Can Prefigurative Politics Replace Political Strategy?

Jonathan M. Smucker

Occupy Wall Street participant Jonathan Smucker takes a critical look at the movement’s “prefigurative politics” through the theoretical lenses of Gramsci and Habermas.

What is politics?

In this essay, I examine so-called “prefigurative politics” as it played out in Occupy Wall Street (OWS)—through Gramscian and Habermasian theoretical lenses. My analysis is informed by my experiences as an active participant in the movement.

Before delving into the question of whether the concept of prefigurative politics is genuinely descriptive of OWS—let alone of the broader wave of global uprisings—let us first clarify what we even mean by politics. The words politics and political are often thrown around casually and without precision. What does it mean for something to be political or, for that matter, apolitical? For Antonio Gramsci, whether a certain tendency is political or not ultimately comes down to its engagement with extant power relations and structures. When Gramsci calls certain tendencies apoliticism,[1] his argument is not that these tendencies are not informed by or in reaction to political events or structural relationships, or that their adherents have no political opinions. He is asserting, rather, that the actions of some ostensibly political groups are not genuinely intended as political interventions, i.e., strategic attempts to shift relationships of power as well as the outcomes of those relationships. Here we see an important distinction: between actions (or opinions) that are informed by or in reaction to a political situation, on the one hand, and actions that are designed to be political interventions to reshape the world, on the other. The expression of one’s values or opinions, while informed by political realities, will not automatically amount to political intervention—even if expressed loudly and dramatically.

To be political, then, is not merely to hold or to express political opinions about issues, either as individuals or in groups.

To be political, then, is not merely to hold or to express political opinions about issues, either as individuals or in groups. Rather, to be political, requires engagement with the terrain of power, with an orientation towards the broader society and its structures. With such a political understanding, Gramsci saw the essential task of aspiring political challengers was “the formation of a national-popular collective will, of which the modern Prince is at one and the same time the organiser and the active, operative expression.”[2] With the term “modern Prince” Gramsci was referring to a revolutionary party that must operate as both the unifying symbol and the agent of an articulated collective will, i.e., an emerging alternative hegemony that brings disparate groups into alignment.

How does Occupy Wall Street measure up to Gramsci’s political vision? OWS did not have a revolutionary party, in the sense that Gramsci elaborated. Indeed, Occupy shared many features with the anarchist movement that Gramsci criticized.[3] Yet, despite this anarchism—with all of its ambivalence and hostility towards the notion of building and wielding power, leadership, and organization—OWS did, in its first few months of existence, step partially into this dual role of “operative expression” and “organiser” of a newly articulated “national-popular collective will.” Indeed, OWS’s initial success in the realm of contesting popular meanings was remarkable. Practically overnight the nascent movement broke into the national news cycle and articulated a popular, albeit ambiguous, critique of economic inequality and a political system rigged to serve “the one percent.”

Moreover, OWS managed momentarily to align remnants of a long-fragmented political Left in the United States, while simultaneously striking a resonant chord with far broader audiences. Its next logical political step, had it followed a Gramscian political “roadmap,” would have been to build and consolidate its organizational capacity by (1) constructing a capable and disciplined organizational apparatus, and (2) activating the above-mentioned latent and fragmented organizations and social bases into an alternative hegemonic alignment capable of shifting political outcomes (i.e., winning).

Occupy, however, was deeply ambivalent about even attempting such operations. Nonetheless, it is important to mention that a tendency within OWS did make such attempts, and even enjoyed notable successes, however localized or limited these may have been. Broadly speaking, and certainly oversimplifying for the sake of clarity, there were two main overarching tendencies within the core of OWS. One tendency leaned toward strategic politics and the other toward prefigurative politics.[4] To follow a Gramscian roadmap, the former tendency would have had to build a mandate within the movement for strategic political intervention, to a greater extent than it did. As for the prefigurative politics tendency, Gramsci would likely not have considered much of its “politics” to be politics at all. This latter tendency viewed decision-making processes and the physical occupation of public space as manifestations of a better future now (i.e., prefiguration), rather than as tactics within a larger strategy of political contestation. The prefigurative politics tendency confused process, tactics, and self-expression with political content and was often ambivalent about strategic questions, like whether Wall Street was the named target or most anything else in its place.[5] It celebrated “‘the act for the act’s sake’, struggle for the sake of struggle, etc.”[1]; Gramsci may well have called it “apoliticism.”

