It’s a curious quirk of utopian fiction that it consistently fails to imagine how utopias come to be. Characters fall asleep for hundreds of years; figures communicate telepathically from the future; travelers voyage to far-flung secluded lands, are shipwrecked upon mysterious islands or stumble into mythical spaces while lost at sea; a young woman is kidnapped and made Empress of another world that can be reached via the North Pole; humanity is instantaneously “exalted” when a green comet strikes the earth. In almost every fictional description of utopia, we arrive in the midst of things, in medias res, into a fully-formed perfect place – an “epoch of rest,” as William Morris put it in News from Nowhere (01890).
Many revolutionaries, on both the left and right of the political spectrum, see history as the inevitable unfolding of an ordained process – a sort of secular second coming of Christian millenarianism that presumes a future salvation so certain it radiates backward through time, generating its own insurgent precursors. But in today’s context of ecological collapse, we can take nothing for granted about the future. We’re inundated by speculative visions of a future planet under climate emergency. We don’t lack images for what is going to happen. So what explains the gulf between what we know about these potential terrors and what we are (not) doing to avert them? Climate change is really a lesson in limits: the limits of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb our waste, the limited ability of our economic and political models to deal with what’s coming, the limits of our control over nature and ourselves – and the limits of our ability to imagine alternatives to the way we live now. We are failing to act on climate not because we don’t know enough about it, or because we don’t know how to prevent it, but because it remains far from clear how to galvanize our enlarged concept of the future into action in the here and now.
The urgent task confronting us would seem to be a reworking of the revolutionary imperative to account for protracted, uneven and irreversible collapse. How do we plan for the future or act in the present knowing what we know? Without doubt, our planning horizons have shrunk as politics, driven by electoral cycles, focuses on the urgent and immediate. But might other ways of thinking through the short-term forge new connections between present and future? Can we imagine transformative change that is not linear or teleological but processual and that actively generates the future society we want?
In 02011, two months after the start of Occupy Wall Street, David Graeber identified “prefigurative politics” as one of the movement’s four characteristic principles (the other three were direct action, illegalism and the rejection of hierarchy). Graeber linked “prefigurative politics” to the creation of “democratic General Assemblies,” consensus decision-making and a range of mutual aid, self-help initiatives – including kitchens, libraries, clinics – all of which made Occupy a genuine attempt “to create the institutions of the new society in the shell of the old.” For Graeber, the spontaneous emergence of these practices attested to the immediate practicality of radical aspirations. In terms reminiscent of Gandhi’s precept to be the change you wish to see, Occupy was a kind of present-tense experimentation, developing and establishing political forms that “prefigure” the egalitarian society it sought to create.
“Prefigurative politics” has since become a core concept in contemporary anarchist thinking. The phrase was first used in the 01970s to capture a type of politics orientated around an ethically consistent relationship between means and ends, but it has a long history. Emma Goldman – the “high priestess of anarchy” who supposedly inspired the assassination of US President William McKinley, though she was not directly involved – made the landmark claim in her memoir, My Disillusionment in Russia (01923), that “No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the means used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the purposes to be achieved.”
All human experience teaches that methods and means cannot be separated from the ultimate aim. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose; they influence it, modify it, and presently the aims and means become identical. To-day is the parent of to-morrow. The present casts its shadow far into the future… Revolution that divests itself of ethical values thereby lays the foundation of injustice, deceit, and oppression for the future society. The means used to prepare the future become its cornerstone… the ethical values which the revolution is to establish in the new society must be initiated with the revolutionary activities of the so-called transitional period. Revolution is the mirror of the coming day; it is the child that is to be the Man of To-morrow.
