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Prefigurative politics are the modes of organization and social relationships that strive to reflect the future society being sought by the group. The desire is to "be the change we want to see in the world" as Gandhi wrote. Prefigurativism is the attempt to enact prefigurative politics.
The term "prefigurative politics" was first used by Wini Breines specifically with reference to the new left movements of the 1960s. She was referring to the different ways of thinking and organizing in the new movements in part as a rejection of the centrism and vanguardism of many of the groups and political parties of the time. It is both a politics of creation, and one of breaking with hierarchy. She wrote: “The term prefigurative politics … may be recognized in counter institutions, demonstrations and the attempt to embody personal and anti-hierarchical values in politics. Participatory democracy was central to prefigurative politics. … The crux of prefigurative politics imposed substantial tasks, the central one being to create and sustain within the live practice of the movement, relationships and political forms that “prefigured” and embodied the desired society.”
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and various libertarian-socialist and anarchist groups refer to this as "building a new world in the shell of the old." If a group is aiming to eliminate class distinctions, prefigurative politics demands that there be no class distinctions within that group, nor should that group's actions reinforce classism. The same principle applies to hierarchy: if a group is fighting to abolish some or all forms of hierarchy in larger society, prefigurative politics demands they individually and as a group adhere as closely to that goal as possible.
Perspectives on prefigurative politics
When protesters in Seattle chanted "this is what democracy looks like," they meant to be taken literally. In the best tradition of direct action, they not only confronted a certain form of power, exposing its mechanisms and attempting literally to stop it in its tracks: they did it in a way which demonstrated why the kind of social relations on which it is based were unnecessary. This is why all the condescending remarks about the movement being dominated by a bunch of dumb kids with no coherent ideology completely missed the mark. The diversity was a function of the decentralized form of organization, and this organization was the movement’s ideology. (p. 84)
Examples of prefigurative political programs
- The Black Panther Party in the United States was responsible for creating what members referred to as survival programs, including the well-known Free Breakfast for Children Program. These programs were designed to provide food, education, medical care and clothing for individuals outside of traditional capitalist relations, as well as state-sponsored social service programs. They embodied, at least on a small scale, the kind of self-determination in the black community that the Panthers were working toward on a large scale.
- The Community Land Trust model provides a method of providing cooperatively owned, resident controlled permanent housing, outside of the speculative market.
- In Argentina the occupation and recuperation of factories by workers (such as Zanon), the organizing of many of the unemployed workers movements and the creation of popular neighborhood assemblies reflect the participants' desire for horizontalism, which includes equal distribution of power among people, and the creation of new social relationships based on dignity and freedom.
- Breines, Wini. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962–1968: The Great Refusal, 1989, p. 6.
- Gordon, Uri. Anarchy Alive! London: Pluto Press, 2007.