Kaagni Harekal | Afterword, Afterworks: Reflections on Abolition 5/13

By Kaagni Harekal

Abolition 5/13: “Property is Theft!” was a lightning rod. It attracted towards itself conversations on insurrection, war, chattel slavery, settler-colonialism, anarchism, and even Spotify, all the while routing them through the questions Prof. Harcourt’s introductory remarks so succinctly laid out: “How should we rethink the movements to abolish property through the lens of abolition democracy? How do we rethink Proudhon, Marx, and utopian socialist thinkers—as well as the entire political traditions of the labor theories of property and of value from Locke onwards—through the prism of abolition democracy?”

Following our conversations on abolitionism today (1/13), abolition democracy (2/13), abolishing the police (3/13), and the abolition of chattel slavery (4/13), it seemed only appropriate that our conversation on private property was significantly inflected by the insights of W.E.B Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction in America, even while Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon were our interlocutors for the day. Abolition 5/13 encouraged us to think through the fraught relationship between the abolition of chattel slavery, that is, human as property, and the abolition of private property—two demands that were coterminously being articulated at the end of the nineteenth century. It insisted that we mark both the limitations and generative possibilities of rapprochements between the two positions, illuminating in the process key pressure points, such as Marx’s argument via analogy,—“the system of wage labour is a system of slavery”—the potential and horizons of Black Marxism as articulated by Cedric Robinson, the role of agency and who it is granted to in the philosophical thought of Marx, Proudhon, and Du Bois, and the primacy of war and primitive accumulation as they relate to the protection of private property. However, for the purpose of this post, I will briefly outline the framework proposed by Prof. Karuna Mantena, who laid out the key differences between anarchist and Marxist understandings of the abolition of private property in her comments, in order to think more about the “both, and” approach she suggests in the context of theorizing and doing abolition democracy today.

Professor Mantena explicated the different resonances between Marxist and anarchist understandings of the abolition of private property by bifurcating her analysis into a study of property as an institution, and property as ideology. As an institution, Prof Mantena suggests that for Marx, private property was a system of exploitation, of inequality, of unfreedom that was distinctly linked to industrial capitalism. It was a mode of production that was premised on the exploitation and commodification of free labour. Therefore, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declare, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property” (18). Consequently, for Marx, the abolition of private property would entail a democratic cumulation of the mode of production and of capital more generally, that is, a democratic and collective organization of production. Thus, Marx understands private property as a symptom of a fundamentally exploitative political organization, which can be rectified through a collectivisation of the means of production.

In contrast, the anarchists, best represented by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, saw property as inextricably linked to a series of ‘cognate institutions’ such as the law, prisons, armies, and most importantly, the state. While the anarchists concur with the Marxists about the coercive and unequal nature of private property, they saw the institution as inextricably linked to the project of abolishing the centralized state. For the anarchists, the state was a coercive and violent apparatus that was monopolized by the elites and intent on preserving the power of a few, and by extension, invested in protecting private property. Thus, they were suspicious of Marxist demands for a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” seeing the state as inherently corrupt and corrupting.

According to Prof. Mantena, the anarchists were some of the first thinkers to seriously envision a world without prisons, the death penalty, or standing armies, mounting a prescient and incisive critique of the nature of state and its monopoly over violence in modern society. Directing this ‘anarchic squint’—to cite James Scott—towards our own discussions on abolition democracy may prove to be revelatory. We may find resonances of such anarchist thought in the abolitionist ethic of police and prison abolitionists who we have spoken to and read this semester such as Josmar Trujillo, Derecka Purnell, and perhaps even Allegra McLeod, in their visions of a world where the state is not the only guarantor of ‘safety’—rhetoric that very often masks the brutality of the state’s apparatuses of violence that maintain the social order. In thinking towards a society where communities care for each other and where the means towards more rehabilitatory modes of justice are in the hands of the general populace instead of an overarching, coercive state apparatus, contemporary abolitionists may have much in common with the anarchists. An abolitionist ethic, then, in some part, includes a certain suspicion or skepticism towards the state as an engine of reform, as evinced by our recurring discussions on the use of law as a form of reforming or reconfiguring a fundamentally racist system, in the case of the United States of America.

However, Mantena’s “both, and” approach might help further broaden abolitionist horizons and perhaps be more generative as praxis. Mantena encourages us to ask, what can we do both within and without the state? How can we embrace both Marxist ideas of remaking the state in order to protect the proletariat as well as anarchist experiments that function outside the realm of the state? The second part of her bifurcation, that is, studying property as ideology, might help clarify the stakes of such a broadened engagement.

According to Mantena, Marx seeks to eviscerate the moral underpinnings of private property. In the “Critique of the Gotha Program” Marx writes:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! (18; emphasis added)

Thus, Marx attacks the rhetoric of ‘just desserts’ and the ideology of ‘deservedness’ that is the cornerstone of a liberal, individualistic bourgeois position that sees labour as only “a means of life” within its “narrow horizon of bourgeois right.” A language of morality, of the deserving and undeserving, the worthy and unworthy, percolates this liberal position and obfuscates what Marx sees as the fundamental inequality of human capacities and stations. Simply put, he asks, what could possibly constitute ‘fairness’ and ‘unfairness’ when we are so differently equipped in our capacities and means? He attempts to sever the connection between earning and appropriating from one’s productive powers. Therefore, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” However, the anarchists such as Proudhon chose to adopt moral language in an attempt to redefine effort. In their view, labour and effort could be differentiated and stratified; in other words, for the anarchists, there was such a thing as unearned money, for instance, money earned through rent, interest, or inheritance. They hoped to radically refashion the bourgeois language of rights to find a more equitable form of distribution.

Marx is critical of this radicalisation of bourgeois language and believes that it is better for us to elide the intermediary of labour in our fulfilment of our needs and to instead stake claim to a commons, and to collective rights. Indeed, in The Communist Manifesto he explicitly critiques Proudhon’s ideas of prison reform as ‘bourgeois socialism.’ However, the anarchists deploy moral language to rigorously theorize consumption and production, in order to drive home our complicity in the exploitative processes that drive capitalism. Their injunction that the individual could and should change their habits of labour and consumption led to fascinating utopian experiments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries premised on cooperative labour and mutual aid. Operating outside the state, anarchists such as Tolstoy call for a reconfiguring or reframing of desire: We have to reform ourselves vis à vis our relationships with land, labour, property, consumption, and product.

Thinking of Abolitionism, then, as a critical framework beginning from a negativism that manages to be critically and ethically demanding, as Prof. Amy Allen so evocatively suggested, could help us embrace Prof. Mantena’s “both, and” approach that reconciles the anarchists and the Marxists. If we can hold together notions of structural reform of the state as well as individual agency, recognizing the injustice endemic in our everyday, we can truly widen our abolitionist horizon. Democracy, then, is reinscribed as both structure and practice, complementing the abolition that Du Bois, Marx, and the anarchists had envisioned in their own time.

Works Cited:

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948).

Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume Three.


Fonda Shen