Goldman, in calling for immediate social reorganization, was thinking about the long-term effects of present actions and structures, and the choices that become locked-in once a certain path is taken. The road one travels determines the destination one reaches. “Means and ends aren’t the same,” activist Cindy Milstein explains, “but anarchists utilize means that point in the direction of their ends. They choose action or projects based on how these fit into longer-terms aims. Anarchists participate in the present in the ways that they would like to participate, much more fully and with much more self-determination, in the future – and encourage others to do so as well. Prefigurative politics thus aligns one’s values to one’s practices and practices the new society before it is fully in place.” The concept’s recent popularity among organizers and activists reflects renewed attention to the radical end of the alter-globalization protests of the early 02000s. Unlike the trade unions, NGOs and political parties who also participated in these protests, radical groups rejected top-down organization, lobbying and programs aimed at the seizure of state power. Instead, they promoted anti-hierarchical and anti-capitalist practices: decentralized organization in affinity groups and networks; decision-making by consensus; voluntary and non-profit undertakings; lower consumption; direct action, such as land and factory occupations, urban squatting and digital piracy; and an effort to identify and counteract regimes of domination and discrimination such as patriarchy, racism and homophobia in organisers’ own lives and interactions.
Prefigurative politics also invokes a peculiar way of imagining time. In contrast to the orthodox socialist telos that sees revolution as a future event, prefigurative politics seeks to transform social relations now, in the present moment. The spectacular moment of revolution is replaced with the ongoing process of actually creating alternatives in the here and now, rather than waiting for a singular proletarian identity to congeal and the entire structure to be torn down and resurrected with new leaders. As the geographer Simon Springer puts it, “the politics of waiting — for the revolution, for the withering away of the state, for the stages of history to pass — are all rejected in favor of the realism that comes with acknowledging that the everyday is the only moment and space in which we have any tangible control over our lives.” Rejecting the assured blueprints of utopian socialists and Soviet planners alike, anarchists privilege repeated, concrete experiences of social struggle which give rise to unexpected forms of collective power and solidarity. Prefigurative politics is a continuous exercise of testing imaginary landscapes against the necessities and flows of daily life.
But if non-hierarchical social relations are to be enacted without the assurances of historical momentum, what remains of radical imaginations of the future?
One response – “perhaps nothing” – marks a recent strand in activist expression that attempts to absorb revolutionary accomplishment entirely into current ethical practices, dissociating it from the future altogether. This turn to the present has often raised controversy, described as a symptom of organizing networks becoming mere cultural scenes, abandoning revolutionary politics for self-seeking pursuits or so-called “identity politics.” But prefigurative politics does suggest a number of distinct tactical uses for utopian thinking in our current political moment.
The temporality of social change implied in prefiguration does not allow for easy declarations of success or failure. The question of when such an assessment can be made therefore becomes a central concern with powerful consequences. It also stands as a challenge and refutation to questions of political strategy. If social change is something that is not achieved but practiced in the present, it is less amenable to tactical deferrals of action or conversation as the supposedly most expedient way of achieving future goals. End-state politics is common in single-issue campaigning for policy change; lobbying, litigation and other instrumental strategies can be effective for groups seeking philanthropic funding, a political party trying to win an election, a radical revolutionary group attempting to overthrow a government, and so on. But much, of course, is sacrificed in privileging a single future goal; conceiving of and locking in a future has the potential to push out other, currently unknowable, claims for justice.
Our imagination of the future is no longer structured by traditional revolutionary expectations. A century or more ago, anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin who had experienced the revolutions of 01848 and 01871 could still expect that “when the hour of the People’s Revolution strikes again” it would raise the “simultaneous revolutionary alliance and action of all the people of the civilized world.” But any generative temporal framing towards the future must now account for tremendous growth in both state and commercial military and surveillance powers, the understanding that there is no keystone center of power open to definitive attack, and industrial civilization’s transgression of multiple planetary tipping points, as global resource-use continues to grow unabated. Any expectations for social change must be projected into a future shaped by an awareness of converging planetary crises: runaway climate change, energy depletion, ecosystem collapse, inequality, deprivation and conflict. Such an unstable, open-ended political environment makes it hard to sustain any fixed notion of future accomplishment.
