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The New Abolitionism
Some Aspects of the Successor Ideology
Today we hear a growing number of activists declare themselves to be "Abolitionists." The term refers to the adjacent and often overlapping movements of police and prison abolitionism. While the new Abolitionists emphasize that their work consists of incremental steps toward a distant end, (“This work will take generations, and I’m not going to be alive to see the changes,” the activist Mariame Kaba told the New York Times Magazine,) agitating for a world without prisons or police orients the movement away from mere "reform" that would reduce police misconduct or mitigate the most inhumane aspects of the prison system. Instead, the dilemma is reframed as an unusually stark iteration of the trade-off that all societies face in the budgeting process: guns or butter. With enough butter, the thinking goes, we would have no need for guns.
Abolition is sometimes framed as necessary response to systems that are operating as intended when they produce racially disparate patterns of enforcement, with police acting as defacto armies of occupation of black communities and prisons serving as sites where black people are de-facto re-enslaved by the state in the service of an ongoing, pervasive, and trans-historical white supremacy that changes its form while preserving its essence over time. In this view, "reform" would merely be a way of shoring up a system of racialized domination by creating an appearance -- sometimes by creating the reality -- of fewer blatant abuses of the sort that summon up outrage and protest. "Abolitionist steps are about gaining ground in the constant effort to radically transform society," write the author of An Abolitionist Toolkit. "They are about chipping away at oppressive institutions rather than helping them live."
Abolitionism is sometimes tacitly framed as merely a form of rhetorical persuasion -- a radical-sounding slogan that pushes against the limits of the possible and reformats expectation for the pace and scale of change -- that then acts as a gateway to less dramatic and more defensible constructions of both the problem and its cure. Grand rhetoric about the racialized subordination endemic to the criminal justice system yields to humbler observations about the unconstrained growth of the ambit of policing over the past three decades, which in turn give way to discrete proposals to reassign many of the tasks handed over to police in recent decades to other agencies that could accomplish the same work without truncheons or guns. In a characteristic pronouncement of the movement's more moderate exponents, a sociologist at the University of Toronto told Vox, "Let’s get rid of the practice of managing homelessness, inequality, poverty, the consequences of decades of racial segregation, and the consequences of decades of disinvestment in public health with armed members of law enforcement." In the process the rhetoric of "abolition" found itself reduced to the ambiguous "defund", which can refer either to total or partial defunding, situating it at the fulcrum point of abolition -- and reform.
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For our purposes here, the question of to what degree the enormous faith in community organizing, therapeutic expertise, and increased social welfare spending as alternatives to law enforcement is warranted matters less than the categorical change in the nature of the claims. We will to some degree undertake policy experiments in the coming decade that will put that faith to the test. We will find out if "reimagining safety" in practice means tent cities, squalor in the streets, spiking crime, and another cycle of political reaction, or if the caring professions have indeed evolved to the point where they can have transformative effects on societal macro-phenomena at an unprecedented new scale. (Since this faith in therapeutic intervention infused with a sectarian and politicized ethos is fundamental to the Successor Ideology, I'll be examining these various claims in subsequent posts. For now we can say that the prison and police abolition literature all suffers from the defects of failing to give due consideration to trade-offs or to weigh in the balance the harms done to black communities by lawlessness against the harms done to by law enforcement. ) We will have the protest movements of the summer of 2020 to credit or blame when the results come in.
The movement toggles between these two rhetorical framings -- often the same person will do so in the course of a single exchange. The conceptual instability that some might see as a bug is exploited by others as a feature. Seemingly contrary approaches can lead to the same ends.
The slogan "Black Lives Matter" is a form of persuasion that seeks to be as anodyne in its tone and minimal in its assertion as possible, (indeed, almost self-parodically so) and therefore impossible to dispute. Its exponents then pack in as much sectarian content, much of it disputed, and much of it distant from the issue of police brutality that the slogan ostensibly addressed, as possible into that otherwise unimpeachable assertion. Do the black inner-city males between 18-30 who are the primary targets of policing and its associated abuses really believe that no one is free unless Palestine or LGBTQ people are free? Do they agree that we must "dismantle the nuclear family requirement" and all the other left-wing shibboleths written into the manifesto for the Movement of Black Lives? Is it possible to dispute any of these shibboleths without thereby disputing the core assertion with which no one disagrees, and thereby placing oneself beyond the pale of civilized society?
