Many would-be radicals mistake throwing the baby out with the bath water for radical inquiry. “Abolish X thing” has been a useful frame for the moral immediatism we espouse. If it is cruel and unjust, our goal must be its abolition. However, after identifying X thing as Bad, we may, in our haste, obscure the complexities behind, within, or surrounding the thing. The instinct makes sense. I hate X thing a lot, so why not just get rid of it? Aside from this approach minimizing the complexity necessary to actually abolish the thing sustainably, we end up seeking to rid ourselves of things that were historically bad in form but could have, and still could be done ethically for the future. Further, we often fail to recognize the degree to which a Bad Thing is bad at least in part due to issues in the problem space rather than just by way of the terrible solution proposed.
The Fallacies of Simple Rejection and False Universality
Many in the left or other radical communities are deeply and viscerally impacted by harms and crimes in the world. So much of what the world tries to ignore pains us to the very core. We take it into our minds and hearts. On a shallow level, many see the extreme positions they take as a reflection of how bad they think things are. For example, if the liberal-centrist says, “X is bad so I think we should make moderate reforms!” the radical says, “I think X is so bad that we should destroy it entirely!”. We replace our analysis with urgency. This is why you get phenomena like transwomen, deeply harmed by experienced injustice, embracing authoritarian leftist ideologies as their first foray into radicalism as if to scream, “I REALLY CARE A LOT ABOUT INJUSTICE SO I’VE CHOSEN THIS VERY STRONG POSITION!”.
This is not a critique of immediatism nor a defense of universal centrism though. I wholeheartedly support the immediatist view of radicalism, but done without skill it can hide difficult realities behind self-righteous proclamations. Further, the great insight of anarchism is that immediatism isn’t just naively righteous, it’s a practical longview that exposes the short-sighted tradeoffs and complete lack of foresight of liberal reformism (or conservative status-quo maintenance). There is a kind of accelerationism within the radical claim that for every second a crime continues in the world its harm solidifies, both now and in the future. We will not wait for a better world.
Universal centrism suffers from its short-sightedness and lack of urgency. Too many times have I seen the false conflations of things like fascists and anti-fascists or feminism and MRAs hiding behind the guise of nuance. Even if you have critiques of anti-fascist action, this does not place it on the same game board as fascism. Even if the MRAs are right about a range of problems facing men, the shallowness of their analysis and their tacit complicity with ultra-violent misogyny should not be justified by weird or even toxic elements within modern feminism. More often than not, liberal smugness is often just a form of apologism for historical or present harms disguised as Woke Hot-Takes.
All things are not equal. This isn’t nuance, it’s smug scale insensitivity.
Problem Space Versus the Bad Solution
In our rejection of these failures, we can ourselves enact different versions of them into political discourse and organizing. This is in large part because we often mistake things in the problem space as the Bad Thing itself. This conflation is never more evident than the claim of “abolish X” without even some hint at a recognition of the problem X was attempting to solve (however horrifically misguidedly!). There is a kind of magical thinking to this approach. It suggests that simply by getting rid of a thing, we have solved the problem. This fails to recognize the degree to which many bad solutions are the result of structural phenomena in the real world outside of just the systems we oppose.
This isn’t helped by our language. While the phrase, “structural X” does get at incredibly important aspects of how a given -ism or -phobia transcends simple “bad people” into the realm of systems, it can obscure the structures that exist beyond those systems. As a result, it functions as a cognitive stop. “Ye have reached the point of structures. Ye shall pass no further!” Beyond the ends of our discourse lies the complexity that many, many people are hesitantly plotting—often much to the terror of doctrinaires who had just finally become fluent in the dogma of the time. “Sub-atomic what???!!! No, it’s just atoms! You are clearly ignorant of the current research proving that atoms are at the bottom of everything! To the ideological dungeon with you, blasphemer!”
Issues of problem-space have to do not just with the structures that we create, but what lies behind them in reality. Complexity classes are an obvious example of this. Try as we may to build better algorithms, some problems are just inherently harder than others. Not just because of our failures in design and creativity, but because of qualities inherent to their very substrate.
