Field Notes In Conversation
States of Incarceration: Zhandarka Kurti and Jarrod Shanahan with Tobi Haslett
States of Incarceration
(Reaktion Books, 2022)
Tobi Haslett (Rail): Zhandarka Kurti and Jarrod Shanahan’s new book States of Incarceration1 is a report, an analysis, and a critique. A report of what actually happened in the streets in 2020; an analysis of the carceral state that digests the thickening genre of abolitionist scholarship; and a critique, delicately constructed, of the positions and ideologies that have delivered us into a contradictory moment marked by blooms of possibility and ruthless, forceful closure. This book, perhaps the most synthetic and ambitious look at the George Floyd Rebellion, is an attempt to view the events of 2020 from the perspective of complete social transformation—which is to say, revolution.
Let’s start with the purpose of the book, and the shape you wanted your intervention to take. The text begins with a rousing, scene-by-scene description of some of the most bursting, spectacular moments in the rebellion itself, in the spring and summer of 2020. This is less to thrill the reader or capture the ecstasies of the crowd—though perhaps that’s part of it—than to point to specific forms of militancy, particular tactical innovations, which would define the uprising and distinguish it from the first wave of BLM. Why was that important to you? Is this fastidious, blow-by-blow retelling meant as a corrective to the liberal account? It also reads like a stab at a theory that could be adequate to the praxis of 2020.
Zhandarka Kurti: Our book is coming out two years after the most militant rejection of the status quo in recent American history. We wrote what became the first chapter of the book initially as an article for Brooklyn Rail two weeks into the rebellion. Jarrod and I wanted to capture as much as possible its militant spirit as it unfolded and the variety of tactics we witnessed, because they signaled a giant leap from the previous protest movements that have defined our generation. But unfortunately, within months the militancy of the rebellion was forgotten and willfully erased. With this book we wanted to recuperate the militancy of the George Floyd rebellion from the liberal amnesia that currently plagues us.
Jarrod Shanahan: Idris Robinson predicted very early on that the liberal strategy of counterinsurgency was going to rely heavily on redefining the rebellion as peaceful and within the framework of civil disobedience. I think something that you did very well, Tobi, in your essay “Magic Actions,” is argue that we would not be having any conversations about this rebellion if it hadn’t been for the illegal activity, the riots, the looting, and the attacks on carceral infrastructure and the cops themselves.2 All of this set the table for whatever came next. Regardless of how one feels about those forms of political participation, the reality is these tactics lent the rebellion impetus and caused it to resonate worldwide. So we wanted to craft an account of the rebellion that was faithful to how it actually went down.
Our work has long examined the US punishment system, alongside the social movements of the last decade or so, especially Occupy and Black Lives Matter. In the rebellion these threads converged neatly. We recognized very early on that its focus—which could have been about unemployment, or lack of health care, racial disparities in homeownership, or a myriad of other injustices—zeroed in on the cops and on carceral infrastructure. In a moment of great despair and uncertainty, something about the sight of violent state agents disposing of a working-class Black man’s life in such a callous way spoke to the fears and anxieties of tens of millions of people, including large numbers of non-Black people. From the most militant components of the rebellion, which directly attacked cops and carceral infrastructure, to the more social-democratic aspects, which were calling for procedural reforms to them, the central figure of the rebellion was the US carceral state, and in particular, the situation of the working-class Black people who are the most powerless in its hands.
To us this choice of target was no coincidence; it suggests a collective sense of the need to radically address the role that police, jails, prisons, and courts play in our society. And the great urgency and stridency of this movement, along with its timing in the middle of such an unprecedented social crisis, and the radical conclusions many of its participants drew about the need to restructure our society, all suggest to us that this thread can be traced to a larger picture of just about everything that’s wrong with American life. So in the book we begin with the rebellion, and then work backwards through a political-economic account of how we got to this moment, when suddenly tens of millions of people were out on the street, saying: “We've had enough.”
