Abolition: A Third Way Between Reform and Revolution?

On June 2nd, defeated presidential candidate Bernie Sanders issued a set of policy proposals to his party in response to the popular unrest that swept the world after the death of George Floyd. Although the letter addressed to his party leader Chuck Schumer contains a number of democratic demands, such as equal application of the law to the police, one demand in particular stands out. At a time when the popular movement has raised the modest demand of defunding the state’s organs of repression, Senator Sanders has elected to go against the current by calling for a “modernized police force” which includes “enhancing the recruitment pool” by paying police officers higher wages:

“Create a federal model policing program that emphasizes de-escalation, non-lethal force and culturally competent policing in which access to federal funds depends upon the level of reform adopted. As part of this effort to modernize and humanize police departments we need to enhance the recruitment pool by ensuring that the resources are available to pay wages that will attract the top-tier officers we need to do the difficult work of policing.”

Our experts of repression and class domination deserve to be paid an expert’s salary, after all! This logic proceeds from the premise that the job market is a hydraulic mechanism which automatically allocates people to different positions in society according to their “goodness.” The people who are willing to work for less money or are desperate for work must be “bad people,” while “good people” are justly rewarded with higher paying jobs. If you want to attract these “good people” and “enhance your recruitment pool,” you just have to pay them a salary appropriate to their moral character! This perverse meritocratic illusion approaches the moral doctrine of Calvinism and is rightly laughed at as out of touch with the popular movement. This is only Sanders’ most recent demonstration of his inability to provide leadership or offer any real alternative to the bourgeois political project against which the people have rebelled.

On the other, less conservative end of the spectrum of demands is the “abolitionist” trend. As long as there have been prisons, there have been prison reformists, but the current “abolitionist” trend emerged as a scholastic response to the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971, its vocabulary and tenets largely developed in academic journals of sociology and criminology. In response to the May 2020 popular uprisings against police brutality, this trend has produced a campaign called #8toabolition, which claims to be the more radical alternative to the “reformist” #8can’twait campaign launched by Campaign Zero. On the #8toabolition website they claim: “We refuse to allow the blatant co-optation of decades of abolitionist organizing toward reformist ends.” But just how much of a distinction is there to be made between “reformism” and the “abolitionism” of #8toabolition?

When #8toabolition describes its program as Policy Changes to Demand from Your City Officials, it becomes difficult to see where the break with reformism actually lies. Here the initiative for change is still placed firmly in the hands of the bourgeois state and its representatives, and the campaign remains entirely incorporated within this same state. This approach overlooks the fact that the fundamental purpose of the state in capitalist society is to reproduce and maintain relations of wage slavery through the domination and repression of the working class and the whole people. The authors behind the campaign imagine they help things when they say, “We believe in the strategic importance of non-reformist reforms, or measures that reduce the scale, scope, power, authority, and legitimacy of criminalizing institutions.” Here the phrase “non-reformist reforms” amounts to nothing more than shallow scholasticism, a verbal construction, a prayer which is uttered superstitiously in hopes that a third way between reformism and revolution will appear before them. But one cannot change the reformist essence of #8toabolition by simply stretching the meaning of the word “reform.” This same verbal subterfuge is painfully apparent when they claim that “although there are many policies here, this is not a policy document or website, nor are we an organization or policymakers.” The #8toabolition campaign has provided us with a kind of litmus test for bourgeois politicians, where those who support the demands listed are good politicians who deserve our vote. However, these litmus tests can only prove to be worthless. The bourgeoisie will always attempt to meet popular demands in words, but they cannot meet them in deeds. These abolitionist dreams will crash hard against the reality of bourgeois society, which fundamentally requires a special apparatus of force to maintain the exploitation and oppression of the majority of society by a minority of capitalists. Like a tongue which cannot stop prodding an aching tooth, they can’t help but recognize the reformist essence of their policy document but imagine they can transform this essence with mere ink and paper. The activists behind #8toabolition are unable to distinguish between words and reality.

In truth, there is no third way between revolution and reformism. The error of our progressive criminologists lies in the fact that they believe they are simply confronted with mistaken ideas about justice, guilt, criminality etc., which can be countered by theoretical critique alone. They assure us that if the idea of prison abolition sounds unrealistic, it is only because we are unfamiliar with the decades of scholarship on the topic. They consider the development of the bourgeois justice system to take place on the plane of ideas alone. For example, Angela Davis tells us she is striving to “disarticulate (sic) crime and punishment, race and punishment, class and punishment, and gender and punishment” and to “create a new conceptual terrain for imagining alternatives to imprisonment.” In her book Are Prisons Obsolete, she invites us to use our imaginations no less than 28 times to envision alternatives to prisons, but does not make one reference to social revolution. Unfortunately, the fantastic imaginations of these idealists stop short of imagining an independent and revolutionary working-class politics. “Liberals” who take up Angela Davis’ writings while ignoring her “revolutionary communist politics” are often admonished by her adherents. However, Angela Davis does a fine job of watering down her own words and peddling liberal reformism with little effort on the part of her readers. She tells us her strategy is “the creation of new institutions that lay claim to the space now occupied by the prison can (sic) eventually start to crowd out the prison so that it would inhabit increasingly smaller areas of our social and psychic landscape” (emphasis added). Similarly, #8toabolition aims to pressure the elected officials of bourgeois society to “reduce the scale, scope, power, authority, and legitimacy” of their own power. They assure us of their realism when they say, “We also recognize that all police and prisons will not disappear tomorrow.” For this trend, the struggle for a world without police and prisons proceeds through gradual incremental reforms in which the repressive apparatuses of bourgeois dictatorship are quantitatively “crowded out,”  without relations of exploitation between capitalists and workers being altered in the slightest. When these reformists imagine that the capitalist class will abolish its own instruments of domination through incremental change granted by the officials of bourgeois society, they are simply blowing wishes on dandelions. The demands of these utopian reformists sound radical on paper, but once they are translated from the pages of academic journals and the flashy leaflets of “grassroots” campaigns to concrete policies by bourgeois elected officials, they can only lead to disappointing results.

