Beyond resistance

Here is a little (well, quite long..!) sample of head grower Hamish's recent publication on social change in the 21st century, activism, permaculture and prefiguration through a research collaboration with Extinction Rebellion UK.

Beyond resistance: the role of prefiguration in social movements addressing the climate crisis.


This paper aims to analyse the role of prefiguration in social change. The concept of building alternatives through prefiguration has been applied to a diversity of social movements particularly in Latin America (Dinerstein 2014). In order to understand both the potency and limitations of prefigurative social change, this research extends the prefigurative analysis and praxis to the environmental movement, focusing on Extinction Rebellion in the UK. This builds on the emergent re-framing of social movements as autonomies beyond resistance, which encapsulate the roles of creation and experimentation. Rather than disregarding the role of oppositional activism and resistance, this research points to a necessary union of deconstructive and constructive strategy for 21st century social movements, in order to birth a new society in the shell of the old. This situates the adversarial and exemplary as synergies rather than trade-offs in the work of social change.

Key terms: Prefiguration, Social movements, autonomy, activism, Extinction Rebellion, Climate change, ecological crisis, alternatives, hope.


Social movements have been typically regarded through the lens of ‘resistance,’ despite their role in creating alternatives beyond the realms of negation and reaction (Dinerstein 2014; see appendix 6). This meta-framing posits that movements are purely oppositional forces, often fighting against the dominant current of global neoliberalism (Gibson-Graham 2006). This not only undermines the real successes of social movements but disregards their reconstructive potential (Raekstad 2018). The concept of prefiguration provides a lens by which to examine these assumptions of social change, and frame new social movements through a broader lens ‘beyond resistance’, examining what the movement is for, albeit in the context of struggle. This translates to a practical embodiment of hope, creation of alternatives and prefigurative praxis – defined by Raekstad and Gradin (2020) as “the deliberate experimental implementation of desired future social relations and practices in the here-and-now.”

Prefiguration has a rich history through autonomous movements that aim to embody and create alternatives through their actions. This intersects with but is not limited to anarchist, syndicalist and radical movements of the 20th century. Notably, the Movement for a New Society in 1970s America, which created counter-institutions and collectives whilst simultaneously taking direct action against military and violent powers, exploring a “delicate balance between opposing and proposing” (p.12, Cornell 2011). More recent social movements have adopted a prefigurative approach in differing contexts and styles as the praxis evolves and learns from mistakes. Autonomous movements in Latin America and the grassroots revolution in Rojava have created spaces of both resistance and co-creation, and thus found a symbiosis between the adversary and exemplary (Federici 2015). There is however a literature gap in analysing prefiguration’s relationship to the contemporary environmental movement, at a time when the climate crisis demands transformative changes in all aspects of society (UN IPCC 2018). These transformative shifts must be combined with the necessary nonviolent resistance and challenging of power in order to create interstitial spaces for the changes to emerge and expand beyond the marginal (Wright 2013). The following research and discussion aims to examine this thesis, through beginning a discussion around the potential and limits of prefiguration in today’s ecological activism.

Findings & Themes

This section explores the core chapters of this research process, delving into the key themes and undercurrents of the study. The five themes are distinct but interconnected, bound together by the collective experiences of activists in the Extinction Rebellion movement but also permeating into other related ecological movements and sociologies. The themes elucidate the broad, nuanced and diverse role of prefiguration in response to the urgency of the climate crisis (theme 1). This is presented as a myriad of prefigurations (theme 2) which vary temporally and spatially (theme 5) within the movement, hinging upon activist identities (theme 3), psychosocial processes and hope embodiment (theme 4). Figure 1 summarises these themes and figure 2 outlines their interconnection within the wider spheres of research scope. The overlapping themes are nested within the topic of prefiguration, which is itself nested within the field of social change (figure 2).

Figure 1: Summary of themes

1. Urgency

Paradoxical need for prefiguration despite perception of it as a slower approach in the context of climate emergency.

2. Myriads of prefiguration

Prefiguration manifests in numerous and diverse ways within a single movement.

3. Identity

How age and cultural identity and their intersections relate to prefiguration.

4. Active Hope

Beyond the dualism of propositional vs oppositional action, there is an active hope that confronts the existing paradigm whilst creating the new one.