By Way of Examples
I am not free from the fickle traps of analysis I have begun to outline here. To some degree it has to do with the structural limits on how much complexity a single brain can hold. Many will immediately see gaps in my knowledge and analysis, but this does not disprove my central point: we need to, together and individually, keep digging and be very honest about what we find. What’s more, in any of these examples of large-scale failures to grapple with the complexities of a problem, I am not implying that no one is grappling with them. For each of these examples, and the countless others we could lay out, there are brilliant people, often those directly impacted, taking the issues farther than I will ever be able to as a result of my gaps in experience and knowledge. But nonetheless, by acknowledging the complexities I haven’t betrayed my commitment to the radical agenda, rather deepened it as I hope others will continue to do as well. These are just two examples picked somewhat randomly among many possible ones to illustrate the heart of the point I’m trying to make.
Prisons and Prison Abolition
Prisons are evil tools of authoritarianism rooted in structural racism and slavery. This is in question by virtually no one of discursive worth. I have been a prison abolitionist for over a decade (thanks System of a Down). Being a prison abolitionist is a Good Anarchist position. Trying to interject any kind of nuance into the discussion can get one branded as an apologist because of course, there is no shortage of apologists. But there are different kinds of nuance that get treated the same way.
Prison reformism plots that are rooted in the maintenance of structural racism and the state are obviously suspicious no matter how nuanced they claim to be. Their bottom line is still a support for slavery. However, there are real problems in the problem space too, even if liberals and fascists sometimes use them to make their points. It is definitely Team Liberal to say, “But what about the serial rapists??!!!” so any argument that bears even a surface level resemblance to this will get branded as Team Reformist and get mocked into oblivion. However, anyone who has been in radical spaces and is honest about their experience knows that we have a huge problem with serial rapists.
Maybe that’s part of why we’re so quick to deride that defense. It’s a bit close to home. There’s decades of nuanced people trying to get at the root of things and telling truths and trying to remain true to their radicalism. Restorative and transformative justice attempts to translate our politics into our problems—sometimes with great success and sometimes with horrible failure. So, some people ask, “Okay, but what do we do with the unrepentant serial rapists that abuse our restorative processes, and who, if we kick them out, will just repeat their harm over there?” There are many answers to this question, but even this can be a taboo subject in part because what our strident “Abolish the prisons!” war cry hides is that we don’t have it all figured out either.
Much of this is related to the societal structures that traumatize and force people into behavior that harms other people; some of it is just neuro-chemistry or people’s predilections. There will always be people who desire to harm other people, people who try to dominate others or undermine novel forms of cooperation because of the ground-truth reality of perverse incentives. No matter how terrible of a “solution” mass-incarceration or gulags are, that problem does still exist in the problem space and we have to be able to talk about it without getting hung up on campism. We should abolish prisons but we also need to have a sense of these problems that isn’t just magical thinking. If we want to engineer positive incentives then we have to understand why the perverse incentives to harm each other exist in the problem space.
Capitalism and Exchange
Capitalism is the harbinger of genocide and suffering across the world. Its centralization and exploitation turn the world into a battleground between the poor and a playground for the ultra-rich to exploit. It turns us all against each other in the most intimate of ways, creating systems that depend on the pillage of those unable to defend themselves against its brutality. But just possessing the knowledge that modern capitalism has, for all its destruction, also increased human well-being on a number of fronts (infant mortality and extreme global poverty rates) is social suicide in leftist communities. This is similar to the knowledge that authoritarian-communism has had many positive effects as well (healthcare and literacy) despite its rampant atrocities. It’s not very “Our Team” to acknowledge actually-existing phenomena that lie outside of our accepted window of virtue signalling. But acknowledging realities and their complexity helps to analyze and attack them more deeply. Failing to acknowledge the successes of capitalism obscures the problem-space problem that it is attempting to coordinate: namely, scarcity.
