Police and mass incarceration are only the most visible and obvious manifestations of the prison-industrial complex. Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues that the prison-industrial complex is a holistic social organizing principle that pervades life under capitalism.
Most of the dollars that flow through the prison-industrial complex originate from public treasuries. (Emiliano Bar / Unsplash)
Between the 1980s and the mid-2000s, the population of California’s prisons and jails grew by a staggering 500 percent. In her 2007 book, Golden Gulag, Ruth Wilson Gilmore showed that California’s mass incarceration was a not a response to violence, a drug epidemic, or even the crime rate: rather, it was a political-economic strategy that came out of a series of economic crises, which left behind a surplus of unused labor, land, capital, and state capacity. This surplus went into what one state report described as “the biggest prison building project in the history of the world.”
With this definitive Marxist analysis, Gilmore established herself as a leading abolitionist critic of the prison-industrial complex. Earlier this year, she released Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation, an essay collection featuring an introduction from two other groundbreaking radical scholars: Alberto Toscano and Brenna Bhandar. A codirector of the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought at Goldsmiths, University of London, Toscano is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea and coeditor of The SAGE Handbook of Marxism. Bhandar is a law professor at the University of British Columbia, the author of Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership, and a coeditor of Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought.
Daniel Denvir recently interviewed Gilmore, Toscano, and Bhandar for The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin. In their conversation, which has been edited for clarity, these thinkers take on the many urgent questions that face the Left as we attempt to understand and confront mass incarceration: Where do the prison-industrial complex’s boundaries lie? Is the neoliberal state suffering from a legitimacy crisis? And what is the relationship between abolitionist organizing in the United States and global struggles against capitalism, racism, and colonialism?
What is the prison-industrial complex, and why is it a useful concept for thinking about the American carceral state?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
The idea for conceptualizing what we have come to describe as mass incarceration using the term “prison-industrial complex” first materialized in an article that Mike Davis published about twenty years ago in the Nation. What Mike launched into our consciousness was a provocation to think about prison, punishment, and the carceral in as expansive of a way as we had learned to think about the military-industrial complex. While a number of people over the years have written about what that complex consists of, I think I probably have written the most, or at least gone on at the most length, in part because as a PhD student I studied the military-industrial complex to shreds at the seminar table of the economist and socialist Ann Markusen.
The prison-industrial complex consists of the uniformed and civilian personnel who work anywhere from the streets to the courts, to the jails, to the prisons, to the postprison-release programs, and so forth. It includes the boosters in the towns or neighborhoods where prisons and jails are built. It includes the intellectuals, including myself, who make their living either designing or condemning the design of systems of punishment. It includes finance capitalists who lend money to states and municipalities to build or improve their lockup systems. It includes the various firms that sell goods and services to states and municipalities, including the federal government, in order to keep people locked up or to keep them under surveillance when they’re not locked up. So that can be anything from food service to ankle monitors and anything in between.
All that put together is the prison-industrial complex. Most of the dollars that flow through it originate from public treasuries, and they fall into the hands of people in the forms of wages, salaries, utility bills, and everything else it takes to keep the lights on. The money also becomes interest payments to bondholders, who have lent money to governments to build these kinds of facilities, even though those same lenders, many of which are pension plans, might have lent money to governments to build schools or parks or museums or dams or highways.
I have very little to add to the detail of Ruth’s analysis, except perhaps the way in which a focus on the prison or a focus on incarceration and criminalization can occlude all of the institutions, mediations, agents, and agencies that Ruth just mapped. And that’s an issue we deal with in the introduction to our book. The proposal to put the prison at the center of our conceptualization of state-building and state capacity and struggles over states — especially in the United States but elsewhere as well — could be misunderstood as focusing on the prison as the singular architectural and punishment site for the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people in the US but also in other contexts. The dialectical proposition that we both found worthwhile to engage with in Ruth’s work is precisely the idea that a single-minded focus on the prison in isolation from all of those mediations is a way of not thinking about how mass incarceration operates in the broader political economy.
It’s a reminder for me of that great line that Bertolt Brecht borrowed: “A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG tells us next to nothing about these institutions.” In other words, the industrial complex of early-twentieth-century Germany doesn’t tell you anything about the social relations that make it possible. And our culture is suffused with fetishistic and horrifying and at times well-intentioned images of prisons that totally disappear everything that Ruth is talking about in this book and everything about her activism.
For me, the way that Ruth’s elaborated the concept of the prison-industrial complex becomes a way of thinking about global capitalism. It becomes a kind of method, a method of inquiry. The way that she, just a few moments ago, excavated what is congealed in this thing called the “prison-industrial complex” represents, for me, a way of seeing that is enormously helpful in mapping or thinking about something that otherwise seems completely overwhelming and totalizing. We can get into the dialectical aspects of Ruth’s elaboration of the prison-industrial complex further into our conversation. But it really strikes me when she includes herself in the class of people — intellectuals, organizers, and so on — who are also part of this prison-industrial complex. It recalls Cedric Robinson’s thinking about how dialectics operate in the constitution of something that comes to look solid and totalizing and absolute: his idea is that this dialectic also involves resistance, revolt, and contradiction. Often, I think that gets lost.
Anyway, those were some of the things that came to my mind while listening to Ruth speak. You know, Ruth, even having read and reread your work so much, I still find myself taking notes when you speak, which is another thing that we can get into more in this conversation: how dynamic and fluid this way of thinking is, so that there’s something very alive in these conversations, even if we are bringing out similar themes repeatedly. There is a sense of movement that’s part of thinking in this way, and I find it really generative.
There’s also, though, this narrow popular reading of the term “prison-industrial complex” that emphasizes private prisons and a cruder sense of the profit motive. What do we miss about the political economy of the carceral state when we see it as simply the product of corporate greed for profits?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
It’s a shame that the concept of the prison-industrial complex has atrophied in the way that it has. In the ’90s, as the rudiments of social movements started to arise, people grasped the term, thinking, “This is telling us something that we hadn’t thought about before, something that we should think about.” But the tendency has been to narrow, narrow, narrow, to some notion of, as you said, private prisons and corporate greed. Now, empirically — which is to say if you just counted up who’s in prison, who runs prisons, and who benefits from prisons — you’ll find that private prisons are a minimal part of the entire thing in the United States, quite unlike in the UK.
Private prisons are a particular thing, a particular form of parasite capitalism. They really do exist. But they don’t drive the system.
But the problem that I have debated with some very well-known people has been around the question of whether thinking about private prisons might be the gateway for people to think about capitalism. And my conclusion, after more than twenty years of trying to do that, is that thinking about private prisons is not the gateway. Private prisons are a particular thing, a particular form of parasite capitalism. They really do exist. But they don’t drive the system, they are not the cause of the system, and they are not the system’s destiny. In many parts of the world and in many parts of the United States, the prison and jail system can be wholly public, and it’s no less deadly for the people locked up and for communities than it is in places where part of the system has been contracted out to private companies.
But let me take this discussion in a slightly different direction, encouraged as I am by what Alberto and Brenna were talking about. If we think about the prison-industrial complex in terms of contradiction, we must move to another level of generalization or abstraction and ask: What are the fundamental things that the prison-industrial complex is made of? The fundamental things are land, labor, money capital, and the state’s capacity to organize these things. That analysis gives us an entry into thinking about racial capitalism and the capitalist state. What happens when labor is in surplus? What has happened to the composition of public sector workers? What has happened to the churn of money capital through the public sector over time?
There are so many questions that we can then turn our attention to, that might give us some stronger indication of where and how to fight, because the only purpose of doing any of this analysis at all is figuring out where and how to fight. To go back to the private-prison issue for a moment: if getting rid of private prison contracts were the pathway to dismantling and dissolving the system, it would have already happened in places like the state of Tennessee or in immigrant detention, because of the huge win in dismissing the contract for a private immigrant detention center in Hutto, Texas, or some recent positive outcomes in the Pacific Northwest around private immigrant-detention contracts. However, nothing changes other than the contract, which gives us some insight into which fights, though they may be energetic, don’t prevent people from being locked up.
I’m thinking back also about the first time I read Golden Gulag, which was actually on a flight to Los Angeles, appropriately. The image that transpires, especially from that work, is of what one could call a “prison-deindustrialization complex.” One of the things that I found really striking about Golden Gulag was that it triggered the kind of gestalt switch in perception you get from theory that works: the book actually allowed me to rethink the meaning of deindustrialization. In some sense, the notion of the prison- and military-industrial complex is suffused with a postwar notion of the economy and also a postwar notion of profits.
What emerges from Golden Gulag and from the connected essays published in Abolition Geography is a way of reading and seeing and acting in the geography of deindustrialization, especially in California, and actually making it palpable as a site of state and capital strategies but also as a site of organizing, which is usually entirely neglected by 99.9 percent of liberals and many Marxists as well. This is the whole dimension of what Ruth borrows from Terry McGee, the “desakota,” the neither urban nor rural. The concept also comes out in Phil Neel’s book on hinterlands: a space that’s not just left behind and not just forgotten but a space that’s deeply significant for all of these moves and reconfigurations of political economies and state strategies and everyday livelihoods. I found that very powerful because I think there is a static way of thinking about processes of urbanization and then of kind of surplus-ing, of what used to be the rural and is now an unthinkable wasteland populated by scary voters for reactionary projects.
But the image that transpires in Ruth’s book is a very different one. Continuing the earlier question about what an expansive notion of the prison-industrial complex may allow one to think, it actually makes visible sites of theory and struggle and also domains that go well beyond thinking just about incarceration. That can be a starting point for asking questions like: What is the shape of contemporary agricultural labor? Those are also things that one learns about through this work. And so I find that element, which is in contradistinction to centering on the prison and certainly centering on the private prison, to be very significant.
I want to spell out some of the history we’ve been alluding to. Ruth, you wrote that the prison-industrial complex is an attempt to fix “major problems [that] appear, materially and ideologically, as surpluses of finance capital, land, labor, and state capacity that have accumulated from a series of overlapping and interlocking crises stretching across three decades.” What is the relationship between crisis and surplus, and how did the capitalist crises of the 1970s create these surpluses? And how did the prison-industrial complex and what you call the “anti-state state” arise in an attempt to fix these crises?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
The simplest way that I can present crisis-in-surplus is to think that when a system goes into crisis, it means that it can’t get through to its next day or its next round of whatever it used to do. As a result of that crisis — the system’s inability to make its next round, whether it’s the next round of reproductive life in the home or its next round of production in the factory or the field or its next round of extensive and wonderful public education for children — then all kinds of things, money, human energy, tools, equipment, buildings, are left aside: they become surplus. And that surplus means that people’s time is no longer needed within the formerly existing social system. I am not saying that what existed was necessarily just or good. I am saying the change means that the energy is no longer needed; that money capital that might have flowed through those systems in order to be paid out as wages, or as rents, or as overhead utilities for durable equipment, for food, no longer circulates in the same way. So these are some examples of surplus.
What are the fundamental things that the prison-industrial complex is made of? The fundamental things are land, labor, money capital, and the state’s capacity to organize these things.
Another example that I studied many years ago was a number of shifts in the use of formerly irrigated agricultural land in California. Now obviously, not all agricultural land everywhere has experienced the same level of capital investment and improvement as land in the dry west of the United States. But that is another example. It could be coal mines in Kentucky, for quite a different example. So we have surplus, which is to say all kinds of factors of production have been idled, set aside. Money surplus is perhaps the strangest one because people think, “Oh, wait a second, if there’s enough money, why did all of this happen?” And the answer, of course, brings us to a crude but accurate view of capitalism and the way that money must circulate according to the goals of those who own or control the money capital; money circulating in the form of the social wage through the state depends on a certain legitimacy. That’s determined by any number of social actors but certainly not by popular democratic agreement. Then, this churn of unused or idle labor, land, and money capital throws already existing institutions deeper into crisis.
For example, as happened in the United States, a tax revolt on the part of large banks and corporations did an enormous amount of work in making poor one of the richest political economies in the history of the world: California. But it was artificially made poor because the large banks and corporations could decide to pay lower taxes. And what does that mean? That meant that they could compose a legislative body and elect a governor who would pursue those goals on behalf of those capitalist firms that then left the state. In this case, the State of California, with all kinds of bureaucratic and fiscal capacities, can borrow money, spend money, make things, hire people, train people, you name it, but did not have the legitimacy to put those energies, those organizational and human energies, toward the kinds of purposes that what we used to call the welfare state, however weak, was put.
Are the people who end up getting locked up disproportionately surplus populations as well?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Well, they’d have to be, because if they weren’t surplus, somebody would have them working for them. Look, my favorite astonishing number that I have repeated for some time — and it’s probably bigger now — is that in the United States of America, the workforce is probably about 160 million people. Of that labor force, more than half are carrying some kind of disqualifying arrest or conviction record, whether or not they’ve ever been locked up. It’s really quite an astonishing thing. And of course, those disqualifying records that modestly educated people in the prime of life carry disqualify them from certain kinds of jobs, which means that if they manage to get work, they are like gig employees, highly vulnerable to any fluctuation in the workplace in America. They’re very easy to dismiss. So there’s a whole movement that has grown over the last twenty years, organized and led by people who are formerly incarcerated or, as we say nowadays, justice-impacted, to ban the box: to get rid of the questions on employment applications that ask, “Have you ever been arrested?”
Surplus population is a thorny category, because for many who try genuinely to understand how racial capitalism works in the United States, the idea of somebody being deprived of their freedom — either ankle-shackled at home with a monitor or locked up in a jail or prison — must lead to those unfree people’s labor being exploited. Because otherwise, why bother? But based on empirical reckonings of who actually does what among the two-and-a-third million people locked up at any given moment in the United States, labor exploitation explains virtually nothing. Many people righteously believe, as I used to righteously presume, that somehow continuation of unfreedom must mean a continuation of slavery, which must mean a continuation of labor exploitation. There is exploitation, but it’s not labor. What turns into money, that circulates as wages and interest and rent and utility bills and so forth, is time. The people who are locked up are deprived of time, which is to say time is extracted from their lives. They never get it back. Nobody ever gets their time back. And it’s the fact of time that transforms into money that circulates in these various ways. If you think back on everything that anybody has ever written to analyze the peculiar condition that capitalism throws entire polities and political economies into, we’re reminded that Karl Marx talked about the annihilation of space by time, and that’s what happens to people who are imprisoned, one by one by one. We are space, and our spaces, our lives, are annihilated by the extraction of time.
The workforce is probably about 160 million people. Of that labor force, more than half are carrying some kind of disqualifying arrest or conviction record.
Ruth, you write, “If economics lies at the base of the prison system, its growth is a function of politics not mechanics.” Brenna and Alberto, why is it the economic foundation of the prison system that exposes its fundamental political contingency?
That quotation reminds me of the Clausewitzian idea that politics is a continuation of war by other means, as well as its reversals — how we can think about warfare in not a Clausewitzian sense but maybe warfare as a class war or race war. These other conceptions of war are perhaps continuations of politics by other means. I was reminded of that formulation by the quotation, because in both frameworks, we’re thinking about what the material operation of a thing exposes about its own motor force. Before Alberto answers, I wanted to ask Ruth about this idea of time becoming money, and how the extractivist nature of the prison-industrial complex is the extraction of time that prisoners never get back. Is there some element of speculation involved in that transmutation of time into money?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
That’s a really interesting question. I mean, my gut tells me yes, but that those who are speculating are not finger-rubbing venture capitalists who are trying to figure out how to make a dollar into two; rather, I think a lot of this speculation happens in the context of already existing institutions of the state where people are struggling to maintain the agencies that they work in. They turn to what has, over these last thirty or forty years, become apparently the most politically justifiable growth area of the state, and they say, “We do this, too.” That’s, I think, where the speculation is. We need more officers in the schools because we do this, too. One of my favorite examples is that the US Department of Education has a SWAT team so they can break down your front door if they suspect that you are engaging in student loan fraud. A SWAT team! So there’s speculation that more and more people across the life cycle will necessarily require inhibition, prohibition, and punishment in order for any social agency to do what it’s supposed to do, whether it’s dispense food or education. In Chicago the other day, the mayor closed the most elaborate and fancy park in the city to teenagers. That, of course, makes all of those teenagers available for the work of being policed. And then the police speculate on what more they can do to build their section of the budget.
The people who are locked up are deprived of time, which is to say time is extracted from their lives. They never get it back. Nobody ever gets their time back.
Indeed, in terms of mission absorption and mission imitation, agencies whose job it is to provide the basic goods of life — education, housing, and so forth — incorporate into their mission policing, exclusion, and punishment. But also, in an effort to resist the constant criticism that abolition-adjacent people have made about “education, not incarceration” and so forth, police and jails and prisons are saying, “Oh, well, give us more money and we will do all of that too. We can do everything.” So there is a lot of speculation that’s attached to the actual extraction of time or the potential identification of people whose time can then become extractable.
This is really fascinating because we start with something quite counterintuitive. I was thinking of the analogy of property in my head, which is problematic, but also analogous in the sense that there’s something very counterintuitive about the idea that you lock up people and extract time, since there’s the appearance of nonproductivity. Yet this counterintuitive feature is then taken to these perverse but logical conclusions. Bizarrely, when you map all of the different realms into which the speculation is taken and how it operates, the potential for speculation appears to be limitless.
I think we tend, not just in talking about prisons or incarceration, to operate with a nineteenth-century antinomy, in which economics is a world of anonymous hydraulic functionality and then politics is a world of sovereign, generally masculine decision. The peculiar aspect of this geographical and historical phenomenology of prisons that Ruth is presenting is the competition between the domains of taxation, of budgets, of different agencies, indeed different police forces — all of whom, for instance, in the vicinity of Saint Louis, are trying to arrest the same African-American drivers as they move through these underfunded police jurisdictions, which are dependent for their own existence on juridically extracting monetary value from racialized subjects. But in that case, it can’t be thought of simply as that of a cognitively or psychologically racist police force. They very well might be that, too, but it’s also a compulsion. It’s a compulsion that puts the politics into the economics.
One of the things that we’re challenged to do by looking with empirical and methodological care at the deployment of the prison-industrial complex is to rethink that relationship, where economics is not just the macro level of the US GDP and class structure, and politics is not just what elite politicians decide or what a set of ideologues think. Those factors might set some boundary conditions for our inquiry, because they of course matter as state and federal policy matters; but politics at the micro and meso levels matter too. People are indeed compelled by the political economy of the institutions of which they’re part to engage in certain types of behaviors, which also explains why a purely cognitive or psychological effort to roll back the racist proclivities of individual members of the repressive state apparatus might not get you very far. A police department fully manned by black cops in one of those jurisdictions will have the same compulsion in order to maintain their jobs: to continue arresting modestly educated working people in their area. So, when we think of politics vis-à-vis economics it should be through political economy, political economy as constant critique — not as some domain of objectivity that allows us to map why people behave in certain ways despite their intentions.
A police department fully manned by black cops will have the same compulsion to maintain their jobs: to continue arresting modestly educated working people in their area.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
To follow up on what Alberto was just saying and the terrific question that Brenna put to me, I have been thinking about territory as the fundamental condition of what we understand to be states: that states have this territorial jurisdiction and also, to pick up on the word that Alberto used, sovereignty. I’m not embracing the liberal notion of sovereignty, but I do want to point out its importance to what we’re talking about. The liberal notion of the sovereign individual allegedly has domain over the territory of herself, and it’s exactly the evacuation or the cancellation of that sovereignty that makes people who are criminalized, whether they be incarcerated or not, vulnerable to time extraction. It’s the end of sovereignty. They’re not people who are lacking sovereigns; they are people who do not have sovereignty.
At the same time, states are of course complex and contradictory sets of institutions. They are subjects and objects of struggle. Certain arms of the state, especially the forces of organized violence, the police and the military, have in the US context and perhaps everywhere else a sense of their own sovereign right to inflict harm or extract freedom from people in their domain. So there are all these petit sovereigns, as it were, who get to do what they do. In her writing on El Salvador, the late, great Joan Didion talks about the inconsolable anger on the part of the forces of organized violence when they encounter political and cultural criticism of the things that they do. I think that this is really true in the United States today: people who, having worked their way up through police forces, are now the heads of municipal states — Lori Lightfoot in Chicago, Eric Adams in New York, and so forth — exhibit inconsolable anger that they’re having become cops was not enough for all of us who criticize them. And then they deploy more cop work. They are insisting, like absolutist monarchs of the eighteenth century, that they must be respected and that they can get respect by doing whatever bodily reconfiguration of your person that they and their forces of organized violence wish to do. That’s where I think we are.
Your response brings to mind this visceral attachment to police and anger over any sort of questioning police legitimacy that makes Blue Lives Matter so core to today’s right-wing politics. Ruth, riffing off Stuart Hall, you write, “Racism is the modality through which political-economic globalization is felt.” So, mass incarceration, this ultimate fixing of large numbers of people in place, is key to understanding the forms of capitalism that have been ascendant since the 1970s or so. We’ve seen the same thing with the hardening of national borders. Border militarization, mass incarceration — it’s all part of this “deepening divide between the hyper-mobile and the friction-fixed.” What is the historical relationship between increasing mobility for capital and growing control over the movement of people, whether in prisons or between nation-states?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
This is something we should all talk about, because that relationship differs a lot in different places. And as Brenna and Alberto and I have been indicating, it’s not as though what we see working is some kind of mechanistic functional system in which the economic imperative produces a certain output. It’s not a machine, though it feels like a machine sometimes, because it’s so big and noisy. So the movement of capital has gotten freer and free and freer. And the relative immobility of labor in the North American context — by which I mean the United States, Canada, and Mexico, not all of North America — has been in part a way for the capitalist firms that pass their goods through these three countries to maximize what they can extract from workers. I mean, that’s clearly what the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was about, and it’s what the new form of NAFTA seems still to be about.
Now, if we step out of the United States for a moment and think about other places that are also characterized by remarkable inequality, we can see in India — a vast, complicated political economy, with urban, rural, and manufacturing sectors and so forth — that on top of many other conflicts and contradictions, people from Assam have been officially relegated to second-class status. Many people from Assam travel to other states of India to work, in agriculture or on the waterfront. The Dominican Republic has diminished the citizenship status of the descendants of Haitians, a people on the same island. And so Haitian Dominicans are second-class citizens in the Dominican Republic. The UK has been deporting people to many places but particularly to Jamaica, in constant purges. But what are these purges for? Is it to secure the labor force they want? Is it to secure a certain kind of provisional legitimacy, as the rapacious capitalist firms suck money and resources from people’s pockets, through the state, and into their coffers? In the UK case, this extraction has taken place via private prisons and test-and-trace apps, through which cronies of the current UK government have amassed billions of pounds of revenue. In South Africa, the high levels of un- and underemployment — resulting in the constant movement of people closer to where money wages can be earned — means that the cities have grown way more rapidly than the cities have had the capacity to build and provide infrastructure and services. And the self-built communities around Durban, Cape Town, Joburg, and elsewhere have become sites of self-organization but also sites of struggle with very intense policing. At the same time, I’m told by people whose analysis I trust that the level of xenophobic violence in South Africa is rising again because the cost of bread is rising again. So it’s anti-immigrant in the United States, anti-immigrant in India, anti-immigrant in South Africa, and anti-immigrant in the UK, and in Brazil there’s a lot of struggle around the same kinds of issues. All these places have deep inequality and have high levels of mass incarceration, although nobody is remotely close in terms of the incarceration rate to the United States.
Do you see a connection between, on the one hand, the declining legitimacy of the global economic order and the liberal internationalist world order and, on the other hand, this increasingly intense debate over the prison-industrial complex and immigration? For such a long time, and particularly in the ’90s, mass incarceration, immigration control, and neoliberal globalization were taken to be almost natural norms — not that they weren’t criticized by some.
A real challenge for understanding the legitimacy crisis, and particularly the way it’s articulated by movements of the so-called populist right, is the classic issue of the link between racism, race, racialization, forms of exploitation, and forms of capitalism. I remember reading a few years ago Peter Fryer’s book Staying Power: A History of Black People in Britain. It has three chapters on riots; two of them concern returning white English soldiers from World War I and World War II. These soldiers were previously employed as dockworkers, but their dock work had been supplemented by workers from, broadly speaking, the Commonwealth, who had either migrated for those jobs or shifted from other jobs to those. In Liverpool, a large proportion of these workers were Yemenis; in Bristol, there were other groups as well. There’s also a chapter, of course, about the Notting Hill riots in the ’50s, which raise issues around the racialization of housing and the structure of urban space.
So, that gives us a sense of how mutable the points of condensation for far-right mobilization are. Indeed, it was some of the dockers, not to besmirch the entire category, who came out in defense of Enoch Powell right after the “Rivers of Blood” speech and in the late ’60s as well. It’s striking that in the present-day UK, the removal of the right to labor from Bulgarian, Polish, and Romanian workers, as well as the so-called Windrush generation, was perceived by many as a very peculiarly irrational operation, because it was driven by the tabloid “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan (a phrase that, alas, Gordon Brown also pronounced at one point). But when those Bulgarian and Romanian workers were removed or left because the situation was so dire, they were not replaced by those famous British workers; it wasn’t the Tommies returning to work on the docks. This struggle over the racialized working site was very superstructural, the result of a fantasy about what work and class mean in Britain.
So I think that was very striking, as was the bewildering failure of vast swathes of progressive people to look at people’s passports when they did their class analysis, which became a reflex for so many. All of those cliches about working-class voter rebellions did not include many of the people who pack salads, work in fields, and man logistical centers in the term “working class.” That has also been a striking element of the imaginative geographies and identifications that go along with class, that make these phenomena difficult to talk about and organize around in any remotely emancipatory sense. In other domains, there have been at least slivers of a better politics. I’m thinking, for instance, of some of the strikes around logistical work in Italy, which had migrant and nonwhite workers completely at their center for some time.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
I’m going to start from where Alberto just left off, talking about the logistical strikes. We need to think really hard about the people who, during the pandemic, were greeted with applause and pot-banging, the essential workers who at great peril to themselves went out and brought us our salads or who went to the hospital without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to care for people who were sick and dying and suffering.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been following the fact that one of the biggest unions in the United States is National Nurses United. And the nurses are quite a formidable group of people whose political education over the last two years has compelled them to agree to a really remarkable set of resolutions at their convention this past January. They talked about what is happening with the circulation of what I call the social wage: What’s happened to public budgets over time? They have demanded nonstop free universal health care for all. They have stepped up in opposition to immigrant control. Many people who work in nursing in the United States are themselves long-distance migrants, probably in most cases with adequate documentation to be able to come and go as they like. But there is a political understanding of the experience of long-distance migration that matters. It’s not just that they’re migrants; it’s that they have developed a political understanding in the context of struggling face-to-face with suffering people in hospitals.
Meanwhile, nurses, like people who work for Amazon or Starbucks, are employed by these incredibly enormous multinational corporations. And yet they are constrained to fight worksite by worksite. So they have an understanding of the dilemmas of both big capital and of the neoliberal imperatives that have been forcing down wages and disrupting the close relations some smaller firms might have had with the communities where people live and work. There is this abstract enemy called “Hospital Corporation of America”; there is this constant movement through this desakota space, between the Philippines and the United States, or Liberia and the United States, or Sierra Leone and the United States, or Jamaica and the United States. I don’t ever purport to know what home means to anybody, and having multiple homes is not all that uncommon for working people — but wherever home is for these workers, obviously there’s some kind of disruption that has compelled the movement of people from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Jamaica, and the Philippines to the United States or to the Gulf or wherever they work and send remittances home. The fact of these remittances, then, gives an additional insight in itself.
So all of these dynamics that the nurse and their political education formation have been thinking about enable people to think internationalism from the ground up. I want to give one other example, and that is the work that for now almost forty years the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST) has been doing in Brazil, again from the ground up: land occupations, establishment of villages, and establishment of schools, as well as sending teams out around the world to work with people, including in the self-built communities of South Africa, Indonesia, and wherever else. They work with people to figure out how to make whatever soil and agricultural capacity they have flourish. There is also an entire urban dimension of late, struggling around food insecurity or food apartheid or nutritional insecurity in the cities of Brazil, both in very overbuilt areas as well as in the self-built hillside favelas; they also work in solidarity with long-distance migrants who pass through Brazil, heading often to the United States and Canada, who are vulnerable to being entrapped by the various police forces of the countries they’ll pass through, which have contracts with the US to prevent people’s movements.
If all that adds up to a legitimacy crisis for neoliberalism, I applaud that view. And I think it’s incumbent on us to think as closely as we can about the various spectacular events of the last couple of years. Not only did US cities go up in flames for a while, but there were also events like that incredible general strike in India; a quarter of a billion people put their tools down, which tells us there’s all this other organizing going on, because that doesn’t happen spontaneously. So I think there is a significant legitimacy crisis. I think that the forces of organized violence for the overdeveloped world are busy positioning their troops around the world, whether it’s in Somalia or closer and closer to the Ukraine border. The question of what sovereignty means is fundamental to what we’re trying to figure out. And yet I don’t feel the kind of overwhelming despair that some of the things I write about suggest I should feel, because everything I write is in order for us to figure out how to organize.
I don’t feel the kind of overwhelming despair that some of the things I write about suggest I should feel, because everything I write is in order for us to figure out how to organize.
When I was thinking about the question you put to Ruth about the legitimacy crisis of neoliberalism or mass incarceration, I thought, well, you’re asserting as self-evident that there is a legitimacy crisis. After listening to what Ruth just said, I guess it’s something that I’d like to think further about, because from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t feel like there is a legitimacy crisis exactly. Given the moment that we’re in with the climate emergency, you would think that there would be a much more virulent legitimacy crisis when it comes to neoliberalism, mass incarceration, and everything else you mentioned. But it’s just not what it looks like from where I’m sitting. When we think about questions of sovereignty, of course, I’m in British Columbia, and I’m sitting on Musqueam land right now. The struggles in this place are really ones of asserting different jurisdictions: assertions of indigenous jurisdiction over their lands coming up against a state-capital nexus and a legal apparatus that insists on reducing these jurisdictional confrontations and battles down to real-estate matters and property disputes.
The other place where I’m sitting is as a legal scholar. So in thinking about the legal structures that underlie neoliberalism and neoliberal legality, what I see is a system that makes it much more difficult to identify points of opposition, which is something Ruth was talking about earlier. We can think about neoliberal legality as parasitic on the kinds of liberal legalism that we’re all accustomed to critiquing, and we can deconstruct liberal legalism in our sleep. But neoliberal legality also operates in a very different way, I think, to make it extremely difficult to find a point of genuine opposition. To give a more concrete example of what I mean, if we think about financialization and housing, neoliberal relations of work have made it extremely difficult for people even to find the time to organize. This is very different from the world that I was familiar with as a young person, even twenty years ago. I think that neoliberalism and the legal apparatus that gives it a material life have created a situation where the whole idea of the legitimacy crisis needs to be reframed or rethought, in terms of the question of: Where do we see modes of resistance and confrontation that are adequate to the way that neoliberalism works?
I think we see the once very naturalized bipartisan politics behind neoliberalism, mass incarceration, and border enforcement breaking down because of declining legitimacy in the eyes of both a radicalizing left and a radicalizing right. But I agree that we’re not at a full crisis point yet. Instead, we’re in some sort of long interregnum where it seems like everyone has lost faith, but people aren’t angry or organized enough to make a massive systemic change, either for the better or, in the case of the Right’s disillusionment, very much for the worse.
I wonder, though, if we could divide or multiply even the notion of crisis of legitimacy. Brenna pointed out that the legitimacy of the state has never been recognized by people whose lands were taken and occupied, and we can extend that to the vast swathes of social life where people never felt that domination over them or the extraction of their wages by the state and its minions had any particular legitimacy. I remember some great passages from these letters that the Italian communist Maria Antonietta Macciocchi sent to Louis Althusser as he was in the depths of silent depression during May ’68. She was campaigning in the so-called subproletarian neighborhoods of Naples, and she writes wonderfully about the completely ironic and distant and instrumental relationship that the Neapolitans she was talking to had with legality as such and with the state; these were at best things to be tolerated, perhaps things to be undermined or manipulated if need be, or to be negotiated with monetarily or otherwise. These people were never actually interpolated as citizen-subjects — that just was not the game they were in. And so I wonder, for whom has there been legitimacy and for whom has it entered into crisis?
We should also distinguish between people who are nostalgic for a legitimacy that they imagine once existed and people who never necessarily felt themselves to be interpolated by the state as citizens.
For a resurgent, intensified, and recombining radical far right — certainly in settler colonial contexts, which have their specific forms of fascization — this crisis is a matter of re-empowering a racialized form of petty sovereignty: the constitutional sheriffs’ movements in the States, these bizarre forms of dual power that leverage the Republican Party for extremely militarized forms of local politics. In the Italian case, you have patriotic occupations done by far-right groups who take over apartment buildings in Rome for unemployed people with Italian passports but who also go out and attack migrants. They have very different relationships to legitimacy. I think there’s a risk to seeing the crisis of legitimacy through the lens of electoral disaffection or disaffiliation with the systems of representation. Of course, this trend is extremely significant and needs to be thought about and dealt with, but I think there are other layers. We should also distinguish between people who are nostalgic for a legitimacy that they imagine once existed and people who never necessarily felt themselves to be interpolated by the state as citizens. Perhaps this latter group had a less violent, exclusionary, and depressing relationship to state institutions in the past than they do now, or perhaps they found room to breathe and lived in a way that is now disappearing. That’s not to say that the notion of a legitimacy crisis and of an interregnum you mentioned is not useful or pertinent, because I very much think it is. But I think we need to divide that notion of legitimacy and think about how it’s experienced and lived for different people.
I mean, we can also see this crisis in the United States, not just in representative political institutions but also in the workplace: the campaigns to unionize Starbucks and Amazon are two inspiring examples.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
In the US, we have lived through the reconfiguration of the territorial extent of all kinds of remedies for perceived diminution of rights. That’s a wordy way of saying that however much the federal state of the United States generalized territorially expansive protections for vulnerable people, that is going away, and it’s going away very deliberately. State legislators and governors, who are seeing this fragmentation of the territory of rights, are aiding it because they, of course, have embraced the notion of a legitimacy crisis and have organized themselves and have acted to reconfigure the world in a way that brings back the rules that they think should be in place. I mean, this is what Laura Ingraham says.
But I want to connect this to what Brenna was talking about, concerning how many people in Canada and in unceded lands around the planet are persistently invited to embrace the notion that the way to resolve contestation over land is for the land to become private property. This is happening in British Columbia, and it’s happening in Jamaica — it’s happening all over the place. It’s not happening evenly, but it’s certainly happening. One of the effects of this incorporation of people who are contesting dispossession is that their incorporation then strengthens rather than weakens what we’re calling neoliberalism (although 90 percent of the time, I’m not really sure what I mean when I say that word). Part of this incorporation, in my view, appeals to people’s notion of themselves as beings who bear culture with them. So if we are bearing our indigenous culture, and if we have this land as property, then we can perform our culture. I don’t mean to do a dance for an audience; I mean be. This appeal to culture also helps us understand the various dimensions of how the strong executive — and I really mean the iron-fist executive — is presented as the remedy for problems that one imagines in a democratic setting would be slugged out in democratic assemblies.
I’m going to give an example, which is going to sound far from the example of the privatization of unceded land. In the city of New York, there’s an ongoing crisis over the city jails. Famously, Rikers Island, which has been a penal colony for many decades, has been roundly condemned politically: people die there all the time and so forth. The former mayor of New York proposed building four new jails, dotting them around the boroughs, and spending $11 billion of borrowed money so that these jails could somehow fulfill the promise of actual “enlightened correction.” And of course, we abolitionists have been against this. Well, there’s a new round of activity in the city of New York now around the issue of where a new jail for “women and gender-expansive people” should be and how it should be run. The people who have proposed this new jail, different from the four new jails that the former mayor wanted to build, say, “Our jail is not really going to be a jail.” The perimeter will be secured by cops, by correction officers — but the people who work inside will not be prison employees. It’s going to be run by a not-for-profit.
In order to achieve this spectacularly wonderful new lockup for women and gender-expansive people, New York will have to break the union contract with the prison guards.
But in order to achieve this spectacularly wonderful new lockup for women and gender-expansive people, the City of New York, which is one of the most densely unionized public formations in the United States, is going to have to break the union contract with the prison guards. Now, in order for the city to break this contract, necessarily a new decision-making body has got to slide into the already existing complexity of a city that’s composed of five different counties; and above those five different counties, it has to be able to hire, reprimand, and fire anybody. So we have the strongest imaginable executive, who will then lift the problem of prison well-being and prison rehabilitation for women and gender-expansive people out of the realm of politics; this executive puts it in the realm of quote-unquote “culture,” to be run by technocrats.
This is the word they keep using: “culture.” In the context of everything we’ve been talking about, we can see in this story of New York both the neoliberal legitimacy crisis and the neoliberal resolution to the legitimacy crisis. And as Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò says in his new book, Elite Capture, there are countless people who are pushed to the front of the stage in every discussion, who once were locked in the hellhole that is Rikers and who say, “Yes, I want this new prison.” But we never explored the question of why we expect that they or anybody else should go or go back to prison. That’s not even a possible agenda, any more than there was a possibility, in the case Brenna brought up, of seriously discussing actual land back rather than privatizing some bits of unceded territory.
Ruth, you write:
The key point is this: at any scale, racism is not a lagging indicator, an anachronistic drag on an otherwise achievable social equality guaranteed by the impersonal freedom of expanding markets. History is not a long march from premodern racism to postmodern pluralism. Rather, racism’s changing same does triple duty: claims of natural or cultural incommensurability secure conditions for reproducing economic inequalities, which then validate theories of extra-economic hierarchical difference.
Elsewhere, you write:
The state’s management of racial categories is analogous to the management of highways or ports or telecommunication; racist ideological and material practices are infrastructure that needs to be updated, upgraded, and modernized periodically: this is what is meant by racialization. And the state itself, not just interests or forces external to the state, is built and enhanced through these practices. Sometimes these practices result in “protecting” certain racial groups and other times they result in sacrificing them.
This notion of racism as a “changing same” reminded me of a few things. First, it reminded me of Joe Lowndes and Daniel Martinez HoSang’s work in their book, Producers, Parasites, Patriots. They point, in particular, to how frameworks developed to stigmatize black women welfare recipients as parasitic on the productive taxpayer were redeployed in the Tea Party era against unionized public employees. Your idea also made me think about Donald Trump’s growing support from Latino and even black voters in 2020. How do you see racism and racial formations mutating today and to what end do they appear to be mutating?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
One example that many people talk about in the context not only of the United States but also Western Europe is the quote-unquote “racialization” of Muslims, who themselves might check — if they live in a place that has categories to check, which many people don’t — any range of more old-fashioned racial and ethnic identifiers. That’s an example, but it’s not the only one. Alberto and Brenna, you lived through this and probably thought about it a lot — in the buildup to Brexit, it was pretty striking, as I’ve learned from my friend Ben Rogaly and others, how, for example, Polish workers were constantly harassed, as the date for Brexit drew near, by people saying, “At last you’re going to leave and go home.”
There are many different ways of answering that question, most certainly. But a couple of things come to mind for me, and they relate back to several of the themes we’ve talked about. One is the idea of the petty sovereign and how racial violence is currently playing out. I wanted to add to the framework that Ruth elaborated when she was discussing the proliferation of police organizing and that kind of police work: the framework of settler colonialism. Both historically and in the current moment, the figure of the petty sovereign has retained a very important place in the formation of settler colonial states. This is not the typical figure we associate with the term “sovereignty” — the police, the administrator, the jail-keeper, or the bailiff — it’s actually citizens who fall into a long-established racial kinship with the sovereign state. Settler violence has always relied on blurring the line between the police, who have the monopoly of violence, and the petty sovereign citizen-subject, who doesn’t have a monopoly of violence but is certainly enabled by the state to enact all kinds of lethal racial violence. We can think about how this figure is manifesting in this particular moment of rising authoritarianism and white nationalism.
Consider the Freedom Convoy in Canada that lasted several months. People referred to it disparagingly as the “clown-voy,” but we saw the police in Ottawa almost give it their blessing. When you listen to the interviews with the police about the convoy protesters, it was as if they were talking about their kin, like their sons or their cousins; there was this kind of under-level, implicit understanding. Now, I’m generalizing, of course, but that was definitely present. Another example that comes to mind is Israel-Palestine, where much settlement activity and displacement and dispossession also happens through the figure of the petty sovereign, who is not a member of the military or the police state. These are private petty sovereigns, you could say. I think of Palestine because I’m also concerned about how racialization and anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab racism is mutating today, into a form where racialized people who are not Palestinian face racism because of their support for Palestinian rights. How do we think about that form of racism in this current moment? Maybe there is a legitimacy crisis when it comes to Israel’s apartheid practices, and maybe this is a response to that.
Forms of racism and racialization can certainly mutate in response to a crisis. Many of my examples have been instances where there is a crisis. In the Canadian context, that crisis has been produced by the pandemic and also the recent rise in at least the discourse of reconciliation around indigenous rights and indigenous sovereignty. In the Israel-Palestine context, you also see a growing global consensus that the State of Israel is engaging in apartheid practices, with mainstream human rights organizations finally backing up what Palestinians and others have been saying for decades. And that is producing a virulent reaction, which incorporates particular processes of racialization, namely the one that I just mentioned.
What about the strange situation where people that we certainly think of as racialized, like Hispanics in the lower Rio Grande Valley, are swinging hard to the right? They’re not only swinging hard to the right politically but really seeing themselves reflected in MAGA America.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
The first answer to your question, Daniel, is to reconsider the phrase “think of as racialized.” The dynamics are far less direct and predictable than we who have gotten into the habit of speaking in collective generalizations, for good reason, tend to assume. The “race” in “racial capitalism” isn’t an epiphenomenon, and yet it’s still a fiction. People take to the streets because of its real effects. But that means they take to the streets to undo real effects in order to embrace some other possible effects in their lives.
The ‘race’ in ‘racial capitalism’ isn’t an epiphenomenon, and yet it’s still a fiction.
And so it doesn’t surprise me to think, oh, people in the Rio Grande Valley, who we might have assumed would cast their electoral ballots on the side of greater opportunity and protection for quote-unquote “people of color,” didn’t vote that way. It doesn’t surprise me any more than the fact that so many people of African descent in the United States believe that their path and their community’s path to well-being and security is to become cops. They know all the stories about cops, but they become cops. I don’t see that as any more surprising than people in the Rio Grande Valley voting for Trump.
Eric Adams got beaten up by cops as a teenager.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
And that made him a cop. I think the reason that many people stub their analytical toes on racial capitalism is that they think that the categories must be fixed rather than realizing that the whole genius of capitalism is that it changes all the time. The meaning of “racial” is part of this change. You can’t have capitalism without people; you can’t have capitalism without inequality; you can’t have capitalism without the system constantly going into crisis, which means we cannot have capitalism without capitalism saving capitalism from capitalism. And it’s in this dynamic that we see these relationships, identities, and assertions emerge, consolidate, and perhaps fracture again.
Some of us have been talking recently in a desultory way about how terrific it would be if the huge anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-imperial category “political blackness” came back into being. It would have to have meaning to go forward into being. But the kinds of fragmentation and categorical fixity that so many people, especially in the US context, project onto people are probably what’s in the way of such an all-embracing category to start moving as the specter of our time. But it seems to me there ought to be something that can do the work of suturing categories so that the possibility of solidarity, rather than alliance, becomes more meaningful to people as they try to understand what’s going on in the world.
Yeah, it takes us back to that concept of the “changing same.” If race is the constant apologia for the changing capitalist system and its changing forms of inequality, then we shouldn’t be so surprised that race and racism are always changing too — and that if we want to make major political-economic change, that’s going to require articulating new forms of identity.
I’d like to go back to the two cases that Ruth was talking about, namely the racialization of, to use an improper term, “phenotypically white” Europeans and the question of Islam. While working on a book about the contemporary afterlives of fascism, I reread some of Robinson’s work. He uses the optic of racial capitalism to counter what he sees as these “manicured genealogies” of fascism produced by Western intellectuals throughout the twentieth century. And he very strikingly says that there are two distinct and concealed cultural articulations that lie behind modern racism. One is the intra-European and therefore retroactively but totally anachronistically intrawhite, articulation of conquest, dispossession, and depredation along racialized tribal or group axes. The other is Europe’s encounter with its Islamic other. It would be obviously very methodologically inaccurate to say these two elements return in any direct sense, but it’s striking that those are seen as the material bases for racial capitalism — that it is not born in the transatlantic slave trade, contrary to what, bizarrely, a lot of people still think Robinson said.
But let’s leave that aside and go back to the point that you raised earlier, regarding the material and infrastructural character of the work that race does: the constant repair of its failing infrastructure or the need to kind of recombine it. In that same passage, Robinson says that racial discourses are there to normalize the abundant and frequently destabilized systems of domination and subordination. And so, in one sense, it’s the destabilization and the various vectors of destabilization that need to be attended to, analytically or militantly or prescriptively, to think through these questions.
Abolition is sometimes heralded as a position of intransigence. It is the stubborn insistence that the entirety of the prison-industrial complex and the whole social order that requires it is beyond reform or repair. As you write in the book, such an insight “makes people impatient,” as it well should. And yet the sort of struggles and demands that your organizing has advanced and that you celebrate throughout the book are not the stuff of an immediate total rupture with prisons and police. What’s more, the capacious picture of abolition that you paint for us seems to move at a slower pace than a single revolutionary event or some sort of decree that prisons and police batons shall all be traded in for plowshares. How should we relate this abolitionist maximalism to the longer arc of social transformation that it might require? And what does that mean for how we think about what revolution means?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
That’s a great question. I was just reading China Miéville’s new book on the Communist Manifesto. He actually takes up the debate Western Marxists such as Perry Anderson and Marshall Berman had about what a revolution is. And of course Anderson says that revolution is a very specific thing: it’s a change of government from below. Otherwise, it’s just a metaphor. Discussion ensued. Well, here’s what I think. I think that if living life for the purpose of changing how we live life takes a long time, so be it. We who think about abolition and try our best to explain its universal remit have attempted to show that there are certain kinds of changes that reorganize what already is, like resolving problems of unceded territory with privatization of property or electing police officers to preside over the capital of capitalism in New York. The longue durée is not the purpose, but it ought not be surprising at all. We’re all here looking at each other because of events that began in, more or less, 1451. So it’s not as though we’re stuck in a series of events and reconfigurations of recent occurrence that we must quickly and swiftly undo.
If living life for the purpose of changing how we live life takes a long time, so be it.
Now, further, anybody who imagines that the forces of organized violence in the United States or Western Europe could be toppled tomorrow if only abolitionists were more impatient would have to show me a plan of action — because I don’t think that can happen. And yet making the world we want, which people are doing in so many different ways, brings together, I think, at least three pretty powerful strands of human self-organization. At least one of those strands is communism: small “c” communism, sometimes realized through big “C” Communist parties. Another strand is the kind of serious anarchism that produces strong and vibrant self-organized communities. And the third I’d name, perhaps unpopularly, are liberation faith movements of a wide variety of types: not necessarily monotheistic but not necessarily not monotheistic either. These strands just keep coming together and forming the possibility for groups like the MST to do what they do. That to me is what abolition should be; it’s a normative claim. Abolition isn’t a party; it’s a way of thinking about the world that then gives us the ability to see what people already do and figure out how to make more of that happen.
There’s a kind of historical irony because the language that most people on the Left use to talk about revolution was, of course, forged at the time when abolitionism — calling itself “abolitionism,” not gradualist but “immediatist” abolitionism — was so critical to scholar-activists of the mid-nineteenth century. Marx, writing for the New York Daily Tribune, just uses one of his articles to reproduce a speech by Wendell Phillips on the liberation of enslaved people in the West Indies, for instance. What’s more, all these often-tiresome scholarly debates about Marx and G.W.F. Hegel are quickly resolved once one sees that Marx uses a term from Hegel, “Aufheben,” which is often seen as a conservationist or reconciling notion, but which is the same term used to talk about the abolition of slavery. Marx links the abolition of slavery directly to the abolition of private property and the abolition of all sorts of other interlinked institutions. And of course, he and myriad activists and thinkers from all wings of the international working people’s movements face these issues for one hundred and some more years.
The question that you pose is also the practical question of transition, right? What do we do with our banks? What do we do with our highways? Or indeed, very significantly, what do we do with an entire material world and system of social relations that have been generated by and are reproduced by and enhance the devastation of our planet through fossil fuel consumption? The form of the problem you just raised about prisons is analogous to the form of questions about other dimensions of contemporary capital society.
Of course, those dimensions have different materialities and different temporalities and also interlink with each other in all sorts of ways. But the problem, I think, still concerns not just what we intend by revolution within this network of ideas and experiences and histories but also what exactly those nonreformist reforms would look like. And already in that formulation by André Gorz in the late ’50s, those nonreformist reforms are not just judged by their consequences or by how they fit into a broader strategy. They’re judged by the fact that the people concerned are directly, in a collective or mass sense, involved in them. So l think it’s crucial that we don’t take a view about what would count as revolutionary in terms of its effects, without thinking about the problems of transforming everyday life and experience; we need to make the kind of collectives that can engage in revolutionary or communist or abolitionist politics.
The ways in which Ruth maps solidarity in a variety of concrete, seemingly local, but actually international struggles throughout the book are exemplary in thinking about what that would look like. What would it look like for seemingly fragmented, seemingly disparate people to come together in determinate places to engage in processes of dismantling that are also processes of building something else?
You just said that my question about the immediacy of abolitionist demands and the longue durée of struggle echoes these fundamental, long-standing questions about the transition to communism. And relatedly, one might be forgiven for thinking that abolition might be another way to talk about communism. Why do we speak of abolition, then? Why not just communism?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
So many of the people who joined together in the ’90s to launch the contemporary abolition movement came out of communist formations. I’ve never really talked with my comrades about this, but I imagine one reason for the distinction was that many people are really deaf to the word “communism.” Theorists have remarked on the existence of anti-communism without communists. Anti-communism continues to be so lively in the United States; many people, as was the case in the past, would rapidly embrace all the aspects of communism they might learn about, but only if somebody told them these ideas without using the “c” word (although I do have hope that younger folks today are becoming enthusiastically curious about what communism is). So those are a couple of the whys: that people turn a deaf ear and that people think they know what communism is and therefore stop listening because this is not what they want.
Anti-communism continues to be lively in the United States; many people would rapidly embrace all the aspects of communism, but only if somebody told them these ideas without using the ‘c’ word.
I appreciated Ruth’s point about 1451, but we also have to think about places like British Columbia, which only joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871 and began to form as a province maybe ten years before that. This is a province that’s at the extreme end of extractivism and a kind of terra nullius settler colonialism and is also experiencing climate change at an extreme rate. So there’s also sometimes a feeling — as we acknowledge that we’re on unceded land and call into question the legitimacy of colonial sovereignty and private property relations — that, yeah, maybe it’s old, but there are moments where there’s a possibility of unsettling this history. And these moments are only happening now because of a long arc of struggle and resistance.
For me, thinking about abolition is helpful and generative because it holds these different temporalities together; that’s absolutely vital for thinking about how change happens and how we make change. I’m not thinking about something as lofty as revolution but just transformation — radical transformation, let’s say, to get away from the Perry Anderson baggage of thinking about revolution. So, I think that’s one advantage of thinking through the concept of abolition and the practices of abolition. Again, it holds together different temporalities, and it also holds together the conceptual, abstract domain and the everyday. Organizing can be unglamorous and tedious; it involves a lot of communicating with one another and all kinds of difficult work. Abolition is a capacious political idea and practice that is incredibly generative.Original post