5. Dynamism

The role of prefiguration is dynamic throughout a movement’s cycle in time and across movements spaces (spatial dynamism).

1. Urgency

The first theme to emerge became obvious in the early stages of discussion with six movement leaders. A critical realist voice on prefiguration provided a useful lever to stimulate rich discussion throughout the first focus group, and she began with the provocative statement: “perhaps we don’t have time to do this exactly as we would wish to” (Anna). This points to the urgency of the ecological crisis, at such a late stage where plantetary boundaries are already being breached beyond repair, and every year of inaction results in centuries of ongoing damage (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016). The perspective of instrumental urgency was prevalent in the discussions with XR activists. A counter-narrative also emerged, responding with the conviction that “we cannot rush the emergency” and “if we don’t prefigure, we fail” (Don). Reconciling these two perspectives became a thread to anchor the research and stimulate debate. The first perspective originates in the instrumentalist approach from the literature review (Eldridge 1998), suggesting that prefiguration is not necessarily essential for the social change, even at times inhibitory to the urgency of action. Whilst the latter perspective framed prefiguration as a strategic tool and core to the movement success, regardless of the urgency. This approach opted for a wider lens of social change and transformation, acknowledging that “rushing the emergency would not ultimately solve the problem” (Marcus). Other research into prefigurative social movement has rarely alluded to this ‘deadline effect.’ And yet it is clear that there is a tension for many activists in the adoption of idealistic approaches, which might take longer, in the context of a climate emergency rapidly spiralling out of control (Hoggett 2019).

One example from the discussion related to ways of organising, and the extent to which there is enough time to develop and embody the decentralised leadership structures. This particular aspect of XR’s prefiguration was a node of discussion, providing a diversity of positions; many were willing to concede that this element of the prefigurative approach was at times “tedious and slow” (Alan). Others pointed to the richness of the movement that rippled from it – the collective empowerment that allowed for co-creative emergence and complex multi-layered actions where each contributor could make decisions and implement creative ideas (Macnamara and Storch 2019). A key finding from this is that the ‘deadline effect’ adds a nuance to movement strategy and invites a non-dogmatic approach to certain issues, such as decentralisation. Whilst activists acknowledged the need for the experimentation pillar of prefiguration, it must be reconciled with a level of discipline – direct, efficient organising of actions to challenge power which may require some compromise on values, in the context of limited time.

For many activists the sense of urgency forces a more pragmatic, instrumental and compromised approach to autonomy. Whilst every social issue is critical and typically time-bound, it appears that the ecological emergency at this stage is particularly pressing (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016), adding a great challenge to activists that aim to simultaneously create the new systems/models whilst dismantling the destructive structures that allowed the crisis to get to this critical point. The key finding from this theme is that urgency invited a balance between experimentation and efficacy. One participant pointed out that this doesn’t mean decentralised organising is necessarily slower – but it is slower at the moment and in this context because “we are learning as we go” (Sanjay). The luxury of slow learning and experimentation is one not necessarily afforded to all activist circles, and sometimes a compromise is required in the face of the deadline effect. This must be reconciled with the prefigurative ideal of non-instrumentalism, which many activists hold as an inflexible dogma. Whilst the integrity of non-instrumentalism is appraised in social movement history (e.g. Civil rights movement, Indian independence), it can also be idealised, dogmatised and not reflective of the compromises these social movements made in order to affect rapid change (Soborski 2018). This theme points to both a critique and an opportunity for prefiguration; inviting it’s praxis to evolve not as dogma but a flexible tool to leverage system transformations in the face of a visceral deadline such as ecological collapse.

2. Myriads of prefiguration

This second theme elucidates further complexity as to the role of prefiguration in social-ecological movements. This finding departs from Breines’ (1980) narrow approach to prefiguration based purely on organisational structure and invites a broader understanding more similar to Raekstad and Gradin’s conceptualisation of the term (2020). Opting for a prefigurative approach is not a single-dimensional application to the canvas of organisation, but a myriad of approaches, whereby prefiguration can be applied in different ways to the multiple elements of a movement. In discussions with XR activists, the key elements were: (i) Nonviolence, (ii) decentralisation, (iii) regenerative culture and (iv) actions. Only one of these nodes of prefiguration relates directly to Breines’ organisational principle, emphasising the diversification of prefigurative praxis since its conception. In the movement, prefiguration is not applied equally/consistently to all of these concepts and thus the scope for modelling the future is variable across a spectrum. This infers that the role of prefiguration even within a single movement is heterogenous, flexible and dynamic (Yates 2020).