Among other related phenomena that Gramsci criticized, Occupy’s prefigurative politics tendency resembled his descriptions of voluntarism, marginalism, and especially utopianism. “The attribute ‘utopian’ does not apply to political will in general,” he argued, “but to specific wills which are incapable of relating means to end, and hence are not even wills, but idle whims, dreams, longings, etc.”[7] Gramsci’s elaboration of utopianism goes further than the popular notion of rosy-eyed visions of how the world could one day be. He dismisses utopianists not for the content of their vision of the future, but for their lack of a plan for how to move from Point A to Point B, from present reality to realized vision. In other words, dreaming about how the world might possibly someday be is not the same as political struggle—even when the dreams are punctuated with dramatic “prefigurative” public spectacles.


I want to suggest that in the “prefigurative politics” on display at Zuccotti Park, Gramsci’s negative concept of utopianism interacted with Jürgen Habermas’ theory of the lifeworld—specifically the latter theorist’s discussion of subcultural tendencies oriented towards the revitalization of the lifeworld. Again, prefigurative politics purports to be about modeling or prefiguring visions of utopian futures here and now. Indeed, such prefigurative spectacles did seem to create a palpable feeling of utopianism at Zuccotti Park. Utopianism as a feeling is hardly about the future; rather, it is felt here and now. During my time as an active participant and organizer at Zuccotti Park, I began to wonder if the heightened sense of an integrated identity was “the utopia” that many of my fellow participants were seeking. What if the thing we were missing, the thing we were lacking—the thing we longed for most—was a sense of an integrated existence in a cohesive community, i.e., an intact lifeworld? What if this longing was so potent that it could eclipse the drive to affect larger political outcomes?

What if the thing we were missing, the thing we were lacking—the thing we longed for most—was a sense of an integrated existence in a cohesive community…an intact lifeworld?

Habermas argues that under a system of advanced capitalism and bureaucracy, both bureaucratic and capitalist logics have penetrated and colonized the lifeworld, encroaching upon, and even annihilating, the realm of traditional and organic social practice and organization. In such contexts, social movements have dramatically shifted in their political contents, forms, demographics, and the motivations of their participants. Social movement participants in advanced capitalist nations may be more likely to emphasize fine distinctions between their own groups and the broader society than they are to look for commonalities. That is, they are more likely to marginally differentiate themselves and their groups as a means of finding and deepening a sense of solidarity and belonging that they feel themselves lacking. Habermas writes:

For this reason, ascriptive characteristics such as gender, age, skin color, neighborhood or locality, and religious affiliation serve to build up and separate off communities, to establish subculturally protected communities supportive of the search for personal and collective identity. The revaluation of the particular, the natural, the provincial, of social spaces that are small enough to be familiar, of decentralized forms…all this is meant to foster the revitalization of possibilities for expression and communication that have been buried alive.[8]

My point here is not to diminish the importance of a group’s internal life and the sense of community, meaning, and belonging experienced by participants. I would even posit that such spaces are indispensible to social movements’ ability to deepen political analysis and foster the level of solidarity and commitment that oppositional struggle requires. The problem here is a matter of imbalance: when a group’s internal life becomes a more important motivator than what the group accomplishes as a vehicle for change. To the extent that a group becomes self-content—encapsulated in the project of constructing its particularized lifeworld—what motivation will participants have to strategically engage broader society and political structures? Why would group members want to claim and contest popular meanings and symbols if the group’s individuated lifeworld can be further cultivated by an explicit rejection of such contests? If participants are motivated by hope of psychic completion—by community and a strong sense of belonging—and such motivation is insufficiently grounded in instrumental political goals, their energies will likely go into deepening group identity over bolstering the group’s external political achievements. The problem is that the group’s particularized lifeworld can be strengthened without it ever having to actually win anything in the real world. Indeed, this may help to explain why some ostensibly political groups have been able to maintain a committed core of participants for decades without ever achieving a single measurable political goal.

