When we think about the term “abolition,” we think of removing our old notions or of breaking free from the constraints of tradition. We might conjure up the idea of wiping clean our slate and being left with the freedom to imagine things from the ground up, without being hindered by the structures of the past. When we abolish a building, we erase it from existence and clear the empty rubble to reveal a clean patch of earth free to be developed or undeveloped to fit our current needs, without worry for its past use as the foundation for our now non-existent building.
By abolishing the structures of old, we open up possibilities for building in the future and free our systems from the oppressive shadows of those present structures. The countercurrent to this necessity to abolish is the necessity to build horizontal structures and create the world that replaces the present. Engaging in mutual aid and direct action provides the solidarity that replenishes societies atomized by state structures.
When explaining why it makes sense to abolish buildings, it helps to examine the ruins of these sites and their effects on the community around them. When we examine state structures for abolition—police, prisons, borders, empire—these structures are not simply ineffective in their service but perform a disservice by destroying otherwise open pathways for mutual aid and autonomous solutions. The harm caused by the police system is not simply a result of certain police acting in extralegal fashion, or even of the system’s persistence in enforcing class and status structures.
As the system of policing professionalizes, the communities they police atrophy in their ability to react to or resolve crisis situations. When vagrancy or homelessness becomes the job of the police to handle, the prized citizen can do their part by informing the police of an offending individual and carrying on with their day, satisfied that management will resolve the problem of poverty—or at least remove the symptom from sight.
Buildings targeted for demolition are generally those most-neglected—weary eyesores that catch our attention on the street. The boarded-up house or long-abandoned commercial building are favored sites for development projects to destroy and rebuild. Stretching our analogy, the state’s structures face similar assessments. When we listen in on questions of government failures, or the ineffectiveness of a certain office to meet its chartered goals, we find similarly dilapidated systems being targeted for revamping. Zealous politicians and activists look at these vestigial organs of the state and see opportunities to recycle and reuse their original mandates to meet new goals and build their careers upon these successful redeployments.
Even when the state is ineffective, it is effective at laying the boundaries of the conversation. Even with the building demolished, its lot remains an imposing underground “shadow” of the building that once was, embedding the recent past with the dinosaurs of governance prehistory. While the state allows for examination of its means of governance, the fact that it will govern cannot be disputed. Even government failure is simply a justification for a “better” government.
Abolishing state systems, then, requires at least one step beyond that abolition which we ascribe to the destruction and rebuilding of a city-block or corner. It means digging within the foundation of our systems and ferreting out the entrenched hierarchies that have invaded our ecological framework. We seek the abolition not only of the state structure itself, but of the idea that the state structure was or is a workable solution.
By abolishing police, we free communities to rethink their needs and goals and work out how to address these problems. The questions need not be how to police effectively, or even whether policing is needed, but may rather be how to help resolve this particular conflict and help each other grow from our conflict towards a place of healing.
The fundamental premise upon which the fantasy of state supremacy resides—that state solutions can be final, impartial, and just—is false. This fantasy is hierarchy’s allure. When we admit that many problems do not have perfect solutions, or even solutions at all, we can abolish the drive to hierarchy and statehood and instead open ourselves up to becoming mature individuals and communities which accept that conflict is a place for growth, even when it is painful or irreparably tragic. The neglected building or abandoned lot may be a sign of failure in many ways, but that failure need not remain so.
The failure represented by an abandoned building or a late train is the crack in the veneer that reveals the fantasy of governance. For the person fully captured by the ideology of the state, this crack is simply the impetus to cover up the problem with a patchwork reform. To the statist, failures may be due to an improper policy choice or an ineffective mechanism but they appear to be resolvable problems. There need not be a reckoning with the inherent limitations of government, because a reckoning would be too costly and too painful to work out. Every failure simply justifies the action that leads to the next failure. To acknowledge that the system itself is predicated on this failure would be catastrophic to the state system, and entails an acceptance that this constant movement from failure to failure is a symptom of hierarchical systems, even when that symptom is what the systems are charged with solving.