Kurti: The George Floyd rebellion provided an opportunity to express a collective fury that had reached a tipping point. Let’s be real, most people will not participate in street protests unless they see their fate directly related to what is at stake. The COVID-19 pandemic put the spotlight not only on deeply embedded structural inequalities but made evident how vulnerable everyday life was for most Americans (save for the super rich). There was a general sense of helplessness as we watched the most vulnerable Americans die before our eyes while the Trump administration fueled conspiracy notions about the deadly virus. In those first months of the pandemic, the future for millions of people had never felt more uncertain. And on top of this COVID-19 mayhem, the police decided to strangle a Black man to death in broad daylight over an alleged counterfeit twenty dollar bill. For a significant number of people, these contradictions became too much to bear.
The rebellion also turned up the dial in terms of tactics from the last large-scale Black Lives Matter protests. By the summer of 2020, Trump’s tweets, actions, and policies had destroyed the Obama era dreams of a post-racial society, including that of police reform. Instead of another toothless legislative bill, the most enduring image from the summer of 2020 is the smoldering flames of Minneapolis’s Third Precinct. When was the last time our generation witnessed something like that?
We are also very clear that the entire world was moved by the murder of George Floyd. The rebellion had widespread global resonance. In the Middle East, protestors compared the George Floyd uprising to the Arab Spring protests of 2011. Brazil erupted in solidarity protests that made connections to the racism and state violence in the favelas and the right-wing politics of Bolsonaro. The George Floyd rebellion struck a chord around the world and it offered us a glimpse of international mobilizations that we can hope to see more of going forward.
Rail: One thing that I tried to do (so it’s nice to finally place this burden on someone else) was give an account of the “diversity” of the crowd. Racial diversity, yes, but also class diversity. Which is to say, within the very American category of “working people”—a blurry term that I think can sometimes have a kind of pragmatic utility—there are different stripes and conflicting fractions, all of whom felt interpellated at different levels of severity to participate in what was a variegated but explosive social phenomenon: a rebellion. But a rebellion whose rhetorical engine was Black liberation. How do you explain that?
Shanahan: In my own experience the Occupy movement represented a real turning point in American politics. In a country where much of official society is arranged to erase the existence of class, and to assure just about everybody that they are “middle class,” you suddenly saw the explosion of a visceral kind of rudimentary class politics. And this was not due to the genius ideas of any individual people, although there were lots of smart people involved. It was a direct reflection of the 2008 fiscal crisis and the widespread sense among the so-called middle class, and the upper tiers of the working class, that they would not be able to enjoy a standard of living superior or even equal to what their parents had enjoyed. As we know, the 2008 crisis was a particular disaster for Black people in terms of home ownership and employment. That particularly steep downward slope, coupled with the state’s racially-selective management of the crisis by the violence of cops and prisons, played no small part in the emergence of the Ferguson Rebellion, the Baltimore Riots, and the attendant 2014-2015 Black Lives Matter movement. These are movements against the violence of so-called austerity, which is just a polite word we use to describe the draconian lengths capitalism is willing to adopt to protect itself amidst the protracted crises that are part of its nature.
So, while the structural violence of austerity is felt most bluntly and devastatingly in working-class Black America, typified by the barbaric murder of George Floyd in broad daylight, it is also part of a more generalized crisis attendant on capitalism’s profound inability to sustain human life. From the explosion of apocalypse-themed stories in popular culture to the rise of demented extremists like Trump and DeSantis, there is a general sense of doom permeating our society. And this is where all those white people come in. There’s a standard “white ally” line from 2020—“We are out here because we're standing in solidarity with people who are oppressed, exploited, and suffering, unlike us, who have it great”—and I don't believe it. I know why people say that, because they don’t want to “center themselves” and so forth. But I don't believe that anybody takes the kinds of risks we saw in 2020, is willing to hurl themselves into harm's way at the hands of violent cops and murderous vigilantes, simply out of a kind of moral responsibility to alleviate somebody else's suffering. If human beings were so benevolent, we’d already live in a perfect world. But in this one, people typically take action only when their own liberation hangs in the balance.
