How Can We Prefigure Society When We Only Seem to React?

Prefiguration of society is one of the most common themes discussed in anarchist circles. Whether or not it’s ever truly done justice—and honestly, I don’t think it ever is—it’s something that we’re often trying to figure out. It’s a question asked by anarchists and non-anarchists alike, though the latter tends to try to use it as a gotcha question more often than actually engage in discussions about what it might mean.

And yes, it is exhausting to constantly have those discussions about what an anarchist society could look like only to later find that they’re happening in bad faith and that the person you’re talking to is only interested in tearing everything down.

But prefiguration is something that we need to give more credence and thought to, something that needs to be fleshed out a bit more and have more ideas attached to it. Though I mostly don’t think it’s done out of malice, anarchists tend to throw around the solution of “prefiguring society” like some kind of bizarre buzzword that should just end an argument. It’s vague and doesn’t really tell anyone anything, leaving people with only the question of what we mean when we say it. 

It probably also doesn’t help—though it’s entirely logical and wonderful—that all of us have differing ideas of what it would actually mean to prefigure society. We have so many ideas, but that’s really born out of the fact that we all live in a huge range of contexts. There can never be one perfect answer to any of the following questions because our experiences, connections, identities, and geographies necessitate that we all have different strategies and tools, and that’s fine.

So it’s worth stopping and asking: What are we going to do? How are we going to do it? Who are we going to include?

I’d like to think that the answers to all of these questions are pretty obvious, though they can also feel equally as vague because of how intuitive the answers may seem to us. Starting with the question of who first, we should all be prepared to actually recognise that the answer is everyone. Afterall, what’s the point of liberation if it’s only for some and not all?

Yet I keep seeing that so many of our tools, strategies, and responses are developed merely as reactions to things that happen: things that we didn’t plan for or even consider and things some of us were trained to never pay attention to in the first place. While this isn’t an inherent problem—sometimes we can’t possibly know what will happen until we try to do something—having so much of what we do based only on our responses to events and problems leaves me wondering how much we’re really prefiguring the world we want to live in or even considering the world we’re in now.

Part of this may be a result of our understanding of what prefiguration is or how we view time and our place in the world. It hasn’t escaped my notice that a lot of people talking about “prefiguration” also seem to be neglecting the current generative aspects of what we should be doing. For them, there is a belief that what they’re currently doing is achieving something in the future. It’s not necessarily something that is happening now, and that often enables them to feel reassured that what they’ve done now is helpful because they believe that it will have impacts later. This isn’t inherently wrong, but it does open itself up to questions: What exactly are these people doing? What impacts has their work and activism had? Who is engaging with it and who is it for?

I can see these structures in a lot of the spaces I’m in, even those that I cherish and support. It frustrates me to no end, though that may also be because I recognise that sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking in this way. Sometimes it feels like the “prefiguration” that’s being discussed is only theoretical, only something that is vaguely seen in the current moment and cannot possibly be done until later because there are so many things wrong that must be righted. How those things will change is uncertain and rarely discussed. It continually comes back to things that we must do and prepare for now in order to get there later.

Wherever there happens to be.

For others, our understanding of prefiguration requires looking at the current moment and understanding how it impacts us now. It’s not entirely focused on immediacy, but there is an undercurrent of urgency running through some of it. There are people who speak of a desire for us to model what we want to see, hoping that others may follow suit. Occasionally, there are boundaries that have been set, but the way that people following this model of prefiguration discuss it often reminds me of the ‘golden rule’ (or ‘great commandment’) that was so frequently referenced in my own family when I was growing up: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In some respects, this can be a functional guideline to work from. If you want people to treat you well, you should also treat them well in kind. However, it’s the hopeful aspect that always flusters me, the fact that it frequently feels as if inviting people into certain behaviours isn’t enough. After all, a lot of the people who continually reminded me of that rule also seemed to really hate it once everyone else started treating them as they did others. They almost never stopped to reflect upon how their negative behaviours were hurting other people, even after people explained to them how they were impacting those around them. They still assumed that they were being kind or tolerant, even when they absolutely weren’t.

Perhaps it’s because, even though this idea of prefiguration is more firmly set in the current moment than the former, it doesn’t really think about currently existing people and currently existing communities. There’s little thought about the ways in which simply modelling behaviour does very little to shift the perspectives and attitudes that people around us have now, especially when we’re seeking a significant shift from the ways we’re currently doing everything.