"Abolish Police" takes the opposite approach. It compels attention by being as provocative and confrontational as possible. It embraces a totalizing and utopian response to what it frames as a totalizing threat to black lives endemic to American institutions and society. It then offloads much of that conceptual cargo in response to the reaction it provokes and retreats to a much reduced set of proposals — all while insisting on the validity of the provocation as an act of political imagination.
The provocation precisely persuades by summoning up antagonism from the Right, which in turn generates negative partisanship that causes right-thinking people to rally in defense of propositions that they would not otherwise support -- while in the end offering them an off-ramp in the form of less provocative policy proposals to compromise and rally around. This dynamic has become central to the consolidation and entrenchment of hyper-liberal consensus since Trump’s election such that the entire purpose of the American right increasingly seems to be signaling through the act of their opposition to the liberals who dominate American institutions what must be affirmed.
There is an additional purpose, however, to the adoption of the Abolitionist framing revealing of the sociology of what I call the Successor Ideology. This of course is contained in its direct invocations of a continuity of the Abolitionist struggle -- an act infused with nostalgia for the moral certitude of its predecessor movement that allows today's Abolitionists to regard and portray themselves as bearers of the same transcendent vision driven by same moral imperative that serves as both warrant and mandate to do whatever one must to meet the fierce urgency of what they declare to be the crisis.
Today's self-declared Abolitionists both borrow the enormous moral prestige of their namesake movement and seek to replicate its achievement: that of convincing a broader public to regard institutions generally accepted as a mundane fact of society, (as slavery was once seen), as a great moral evil and an ongoing moral emergency that must be eradicated at any cost, (as slavery rightly came to be regarded by a posterity of which we are a part.) "Slavery, lynching, and segregation are certainly compelling examples of social institutions that, like the prison, were once considered to be as everlasting as the sun," Angela Davis wrote in one of the founding texts of the new Abolitionism, ARE PRISONS OBSOLETE. "Yet, in the case of all three examples, we can point to movements that assumed the radical stance of announcing the obsolescence of these institutions."
The expansion of our moral horizons by a righteous vanguard of those awakened to the myriad injustices through which the complacent mass of society slumbers is both a goal and a precondition of its attainment. Writing in the Nation, the journalist John Washington noted that a late as 1856 some were predicting that the United States would have as many as 100 million slaves in 1950. "Abolitionists are trying to shake society from this ethical torpor and show us that, like slavery, locking humans in cages need not be inextricably woven into our society."
This is on the one hand merely the latest iteration of a perennial dialectic between reform and revolution. In a pithy summary of the contents of the text that follows, the series editor of the volume the ABOLITIONIST IMAGINATION, by the Columbia literary scholar Andrew Delbanco, notes that
"Delbanco’s essay considers abolitionism as a general category of political vision, one impelled by “imprecatory prophets whose contribution is, in part, to envision what their contemporaries regarded as “preposterous” and to make it seem possible. Abolitionists render a moral case against the existence and endurance of one or more of a society’s perceived wrongs, such as slavery and racial castes. And perhaps others: alcohol, or gender discrimination, or abortion, or the hierarchy of heterosexuality over gay and lesbian lives. The abolitionist then and now requires moral clarity in the form of a sharp division between good and evil in which the viewer and reader can tell the two apart. Abolitionism also requires a refusal to settle for half- measures; it paints these compromises themselves as part of the problem, as resting firmly on one side of the binary divide. And, not least, abolitionism must conjure a world without the evil institution whose demise it seeks: a promised land."
Contemporary abolitionism shares a basic affective profile with the "general category of political vision" of its predecessor movement and shares it with a broad range of other contemporary movements that seek to alert the public to great moral emergencies ongoing in our midst -- to the harms of cultural appropriation, to the evils of a binary structure of gender, to the existence of borders and all the violence and cruelty sustaining the boundaries of a nation state necessarily entails, to the exclusion from opportunity imposed by meritocratic standards and the standardized tests that are the instruments of those standards, to the assaults on the self-esteem and thus the mental and physical health of the morbidly obese by the findings of the medical profession, and the insidious injuries done to the dignity and self-esteem of marginalized people done by micro-aggressions.
This "general category of political vision" does not, of course, coalesce into a Successor Ideology until it is married to another conceptual element, to which we will turn in the next post.