What is the meaning of prefiguration?

Over recent months I have become increasingly concerned by two tendencies within the community of scholars associated with culturalpraxis.net.

Firstly, I see a tendency of scholars to approach today’s social movements not as participant observers, rather in the manner of anthropologists. And secondly, as a result of this practice of uncritical observation, I see an actual embrace of the concept of “prefiguration.”

“Prefiguration” is a word with quite a long history, but it began to receive widespread use only after the Seattle protests in 1999 and particularly arising from the Occupy movement of 2011. While the notion has become ‘common sense’ amongst participants in progressive protest movements over the past decade, it has been promoted by adherents of anarchist ideology. Anarchists frequently characterize themselves as “practicing prefigurative politics.” This characterization is associated with the advocacy of “direct action” and opposition to “mediation” and “consequentialism.”

The reader could be forgiven for responding in astonishment at the suggestion that there should be any reason not to embrace these concepts given the perilous position of the planet at the moment. Indeed, Sales, Vianna, Fontes & Yasui (MCA v. 27 n.3) argue that: “defining prefigurative practices calls for theorizing agency and human development as integral to collaborative projects of social transformation and that Vygotsky’s project expanded by the Transformative Activist Stance (TAS) approach proposed by Anna Stetsenko can contribute to such theorizing.”

There is no doubt that young people embracing the dicta of prefigurative practices are our friends and comrades, and that they are showing a way forward for humanity, but science does no favour to any social movement by uncritically accepting and validating its misrecognition of its own practices. The role of the scholar who is a participant observer is to critically engage with the self-consciousness of activists within the movement as a fellow fighter for the goals of that movement wishing to ensure its success.

Advocates of prefiguration directly counterpose prefigurative practices to agency, inasmuch as they consistently claim that a process which is prefigurative is not “consequentialist,” that is, prefigurative practices are not oriented to the realisation of any particular consequence. This surely stands in sharp contrast to the conception of collaborative projects as essentially goal-oriented.

The authors cite Anna Stetsenko’s earlier work to outline their own conception of prefiguration as a “process of creating the future in the present as a reality in its own right” and “affirming the future-to-come and thus realising it in the here and now.” (op. cit., p. 281). Like this writer and following Stetsenko, the authors conceptualise prefiguration in the context of understanding collaborative projects as descriptive, normative and explanatory units of social life. So this conception of collaborative projects is a shared basis for discussion of the place of prefiguration.

Just as activity theorists distinguish between the goal of an action (such as meeting at 8am) and the object or motive of the activity of which the action is a part (such as preventing the closure of a school), activity theorists must also distinguish between the motive or object of an activity (such as preventing the closure of schools) and the ethos of the tradition of which the activity is a part, which is frequently conceptualised in the form of an imagined utopia (such as a democratic socialist world).

The conflation of ethical norms applicable in the here-and-now no matter how adverse conditions may be, with utopian futures in which economic and social equality has already been achieved, is a category error which cannot be obscured by playing around with obvious truths of ontology and temporality. But before looking at the profound consequences of this kind of mystification we must first see why the uncritical conflation of ends and means, or project and tradition is mistaken and pernicious.

When we talk about means and “ends” it is necessary to be clear whether the ends we are referring to is a socialist utopia or (for example) the cancelation of school closures. Both can co-exist, of course, but they are not identical.

The planning and mobilisation for a campaign may be to prevent school closures. People stick their necks out and participate on that basis, and expect that all the planning and activity will be directed at this end. If someone is participating with a hidden motive, such as to recruit new members to their party, then this is unethical and rightly seen as disruptive and a betrayal of the movement. This is well-known and widely rejected by young activists nowadays. It may be a matter of indifference whether an individual’s motive for participation is their wish for the realisation of some utopian future, be that the kingdom of God on Earth, a return to the condition of the Noble Savage, or democratic socialism, so long as their actions are directed towards achievement of the agreed object of the collaborative project, prevention of school closures, and they desist from unethical behaviour. It is a fact that disputes over how a project is to be run which arise in the course of the project more frequently hinge on differences about these utopian visions than they do over real, practical questions of the movement, even if they take on the appearance of pragmatic differences. Under these circumstances the notion of prefiguration contributes to difficulty in productive conflict resolution. All conflict within a project should be based (1) on the agreed object of the project and (2) within the ethical principles of the traditions of which the project is a part.

Now this second condition is obviously contradictory, because all those who participate in realising a common agreed object (such as preventing school closures) do not necessarily come from the same tradition of social struggle, and indeed may have no such tradition behind them at all. So there is always going to be conflict over the means of decision making and other ethically loaded practices (such as the use of violence, tolerance of difference, inclusion of the marginalised, etc.). On what basis can these necessary conflicts within social movements be productively conducted?

This is the point. The new generations which have entered social struggle are demanding new ethical norms for social practice. These norms are relevant without qualification, here and now. They are not for some future time when problems of inequality and exclusion have been overcome. They are norms for social practice in this difficult time, no matter how repressive is the state, no matter how marginalised some participants may be, etc. This new ethical code is misrecognised by its own advocates as the ethos of a future time. But it is not.

I recall, for example, a Brazilian participant in an email discussion saying that of course he agreed with the “utopian methodology,” but “when the lives of my brothers and sisters are under real danger, how can I be utopian?” Indeed, but this is a category mistake, and a mistake which can lead to misunderstanding and fruitless conflict.

Now, it is necessary to explain why it is important to distinguish between the object or goal of a project (or “campaign”) with the utopian future which some of us hanker after and which characterises the traditions of which we are a part (be that Socialism or Christianity or whatever). A well-organised campaign can realise its goal and stop a program of school closures by the force of its own activity, given only that their object has been chosen with an insight into the social and political juncture at the given moment. However, Socialism cannot be the goal of any project. Anyone who can recall the history of the 20th century cannot be mistaken about this. The achievement of a socialist society is something which will be achieved at some future time (if the human race survives long enough and does not destroy the conditions for its own existence) and will depend on the activities of very, very many other people and movements apart from our own. To not recognise this is madness. We socialists distinguish ourselves by our socialist ethics, not by our belief in an imagined future Socialist Constitution, by our duty of solidarity, not by our belief in the inevitability of the socialist revolution.

The problem of achieving Socialism is the problem of how we can learn to make common cause with others from different traditions who share different utopian visions. This is fundamentally a problem of the practice and duty of Solidarity.

It is to the great credit of the present younger generation that they have grasped, albeit still unclearly, that the problem posed by securing a future for themselves is first of all an ethical problem, a problem of developing an ethics which facilitates people with different views, different ideals and experiences, collaborating together here and now for the common good.

This ethics includes the duty of ensuring equal voice to all; the widest possible dissemination of information relevant to shared activity to make equal participation a realisable goal; of solidarity, which means assisting others according to their precepts not yours; of tolerance for difference; and inclusion of as wide a range of people as possible. Ethical norms such as these do not have to wait for the utopian future to arrive before being implemented. Subordinating present moment activity to someone’s utopian vision is completely destructive.

Andy Blunden
28th October 2021