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What do calls for 'abolition' really mean?

Demands to get rid of institutions like borders or policing sound utopian – but they're about improving things here and now

Emily Kenway
26 August 2022, 12.00am

Composite by James Battershill/openDemocracy

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Edwin Remsberg, Arthur Turner/Alamy Stock Photo/Adobe Stock

On a wet October evening, activists from across London gathered at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand. They discussed their campaign to abolish the police, an institution they considered “inefficient, oppressive, and expensive”.

This could have been last year – but in fact, it was 1830. The activists were opposed to the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, which had introduced a formal police force in London for the first time. The UK’s incipient border regime soon came under fire too. In 1858, the popular Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper lamented that “the Passport Nuisance is still the subject of complaints in the daily papers”, a complaint that continued well into the 20th century.

Calls to abolish institutions whose existence we often take for granted are as old as the institutions themselves. Today, such demands are experiencing a resurgence. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists have not only drawn attention to the excesses of policing, but questioned whether policing itself is inherently violent, oppressive and racist. Elsewhere, writers like Sophie Lewis and M. E. O’Brien are making bold arguments against traditional notions of family, asking us to imagine other forms of collective care. And some advocates for migrants’ rights, faced with increasingly brutal border policies, urge us to imagine a world beyond borders.

In 'Against Borders: The Case for Abolition', Gracie Mae Bradley and Luke de Noronha provide an incisive exploration of how borders operate in the 21st century. With laws that require schools, landlords and medical professionals to check immigration statuses, borders are no longer what happens at “the edge of territory” – they are embedded within the everyday fabric of our communities, creating internal hierarchies which bestow rights on some and deny them to others. In doing so, they fuel precarity, resentment and racist divisions. “Borders harm us all,” the authors explain, “which is why we must be committed to their abolition.”

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These sorts of demands are radical and utopian. But in their best-articulated forms they are also realistic and necessary, because they combine fearless diagnoses of our collective problems with practical visions for a better society.

Unfinished revolution

There are two types of ‘abolitionism’. First, there is the version exemplified by the most famous case of abolition in history. In the mid-19th century, laws formally abolished slavery across much of the world. But this movement failed to grapple with the racist economic system that underpinned slavery. People had not been enslaved simply because laws allowed it, but because slavery provided a free workforce to exploit for profit.

By leaving this wider context unchallenged, historical abolition failed to change the conditions of many that it had supposedly freed. Millions of people of colour were still shipped around the world and made to labour in appalling conditions. In the Caribbean, formerly enslaved men found themselves redesignated as apprentices locked into multi-year unpaid contracts. And decades after the US outlawed slavery, the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois found that its legacy shaped African Americans’ lives by restricting their access to adequate housing and work.

Du Bois’s studies of Black households led him to the conclusion that slavery had been abolished “only in name”, and that underlying social and political systems must be revised for meaningful change to be achieved. This, then, points to the second type of abolitionism. Instead of narrowing its sights on a single target, this second version exhorts us to change the foundations from which harmful practices arise.

'Against Borders' sits firmly in the latter camp. While the authors are clear that border abolition seeks to dismantle physical borders and related laws, they don’t stop at the passport gates. Beneath this border regime, they identify a wider set of ideas that make borders, and the way that they divide and categorise people, seem natural. This includes the very notion of citizenship, under which some of us are included and others excluded; conventions of ‘family’, which are used to dictate who can live where based on biological and marital ties; and racism, which acts as “a means of categorising populations so that they can be dispossessed, enslaved and dominated”.

Simply removing immigration restrictions in the world “as it is currently configured” would leave those harmful underlying systems intact. Instead, borders are revealed as a response to the real problem: the nation-state itself. Without the state’s power to label people as citizen or immigrant, family or non-family, or to enforce hierarchies based on nationality, the rationale for borders would not exist. The real task of border abolition, write the authors, is “to look beyond the nation-state as the default container of human communities”.

This does not mean we should put more urgent tasks aside. Nation-states are not likely to disappear any time soon, and there is real harm being done right now that needs to be challenged. A politics demanding justice for all would be dubious if it could only point to the future but failed to address the present.

The UK government’s plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda shows what’s at stake. The International Rescue Committee, among others, argued against it on the basis that it entails sending away “traumatised asylum seekers who have fled war and crisis”. But, according to Bradley and de Noronha, this is the wrong tack. People fleeing war or other harms are compelling victims, but when we centre victims alone in our narratives, we can unwittingly legitimise the overall system, perpetuating harm. “Detention is unjust not simply because survivors of torture are among the detainees,” the authors write, “but because incarcerating people is itself a form of torture.”

