Prefiguration is a concept in anarchism that puts an emphasis on living our political values in the here and now, a disciplined effort to exemplify revolutionary values. A focus on prefiguration is by no means the only approach toward building a more just society, and it is necessary to see it as one of several complementary (and sometimes seemingly paradoxical) strategies for fighting the good fight.
Complex Problems Require Complex Solutions
For the left, one of the most difficult challenges of bringing about a better world is figuring out how to break the constraints of our current social arrangements. With injustice interwoven into the fabric (and wood, concrete, plastic, etc.) of our society, our lenses for analysis cannot be rigidly stuck on any one level – policy, economic, cultural, rhetorical, interpersonal, intrapsychic, etc. We have to be able to negotiate the power dynamics on all of them if we’re going to pull off this danged revolution.
The complexity of the challenges we face can be overwhelming, paralyzing, and terrifying. We risk spinning our wheels, if not running clear off the road, if we do not engage with compassion, and discipline. Understanding ourselves and our relationships with others is not only key to figuring out how to build a sustainable, effective movement – it’s critical for informing our vision of the future we want to build. (In the critical and community psychology literature, this is what’s called psychopolitical validity.)
Incorporating a Trauma-Informed Lens
The aim of this blog is to advance an understanding of psychological principles that are relevant for movements of resistance. There will be a special emphasis on understanding trauma – the conditions that lead to trauma and abuse, common responses to trauma, ways to defend ourselves and others, and ways to heal from damage already done.
The impacts of trauma are unequally distributed in our society, with marginalized groups facing higher rates of stigmatization, discrimination, hostility, and violence. If we aim to eliminate these patterns of violence and oppression, we need to learn how to identify and change the conditions that lead to trauma, to intervene when we see it occurring, and to respond effectively in the aftermath. Preventing trauma requires an understanding of the cyclical nature of trauma and requires taking deliberate, nuanced interventions to disrupt those cycles.
Failure to incorporate a focus on trauma within our movements carries consequences too great to ignore. Not only do we risk reproducing the very same kinds of harmful dynamics we aim to combat, we critically undermine our efforts toward building true solidarity. We risk being consumed by psychological pain, lashing out in ways that can further isolate and divide us, compounding our suffering and undermining our goals. It risks neglecting and leaving behind those who need us.
Learning how to be true allies means learning how to understand when someone is suffering from the impacts of trauma and responding accordingly. It means learning how we’ve been impacted by trauma and working to heal and transform so that we can more effectively advocate for ourselves and others.
This work will not be easy.
Not only does this work require honest self-reflection and calculated emotional vulnerability, our interventions and plans are often very difficult to implement! The degree of agency we have over ourselves and our environment is frustratingly and deceptively limited. In order to be the most effective about how we allocate our limited resources, we must be strategic. This is where the “ology” part of prefigurology comes in.
Case Study in Collective Trauma: Trump’s Victory
This election cycle and outcome traumatized our country. A minority of the country voted for a dangerous man who spews toxic views about vulnerable people, and now he is our president-elect. The message this country sent to immigrants, people of color, lgbtq+ folks, and women is: your issues do not matter to us. While some did foresee this possibility, many did not. Many are now struggling with how to make meaning of this failure of neoliberalism and their shattered view of their fellow countryfolk.
Many people who voted for Trump did not vote for him because of his overt hatefulness, and many can’t see why we find him and his positions threatening. The left has strugled in its efforts to reach out to those on the right, failed to do enough to hear their concerns and find common ground, and failed to do enough to make our concerns relevant to them. There's an influx of thinkpieces discussing some of the causes and potential ways forward in transforming the dialog across ideological lines– and this blog will contribute a little to that effort.
However, while understanding why people support Trump is important, we can’t get stuck trying to “fix” them. We can’t prioritize this aspect of transformation and resistance at the expense of other measures, and it cannot be our top priority while Muslims and immigrants have already been targeted for state-sanctioned violence. Any efforts we use to “convert” Trump supporters should be secondary to other measures to bolster our movement. We can’t just “civilly” work on changing the hearts and minds of those who got duped by this conman while he and his ilk steadfastly roll back our civil liberties and orchestrate ethnic cleansing.
In the wake of this devastating parade of bigotry, there are serious threats beyond the symbolic blow to social justice. Trump has already chosen to include people with demonstrated ties to white supremacist movements into his administration. Neo-Nazis, the KKK, skinheads, and other fascist organizations were instrumental in getting Trump elected (though Democrats had a role in this too), and have been emboldened by his victory to more openly recruit and organize.
The Trump Effect means that we will be seeing even more trauma than many of us are ready to admit. This means we need to invest even more resources in helping those who face the brunt of this uptick in violence and hostility. Material support, volunteering, and direct action are necessary for mitigating the harm that is to come. It is time to dig our heels in and embrace the fight. It is time to radicalize.
In addition to the overt threat of fascism coming from our future commander-in-chief, his administration, and his most rabid supporters, we have other enemies as well. Some internal, some external. Internally, we have the perpetual challenge of getting the heck along. Without the requisite skills, cooperation can be frustrating and inefficient. This work requires intensive self-care and demands radical support for one another. We’re also a product of this deeply flawed world, so we need to be vigilant about how we have internalized domination and oppression. As for external enemies – that’s a whole other post to come.
The way forward is not clear, and much is yet to be revealed. However, what we can anticipate is that with the complexity of the threats we’re facing, we must prepare to meet them with equal levels of complex solutions. We must respect a diverse range of tactics – we don’t yet know what will stick. We have plenty of ideas and resources, and we should continue to draw on the wisdom of activists who have already been involved in this fight long before this election. Work with mass organizations. Work with a close group of trusted friends. Ideally, do both.
It’s time to buckle down and confront some demons, y’all.