Abolition as Method

Abolition as Method

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Abolition Geography is written to be used.

Building 22 at San Quentin State Prison in California in 2007 (Robert A. Hicks/Wikimedia Commons)

Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation
by Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Verso, 2022, 512 pp.

The long hot summer of 2020 integrated abolition into political agendas on a previously unprecedented scale. Since then, journalists and activists with questions about the meaning, vision, and practice of abolition have repeatedly turned to the geographer and organizer Ruth Wilson Gilmore. In her scholarship, Gilmore has rigorously exposed the political and economic forces that have led to the incarceration of over 2 million people in the United States. In her organizing, Gilmore, along with many other activists, has forcefully challenged huge increases in prison construction, the vast expansion of domestic police forces, and the common sense that treats these violent institutions as catch-all solutions to social problems. Gilmore’s work has made it possible for abolitionist concepts to resonate widely, enlivening collective imaginations about how life might be lived without mass punishment. But abolition itself remains, for many even on the political left, a perplexing concept: Why “abolish,” rather than reform, violent and racist institutions? Why embrace abolition when media and political elites insist that “crime” is the dominant social problem of the moment? And what does abolitionist organizing have to do with struggles that seem far removed from the prison-industrial complex and its deadly force?

These questions have gained urgency as the political terrain has shifted. Over the past year, crime—rather than racist violence, austerity, ecological catastrophe, anti-democratic political institutions, or extreme wealth inequality—has become one of the most popular explanations for crisis, even as, according to official statistics collected and distributed by police departments, crime levels in fact remain at historic lows. Gilmore’s Abolition Geography, a collection of essays authored over the past three decades, offers an immense depth of resources for understanding the force, threat, and causes of freshly inflamed concern over crime. Since the start of the long decline of U.S. capitalism in the late 1960s, Gilmore argues, fear of crime has allowed right-wing political factions to draw down or abandon social programs, blunt or break the force of redistributive political agendas, and generate a common-sense understanding of social crisis as a problem of dangerous individuals doing bad things.

Gilmore treats the category of crime as what the political theorist Stuart Hall called a displacement—a “discrepanc[y] . . . between threat and reaction,” in Hall’s words, that takes the form of a mass moral panic. At most a distant proxy for only some of the ways that violence and instability beset people’s lives, “crime” is an ideologically freighted term with calculated political effects. To take a notable example: as the public defender Alec Karakatsanis has argued, wage theft is typically not treated, prosecuted, or even legally categorized as a crime, although the scale of wage theft in the United States is several times greater than all other forms of theft combined. Harsh criminal penalties for theft have crammed jails and prisons with “modestly educated people in the prime of life,” in Gilmore’s phrase, but do nothing to stop the pillaging of working people’s meager earnings.

Gilmore’s history of the crime panic and the political agendas it has enabled makes it possible to see criminalization—the social, legal, and political processes that have snagged tens of millions of people in the United States in their deadly dragnet—as class war. At the same time, Gilmore invites her readers to study the tools at our disposal both to understand and to change these dire conditions. She documents some of the ways that people have creatively, patiently, and desperately organized to create the conditions for freedom in their own and others’ lives, and she urgently pushes toward other approaches not yet widely taken up. In a period of dizzying emergency, Abolition Geography is written to be used.

Gilmore’s essays offer an array of entry points for readers who are new to abolitionist ideas. We see unionized public-sector workers joining with anti-prison organizers to put a stop to prison construction in California, which until the 2000s led the country and the globe in prison expansion; the workers reasoned that the resources that go toward locking people up could just as easily go toward the schools or other public facilities that employed them to care for people’s needs. We see Black and Chicana women in Los Angeles gaining the makings of a movement through fighting to free their own and others’ children from the decades-long prison sentences that they had become increasingly subject to. We see the children of union families draw on a felt history of radicalism to guide them as they develop the skills to change their conditions. And we see rural organizers for environmental justice working in coalition with urban anti-racist activists across divides of place and identity to win the development agendas necessary to sustain their communities. For readers on the left with questions or confusion about the meaning and vision of the abolitionist current, Abolition Geography makes it possible to see how their own political projects in unions and communities can fit into—and indeed be strengthened by—broader visions of social transformation toward a world without the mass caging of human life.

If the waves of protest, from Brazil to St. Louis to Nigeria, against murderous policing are relatively recent, the social processes that have cemented organized violence into contemporary statecraft are not. Abolition Geography analyzes how and why forms of state violence, including but not limited to policing and prisons, have come to seem like common-sense solutions to crises whose origin lies in the contested trajectory of capitalist development over the last seventy-five years. In the process, Gilmore documents how racial capitalism’s “changing same”—a phrase drawn from the poet Amiri Baraka—unevenly distributes risk, fatality, and access to resources across different social groups over time. Throughout her work, Gilmore draws on Cedric Robinson’s category of racial capitalism to demonstrate how capitalism continually and necessarily exploits group-based differences to cement social hierarchy, justify inequality, and facilitate dispossession. But while capitalist society necessarily produces and requires inequality, the highly organized state violence that has characterized social life in the United States is unprecedented in scope and scale. Gilmore asks how prisons and policing came to figure so prominently in contemporary social and political life—and what the changing shapes of racism, capitalism, and militarism tell us about the task of abolition.