If the affective space attached to disposition towards the future, long vacated by reassurance or expectant optimism, is now filled with anxiety, frustration and guilt, then prefigurative politics can sidestep this crisis – by avoiding an explicit disposition towards the future while at the same time seeking to shape an as-yet-unknown future out of the present. Prefigurative politics goes hand in hand with the desire for long-term, broad-horizon imagination. For meaningful change to take place, practices and relationships must prioritize equitable outcomes in the present. But there remains an investment in the future, for at the same time prefigurative politics is characterized by a notion of enacting hoped-for futures in the present. This is not a paradox to be resolved, as such, but rather a productive tension, a way to engage the concept of the future in order to explore what it means for us to act now. Practices and relationships are guided by an envisioned future and an awareness of the closure and exclusion that can come from fixing the future. Our actions today generate a future which is seen as the unknown product of the affordances and contingencies that will have preceded it; in which the pursuit of utopian goals is recursively built into the daily operation and organizational style of everyday politics.
To foreground the temporal paradox of prefiguration is to create a particular disposition to politics that is always unsettled and restless. In the orthodox Marxist revolutionary program the temporal framing is clearly forward-looking, with a present figure looking towards its future fulfillment. The role of the vanguard in the present is thus worked out backwards from the endgame in which it seizes state power. Only the grand narrative grounding this program, with its specific account of class and party, can offer a clear enough image of the future (a workers’ state) to form a model for present-day activism. Only a revolutionary scenario can make such symbolic projection from the future intelligible. This is not to endorse ambitious claims about a messianic streak at the heart of Marxism; the point is that in this scheme, the one possible – if not guaranteed – path towards revolution is already decided. In other words, whereas a revolutionary imperative is a means to an end, prefigurative politics is a means without end.
What becomes of this principle, if it is to address the inevitable consequences of industrial and neoliberal over-reach? One response may be found in the idea of “anxious” hope, elaborated by Bürge Abiral in her work with practical sustainability activists in Turkey. Unsurprisingly, activists promoting community sustainability, bioremediation, energy transition and permaculture system design are among the most attuned to prognoses of collapse. Abiral thus associates the idea of “anxious hope” with the grain of anxiety always attending the “belief that small actions matter… that it is not too late to act”:
Instead of being an opposite of hope, anxiety is a companion to it. This hope rests on thin ice. The desired results attached to hope, and the effects that are hoped for may never materialize, and the permaculturists are well aware of it… Instead of driving permaculturists to despair, the anxiety that they feel about the future accompanies their hopeful condition and all the more pushes them to act in the present.
Embracing the here and now of the everyday offers a deeper appreciation for space–time as a constantly folding, unfolding, and refolding story, where direct action allows us to instantaneously reconfigure the parameters of possibility. Utopia is not held up as “the end,” but can be invoked in order to assert the possibility of different alternatives and the revolutionary openings these may involve, the advent of a radical alterity here and now. As John Holloway, the Irish social scientist teaching in Mexico, argues in Crack Capitalism, “the revolutionary replacement of one system by another is both impossible and undesirable,” and the only possible way of conceiving revolution is as an interstitial process that involves the creation, expansion and multiplication of cracks – such as the Argentinian workers’ takeover of bankrupt factories abandoned by their owners, or the self-governed communities in the Mexican state of Chiapas led by Marcos and the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). These movements, “cracks” in capitalist space-time, remind us that politics is derived from politeia, an ancient Greek term marking the singularly human practice of constituting a particular mode of collective life through the generation of multiple associations, institutions, boundaries, mores, habits and laws. Institutions may ossify, mores become oppressive and so on, but politics holds out the irreducible possibility that we might always constitute our world anew.
We need an anticipatory consciousness where the future is thought of as a collective autonomous pursuit of what the early twentieth-century philosopher Ernst Bloch called the “not yet”; in the interplay between the “now” and the “not yet,” the future exists not as a fixed destination but instead performs a challenge and disruption to the present. Activists today are not working towards a post-revolutionary resting point. Instead, we need to create the conditions for a kind of ongoing restlessness, or restiveness.
A typo in the first edition of News from Nowhere saw it accidentally subtitled “an epoch of unrest.” Maybe Morris did get that right first time after all.
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