Rebecca Stout | Concluding Thoughts on Abolition Democracy 5/13: Property is Theft

By Rebecca Stout

The panel of Abolition Democracy 5/13 was composed of singer and musician Theo Bleckmann and scholars and activists Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Amy Allen, Étienne Balibar, and Karuna Mantena. Unlike prior Abolition Democracy 13/13 seminars, Abolition Democracy 5/13 began with a slightly longer introduction in which moderator and Columbia law professor Bernard Harcourt seamlessly linked complex topics of communism, Marxism, and Black Reconstruction via the claim of the analogous enslavement of labor in contemplating the abolition of racial capital. After introducing Dan-el Padilla Peralta as the cohost of Abolition Democracy 5/13’s seminar, Harcourt turned the focus to Theo Bleckmann, who provided a musical performance. Bleckmann’s vocal and instrumental music over a looping track he created live was moving in its beauty, soulfulness, and controlled rawness. Despite singing in German, Bleckmann’s technique and tonality allowed the music’s meaning to become apparent to the audience members regardless of their knowledge of the German language. Ending his performance, Bleckmann commented on both the vulnerability in his music and the connections between modern music and conceptions of property. Following Bleckmann’s performance and brief introductory remarks, the seminar launched into a rich and multifaceted discussion and analysis of Marxism, Du Bois’s Black Marxism, and the abolition of racial capital that built on previous seminars’ emphases on abolition democracy, the abolition of the police, and the abolition of slavery.

Amy Allen, the panel’s first respondent, furthered the ideas she presented in her post regarding Du Bois’s interpretations, uses, and revisions of Marxism. She claimed that while the Robinson reading presents Du Bois as having “left Marxism behind,” she would like to offer an alternative reading that complicates Du Bois’s modernism and ideas of progress. She argued, instead, that Du Bois questioned Marxism’s representation of slavery. Using the idea that slavery is central to capitalism, Marx had described slavery as analogous to wage labor, which he intended as a conceptual framework for understanding wage labor. Allen argued that instead of entirely breaking from Marxism, Du Bois rewrites this element of Marxism as the Black laborer.

In her discussion, Allen also questioned what it means to be the object of slavery and how that relates to wage labor. However, she took this a step further to argue that the problem of slavery is not simply exploitation and labor as this Marxist lens would imply but that it is actually Black death and violence continually perpetrated against Black people. Continuing this argument, she stated that there is still plenty left unexplored in Du Bois’s Marxism. She claimed that this is because Black Reconstruction adds to Marxism but is at times too constrained to Marxism because the focus is on property not race. She also argued that emancipation was partially a slave rebellion, which relates to the claim that all successful communist revolutions have actually been not proletariat but instead peasant revolutions because the proletariat favors trade unions not a complete overthrow. Allen concluded her portion of the talk by stating that abolitionism is a critical framework that contains a negative element, which is the diagnosis of a problem, and a positive element, which looks toward a more utopian society. While the seminars have focused around the importance of both elements, she argued that the negative approach is still productive because it can lead to rich discussions and bring awareness of problems to the fore.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta briefly followed up on Allen’s presentation by noting the importance of making clear the sites of agency. He also rose the question of the limit of revolution, which led brilliantly to Étienne Balibar’s portion of the talk.

Étienne Balibar opened with an explanation of philology as a linking force between historical and Marxist ideas. He then laid out a description of the slave as attached to their master by iron chains and the modern slave as attached to capitalism. He then turned to a discussion of agency in terms of self-emancipation and likened insurrection as a category to that of abolition. He claimed that using the term insurrection hints at a movement that comes from below, which can add to the idea of agency. He concluded by arguing that class struggles changed and transformed wage labor, but that abolitionists did not transform slavery but instead abolished it. Yet he also noted that, through racial oppression, slavery continued in a new form.

After brief notes from Harcourt and Peralta, Karuna Mantena spoke about the abolition of property in nineteenth century terms and the tensions between Marxist and anarchist understandings of abolition. She claimed that both the reasons for abolishing property and the solutions differed between Marxists and anarchists. Marxists believe that capitalism is an institution of structural exploitation and of unfreedom, while anarchists see the institution of private property as relating to law, prison, army, and inevitably the problem of the state itself because of its corruptive, powerful, and violent tendencies. Therefore, Marxists trust the state, while anarchists argue that the state cannot be trusted. Mantena then claimed that the Marxist critique of state transformation argues against individualism, which is the idea that property becomes someone’s by their effort and is therefore a deserved merit. In Mantena’s reading, Marx argues that property should not be linked to this idea of deserved merit or fairness. Building off of the combination of Marxist and anarchist ideas, Mantena questioned if there must be an overhaul of the labor system that looks to cooperative labor. Unlike the Marxist idea of entirely reforming labor behaviors, Mantena offered anarchist ideas of acknowledging the need to labor and therefore change it based on that knowledge. Presented in this light, the combination between both Marxist and anarchist ideas of property can work toward abolition democracy in relation to property.