When we create a conceptual framework for understanding what these systems are, it is important to frame the conversation with our ideas of what the null system is. The original position need not be one of statehood. Modern police, prisons, empire, and borders have not always existed, but are recent inventions.
While these institutions have not existed forever, they have considerable influence now. State systems have replicated themselves throughout the world with remarkable consistency. Even in independence movements with a strong anticolonial focus, the ruling classes of newly independent nations have tended to view the tactics of their imperial oppressors as quite favorable tools for meeting their ends and continued or mimicked these institutions in their new states.
Acknowledging the newness of states and state institutions, we can examine the role that state institutions play in stifling the potential for self-governance. Government and government systems funnel the efforts of well-meaning people into the locus of a state that may not be as well-meaning as they are and takes away power that could better serve local interests if it were decentralized. State institutions not only coopt the tools and philosophies of nonstate systems, but they also vacuum up effective personnel and fold them into their own apparatus.
After George Floyd was killed by police, a series of protests called for defunding or abolishing police departments throughout the United States, but these movements quickly found their organizing efforts directed towards the existing means within state control. Prominent speakers and organizers found their work funneled into task forces and committee meetings with little interest in meeting public demands. To work within the world of state pronouncements, they were required to distance themselves from the violence of riots or protest action which was necessary to compel action at all, while putting their names and voices towards the legitimization of the state’s violence. Where they were able to deviate from the state’s premise that police violence was aberrant, their contention that violence was systemically inherent to policing was channeled towards efforts for reform within that system.
Questions regarding separating police responsibilities to remove crimes of poverty from policing became calls for increasing police budgets to allow for hiring personnel with expertise in mental health or social work, and calls for police to be more racially sensitive in their work became increased funding for police training and professionalization. Within the criminal justice industry, the term “community policing” has long been appropriated by those working to leverage booming prison and jail populations with the rise of surveillance technology in an attempt to recreate prisons without prison walls. Allowing prisoners to remain in their communities and with their families meant fitting them with ankle bracelets and assigning security personnel to monitor their movements, reducing prison housing costs by shifting the financing of imprisonment onto the prisoner. While those incarcerated outside prison walls maintain the stigma of conviction in their search for employment, their captors leverage physical access to job opportunities as a reason to extract more value from them in the form of surcharges or fines to pay for their own monitoring.
To the prison industry, overcrowding is simply a chance to utilize “catch, tag, and release” tactics of policing, prosecuting, and releasing people back onto the street with little change in their circumstances but a new criminal record and a hefty sum of fines. Each conviction creates the administrative justification for harsher sentencing if the next conviction is during a lull in the prison population. The machinery continues, absent justice or healing, but ready to produce an underclass primed for experimental tactics of surveillance and monitoring.
Amongst the minority of crimes which are not victimless, the state’s policing efforts provide little comfort or healing. The vast majority of police reports simply fill intelligence databases to further the efforts of predictive policing. The criminal justice industry is as aware as anyone that there is little chance of solving a crime reported after the fact, and investors would rather chase the thrill of an exciting goal such as knowing of crimes that have not yet occurred. While these delusions may not be effective, even within the narrow goals of state policing, they do bolster the image of police as on the cutting edge of a cops-and-robbers game of high-speed pursuit that covers our television screens and movies. These flights of fantasy may not get you back your belongings or sense of peace, but recruitment drives would surely fail without them.
While policing does little to prevent harm from occurring, its harmful effects are often felt instantly. The state’s machinery is most ready to act when the public has burdened themselves with all the weighty tasks of investigating and producing evidence, and even delivered an apologetic perpetrator into the state’s hands (though sometimes even this is not enough). In these moments, the state does what it does best. It classifies, adjudicates, and administers punishment—with little ceremony or tolerance for individual circumstances. The law exists to administer rights of property, and in the service of that goal finality will always supersede justice, and predictable efficiency will supersede accuracy. From the first contact with the state, the unstoppable force of bureaucratic weight pulls people with a gravitational force.
