abolition and the state

this is mostly comment-bait, to see whether the folks looking for spaces off twitter for some of the conversations that happen there are interested in talking here (which i’d like)!

there are exciting conversations happening about whether abolition (of the prison-industrial complex: cops/cameras/courts/cages) necessarily implies opposition to the state as such. (spoiler: it does.)

here are a few of of them:

BCRW panel on 11/15/2022 with harsha walia, william c. anderson, and dean spade (gord hill was unable to attend)
Haymarket Books panel on 10/26/2022 with mariame kaba, andrea ritchie, leanne betasamosake simpson, and robyn maynard

here is a contribution of mine, in the form of a presentation i shared at Read & Resist in september 2022: “Obvious, Obscured, Restated”. it’s an appreciation of – and a loving & comradely argument with – Ruth Wilson Gilmore & Craig Gilmore’s indispensable essay on abolition and the state “Restating the Obvious”.

and here is a discussion guide from Interrupting Criminalization: “Abolition and the State”. i think it’s quite useful, with a few caveats. and i think it’s useful to name those caveats, since i hope folks will use it in discussions in a range of movement spaces. so here they are:

1) for a pamplet about the question of the-state-as-such, it’s notable how many of the references to the state use some kind of qualifier or other: “carceral state”, “police state”, “settler-colonial state”, “racial capitalist state”, “socialist state”, and over and over again “nation-state”. this seems to me to be a way of avoiding the question of the-state-as-such: the state as a structure, a form with specific inherent characteristics. which is to say: a way of preserving the fantasy that the state is a neutral container that imposes no particular shape on what fits inside it. which is to say: a way of inserting a “not all states” assertion, without even making an argument for it.

2) the flip side of this constant return to “nation-state” is an assertion of the nation as a natural category: “cohesive groups of people who share common values, practices, languages, histories.” this is a common view on the pro-state left, rooted in stalin’s write-up of the bolshevik version of the german romantic nationalist definition of nationhood*. but this naturalization of the nation isn’t even universal on the pro-state left, let alone elsewhere. and, importantly, many people (i think i first encountered it in rudolf rocker’s writing, but he’s far from an outlier) have argued that this specific idea of “the nation” is very directly a product of the state form (and does not correspond to non-state-centered versions of peoplehood or group-ness). to me, it’s quite troubling to have this longstanding debate completely glossed over. especially since in north america, one of the most active areas of debate about the state is within indigenous communities, where the question of whether and how to use the state-oriented rhetorics of “nationhood” and “sovereignty” is very central.

3) finally, there’s a certain odd reframing at the very beginning of the pamphlet, which happens in a few places, but may be most visible in a quoted passage from mariame kaba & andrea ritchie’s excellent No More Police: A Case for Abolition:

“[W]e ask ourselves what additional possibilities emerge if we move beyond the dichotomy of capturing or dismantling the modern Western state. What if our goal is not to seize the carceral state in an effort to transform it, but to seize power and resources from the police state to create conditions under which new economic systems and forms of governance can emerge?”

if that’s your goal**, you’re not moving beyond any dichotomy. you’re simply describing one approach to how we might go about dismantling the state. there’s a very interesting strategic conversation about whether it’s a useful approach, but the core political question has already been settled.

i can understand wanting to use a “third way” framing like this to get pro-state leftists in the door, but i think it’s counterproductive in the end. at best, it brings people in expecting one kind of conversation and being offered another one. but possibly worse, it muddies the core political question, which is (for abolition) whether there can be such a thing as a non-carceral state, or (more broadly) whether becoming the state can be a liberatory goal. i don’t think these are particularly difficult or complicated questions, especially after about 230 years*** of failed experiments in seeking liberation through state-building.

and while i’d love to believe we can simply move on to the strategic conversations without dealing with the big political ones, i don’t think that’s real. the pro-state left – like the police preservationists – relies on avoiding having to actually defend the state as a structure. their arguments are always about the state’s pragmatic necessity, its supposedly infinite malleability, and, as william anderson has pointed out, the exact same “bad apples”, “not all states”, “but with more expertise/training”, “but with better oversight” moves that abolitionists laugh out of the room. and we, as abolitionists, know that those kinds of evasions are infinite, and do not respond to point-by-point arguments based on actual history and experience. so unless we have the actual political arguments directly and explicitly, we can’t ever get to the meaningful strategic ones.

despite these caveats, i have high hopes for the Interrupting Criminalization discussion pamphlet as a tool for instigating both the political arguments and the strategic ones, and am excited to see how it affects the overall conversations in our movements!

* stalin’s “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture” elaborated the bloodline + language + territory core that the germans established. incidentally, stalin being the one to write up the bolshevik version because he was georgian, and thus an “inarodets” rather than part of “the great-russian nation”, is a fascinating early example of the use of a (very willing!) token to identity-launder a supposedly empowering policy structured to be used against the broad group (inarodtsy) that it was alleged to benefit. it’s a move that runs almost as deep in bolshevism as the “bros before hos” principle that split them from the mensheviks. the contrast with rocker is interesting on that score: he was from a german-speaking christian background, but became so thoroughly a part of the yiddish-speaking jewish anarchist movement in london that he was known as the anarchist rabbi. there is no conception of nation as a natural category that can account for rocker’s position in the world without a whole lot of special pleading; his case is far from unusual.

** i’m ignoring the dodgy qualifiers here, because they don’t change the meat of things at all: all current states are formally on a “modern Western” model; the question at issue is whether there can be a state that isn’t “carceral” [spoiler: no].

*** i’m using the french revolution as a rough marker of when social revolutionary aims began to be folded into attempts to become the state. the u.s. war of independence was not an attempt to seek liberation in any meaningful way – wherever there were gestures within it towards social revolution rather than simple regime change, they were crushed. the social revolutionary efforts within the english revolution were not focused on the state; social versus political revolution was more or less the line between the Diggers/True Levelers & Ranters and the Levelers & other state-oriented factions. and the radical christian revolutionary movements of central europe were centered on the state only when they swung definitively away from liberation (in the münster theocracy, for example). my less well informed sense is that these patterns hold beyond europe as well, with social revolutionary movements only beginning to seek to become the state in the 19th christian century.

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