Which all leads me back to my initial questions: What are we going to do? How are we working towards prefiguring anarchist societies?

In a lot of ways, it can be far easier to simply respond to something than it is to create an entirely new thing. Similarly, it’s even easier to see the supposed “solution” that we’ve seemingly always had (even if that “always” is only a few generations) and try to figure out how we can reform and rework it to better serve us. Though I’m not one who wants to completely throw everything away, I think we really need to do more to deconstruct and dismantle those systems to better understand how they function before we even dare to consider using them.

But every time a problem comes up, what I tend to see is that people simply respond to it in some way (even if their chosen method of response is to ignore it). We haven’t done anything to prevent it, and we haven’t tried to do much of anything to pre-empt it. In a lot of cases, we haven’t even done the necessary steps of unlearning the bigotries and assumptions within our own heads to make sure that our responses are at least helpful and appropriate.

Since we’re often still recreating what we know, what we’re doing is leaving other people out or leaving messes for them to correct and clean up. Often, these are people who are already quite exhausted from having to point out the existence of these bigotries in the ways that people speak and behave (or just silently deal with it because they’re just too tired of speaking up on their own), these are people who have to fight for others to listen to them explain how group dynamics and structure are still operating on particular assumptions that exclude or harm them (only to still be talked over and excluded), and they are people who are already doing this work in so many places (even though most of those spaces won’t do anything beyond making excuses to solve the issues). 

What we need to be doing is shifting our thinking entirely. We don’t have to rebuild everything immediately, but we desperately need to understand how those tools and strategies work; we need to learn their history and their original intent so that we can understand how they’ve become what they are. This includes looking at the ways in which it helps some people, hinders others, and what assumptions are buried within them. By deconstructing those strategies and tools and understanding everything that forms them, perhaps we can either find new ones that actually take everyone in our communities into account, rework them to be more useful, or discard them entirely. This doesn’t mean that all people have to be capable of the same things, but we must ensure that our actions clearly recognise the many different people and their vastly different needs.

If we neglect anyone, if we’ve done something to hurt them, we have failed—no matter if what we’ve done has succeeded in making things slightly better for a few. We cannot leave people behind, assuming that they will “catch up” or that we’ll all shift our focus to them should at least one demographic be liberated. It’s all of us or none of us, and there is no other way.

We should also be applying this to the moments when we take inspiration from other movements. Instead of simply removing successful strategies and tools from their context, we need to learn why they genuinely worked or merely appeared to be successful. We need to break them down to understand their integral parts, to see if we can make them work for us rather than simply repeating what someone else did and finding that it often fails. What allowed them to succeed? How can we translate their actions into something relevant to us? Did they leave anyone behind?

It’s kind of obvious to say, but it occasionally feels like we forget this: Prefiguration, though focused on the future, requires that we look around at our past and present. We need to know what we’ve done and what we’re doing; we need to be able to think about and plan for what could happen in the future, especially if we want to adapt fast enough and still be inclusive.

All of this has been quite vague, so let me put forth a clear example of a demographic who routinely gets left out, ignored, turned into jokes or insults, and made to feel unworthy within our movement spaces: disabled and neurodivergent folks.

I’m saying this from experience, as someone who is both disabled and neurodivergent. We are seen as an afterthought, left to figure everything out for ourselves and to have people ridicule us for whatever our needs may be. People lament how “weak” we are, how we’re “unable to cope” because some of us struggle with things like sensory overload in places that have been designed using neurotypical assumptions. Others portray us as “needing too much” and “being burdensome” if we ask for something as simple as ensuring enough room for people to navigate wheelchairs or for there to be sign language interpreters for Deaf people who need them. Disabled people are often told that they are responsible for their accommodations, rather than it being a community effort. 

Hell, as someone who just wants to sit down sometimes because of chronic pain in my back and knees, people get upset when I complain about how there’s nowhere to just rest. Clearly, we still have much work in unlearning everything we still cling to from the eugenics movement.

Sometimes we have specific accommodations that people often view as silly or childish. This can be seen in the sorts of comments that people make about things like lanyards that help people know how to interact with others, which largely come out of communities who have to deal with sensory overload. When many neurotypical people see someone wearing a lanyard indicating that they “don’t want to be talked to,” they question why it is that this person would even go outside; they get visibly upset at the boundaries that we’re setting in order to enjoy ourselves and feel comfortable in a shared space because the boundaries we’re asserting are different from their expectations.