In XR, prefiguration has been applied most rigorously to the practice and culture of (i) nonviolence within the movements approach, actions and participation. This element, within the myriads of prefiguration, attracts least flexibility and compromise. The vast majority of activists interviewed held a strong belief that a prefigurative approach is essential in this realm; “a nonviolent society will not be successfully birthed from a violent movement” (Doug). The means and ends must therefore align; dropping this value would not increase the morality or the strategic success of the movement. This points to viewing prefiguration’s role in the ecological movement as central, non-negotiable and essential. However, the complexity emerges later in discussion and particularly in the individual interviews, which perhaps allowed for more controversial, cynical and critical realist statements to be voiced (Bryman 2012). Several participants voiced that whilst nonviolence has been critical to XRs success, mobilisation and action effectiveness, they would also be willing to join a violent movement for urgent change if it was powerful enough to halt the greater violence of the exploitative global system of anthropocentrism. It is interesting to note that even the strongest element of prefiguration within the movement is not an absolute – it can be said that there is some level of accepted compromise for some activists: “at times, given the scale and speed of destruction in the world, and the systemic violence towards all minorities… I do actually question the nonviolence principle” (Anna). Whilst this perspective points to a critical realist nuance within the role of prefiguration and nonviolence, it must be emphasised that the overall finding on this sub-theme is that prefiguring a nonviolent society was perceived as central to almost all XR activists interviewed.

Moving on to other elements in this myriad of prefigurations, the role of (ii) decentralisation appears to be more amenable to compromise for activist participants. Prefiguring an autonomous and empowered society of decentralised affinity groups is a core principle (see appendix 3) of Extinction Rebellion and provides a driving force of movement organisation and mobilisation strategy (XR 2019). However, this value has confronted challenges in practice, and presents a greater divergence of “compromisability” (Antonin) within activists. Most participants alluded to the challenges of maintaining a fully decentralised, leaderless movement, surrounded by a paradigm of hierarchy, efficiency and centralised decision-making. This points to a key critique of prefiguration – sometimes it is such a struggle against a tide that the very struggle can sap the energies of activists and render them ineffective to even tweak the status quo (Raekstad and Gradin 2020). The strengths of XR’s decentralised approach were acknowledged in their “mobilising strategy web” (Don), in the collective power of “thousands of autonomous affinity groups” (8-12 people self-organising actions in the name of XR), and in the “inclusivity and diversity that this approach enables” (Livi). This element of the prefigurative approach is thus observed as a desirable and useful tool within the movement, but not without nuanced compromises. The urgency theme penetrates this analysis, as decentralised, participatory decision making is generally acknowledged as slower, complex and process orientated (rather than outcome focused; Eldridge 1998). This presents challenges for a movement that aims to effect rapid change, with a set of objectives and a need to make quick decisions, especially during illegal direct actions. Cornell (2011) also highlights the practical limits of dogmatic consensus-based approaches through the case of Movement for a New Society. Participants in XR clearly expressed the acceptance to compromise on the anarchic ideal in order to achieve the rapid social changes required.

Thirdly, the discourse of (iii) regenerative culture (Wahl 2016) has become an accidental pillar to this research, and has emerged as a concept synonymous with prefiguration, yet with a stylised tone in the ecological movement. Regenerative culture is said to be “the mycelium that binds together and sustains the movement” (Don, referring to mycelium - the fungal substrate that connects all of biological life). There is a visioning element to this, whereby the broad vision for XR is for a regenerative culture where humanity is part of the regeneration of life within a symbiotic Earth community (Wahl 2016; Eisenstein 2011). This, according to Wright’s principles of envisioning utopia (2013) is an interstitial discourse and a guiding narrative for the shift towards transformative social change. It is also prefigurative in the creation of alternatives and experimentation that it necessitates – visible in the “kindness and welcoming nature of XR meetings” (Livi), in the focus on “reflexive activism” (Don) and the centrality of “balanced well-being” (Xavier) to avoid activism burnout. This departs contributes to the literature that critically challenges the stereotype of the hardened, reactionary and relentless activist (Ojala 2012; Diani and Della Porta 1998). The role of prefiguration in regard to regenerative culture is expressed as a core tenet of the movement, but evidently more important for its internal facing side that its outward action. In other words, this element is crucial for personal prefiguration, allowing individual activists to remain inspired, nourished and sustained by their vision and practice of regeneration (Wahl 2016). Regenerative culture is thus certainly useful in the myriads of prefiguration but not generally regarded to be as core as nonviolence for example.

