First of all, I want to say that I’m really uncomfortable writing this blog. Through the last year, and fuelled by my engagement with MAP, I have come to regard my own thoughts and opinions as momentary truths that are constantly open for challenge and change. I feel I am constantly walking the tightrope of wanting to hold opinions that reflect my values, but being open and self-critical enough to have these be moulded by each new experience and encounter. To not get paralyzed and retain the capability to act, I have come to understand my opinions as transient reflections of the present state of my thought process that still retain enough substance to be valid sources of action. But the nature of writing a piece can never reflect this fluidity of thought as it gives the illusion of a manifest solid opinion fixed in time and space. One of the things that I have enjoyed most about this class is how what everybody shared challenged, complemented and deepened my understanding and changed me as a result. This blog will not be able to reflect this dialectic. It will rather be a chaotic conglomeration of open questions, open-ended thoughts and partially articulated feelings.
Bearing this in mind, I want to say that I was very moved and inspired by the session on prefigurative politics. As my politicization happened largely in anarchist thought and action, it has for some time been a concept that I have been holding very close to my heart and drawing a lot of inspiration from. The hard questions and good challenges that people brought to the class made me really question my relationship to this concept, but I have come out of it feeling renewed in my conviction of how important it remains for my own political organizing today. I want to write a few lines about why that is.
Just upfront a few words on definition. When I think of prefiguration, I think mainly of Boggs definition of embodying the social relations, decision making structures etc. that one strives for in ones practice. Thus I think that prefiguration is actually not by definition linked to horizontality. If a very hierarchical group organizes hierarchically to achieve a hierarchical society, that to me is also prefigurative. The main implication for politics of resistance is that if you want to shape a different world, you need to also embody the founding principles of that world in your actions.
Many important questions were raised in the seminar about the possibility and usefulness of horizontality and diversity, the central principles of the alterglobalization movement. We questioned whether horizontality would be possible on a larger scale, what its limits are, and whether centralization of power might actually have more equalizing forces and may be more efficient. The article we read was speaking about the nature of power to centralize and establish hierarchy, and the continuous process of attempting to decentralize power. As an anarchist, I have approached hierarchy and power with utter questioning, but not with absolute rejection. I think that some power relations are useful, as for example in the relation between a student and a teacher. If the teacher is sincere and good, the power dynamic is set up to resolve itself: the student will one day be as knowledgeable and skilled as the teacher.
In the same way, in political organizing some power might be useful. In my experience of working in larger groups on political campaigns, such as the occupation of Bramber House to combat privatization of services at Sussex, the general meeting split off into smaller working groups. These worked on particular tasks, and fed back their progress and open questions to the general meeting, which made the important decisions. In some way, power and representation reappear in this setup. Horizontality thus becomes a maxim that is never achievable, but always strived for. Given, then, that horizontality is an unattainable end-state that will never be reached and that power reappears with its tendency to centralize, the important question in my mind becomes where the right to reject a decision, the sovereignty and responsibility, comes from. In our democracy today it is very hard to reject a decision made by the powers-that-be. In most cases, power is exercised from the top-down. All important decisions in the general meeting/working group set-up are made by the group as a whole. In this way, the efficiency of power is retained in smaller groups, but the ability to shape the course of action lies within the collective. Power is exercised bottom-up. To me this is much closer to horizontality, and much more desirable, than the democracy we presently live in. Acknowledging that power will always be there, and finding ways of organizing that make use of the efficient sides of power whilst retaining the sovereignty in the mass thus becomes a more helpful way to conceptualize and strive for horizontality to me.
The question of whether this can be applied for larger groups still remains. Having political conversations with pretty much anybody and arguing an anarchist opinion usually conjures up the question: Well, all your ideals are good, but what exact system do you propose? Chomsky helpfully argues that nobody is smart enough to come up with a perfect system. We just have to trust in our ability to experiment and shape it as we go along. That is prefiguration. And my experience with working groups, general meetings and large scale decision making makes me hopeful that we can develop creative ways of making this happen. Working on deepening democracy, participatory budgeting, and participatory community-run projects are all pieces of the puzzle to my mind. Depending on one’s definition of the concept, it could be argued that they are all prefigurative in some way.
Still, many hard questions have to be posed to prefiguration and horizontality. In my experience, it has all too often been an insular, exclusive and white space that retained characteristics of a bubble. What happens when we actually apply this on a larger scale, how ready are we to embrace real difference in a prefigurative spaces, is consensus debilitating or useful? Might a prefigurative space be a space of explosive creativity that creates a vision and faith in the possibility of crafting another world, which in itself is inherently transient? Complexity theory teaches us that systems remain in relative equilibrium unless perturbed significantly, and then they only change if there is another ‘state’ (not in political terms) that the system can transform into. May prefiguration present a vision for another ‘state’, which needs to be complemented with sustained larger-scale action in order to create lasting change? Looking at these questions on a larger historical scale, is the mere contact with a prefigurative space, the possibility of another world, meaningful enough to create sustained action, sustained challenge to the system? May prefiguration thus be an inherently transitory state that serves to sustain itself on a longer scale? As with anything, prefiguration is not the whole answer. But what role can it retain in a more comprehensive appraisal of change, social action and resistance?
