One thing that has fascinated me over the past five years as a geographer and anthropologist is how many youth across the world are putting their political effort into “being the change they want to see in the world” – a phrase that is embossed on one of my coffee cups and which I’m reliably informed is misattributed to Gandhi.
The Occupy Movement is a good example. Rather than spending time petitioning politicians, Occupy activists sought to build an ideal society – a ‘better tomorrow’ – realised through such activities as free yoga classes, lectures, and democratic debates. Scholars refer to this as ‘prefigurative politics’: the channelling of political energy into performing now one’s vision of a better world.
Marxist-Leninism often entailed submitting now to party hierarchies in order to realise a more egalitarian world in the future. In a prefigurative movement, such a mismatch between practice and goals would be impossible: the medium is the message.
Gerard Winstanley is often identified as one of the first ‘prefigurative politicians’. In the 1660s in southern England he led a group to occupy and cultivate land that lords had illegally appropriated. Winstanley and friends didn’t waste time writing to officials, they just went out and dug. The ‘Diggers Movement’ has inspired copycat insurrections through history.
The feminist movement, Black panthers and environmental movement are all examples of prefigurative politics. I think too – in terms of youth action – of the urban squatters movement, Brazilian schools movement, and World Social Forum.
Two questions arise for anyone interested in social change: Does prefigurative politics work? And what does it mean for our understanding of ‘now’ and ‘the future’?
Critics often say that prefigurative politics is ineffective. History must be littered with examples of people whose attempts to model the future came to naught. Prefigurative politics has an in-built clunkiness because one is committed to ‘being the change’ regardless of the shifting landscape of political opportunities and challenges.
Yet even if it does not quickly lead to dramatic transformation, prefigurative tactics may have other, more subtle benefits. African Americans who drank in White-only bars during the US Civil Rights movement did not immediately change the law but they developed a collective sense that another world was possible. As the US intellectual Howard Zinn wrote more recently: “To live now as you think the world should be is itself a marvellous victory.”
Prefigurative politics happens at the everyday level as well as in large-scale movements. Many of the young people with whom Jane Dyson and I work in north India say that they studiously refuse to bribe in government offices, even though they know that bribery takes place. “We try to show through our actions that we understand that things should work differently,” they say. Cumulatively and over time, such efforts can change how bureaucracies work.
Modelling ‘the future’ is important in prefigurative actions. But ‘now’ – in the sense of the day-by-day, hour-by-hour passage of time – is increasingly significant. Urban anarchist movements in the Twentieth Century moved from imagining the present as a model of the future to celebrating the present for its own sake. The ‘prefigurative’ part of prefigurative politics may even disappear. The historian Sir Keith Joseph once told me that there was graffiti on Balliol College wall in Oxford in 1967: “Due to a lack of interest, tomorrow has been cancelled.”
Many youth activists in movements such as Occupy also speak a great deal about ‘now’, reflecting not only young people’s frustration with the slowness of traditional politics but also the contemporary importance of instantaneity (ever faster download times) and the cultural value attached to living ‘in the moment’ (mindfulness).
But a ‘now-focused’ politics may not mean giving up on tomorrow, as Oxford students ironically suggested in the later 1960s. Youth in the parts of provincial north India in which Jane and I conduct research say that their efforts to ‘be the change’ are not directed towards achieving a different ‘future’ at some definite point of time. But they also said that it would be irresponsible to celebrate ‘now’ for its own sake.
They charted a middle path in which they focused on the present as the first moment in the future. By acting now, you shape the future, because the future is just this moment, followed by this moment, followed by this moment. “By acting well, we improve what happens ‘from now on’ (age chalkar)”, they said.
What also emerges strongly from conversations with young people in north India is that they don’t imagine a simple choice between prefigurative or non-prefigurative politics. Rather, the question – for them and I suppose for people reading this note – is how to best incorporate a prefigurative element into daily action, and to do so ‘from now on’.