Society featured

Nonviolent Revolutionary Prefigurative Direct Action — a school of praxis

August 8, 2023

By way of entry into the topic contained in the title for this article, let me share with you what ChatGPT said in response to my questions to it about definitions.

But first, please understand that I do not regard ChatGTP as some sort of ultimate authority on anything, any more than I regard Wikipedia (or anyone, anything) as such an ultimate authority. Is it a bit lazy of me to lean on ChatGPT here? Probably. But the responses to my questions GPT offered were, I think, adequate as a way into a discussion, and this article’s purpose is to serve a discussion, or conversation. Most of my writing is intended to serve this conversation. So let’s just get right into it.


What is prefigurative politics?


Prefigurative politics is a concept rooted in social and political theory that emphasizes the idea of embodying the values and principles of a desired future society within present-day actions and organizational structures. In other words, it is a strategy for creating social change by living and practicing the ideals of the envisioned future in the present, rather than waiting for a distant goal to be achieved.

The term “prefigurative” comes from the word “prefigure,” which means to foreshadow or anticipate. Prefigurative politics suggest that the means used to pursue social and political change should reflect the ends one hopes to achieve. This concept is often associated with grassroots movements, activist groups, and alternative communities that strive to create microcosms of the future society they wish to see.

Key aspects of prefigurative politics include:

  1. Direct Democracy: Emphasis on decision-making processes that are participatory, inclusive, and non-hierarchical, reflecting the democratic ideals of the envisioned society.
  2. Horizontal Organization: Organizational structures that avoid traditional hierarchical models and instead promote decentralization, collective decision-making, and shared responsibilities.
  3. Nonviolent Resistance: Advocacy for nonviolent methods of resistance and protest, in line with the desire for a future society characterized by peace and cooperation.
  4. Inclusivity and Diversity: Fostering an environment that respects and includes diverse voices, identities, and perspectives, as a reflection of the equality and inclusiveness sought in the future.
  5. Mutual Aid and Solidarity: Practicing mutual support, cooperation, and sharing resources among community members as an alternative to competitive and individualistic behaviors.
  6. Alternative Institutions: Creating alternative economic, social, and cultural institutions that embody the desired values and serve as examples for a transformed society.
  7. Cultural and Lifestyle Change: Advocating for changes in cultural norms, values, and lifestyles that align with the vision of a more just and equitable society.

Prefigurative politics is often critiqued for being overly idealistic or disconnected from the complexities of larger social and political systems. Critics argue that while prefigurative approaches can create inspiring local initiatives, they might not be sufficient to achieve broad systemic change without also engaging with traditional forms of political action.

Overall, prefigurative politics represents a strategy for those seeking to bridge the gap between their ideals and their actions, attempting to create immediate positive change while also setting an example for the type of society they envision for the future.


What is “direct action” in politics?


“Direct action” in politics refers to a broad range of tactics and strategies employed by individuals, groups, or movements to directly address a specific issue, problem, or injustice, often without relying on intermediaries like traditional political processes or institutions. Direct action can take various forms, including protests, demonstrations, strikes, occupations, blockades, boycotts, and more. The key characteristic of direct action is that it aims to directly confront and challenge the target of concern, rather than relying solely on indirect methods like lobbying, voting, or negotiation.

Direct action is rooted in the belief that ordinary people have the power to effect change through their own actions and collective efforts. It is often used by marginalized or oppressed groups to challenge systemic injustices and demand immediate attention to their concerns. Direct action can be disruptive, attention-grabbing, and even confrontational, aiming to raise awareness, force a response from authorities, or disrupt the status quo.

