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Prefigurative politics: being the change you want to see

Written By: - Date published: 12:30 pm, May 9th, 2017 - 10 comments
Categories: activism, Deep stuff, democratic participation, election 2017, Politics - Tags: , , , ,

The following is a Guest Post from The Standard regular commenter Incognito.

It is election year again and political parties have started to draw the battle lines and are sharpening their political swords of sorts and a few pre-emptive strikes have already been delivered to show off political and economic prowess and social conscience, court the voters, and intimidate the political opponent(s).

New Zealand has large problems that urgently require effective and bold political action and our country is not unique by any means. One of the root causes of our societal ills is neoliberalism, which is arguably on its deathbed, but an alternative has not (yet?) emerged. This is a reoccurring topic here on TS and elsewhere but on the face of it little progress seems to be made; entrenched partisan thinking and attitudes are a sure recipe for predictable comments and exchanges. Similarly, the recent presidential election in the US and Brexit in the UK, for example, and the ensuing fallout have also led to a lot of (personal) nastiness and vitriolic comments that served no good.

This blog gives us all an opportunity to combine our individual and collective efforts for a positive change. However, it does sometimes feel like we’re squandering this beautiful opportunity by infighting, egotistical grandstanding and point scoring. (NB Why and how do we expect politicians to be any different when we ourselves show the exact same behaviour, behaviour that we apparently disapprove of and even despise!?) Coalitions are based on mutual respect and trust and common/shared values. Despite some voicing that the fabric of our society seems to be changing and unravelling I believe that we have much more in common with our fellow Kiwis than we (like to) realise and that more binds us together than separates us.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement rested on the concept of prefigurative politics. It created public spaces and forums for political discourse for each and every one; they also made use of the “people’s mic” that ensured everybody could have a say and exercise their right to free speech in a safe and respectful environment. Not too dissimilar from Open Mike here on TS I reckon.

Interestingly, the Occupy movement, possibly due to its free-for-all inclusive philosophy, did perhaps not achieve as much as it could (or should!) have and was perhaps not as effective as it could have been although it might be too early tell. It has been argued it lacked direction and leadership.

I searched for “prefigurative politics” here on TS and found only one comment by Jan Rivers in a post by Stephanie Rodgers called Building a mass movement. Jan very succinctly gave her understanding of it as “being the change you want to see”. [I hope Jan doesn’t mind that I’ve taken this as the title of this post]

If there is one common theme that connects the dots it is change. According to humanists we all have agency, i.e. the capacity to choose, individually as well as together, regardless of whether we use it or not. For example, we can opt for the status quo, because it suits us, or we can choose to do nothing and refuse to engage because we feel powerless (futility) or because we are too apathetic to try and change anything; e.g. we don’t even vote or worse, we even discourage others to vote! We get upset or fearful of and by things we cannot control, we lash out, get depressed, or stick our heads in the sand or all of the above. These are all perfectly ‘normal’ human behaviours and responses.

Or else we could go to the other extreme and become revolutionary radicals and try to deconstruct and overthrow anything and everything – that’s an easy thing to say (“drain the swamp” ring any bells?) – before we (can) reconstruct society (TBA).

Alternatively, we could go for a more pragmatic approach and just try to change what we can; we can act as and become “tempered radicals” (1). These are grassroots leaders without formal authority who try to elicit change and go about it quietly and gently, without drawing too much attention, at least initially. Most importantly, they work within the system and its specific rules and regulations. Most importantly, they “not compromise on the vision, but must be flexible on the approach” (2).

To achieve change tempered radicals (need to) live by example, model it (cf. prefigurative politics), seize opportunities, and celebrate and leverage off small ‘victories’. They treat others with respect and use language and expression that not only leaves intact the sense of self-worth of others but also does not push them into a corner (no gotcha tactics) because it is non-aggressive and non-confrontational. Another crucial attribute of these people is that they form networks and alliances, which might be just one or a few steps away from building a movement. It will be a hard long road especially in New Zealand but it is a path worth taking.


1) An example of quiet activism and a tempered radical approach to enact change.

2) Another link to a long piece on tempered radicals with plenty of illustrative examples of not compromising but being flexible. The term/concept “tempered radical” originates from academic research into business (change) management in a corporate environment, which perhaps is a little ironic.


10 comments on “Prefigurative politics: being the change you want to see ”

  1. Tamati Tautuhi 1

    NZF party vote at least you are buying some insurance ?

  2. One Anonymous Bloke 2

    According to humanists we all have agency, i.e. the capacity to choose, individually as well as together, regardless of whether we use it or not.

    A privileged and exclusionary narrative, even if it has any basis in fact.

    people often have to make the best decision out of a terrible set of choices
    Jin An.

  3. michelle 3

    I get sick of the gnats rhetoric ‘it is all about choices’ well I never choose them and never would because every time they are in power our people , our Maori and PI whanau and our poor pakeha whanau end up worse of. People make choices based on what they know if they don’t know they cant make a decent choice now can they

    • Red 3.1

      The problem for you Michelle is most people do know but just don’t buy what the opposition are selling Your reasoning is very patronising and elitist It is also the biggest reason for the lefts constant fail, ie it’s not us it’s all those dumb voters

      • michelle 3.1.1

        Red can you not handle a person being straight up instead of talking with a fork tongue like your gnats masters that is the trouble with some of you right wing controlling pakehas you can dish it out but cant take it

        • Red

          Been straight up does not give any more credence to a spurious arguement A stupid comment is a stupid comment, irrespective if it is straight up or not I suggest only one person is struggling with critique here Michelle

  4. keepcalmcarryon 4

    Its probably a noble objective, but what an awful wank term “prefigurative politics” is.
    I understand its not a term of your making but to me it would embody images of the chardonnay socialists.
    Especially when we have “tempered” radicals about the place.
    If our radicals are all tempered are the males all neutered as well?

    • Hanswurst 4.1

      Seems like a good term to me. What would you call it?

    • weka 4.2

      are you saying that everyone should be an untempered radical?

      • keepcalmcarryon 4.2.1

        Thats clearly not what Im saying.
        The OP is possibly a mushier way of suggesting we steer clear of identity politics to concentrate on the good of the whole – something I do agree with.
        Probably though the social democratic movement lacks a real visonary charismatic leader to take every one with them – I mean no disrespect to Mr Little by saying that but we need some major economic structural changes and I dont think gentle agitation , tempered radicals and co leaderships either resonate with the electorate or are a vehicle for real change. Mr Little is still head and shoulders a better leader than Blinglish -I like a lot of what I have seen Im not sure I see an actual mental picture of the NZ Little wants yet..

        What Im suggesting is that for real change , it will take top down leadership to take the radicals and moderates with him/her pursuing a clear vision, not a gentle agitation of a bunch of too often disparate left splinter groups. And we sound waffly disconnected and disparate when we use terms like “tempered radicals” and “prefigurative politics.” The lefts version of key hammering a nail.

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