Prefiguration or Actualization? Radical Democracy and Counter-Institution in the Occupy Movement

Daniel Murray

Comparing Occupy Wall Street and an outgrowth of the movement in the SF Bay Area called Occupy the Farm, participant-researcher Daniel Murray argues that the movement for radical democracy must do more than create spaces for discourse and dissent. It must be a movement of democratic counter-institutions.

Occupy the Farm. Photo credit: Kelly Johnson, Revolution Photography

The Occupy movement emerged in response to a devastating economic crisis, bringing economic inequality to the center of political discourse. But it also emerged in response to a wave of social movements around the world that toppled dictators, asserted the power of the people and demonstrated their desire to take control of the decisions that affect their lives. In Occupy, as in all of these movements, the economic and the political were linked. Participants did not merely demand an end to foreclosures or new redistributive policies to address economic inequality; they also saw these grievances as symptomatic of a fundamentally undemocratic political system. Though the interests and motivations of participants in the Occupy movement were highly diverse, at the core it can be read as a movement for radical democracy – the underlying goal was to actualize the ideal of self-organizing communities of free and equal persons, expand and deepen democratic participation in all spheres of life, and increase individuals’ and communities’ power over social, economic and political institutions.[1]

But in many ways, Occupy also sought to be a movement of radical democracy. Rather than petitioning politicians to bring about democratizing reforms or building a party that would hopefully instate democracy after the revolution, activists hoped to bring about a radically democratic society through radical democratic practice. They sought to prefigure a democracy-to-come, by actualizing radical democracy in the movement itself. They claimed public spaces as venues in which experiments in radical democracy could be developed, tested, and propagated. They were spaces in which to organize political action and in which all were free to participate in agenda-setting, decision-making, and political education through the process itself.

Based on fourteen months of participant-research in two Occupy sites – Occupy Wall Street and an outgrowth of the movement called Occupy the Farm – this paper evaluates the different forms prefigurative politics has taken within the movement.[2] Many commentators have lauded the movement as an example of prefigurative politics, which they see as the cutting edge of contemporary radical politics.[3] However, an overemphasis on the value of prefiguration can be debilitating, leading to a focus on internal movement dynamics at the expense of building a broader movement, and a focus on symbolic expressions of dissent as opposed to the development of alternatives to actually replace existing political, economic and social institutions. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) suffered this fate, partly due to the perception that the encampment and the decision-making procedures were prefigurative, and the perception that prefigurative politics itself will lead to revolutionary transformations in the political, economic and social structure.

While Occupy Wall Street foundered on the prefigurative obsession with movement process, a group of activists, students and local residents in the San Francisco Bay Area have sought to overcome these challenges. Since 2012, they have worked under the banner of Occupy the Farm (OTF) to create an agricultural commons on a parcel of publicly owned land. Unlike OWS, OTF has worked to establish a counter-institution grounded in material resources and production, that is ultimately meant to increase participants’ autonomy from the state and capitalism. In this way it has been able to link radical democracy and economic justice in a material way, rather than merely symbolically. As it is generally practiced and conceptualized today, prefigurative politics is an inadequate framework for developing radical democratic political strategy. Instead of prefiguration, we should redirect our efforts toward developing and linking democratic counter-institutions that produce and manage common resources. Occupy the Farm illustrates some of the potential and the challenges of such a strategy.

Prefigurative Politics and Counter-Institution

Reflecting on the history of authoritarian communism, the disempowering democratic deficit in so-called democratic states, and the alienating effects of bureaucracy, advocates of prefigurative politics contend that that sacrificing democratic principles in the process of transformation leads to undemocratic ends. Prefiguration, on the other hand, is thought to produce democratic subjects, better decisions, and the foundation for the deep structural transformations desired. Most importantly, preventing domination now is seen as the only way to prevent the reproduction of domination downstream.

The early history of prefigurative politics, extending back to at least the Russian soviets of the early twentieth century or even the Paris Commune of 1871, was firmly grounded in counter-institutions that sought to bring existing social and economic institutions under popular control or create new institutions to supplant existing undemocratic institutions.[4] This meant democratically managed factories, schools, health clinics, and living spaces. Later, with the New Left, prefigurative politics came to incorporate an emphasis on developing a “beloved community” among movement participants. This was based on the idea that transforming social relations was a necessary precondition for broader structural transformation. Wini Breines argues that the novelty of the New Left was precisely its attempt to accomplish both of these goals simultaneously.[5] But as she describes it, tensions emerged between these two elements and it became a primary fault line that ultimately undid organizations like Students for a Democratic Society. Since then, much contemporary prefigurative politics has focused on perfecting democratic processes within movements, moving even further away from counter-institution. In part because of this shift, advocates of prefigurative politics from the New Left to Occupy have been subject to the critique that such a politics is incapable of achieving larger structural transformation. It is seen as excessively focused on internal relationships among participants, and as such ineffective at both outward-facing movement-building and executing a broader strategy to transform existing institutions.