Underpinning these three elements lies a prefigurative approach to (iv) actions. The extent to which this is opted for within the movement is variable and contested. In the research, this boiled down to an active debate between propositional vs oppositional actions. One strong position, stated by Anna, is that “the prefigurative actions are nice to have and maybe get more people involved but don’t directly create system change.” Furthered by Alan: “It is not the free food or the street art that caused the government to declare a climate emergency – it was the physical occupations, economic disruption and the 1200 arrests.” This encapsulates a recurring voice in the research taken by an expressive group of participants, suggesting that prefigurative actions are not entirely appropriate for the movements mission. Other activists disagreed: “To me, prefiguration is everything” (Don). “Those very acts that sow the alternative are what got me involved and it is the only way I see to achieve transformational change” (Xavier). These myriads of prefiguration point to a much broader and more nuanced use of the tool than Breines outlines (1980). These first two themes serve to elucidate some of the limitations of prefiguration. Firstly, that sometimes a compromise with the existing structure is necessary in radical social movements in an urgent context. Secondly, ‘regenerative culture’ and prefiguration can at times be insular and internalised, without strategic political analyses or impact-driven action. This is not necessarily a drawback of prefiguration, but it invites a platform for the tool to be used in diverse ways with a critical understanding of it’s role amongst other tools (Raekstad and Gradin 2020).

3. Identity

The role of identity in social movements is becoming its own field of enquiry in sociology, through the increase in identity-based movements combined with a deeper understanding of the linkages between personal and collective identity (Diani and Della Porta 1998). The role of identity can be explored through many lenses of age, class, gender, sexuality, race, culture and the intersectionality of these social categories (Crenshaw 1990). Deeper exploration of this is left to future research on the topic, but for the purpose of this dissertation, the age-related (Hall and Du Gay 2006) and cultural dimensions of identity in relevance to prefiguration will be briefly examined. Social identity is relevant here because every activist in the ecological movement sits within a cultural frame and speaks/acts from a reality tied to their identity (Kurtz 2003). This affects the perceived and practiced role of prefiguration within XR and the ecological movement as a whole. Whilst identity categories have blurred boundaries, and are rooted in social constructionism, there are emergent themes and trends where prefiguration is embodied and associated more strongly with certain social groups. In this research, women tended to favour a prefigurative approach more than men. Participants of different classes tended to view the role of anti-capitalist, post-capitalist or apolitical prefigurations through different social lenses (Fisher 2019; Hoggett 2018). These are thesis fields for future research which have only been surfaced here, but the potential for a psychosocial (Holloway and Jefferson 2013) and identity-based understanding of prefiguration is clear, and two examples will be explored to begin evidencing this.

XR Youth & XR Elders

The research revealed that the appetite for prefiguration shifts with age. Younger participants appeared to be more supportive and enthused for certain aspects of prefiguration such as the role of experimentation with alternative economies, cultures and organisation. This was voiced by a participant who had witnessed this “age effect” (Sanjay, 19) in the meetings and actions of the movement. However, the research indicated that it is not a simple correlation of prefiguration and youth, but a bi-modal distribution with nuanced qualities at each modal data point. By this I mean that there is also a high appetite for prefiguration among elder participants, and yet their framing and approach to prefigurative activism is qualitatively different. My research included several participants involved with XR Youth (16-25) and several XR Elders (60+) - two branches of the movement. Whilst the youth perspective on prefigurative activism pivoted upon experimentation, revolutionary praxis and concrete utopia (Bloch 1959), the Elder approach took a broader view of prefigurative transformation more akin to Wrights ‘interstitial transformation’ (2013) and Wahl’s regenerative culture (2016). This latter perspective noticed the long-term strategic praxis of prefiguration, underpinned by the thesis that true social change will only occur if the alternative paradigm is created so skilfully that it can “render the existing model obsolete” (to quote Buckminster Fuller, in Sieden 2011, p.358).