In short, the various forms of apoliticism described by Gramsci are encouraged by the extraordinary motivational shift described by Habermas. The latter theorist discusses two factors that combine to encourage this motivational shift: (1) the drive to construct a refuge from the pervasive logics of capitalism and bureaucracy, i.e., an intact lifeworld, and (2) the backdrop of an expanded middle class whose members can take for granted a certain level of material sustenance and comfort, so that individuals are freed up to expand their political concerns beyond basic material needs, thereby diminishing the imperative to articulate common class interests or build effective vehicles for their advancement. In Habermas’ words, “The lifeworld, more or less relieved of tasks of material reproduction, can in turn become more differentiated in its symbolic structures and can set free the inner logic of development of cultural modernity.”[9]

Political scientist Ronald Inglehart makes a similar argument, based partly on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once our basic survival and material needs are provided for, we can then focus our attention on social networks and individual self-expression. Projecting this schema onto generational shifts, Inglehart posits an explanation for why dramatic outbursts of a remarkably new style of collective action hit every highly industrialized society in the world simultaneously in the late 1960s.[10] This argument dovetails with a prescient framework put forward by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd over a decade before the social upheaval and social movements of the 1960s. Riesman argued that a new “other-directed” character structure, arising from a backdrop of material abundance, was becoming predominant in the United States. Young people who were socially molded into this character structure—in contrast to their inner-directed parents—were more concerned with the life of the group than with what the group produces.[11] It is not hard to see how such shifts could encourage “apoliticism,” as it has been defined in this discussion: action “for the act’s sake” that is effectively disinterested in political instrumentality, strategic calculus, and broader outcomes.

Two tendencies

As OWS launched, its prefigurative politics tendency was the most visible, as it celebrated the utopian microcosm it created in Zuccotti Park, and fixated on its own decision-making process. There was, however, another strong tendency, though often less visible, that bore a greater resemblance to a Gramscian approach to political struggle. This strategic politics tendency was simultaneously succeeding in injecting strategic political messages (most notably, “We are the 99%!”) and aligning hitherto fragmented political actors—such as labor unions, community groups, and national organizations—behind the scenes. In the beginning of OWS, prefigurative politics and strategic politics co-existed uneasily; many core Occupy participants engaged in both kinds of tasks or oscillated between the two tendencies. Within three months, however, core members factionalized, and the tendencies became much clearer—i.e., closer to ideal types. Admittedly, Occupy was comprised of an impressive number of moving parts, so it is a gross simplification to try to categorize such variegated components into two overarching tendencies. Nonetheless, it is my assessment that these two tendencies each had enough coherence and adherents to be reasonably treated as things (even if their parameters blurred).

Figure 1: dualisms

I introduce the dualisms in Figure 1 in order to shed light on underlying logics of these two tendencies in OWS. The dualisms overlay each other, but are not identical. Starting at the top, I juxtapose Gramsci’s conception of a hegemonic contest—a strategic intervention into the realm of politics (with the aim of prevailing)—with Habermas’ elaboration of the lifeworld, which, in advanced capitalist nations, can function as a kind of sacred refuge from political-instrumental logics. The second dualism relates to the first: unification, a necessary operation and orientation within a hegemonic contest, is juxtaposed with the tendency toward marginal differentiation—i.e., emphasis on distinguishing particulars, which Habermas argues becomes more prevalent as the middle class expands in post-scarcity societies. Following this is instrumental/expressive, a dualism often discussed by social movement scholars.[12] The term expressive misses something important, however, insofar as it can imply self-expression and individualistic motivation. Seeing this motivation as profoundly group-oriented, I prefer the next dualism, what the group accomplishes / life of the group.[11] Moving down, I situate so-called prefigurative politics on the right side of the dualisms, to suggest that the concept is highly related to the dualism halves above it—lifeworld, marginal differentiation, expressive motivations, and the life of the group—and is highly ambivalent or even hostile towards the opposite halves. This dualism corresponds with the next one down: Max Weber’s juxtaposition of an ethic of responsibility versus an ethic of ultimate ends[14]; strategic politics stems from the former, and prefigurative politics from the latter. The final dualism, politics/values, contains the two distinct levels of analysis that I argue are indispensible in apprehending collective political action; this dualism roughly encapsulates all of the above dualisms.

