A Politics of Worldbuilding

Recently, political anthropologists and theorists have attempted to address two interrelated concerns. The first is a seemingly widespread lack of motivation for participating in political activity. The second is a political and intellectual focus on critique, rather than on offering alternatives for possible futures. Addressing these two problematics is increasingly urgent in a time characterized by disappointment, anxiety, and precarity. Across the globe a predominantly—but by no means exclusively—right-wing populist response to these conditions has been a nostalgic return to a past greatness that never was. For example, the 1950s stands in as the best imagined future for many in both the United States and Russia today, while in Britain and much of Europe there is a desire to return to an ethnonationalist purity that supposedly existed sometime before the European Union arrived on the scene.

While this nostalgic nationalist imperative may be to turn back time, many on the political and intellectual left hope to begin to create worldly conditions that are more open and inclusive than they have been in the past, to reduce economic inequality and precarity as much as possible, and to do all of this in a way that addresses the existential threat of climate change. Despite this hope, however, the left has offered very little in terms of a political vision of what that future might be like or how to get there. Over the last decade I have been doing research with some unlikely political actors—active and former users of heavy drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine—who have helped me think some responses to this impasse. I call these political actors unlikely because, for over a century, drug users around the globe have been systematically excluded not only from political processes but also from humanity as such. Despite its unlikeliness, the globally networked anti–drug war political movement organized and run by drug users is, I argue, at the forefront of offering an alternative political and social imaginary. In two books on this political movement, one just published (Zigon 2018) and one in press (Zigon, forthcoming), I attempt to conceptualize and articulate this alternative. I show how the movement is enacting nonnormative, open, and relationally inclusive alternatives to such key ethical-political concepts as community, freedom, and care, and that they do so by means of what I call a politics of worldbuilding.

Such an alternative political vision is necessary, according to the anti–drug war movement, because they conceive the drug war as what they call “a war on people.” They recognize, however, that this war on people goes beyond the drug war and can be understood to be waged on all kinds of people—for example, African Americans and Latinos, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, the poor and the precariat—who do not fit a preconceived and narrow definition of who counts or belongs. Perhaps, then, we could understand this contemporary condition as a war as governance, such that the political response it demands would need to go beyond issue- and identity-focused politics to center political activity aimed at worldbuilding.

If the political objective of this war is the violent imposition of a biopolitical will such that victory is measured by the normalization or, better put, the rectification of being human with an extremely narrow definition of how, what, and who is to count as human, then the struggle against this war is fought as a nonnormative attempt to become human and worldly otherwise. To put it plainly, if the war on people is meant to force persons to become what counts as human today (and to exclude all those who won’t or can’t be counted as such), then the struggle against this war entails not only remaining uncountable, but disclosing the violence of the count and—through that disclosure—bringing into the open new possibilities for becoming human and worldly otherwise. This is precisely what the anti–drug war movement is doing through their political and ethical activity. By means of their political struggle against a global condition of war as governance, the anti–drug war movement is surfacing new possibilities for nonnormative political and communal ways of being-with.

Put another way, the anti–drug war movement is enacting a form of politics aimed at changing the worldly conditions for existence. In my recent book Disappointment, I define a world as a multiplicity of situations (see also Zigon 2015) ontologically structured by ecstatic relationality. Furthermore, I describe a politics of worldbuilding as beginning from a situation, and proceeding to open possibilities for what worlds can become and how existents can come to dwell (that is, be-with-openly) within them by means of altering the relationalities between those existents. It is my contention that the anti–drug war movement offers a glimpse of such a politics, by which new forms of social relations are created because new worlds and ways of being-with are created. This entails the recognition that worlds and social life, as well as human–nonhuman relations, always have a particular onto-ethical grounding, and so a desire to change the former demands the experimental creation of the latter.

A politics of worldbuilding, therefore, is quite different from what most left political activity has become today. This difference is best understood in terms of worldbuilding, which offers both a political vision and the tactics for realizing this vision in a lasting manner. Although there are certainly some left-leaning movements that have clear and articulated aims with a variety of tactics suited to meet them, this is not the case for the left in general—and especially, for the most visible types of left political activity today. To a great extent this political activity—perhaps the epitome of which was the horizontalist prefiguration of Occupy—has become limited to temporary spectacular and carnivalesque protest, often combined with some form of occupation, which emphasizes process over results, tactics over strategy, intimate locality over abstract globality, identity over conditions, and individualizing simplicity over complexity (see Srnicek and Williams 2015). These emphases have led to a state of affairs in which it often seems as though the only aim of political activity are performative rituals for voicing dissatisfaction (Juris 2008, 238–39), often articulated in a register of moralism (Brown 2001, 18–44), symbolic occupation, and a prefigurative enactment of a localized process (see Graeber 2002) with no long-term strategy for actual transformation. Far from changing worlds, this politics of performative ritual primarily results in a seemingly endless process of network-building and the realization of affective solidarity. Such a politics has come “to be about feelings of personal empowerment, masking an absence of strategic gains” (Srnicek and Williams 2015, 8). To paraphrase Lauren Berlant’s (2011, 182) assessment of a similar form of political activity: it may feel good, but it does very little to change anything.