In going to book fairs with my friends, some of whom carry around small stuffed toys that help them to decrease their anxiety in spaces with a lot of new people, I have overheard and confronted a number of people who—despite their claims to be “leftists” (and more specifically, communists)—jeer at them for being ridiculous and juvenile, as if either their needs or those qualities should even disqualify someone from participating in their community. They are often looked down upon and treated with little respect, and many of our spaces do absolutely nothing to pre-empt or prevent this.

We can see the same types of issues for other bigotries: Racism tends to only be addressed when someone has crossed a boundary, ignoring the needs and wishes of people of colour. Sexism and misogyny are frequently overlooked, with many pretending that they don’t happen at all until they do (and even then they’re only seen as an individual act and not a systemic issue). Ageism plays a huge role with many spaces not making room for either the young or the old, focusing predominantly on people in their twenties and thirties who are largely childless while also excluding families (and definitely single-parents). And immigrants and refugees typically get entirely ignored, with citizens frequently leaving us to figure everything out for ourselves unless we properly assimilate.

It should be very clear that we haven’t really done the work of prefiguring most of our spaces because all of these things continue to happen. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do it. We just have a lot of work to do.

Because of that, I often like to focus on the tools that we use. It’s not so much the innate design of them—I can only really speak to my personal preferences and needs in that regard—but the ways in which they’re created and run. So many of them have been created with assumptions that people will not hurt us or with very superficial understandings of what causes people to engage in negative behaviours while using them. This has been done to the point that those developing the tools have failed to recognise the harm that marginalised communities may and will endure should bad actors actually use those tools against them, especially because many of those very abusers have not faced any consequences at all for anything they’ve done.

We know this because it keeps happening. As much as we definitely see it on corporate media with their constant support of and failure to remove people who engage in stochastic terrorism, we see decentralised platforms struggling to deal with many of the same behaviours and attitudes. Just because the platform is decentralised doesn’t mean that our bigotries disappear. We haven’t solved anything; we’ve simply moved and possibly obscured it.

This is where prefiguration should factor in a lot more than it currently does, particularly as this is a chance to reflect upon the past and present. It’s a moment to see how the behaviours we’ve engaged in, the attitudes we’ve held, and the assumptions we’ve made have brought us to the current moment. It’s a point where we should be able to point out the things we’ve completely fucked up and how we can make amends while also building tools that are better and healthier for all of us.

And yes, I do mean tools. Having more than one option enables us to better meet the needs of more people and to be culturally and geographically responsive. This should be part of how we develop our concepts of prefiguration, rather than it becoming some vague buzzword that gets passed around at parties.

Along with these tools, we need more strategies that enable us to build more inclusive communities. Many more of these strategies should be focused on potentialities, helping us to build more flexible and responsive communities. This doesn’t mean we can’t keep the things we’ve done that worked, but we need our strategies to be flexible and adaptive to whomever is around us. Far too often, we still ignore marginalised and vulnerable community members. Though we know about their experiences, many of us still don’t consider them in the boundaries we set or the structures we use.

Overall, we really should be asking ourselves a lot of questions: What have we done to make sure that everyone can be part of the community, should they want to participate? Have we recreated anything—tools, systems, structures, or bigotries—that we also claim to be working against? What have we done in order to make it possible to pre-emptively meet the needs of our community members?

There is very little recognition that many of the tools we have must be adaptive or flexible for a range of uses, that they should start from a place of care and prevention instead of responding to violence when it happens, that they should be safe for all of us. Instead of recognising that the creators of such tools have enormous responsibility in working with multiple communities to prevent and decrease the harms they cause while also being responsive to different needs, we tend to shift the blame to individual users for what they’re doing.

And while those individual users should take responsibility for their actions, it should be easy to understand that we are continually recreating tools and systems that do not help foster environments of community and safety (which, by the way, is not synonymous with surveillance). If we’re not actively working to provide structures that can be preventative in harm, encourage community, and enable people to feel safe, we aren’t actually doing anything other than shifting the locations of communication and changing who controls us.

The same is true of our institutions, our societies, our worlds. Many of the tools and systems that surround us do not help foster communities of trust. Many of them are built almost entirely on distrust and skepticism, often assuming the worst of all people instead of actively cultivating spaces that encourage growth and compassion. And while it is healthy to be cautious of others, it does nothing to ensure that we can move beyond those feelings to building a cohesive community of people who are capable of trusting and supporting each other.

Afterall, trust is an important component in being able to build healthy spaces. It’s also a necessary part of learning and growing.