In reality, the bourgeois system of penal policy results not from aberrations of individual policymakers, judges, or criminologists, but from the material conditions of capitalist society based on commodity production that nourish this system of repression. Bourgeois justice and commodity society are closely linked. For instance, take the iconography of bourgeois justice personified as a woman holding scales, a tool for measuring equivalents. The concept of equivalents represents the first juridical idea and is itself a product of the commodity form. Criminal justice in capitalist society can be understood as a peculiar form of circulation in which the exchange is determined in retrospect, after the action of one of the legal subjects. Bourgeois justice can thus be reduced to an exchange relation between offense and retribution, the bourgeois concept of crime can be reduced to an involuntarily concluded contract, and bourgeois criminal procedure can be reduced to a mere commercial transaction between abstract commodity owners. The criminal is consigned to the role of debtor and pleads for a discount, while the judge determines an equitable price. It is precisely this exchange relation which represents the irrational, mystified, and absurd essence of bourgeois justice, correctly recognized by the present abolitionist trend.

Deprivation of freedom for a period of time stipulated by the court becomes the specific form in which this equivalent exchange is embodied. This legal form is unconsciously linked to the concept of abstract human labor measurable in time. It is the product of the practical conditions of commodity society. This is further evidenced by the fact that this form of punishment emerged historically alongside the dissolution of feudal society by the commodity economy, and the ascent of the bourgeoisie to its new role as the ruling class. Of course, prisons existed before capitalism, but they served as places to leave the condemned until death, or until their freedom could be purchased. Thus, the specific forms of bourgeois justice—modes of punishment, measures of justice, the entire system of police, courts, and prisons—are determined by the nature of capitalism.

Although they take an absurd form, there is a kernel of truth contained within the demands of the abolitionist trend. Demands for prison abolition and “transformative justice” correctly recognize there is a contradiction between the rational aim of protecting society and reforming its members on the one hand, and the irrational and mystical content of bourgeois justice (punishment as equivalent exchange), on the other. But this contradiction is not to be found in books or theories or even in the policies of city officials. It exists in the practical organization of society. Bourgeois forms of consciousness cannot be eliminated through a critique of ideas alone. As long as we live in a society based on commodity exchange, the idea that the gravity of each crime can be weighed on a scale and expressed in time will persist. The only way to dispel these bourgeois illusions about justice is by overcoming practically—not in dreams or policy—the production relations which correspond and give rise to them.

We must keep in mind, however, that the police and the courts are not just the concrete embodiment of an abstract legal form, but a weapon of the bourgeoisie in the immediate class struggle. We can only grasp the true nature of the bourgeois justice system by proceeding from the class antagonisms which are embodied in it. Theories of criminal law which talk about “transformative justice” in the interest of “healing communities,” are distortions of reality. In actuality, the struggle is not between the conflicting interests of communities and criminalizing institutions, but between the conflicting interests of classes rooted in definite relations of exploitation and domination. It is class interests which give concreteness to every system of penal policy.

As is well-known and acknowledged today, American municipal police forces emerged out of slave patrols whose function was capturing and returning escaped slaves in the 1830s. Around this same time, the American working class began to come into its own and a genuine labor movement started to coalesce. As the American labor movement grew stronger, so too did police forces, as strikebreaking quickly became one of their most important functions. The police have always been an instrument for dominating and disciplining the exploited; all their other functions are of secondary importance. As long as the fundamental capitalist production relation—the separation of the workers from the means of production—remains intact, the capitalist class will always require a special power for making war against the toiling people.

We recognize that the struggle for reforms is important in the movement toward socialism. However, we struggle for reforms not only to obtain immediate improvements in the lives of working people, but more importantly to develop and broaden the class struggle. That is the difference between revolutionism and reformism. We know that bourgeois politicians grant reforms with one hand and snatch them back with the other, reduce them to nothing, and use them to preserve the separation of the workers from the means of production. Only by putting political power in the hands of the working class can we transform society in a fundamental way. This transfer of power will not occur through decades of scholarship or a set of proposals demanded from bourgeois officials, but through socialist revolution.

The transformation of punishment from an act of expediency for the protection of society into the medical-educational reform of individuals who do harm to themselves and others constitutes a monumental task which lies well beyond the sphere of municipal reforms we can demand from bourgeois officials. Such a legal system, devoid of any element of antagonism, would hardly be a legal system at all, and can only be realized through the disappearance of classes.

We recognize there is a noble truth contained in the aims our abolitionists strive for. We too desire to abolish the state’s interference in the affairs of the people. We agree that this will not happen tomorrow, but that it will be a protracted process. The nature of this process, however, constitutes our point of departure with abolitionism. For revolutionary socialists, the abolition of police and prisons can only be realized as the result of a long period of class struggle, and only after the working class has seized state power for itself. Unlike all previous forms of state power, the aim of the proletarian state will not be to reproduce a system of exploitation and oppression, but to abolish the conditions for its own existence—the division of society into classes. We desire a world not only without police or prisons, but also without classes or exploitation. The question is: how will we arrive at such a society? Through incremental policy changes or revolutionary class struggle?