Figure 2: subjective layers of action

Figure 2 depicts subjective layers that precede collective action, under two models, as ideal types: strategic politics and prefigurative politics. Both models of political subjectivity are constructed upon, and shaped by the details of, a material base. The strategic politics model starts with a vision of the world that the collective actor desires: the ultimate goals it hopes to attain. On top of this ground is the layer of political strategy, where the actor assesses what parts of its vision might be achievable when—and how. This is where the actor assesses the terrain in which it must operate: its opponents, allies, potential allies, targets, resources, constraints, opportunities, etc. Informed by this layer, the actor engages in planning for its actions. Its actions (the top layer) then can be seen as tactics designed to move forward an underlying political strategy, which is designed to move the actor closer to realizing its vision (or to achieve measurable pieces thereof). The prefigurative politics model likewise starts with the layer of vision (also atop a material base), but it skips over—and glosses over—the layer of political strategy. Instead it plans actions to directly manifest the essence of its vision. As such, its actions are not tactics—insofar as tactics are steps to move forward a strategy—but are rather direct expressions or prefigurations of the actor’s vision. Means and ends are one and the same in this model.

In Figure 2, the two models can easily be confused. On the one hand, the strategic politics model incorporates prefigurative elements into its design; its tactics also reference and “prefigure” the actor’s vision, as part of a strategic communication operation aimed at mobilization. But these operations are subordinate to political considerations. The famous lunch counter sit-ins in the US South during the civil rights movement are an excellent example of this kind of prefiguration of the actor’s vision for the world—as a key communications component within a larger political strategy. On the other hand, the prefigurative politics model often uses buzzwords like “strategy” and “organizing” without ever defining them; misappropriating a political vocabulary, while mistakenly assuming that any plan of action automatically implies the existence of a strategy. In this case, the implicit “strategy” was to inspire more and more people to spontaneously join the prefigurative action, led by the hope that the revolution would come and the system would eventually collapse, by way of spontaneous mass defection.[15] As more and more people occupied more places, the Occupy movement would keep expanding. Such notions amounted to little more than wishful thinking.

That prefigurative elements can (and often should) be included within a strategic politics model is an important point. With Occupy, my aim is not to dismiss the value of the movement’s prefigurative elements, such as the People’s Kitchen’, the People’s Library, ‘mic checks’, and so on. Indeed, I found many of these elements deeply inspiring; I took part in them and I celebrate them. My argument is against a theory of change that is comprised of only these elements, without attention to whether they fit into a larger political strategy. I am neither against manifesting our visions and values in our internal organizing processes, nor against staging actions that put these visions and values on public display; my critique, rather, is of the notion that such practices can somehow substitute for strategic engagement at the level of political power. Insofar as prefigurative elements supplement a strategic politics, I am all for it; however, in its contemporary usage, I interpret the phrase “prefigurative politics” as a claim to replace strategic politics (as defined here) altogether.[16]

Thus, both sides of the dualisms shown in Figure 1 can be contained within the strategic politics ideal type shown in Figure 2, but the same is not true of the prefigurative politics ideal type. The former qua ideal type has to achieve an optimal balance between instrumentality and expressiveness—when manifested as a working model, it strives for this balance—while the latter ideal type does not have to even recognize the legitimacy of the need for such balance. Following the logic of the dimension of values expression in which it has emerged, prefigurative politics is equipped to only see the dimension of politics negatively; the whole dimension is labeled and shrunk down to a single negative point of reference within a particularly narrated values dimension (i.e., lifeworld). From this vantage point, anything that is associated with power, authority, or politics proper, is considered to be a part of or imitative of a monolithic system, and must be opposed on principle.