Focusing mostly on the United States, the arc of Gilmore’s historical argument runs from the first third of the twentieth century up to the present. Gilmore argues that the economic programs of the New Deal inaugurated an era of military Keynesianism, redistributing the social wage by bolstering the state’s capacity for war-making. Gilmore’s account sharply contrasts with an idealization of the New Deal as the birthplace of social democracy in the United States, painting it instead as a period of class compromise wherein capitalists gained “extensive insurance” for labor control and regional domination, while higher social wages for some working people were largely achieved through military buildup for the Second World War and the Cold War. As profits started to decline in the late 1960s, capitalists struggled to preserve the spoils of the period, while workers fought to universalize the benefits of the welfare state under deteriorating conditions.

The formation that Gilmore calls the “anti-state state” was constructed out of this ferment. She argues that, beginning with Nixon’s law-and-order campaign in 1968, the right transferred blame for social unrest from the wealthy and powerful to poor people of color. Criminalization became the main instrument by which an anti–New Deal conservatism broke apart social programs, suppressed radical anti-capitalism, scattered the coalitions of the civil rights era, and incapacitated the left. This paradigm shift, which both built on and renovated already existing forms of racism, laid the ideological groundwork for the transition to what Gilmore refers to as post-Keynesian militarism: the “short-lived welfare partner to the ongoing warfare state” withered, while the state overall increased its capacities for organized violence to contain the effects of organized abandonment. Criminalization, formulated in explicitly or implicitly racist terms, provided ammunition for political coalitions from the right to the center-left to lay the blame for social problems on various segments of the working class while relentlessly transferring wealth upward, breaking the power of and protections for organized labor, and vastly increasing economic inequality.

For Gilmore, this outcome was by no means inevitable. She disputes the hegemonic explanations for mass incarceration—chiefly, the false assertion that the prison population expanded because of crime, which had already begun to decline in California in the early 1980s by the time the prison boom began. She also departs from explanations that, however understandably, mistake effects for causes. While mass incarceration has had devastatingly racist consequences, and while prisons, like chattel slavery before them, strip people of freedom, Gilmore disagrees with popular theories that mass incarceration developed specifically to reinforce already-existing racist norms or to reinvigorate slavery under a different guise.

Gilmore demonstrates that the steep increase in the number of people in prisons followed, rather than preceded, the steep increase in prison construction. To understand why so many people suddenly found themselves forcibly displaced from their communities and living in freshly constructed cages, we need to ask why those cages were built in the first place. Focusing on California, Gilmore argues that prison expansion became possible because of four surpluses: formerly agricultural land was idled by drought and debt, finance capital was searching for a productive return on investment, workers—which is to say, people—lost their jobs to deindustrialization and abandonment, and state capacity, which had scaled back on social protection and redistribution, sternly held by its prerogative to contain and suppress. The “prison fix”—a complement to the geographer David Harvey’s category of the “spatial fix”—recombined surpluses in land, capital, labor, and state capacity in new and deadly ways. “By absorbing people, issuing public debt with no public promise to pay it down, and using up land taken out of extractive production,” Gilmore says, “the state also put to work . . . many of its fiscal and organizational abilities without facing the challenges that were already mounting when the same factors of production were petitioned for, say, a new university.” By making it possible for the post-Keynesian militarist state to flourish, the prison fix resolved problems for capital, enabling resources to flow abundantly for some by freezing others in place, all while draining the life from the working-class people who found themselves living increasingly and thoroughly in the shadow of prisons and police.

To confront the inequality, injustice, environmental catastrophe, and sheer human sacrifice that prisons unleash on people, Gilmore invokes what she calls “radical abolition.” But Gilmore’s historical understanding of racial capitalism’s “changing same” has produced a theory of abolition that means a great deal more than enabling people to walk free from prisons. Since, in Gilmore’s argument, state violence is a form of class warfare, the purpose of abolition isn’t only to end the moral catastrophe of incarceration, but also to create a society in which freedom and abundance are universal relations. As Gilmore puts it, abolition’s “goal is to change how we interact with each other and the planet by putting people before profits, welfare before warfare, and life over death.”

