierarchy. Rather, those committed to change need to be humble and learn about the ways that other people are struggling, to do what it takes to build the personal bonds on which strong social movements arise. (Andrew Cornell, 2011).
Distinguishing between types of prefigurative practices
Another important criticism is that vague uses of terms such as prefigurative politics can obscure valuable relationships between different forms of activism.
Prefiguration is a potentially powerful idea, but it has been applied to such a variety of activities that it can prevent us from clearly distinguishing between different forms of action and the value we believe they hold. (Andrew Cornell, 2011)
Tackling this challenge, Andrew Cornel (2011) argues for a distinction between several interconnected types of practices, describing ‘prefigurative counter-institutions’ as distinct from overlapping instances of ‘alternative institutions’ and ‘ adversarial-institutions’:
- ‘Prefigurative counter-institutions’ are collective practices supporting ways of organising that promote conversation, trust, and collaboration while also demonstrating concrete benefits of participatory, egalitarian provision of services within communities (reducing the reliance of those communities on state services). Examples include collective households, food co-operatives, mediation centres, etc. In addition, those practices that collectivise resource management practices or reduce living expenses can reduce the need for wage-labour, enabling those involved to commit time to organising campaigns and community-building.
- ‘Alternative institutions’ offer peer-support between self-selecting members (who share a given set of values and/or experiences that are not valued by dominant institutions) to cultivate ‘prefigurative life-styles’. These institutions often improve the lives for participants and can be especially important for people who need affinity-spaces to survive (such as people with marginalised experiences) and/or as spaces where activists can ‘recharge’ and better sustain participation in broader change-making activities. While at risk of becoming self-serving, if connected to broader organising movements these institutions can help foster experiments in ‘living the revolution now’ that prefigure later counter-institutions.
- ‘Adversarial-institutions’ describe collective practices that draw-together rebels to strategically coordinate tactics for opposing unjust systems. Examples include affinity group direct actions, school strikes, and union organising. These acts of opposition can include prefigurative experiments in relationship-building and shift broader societal practices that help to create space for counter-institutions to emerge.
While there are benefits to distinguishing prefigurative practices from other forms of activism, it is important to reiterate the ways in which multiple forms of activism co-emerge, overlap, and inform one another. For instance, earlier I included direct actions as an example of prefigurative practices. However, direct action is often positioned as the umbrella category within which prefigurative practices, such as cooperatives, are included alongside a range of other practices, including sabotage, boycotts, and strikes. In this context, the category includes forms of activism where the goal is to ‘take things into our own hands’ rather than focusing on influencing those currently in power.
Organizers of co-ops joined the power of direct action by prefiguring the new economy sketched in the movement’s vision. Co-ops generate skills and confidence among the previously disempowered. (George Lakey, 2016)
Similarly, it is important to appreciate the context-dependence of how prefigurative experiments co-emerge with other forms of activism. For example, while consensus decision-making practices are sometimes positioned as a key aspect of prefigurative experiments, Francesca Polletta and Katt Hoban (2016) describe a more convoluted history. This includes descriptions of consensus decision-making as a relatively successful yet internally-focused process for the small like-minded groups of radical pacifists focused on preserving non-violence values and direct actions in the face of political persecution during the 1940s. In contrast, consensus decision making was both critiqued and popularised by the public-facing prefigurative experiments of the 1960s that emerged within the context of broader equal-rights movements. More recently, building on prefigurative experiments during the global justice movements of the 2010s, consensus decision-making has been repositioned as a valued yet challenging practice that, depending on context, can be combined with other forms of participatory decision-making.
Communicating the value of multiple not-yet utopias
The value of prefigurative practices has also been obscured by their association with ‘Utopian ideals’. However, regardless of the specifics of an aimed-for future, these experiments do not seek a singular abstract ‘fully-formed’ utopia. Instead, prefigurative politics might be better understood as championing the collection of many imperfect implementations of not-yet utopias that are being continuously created all over the world.
… there is no one big, catch-all solution, no one ideology or utopian vision that we can all get behind to address the environmental, social, and economic challenges that surround us. But there’s more than one way to remake the world, more than one future we should be working towards. (Jess Scully, 2020).
A key element in this view is the recognition that being able to envision potential better futures can help to sustain and coordinate our efforts to resist the injustices of the present.
Activists in the global justice movement … refused current forms of governance, but they recognized that there was not one obvious alternative. Instead, they sought to create multiple and diverse designs for living in their actual practices. They sought to build alternatives in the here and now rather than deferring democracy to some post-revolutionary period. (Polleta and Hoban 2016)
If we don’t take a bit of time to dream about better futures, if we keep reacting to whatever the current trends are or the next over-the-horizon trends, than we will just keep stumbling in the darkness towards a cliff. So, the first thing we need to do is dream about where we need to go, and then put that light on that hill, and walk towards that light, because then across every sector, we can then have convergent effort towards something better that we actually create. (Pia Andrews, 2022)
In addition to those linked to above, there are a wide range of resources where the concept of prefigurative practices has been discussed and/or demonstrated. The following lists offer a selection as a starting-point for further explorations.
- A Beginner’s Guide to Building Better Worlds: Ideas and Inspiration from the Zapatistas, by Levi Gahman, Nasha Mohamed, Filiberto Penados, Johannah-Rae Reyes, Atiyah Mohamed and Shelda-Jane Smith, 2022
- Jackson Rising Redux: Lessons on Building the Future in the Present by Kali Akuno, Richard Wolff, and Matt Meyer, 2021
- Environmental blockades: obstructive direct action and the history of the environmental movement by Iain McIntyre, 2021
- Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985 edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre, 2021
- Housing for Degrowth, edited by Anitra Nelson and François Schneider, 2019
- Paths toward Utopia: Graphic Explorations of Everyday Anarchism by Cindy Milstein and Erik Ruin, 2012
- Prefigurative Art and Micro-Utopias by Ewa Domanska, 2017
- Designing better futures to inform the present by Pia Andrews, 2019
- In Conversation: Prefigurative Politics with Natalie Osborne by Marisa Georgiou, 2020
- It’s Hard to Imagine Better Social Media Alternatives, but Scuttlebutt Shows Change Is Possible, by Kate Mannell and Eden T. Smith, 2022
- The Frontiers of Commoning Podcast – including an interview with Alanna Irving on Distributed Leadership & Infrastructures for Commoning in Episode 26, and interview with Neera Singh on Community Forests in India in Episode 5.
- The How to Survive the End of the World Podcast – conversations hosted by Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown on finding ways to live the futures we envision as much as is possible in the present, including episodes on Tactical Hope and Finding the Labor We Love.
- The Upstream Podcast. Exploring the historical and present conditions creating the constraints we live within, and the many ways of resisting and moving beyond them. In addition to episodes mentioned earlier, highlights include a documentary on the Solidarity Economy and the conversation with Zarinah Agnew and Eric Wycoff Rogers on the possiblities of a Fully Automated Luxury Communism future.