Prefigurative politics are the modes of organization and social relationships that strive to reflect the future society being sought by the group. According to Carl Boggs, who coined the term, the desire is to embody "within the ongoing political practice of a movement…those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal." Prefigurativism is the attempt to enact prefigurative politics.
Boggs was writing in the 1970s about revolutionary movements in Russia, Italy, Spain, and the US New Left. The concept of prefiguration was further applied by Sheila Rowbotham to the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s, by Wini Breines to the US SDS; and by John L. Hammond to the Portuguese Revolution.
The politics of prefiguration rejected the centrism and vanguardism of many of the groups and political parties of the 1960s. It is both a politics of creation, and one of breaking with hierarchy. Breines 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.”
Anarchists around the turn of the twentieth century clearly embraced the principle that means used to achieve any end must be consistent with that end, though they apparently did not use the term "prefiguration." For example, James Guillaume, a comrade of Mikhail Bakunin, wrote, "How could one want an equalitarian and free society to issue from authoritarian organisation? It is impossible."
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.
The concept of prefiguration later came to be used more widely, especially in relation to movements for participatory democracy. It has especially been applied to the antinuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s in the US and the antiglobalization movement at the turn of the twenty-first century.
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 global Bahá'í Faith community strives to realise a model of society by developing its movement and administration which endeavour to embody several renowned social principles. After sufficient development, many Bahá'í communities of the world may reach a transitional stage of dual power with the traditional pre-existing administrative institutions in their respective areas.
- 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.
- The occupation movements of 2011 in Egypt and the Arab world, in Spain, and in the United States embodied elements of prefiguration (explicitly in the case of Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs in occupations around the United States). They envisaged creating a public space in the middle of American cities, for political dialogue and achieved some of the attributes of community in providing free food, libraries, medical care, and a place to sleep
- Boggs, Carl. 1977. Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers' Control. Radical America 11 (November), 100; cf. Boggs Jr., Carl. Revolutionary Process, Political Strategy, and the Dilemma of Power. Theory & Society 4,No. 3 (Fall), 359-93.
- Rowbotham, Sheila. 1979. The Women's Movement and Organizing for Socialism. In Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright. Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, 21-155. London: Merlin Press
- Breines, Wini. 1980. Community and Organization: The New Left and Michels' "Iron Law." Social Problems 27, No. 4 (April), 419-429; Breines, Wini. 1989. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
- Hammond, John L. 1984. Two Models of Socialist Transition in the Portuguese Revolution. Insurgent Sociologist 12 (Winter-Spring), 83-100; Hammond, John L. 1988. Building Popular Power: Workers' and Neighborhood Movements in the Portuguese Revolution. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Breines, Wini. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962–1968: The Great Refusal, 1989, p. 6.
- quoted by Benjamin Franks in The direct action ethic: From 59 upwards. Anarchist Studies 11, No. 1, 22; Cf. Benjamin Franks, 2008. Postanarchism and meta-ethics; Anarchist Studies. 16, No. 2 (Autumn-Winter), 135-53; David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography. Oakland: AK Press, 2009: 206; Eduardo Romanos, Anarchism. In Snow, David A., Donatella Della Porta, Bert Klandermans, and Doug McAdam (eds), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. Oxford: Blackwell: 2013.
- John L. Hammond, Social Movements and Struggles for Socialism. In Taking Socialism Seriously, edited by Anatole Anton and Richard Schmidt, 213-47. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012. Francesca Polletta, Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002; Marina Sitrin, ed., Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.
- Andrew Cornell, Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society: Direct Action and Prefigurative Community in the 1970s and 80s. Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2009 http://www.anarchiststudies.org/node/292Barbara Epstein, The Politics of Prefigurative Community: the Non-violent Direct Action Movement. Pp. 63-92 in Reshaping the US Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s. Edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker. London: Verso, 1988l Jeffrey S. Juris, Anarchism, or the cultural logic of networking. In Contemporary Anarchist Studies: an Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy, edited by Randall Amster et al., 213-223. New York: Routledge, 2009.
- Andy Cornell, Consensus: What It Is, What It Is Not, Where It Came From, and Where It Must Go. In We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation, edited by Kate Khatib et al., 163-73. Oakland: AK Press, 2012; John L. Hammond,. The significance of space in Occupy Wall Street. Interface 5, No. 2 (November 2013), 499-524; Luis Moreno-Caballud and Marina Sitrin, Occupy Wall Street, Beyond Encampments. yesmagazine.org, November 21, 2011.
- Gordon, Uri. Anarchy Alive! London: Pluto Press, 2007.