Novelty, Strategy and Timing in Social Movements Research:
Prefiguring the Futures We Want?
The question of what is ‘new’ in social movements is particularly loaded, due not only to a standard academic pursuit for understudied social phenomena, and for novel ideas, but also to normative concerns about political futures. The notion of prefigurative politics is accumulating traction in discussions of social movements for all these reasons, but the timing of its popularisation is poorly understood. Its intellectual antecedents are widely regarded to originate in anarchist thought, and the history of its application is bound up in the American new left, the alter-globalisation movement and the post-2011 protest wave. Recent work describes prefiguration increasingly not by way of contrast to political strategy, but as an alternative strategic orientation. As increasing numbers of movements appear to fit the description of being politically concerned by their means as well as their ends; of enacting or constructing alternative infrastructures and institutions; or of embodying the future they want in the present, both the question of what is new intellectually and what is distinctive in political terms become more important. The paper has three aims. The first is to review the conceptual trajectory of prefigurative politics and the movements and tactics it has been used to illuminate. The second is to evaluate prefigurative political ‘strategy’, broadly assessing its purported uses, reflecting on assumptions about strategy and movement success. The third aim is to reflect on why else the notion of prefigurative politics might have enjoyed particular recent purchase, arguing that its moment coincides with important rises in ‘ethical’ or ‘critical’ consumption, lifestyle environmentalism, and ‘everyday politics’, recent crisis in the political Left, and increasing scholarly interest in the peripheries of social movements.