The Shifting Nature of Prefiguration in Social Movements: From Modelling to Expressing Alternatives?

Saturday, 21 July 2018: 14:30
Oral Presentation
Felix BUTZLAFF, Institute for Social Change and Sustainability, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria
Michael DEFLORIAN, Institute for Social Change and Sustainability, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria
Prefiguration has always been part of the action repertoire of social movements in order to achieve a “new human”. The labour movement established an entire parallel structure of consumer associations, health assistance and insurances, educational institutions and sport clubs. Moreover, the environmental movement promoted vegetarianism, agricultural communes and ecological restoration, while the anarchist movement mobilized towards squatting, free-shops and non-hierarchical decision-making. Recently, we can observe a resurgence of interest and engagement in prefigurative practices that are situated in the spheres of everyday life, such as community gardens, food cooperatives, sewing workshops, repair cafés or clothing-swap initiatives. While there is an increasing effort of conceptualizing these practices as a new form of politics, there is surprisingly little theoretical work on why most of these “new urban practices” lack a political-strategic “arm”, something that the movements above all included in their tactics. In this paper, we will address this puzzle by drawing on the conceptual traditions of political sociology, new social movement theory and late-modern sociology. We argue that modernization processes have fundamentally changed the relationship between the strategic and prefigurative action repertoire of social movements. In the beginning of the 20th century, prefiguration was sought in order to pre-model a society that was to be created through party politics. Today, new urban practices allow to construct, experience and express a self that cannot be represented through conventional forms of political participation anymore. At the same time, political parties as strategic actors often remain devoid of prefigurative societal backgrounds. While this mirrors a change in the relevance and quality of individual identity in mobilizing for social change, the transformative potential of new urban practices remains unclear.