Kurti: From my experience and from speaking to participants and also reading accounts of the rebellion, millennials and generation Z dominated in the streets. And certainly one can say this was partly due to the fact that older people were more vulnerable to COVID-19 so they avoided joining the protests. But the 2008 crisis and Black Lives Matter movement in particular have politicized millennials and generation Z.
A lasting effect of the 2008 crisis was the creation of the gig economy. The rise of Uber, Lyft, Airbnb can all be traced to the 2008 crisis. Millennials make up the largest share of gig workers and the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of this precarious and contingent workforce. The kinds of job protections afforded to some regular workers are non-existent for gig workers who rely on day-to-day wages. The pandemic closed down most of the service industry save for certain types of work deemed “essential.” Millions were left unemployed and young people especially felt that they had nothing to lose. All of this had an effect on what we saw unfold: widespread looting, destruction of carceral infrastructures, and graffiti slogans on boarded up businesses targeting the rich. I thought it was interesting how during the rebellion dining out became seen as a sign of privilege by protestors who heckled the brunch crowds. Eat the rich, indeed!
The fact that some white people heckled the rich and fought off cops while others cried about being unable to dine outside fancy places and the worst of the lot traveled across distances to take up arms and defend property gives us a small glimpse into the morbid symptoms of whiteness today. In tandem with the violence of austerity that Jarrod mentioned are the transformations of whiteness which we should pay more attention to. Historically, whiteness has been a cross-class alliance, “the original sweetheart deal” in the words of Noel Ignatiev, which ensured that a section of the American working class would comply with the racial order that defines American life at the expense of solidarity with Black and Brown workers, thus forsaking any possible shot at human liberation. Trump’s ascendancy awakened many to the potential destruction of aggrieved white people. He gave them a scapegoat for their wretched lives: Mexican immigrants, Black people, Muslims, leftists. In 2016, Trump won over sixty millions Americans to his dystopian vision of the world. So in the summer of 2020, for a brief moment, the George Floyd Rebellion offered a utopian antidote. Millions of people rejected the status quo not only in large cities, but across suburbia and small towns in America. And for a brief moment in the streets, white allies were turned into accomplices and became the targets of both police and white vigilante violence.
Rail: This question is related to my last one. There are a lot of unresolved paradoxes inherent to the rebellion: how it grew, how it died, the subsequent political responses. But we’re still marveling at this moment of generalized disorder, when an unprecedented number of people flung themselves at carceral and policing infrastructure, all under the discursive auspices of Black struggle—its history, its moral force. But abolition is a universal program. It relies upon a universal and necessarily total critique of how this society is bolted together and reproduces itself every day. It has been nourished by Black militancy and sets its sights on a transformation at the broadest and deepest level. Is there, say, a conceptual space between the particularist prompt of the rebellion (Blackness) and the scale of the problem to be tackled? And do you think that space has to be closed or transcended? Do you foresee militants learning to talk differently, proceed differently? How can the specific, vital contribution of Black struggle withstand the temptations of liberal anti-racism? History will answer these questions one way or another. But I thought it might be worth the effort to guess.
Kurti: It goes beyond 2014. From nineteenth century Abolitionism, through Civil Rights and Black Power, to the George Floyd Rebellion, the radical political involvement of large numbers of Americans has been shaped by the demands of Black liberation struggles. The televised images of police dogs mauling black children in Birmingham politicized a new generation to fight against white supremacy. The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s was inspired by the Black liberation struggle for self-determination. The list goes on and on. However, within this history of Black liberation struggles there was also an affirmation of race that you may be alluding to. We have not escaped that because no Black liberation movement up to date has been successful in overthrowing the racial order. Ultimately, the struggle will be successful if it can abolish, not reaffirm, race.
