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Abolition!?


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“Abolish It!” is a growing activist trend for what to claim, demand, say, and do. What arguments support abolition as a way to present our desires? What problems accompany abolition as a go-to approach?

Many years ago, Robin Hahnel and I took to saying we were “market abolitionists.” We said, market allocation, like slavery, is an abomination. For a better future, we should abolish markets. Nonetheless, even as an abolitionist, I worry about demands to abolish.

Assume that you find arguments against markets cogent, compelling, and even overwhelming. Assume you agree that markets grossly distort people’s motives and personalities so that market allocation not only makes being nice a losing policy, market allocation makes being nasty essential. Markets suicidally ignore environmental effects. Markets propel accumulation and generate gross and steadily increasing inequities. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer.

Whether you believe all that or not, for the moment, just assume you agree that by their very nature markets are vile. The point is, even then, the label “market abolitionist” might arouse your concern. You may reply, “You want us to abolish markets? Then what? We starve? How is that progress? You are nuts.”

People hear “abolish markets” as “abolish allocation,” not as abolish a particular means of allocation. People hear “abolish markets” as “abolish markets now.” Rip them out. “Yes, and from where and how do we get what we need and want?”

In other words, I worry that formulating our desires as a call to abolish can produce a communication problem with potentially serious effects. It didn’t matter that Robin and I didn’t actually reject allocation but only rejected markets. It didn’t matter that Robin and I went beyond critiquing markets to propose a replacement we called participatory planning. And it didn’t matter that Robin and I understood that accomplishing replacement was a multi-step social process based on popular struggle and during which it was necessary to keep allocation functioning from start to finish. What mattered was what some people heard when we used the phrase “market abolitionist.” And it didn’t matter that what they heard wasn’t what we intended. So does “abolish” sometimes have serious drawbacks?

Abolish corporations. Abolish the corporate division of labor. Abolish marriage and the nuclear family. Abolish schools. Abolish jails, courts, and police. My concern is that communication problems can arise, albeit in their own specific shapes and densities, in all these cases.

To critique and reject contemporary ills is warranted. But to seem to say we should get rid of underlying valid purposes is to appear so delusional that many ignore the rest of what we say. To seem to demand immediate elimination of what we critique without proposing a way to ensure that the worthy elements of their underlying purposes are handled well, seems to many to callously ignore their needs. To seek to negatively abolish may crowd out to positively advocate. Are these possible dangers risky enough that we should carefully reconsider the wisdom of making “Abolish It!” a focus of what we demand, what we say, and what we do?

For example, corporation are abominable, but to produce stuff for social use, is essential. To remove corporations without proposing a replacement would be calamitous. To “abolish corporations” would seem delusional. A movement to “abolish corporations” might even cause people to defend corporations instead of to alter and finally replace them. Our passionate words might subvert our intent.

To take another example, consider someone like me who sees the current near universal corporate division of labor—that roughly 80 percent of employees do largely empowering tasks, while 20 percent do overwhelmingly disempowering tasks—as an incredibly disgusting source of class domination.

Suppose to make that point I scream over and over as passionately as I feel it, that we must abolish the corporate division of labor. What if people hear me as urging that we should have no division of labor? “What then? Everyone should do everything? That’s ridiculous.”

My passion might fail to communicate that the corporate division of labor is abominable because people reject the prospect of making work literally insane. My passion might not address even people who detest the corporate division of labor but who don’t see how “abolish it” is a viable alternative.

Better to offer a full and careful critique. Better to offer an alternative able to generate doable, workable jobs and to balance empowering tasks among all jobs so that no one group is elevated to dominate the rest. Better to recognize that it can’t happen overnight but will require sustained struggle. Better indicate what that struggle might demand to win a trajectory of changes to the new relations. Then maybe “abolitionist” passion against the corporate division of labor could gain traction as an actual strategic program.

Similarly, in many people’s eyes, marriage is horribly flawed. How can an approach that promises lifetime love and loyalty but that instead generates over 50% divorces and who knows how many instances of persistent violent abuse of spouses and children, be healthy?

The same holds, for that matter, for the nuclear family. Both these institutions address some essential purposes though they both also impose incredible suffering. But if critics say abolish marriage or abolish the nuclear family they will likely, understandably, be heard as saying abolish coupling, abolish living in nurturing units, abolish bringing up children. In short, to most people they will appear completely absurd.

Some who hear a call to abolish marriage may think about the situation and even become marriage abolitionists. Many more who hear a call to abolish marriage will likely line up against the stance. Potential allies will be made dismissive. Innovative additional insights will never be voiced. Related visionary program will go undeveloped. Couldn’t a better approach to generate new priorities vis a vis marriage and the nuclear family without compromising critical insights?

The valid aim of schools is to help young people develop their potentials as they see fit. But in contemporary society that aim morphs into the effort to mold young people to fit society’s available roles, which, because of the nature of those roles in our society, in turn translates into an agenda to prepare 20 percent of young people to have considerable influence and status, albeit pursuing perverse ends, and to prepare 80 percent to endure boredom and take orders.

To say that that kind of schooling should not exist in a better future is no lie. But to scream “abolish schools,” is likely to generate fear and loathing that the critic seeks to end education. The worthy intent, to provocatively stir up folks to see important truths that have gone unaddressed, may be swamped by stirring up still more folks to defend the statistically dismal but non-zero prospects of their kids against a movement to abolish schools.