Once the wheels are in motion, there is often little room for humanity within the machine. Sister Helen Prejean, in her work to end the death penalty, highlights the pain felt by some murder victim’s families as decades later they tried to prevent the executions the state claimed would give them closure. They found themselves thrown away by the state, no longer useful as pawns in front of sympathetic juries, the families were retraumatized as they saw the official process rob them of the last chance they had to let go of the pain that had dominated their lives.
The state, as a creation, is destructive, but the state and its systems have not always existed and they need not continue to exist. The state smothers attempts to work outside of its grasp and it coopts independent action through insidious attempts to funnel work towards its own furtherance.
It would be a mistake to claim that the state is simply ineffective, instead of cruel, that it is misinformed or misguided, instead of intentionally obtuse. The state is a self-reproducing ideology. It attempts to recreate its organizational patterns within all institutions. And it sees institutions that are nonhierarchical as threats. Because nonhierarchical organization does not present a means to be coopted, where horizontal organization exists it shows that loci of power can exist outside the state, and that power can be so decentralized as to be functionally nonexistent. The power of decentralized systems is a defensive power: the power to protect oneself through strong bonds of trust or mutual support, and the security culture and organizational autonomy that protect the sanctity of individuals, even at the expense of the organization.
This defensive power may at first seem little match for the “productive” potential of state institutions. After all, they are effective at recreating themselves in organizations, even during directly oppositional conflicts, as in anticolonial movements. It may be true that horizontal organizations sacrifice some of this directional force away from production and towards the reproduction of healthy individual connections. That is, while the organization may be weakened, or even nonexistent, the bonds between individuals form a network that is more conducive to positive social relations.
The inability of the state to nurture these bonds is its fundamental conceit. While Adolf Hitler stressed the communal benefits of a society that valued time spent together in joint activity, such as public physical exercise or great spectacles of political fervor, Hannah Arendt correctly described this need as the symptom of a society which had become so devoid of societal connections that she referred to it as atomized. People were unable to see themselves as part of each other or part of a connected whole. Rather, in their blind individuality, they became so starving for community that they identified wholly with the state as a substitute for the community for which they had been searching.
The state’s power is in creating the fantasy that it is, if not an effective solution, a somewhat decent solution. But the deception that the state can be useful is a distraction from the bigger picture of what the state is effective at doing. It is effective at polluting the environment and creating the incentives for massive economic risk-taking. It is effective at preventing violence if that violence is directed toward systems of property or class structure. It is effective at turning its every failure into a justification for its future iteration. It defines all actions outside of prescribed resistance as unjustifiable and reacts to them with force.
John Brown, in his final statement before being sentenced to death by hanging for a failed raid of the Harper’s Ferry federal armory with plans to arm slaves in an abolitionist rebellion, called on a higher law than the state’s:
…which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction…I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right.
Brown understood that anything short of the complete abolition of slavery was an injustice to slaves and that a just person must oppose injustice.
While Brown’s direct action was ill-conceived to achieve his stated goal of a slave insurrection, his subsequent writings and trial thoroughly captured the psyche of the nation and moved the question of abolition to the front, exacerbating the tensions that led to the Civil War and the abolishment of state-sanctioned, non-punitive, non-martial slavery.
Brown had successfully led a small band of slaves to freedom in Canada in a previous expedition, and he had worked with a few former slaves as well as family members to further the raid at Harper’s Ferry, but his most revolutionary action was in the subtleties of his life and his actions both under state repression after his arrest and his egalitarian, if Puritan, family and lifestyle habits. His unwillingness to accept the state’s argument that slavery was just and legal and his consistency in condemning the state’s actions are what transformed him into a folk hero, exalted by the Transcendentalists as the paragon of American ideals and feared by slaveholders as a harbinger of their true fear—a slave uprising.
State-sanctioned forced labor remains in the United States as a requirement for all able-bodied prisoners. As deterritorialized prisons move into our communities through the everyday supervision of financial transactions, geolocation, and social association, it is unlikely that the state will relinquish this opportunity to subsidize surveillance capitalism. While extracting value from prison workers, the state experiments with new modes of control. Probation officers work remotely and the walls of the prison turn inside-out. The exceptional tools of today become the mundane necessities of governance tomorrow.
