Could pre-figurative politics provide a way forward for the left?

We’ll never be able to live in a better world if we don’t start practicing what such a world would be.

Sofa Saio Gradin
19 January 2020, 2.41pm
Flickr/Jeremy hunsinger. CC BY 2.0.

Like the movie Cats, the last season of Game of Thrones and many other things that happened in 2019, the British election was expected by many on the Left to be bad, but turned out to be so much worse. The Conservatives won 365 of the 650 seats in parliament – a majority so big that the Tories will remain the largest party even if a significant number of their MPs are suspended for sexual misconduct or thrown out for disagreeing with the leader, as has happened before.

This was a resounding victory for a party whose policies have caused over 130,000 preventable deaths since 2012 in England alone; been so hostile to disabled people and migrants that some have been driven to suicide; and failed to deliver even on their own dangerously limited environmental promises. Meanwhile, Labour had a manifesto packed with economic policies that the majority of the British public supported; a leader who broke with elitist traditions; and election adverts that stood out for their honesty.

This was an abysmal election that showed very clearly what obstacles socialists come up against when they threaten elite power, from media bias to political disenfranchisement to structural racism. The way forward must be to learn from this and continue organising outside of government. If there is one glimmer of hope for the Left it’s the increased understanding of the fact that politics isn’t a service you can hire someone else to do on your behalf – we have to do it ourselves. The most promising strand of this thinking is prefigurative politics; that is, the politics of organising in the here-and-now in a way that reflects the society we want to see in the future.

The thing is, not even a Labour victory would have guaranteed that Britain would become a fairer society. As Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have themselves pointed out, even the most socialist of governments can only go so far; it’s we – the workers, residents and community members – who must organise on the ground to truly change society. Social hierarchies and oppressions aren’t just caused or abolished by government policy; they are upheld both through formal arrangements like laws and through the daily behaviours, assumptions and relationships of the general population.

Take the #MeToo movement, for example: although sexual harassment and assault have been formally banned for decades, they have been informally and culturally permitted, and even encouraged in some influential versions of masculinity. This is now starting to change thanks to social movements. A different example comes from the many socialist revolutionary parties in history that have sought to end class hierarchy through seizing control of the state and shifting away from capitalism through formal policy-making, but have ended up in societies with deep divisions, corruption and bigotry.

Prefigurative politics is the contemporary name for revolutionary strategies that take this insight seriously. It’s about shaping our cultures, norms and social relations, as well as our formal rules and policies, in the image of the society we desire.

This kind of politics is important because being a member of a just and egalitarian society is an activity that’s more similar to riding a bike than doing maths; that’s to say it’s not something we can do through pure thought or theoretical rule-setting – we also have to practise it.

Just as you can’t learn how to ride a bike only by studying the maths of propulsive forces, you won’t automatically become an attentive and inclusive participant in collective decision-making just because you’re well-read in socialist theory. Even if you’ve read every theoretical analysis of patriarchy it doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly freed from all the patriarchal behaviours, norms and assumptions that you’ve been taught, and been complicit in, since the day you were born.

The idea of prefigurativism is to understand and practise the behaviours and relationships we want to see as mainstream in the future; to experiment with, learn and retrain ourselves into new and better behaviours and organisational structures.

The feminist slogan that ‘the personal is political’ has been influential in prefigurative politics ever since the 1970s when the term was first used in its current meaning. This slogan opposed the patriarchal understanding of politics as something that only happens in government, and which makes invisible those forms of oppression that women face in the domestic sphere like violence, harassment, and unpaid domestic work. Our personal lives and daily behaviours are actually sites of political struggle.

For prefigurative politics this means that many important aspects of power and decision-making fall outside of the formal policies and structures of a party or a community group. For example, what happens during tea break, in small talk, or to the dirty dishes at the end of a meeting is as much a part of politics as the written agenda or the rules on how decisions are made.

So an egalitarian party or group isn’t one in which the members meet to write policy about equal pay - but do so in a competitive or elitist decision-making style while leaving women to wash and clean up after everyone else goes home; it’s one in which members educate themselves together about patriarchal and other hierarchical patterns of behaviour and actively work to undo them.

In the prefigurative organisations I’ve been part of this happens partly through training (on gender awareness for example, role play practice or discussion groups), and partly through organisational tools like cleaning rotas, facilitation methods such as progressive stacks, and rotating roles and responsibilities for different tasks, which might include more informal roles like chatting to newcomers and helping them to feel at home.

When you stress the importance of these kinds of things there are always sceptics who complain that it’s navel-gazing. Some commentators argue that prefigurativism’s attention to the informal pushes activists to spend all their time obsessing about their own personal behaviours in meetings, instead of being ‘out there’ fighting for society’s most vulnerable groups.

There are significant examples of prefigurative organisations that have gotten caught up in themselves like Occupy Wall Street (at least according to some critics), where activists allegedly spent more time debating and practising their internal procedures than organising in support of the poor and marginalised.

But once you study prefigurative politics in more depth you realise that this is absolutely not true of the vast majority of organisations who practice this kind of politics. Most of the organisations that are famous for their prefigurativism – like the Zapatistas, Industrial Workers of the World, The Spanish National Confederation of Labour (CNT), pre-invasion Rojava, and many more – have balanced internal and outward-facing concerns perfectly well.

They’ve fought for a range of improvements for marginalised groups such as affordable rents and land, higher wages, and resisting police and military attacks against marginalised communities, and dealt with their own informal inequalities at the same time. What drives groups to neglect marginalised people has more to do with their basic aims and demographics than their commitment to prefigurative politics. The fact remains that we’ll never be able to live in a better world if we don’t start learning and practicing what such a world would be.

Had Labour won the election we would (hopefully) have had a lot more help from the government in fighting social injustices. What was compelling for me about Corbyn’s Labour was that many of its policies were aimed, not only at redistributing resources, but also at redistributing power and decision-making to workers, local residents and social movements through subsidising co-operatives, worker shareholding schemes and local councils.

Whether Labour could or would have stuck to these commitments once in office is another matter, but at the moment it looks like the electoral route to genuine socialism is closing, or perhaps it was never open at all. We are looking ahead to five years of a rightist Tory party and to increased desperation among vulnerable people.

We are also, however, in a situation where tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people have recently come out and organised with fellow socialists for the first time. A huge number of people have been energised, activated and informed by the past few years’ upswing of electoral socialism. What’s important for all of us to remember in the wake of such a terrible electoral result is that the government could only ever have been a small part of the overall movement for change.

In the words of Corbyn himself: “Now don’t misunderstand me - what happens in parliament is very very important. […] But changes come because people want those changes to come.” So let’s keep voting for the most progressive Labour candidates by all means, but the bulk of the work we have to do is in community organisations, trade unions, local councils and co-operatives. See you there.

Saio Sofa Gradin is co-author of the book ‘Prefigurative Politics: Building Tomorrow Today’ with Paul Raekstad – out now in paperback from Polity Press.

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