In contrast, a politics of worldbuilding rejuvenates one of the essential features of political thinking and activity: that is, the articulation of and attempt to realize a political vision (see Wolin 2004). As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2015, 3) rightly put it, such a political vision and a sense of how to realize it is precisely what is missing in contemporary left politics, and therefore “articulating and achieving . . . better world[s] [should be] the fundamental task of the left today.” While there is no doubt that articulating visions of postcapitalism and postwork worlds is vital, what is missing from Srnicek and Williams’s political imaginary is the recognition that worlds do not change through the mere alteration of relations of production, labor, and exchange. Rather, these alterations must be accompanied by, if not preceded by, alterations in the onto-ethical relationalities that constitute these worlds. If nothing else, a politics of worldbuilding begins from the assumption that worlds are built first and foremost through the creative and experimental enactment of such relationalities of being-with. These give way to new modes of labor and exchange, and it is only through these newly acquired habits of being-with that new worlds can stick and endure.

Indeed, sticking and enduring are key to a politics of worldbuilding. For the demand to build a new world is a demand to build one that persists; if it does not, then it must remain a resource for yet another new world to come. Imagination is central here. But imagination must be enacted—and not merely discussed and debated—if there is any hope of turning a vision into an actual new world. To the extent that prefigurative politics creates such worlds of duration and potential, then these too could be considered examples of worldbuilding. Perhaps the Paris Commune or pre-Revolution Russian workers’ councils (sovety) are the best-known examples. A politics of worldbuilding demands that the effects of political activity endure and are relationally linked to other globally dispersed situations; for example, much of the political activity of the anti–drug war movement is intertwined with concerns of race, gender, and inequality.

In their attempts to build new worlds, anti–drug war political agonists have become keen political actors who simultaneously engage in pragmatic, policy-oriented activities while also experimentally enacting alternative relationalities, values, and possibilities. Far from a reformist agenda, however, their engagement with policy is better understood as a deployment of potentiality time bombs within an existing system; these can then open more sites of potentiality for future experimentation. For example, the policy, legislative, and judicial work that was necessary to open Insite, the first legally sanctioned safe injection site in North America, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, was the opening that allowed for the eventual transformation of that neighborhood into an entirely new world that now includes businesses that employ active drug users, sex workers, and persons with mental disabilities on their own terms; adequate and safe housing; and a bank that has nondiscriminatory policies for its clientele and holds community events such as a free opera performance on May Day, which is accompanied by a free meal. The effects of this political activity are slowly spreading beyond this neighborhood to other parts of Vancouver, and increasingly throughout Canada and across the globe. Such anti–drug war political activity is effectively creating and experimenting with potentialities, out of which a future with radically different forms of sociality and politics are beginning to emerge.

The ultimate aim of a politics of worldbuilding, then, is the actual building of new worlds, including not only their infrastructure, values, and interactive practices, but, first and foremost, the onto-ethical grounds that allow for such worlds to emerge and remain. These are relationalities of being-with that onto-ethically sustain new possibilities for a community of whoever arrives, freedom as letting-be, and attuned care. A politics of worldbuilding as agonistic experimentation with an otherwise entails actually enacting this otherwise so that it begins to stick and endure, rather than dissipate as if it never was.


Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Graeber, David. 2002. “The New Anarchists.” New Left Review 13, January–February.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Srnicek, Nick, and Alex Williams. 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and A World Without Work. New York: Verso.

Wolin, Sheldon S. 2004. Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Expanded edition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2015. “What is a Situation? An Assemblic Ethnography of the Drug War.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 3: 501–524.

_____. 2018. Disappointment: Toward a Critical Hermeneutics of Worldbuilding. New York: Fordham University Press.

_____. Forthcoming. A War on People: Politics, Ethics and Potentiality. Oakland: University of California Press.