Here are some common examples of direct action:

  1. Protests and Demonstrations: Organizing rallies, marches, and public gatherings to draw attention to specific issues and demonstrate public sentiment.
  2. Civil Disobedience: Deliberately breaking laws or regulations in a nonviolent manner to highlight the unjust nature of those laws and provoke change.
  3. Occupations and Sit-Ins: Occupying physical spaces like government buildings, corporate offices, or public areas to make a statement and demand action.
  4. Strikes and Boycotts: Workers withholding their labor or consumers boycotting products or services to pressure employers or corporations into addressing certain issues.
  5. Blockades and Disruptions: Blocking roads, transportation systems, or other infrastructure to draw attention to an issue and disrupt business as usual.
  6. Direct Services and Mutual Aid: Creating alternative systems of support and resources to address immediate needs within communities, often without relying on established institutions.
  7. Artistic and Cultural Interventions: Using artistic performances, street art, and creative actions to communicate messages and challenge societal norms.

Direct action can be controversial, and opinions about its effectiveness and appropriateness can vary widely. Some view it as a powerful tool for grassroots movements to amplify their voices and achieve meaningful change, while others may criticize it for potentially leading to confrontation, legal consequences, or negative public perception.

Historically, direct action has played a significant role in various social and political movements, such as the civil rights movement, labor movements, feminist movements, environmental activism, and more. It continues to be a central strategy for groups seeking to challenge the status quo and promote social, political, and economic transformation.


How are direct action and prefigurative politics related?


Direct action and prefigurative politics are closely related concepts that often go hand in hand, as they both involve taking tangible steps to bring about social change and create alternative models of society. While they are distinct concepts, they share certain principles and strategies:

  1. Emphasis on Action: Both direct action and prefigurative politics prioritize taking action rather than relying solely on traditional political processes. They recognize that waiting for top-down change from established institutions might not be effective or timely.
  2. Focus on Immediate Change: Direct action aims to address specific issues or injustices directly, often demanding immediate attention and response. Prefigurative politics also seeks to create change in the present by embodying the desired future values and structures.
  3. Creating Alternatives: Prefigurative politics involves building alternative institutions and systems that align with the envisioned future society. Direct action can involve creating temporary alternatives (e.g., occupations, community gardens) that embody the desired change on a smaller scale.
  4. Challenging the Status Quo: Both concepts challenge the existing power structures and norms. Direct action does this by confronting and disrupting established systems, while prefigurative politics challenges the status quo by showcasing alternative ways of organizing and living.
  5. Nonhierarchical Approach: Both direct action and prefigurative politics often reject hierarchical structures and promote participatory decision-making and inclusivity.
  6. Exemplifying Values: Prefigurative politics aims to embody the values of the desired future society in present actions. Direct action, in some cases, can serve as a direct embodiment of those values through nonviolent protests and civil disobedience.
  7. Awareness and Mobilization: Both concepts are intended to raise awareness about specific issues and mobilize people to join the cause.
  8. Long-Term Vision: Prefigurative politics often has a long-term vision of transformation, seeking to gradually shift society toward the desired values. Direct action can be a short-term tactic that contributes to that long-term vision by putting pressure on immediate concerns.

It’s important to note that while these concepts are often complementary, they are not synonymous. Direct action can take various forms and may not always embody prefigurative principles. Additionally, prefigurative politics can involve more than just direct action; it encompasses building alternative structures, relationships, and cultures that serve as examples of the desired change.

In essence, direct action can be seen as a tactical component within the broader strategy of prefigurative politics. Prefigurative politics provides a framework for understanding how direct action can be aligned with larger goals of societal transformation and the creation of a more just and equitable world.


Is the term (phrase) “prefigurative direct action” in common usage?


Yes, the term “prefigurative direct action” is used in certain circles, especially within activist, social movement, and political theory discussions. It refers to a type of direct action that not only aims to address immediate issues or injustices but also embodies the principles and values of the desired future society as advocated by prefigurative politics.

In “prefigurative direct action,” the action itself is intended to serve as a model or example of how things could be in the envisioned society. This can involve implementing nonhierarchical decision-making, inclusivity, cooperation, and other characteristics of the desired future state within the process of organizing and carrying out the direct action.

While not as widely used or recognized as the individual terms “prefigurative politics” and “direct action,” the concept of “prefigurative direct action” highlights the connection between these two strategies and emphasizes the idea that the methods used to achieve change should reflect the values of the changed society. It is part of a broader discourse around creating not just temporary disruptions but lasting change and transformation in alignment with a vision of a more just and equitable world.

