A New World in the Shell of the Old: prefigurative politics, direct action, education

Online networks are increasingly seen as of huge importance for how social movements organise - be it in Wisconsin, Cairo or London. However, what is missing is the recognition that online, commons-based forms of production are methods of political contention and practice in their own right

It is clear that online networks are increasingly seen as being of huge importance for how social movements organize. It is hard to understate the implications for collective action represented by ubiquitous mobile telephony, the internet and low-cost SMS messaging – be it in Wisconsin, Cairo or London. However, what is missing from much of the commentary regarding the impact of the internet and the ‘network society’ on political contention is the recognition that online, commons-based forms of production and P2P (peer-to-peer) sharing represent highly effective methods of political contention and practice in their own right. That is to say, not only do they help offline protest with reduced costs of co-ordination and information sharing, but they are also a powerful instrument to advance a radical, prefigurative politics.

The term prefigurative politics finds its genesis in the work of academic Wini Breines with reference to the social movements of the ‘New Left’ in the 1960s. Breines came to see prefigurative politics as both a process of creation and of fracture with established hierarchy:

  “...the term prefigurative politics … may be recognized in counter institutions, demonstrations and the attempt to embody personal and anti-hierarchical values in 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.

Anti-authoritarian activists and theorists often refer to prefigurative politics as "building a new world in the shell of the old." If a group is fighting to abolish some or all forms of hierarchy in society, prefigurative politics demands they individually and as a group adhere as closely to that goal as possible in their everyday political practice.

The Bypassing of Protest to Make Change Happen:

Direct action always aims to achieve one of two things. The first can be understood as ‘oppositional’; the second as ‘propositional’. In the first case, direct action seeks to consciously obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which those performing the direct action object. In the second case (and this understanding of direct action seems utterly neglected by the commentariat) it can seek to resolve perceived problems that the relevant actors and institutions in ‘authority’ are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants.

It is this second type of direct action that coheres with the notion of prefigurative politics as a solution to what is perceived as a social or economic injustice. Take the scenario of a village requiring a drinking well to access clean water. Advocates of ‘prefigurative’ direct action would say the villagers should simply dig and build the well themselves rather than appeal to the ‘authorities’ to have one built for them.

We can transfer this logic to the realm of the current debate over reform to higher education. As well as appeal to the authorities to reduce or abolish tuition fees, individuals may choose to act in accordance with how they would wish to see the university in future and start creating it in the present – as an accessible place of learning, open to all and free to engage with literally and intellectually.

File-sharing as Direct Action and Prefigurative Politics:

One example of such a logic, specifically with regards to how forms of networked direct action can oppose the increase in tuition fees, can be found in a recent communique issued by the Luther Blissett Collective at the 10th November protest last year. It has since been posted on the websites of the London-based The Really Free School and Deterritorial Support Group.

Education’s Napster Moment.

“As a result of the emergence of a virtual marketplace that encourages the forming of community and the sharing of ideas, we have inadvertently been equipped with the tools needed to undo the current rules of engagement.

Ours is the first generation to be given the tool set by which to produce, collectively organise and display our message/ideology/product to a global audience; an audience that, like you, has an equal opportunity to subvert the current trajectory of our education system.

Universities are collapsing. Not as a result of dramatic cuts but because they represent an outmoded model for their primary function, the exchange of knowledge and research. The education industry is about to experience the same death blow to its infrastructure and profit model that Napster issued to the music industry back in 1999.

Everyone within our generation is aware that the construction of ideas and the execution of research has shifted its locality to a sprawling virtual space that is open to collective input.

Let us not draw out the death rattle of our institutions by allowing concessions to be made and minor battles to be fought and ultimately lost – instead let us accelerate the pace of their demise (as profit-making institutions).

Abandon the institution and declare it’s death, the point at which our apathy for the current state of play is declared, the better. With this change we will be able to destabilise the mediated control of our social trajectory, causing a genuine crisis for those that stand to profit both politically and financially from our existing system. It is the institutions and those that control them that need us.

Create a real crisis, torrent your syllabus, duplicate your id cards and give them to strangers, scan your entire library and post it on AAAAARG, distribute maps of your university online, relocate your seminars to a space outside of the institution. Invalidate the universities existence, so that together we can begin to build fresh foundations on its grave.

Invite anyone and everyone to participate, saturate your institutions and make them a true open space. The path to knowledge does not end on the day of graduation.

This document was put together on the spur of the moment as a direct response to this situation, its ideas are not fixed. Instead it seeks to act as a provocation or suggestion that we should consider the complete reformation of what we currently have. More money/Less cuts cannot cure the decline of our institutions. We have now a unique opportunity to create something new, independently and autonomously.”

This communique represents a call to arms of a very radical kind and is in keeping with ‘propositional’ direct action that adopts a prefigurative politics – not solely as a mode of resistance but also a microcosm of the ‘other world we know is possible’. It is knowledge and learning as some would like it to be: freely accessible, publicly available, not subject to the logics of the profit motive.

Changing Technologies and New Modes of Protest:

Despite universities coming to resemble private businesses, distributed online networks now make it possible to render many of their resources increasingly public. As the communique puts it “...torrent your syllabus, duplicate your id cards and give them to strangers, scan your entire library and post it on AAAAARG”. 

It is tactics like these that not only ‘protest’ the advance of the university as private enterprise, but indeed help undermine its ability to behave as a profit-making institution at all. Thus we do not just obstruct the university as private enterprise through occupations, strikes and other actions, but simultaneously construct an alternative at its very heart.

What is also clear is that innovations in late-modern capitalism require innovative manifestations of resistance. As Giles Deleuze said in conversation with Antonio Negri: 

“...it's true that even before control societies are fully in place, forms of delinquency or resistance are also appearing. Computer pira­cy and viruses, for example, will replace strikes and what the nine­teenth century called "sabotage" ("clogging" the machinery).” 

In order to maintain profit under conditions of abundance, capital will often try to create artificial scarcity. Under the conditions of information abundance that are inherent within a network society it seems absurd to pay more then ever for ‘an education’. One form of resistance and prefigurative direct action might be to re-imagine the university, undermine imposed scarcity and render the institution and its content as publicly available and abundant as is possible. Torrent, duplicate, distribute. Such acts might permit counter-institutions such as free schools to flourish like never before. They allow us to re-imagine what the university can be, building the world as we wish to see it, within the very cracks of the university as private, profit-driven enterprise.

About the author

Aaron Bastani is a Ph.D candidate at the  New Political Communications Unit (Royal Holloway University) and is also a participant with Novara Media. He is interested in technology, politics and social change and how these three areas intersect in the contemporary context, from political economy to social movements.