We can’t create a better world if we haven’t yet imagined it. How much better then, if we are able to touch such a world, experience it directly, even live in it—if only to a partial degree and for a brief moment. This is the idea behind “prefigurative interventions,” actions that not only work to stop the next dumb thing the bad guys are up to, but also enact in the here and now the world we actually want to live in.
These kinds of interventions come in all shapes and sizes, from modest artistic gestures like John and Yoko’s 1969 “WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It)” Times Square billboard, to utopian-flavored mass movements like Occupy Wall Street with its free libraries, communitarian ethic, and experiments in direct democracy.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality,” Buckminster Fuller advised. “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” A brilliant insight, but he’s only half right, because the best direct actions—and social movements—actually do both.
Consider the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s. They were not only brave acts of resistance against the racism of the Jim Crow South, but they also beautifully and dramatically prefigured the world the civil rights movement was trying to bring into being: blacks and whites sitting together as equals in public spaces. The young students didn’t ask anyone’s permission; they didn’t wait for society to evolve or for bad laws to change. In the best spirit of direct action, they walked in there and simply changed the world. At least for a few moments, in one place, they were living in an integrated South. They painted a picture of how the world could be, and the vicious response from white bystanders and police only proved how important it was to make it so.
Many people at the forefront of the nonviolent civil rights movement were moved to action by their spiritual commitments. Be it the “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” of the Golden Rule, or Gandhi’s call to “Be the change you want to see in the world,” the ethical traditions of many religions have a powerful prefigurative dimension. When people of faith try to live out their deep principles, actually walk their talk, they tend to come up against power in ways that can wake a nation’s conscience. Jesus himself (who promised that anyone who followed his teaching would always be in trouble) was one of history’s more brilliant prefigurative campaigners. He didn’t merely argue that true greatness comes from humbly serving others, he illustrated it by washing his disciples’ dirty feet. By socializing with outcasts, visiting lepers, and always raising up the “least of these,” Jesus didn’t simply prophesy a future beloved community, he made it manifest.
With the dominance of market capitalism and its apologists proclaiming an “end of ideology,” provocations that stretch our political imaginations are more vital than ever. Social theorist Steve Duncombe goes a step further, arguing that we need to bring back utopian thinking. In his recent book, Open Utopia, he argues that even for reformers, utopian thinking is necessary, providing “a compass point to determine what direction to move toward and a measuring stick to determine how far one has come.”
However, in an era of media saturation and distrust of the utopia-inspired disasters of the 20th century, this is increasingly hard to do via criticism alone. Using dystopian visions to sound the alarm—a more and more popular strategy—is just another form of criticism that leaves the status quo standing, Duncombe argues. What is needed instead are direct interventions that both embody and point toward utopian possibilities. Contemporary social movements, it turns out, are chock full of them. •