It is an old question in social movements: Should we fight the system or “be the change we wish to see”? Should we push for transformation within existing institutions, or should we model in our own lives a different set of political relationships that might someday form the basis of a new society?
Over the past 50 years — and arguably going back much further — social movements in the United States have incorporated elements of each approach, sometimes in harmonious ways and other times with significant tension between different groups of activists.
In the recent past, a clash between “strategic” and “prefigurative” politics could be seen in the Occupy movement. While some participants pushed for concrete political reforms — greater regulation of Wall Street, bans on corporate money in politics, a tax on millionaires, or elimination of debt for students and underwater homeowners — other occupiers focused on the encampments themselves. They saw the liberated spaces in Zuccotti Park and beyond — with their open general assemblies and communities of mutual support — as the movement’s most important contribution to social change. These spaces, they believed, had the power foreshadow, or “prefigure,” a more radical and participatory democracy.
Once an obscure term, prefigurative politics is increasingly gaining currency, with many contemporary anarchists embracing as a core tenet the idea that, as a slogan from the Industrial Workers of the World put it, we must “build the new world in the shell of the old.” Because of this, it is useful to understand its history and dynamics. While prefigurative politics has much to offer social movements, it also contains pitfalls. If the project of building alternative community totally eclipses attempts to communicate with the wider public and win broad support, it risks becoming a very limiting type of self-isolation.
For those who wish to both live their values and impact the world as it now exists, the question is: How can we use the desire to “be the change” in the service of strategic action?….