Prefigurative politics are the modes of organization and social relationships that strive to reflect the future society being sought by the group. According to Carl Boggs, who coined the term, the desire is to embody "within the ongoing political practice of a movement [...] those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal". Besides this definition, Leach also gave light to the definition of the concept stating that the term "refers to a political orientation based on the premise that the ends a social movement achieves are fundamentally shaped by the means it employs, and that movement should therefore do their best to choose means that embody or prefigure the kind of society they want to bring about". Prefigurativism is the attempt to enact prefigurative politics.
Boggs was writing in the 1970s about revolutionary movements in Russia, Italy, Spain, and the US New Left. The concept of prefiguration was further applied by Sheila Rowbotham to the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s, by Wini Breines to the US Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and by John L. Hammond to the Portuguese Revolution.
The politics of prefiguration rejected the centrism and vanguardism of many of the groups and political parties of the 1960s. It is both a politics of creation, and one of breaking with hierarchy. Breines wrote:
The term prefigurative politics [...] may be recognized in counter institutions, demonstrations and the attempt to embody personal and anti-hierarchical values in politics. Participatory democracy was central to prefigurative politics. [...] The crux of prefigurative politics imposed substantial tasks, the central one being to create and sustain within the live practice of the movement, relationships and political forms that "prefigured" and embodied the desired society.
For Breines, "prefigurative politics" centers on "participatory democracy", understood as an ongoing opposition to hierarchical and centralized organization that requires a movement that develops and establishes relationships and political forms that "prefigure" the egalitarian and democratic society that it seeks to create. Furthermore, she sees prefigurative politics as strictly connected to the notion of community, referring to it as a network of relationships that are more direct, more personal, and more total than the formal, abstract and instrumental relationships that are embedded in contemporary state and society.
Anarchists around the turn of the twentieth century clearly embraced the principle that the means used to achieve any end must be consistent with that end, though they apparently did not use the term "prefiguration". For example, James Guillaume, a comrade of Mikhail Bakunin, wrote, "How could one want an equalitarian and free society to issue from authoritarian organisation? It is impossible."
One of the greatest examples during the 20th century in this regard is the comunismo libertario (libertarian communism) society organized by anarcho-syndicalists such as the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), or in English the National Confederation of Labour, for a few months during the Spanish Civil War. Workers took collective control of the means of production on a decentralized level and used mass-self communication as a counter-power in order to give useful information on a wide range of options going from vegetarian cooking to the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.
The concept of prefiguration later came to be used more widely, especially in relation to movements for participatory democracy. It has especially been applied to Italian Autonomism in the 1960s, the US antinuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s and the anti-globalization movement at the turn of the 21st century.
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)
According to Adrian Kreutz, the practice of prefigurative politics, or prefigurativism, can be defined as:
a way of engaging in social change activism that seeks to bring about this other world by means of planting the seeds of the society of the future in the soil of today's. [...] Prefigurativism is a way of showing what a world without the tyranny of the present might look like. It is a way of finding hope (but not escapism!) in the realms of possibility––something that words and theories alone cannot provide. [...] As a form of activism, prefigurativism highlights the idea that your means match the ends you can expect. It highlights that social structures enacted in the here-and-now, in the small confines of our organisations, institutions and rituals mirror the wider social structures we can expect to see in the post-revolutionary future.
Additionally, Darcy K. Leach wrote in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements that:
For much of its history, the prefigurative impulse was only characteristic of the beginning stages of a rebellion and faded as the movement became more centralized. From the 1960s onward, however, the approach has become both more clearly articulated and more widespread, such that one can now identify a stable prefigurative tendency or wing in a wide range of movements around the world, most notably in women's, environmental, autonomous, peace, and indigenous rights movements, and on a more global scale in the movements against neoliberal globalization
Boggs analyzed three common patterns of decline in the prefigurative movements which are the following:
Jacobinism, in which popular forums are repressed or their sovereignty usurped by a centralized revolutionary authority; spontaneism, a strategic paralysis caused parochial or anti-political inclinations inhibit the creation of broader structures of effective coordination; and corporativism, which occurs when an oligarchic stratum of activists is co-opted, leading them to abandon the movement's originally radical goals in order to serve their own interests in maintaining power.