A prefigurative strategy

Marianne Maeckelbergh explains how, through non-hierarchical organising, social movements are attempting to be the change they want to see in Europe

June 1, 2014
5 min read

Since the rise of the ‘movement of the squares’ in southern Europe and the Occupy movement worldwide it has become hard to ignore that there has been a shift in how social movements perceive change. For most of the 20th century, the dominant theory of social change held that creating a more equal society required seizing state power and redistributing resources. Since the 1960s, a slow transformation has been underway towards the view that existing political structures need to be discarded rather than seized and alternative forms of governance developed from the bottom up through daily practices of social movement organising. This approach, referred to as ‘prefiguration’, has a very long history, but in the latter half of the 20th century, culminating in the movements since 2011, it has become a predominant theory of social change internationally.

The approach that has taken hold over recent decades is referred to as ‘horizontal’ prefiguration. It’s the idea that if people want to create a more egalitarian political system, they must embody this goal in daily movement practices. The key practice in the alterglobalisation movement was the use of consensus decision-making. Since 2011 this has often been slightly modified to combine consensus principles with direct voting on proposals.

Underlying this perspective is the acknowledgment that equality can never be created by simply declaring it. So pronouncing that ‘all men are created equal’ can serve to mask and perpetuate inequalities – from gender, race and class to the ability to express oneself. Therefore, prefigurative politics implies pursuing political structures and practices that actively set about creating equality by continuously challenging inequalities as they arise. A more egalitarian system of governance, it is believed, can only be developed by trying out and improving new political structures over time in a multiplicity of contexts.

The new structures being developed are based on decentralised networks rather than nation states. Instead of having a party leader or union representative, movements are organising through decentralised working groups and assemblies. Working groups take on specific tasks (cooking, media, meeting facilitation, outreach, cleaning, and so on) and are open to anyone who is able to carry out the task. General assemblies allow many people and smaller groups to coordinate with each other. What ties people together is communication between network nodes – working groups or local assemblies – rather than a predetermined ideology or institution.

This has the advantage that you don’t need to adhere to a party line, or to have a specific ideology, nationality or identity to be a part of the network. Also, a network can divide easily without splitting, so when disagreements arise, people can create a new node of the network rather than leave the network entirely.

As it becomes increasingly clear that elected leaders in Europe represent primarily the interests of economic elites, many nation states have grown impotent or unwilling to represent citizens’ interests. Either the state is forced by the Troika (the IMF/EU/ECB) to ignore basic needs, cutting expenditure on healthcare, education, socialised housing and other services, or the state is willingly pushing through austerity measures to keep budget deficits down. In a context where political representatives are deeply implicated in an economic system that creates massive inequality, there is an urgent need for strategies of social change that do not rely on the benevolence of elected officials.

The dynamic that today characterises the divide between northern and southern Europe is nothing new. For decades, richer northern countries have been using multilateral organisations such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank and loan conditions to determine domestic policy in poorer countries.

The alterglobalisation movement critiqued this democratic deficit from 1999 onwards, and it was during the mass mobilisations against these multilateral institutions that horizontal prefiguration came to the fore. Horizontality is strongest in the more autonomous, and often smaller, strands of social movements. Yet it was the official mode of decision-making even in the European Social Forum, in which many ‘traditional’ left activists took part. These movements fed into the movements of the squares that swept across Europe in the summer of 2011, exposing millions of people across the continent to various forms of horizontal prefiguration.

Despite mass mobilisation in European streets, many governments are consolidating power by militarising police forces, expanding surveillance and criminalising protest. Even if horizontal politics worked perfectly, it would not in itself be able to overthrow such power. Prefiguration is only valuable when combined with a challenge to existing power structures. The alterglobalisation movement always combined the two, and the post-2011 movements in southern Europe have proven even more confrontational.

In 2011 horizontal practices spread like wildfire. Never before were so many people internationally mobilised through a horizontal prefigurative strategy of social change. However, horizontal prefiguration also left many movements pondering its imperfections and failures. As the social crisis in southern Europe deepens, many people don’t have the time to wait for a better political system to be built. Instead, we see many of the participants of the movements of the squares now claiming that they can build the alternatives from within the existing system by creating new political parties. Only time will tell whether the horizontal prefigurative strategy that dominated movements since 2011 will survive the social crisis in which Europe finds itself today.

Marianne Maeckelbergh is the author of The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy (Pluto, 2009) and co-producer of the www.globaluprisings.org film series