I am not sure if it’s just the explicit invocation of race that rendered the George Floyd Rebellion vulnerable to liberal anti-racism. As we discuss in the book, the spontaneity of the rebellion also hit real limits, not all of which can be blamed on outside forces and institutions. Even as it was a spectacular rejection of the status quo, the political imagination and the will power did not exist to connect to areas of American social life that produce the ills that police and prisons manage. As soon as the rebellion subsided, everyone returned to their segregated neighborhoods. It is hard to destroy hundreds of years of race-making through riots alone. In such moments, liberal anti-racism is successful because it’s easier for people to imagine that racism can be dismantled by crafting more good white people or diversifying leadership positions rather than abolishing the system that makes it possible.
It’s worthwhile mentioning that the participation of whites in Black-led rebellions is still a relatively new phenomenon. Also, the boundaries of race are not fixed; they are constantly being remade in ways that will undoubtedly influence future struggles.
Rail: In a few places you cite “Onward Barbarians,” an essay published by the Endnotes collective, in which the authors deploy (or rather adapt) the term “con-fusion” to discuss what’s sometimes called identity politics. That is, fusion and confusion: the jagged new constituencies and forms of identification that have sprung from recent uprisings across the planet. Is that line of thinking helpful to you? And does it get us even part of the way to solving strategic problems?
Shanahan: I mean, speaking in purely abstract terms, the universalist solution is, of course, correct: We set aside our differences, and struggle for some mythic unifying working-class interest, and then we win! But in terms of how struggles for liberation have actually played out, even in the heat of battle we appear to be stuck with some version of the way that capital has divided us. If you look at movements like Occupy, which attempted to posit a false universal—a whopping ninety-nine percent of the population have the same interests!— you can glimpse valiant yet ultimately doomed efforts to abstract from the hard work of politics waged in perhaps the most complexly divided society in world history.
While many people like to blame “identity politics” and other convenient scapegoats for these difficulties, I tend to think the divisions are real—rooted in the longstanding division of labor within the US and also on a global scale, in which you have lots of different classes of people who are exploited to varying degrees, but don’t have identical interests, to say nothing of lived experiences and entry-points into politics. On the flipside, due to the constant turbulence of capitalism, the meaning and significance of different positions in the division of labor is always changing. The racial, ethnic, gendered, and sexual divisions that haunt us today were not born in people’s heads, but ossified in patterns of social reproduction, housing availability, employment opportunities, the use of public space, treatment by the law, and so forth. As capital churns the productive base of our world, these practices are always changing, sometimes strengthening some of the identities based in them, such as the incorporation of ethnic Europeans into “whiteness” in the twentieth century, but also threatening to undercut ways we have been traditionally divided.
Think about the consequences, for instance, of traditional conceptions of working-class masculinity, in a period when much of the industrial and manual work for a “breadwinner” salary that once defined it has been eliminated, and men from working-class backgrounds increasingly end up in the service industry, clerical work, and other “feminized” and precarious occupations. The old masculinity doesn’t make much sense anymore for a large number of its contemporary adherents. They can beat their chests at sporting events watching others excel in athletics, buy massive trucks with flatbeds that will forever remain pristine, and join reactionary groups of the emasculated and aggrieved like the Proud Boys, but these activities are confined to leisure time, and cannot define a subjectivity foisted on them by the dictates of their productive life. Important cracks have emerged, most notably in the gender binary itself. We have to be a bit more careful talking about the racial division of labor, because in economic and cultural terms, the color line is far more stubborn in the United States than the division between supposed genders has proven to be, but what it means to be white or Black, categories which come to us not from discourses but practices inherent to the division of labor, is not static, and we can expect it to change as modes of work and social reproduction are altered. As Zhana just said, more attention needs to be paid to the idea that the so-called races might not make as much sense as they once did.