Movements and moments often create sociological spaces for systemic transformations (Wright 2013), but there are not always embodied alternatives sufficient to fill this space, resulting in a reproduction of the same paradigm – “business as usual”. This longer-term ‘Elder perspective’ of change is rooted in “decades of activism and experiencing ineffectual reformist changes” (Annie, 86). Between these voices of XR Youth and Elders lie a range of prefigurative approaches, but in general the research findings reveal a general dissonance with prefiguration among middle-aged participants (30-50). In these personal activist relationships to prefiguration, the concept had lost its power over the course of their years in activism and their “frustrations with forcing change”. It can be gleaned from these discussions that cynicism, frustration and anger became prominent feelings (Weintrobe 2013) in many activists alongside the diminishing role of prefiguration in their action. XR Youth and XR Elders, in general, had a different frame of perspective to situate the centrality of prefigurative activism, and thus it formed a more crucial (but stylised) tenet to their participation in the movement. Through the benefit of interactions possible in focus groups (Bryman 2012), XR youth and elders engaged in a fascinating discussion around the union of their nuanced approaches to prefiguration, noticing the merits of both and the potential to unify these experimental (Youth) and paradigmatic (Elder) prefigurations.

Indigenous prefiguration

Cultural identities intersect with this agentic dimension of prefigurative capacity. The elder approach to prefiguration resonates with an indigenous approach, which presents an opportunity to broaden the discourse on prefiguration. When interviewing an activist who identified as indigenous, the potential for western-centric understandings of prefiguration became evident, challenging my own epistemic biases. I began this research assuming that prefiguration was a concept of the future, albeit modelled and ‘concretised’ (Bloch 1959) in the now. Discussions with indigenous activists allowed a deeper, richer re-framing of the concept and its potential for transformational social change. From an indigenous activist perspective, “this prefiguration concept is not so much about the future… but about how we frame reality in the now in a way that empowers us to co-create it collectively which includes the voices of our ancestors” (Kian). This seemingly abstract link to ancestors was initially challenging to grasp – but has now become central to my thesis conclusions. Prefiguring a future in the now without a grounding in the past is akin to a blind, unrooted activism. “Without our ancestors we are lost” (Raja). Today’s world is prefigured by our ancestors and reality does not begin in the now but in the whole of history. The starting point in our visions for the future and the value systems that underpin them is our lineage (Korten 2007).

Prefiguration can be seen as a transitional discourse (or a bridge technology; Eisenstein 2011) in our deepening perspective of time beyond the western separation of past, present and future (Escobar 2018, 2020). Grasping this requires a non-linear perception of time, which quantum mechanics and post-Newtonian physics is revealing to be the reality (Capra and Luisi 2014). Linear perceptions of prefiguration are limited and western-centric, “swamped in dualism” (Kian). Prefiguration of the now and the not-yet has already begun and has never ceased – so its role in ecological activism is to continue not begin this work. Viewing time as cyclic or spiralling (Beck and Cowan on Spiral Dynamics 2014) is perhaps more useful for studying such complex social change. An interviewee (Raja) spoke of his “memories of the future” – an indigenous concept that communicates cycling of time. From this framing, we are able to prefigure and imagine an alternative because we already have a ‘memory’ of it, have already been there to an extent – not necessarily in this specific reality or lifetime (Beck and Cowan 2014). Again, this is a non-western concept that is challenging to grasp, and requires an openness to non-linearity and multi-dimensionality e.g. indigenous cultures participate in visioning circles where they enter a ‘dream world’ to “remember the future” (Raja) and let this vision guide their actions in the now. Whilst the concept is complex, and disregarded by many western scholars, it also provides a platform for future research and an opportunity to mature the concept of prefiguration to align with indigenous cosmologies. This positions prefiguration as a dynamic, underlying force that continually shapes multiple realities in the cycles of time through both visioning and ancestry, anchored in the unfolding now. This discussion points towards the potential for diverse ontologies of prefiguration beyond western-centric frames (Shiva 2005), resituating the praxis as a cosmos of possibilities linked through ancestral knowledge, vision and power (Dinerstein 2014).

