Prefigurative societies and mutual aid

I recently wrote about the article, Prefigurative Societies in movement by Marina Sitrin, Popular Resistance, December 21, 2022. It begins “something new is happening – something new in content, depth, breadth and global consistency. Societies around the world are in movement.”

[Note: I try to avoid using so many quotations, to speak from my own experience instead. But as this is new to me, these quotes are how I’m beginning to understand prefigurative societies. A bibliography can be found below.]

I immediately identified with the idea of prefigurative politics or societies because mutual aid communities model prefigurative societies. Both of these concepts emphasize rejecting vertical hierarchies.

What has been taking place in disparate places around the world is part of a new wave that is both revolutionary in the day-to-day sense of the word, as well as without precedent with regard to consistency of form, politics, scope and scale. The current frameworks provided by the social sciences and traditional left to understand these movements have yet to catch up with what is new and different about them. Specifically, the theoretical frameworks for Protest and Social Movements are not sufficient to understand the emergent horizontal and prefigurative practices. I suggest we think beyond these frames, and do so first by listening to, and with, those societies and groups organizing from below – and to the left.

People from below are rising up, but rather than going towards the top – ‘from the bottom up’, they are moving as the Zapatistas suggested, ‘From below and to the left, where the heart resides.’
Power over, hierarchy and representation are being rejected, ideologically and by default, and in the rejection mass horizontal assemblies are opening new landscapes with the horizon of autonomy and freedom.

Prefigurative Societies in movement by Marina Sitrin, Popular Resistance, December 21, 2022

I’m glad to be learning about this way of looking at justice movements because this captures what my Mutual Aid community is like. Helps me better understand the work we (Des Moines Mutual Aid) are doing. And suggests ways to expand justice networks.

From the beginning of my experiences with Des Moines Mutual Aid (DMMA) I knew I was in a special place. My experiences with DMMA began before I first went to the food distribution project, when Ronnie James joined us at a vigil I had organized in support of the Wet’suwet’en peoples, who are trying to stop the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their beautiful territories. I was impressed that he made the effort to join us, and that he knew of the Wet’suwet’en struggles.

I was grateful when he patiently taught me about mutual aid over several months of text messages. And then agreed to show me the free food project. I don’t know that ‘show’ is the right word. I don’t remember that we spoke about a commitment to continued participation. I planned to just see the work in person and that would be all. That the experience might help me create a mutual aid community near me.

Instead, I’ve attended almost every week for nearly three years. One of the principles of Mutual Aid is to draw people into the work.

Mutual aid is essential to building social movements. People often come to social movement groups because they need something: eviction defense, childcare, social connection, health care, or help in a fight with the government about something like welfare benefits, disability services, immigration status, or custody of their children. Being able to get help in a crisis is often a condition for being politically active, because it’s very difficult to organize when you are also struggling to survive. Getting support through a mutual aid project that has a political analysis of the conditions that produced your crisis also helps to break stigma, shame, and isolation. Under capitalism, social problems resulting from exploitation and the maldistribution of resources are understood as individual moral failings, not systemic problems. Getting support at a place that sees the systems, not the people suffering in them, as the problem can help people move from shame to anger and defiance. Mutual aid exposes the failures of the current system and shows an alternative. This work is based in a belief that those on the front lines of a crisis have the best wisdom to solve the problems, and that collective action is the way forward.

Dean Spade. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) (Kindle Locations 163-171). Verso.

Prefigurative societies in movement captures the dynamic nature of these societies. Prefigurative politics is expressed graphically by the cover of this book that I’m beginning to read.

“The old pattern of social action began with a strike in a workplace, backed by a general strike and demonstrations. In the new pattern of action, the mobilization starts in the spaces of everyday life and survival (markets, neighbourhoods) putting … societies in movement, self-articulated from within. And not laying siege, as transpired under colonialism two centuries ago, but rather boring from within until cracks emerge …” 

Raul Zibechi

If we want to reach a future society with different basic institutions than we have now, these institutions need to be developed – at least to some degree – before we get there. In other words, achieving fundamental social change requires us to prefigure that change in the here-and-now. Prefigurative Politics is the politics of doing that.

What is Prefigurative Politics? How large scale social change happens Paul Raekstad and Eivind Dahl

“Today, around the world, people resort to alternative forms of autonomous organization to give their existence a meaning again, to reflect human creativity’s desire to express itself as freedom. These collectives, communes, cooperatives and grassroots movements can be characterized as people’s self-defense mechanisms against the encroachment of capitalism, patriarchy and the nation-state.”

Kurdish scholar-activist Dilar Dirk

The movements emerge from necessity. Using horizontal assemblies and forms of self-organization overlooking for their needs to be met by those with institutional power. This is sometimes due to their demands on the government or institutions falling on deaf ears, and other times is a part of an initial vision of self-organization and horizontalism. The participants in these movements have generally not been politically active, and most identify as a grandmother, daughter or sister, neighbour. They do not organize with party or union structures and do not seek representative formations. They come together in assembly forms, not out of any ideology, but because being in a circle is the best way for people to see and hear one another. They strive for horizontalism because they do not want to replicate those structures where power is something wielded. They do not begin talking about taking over power but through their grounded organising, they end up creating new theories and practices of what it means to change the world.

Prefigurative Societies in movement by Marina Sitrin, Popular Resistance, December 21, 2022


Prefigurative Politics WikiPedia
Paul Raekstad and Eivind Dahl
What is Prefigurative Politics?
University of Virginia. Louisiana Lightsey
Prefigurative Societies in movement by Marina Sitrin, Popular Resistance, December 21, 2022
Prefigurative Politics. Building tomorrow today. by Paul Raekstad and Sofa Saio Gradin
Prefigurative Politics, P2PF Wiki
Prefigurative Politics, Catastrophe, And Hope

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