I want to write about another aspect of prefiguration and horizontaliy that I find very important, which is often overlooked. In my experience, conversations about questions such as ‘how do we structure horizontality practically’ can get very conceptual, systemic, and othering. I’ve heard and done much a talk about systems and structures out there that we need to reconceptualise and change, and that is important. But another aspect that in my mind is equally vital is our own position, our internal process, our self-transformation, that contributes to this process.
I want to start making this point by telling a story. I was working in a non-profit food coop a while back that had as its goal to provide organic staples at accessible prices. The main team were around 10 people, making most decisions together. The discovery of my own agency to shape a process that I was also part of and working for was absolutely transformational, that on the side. At some point, we had gotten into some debt, and one of our members proposed to introduce a significant price mark-up and save some money for when that would happen again. For some time, there was a lot of unspoken tension and talking behind the backs of others, and animosity build up. Many of us seemed to feel an inherent moral high ground, as if we all knew what this coop was about, just this one person was wrong. At some point it got too much, one of our members named the elephant in the room, and we had the conversation about the principles of the coop that was long overdue. The conversation was hard and long and we never reached a consensus, but we all came out changed and strengthened by it and could continue the work in a satisfying way for all. I realized then that truly working horizontally with other people is beyond structures and organization. It requires so much internal work, so much questioning of ones own assumptions and a significant step away from the socially conditioned belief that ones opinions are more right than those of others. It requires constantly being open to the possibility that one is wrong, which is existentially painful and threatening. In the same way, I think that this process entails a significant giving up of power one already holds. Due to my relatively privileged background I have been accustomed to holding a whole lot of power. Giving this power up has not been and is not easy, but when striving for horizontality I think that it is essential.
Following this line of thought, I believe that in a capitalist system that preaches competition, individualism and division, loving, caring for each other, and listening, are absolutely radical acts (I don’t take credit for this thought – somebody said it the other day and I would love to reference them, but I forgot who it was!). In my experience, these qualities are absolutely vital for working horizontally. By its nature, you will be making decisions with people you disagree with, and mustering up kindness after a two-hour discussion, or shutting up when you really want to say something and reflecting on whether what they have to say might actually teach you more than speaking, is difficult but essential. Beyond horizontality, I believe that in the present political climate it is vital to come together with people who hold very different opinions, and creating spaces for exchange. In the case of the UK, I think that the grievances that lie at the heart of anti-establishment sentiments left and right are real, and it would do so much good to be able to express them with each other after they have been shunned for so long, and build bridges across what divides us. This requires openness, love, curiosity, kindness and critical self-reflection. If we cannot realize these values this in our communities, how can political systems possibly function on their basis?
Discussions around whether horizontality is desirable and feasible are important. But I think that they need to be complemented by an inquiry into the personal qualities that make it possible in the first place. Fostering these is prefigurative practice, and I think that horizontality without such an inquiry is indeed impossible. Somebody said in the seminar that it is egoistic to just rely on personal transformation. I agree. But likewise, focusing on structural change without inquiring into one’s own position is futile. I think that anybody engaged in work that tries to make the world a better place should also be encouraged to reflect on the power one holds and how one perpetuates systemic inequalities, and question whether the ideals one strives for are realized in the very relations to the people one is surrounded by. Inquiry and action, personal and structural change, have to go hand in hand. Otherwise, I believe that sustainable change cannot be achieved.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that prefiguration and horizontality are contextual. As we discussed in the seminar, in Tahrir horizontality might have mainly been a way of protecting oneself. In my experience of political action, however, and in my future aspirations of working politically in this country, prefiguration for the moment retains its radical appeal. After some hard discussions, I still believe that in the context of this country, there is value in experimenting with new ways of organizing that question and decentralize power, of shaping these through a learning process as one goes along, thereby working to realize the desired world in the here and now. And I believe that our inquiry into our own role in this process, and a constant questioning of how we realize our ideals in our lives and relationships, are essential. I understand though that the argument might not apply at all in different contexts.
As a postscript. I kept pondering on the transformative power of being in a prefigurative space, of experiencing the reality of difference when everything that surrounds you is rupture, the explosive character and formation of vision and faith. A little haiku was the product of this pondering. Here it is.
Though thunderstorms reign
Buds raise their shy, sturdy heads
We have awoken