This is all to say that I am not convinced by the prevailing narrative about OWS having “no leaders” and amounting to a new kind of “prefigurative politics.” My argument is not only that such an approach is politically unviable. I am also suggesting that it did not actually happen, except as mythology and public performance.[17] It is clearly part of the story, but it could not have existed without the existence of a more politically instrumental tendency. Moreover, what I have been building up to is a conceptual framework in which to situate so-called prefigurative politics: squarely within the life of the group, and in contrast to the strategic politics that groups engage in to achieve ends beyond their own existence. I do not accept prefigurative politics’ account of itself. In many instances, I do not even accept that it is politics at all.

If prefigurative politics…eschews engagement and contestation in the larger common realm of power and politics, then we might ultimately view it as a project of private liberation.

If prefigurative politics has its basis in attempts to construct a particular lifeworld—i.e., in expressing values and affirming the life of the group—and it eschews engagement and contestation in the larger common realm of power and politics, then we might ultimately view it as a project of private liberation. A private endeavor need not view itself as such in order for it to be functionally so; if the benefits of its efforts are limited to its own participants, it is functionally private. To be clear, my intention here is not to diminish the value or meaningfulness of these internal benefits to group participants, but, rather, to argue for balancing this with a broader political orientation. All of this points to the need—perhaps greater than ever before in history—to intentionally ground our projects of liberation in concrete political goals and accompanying political strategies. We have to acknowledge and be strategic about “what’s in it for us,” in terms of our sense of identity, community, and wholeness (i.e., the life of the group). We have to navigate and find a balance between the expressive and the instrumental aspects of collective action; between within-group bonding and beyond-group bridging; between the life of the group and what the group accomplishes aside from its own existence. Because, frankly, we (i.e., social movement participants in advanced capitalist nations) have material circumstances and a disposition that incline us towards self-involvement to the point of insularity.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a doctoral sociology student at UC Berkeley. He has been active in US social movements for two decades. He spent a year in New York City working with Occupy Wall Street, primarily with the public relations working group, the movement-building working group, Occupy Homes, and coordinating with allied organizations. Follow @jonathansmucker on Twitter.

References and Footnotes

  1. Gramsci, Antonio. 1991. Prison Notebooks. Pp. 147. Ed. Joseph A. Buttigieg. New York: Columbia University Press.
  2. ibid. Pp. 133
  3. ibid. Pp. 149
  4. Wini Breines introduces this juxtaposition of strategic politics and prefigurative politics in her scholarship on the New Left. (1982. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962–1968: The Great Refusal. New York: Praeger.)
  5. Indeed, consider the bizarre attempt to occupy land owned by Trinity Church on December 17, 2011, in what may have been the most epic single moment of Occupy’s unraveling.
  6. Gramsci, Antonio. 1991. Prison Notebooks. Pp. 147. Ed. Joseph A. Buttigieg. New York: Columbia University Press.
  7. ibid. Pp. 175
  8. Habermas, Jürgen. 1984. The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume II. Pp. 395. Boston: Beacon Press.
  9. ibid. Pp. 385
  10. Inglehart, Ronald. 1977. The Silent Revolution. Vol. 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  11. Riesman, David. 1950. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
  12. Polletta, Francesca, and James M. Jasper. 2001. “Collective Identity and Social Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology 27:283-305.
  13. Riesman, David. 1950. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
  14. Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Pp. 120-128. Eds. New York: Oxford University Press
  15. Richard J. F. Day sees such defection unfolding over a longer period of time; a process that he sympathetically describes as “the exodus from the neoliberal order.” (2005. Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Pp. 215. Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press.)
  16. Perhaps some advocates conceptualize prefigurative politics in a less totalizing way than I have defined it here; my critique may not apply to their conceptions. Yet, this is not my own novel interpretation of the phrase; many of prefigurative politics’ most vocal and theoretically developed contemporary proponents would not disagree with my claim that it aims to replace strategic politics (especially if the latter is defined in terms of hegemonic contestation).
  17. Smucker, Jonathan M. 2013. “OCCUPY: A Name Fixed to a Flashpoint.” The Sociological Quarterly 54(2):219–225.