Two different articulations of prefigurative politics can help us better understand the differences between this earlier form of prefiguration and contemporary forms. The first is from its most prominent advocate and one of the “founders” of the Occupy movement, David Graeber. In his reflections on the movement, Graeber describes the idea of prefigurative politics as, “the idea that the organizational form that an activist group takes should prefigure the kind of society we wish to create.”[6] The second is from Carl Boggs, one of the original theorists of the concept, reflecting on the New Left and the history of communism. For Boggs prefiguration means, “the embodiment within the ongoing political practice of the movement, of those forms of social relations, decision making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal.”[7] He specifies that with the New Left the site of prefigurative politics came to include, “not only production,” but rather, “every aspect of social existence is brought into the class struggle.” At the institutional level, this takes the form of “small, local, collective organs of popular control — factory councils, soviets, neighborhood assemblies, revolutionary action committees, affinity groups.”[8]

The distinction between these two articulations is subtle, but important. Graeber focuses specifically on the activist group and its organizational form as the site of prefigurative politics, as well as the direct actions of such movements to physically intervene against state power. What Graeber describes are the small affinity groups of 5-20 activists that serve as a support group during direct actions or other political activities, the gatherings of multiple affinity groups to plan large-scale direct actions, and these brief mobilizations themselves.[9] The focus on activist groups takes two forms. First, advocates see these groups as sites for the development of new modes of democratic decision-making that they hope will replace existing political institutions.[10] But instead of working to replace these institutions, movement actors have largely rejected engagement with existing institutions or been unable to reach this point because of a focus on perfecting the “process” within the movements. As Marianne Maeckelbergh writes of the alterglobalization movement, quoting an activist, “for many people, this movement is PRECISELY and primarily about process.”[11]

Second, emphasizing what he sees as the power of democratic practices in these settings, Graeber contends that the experience of this kind of direct democracy and confrontation with power can transform participants. It serves a pedagogical function and is an opportunity for self-actualization. However, this perspective over-valorizes the experience of political participation, independent of its effects on material concerns. By valorizing activist groups and their temporary mobilizations, this kind of prefiguration fails to achieve the instrumental benefits that are one of the primary functions of our politics. In both of these ways, this kind of prefiguration focuses on the political, instead of creating alternative institutions to meet people’s everyday needs. It creates spaces for political discourse, opportunities to register discontent, and temporary alternative communities that serve a primarily symbolic function. In some cases, these activists have temporarily interrupted undemocratic institutions such as the World Trade Organization. But by remaining largely disconnected from the material needs of those most affected by political and economic inequality, this approach reduces their motivation to participate. Ultimately, by focusing on the political in this way, prefigurative politics only indirectly impacts the transformation of the basic institutions of society.

Unlike Graeber, Carl Boggs does not limit prefiguration to activist organizations or their acts of resistance. He includes the practice of the movement more broadly such as the running of factories and other economic institutions by worker councils. These are not merely activist organizations but counter-institutions that either transform existing institutions by transforming the relations of production and power, or they replace existing institutions with those based on more egalitarian relations. Most importantly, they are institutions that serve instrumental purposes for community members by giving them control over their material well-being and the decisions that affect it. The distinction between Boggs- and Graeber-style prefiguration is further evident in the terminology they use. Boggs describes the history of prefigurative communism, whereas Graeber (along with most other contemporary advocates) refers to prefigurative politics. Communism is a political and economic form that is tied to collective production, to communes that manage and provide an institutional structure for the coordination of everyday concerns. Prefigurative politics, on the other hand, often remains in the abstractly political, valorizing discussion itself with inadequate concern for the instrumental value of politics and the everyday concerns of the collective management of communal life.

From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy the Farm

Graeber’s articulation of prefigurative politics maps onto a particular, and I would argue dominant, tendency within Occupy Wall Street.[12] Over time, developing democratic decision-making procedures within the movement, defending the encampments, and asserting the right to assemble in them became the focus of the movement. At OWS, prefigurative politics was practiced in two primary ways. First, the general assemblies and brief attempt to develop a spokescouncil mirrored the kinds of decision-making procedures the movement hoped would replace the alienating politics of existing (un)representative institutions. Within these venues debate continuously raged over whether the General Assembly was adequately democratic and inclusive, whether the spokescouncil was being controlled by a secret cadre of activists, and whether such a council or assembly could ever adequately realize the pure image of democracy and consensus to which we aspired. Rogue general assemblies were even held outside of spokescouncil meetings to pass decisions meant to delegitimize and ultimately disband the spokescouncil. Within the spokescouncil, OWS used a highly codified set of decision-making procedures and sought to structure it carefully in part to avoid the kinds of charges that haunted the New Left—that it was subject to informal hierarchies and the “tyranny of structurelessness.”[13] With the spokescouncil in particular, activists’ time and energy was increasingly devoted to the seemingly impossible task of getting the structure off the ground. Each meeting collapsed under accusations of illegitimacy, a lack of democracy, and the reproduction of every kind of injustice and exclusion, until the process finally collapsed altogether.

