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The term prefigurative politics is widespread within various activist movements, and it describes modes of organization and tactics undertaken that accurately reflect the future society being sought by the group.

The I.W.W. and other anarchist activists refer to this as "building a new world in the shell of the old." If a group is aiming to eliminate class distinctions, prefigurative politics demands that there be no class distinctions within that group, nor should that group's actions reinforce classism. The same principle applies to hierarchy: if a group is fighting to abolish some or all forms of hierarchy in larger society, prefigurative politics demands they individually and as a group adhere as closely to that goal as possible.

Perspectives on prefigurative politics

Anthropologist David Graeber in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology described the prefigurative politics of those at the 1999 Seattle WTO protest:
When protesters in Seattle chanted "this is what democracy looks like," they meant to be taken literally. In the best tradition of direct action, they not only confronted a certain form of power, exposing its mechanisms and attempting literally to stop it in its tracks: they did it in a way which demonstrated why the kind of social relations on which it is based were unnecessary. This is why all the condescending remarks about the movement being dominated by a bunch of dumb kids with no coherent ideology completely missed the mark. The diversity was a function of the decentralized form of organization, and this organization was the movement’s ideology. (p. 84)

Examples of prefigurative political programs

  • The Black Panther Party in the United States was responsible for creating what members referred to as survival programs, including the well-known Free Breakfast for Children Program. These programs were designed to provide food, education, medical care and clothing for individuals outside of traditional capitalist relations, as well as state-sponsored social service programs. They embodied, at least on a small scale, the kind of self-determination in the black community that the Panthers were working toward on a large scale.

  • In Argentina the occupation of factories by workers (such as Zanonmarker) and the creation of popular neighborhood assemblies reflect the participants desire for horizontalism, or equal distribution of power among all people.

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