The most effective movements of the last decade have pushed against the inherited categories, not from a position of dismissing them outright, but pressing within them until they explode. This was true of the move from a fairly class-blind conception of Blackness in 2014-2015, to the class-struggle politics of abolitionism that emerged in 2020, which entailed a lot of class struggle within Blak activist circles, against the nonprofits and political elites who would happily corral all of that activity into the Democratic Party. Following this example, I think that it is worthwhile to spend less time figuring out false universals that will unite us all in a think-piece, slogan, or party program that subsequently fails spectacularly in practice, and more time taking seriously the ways we are divided, and pushing the contradictions within these divisions.
Rail: Let’s talk about disorganization. You talk about the ultimate disorganization of the forces on the ground in 2020 as being Janus-faced. On the one hand, this was a (momentary) strength, in that the situation on the ground was completely, incontrovertibly ungovernable. Despite the organizing in Minneapolis and elsewhere that predated the rebellion, at a certain point it became clear that the militants answered to nothing and no one: no figurehead, no organization, no ideology. There was only self-propelling, autonomous force. But inevitably that became a limitation. Praxis needs a politics.
But you also caution against the attempts to mediate or to lodge the rebellion too snugly within a vocabulary or political frame. That leads to your very sophisticated and thorough canvassing of the abolitionist literature, and of abolition as a political project. You acknowledge the various strands of opinion within abolitionism, and pay close attention to how its discourse has come to function in the aftermath of the riots. I saw the book as trying to register a paradox: on the one hand, you recognize that the absence of a coherent politics is a weakness to be transcended, but also insist on your own wariness of “politicization” and mediation.
Shanahan: It's a great question, and I think that it might be impossible to answer on a purely intellectual level, because it's simply the terrain that any communist politics worthy of the name needs to inhabit, striking a balance between a praxis rooted in the way that working people all around you are already struggling, with the need to orient that toward a revolutionary horizon.
And this is why we spent so much time enumerating the tactics and the various forms the rebellion took in the first chapter. I actually assigned this chapter to my students, and some of them informed me, much to my dismay, that it was a little boring.
Rail: What are their other assignments? I assume they're not getting a Masters in urban guerrilla warfare, but what do I know?
Shanahan: Yeah, they only want to read about revolutions that were successful. But that's why we spent so much time with the concrete ways that people were struggling. Because I really think that any serious communist politics must begin not with its imaginary version of how people should be struggling but with how people are already struggling in the real world. It therefore becomes necessary to develop a working practical relationship to struggle, as it all already exists, with an eye toward a possible revolutionary horizon. You might agree that the book’s final chapter hinges around the absent figure of revolutionary organization. There are some cool groups and micro-sects in the United States that are attempting to work through this in practice. And without professing to have the winning program in mind, I do think that if we're talking about bridging the spontaneous aspects of struggle with a long-term revolutionary effort, it's unavoidable that, in a country firmly rooted in individualism and anti-organizational politics, we have to take revolutionary organization much more seriously.
The winning organizational form might not look like the statist parties of the twentieth-century left, which have now become kind of parodies of themselves in the US, performing a historical moment that has long past. But we certainly need organized networks and structures facilitating coherence and consistency over time, which is how I define organization. This is why we focus so much on the role abolitionism played in the rebellion.
Kurti: What I appreciate about abolitionists is that they have demystified the role and function of police and prisons in simple terms. Since the 1970s, prison abolitionists have consistently argued that reform of the system is not possible because the system is not broken but instead functioning just as it was intended to. Police and prisons are not there to protect or create safety, abolitionists remind us, but instead to manage the contradictions and social ills of a highly unequal society. This is an important rejection of liberal reforms. However, it was the rise of Black Lives Matter and the failures of liberal police reforms that pushed abolitionism out of academia and smaller organizing milieus into a larger mainstream view. Up until the summer of 2020, much of abolitionist organizing focused on the important struggles of fighting back jail and prison expansion and addressing community harm through transformative justice. The George Floyd Rebellion provided an important opportunity for abolitionists to reflect more deeply about what it would take to abolish the conditions that police and prisons manage. And we wrote this book to engage with this very important question.
