Christine Prevas | Reflections on Abolition 5/13

By Christine Prevas

Abolition 5/13, “Property is Theft!”, co-hosted by Professors Bernard Harcourt and Dan-el Padilla Peralta, approached the topic of the abolition of property through texts by Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Pierre Joseph Proudhon, placing these texts in conversation with our previous discussions of W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America. Or, as Professor Harcourt put it in his introductory notes to the session, “How can we think the abolition of property through the lens of abolition democracy?” Through this lens, the discussion among panelists tied together concerns of the expropriative nature of property with questions of labor, of slavery, of modernity, of agency, and of analogy, among others, ultimately circling back again to the central framing of Abolition 13/13 as a whole: the positive project of abolition as framed by Du Bois. The session opened with a powerful live performance from Theo Bleckmann, with music from Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera before turning to presentations from several of the panelists.

First, Professor Amy Allen drew our attention to a discussion of Du Bois’ Marxism in Black Reconstruction, which she worked to frame not as having left Marxism behind, as presented in Cedric J. Robinson’s Black Marxism, but as instead offering a powerful rearticulation of Marxism in which Du Bois complicates many of Marx’s central categories. Among these categories, Professor Allen noted the ways in which Du Bois forces us to reconceptualize traditional Marxist notions of history and progress—when considering slavery’s centrality to the development of capitalism in Europe, she expressed, “it’s very difficult to understand capitalism as a progressive historical force—albiet destructive, ambivalent, and so on, but still . . . in Marx’s early philosophy of history, essentially progressive.” Du Bois’ productive upending of this, and also his further rethinking of the conceptual role that slavery plays in Marx’s work. Du Bois rewrites the slave as the black worker, and thus rewrites emancipation, though the black worker’s own agency, as a kind of worker’s revolution, but Professor Allen’s primary question, both in her presentation and in her post before the seminar, and drawing on Frank Wilderson, was: to what extent does Du Bois’ move to equate the slave with the black worker make sense, and what does it leave out? From her comments, Professor Allen also brought up again the important question of what role agency plays, and whose agency we discuss as important, and where we locate the potential of revolutionary agency. In a set of brief comments following Professor Allen’s presentation, Professor Padilla raised a similar, but broader question, which is whether the contempt of revolution as mobilized in Marx might render some kinds of agency, and some sites for agency, as illegible.

Professor Étienne Balibar’s presentation, following Professor Allen’s, began with an examination of the work of analogy and, like Professor Allen, the ways in which Du Bois recontextualizes basic Marxist categories of property, slavery, theft, and debt. He touched, too, on Professor Allen’s question of agency, and how agency is expressed in terms of self-emancipation. The quotation after which his post for the seminar was titled, “The expropriators are expropriated,” he noted, leads us to ask: by whom? In this instance, the agency comes from the dominated and creates a reversal of domination, which then prompts us to add to our thinking of abolition the category of insurrection, and directs our attention to movement that comes from below. This distinction between insurrection and revolution was central to the comments that followed Professor Balibar’s presentation, and came up later in the discussion as well.

Professor Karuna Mantena’s comments focused, primarily, on the different resonances found between, on one hand, a Marxist understanding of the abolition of property, and on the other hand, an anarchist understanding of the abolition of property. Among other notes, she outlined the differences in the understanding of property as an institution. That is to say, from the Marxist perspective, property and the exploitative nature of property are seen as a symptom of a particular political organization or mode of production. However, from the anarchist perspective, the problem of property is also explicitly linked to other related institutions, from law and prisons and armies to the State itself. For anarchists, then, the problem with property is not simply exploitation, but coercion and violence, and thus the abolition of property is inextricably tied to a larger project of the abolition of the State. Professor Mantena connected this contrast to the contemporary debates within police and prison abolition as to whether or not abolition efforts can work within the State, or turn away from the State and privilege community- and self-organizing in these efforts. She encouraged both real consideration of the anarchist anxiety over whether or not the State can serve as an agency of transformation, as well as a “both/and” approach over an “either/or” one, with a focus on both what you can do via the State and what must be done outside of it. She also discussed the individualistic belief that ties property to work through the idea of merit, and of different conceptions of “fair” distribution of labor and effort, noting the anarchist radical critique of the division of labor, and the idea that, because the true abolition of labor may be a fantasy, we not only must attempt to give dignity to all labor, but also to engage in reforms at both the level of structural reform and self reform, or the reformation of ourselves, our desires, and the way we live.

Finally, Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta turned our attention towards understanding property specifically through its relationship to settler colonialism. He began by noting how the figure of the Native American—shadowed in both Marx and Du Bois—acts as a destabilizing force in the thinking of early critiques of property, which conceptualize a past in which there is no private property. This “spectral shadowing,” he argued, occurs because both Marx and Du Bois are bound up in modes of theory which are circumscribed within settler colonialist logics. The figure of the Native American “becomes a method for the extraction of a past before property” for both Du Bois and Marx, and Professor Padilla noted the shared assumption between Du Bois and Marx that “the Native American exists outside of the private property relation . . . [and] outside of the temporality that’s constituted by the emergence and entrenchment of private property as the dominant structure of North Atlantic hegemony.” Any account of the abolition of property, then, must look to the ties between private property and settler colonialism, and the way settler colonialism not only expropriated land from the Native Americans, but also how settler colonialist theorizations of property, like Locke’s, also worked to fix Native Americans in this “pre-property” temporality.

As the panel opened up for wider discussion, the panelists were joined by Professors Amina Hasan-Birdwell and Robert Gooding-Williams for the discussion, and Professor Harcourt laid out several key issues from the panel presentations to guide the discussion: agency and the question of who is able to achieve meaningful transformation; insurrection, and whether or not we might, in the present moment, be at a stage at which it is unimaginable to think through the conventional revolutionary models of Marx; and the role of the State. Professor Gooding-Williams also brought into the discussion the question of the role of the category of democracy in Du Bois’ work, how discourse on racial capitalism lets that category of democracy disappear from view, and how the category of democracy animates Du Bois’ work on race and class. And finally, Professor Hasan-Birdwell added to that list the provocative question of the ways in which slavery originates as a function of war, and thus predates a Marxist state, which returned again and againt throughout the longer discussion to raise complex and generative questions between the panelists about the interplay between property, slavery, and international and civil war.

This lively and complex discussion illustrated just how complex the issue of the abolition of property is, and how deeply tied it is to a remarkably wide range of other concerns and other forms of abolition we have and will discuss in the other sessions of Abolition 13/13. However, unlike so many of our other conversations this semester about abolition democracy, which have intentionally focused not only on what has been and what is, but on what can be, the discussion in this seminar felt mostly rooted in the past. To the many generative and difficult questions grappled with in our concluding discussion, then, I would like to add: what kinds of transformation are possible, beyond the abolition of property? To use a particularly useful phrase we encountered in Abolition 3/13, in the work of Amna Akbar, what is the abolitionist horizon of property abolition?  And in lieu of a conclusion, I would like instead to turn back to Karuna Mantena’s flagging of a “both/and” approach to Marxist and anarchist notion of property abolition to ask what kinds of self-reform of ourselves, or desires, and our ways of living are possible as we reach towards this horizon?