Interesting Ideas: Chris Dixon on Prefigurative Movements

Am currently reading Chris Dixon’s book ‘Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements‘. The discussion on building prefigurative movements is particularly good. Here’s an extract, which relates well to my earlier post:

“A related danger is seeing specific forms of prefigurative praxis as “things” that, as individuals, we either “have” or “don’t have.” This danger is perhaps most pronounced in the case of anti-oppression politics, which activists all too often understand as a package of directions about how individually to treat people. Sharmeen Khan, a leading anti-oppression trainer based in Toronto, said that she frequently encounters this perspective. “I try to do [a training] in ways where it’s engaging and really critical and people are thinking about things,” she explained. “But so many people are just like, ‘I know we’re bad. Tell me how I can stop being bad. Tell me what language to use.’ It’s all about behaviors to one another.”

Clare Bayard, a trainer with the Catalyst Project in San Francisco, echoed Khan’s experiences and offered some further analysis: “I think what has been happening is a very individualized way of thinking about antioppression, which, to oversimplify, is more about figuring out what’s the right language and how do we interact with each other in a way that feels more responsible . . . . To some extent, [this] is about power relationships within an organization or between people, but [it] is not seen in connection to the institutional oppressions through which society is structured.”

The tendency that Khan and Bayard described focuses narrowly on antioppression politics as a fixed set of behaviors and understandings that we can grasp individually, rather than as a dynamic set of politics, practices, and sensibilities that we develop and enact collectively as we struggle to change society. In its most reduced form, this tendency easily slips into an abstract list of “do’s” and “don’t’s” for how individuals who experience a particular form of privilege should treat individuals who experience a related form of oppression. While these kinds of shifts in behavior are important, they don’t, on their own, fundamentally challenge the foundations of exploitation and oppression in our society.

At its worst, an individualized and “thingified” approach to prefigurative praxis can lead to dangerous kinds of absolutist thinking and acting. In these situations, particular prefigurative forms (such as conforming to certain behavior in consensus-based meetings or using specific anti-oppression terminology) become standards by which people are assessed as “in” or “out.” Michelle O’Brien, a housing organizer in New York, characterized this as “a politics of purging,” which she defined as “a politics of rigorously articulating what the right way of thinking is and punishing people who don’t follow it.” O’Brien continued, “The entire idea that we’re going to put together the most radical, right-on, anti-oppressive subculture we possibly can and we’re going to enforce its boundaries is an incredibly, incredibly dangerous one.”

Still, this sort of absolutist idea can also be incredibly seductive. As activists and organizers, we feel—and often are—intensely embattled in the midst of systems that are perpetuating violence and misery of nearly unimaginable proportions. Meanwhile, we grapple with our complicity in these systems (some of us more than others) even as we struggle to protect ourselves from the ways that they hurt us. So, we frequently attempt to build spaces— through relationships, organizations, communities, and movements—that are apart from ruling relations. And we can get caught up in maintaining these spaces through what Montreal organizer Amy Miller called a “secular puritanism”: scrutinizing one another’s behavior, creating our own status hierarchies, and excluding those who don’t live up to our righteous standards.

While perhaps comforting, this sort of absolutism prevents organizers from building the sort of broad and open movements we need. Among other problems, it is based on treating people badly and pushing them away. Tynan Jarrett, who did queer youth advocacy and political prisoner support in Montreal, discussed this self critically, in relation to his experience of trying to transform what was the Women’s Centre at Concordia University into what is now the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia:

We used a lot of sort of heavy-handed tactics to make people feel guilty, to lecture them, to do all these things that ultimately may change people’s behavior but won’t change their minds and will only make them resent you and are not positive things at all in the end. We just pushed, pushed a lot of people away. What we would have argued was that the space is either going to be safe for some people and unsafe for others, so we have push away these middle-class white women who are racist and classist and ableist or else it’s not going to be a safe space for other people. But I don’t really think the world works like that, actually.

In short, pushing people away, while it may sometimes be required, is rarely a winning strategy. Absolutist ideas and practices aren’t going to get us very far in the complicated world in which we live. More often than not, they’ll end up making us isolated and insular.” (p, 100-1)

They continue a bit later:

“Fortunately, we can draw some helpful lessons from experiences within the anti-authoritarian current as well as previous movement efforts. One is about letting go of perfectionism. This requires grasping an uncomfortable truth: failure is an unavoidable part of trying to model and manifest a new world in our movements. Nonhierarchical decision-making processes go awry at times, attempts to develop more caring and collective ways of relating frequently falter, and more often than we’d like, anti-oppressive cultures break down. These failures are an inevitable result of working within the disjunction between what is and what we want.

Speaking about efforts to transform power relations, Helen Hudson, a member of the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair collective, framed this well. “At the same time as we’re living in this movement,” she said, “we’re living in this unjust world and we continue to soak up the poison of that, however much we fight against our own tendencies to be oppressive. It’s going to continue to seep in and we’re going to continue to be oppressed, both by the oppressive tendencies of other people in the movement and by the rest of the world we live in.” As much as we try, we are not going to be able to create completely democratic, liberatory, and healthy spaces while relations of exploitation and oppression are dominant in our society. There’s no way around this.

This doesn’t mean we should give up on prefigurative praxis. We do, however, have to take one foot out of the ideal world of what we want and place it squarely in the much more muddled world that actually exists. “If you want to build a movement,” Toronto-based anti-poverty organizer Mike D argued, “then you have to deal with all the messiness and imperfections.” This means working in less than ideal circumstances and often not fully succeeding in enacting our visions. But rather than being discouraged by our experiences of failure, we need to see that such experiences signal that we are approaching the limits imposed by existing social relations and the conditions they produce. These are limits that, through struggle, people can and do move. Prefigurative activities, including their inevitable failures, are an essential part of this process.” (p, 103)

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