Second, the encampments at Zuccotti Park and elsewhere were seen as microcosms of what a future society could look like, actualizing a new set of social relationships and a new way of meeting basic human needs. Surely, these encampments provided valuable services for some, such as food, shelter and a space to build new social relationships. But while the encampments resembled counter-institutions, their value for the movement was primarily symbolic. Few seriously advocated for a future of tent cities, particularly after the freezing rain began to flood them. The encampments did not actualize an alternative, but rather symbolized one. While we hoped they would illustrate that people could get along through spontaneous organization and direct democracy, they were not a long-term strategy for autonomy from existing institutions and for collective self-management of political and economic institutions. In the end, they were symbolic political spaces rather than a serious challenge to existing institutions.

But the collapse of the spokescouncil and the eviction of the encampments was not the end of the Occupy movement. In the following months, Occupy participants launched a number of other organizing projects that sought to ground the movement in material struggles. One such project was Occupy the Farm in the San Francisco Bay Area. In April of 2012, hundreds of activists and local residents descended on a piece of land known as the Gill Tract. The land, which is owned by the University of California, had been enclosed from community use and threatened with commercial development. The activists clipped the gates, plowed the field, planted seedlings, and raised the banner “Occupy the Farm.” Their goal was not merely to ensure that the land stayed in the control of the University and in that sense “public,” but to transform the land into an agricultural commons—a shared resource directly managed by community members through a radical democratic process. For more than two years, a growing coalition of activists, local residents, students and faculty have continued to farm the land, develop democratic processes through which to manage it, and engage the University on various fronts to secure community control of the resource.

Like Occupy Wall Street, Occupy the Farm has been a space for democratic experimentation and political discourse. But this experimentation was always grounded in a concrete, material goal of winning the right to community management of the resource. These actions have certainly had a symbolic component—we hoped that media coverage of families harvesting food would garner community support, that our struggle would galvanize other similar efforts, and that the movement would be viewed as legitimate because of the democratic process that was emerging. However, the actions were not merely symbolic. They consisted of actually farming the land and organizing community forums to define a long-term community vision for it.

Occupy the Farm has had many successes. On the heels of the occupation, the University’s centerpiece of the development, Whole Foods Market, pulled out of the project. The University transferred control of half of the twenty acres back from its Capital Projects division to the College of Natural Resources. The College stated publicly that it would use the land as a site for its new “metropolitan agriculture program.”[14] And several community-based research projects have begun on the land in collaboration with the University’s Cooperative Extension.[15] Further, the movement forged a new coalition of environmental and food justice groups in the area to form the Gill Tract Farm Coalition, which has advocated not only for the Gill Tract, but community stewardship of the local food system, more generally. This summer saw the beginnings of a stewardship council composed of UC faculty, students, activists, and local residents, which will oversee research, education, and farming on the land. Collaboration with the College of Natural Resources continues through various projects, and community members are increasingly hopeful that the process will lead to effective community participation in the management of the land in terms of food production, research, and education.

Despite these successes, Occupy the Farm has not led to a mass movement, nor brought about noticeable structural transformation. Moreover, the amount of food that could feasibly be produced on the site is only a small fraction of what would be necessary to feed even the most underserved in the surrounding community. But unlike the encampments of OWS, Occupy the Farm only claims to address one resource, at a particular site. This makes for a manageable struggle grounded in measurable stakes that is less likely to collapse under its own ambition. But it also demands work to connect to other similar struggles or to propagate the model to develop a network of democratically-managed resources. These are the sites in which to actualize the ideal of self-organizing communities of free equals. The structural transformation towards a radically democratic society is only possible insofar as such movements are able to generate and link with other similar struggles either for more agricultural commons, or other productive resources. Of course, it is easier to criticize Occupy the Farm for failing to do this, than to successfully develop and implement a strategy of structural transformation. Indeed, these challenges have been central to discussions within OTF and affiliated groups. On the one hand, there is an ongoing debate within the movement about whether and what kind of victory is necessary for the struggle to galvanize others to take control of resources in their communities. On the other hand, Occupy the Farm, like many movements, has limited capacity to allocate to the movement and must make calculated choices between a local victory and broader movement-building. Putting time and energy into one means less into the other, unless either of those also serves to expand capacity by bringing more participants into the movement. These are tough choices, and advocates for community participation in the management of the land continue to search for the best strategy to realize this goal. 