Without launching into a diatribe that C4SS’s audience would be all too familiar with , there is not an infinite amount of resources on a planet, nor can any human do infinite amounts of labor. Therefore, both are scarce even if a more optimal system could create some form of relative or functional abundance. Obviously, capitalism is not particularly efficient nor ethical in its attempts to solve massively complex coordination problems. But at least some part of that lies not in the failures of capitalism as a response, but in the complexity class of coordination itself. So yeah totally, abolish capitalism! But if you think that our problems will all magically disappear and perfectly equitable systems will fill its wake and we will all live in abundance, then you live in a very dangerous fantasy. You have to have something that gets at the roots of the problems in the problem-space, not just attacks the failed solution.
The knee-jerk radical posturing against unjust systems such as capitalism and its by-product colonialism can result in tragic non-sequiturs. “Abolish capitalism and colonialism!” leads to “Abolish all exchange.” I’m sure a compelling case could be made for this, but is the problem really people using a symbolic medium to exchange unrelated goods? Or even more generally, is the problem people exchanging ideas and culture through interacting with each other? These are misdiagnoses. Communication is exchange. The problem wasn’t that colonizers exchanged goods and culture with indigenous peoples— it was that they used their power and blood-thirsty ideology to slaughter and demean everyone they encountered and then entrenched those systems of domination so deeply that they continue to wreak ongoing havoc. Knowledge of this ongoing tragedy can lead people to counter-adjust too far to the extent of actually advocating a form of the racial nationalism and extreme isolationism espoused by white nationalists. People interacting with each other on a voluntary level is pure and good, the problem is coercion and exploitation.
So obviously, this crops up in capitalism because there are inherent problems with people of different power levels engaging consensually with each other and money is a form of power and a potential axis for accumulated centralization. But abolishing money does nothing to rid ourselves of the problem of power in consent, it just eliminates one of the axes we have for trying to navigate it. You can get rid of money and still have social capital. The charismatic person has more power than the one lacking charisma. The physically stronger person has more power than the one who’s less swole. Dense fascists stop analysis here with— *grunting* “natural elites…”— rather than realizing how it actually just underlines our need to mutually contribute to each other’s maximized agency and interdependent freedom. But nonetheless, the problem of difference exists in physical space, even if it’s exacerbated by the problems of modern capitalism. Failing to recognize this leads to whoopsies like the almost Evangelical refrain of “Late Capitalism” from lefties of a certain stripe. People seem so certain that capitalism is over because they’ve failed to recognize the problems it’s solving (Tens of billions of transactions a day just in e-commerce…) and its true agility (“That’s a nice revolution you’ve got there. Shame if someone… commodified it”). Sure, capitalism is creating tons of problems, but it will continue to haphazardly pseudo-solve them and adapt until we all die or we create something that can truly account for the problem-space issues at hand.
Don’t Abolish “Abolish X” Refrains
In case it’s still unclear: we should seek to abolish every injustice with the fury and vision of moral immediatism even while we recognize that there are complex externalities to attend to. Please do keep writing about why we should “Abolish X”. Our nuance should be guided by our radicalism while bravely facing the structures we encounter. It’s beyond unreasonable that everyone have a completely fleshed out plan for how to attack every problem and exactly what to build in its wake. The spirit of anarchism will always embody experimentation. However, to the extent that our problem analyses are stunted, our visioning will be so as well.
The left has better optics than the right because the heart of valuing progress is a more sellable case than “Nah things are chill. If you mess with things, everything will break” conservatism. And for this reason, however impractical, toxic, and starry-eyed the left can be at times it will always have my heart. But my brain and my analyses will always follow anyone who is empathetic and nuanced no matter the team. This is because I’d rather hear something painful that increases my agency than something soothing that increases my wishful thinking. Because reality is complex, building better models makes us more agile in both our world-building and our offensive-defense against injustice. However much you trust your team, you should trust the truth more or reality will catch you slippin’.