4. Active Hope

Building on this native ontological framing, the focus group discussion took an ‘indigenous turn’ when Xavier challenged others to go beyond dualism, suggesting that “propositional and oppositional actions are not separate trade-offs or choices, but connected tools” that must be unified for the urgent systemic transformation that the situation demands. From this approach, prefigurative action is integral for providing and modelling inspiring solutions, and yet in itself not sufficient – it must be skilfully combined with the necessary oppositional activism. This relates, on a psychosocial level (Hoggett 2019) to the necessity of combining grief and hope as drivers of oppositional and propositional actions – driving participants to voice both outrage at the violent systems of destruction, and to simultaneously enact their embodied hope for alternatives (Fisher 2019). Responding to this perspective, was a murmur of agreement in the second focus group, with a deepened discussion that framed propositional and oppositional actions as co-dependent and mutually synergetic for “successful and beautiful collective action” (Marcus). Livi then added the necessity of timing into this thesis; “the propositional actions must come in at a timely manner…”, whilst Doug pointed to the importance of power forms: “my experience is that the oppositional actions have great power… but a different sort of power is visible when both types of actions come together like in creating a convivial community whilst road-blocking Waterloo Bridge.” This introduction of context, timing and power is highly relevant. It may be the element of timing and appropriateness that unifies the apparent polarity between oppositional and propositional – both are needed at different pivotal moments for change.

The distinction between power types in oppositional and propositional actions is key to understanding the nuanced role of effective prefiguration. Social movements and oppositional activism engage with a “power-to” whilst prefigurative movements may take this a step further and embody a “power-within” (Berger 2005) comparable to Gandhi’s concept of ‘truth force’ which expresses a moral power and a doing based on integrity rather than being purely orientated around outcome (Chenoweth and Stephan 2018). The role of integrity was touched upon in both focus groups, with Xavier expressing that the movement must be rooted in integrity for otherwise “we lose our souls, values and drives along the way, so become part of the problem”. This is particularly interesting for the concept of ‘beyond dualism’ – many participants pointed to a false polarity of moral/integrity and strategic aspects to the movement’s prefiguration. It was argued that the two do not exist in a dualism but are inseparable, and a moral approach (such as nonviolence) is also a strategic approach and more likely to result in true success and transformative change. This is supported by empirical research into social movements, for example Erica Chenoweth’s (2018) analysis of social movements since the 1950s. She discovered that those with a moral nonviolent approach were at least twice as likely to succeed in their aims, less likely to alienate the public and more inclusive (carrying greater mobilising force). This approach of moral and strategic necessity appears to underpin XR’s sociology of emergences and theory of change, with every XR induction, talk/training and action beginning with the principles and values that underpin the movement (of which nonviolence, regenerative culture, inclusivity and decentralisation are core, see Appendix 3). This points to a strong role of prefigurative hope in the movement, through the lens of both integrity and strategy, and a creative ‘propositional opposition’. It is at this fertile intersection of ‘power-to’ and ‘power within’ where a prefigurative movement is most effective.

Taking this theme of non-dualism and applying it to the ecological movement as a whole, it can be extrapolated that the role of prefiguration in this is most impactful and transformational when used in conjunction with both holding actions and ontological shifts. Joanna Macy in Active Hope (2012) refers to the three necessary pillars of the great turning: holding actions (such as the political direct action and civil disobedience of XR), transformation of common life (such as the cultural emergence concept in the Permaculture movement, Macnamara and Storch 2012) and shifts in perception and consciousness (such as the healing biotopes of Tamera Eco-village; Korten 2007). These examples given by research participants, point to three inter-related spheres of transformation – political, cultural and spiritual. Macy argues, from a Buddhist perspective of non-duality, that all three are needed simultaneously in order to catalyse the great turning and facilitate the necessary shifts in response to an urgent ecological crisis. According to Macy (2016) and Solnit (2010), the unifying energy between these forces is an ‘active hope.’ There is another false dualism to explore in this concept, alluded to by Annie as the “constant swings between hope and despair… each driving and igniting different forces within me but somehow contributing to the same work.” This form of hope involves engaging with the grief of the situation, and the crisis at hand, whilst acknowledging the uncertainty of the future – it is this uncertainty that provides possibility and thus the necessity for action to work towards creating a more beautiful world (Eisenstein 2011; Solnit 2010). The concept of active hope invites a matured role of prefiguration that combines the necessary oppositional with the propositional spheres of action in order to leverage social change.