They suggest a provocative alternative: rather than putting ‘ideal victims’ at the heart of campaigns against border controls, we should centre our demands on the rights of ‘villains’ – those foreign national offenders whom politicians are quick to suggest lurk at our borders. It is “the spectre of the dangerous, violent criminal ‘foreigner’ that justifies illegalisation, detention and deportation”, they argue – and however uncomfortable, it follows that a successful challenge to the border regime must start from there.

What next?

It is this kind of radical argument that makes abolitionist politics the target of criticism and fearmongering. If we loosen borders, dismantle prisons, defund the police and so on, a nightmarish society will appear. Abolitionist campaigns are accused of being pie-in-the-sky at best and dangerous at worst, tantamount to the reinstatement of an ungoverned world in which life is nasty, brutish and short.

In her influential 2003 book 'Are Prisons Obsolete?', the Black feminist scholar and activist Angela Davis wrote that these sorts of critiques are “a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places … The prison is considered so "natural" that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.”

This struggle against the seemingly natural order of things sits at the heart of abolitionism: that’s why it evokes such fearful scoffs from critics. It is frightening to question the building blocks of the world around us. This is abolitionism’s threat but also its promise, because it uses that questioning as a way to reveal new and radical solutions.

We are exhorted not to see each other through the prism of binary labels – criminal or victim, for instance – but as complex human beings with needs that may be unmet. Under this rubric, preventing violations against one another would not mean incarceration and fruitless punishment, but social solutions, like better access to education and the dismantling of racist and classist hierarchies.

Abolitionism does not pretend that people won’t continue to mistreat one another, but it proffers different responses, such as community-led teams trained to deal with mental health crises, and civil specialists to respond to incidents of violent crime. And lest we forget, it’s not as if today’s model is working well for many victims of crime – most rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, while marginalised groups like sex workers and undocumented migrants are prevented from reporting crimes for fear of their own criminalisation.

Abolitionism, then, is not about the mere removal of borders, prisons or police. It’s about what can grow in their place once they’ve been cleared away. In Davis’s words, it “urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape”.

Starting from scratch

Many years ago, I ran workshops with teens in Tower Hamlets, East London, about law, power and inequality. In one session, they drew maps of the UK and labelled them with the kinds of laws they’d want to exist if they could start from scratch.

One girl began dutifully writing down all the current laws she could think of. When they shared their maps with each other, another pupil pointed to “murder” and “steal” on the girl’s map and asked: “would you murder, then, or steal, if you didn’t have a law against it?” The girl shook her head vehemently. Of course she wouldn’t.

Then she looked stunned. The idea that humans wouldn’t run amok if laws suddenly disappeared was new and strange. There was silence in the room – a brief opening. But it raises the question: what next after that awed silence? Can an abolitionist perspective take us anywhere beyond thought experiments? What good is rebellion against the current system if all it does is shout slogans about a different world, while harm continues apace?

Abolitionism is often thought of as a politics of destruction – it knows what it’s against, but not what it’s for

The answer is to set aside the idea that we must choose between reform or abolition. Instead, we can look for what the philosopher André Gorz called “non-reformist reforms”. These address harm now while still moving us closer to our visionary goals.

Take prisons. While demanding high quality healthcare for incarcerated people might legitimise prisons by making them seem humane, it also situates prisoners as rights-bearers, highlighting the ways that prisons systematically violate inmates’ human rights. In doing so, it asks us to see the human, not the criminal, potentially foreshadowing a more humane system overall.

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Or consider borders. Some campaigners argue for immigration amnesties, time-limited offers that allow the undocumented to apply to regularise their status. Bradley and Noronha suggest that a further-reaching reform would be to remove the rules that bar undocumented immigrants from accessing services. “Framed in this way,” they argue, “citizenship and immigration status would no longer operate as the fulcrum on which a person’s ability to enjoy their fundamental rights rests.”

What today’s abolitionists share is a concern with how we can care for one another, in the most expansive sense. Abolitionism is often thought of as a politics of destruction – it knows what it’s against, but not what it’s for. But this is far from correct. It is both a vision of a just world, and a practical proposition for how to move closer to that world. It is a challenge to build something new, and better.

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