Cohost Dan-el Peralta, in his response, wove settler-colonialism and indigeneity into the conversation of the abolition of property. Focusing on Native Americans, he claimed that indigeneity is tied to settler-colonialism and that the ideas of communal property in indigenous communities was tied to conceptions of the absence of property. Peralta then laid out Marx’s, Du Bois’s, and Locke’s depictions of Native Americans to further add to the audience’s understanding of conceptions of property. Marx and Du Bois, he admitted, mention Native Americans quite infrequently. Locke, however, interprets property as directly fitting into a settler-colonial narrative because he describes Native Americans as existing only in relation to property.

Following each of the panelists’ talks, Harcourt summed up the four major dimensions that the presenters discussed that enrich and change conceptions of abolition democracy today. The first, he claimed, is agency. Agency, as the presenters’ argued, brings attention to the question of who can achieve meaningful transformation. The second is insurrections. Using the framework Balibar laid out, Harcourt questioned whether the society is at a stage where we need to think about acting in other ways. The third point he raised relates to the roles and actions of the state in abolition. The fourth and final point he laid out was the settler-colonialist framework. After succinctly setting these four dimensions, Harcourt rose the question to the panelists regarding what parts can be used toward today’s struggles with property.

Each of the presenters’ responses focused on a different dimension. Allen’s response focused on the initial meanings of private property in Marx. Arguing that Marx intended for the idea of abolition of private property to mostly focus on surplus, not all private property, she claimed that the abolition of property can be used to begin to address the wrongs of settler-colonialism. Following Allen’s discussion, Balibar responded to Harcourt by claiming that Marx had troubles framing his own political theories because he did not side with either the state or anarchists fully. As a result, Marx provides no clear decision as to who the primary actor bringing about change must be. Mantena then responded by focusing of personal property, arguing that it has become attached to personhood but that we must push beyond that to a model of freedom. Bleckmann ended the responses to Harcourt’s question with a question of his own: “can we make a parallel between labor and slavery…can we actually compare anything to slavery,” which returns to the point Allen raised in her discussion post.

Aminah Hasan-Birdwell and Robert Gooding-Williams then posed a few questions for further clarification and analysis. Hasan-Birdwell asked whether Du Bois’s Black Marxism was a critique and revision of Marxism. She then pointed out that the discussion had talked about state, imperialism, and slavery but had yet to mention war. She asked how a discussion of war might tie in, especially when considering the practice of taking humans as war captives. Gooding-Williams followed by wondering what the role of race and class in democracy is in relation to Black Reconstruction and World War I.

In response to these brilliantly posed questions, each of the speakers offered their answers. Peralta addressed Hasan-Birdwell’s second question by talking about how slavery was constituted through the battlefield. Mantena continued on this point by arguing that emancipation happened under warfare and that abolition was never peaceful. Balibar followed up by reminding the audience that early Europeans in Africa were not warriors but were traders who used other humans as money. In freeing themselves, the slaves, in Balibar’s reading became warriors. Allen then responded to the earlier question of Robinson’s interpretation of Du Bois’s Marxism to argue that the Black Radical tradition expands Marxism and moves beyond it. She argued that a Marxist lens is thus not fully sufficient because the Marxist lens depicted Black people’s involvement in democracy as a “dictatorship of Black proletariat,” which, she argued, deserves further discussion. Peralta then returned to the question of events during and after both World Wars to explain the shifts in Du Bois’s meditations on war and warfare. Mantena brought many of these loose threads together by arguing that slaves became political actors not by becoming agents of war but rather by withdrawing from society as smart, organized protectors.

Following this rich discussion, the seminar ended with another performance by Bleckmann, thereby bookending the talks with artistic performances. While there is clearly much left to be explored in regard to the abolition of property, Abolition Democracy 5/13 thoroughly addressed, clarified, and analyzed similarities, distinctions, and praxes of Marxism, Du Bois’s Marxism, and Black Radicalism as frameworks for the abolition of property.

Fonda Shen