Democratic Counter-Institution and Political Strategy

By way of conclusion, I would like to point toward the main features of democratic counter-institution. These features require further research to understand how they can best function in conjunction with one another. First, democratic counter-institution is a mode of action. Institution here is an ongoing practice, rather than a particular organizational form or a decision-making procedure. This practice includes the development, expansion and linkage of democratically managed resources. It creates and transforms institutions, but it is not these institutions. It is the action of movement-building. Second, the institutions that it produces, transforms, and links are not merely political, in the sense of a political party or a social movement, but fulfill material needs for food, housing, healthcare, transportation, clothing, and education. At the same time, it is not merely an alternative institution, but counter-institution. In this sense it is political, in ways that a cooperative bakery, for instance, may not be—as such enterprises can exist harmoniously within free market capitalism without challenging it. Counter-institution, on the other hand, works to undermine undemocratic institutions by challenging attempts at privatization, defending existing democratic resources, or expropriating public and private resources to democratic control.

While I have been critical of the internal focus and the merely symbolic action of Occupy Wall Street, creating counter-institutions that are organized according to radically democratic principles, that supplant the state and market, and that combine into a mass movement is not an easy task. This has been a core challenge for radical movements for at least two hundred years, and the case of Occupy the Farm illustrates some of these challenges. However, a strategy of counter-institution that produces, links and manages common resources must form the basis of our radical movements if we want to actualize the ideal of self-governing communities, deepen democracy, and take control of the institutions and decisions that affect our lives. This project will include creating new institutions, but it will also include democratizing existing institutions and transforming them to support a new network of democratic practice. Through this action we can continue to experiment as we increase our collective autonomy. Democracy is meant to link the political and the everyday by bringing social and economic institutions under popular control. To actualize it we need more than spaces for political discourse. Through the action of democratic counter-institution we can develop our collective capacity to manage our economic and social resources according to the basic democratic principles of freedom and equality. We can learn democracy in the only way it can be learned—by doing it.


Daniel Murray is a PhD Candidate in the Program in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University. He lives in Oakland, CA with his partner and daughter, where he is active in the food justice and radical democracy movements. Contact: ddmurray@stanford.edu


References and Footnotes

  1. Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010), 19; Carole Pateman, “Participatory Democracy Revisited,” Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 01 (2012): 7–19.
  2. This research was conducted as activist political theory. For one conceptualization of this kind of theory, see: Lea Ypi, Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency (Oxford University Press, 2012). I participated in Occupy Wall Street in New York City from October-December 2011. During this period, I both attended and participated in daily working group meetings, general assemblies and spokescouncil meetings. From May 2012-May 2013, I participated in Occupy the Farm, attending regular meetings and organizing events. Since May 2013, I have maintained contact with the main organizers and interviewed key informants to keep up to date on recent developments.
  3. David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (Random House LLC, 2013); Emily Brissette, “Prefiguring the Realm of Freedom at Occupy Oakland,” Rethinking Marxism 25, no. 2 (2013): 218–27; Jeffrey S. Juris, “Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social Media, Public Space, and Emerging Logics of Aggregation,” American Ethnologist 39, no. 2 (May 1, 2012): 259–79; Ruth Milkman et al., “Understanding ‘Occupy,’” Contexts 11, no. 2 (May 1, 2012): 12–21.
  4. Carl Boggs, “Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers’ Control,” Radical America 11, no. 6 (1977): 99–122.
  5. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968, 54.
  6. The Democracy Project, 23.
  7. “Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers’ Control,” 100.
  8. Ibid., 104.
  9. David Graeber, “The New Anarchists,” New Left Review, II, no. 13 (February 2002): 61–73; Graeber, Direct Action, 288–290.
  10. Maeckelbergh, “Doing Is Believing,” 7.
  11. Ibid., 8.
  12. For an analysis of the different tendencies within Occupy Wall Street, see Jonathan Smucker’s article in this forum.
  13. Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 41, no. 3 (2013): 231–46; Graeber traces this development and the attempts to formalize various aspects of “process” in the contemporary direct action movement. See: Graeber, Direct Action, 228–237 especially p. 234.
  14. UC Berkeley News Center, “CNR Dean Outlines New Plans for Gill Tract,” September 19, 2012, http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/09/19/cnr-dean-outlines-new-plans-for-gill-tract/.
  15. Miguel Altieri, “Gill Tract Project May Feed Many,” The Daily Californian, August 19, 2013, http://www.dailycal.org/2013/08/19/gill-tracts-community-based-research-project/; Ann Guy, “First University-Community Gill Tract Event Seeks Unity, Vision,” UC Berekeley - College of Natural Resources, October 11, 2013, http://nature.berkeley.edu/blogs/news/2013/10/
    first_universitycommunity_gill.php
    .