Shanahan: In the summer of 2020 abolitionists throughout the United States provided an example of how an organized revolutionary force could orient to a rebellion. Thanks to decades of organization on the local and national level, they had achieved a remarkable degree of theoretical and practical unity on key political questions. Abolitionists who may have never met each other or have been aware of each other's existence were able to mobilize effectively throughout the country and to help focus and define the rebellion. People often are compelled to actions by forces that might be outside of their immediate perception. A lot of folks you talk to in moments of great upsurge say something like: “Wow! I never thought I would do something like this!”
Often it’s not so much that precise political ideas catalyze actions, but these big movements become bitter struggles between competing political definitions of why people are doing what they are already doing. In 2020 abolitionists were in a place to help people make sense of the actions that they were taking, and to help them orient toward a future political horizon. And that, in my mind, is the exact role that could be played by a more explicitly revolutionary organization or tendency.
Rail: That’s a clarifying way to phrase it. But the concept of organization leads me to my next question, in which I’ll come out as the flavor of leftist subjected to your very comradely critique. My view is that any political organization capable of wielding worthwhile power in a conjuncture defined by a writhing, hydra-like working class will have to bind, or “articulate”, several disparate strands of struggle. Here I'm thinking of great essay by Salar Mohandesi, “Party as Articulator.” The advantage of a party is not simply that it offers a “line” that you can chain yourself to, but that the organization serves as both a place for struggles to meet and a repository for movement history. The party cultivates a sense of memory, and can offer a coordinated, partisan counter to bourgeois discourse—for instance, the rhetorical bleaching of the George Floyd Rebellion.
Among this panoply of struggles is the current redistributionist one—the preoccupation of what you call the “Keynesian” left. The Marxist critique of simple redistribution goes very far back, of course. But I think a lot of people involved in struggles around budgetary policy and universal benefits don’t see it as a mere repotting of the fiscal soil, but a way to build class power. There are probably some who believe that a painless hydraulic process will allow us to reform our way to utopia, but I think a lot of people see “social-democratic” issues as class struggle pitched on a particular terrain. What do you make of that position? And can you explain, for a moment, how this debate factors into your book?
Kurti: This is a good point. It is heartening that in my lifetime, I see so many Americans recognizing that the system we currently have in place is extremely unequal and wanting to do something to change it. Thousands of people have joined what is an explicitly socialist organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Growing up in New York City in the 1990s, I never thought this would be possible.
I think you are right to say that leftists who push for social-democratic reforms are doing so because they truly believe that pursuing this path will build class power. And while I am sympathetic to this vision, I am not entirely convinced by how it is unfolding. And that is mostly because I am seeing mostly (not all!) a very narrow way of building class power that has historically proven a huge failure not only in America but in the European countries some leftists want to emulate. In Chicago, where I now live, most of the energy is poured into supporting the election of socialist politicians who can help pass reformist bills and legislation. I wonder what would happen if, instead of pursuing an electoral path, the focus was on building power inside and outside workplaces, in Black and Brown neighborhoods that have faced decades of disinvestment, the list can go on. I don’t have the answers but I certainly don’t believe the answer lies in electoral politricks. For example, cities that were the hotbed of militant protests during the George Floyd rebellion have today capitulated to the conservative rhetoric of public safety and politics that emphasize a “law and order” response to crime. Despite all their virtue-signaling the Democrats (including the more progressive wings of the party) did not succeed at the municipal and local level to pass policies that would divest money from the police and reinvest it in poor communities of color. The position among certain socialists that insists on pushing Democrats to the left has proven to be a failure over and over again.