From this perspective, abolition isn’t reducible to, although it encompasses, a series of fights to disarm specific forms of state violence. Gilmore condenses this critical insight into a concise formulation: “Insofar as abolition is imagined only to be absence—overnight erasure—the kneejerk response is, ‘that’s not possible.’ But the failure of imagination rests in missing the fact that abolition isn’t just absence. . . . Abolition is a fleshly and material presence of social life lived differently.” In that sense, classic examples of abolitionist fights that work to erase the carceral state include organizing inside and outside prison walls to stop new prison construction, end solitary confinement, decriminalize drug use or sex work, stop the practice of prison gerrymandering and re-enfranchise people with currently disqualifying records, disaffiliate labor unions from police professional associations, and reallocate municipal budgets from policing to social services. But these negative projects do not exhaust the program of abolition. For Gilmore, guaranteeing housing and healthcare as materially secured rights rather than market-regulated commodities, advancing land reform and redistribution, struggling for a socialist transition to a green society, or vastly developing the power of organized labor would all count as part of the abolitionist project.

This expansive, positive approach makes it possible to answer some good-faith concerns about abolition’s meaning and vision. Abolition, as the writer and organizer Mariame Kaba has insisted, does not mean abandoning working-class people to violence. Instead, it involves recognizing how the conditions of our highly unequal society ruinously guarantee that poor and working people lead lives overwhelmingly characterized by violence and deprivation. Abolitionists want the opposite: social relations that guarantee universal access to the resources we all need, which is, in a sense, what people really mean by safety. Further, because abolition is both a positive and a negative project—building out the institutions and capacities that sustain people and places, undoing the racist force of organized violence—it’s possible for organizers to advance on two fronts at once: some of us will do the work of fighting for the “nonreformist reforms” we need to break the criminalization machine, and others will fight for transformations to put power and resources in the hands of poor and working people.

For those who propose a “reform” agenda against what they see as abolition’s heady utopianism, Gilmore’s book overflows with examples of the dangers of merely tweaking the prison-industrial complex. Efforts to build more humane prisons, like Progressive-era reforms that designated separate prisons for women and young people, ended up throwing more people into prison; efforts in the mid-2010s to reform police forces have largely resulted in a counterinsurgency strategy of “police humanitarianism” whereby elites aim to win popular consent for massively resourced, murderous police departments. Finally, for those on the left who embrace a radically redistributive program but have doubts about the principle or strategy of fighting criminalization, Gilmore offers a stark empirical reminder: 70 million adults in the United States have a conviction or arrest record that disqualifies them from various forms of public protection, like public housing, and makes it difficult for them to find work, since employers regularly require background checks and refuse to hire people with arrest or criminal records. Combined with the millions of immigrants who don’t have documentation to work, the figure totals half the entire labor force of the world’s largest economy. If half of the working class in the United States has been subject to criminalization, then the entire class is potentially subject to its deadly force. Gilmore’s keenly honed sense of scale helps to demonstrate how abolitionist thinking can help to win a free, just, equal, and ecological society, and should just as equally warn skeptics about the dangers of departing from an anti-criminalization program for the sake of political expediency.

Gilmore’s perspective aligns with her fellow abolitionist organizers Mariame Kaba and Rachel Herzing, who write that “there will be no magical day of liberation that we do not make.” Gilmore insists that people with few resources can develop the power to change their conditions, and maintains that there is no way out of the present and its crises except through organization. In a sense, her work also helps to show the limits of the huge protests against police violence that have shaken cities around the world but have not yet produced a rupture significant enough to diminish, much less disband, the force and violence of the anti-state state. If we’re serious about that goal, then our task is both more specific and more vital than periodically demonstrating rage.

Gilmore maintains a welcoming ecumenism about organizational form. In one especially memorable example, she discusses a hunger strike organized by prisoners locked up in Pelican Bay, California. The prisoners were confined to the Secure Housing Unit, an especially severe form of frequently indefinite solitary confinement. They could neither see nor touch each other; yet at its peak, the strike spread across racial divisions to 30,000 people on the inside of California’s prison walls. Among other results, the prisoners forced a 2015 legal settlement that ended indeterminate solitary confinement in California, and enabled forms of multiracial organizing and power-building that the state had previously attempted so vigorously to prevent.

This last story exemplifies Gilmore’s insistence that dispossessed people can change the places where they live using whatever they have at their disposal. The project of abolitionist organizing is therefore to create places that make freedom tangible by bringing people from wherever they are, including “the very groups who imagine they have some ‘structural antagonism,’” into common cause. Even so, Gilmore argues, abolition is not a blueprint: it orients people in struggle, but it doesn’t tell us what we have to do. Nor is it a faith to which people need to express adherence. Instead, we can think about abolition as a method that shapes and informs the thinking and practice of people struggling for an equal and just society, even as conditions change and change again.

“If unfinished liberation,” Gilmore writes in the collection’s title essay, “is the still-to-be-achieved work of abolition, then at bottom what is to be abolished isn’t the past or its present ghost, but rather the processes of hierarchy, dispossession and exclusion that congeal in and as group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” More than explaining or urging any single scalar change in social life, the purpose of Abolition Geography is to develop the ability of its readers to study the transformations of racial capitalism, figure out what to do about them, and follow through with enough patience to withstand the enormity of the task and enough urgency to get it done.

Kay Gabriel is a writer and organizer. She lives in Queens.

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