Introduction to Power & Prefiguration Forum

Ghaleb Attrache

The recent global wave of revolt has reinvigorated a crucial (and longstanding) question on the Left: what kind of a politics is to be pursued, here and now, if we are to build a more democratic and egalitarian society?

The recent global wave of revolt has reinvigorated a crucial (and longstanding) question on the Left: what kind of a politics is to be pursued, here and now, if we are to build a more democratic and egalitarian society? The prevailing narrative suggests that contemporary social movements provide us with a novel answer: a kind of politics that eschews hierarchy, leadership, and perhaps even power altogether. “Prefigurative” and “leaderless,” such movements, it is argued, are playing an entirely different game than previous movements, political parties, or labor unions, and thus avoid many of the pitfalls that such challengers ultimately faced.

But is this narrative really representative of the majority of political organizing today, and of the relationship between movements, the state, and power? Are internal dynamics within contemporary movements really all “horizontal,” or do different forms of leadership and organization still exist? Is “prefigurative politics” the dominant mode of organizing against contemporary global capitalism, or are other forms of politics still flourishing? This forum is a space for counter-arguments to this prevailing story, including and beyond the recent uprisings.

The four pieces in part one of this forum—check back for part two in November—address prefigurative politics in varied ways: They are theoretical, analytical, and strategic. They cover a range of empirical cases. Their geographic scope extends from the Americas to Europe to the Middle East and North Africa.

In his piece on Occupy Wall Street, Jonathan Smucker employs a Gramscian conception of the political to address not only why it is unfair to characterize Occupy as an exemplar of prefigurative politics, but also how doing so impairs our ability to accurately diagnose, and thus overcome, the movement’s shortcomings. Similarly, Cihan Tuğal’s assessment of the situation in Egypt takes up the question of leaderlessness and the inability of movements there to capitalize on successive popular mobilizations, in both 2011 and 2013, and fundamentally challenge the existing rule of military, security, judiciary, and business elites. In her essay on Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, Rebecca Tarlau blurs the state-society distinction and explores the necessary question of whether, to what extent, and when it is viable for movements to engage or eschew state institutions. Thomas Hintze’s interview with Jón Ólaffson provides an overview and appraisal of the Icelandic case, discussing its form, goals, and trajectory in relation to both the themes of the discourse on prefigurative politics and Iceland’s specific political configuration.

Taken together, the contributions seek not only to complicate predominant narratives, but also to shed insights and draw lessons that can aid both scholars and those at the very forefront of collective action.


Ghaleb Attrache is a PhD student in sociology at UC Berkeley. His main research interests are in political sociology and the sociology of culture, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa.