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The Ordinary is a Horror: Abolition, Hegemony, and the State
Early one evening in December 2020, two police officers in Virginia initiated a traffic stop on Caron Nazario, ostensibly because he was driving his newly-purchased Chevy Tahoe without licence plates. Police lights flashing in his rear-view mirror, Nazario slowed below the speed limit and drove for less than a mile, his turn signal activated, before pulling into a well-lit gas station. According to court records, one of the cops reported that this manoeuvre happens ‘a lot’ and indicated that the driver was ‘almost certainly’ or ‘at least 80 per cent’ likely a minority. Indeed, Nazario is Black and Latino. He is also a second lieutenant in the US Army Medical Corps, and was returning home from his duty station when he got pulled over.
At this point, a federal lawsuit alleges, two things would likely have been visible to the cops: i) the temporary licence plates taped to the inside of Nazario’s rear and passenger-side windows; and ii) Nazario’s uniform. Still, they treated the incident as a ‘high-risk traffic stop’, exiting their cars with guns drawn and trained on Nazario’s truck, shouting contradictory commands at him, and refusing to explain why he had been pulled over. ‘What’s going on?’ Nazario asked. ‘What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son’, Officer Joe Gutierrez replied. When Nazario said he was ‘honestly afraid to get out’ of the car, Gutierrez replied, ‘Yeah, you should be!’
Unable to drag Nazario out of his truck, cell phone and body camera footage shows that the officers pepper-sprayed him, leaving him blind and choking and even more confused about whether or how to comply with their commands. Expressing concern for his dog, caged in the back of the truck, Nazario risked being sprayed again (or shot) to unbuckle his seat belt and allow himself to be removed from the car. Gutierrez and Officer Daniel Crocker immediately forced him to his knees, beating him to the ground. Finally, having handcuffed the still-blind Nazario, the cops threatened his military career: if he remained silent about the incident, they would ‘let this go’, whereas if he spoke up, they would find something to charge him with. In the incident report, meanwhile, Gutierrez said that the officers decided to let Nazario go without charging him with anything out of a sense of leniency: ‘Being a military veteran, I did not want to see his career ruined over one erroneous decision.’
Since the incident, his lawyer told the Washington Post, Nazario has had recurring nightmares and gets ‘freaked out’ whenever he sees police. ‘He’s not doing okay’, Nazario’s cousin Raquel Welch said. ‘As calm as he was, I think anybody who went through that would be dealing with trauma.’ Reportedly, Welch, who helped raise Nazario, was also a cousin to Eric Garner.
For all that they reveal, such moments of exceptional violence threaten to overshadow the state’s more quotidian brutality. In We Do This ’Til We Free Us, Mariame Kaba warns against fixating on the ‘spectacular event’ over ‘the point of origin or the mundane’. This is the problem, she writes in a 2014 essay with Tamara K Nopper, with the militarisation thesis of police violence: ‘the formulation suggests it is the excess against which we must rally. We must accept that the ordinary is fair for an extreme to be the problem’.
But the ordinary is a horror: more than fifty million Americans have direct encounters with the police each year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and even so-called ‘routine’ encounters like stops and searches appear to increase the likelihood of depression and psychological distress, as data from the Survey of the Health of Urban Residents in the United States indicated. ‘Black and White Americans live in very different emotional worlds’, as one recent study seeking to measure the ‘racial divide’ in fear of police put it. ‘Whereas most White Americans take for granted that police are integral to their well-being and guardians of their safety, most Black Americans live in fear of the police mistreating them and hurting those they care about.’
Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans have had an immediate family member incarcerated (63 per cent of Black Americans compared to 42 per cent of whites and 48 per cent of Hispanics). Not only does each year in prison take two years off the incarcerated person’s average life expectancy, it takes time off their family members’ lives as well. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, those with incarcerated family members have an estimated 2.6 years shorter life expectancy than those who do not. While the most immediate function of the prison may be to fix people in place, and that of the police to regulate their movements, the poisonous effects of these institutions seep out well beyond the physical space they occupy. The web of carcerality sticks to everything it touches.
And yet: ‘Almost every urban uprising in the country’s history has police violence at its root’, Kaba says in a 2017 interview. ‘Going back to the early 1900s, all are sparked by police brutality. The reason that’s the case, and has always been the case in this country, is because it is the most clear example of being treated unjustly in this country.’ It was, after all, the spectacular, public murder of George Floyd that unleashed the broadest rebellion against state violence in the United States in a generation. Still, as the tide of that uprising has ebbed, it is hard to see what’s been left. At my most pessimistic I cannot help but wonder if the burning of Minneapolis’ Third Precinct was the high-water mark of a decade of struggle.
This, I should hasten to add, is not an abolitionist position. ‘It is up to us to insist on the obsolescence of imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment’, Angela Davis argues in Abolition Democracy, ‘but we cannot accomplish this by wielding axes and literally hacking away at prison walls, but rather by demanding new democratic institutions that take up the issues that can never be addressed by prisons in productive ways.’ A compelling, necessary vision of the world that could be – and yet one so far removed from the world that is as to be dismaying.
I feel that I should admit that my experience of the current political moment is one of disorientation, demoralisation, and defeat. If I have learned anything from the past few years it is that these things can change quickly, but still I cannot escape the sense that the horizon of possibility is drastically and permanently foreshortened.
Such feelings are exactly why, as Kaba has famously put it, ‘hope is a discipline’. (She attributes the idea to a nun she once knew.) Or, as Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie write of the activist histories they trace in Abolition. Feminism. Now.: ‘Winning a campaign is not the only measure of success: how we struggle, how our work enables future struggles, and how we stay clear about what we are fighting for matters’, they write. And later:
The slow and urgent time of movements means that some of the most critical relationships and shifts are often unrecognizable as ‘wins’, but these rarely acknowledged and sinewy genealogies that tether movements and campaigns across time and space continue to spark freedom.
Just as Kaba asks readers to look beyond the spectacular, the abolitionist feminist project that Davis et al describe is one that looks beyond prison walls and cop cars. Attention to ‘the intimate and everyday violence experienced by those marked as disposable by the state’ is what distinguishes abolition feminism from other kinds of feminisms, they suggest, but also from more liberal or reformist approaches. The carceral state is not reducible to the tools or agents of repression; its abolition will be guided by a theory that is attentive to the conditions that make its existence possible. The question of contemporary abolitionism, for Davis and her coauthors, is this: ‘What would we have to change in our existing societies in order to render them less dependent on the putative security associated with carceral approaches to justice?’
In his recent book The Great Recoil, Paolo Gerbaudo argues that the successive, escalating, and overlapping crises of the early twenty-first century have returned state-centred politics to consciousness. Without wading into the debate over whether neoliberalism is on its deathbed or is transforming into something new – or was misunderstood from its origins! – we seem clearly to be entering what might broadly be referred to as the post-neoliberal era: the prevailing order now faces revolts from above and below; social movements left and right are making demands of the state; the pandemic, climate change, and financial crashes have all required centralised interventions of a scale that neoliberalism’s ideologues once dismissed as relegated to history. For Gerbaudo, the central concern of this emergent political moment is not a new one, but in fact one of the oldest: the safety, security, and sovereignty of the people.
Immediately, of course, the questions must be raised, ‘Safety from what? Security against whom? The sovereignty of which people?’ Answers abound. ‘The struggle for political hegemony in the post-neoliberal era will be determined by which vision of protection gains more traction among electorates preoccupied by fear’, Gerbaudo writes. Even if it takes the shape of absurd conspiracy theories or outright reaction, this fear must be taken seriously – gently corrected, if necessary, but heard for what it is: deep anxiety at the prospect of abandonment to the predations of global capitalism. ‘As an abolitionist, what I care about are two things: relationships and how we address harm’, Kaba says in We Do This ’Til We Free Us.
The reason I’m an abolitionist is because I know that prisons, police, and surveillance cause inordinate harm. If my focus is on ending harm, then I can’t be pro death-making and harmful institutions. I’m actually trying to eradicate harm, not reproduce it, not reinforce it, not maintain it.
In a period of deep crisis, Stuart Hall argues in The Hard Road to Renewal, the capitalist class’ efforts to protect the status quo will not be simply defensive, but formative: reconfiguring political ideas and ideologies, organising new power bases and a new ‘historic bloc’, rebalancing the balance of forces. This is a creative, imaginative, contested process. ‘Every form of power not only excludes but produces something’, Hall writes. Politics, he argues, following Gramsci, is not a mirror that simply reflects the struggle between ‘already unified collective political identities’, but the terrain on which new forms of power might be constructed:
This is the production of politics – politics as production. This conception of politics is fundamentally contingent, fundamentally open-ended. There is no law of history which can predict what must inevitably be the outcome of a political struggle. Politics depends on the relations of forces at any particular moment. History is not waiting in the wings to catch up your mistakes into another ‘inevitable success.’ You lose because you lose because you lose.
What it means to pursue a hegemonising project, then, is to have the clarity to see what is actually happening in the present and to have the courage to respond not by reworking old and stale ideas to describe what is new and different, but with the ambition to struggle on many fronts and to seek to construct a new common sense, not simply advance a slew of policies – even if those policies are good, correct, and necessary.
This requires ideological contestation of the ideas already floating around in common sense: safety and security, freedom and choice, liberty and equality. The Left in the US is often uneasy engaging on these grounds. For those of us who came of age under the Bush administration and during the Global War on Terror, talk of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ seems to veer too close to jingoism, while directives to embrace patriotic discourses in the style of the CPUSA (‘socialism is twenty-first century Americanism’) feel at best ridiculous and at worst offensive to those who remain oppressed by the very-much-still-existing American empire.
But perhaps the abolitionist tradition within American democracy – that is, the tradition of ‘abolition democracy’, by way of Davis and WEB Du Bois – offers us a way through: a language that draws upon historical memories that occupy pride of place in American common sense, even if they are often distorted by liberal revisionism. If, as Hall put it, ‘[d]emocracy is what working people have made it: neither more or less’, the abolitionist struggle for democracy and the struggle for communism are one and the same.
The hegemonising task of abolitionism is to meet and answer the people’s real fears with a politics of care, to redefine safety according to the needs of the exploited and oppressed. The analysis contained in the abolitionist slogan ‘Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe’ reveals the law-and-order state as illegitimate not only on account of its brutality but because it fails to provide the very thing any sovereign state must: the security of its people.
Again, all of these ideas must be contested. In A Critical Theory of Police Power, Mark Neocleous argues that security is ‘the supreme concept of bourgeois society.’ The regime of private property cannot be upheld without the ideology of security. ‘Far from being a spontaneous order of the kind found in liberal mythology, civil society is the security project par excellence’, he writes. ‘The demand for security is inevitably a demand for the greater exercise of state power.’
Well, maybe so. Abolitionism, then, does not simply make demands of the state but demands a different kind of state altogether. Given the nature of the crises before us, Gerbaudo argues, it is necessary for progressives and the left to let go of our anti-authoritarian phobia of the state, which he calls ‘a moralistic dead end’ exemplified by the politicisation of consumption habits. ‘No real solution to our predicament will result from a moralistic spurning of power’, Gerbaudo writes.
Any credible attempt to redress the present political and social crisis will have to proceed from a democratic re-appropriation and socialist reorientation of all those key state levers that are essential for controlling and shaping economic reality.
Easier said than done! So difficult a task is this that some on the left eschew the notion of wielding state power altogether. Lifestyle and consumption-based politics have thankfully run their course, but the anti-statist current endures, particularly in abolitionist organising. And not without reason: the state is the movement’s antagonist, the violence of the state the object of its political practice. It is hard to plot a path towards wielding state power to make a better world when one’s immediate concern is with the state’s active role in the immiseration of the working class. Then again, the state is not a monolith: even its repressive apparatus is riven with contradictions, as shown by the assault on Lt Nazario, whose uniform, signifying his inclusion and participation in the machinery of the state, did not protect him from the cops’ racism. Time and again, such spectacular events present an irresistible temptation to reformists who call themselves socialists, who conjure every justification to forgo their stated principles – not to lay their hands on the levers of state power and redirect them for good, but for the promise of some modicum of influence over those who actually do control the levers.
In the end, both approaches fail. Satisfying themselves with overly flat theories of the state, they stop short of the messy, historically necessary work of driving a wedge into the state, prying it apart, and remaking it to different ends. The work, in other words, of making revolution.
As a revolutionary political project, abolitionism is not simply about police or prisons – even if those are often the immediate object of struggle – but expanding the capacity of the people to care for themselves and each other, to make decisions about how their own lives and communities should be run and see those decisions reflected in the action taken by the state. It is about ‘feeling for the edge of our imaginations’, as Kaba says. What might we find there, and how might we bring it to pass? Only together do we have any chance of finding out: ‘Everything that is worthwhile is done with other people.’
BRENDAN O’CONNOR is the author of Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right (Haymarket Books, 2021).