Broken Politics

Okay, enough of ChatGPT for now (whew!).

In the title of this article, I already said quite a mouthful!: Nonviolent Revolutionary Prefigurative Direct Action. That’s a lot! But let me make the notion just a little more complex, just for fun. How about Nonviolent Revolutionary Ecocultural Prefigurative Direct Action?

That’s where I’m coming from here.

We’re always hearing how we are in a climate crisis. And that’s true. It’s an existential risk — true. It’s existential for humans and myriad other species. Sure, maybe — if things continue where they are presently heading — the human population may not go extinct (?), but the survivors would likely be a very tiny fraction of our present population, maybe a few thousand people living somewhere up in the Arctic circle, feeding on locally grown tropical fruit?

But climate weirding is but one of myriad intertwined ecological crises, all of which — and especially all together — present existential risks for most of the living creatures (ourselves included) on —or, rather, in—Earth now. (In, because the atmosphere is a layer of Earth’s various strata.) We’re in an ecological polycrisis, and while it’s important to urgently address the climate weirding, we’ve got to also slow and then stop the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of soils, the ocean dead zones, and a hundred other symptoms of a civilization having long ago gone entirely mad.

As I see it, this polycrisis is a cultural crisis at root. It is likewise, simultaneously and equally a crisis of education and of politics. Education and politics are just two aspects of culture. So we’re in an eco-cultural crisis of existential proportions, and I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that nothing vaguely resembling an adequate response can emerge from within the political culture of the present.

Let me repeat that.

Nothing vaguely resembling an adequate response can emerge from within the political culture of the present

Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

At present, we’re treating political screws with hammers, when what we require is a screwdriver. “He pounds screws” is a way of calling someone an idiot.

Nonviolent Revolutionary Ecocultural Prefigurative Direct Action, while quite a mouthful, means to propose a route out of what’s broken in our politics. It’s a way of suggesting what we do rather than to pound screws.

(Confession. I have literally pounded a few screws in my youth. It’s possible, but it’s a lousy way to treat wood and screws, and makes no actual sense whatsoever.)

Our political systems (let’s call it ‘governments’) are utterly and completely non-responsive to the eco-cultural crisis of the present, and this means we’re heading straight into the bowels of hell. So it’s time to stop pounding screws and to study alternatives to using hammers for every problem.

To understand why our political systems are so utterly broken, you have to understand that modern nation states co-evolved into modernity with the mode of ‘business’ called business corporations. (See my article The co-evolutionary emergence of the state with corporate capitalism .) What this basically means is that the ethos of the business corporation is one and the same ethos as the state. These apparently two things are actually akin to Siamese twins. They are two heads with one body. That’s why “the state” always favors economic growth, “business” and turning nature into consumer goods. The state’s lifeblood is money, not life. Literally! It cares nothing for life, but only pretends to in order to mask what it’s really doing behind its back or up its sleeve.

How do I know? I know because I was born in 1965, and have watched the state system of “politics” for fifty-seven years. I’m gonna say here, enough is enough! It’s time for a break away from what is broken. It’s time for a mode of politics which is a mouthful — a departure from business as usual.

No one can do this alone!

And voting, alone, can never be nearly enough. We’re not going to change the world by pounding screws.

So we have to find one another, roll up our sleeves, and get to work making the sort of world we want to live in — which is a world which can be inhabited without having to go up to the North Pole for growing pineapples.

If you believe this message, or are at least willing to take it seriously for consideration, then I’m going to make a big ask of you. I’m going to ask you to find a friend whom you like for their intelligence and good-heartedness, and to sit down with this friend and discuss this article with them —face-to-face, over tea or coffee (or beer, wine). Go ahead and pick my ideas apart… or find something useful here. Maybe I’m the one pounding screws? Maybe? But is it worth exploring with a friend? I think so.

The revolution I long for is kind and gentle, and requires friends. And dialogue / conversation. Nothing living in isolation is alive at all!

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.

Tags: Direct Action, nonviolent resistance, polycrisis, prefigurative politics