Many things about contemporary society are incredibly vile. But, a call to “abolish this,” “abolish that” will, I fear, in many cases fail to clearly communicate one’s reasons for rejecting “this,” much less to communicate what might take “that’s” place.

“Abolish this or that” may fail to speak to people who already largely agree about this or that’s failings. It may drive off those who might come to agree but don’t yet. “Abolish this or that” may even polarize people to defend that which is horrible.

Today, many activists passionately say abolish prisons, courts, and police. They say it because prisons, courts, and police massively violate human dignity and life. They say it because these institutions grossly perpetuate racism, sexism, and classism. They say it to aggressively and passionately provoke awareness.

I believe these abolitionists are quite right to believe that these institutions have their problems built-in from a long history of unceasing perversion within society writ large. And I feel equally critical of the targets. What concerns me is that calls to abolish prisons, courts, and police may be heard by many people in the counter productive ways described for the examples given above.

I fear that the demand to abolish or even to defund, which is itself largely heard as abolish, may have less positive impact on consciousness, actions, and programs than desired. I fear the demand to abolish may even provoke constituencies that have the most to gain from militant, sustained struggle against prisons, courts, and police to instead line up against the very movements they should, by right join and lead.

Is my worry warranted? Is this currently happening? Among all Americans, a bit under 20 percent support the call to defund the police. Even in Black communities, under 30 percent support to defund the police. To abolish fares much worse. On the other hand, concern about rising rates of homicide and crime are much higher and fuel growing support for hiring more police. A prior police official runs for mayor and may win in New York City. Do the words abolish prisons, courts, and police obscure our analyses of these institutions? Do they hinder building support for winning better institutions?

Could it be that a different formulation might better accord with and have greater appeal to not only those skeptical of our critiques, but even to many who would otherwise agree with our critiques? Does saying abolish cause people to worry that dealing with violations of civil order will be ignored? Does it cause even people in poor and underserved neighborhoods who are most subject to prison, court, and police violations to feel they need to protect themselves against losing protections? Might a different approach better cause people to seek effective remedies?

Would centrally calling for reallocating funding, not for defunding, get better results?Would centrally calling for demilitarizing police and disarming the public get better results, as well as centrally calling for addressing deficient schools, declining incomes, collapsing infrastructure, and failing health care? Would we get better results centrally calling for community oversight and accountability and not for abolishing prisons, courts, and police? Would we get better results centrally calling for reassessing the role and purpose of prisons, courts, and police? Would we get better results centrally calling for vastly better training and rules for addressing cases of social violation? Yes, we do all that now, but is it heard? This is just a communication problem, you might reply. Yes, but is it a communication problem with serious implications?

Enlarged, improved mental health, addiction, family, and other social services would greatly reduce what are currently deemed police duties and make evident the value of reallocating considerable funding. But even much reduced and refined, the police function to deal with violent situations would still exist.

For that function, wouldn’t far better training, plus demilitarization, police living in the neighborhoods they patrol, mandatory reporting of all violent encounters engaged in or seen, and community control including hiring and firing, accomplish far more than budget cuts—and in some cases even cost more, not less?

Would under a fifth of the whole population and barely more than a fourth of the Black population support these aims? Is the low-income public wrong to see police violence but to also see street violence? Are they wrong to fear the latter so much that they risk enduring more of the former to reduce the latter? I don’t know, but I sincerely doubt it.

Are our movements right to ignore these public perceptions? To tell people they should want fewer or no police? I don’t know, but I suspect it is not a winning approach. Might we be better listen to people living in poor and tumultuous circumstances, to try to accommodate their concerns even as we also try to reduce the harm prisons, courts, and police do?

Might the demand to “abolish prisons, courts, and police” leave even people who are most oppressed by state violence afraid that this “solution” would be worse than the ailment. In contrast, might a full critique of prisons, courts, and police, plus advocating an ultimate replacement of each while we also demand immediate steps toward improving current outcomes and toward ultimately winning that replacement, have better effect?

We say “abolish police” to passionately make the correct point that current police apparatuses are in many ways grotesque. But do our words risk suggesting to even people who most suffer police violence that we are delusional. Might those who hear us seek to “abolish police” even find themselves defending police instead of working to immediately alter and ultimately totally transform them.

I know that some readers may think my early examples were outrageous and literally unreal. No one sensible would say to abolish corporations, marriage, and schools without acknowledging that their underlying valid purposes would need to be met. No one sensible would call to abolish those institutions without offering alternatives, and without explaining the need for transition.

In fact, however, the truth is that some really intelligent, wise, highly informed, sensible, well meaning and quite courageous people have often done just that for corporations, marriage, and schools. So maybe it is time to question, not the abolitionist analysis of ills, but the abolitionist approach to making their case. Maybe it is time to notice how “abolish this or that” is heard by various audiences. Maybe it is time to notice how the “abolish this or that” approach neglects prioritizing offering and clearly communicating positive alternatives and plausible means by which to reach preferred alternatives.

Finally, I realize some may read this article and worry that if they pursue this type thinking they will be branded as a sell-out. To that I say that for me, or you, or anyone to notice, consider, and finally perhaps even advocate that we should think twice about couching our opposition to current police and policing in terms of “abolish them,” does not itself reveal that I, you, or whoever supports current police.

It reveals, instead, that I, you, or whoever favor movements able to replace today’s horrid institutions with vastly better approaches that accomplish renovated social functions. It reveals that we want to build positive movements that fight to win, but that also know that we can’t win overnight. It reveals that we want our passion to be informed, strategic, and sustained about winning what is just.

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