An analogy to Brown’s failed raid may exist in Alexander Berkman’s failed assassination of a Carnegie Steel executive, in retaliation for the executive’s actions during the Homestead Strike. When news of Berkman’s failed attack reached strikers, most did not make any connection between the attack and their strike. The prevailing rumor was that it must have been a personal dispute over money, rather than a political act. Both Berkman and Brown felt compelled to violence against the powerful institutions of their day, and they did so going directly to the seats of hierarchical power and putting themselves in harm’s way. Both of their actions put their compatriots at considerable risk, though it would be callous to claim that the situation of slaves or striking workers was in any way safe before their actions.
Their critics point out that they had little, if any, strategy for helping the slaves and strikers themselves. By attacking on behalf of these groups, without being assured that they would have agreed to the attack, one might argue that they took away from the autonomy of these groups. But what autonomy did slaves and striking workers have? Slaves were being killed for the most mundane assertions of personhood. Strikers were shot in the streets for claiming they had the right to refuse work.
At Homestead, strikers and other townspeople would end up capturing hundreds of Pinkerton agents; Frederick Douglass, one of the financiers of Brown’s raid, fought with the man who claimed to own him many times before eventually escaping to the North; and slavery, even when openly supported by the government, was a constant push and pull of violence between slaves and captors. In slave country or the company towns of America, building up the community power to pass along information and resources effectively without alerting slaveholders or steel magnates was no easy task. We cannot know whether Brown’s and Berkman’s actions would have been supported if they had more effectively spread information prior to their attacks, but it’s possible that the spread of that information would have made their success even more unlikely.
When it comes to engaged resistance, the effectiveness of anarchist practice becomes clear. By utilizing leaderless organization or rotating positions, every member learns the specialized skills otherwise reserved for the managerial classes and organizations remain immune from having their head cut off. Decentralized power protects against the compromise of certain key players. Autonomous cells protect each other from the burden of bureaucratic processes and maintain the flexibility to take on different tasks, as well as specialized ones. Theory becomes the secret handshake that identifies parties to praxis.
To achieve abolition requires a willingness to step into the unknown of the recently forgotten past, but this step becomes much easier when we bridge the gap between now and then by building the relationships and networks that replace state power today. During the pandemic, as governments the world over scrambled to prevent the crisis from revealing their own inability to protect the average person, they coordinated the continued enrichment of the propertied classes and exacerbated the global health crisis. Mutual aid became commonplace as people worked to fill the gaps of state power. While the state gathered all its resources to simultaneously funnel wealth from workers to capitalists and unleash a flurry of repressive actions worldwide, solidarity and decentralized movements did what was needed. Tenant protection groups evicted police and sheriffs from their towns. The sharing of food, shelter, and PPE amongst disparate groups replaced the unresponsiveness of government. Where capitalism would not provide and public transport chose to shut down rather than bear the cost of operating safely, local groups helped transport people safely to and from appointments, workplaces, and to their groceries.
Abolition is not simply destruction. It is the opening of new pathways and opportunities for organization. By clearing the abandoned building of justice within the state system and ripping out the foundations of hierarchy and domination that undergird police, prisons, empire, and borders, we free ourselves to work together without the limitation of the state. Within abolition is the creativity to explore in the absence of the state. Rebuilding our connections and rediscovering the capacity for self-governance is both the cause and effect of abolition.
The abolition of slavery allowed former slaves to live without being treated as property by the state, but work by slaves escaping and resisting domination set the stage for open conflict regarding the question of slavery. Abolishing state institutions requires denying those institutions’ claims to provide justice, identity, and safety, and opposing the insistence that these systems of domination are necessary or useful. The cracks in the system are more apparent than ever, and abolition can and is happening now, in varying capacities through the displacement of state activities with transformative alternatives. Continuing on that path means combating the entrenched biases that imply the fantasy of governance has a future.