5. Dynamism

This section unpicks the fluid nature of prefiguration both temporally and spatially. Firstly, the role of prefiguration is dynamic even within a single movement. Secondly, its role is diverse and contested in different action frames within the environmental movement as a whole (Kurtz 2003). Rather than seeing prefiguration as a central vs non-central role in a given movement, the reality is fluid: its role pulses and shifts. This sub-theme of dynamism is crucial to understanding the flowing complexity of prefigurative activism within ecological movements. It became clear in discussions that the centrality of prefiguration has waxed and waned over time, even in the short years since XR’s conception. Don alluded to the effort to “operationalise XR” in 2019-2020. This saw a shift on the idealism-pragmatism spectrum towards the latter end, in attempt to “streamline the movement towards its goals”. This reflects a significant turn towards instrumentalism and away from the means-ends equivalence of prefiguration (Dinerstein 2014). Some participants agreed in the necessity of this shift, albeit wanting to retain an aspect of prefiguration and idealism. Others argued that this compromise weakens movement integrity and diminishes its internal power to affect interstitial transformations (Wright 2013). The dynamic interplay between these positions in the movement has allowed for a rich dialogue both in this research and in the movement itself. In the last 12 months, XR has fluctuated in a relative “return movement” towards prefiguration. Through its ability to shift approaches, this highlights a strength of the movement’s core principle (see Appendix 3) of “reflecting and learning as an experimental movement” (Sammy) – which aligns with the literature on the crucial role of experimentation in prefiguration (Raekstad and Gradin 2020). The continual reflection and shift in approach allows for prefiguration to weave in and out of the movements core when the context and timing is most appropriate for effective activism. Once again, this highlights that prefiguration must not become a dogma if it is to be an effective movement tool.

This theme of dynamic shift in movement focus and structure is situated amongst an abundance of literature on movement life cycles (Snow and Benford 1992). What is new here is the emphasis on how the magnitude of prefiguration shifts over time, and how this can be usefully applied as a frame for movement life cycle analysis. Taking Erikson’s theory of life cycles (1994), the ‘early childhood’ phase of the movement can be viewed as strong in prefigurative idealism. At the adulthood phase when the movement becomes established/matured, there is a compromised and critical approach to these experimental ideals and a movement can become institutionalised and operationalised at this stage. In the ‘elder phase’ of a movement life cycle, there can be a return movement, revisiting prefigurative ideals with greater nuance and understanding of transformational change. This general cycle was evident in the voices of XR Youth and XR Elders representing their respective agentic energies within the movement (albeit with exceptions to this categorisation). The life cycle pattern also reflected in XR’s shifts over time, in the attempt to “operationalise XR” and the “return movement towards prefiguration and regenerative culture” (Don). There is thus a nuanced role of prefiguration at different times of a movement life cycle, as evidenced in XR’s dynamic shifts. Each phase of the cycle requires a specific level (dose) of prefiguration to be an effective and moral strategy, but the magnitude and centrality of this role is not a panacea, and it can shift in prominence for both individuals and movements over time.

Prefiguration is also dynamic across movement spaces, even within the same activist networks and movement ideologies. This sub-theme of spatial dynamism relates to the broader picture of environmental activism and the stylised role that prefiguration can take within and across the diversity of movement ecologies. Of the participants, over half were active in multiple social movements (supporting Diani and Della Porta’s (1998) thesis of movements’ overlapping networks). Most commonly, an association with Transition Towns and the Permaculture movement were prevalent. This is highly interesting for the research, as these movements are primarily about creating the alternatives, building the new paradigm in the shell of the old and embodying prefiguration in a concrete utopian way (Bloch 1959; Hopkins 2019). In this critical socio-ecological moment when multiple crises are converging (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016), there is and must be a spectrum of movements that embody the multiplicity of roles required (Korten 2007). Each of these roles and movements place different emphasis on prefiguration in their approach and strategy. XR has been described as “sounding the alarm bell” and “speaking truth to power” (Sanjay) through direct action and disruption of business-as-usual (XR 2019). Other movements, such as the Transition Towns, the permaculture movement and Global Ecovillage Network provide a different but equally necessary archetype for catalysing change, rooted in the active creation of alternatives (Hopkins 2019; Eisenstein 2011). Participants viewed their participation in these movements as a key outlet for their prefiguration, and engagement with “propositional activism” (Anna).

