Abolitionism:  The New Kid on the Block?

A tide of critical studies from across the Atlantic is encouraging new demands for radical change.  Don Flynn asks if abolitionism really is thekey to bringing it about.

If you follow the promotional lists of radical left publishers in recent years you might have noticed there is a new kid promising deeper levels of analysis now marauding across the block. It is called abolitionism.  Proponents of the approach claim the lauded ‘-ism’ on the grounds that, like feminism, environmentalism, and Marxism, it opens up to a world where theory leads directly to action.  In recent months Pluto Press has offered up Enough: Why it’s Time to Abolish the Super-Rich and Become Ungovernable: An Abolition Feminist Ethic for Democratic Living. Verso has gone into overdrive with Against Borders: The Case for Abolition; Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, as well as Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s foundational presentation study, Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation. Deeply entangled with theories of racial capitalism, abolitionism pays homage to the movement which overthrew the social evil of slavery and sees in that a template for confronting other oppressive institutions of the state, from prisons, the police, through to systems of immigration control.  Though it has the imprint of the North American antiracist struggle firmly on its work, its advocates seem to have little difficulty in transcribing its tenets onto the tensions and conflicts present in other societies which have not followed the same historical trajectory.  This is not a fatal flaw in what abolitionism has to offer, but it does suggest that it should be read in a more critical mode than occurs with some of its acolytes.

The upsides and downsides of abolition are on display in two recent books published by the US’s leading left-wing publisher, Haymarket.  Resisting Borders and Technologies of Violence is a collection of essays written by activists working in the fields of state surveillance, policing and immigrant and migrant rights. Following the analytic concerns of the racial capitalism approach it displaces the traditional concern of Marxism with exploitative labour processes with a focus on the social factors which facilitate the production of exploitable populations. The one time means to this end – the whips and branding irons of the slave period – have metamorphosed into a police and prison system which bears down on exploitable groups and renders them fit for low waged labour, poor quality housing, ill-health and early death. 

Surveillance capitalism

But time moves on and even the brutality and racism of the criminal justice system are insufficient to achieve the ends that racial capitalism wishes. Advances in technology and the capacity for surveillance of civilian populations have enabled triggers for state action which no longer depend on the actual breaching of law.

The book set out a dystopia which is no longer in the future but taking shape in the here and now. Digitalisation of identities, automatic facial recognition technologies, “smart streets” lined with apparatus that can scan phones and credit cards, all allow for the mining of masses of data points which end up in databanks in turn surveilled by “fusion” software peddled to state agencies by corporate entities like Palantir and Clearview AI.  The border between the “good” citizen and the “bad” moves closer towards a line where the angry poor manifest potentially turbulent behaviour that might become threatening to property. Armed with this, the authorities are able to move even before a tin of beans is shoplifted or a stone thrown. 

This is not a development which relies on what is happening in the US to give rise for alarm.  The book has informative chapters on the progress of state surveillance in Mexico, Palestine, Brazil, and the UK amongst other case studies. A common theme concerns the idea of the border and its role in generating enhanced oppression.  This helps identify people who stand higher up the priority list of troublesome types than even citizens who have actually committed criminal acts.  The migrant/refugee figures as a risky subject on her very first appearance at the border. 

Migrants and borders

But the neat trick which has been conjured up by surveillance technology is that the border is no longer confined to the frontier edge of countries and can be built-in by virtual means into the life of cities and workplaces.  For those directed by their immigration status to labour in low-paid work, their capacity to push back against the system is hobbled by mechanisms of the biometric identity card kind. Though racial capitalism produces many chronically disadvantaged groups – a non-ethnic majority obviously but with others in the fold – the plight of the migrant or refugee seems to epitomise the worst of what the brave new world of surveillance capitalism is threatening us with.

If Resisting Borders does good work in setting out the threats which are looming ever larger, it becomes hazier in prescribing the appropriate way to fight back.  It often seems that a very high level of technical savviness is needed to even comprehend the dangers to liberty and social life that are being created by the technology each and every day. It is not immediately clear how this knowledge can be integrated into forms of collective action – historically, represented by organisations like trade unions or leftist parties competing for popular support.  Earnest efforts are underway to address this problem and the book gives a good account of many of them.  But hard work and investment in new skills and experiences is needed to produce practical activism. Abolitionism produces a too simple solution: demanding that all the bad stuff is abolished and be done now!

It is in the second of the Haymarket books that these lacunae become most evident. In The Case for Open Borders John Washington sets out all the reasons why national borders manifest oppression and misery for the inhabitants of countries and regions excluded from the benefits of relatively free movement across the globe.  In a world where freedom is often reduced to freedom to trade in global markets and to sell goods and services wherever they will get the highest price, ill-favoured migrants from the Global South are denied even this meagre privilege.  When the need to move is driven by survival itself, to escape persecution or the disastrous effects of climate change, then the gateways across borders are slammed even more firmly shut.

The injustice of this is apparent and Washington gives us twenty-one reasons, designed to appeal to everyone from folk with normal levels of concern for human and welfare rights through to right wing libertarians committed to their peculiar ideological version of liberty, and everyone else in between, proclaiming why borders should be “open”.  This seems like a call for abolition but there is ambiguity on that score.  As Joseph Carens pointed out there is a difference between “No Borders” and “Open Borders”.  The first implies total abolition of even the vestigial traces of the border whilst the second is generally read as borders-lite, with the right to cross national frontiers accessible in all the normal circumstances of life.  Open Borders, in other words, might be something like the freedom of movement regime that the EU extends to citizens of its member states, but on a grander and less nationally discriminatory scale.

The fight for justice for immigrants demands any number of responses from people fighting for a better world, and it seems more likely that, framed as a transitional demand to get to that end, Open Borders and a rights-based immigration system might be the best way to move in that direction than their immediate outright abolition.   

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