The George Floyd Rebellion and the rise of abolitionist politics is forcing us to think more about what it takes to build power. Is the state a neutral actor that we can mold into whatever we want? This is an important question that we pose in the book, especially in the last chapter. One of the lessons of previous moments of heightened struggles, whether in the 1930s or 1960s, has been the need of radical movements to maintain their independence from the official institutions of liberal bourgeois society, and to rely on mass direct action as a means of forcing reforms instead of pursuing the usual dead-end channels of electoral politics. We saw how the rebellion forced the hands of ruling elites to find extra money to add to our stimulus checks. But it was a moment of mass direct action that forced a reform. I think the strength of the George Floyd Rebellion was that for a brief moment it made the question of “reform or revolution” less abstract and more concrete.
Shanahan: To be clear, some of my proudest political moments have been in demand-based campaigns, especially the ongoing struggle for faculty pay parity and free education at the City University of New York. These are surely not demands for immediate proletarian revolution—although I certainly wouldn’t have minded if the struggle went that way! As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing inherently wrong with economistic struggles, for the reasons you outline, Tobi, and especially because they can quickly escape their predetermined bounds if the time is right. But, echoing Zhana, we see building power as a means and not as an end in itself. It is possible to sacrifice the revolutionary content of the struggle as a precursor to building so-called power.
For instance, beginning with the New Deal and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the mainstream US labor unions pledged loyalty to the capitalists’ labor law, supported US imperialism and the color line, and ceded control over working conditions to the bosses, all in the name of building “class power”—understood as synonymous with expanding the size and political connectedness of business unions. This strategy proved inadequate even to these narrow ends, of course, as time soon told, but it lives on to the present day, long after it should have been abandoned, through what Mike Davis called the “barren marriage” of labor and the Democratic Party. This doesn’t mean that revolutionary struggle cannot originate within workplace struggles, but as long struggle remains confined within a legalistic trade union structure, the most you can probably hope for is a raise that keeps the pace with inflation, as your union bargains away the future of the next generation of workers to keep you happy. The revolutionary potential of organized labor has been undercut at countless junctures in US history by the advocates of this form of “class power.”
There is a parallel within abolitionism today, where you see an unresolved contradiction over the vital question of how we can bring about a world without prisons and cops. On the one hand, you have folks like End of Policing author Alex Vitale, who advocate a technocratic, parliamentary path toward abolition, suggesting that we can achieve cop-free social democracy in the United States through convincing bourgeois politicians to abolish an arrangement of social forces that serves as the basis of their power. If you believe that capitalism requires cops and prisons, as many abolitionists do, this amounts to the old canard that you can abolish capitalist society through bourgeois politics. On the other hand, you have folks like the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement (RAM), who draw on revolutionary abolitionism and the tradition of Black anarchism in particular to argue that the ruling class will never willingly redistribute its power to us, and there’s no peaceful or legal route to abolition. This latter camp also likely includes many people who have not left a discursive footprint, but took bold and decisive action in 2020 by attacking the cops and their infrastructure.
So the intervention that we are trying to make in this book is to force a little bit of reckoning. Do we imagine abolition realized through the mechanisms of the bourgeois state, or through its overthrow? Is there some alternative to this binary, and if so, what is it? Will the realization of a world without prisons and cops require the end of capitalism? And if so, what will it take to end capitalism? What will replace it? No matter how abstract these questions may seem, I really can’t imagine more important distinctions to make at the basis of a liberatory politics.
To be clear, we do not believe that the vast majority of abolitionists served a recuperative role in the 2020 rebellion. As we argue in the book, the success of Defund came more within a vacuum vacated by the more militant streetfighters than from co-opting their momentum. But could a legalistic, parliamentary vision of abolitionism be used to disorient and destroy an extra-parliamentary, actually-revolutionary one, speaking the language of “non-reformist reforms” all the way? Of course it could! Especially now that abolitionism is en vogue, and the pro-capitalist non-profit-industrial complex is adopting its language. That’s why if we are seriously thinking about a society that would not require prisons or cops, to say nothing of a society beyond capitalism, we need a reckoning on what exactly we think needs to happen to get there. Building power is a laudable goal, but what exactly are we building this power to do?
- States of Incarceration, London: Reaktion/Field Notes Books, 2022.