Permaculture, for example, believes in creating the latent systems for a resilient culture – establishing the necessary models for a regenerative human presence on Earth (Mollison and Holmgren 1978). Permaculture design ethics are applied to ecological agriculture, natural building, social systems and culture in order to birth the new society in the shell of the old (Wahl 2016). Transition towns also reveals a crucial element of prefiguration within the wider ecological movement. This community level approach promotes “local living economies” (Shiva 2005, p.72), sustainable food production, renewable energy projects, sustainable transport and local empowerment to enact these solutions together (Hopkins 2019). Participants spoke of their experiences in these movements as the “other side to the coin” (Sammy) of their activism in XR. Relating back to the emotive level of holding grief and hope through action (Macy and Johnstone 2012), this points to the finding that XR does not, and does not need to embody prefiguration perfectly – for it is a concept dynamic in space and operates with more visceral force in its partner movements, albeit often through the same actors. The magnitude of prefiguration is dynamic across movement spaces, and when its role is diminished in one movement this can be balanced by its prevalence in another (e.g. permaculture), if the movements are willing to work together for system change.


The dynamism of prefiguration is reflected in the dance between micro and macro scales. The juxtaposition of the personal and the political is a central tenet of prefiguration (Yates 2020) and it is fascinating that this linkage revealed itself so starkly in the research –participants emphasised an understanding of personal prefiguration in relation to their collective political action, alluding to “the deconstruction of violence in my own mind and daily interactions is like the same work I do in XR deconstructing the violent political system” (Annie). This is essentially a psychosocial perspective, and in this case links the personal emotions of activists to the wider political and sociological work of change (Hoggett 2019). Participants alluded to feelings of hope driving their propositional activism, and feelings of grief and anger also propelling their involvement with XR.

It is this aspect of prefiguration, the emotive personal-political union, that underpins much of this research. Activists in this study all identify personal visions and hopes/fears for the future. Each engages in a personal prefiguration with their particular approach within the movement – evident in the differing focuses on regenerative culture, nonviolence and leadership. “The movement means different things to different people” (Xavier). And thus, the role of prefiguration in the movement must account for this complexity somehow – that personal prefiguration feeds into the aggregate collective and vise-versa. The collective prefiguration of XR and other movements feeds into the personal visions, hope and empowerment of activists – “I get my strength from my involvement in the group…” (Alan); “it’s been an empowering experience and given me confidence” (Livi). Furthermore, the role of the collective imaginary (Hopkins 2019; Fisher 2019) and group visioning is central to the movement’s mobilisation and success: “I also feel like with XR I can get behind a vision that’s bigger than me, and I think that’s why I stay involved and give all my energy to this… in hope for a better world for my children…” (Sue). Both XR and the permaculture movement have a visioning group, whose mandate is to envision and hold the reality of a more beautiful world, whilst knowing that the vision is experimental, evolving and co-dependent with the unfolding reality (Korten 2007). The role of prefiguration in the spectrum of ecological movements reflects this dynamism in space, time and scales which go beyond personal and political dualism.

Whilst previous research on prefiguration has focused on the anti-capitalist and autonomous pillars of social movements, there has been a dearth of analysis into the applications of prefiguration in the context of climate change and the ecological movement (Raekstad and Gradin 2020). This research has aimed to begin this particular conversation, and has already prompted wider discussion within XR as to the role of prefigurative activism in their movement. Prefiguration is not just about creating concrete utopia’s and alternatives to capitalism in pockets of resistance, but rather it’s framing can be widened if defined as a conception of reality that overlaps with indigenous cosmologies, co-creation of alternatives and direct action. Furthermore, the limits and challenges of this ‘propositional-oppositional’ approach require greater scrutiny, for a truly prefigurative praxis to emerge. This has already begun, in the translatory learning process between historical prefigurative movements, from Movement for a New Society in the US, to Latin American autonomous organising, to the Rojavan revolution in Syria. It is hoped that the research into XR has furthered this learning process, by emphasising the nuances amidst a myriad of prefigurations, which are dynamic across movement cycles and spaces. Achieving the delicate balance between adversarial and exemplary social action is the critical challenge of 21st century social movements, in order to enact the systemic change required to address multiple converging and urgent crises.

Hamish Evans

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