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.
Clever protest campaigns can bring little shards of utopia not just into the streets but also into our elections and even legislatures.
“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.
Monthly Critical Mass bike rides prefigure future cities in which bicycles actually hold their own as traffic. PARK(ing) Day is a global day of action in which people put a day’s worth of coins into a parking meter and transform their parking space into a mini-park or jazz lounge or tiny public swimming pool. It prefigures a greening of urban space and a reclaimed commons.
Once out in the open, seemingly radical ideas are revealed as the reasonable proposals they are.
The Yes Men, probably the best-known political pranksters around today, are masters of utopian provocation. By impersonating the powerful via fake press releases, websites, and public appearances, and tricking the media into covering their announcements as real, they hoax us all into thinking—at least for a moment—that the WTO has abolished itself, that GE is actually going to give back the taxes it dodged, or that Dow Chemical Company is finally going to do the right thing and compensate the 100,000 victims of the Bhopal chemical spill for decades of suffering. Before the hoax is revealed, we think, “Am I dreaming? Could I possibly be living in such a world?” By the time the gig is up, not only have Dow and their ilk been forced to issue public denials explaining why they’re NOT going to do the obvious right and good thing, but the rest of us, having momentarily experienced as real this twilight world where power operates ethically, are left thinking, “Yeah, why don’t we live in such a world?” And we’re more motivated to go out there to make it happen.
We tend to think of pranks as, at worst, mean-spirited practical jokes, and at best, sudden surgical strikes that reveal the emperor has no clothes. But as the Yes Men have shown, pranks can also be positive and prefigurative. More and more, contemporary movements look not to religion, but to pranksters and artists—and their playful, ironic modes of intervention—to bring the utopian impulse back into the conversation.
In 2006 members from a coalition of environmental groups posed as a government agency—the Oil Enforcement Agency—that should have existed, but didn’t. Complete with SWAT-team-like caps and badges, agents ticketed SUVs, impounded fuel-inefficient vehicles at auto shows, and generally modeled a future in which government takes climate change seriously.
Clever protest campaigns can bring little shards of utopia not just into the streets but also into our elections and even legislatures. When Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979, one of the planks in his platform called for beat cops to be voted on by the neighborhoods they patrolled. Once out in the open, this and other seemingly radical ideas were revealed as the reasonable proposals they were, and thousands of San Franciscans pulled the lever for Jello.
Even legislation can be prefigurative. One of my pet projects, “What Would Finland Do?” aims to introduce a bill in the New York legislature to prorate traffic fines according to the net wealth of the driver. It wouldn’t pass, but a lot of New Yorkers might think: “Why the hell not?” and the long fight for greater economic equality might inch a tiny bit forward. (Finland, by the way, has such a law, and in 2004 the 27-year-old heir to a sausage fortune was fined $204,000 for driving 50 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone.)
Whether religious or artistic, a playful thought experiment, or a serious attempt to be true to one’s values in the face of state violence, prefigurative engagement allows us to experience for ourselves (and demonstrate to others), that another world is necessary, possible—and maybe even beautiful.
Correction: This article originally stated that DuPont was responsible for a toxic gas leak that took place in 1984. The actual company responsible is Dow Chemical, and the text has been revised.