Prefiguration is not an optional extra

Thursday, 21st November 2013 at 16:10 UTC Leave a comment

Prefiguration means making something into “an example that prefigures or foreshadows what is to come”. For a campaign group, it means taking on the values and culture of the world we want to live in, ensuring that values like equality are visible in the way we work. Surprisingly, this isn’t an attitude we can take for granted, as, sadly, many groups still see it as an unnecessary burden, getting in the way of ‘the real work’.

Disclaimer: In no way, do I claim to be making a new point – I haven’t read enough of ‘the material’ to rule out restating what to some might seem like the obvious. Perhaps you’ve ‘read the right books’ and know this already. Well done.

I want to pose a theory about the rejection of prefiguration by certain groups on the Left in Britain today. I think this phenomena has very little to do with the specific politics of said groups, as presented to the outside world. I don’t think it has very much to do with the arguments given for rejecting prefiguration itself.

I think it shows three things. The first of these is a lack of ambition for change. The second, which contributes to the first, is a decision, conscious or otherwise, not to be interested in the results of creating organisations that desire specific changes but ignore themselves. Third, I think it says more about the lived experiences of people who make these arguments than they would like to admit.

Let me try to explain this bunch of thoughts properly. For starters, a group that is campaigning about economic injustice but feels no urgent need to redress its own internal culture and the way that excludes people, is probably campaigning for a very limited vision of economic justice or equality. It seems that groups like this think that by fixing up the balance between the haves and have not’s, the balance between the white haves and the black have not’s, and the rich men and poor women will all come in to alignment. This is a huge and problematic assumption to make. I’m not saying we should ignore specific injustices because solving them won’t solve everything, but an awareness that what might be great for one person might actually be no improvement at all for many others is a requirement for good analysis.

Perhaps if you are a white working class man, or your economic well being is secured by one (i.e. your white male partner can cover for you in a crisis) then you don’t have to think about the shortcomings of a world that merely replaces empowered white rich men running everything with empowered white members of the working class. It becomes obvious that selective justice is ‘good enough’. This is a lack of ambition, a narrow view of justice that, whilst it offers solutions for some, offers no hope for others, and therefore fails to engage them.

The second point could be summarised as this: it is far easier to consider the problem to be outside the room than to acknowledge that the room could be being permeated by the problem. I’m not arguing, in a rose-tinted way, that we should want to be the change we want to see in the world (often a rallying cry for those who make prefiguration everything and forget about impacting the world around them), but that we should acknowledge that we are part of the same culture, and carry many of the same problems within us, about which we protest. If this isn’t obvious, it is because a group isn’t allowing those from other groups to hold up a light to it and show where these issues lie.

In fact, this blindness to culture, and especially to the ways that capitalism is as much a culture emanating from the West as it is a way of dividing up resources, can easily lead to failure to see that people from different cultures may have useful insights in to the ways our culture has gone bad. Our campaign groups may not have a ‘means of production’ that is ‘owned’ and ‘controlled’, but they are also not devoid of Western Capitalist culture, given that people formed by that culture create these groups. A conscious effort is therefore needed to avoid recreating problems inside our solutions.

Finally, to say that our groups should simply demand change in the world without any thought to internal cultures and ways of working is a luxury afforded to people who’s perception of injustice is only skin deep – those who have privilege amongst the broader class of the under-privileged. This could very easily include myself. To create a campaign group that looks like the world outside is to ignore the people excluded in the world outside. There shouldn’t be any excuse for thinking this is ‘OK’.


Parts of this post would not have been possible without the prompting of stuff written by Liam Barrington-Bush and Nishma Doshi, but any screw-ups are mine entirely.


Entry filed under: Activism, Culture, Participation.

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