Allegra McLeod | Toward Abolition

By Allegra McLeod


The slogan on the Left . . . ‘universities, not jails,’ marks a choice that may not be possible. In other words, perhaps more universities promote more jails. Perhaps it is necessary finally to see that the university produces incarceration as the product of its negligence. Perhaps there is another relation between the University and the Prison—beyond simple opposition or resemblance—that the undercommons reserves as the object and inhabitation of another abolitionism.

— Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study 41 (2013).


As ecological devastation and the unjust distribution of wealth and life chances persist and deepen, the question that animates this seminar—what is to be done?—presses with urgency. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study suggests that meaningful answers to this question will not come from universities. In fact, the university as such is complicit in the worst forms of destruction and unnecessary human suffering. According to the Undercommoning Collective—a network of critical “organizers within and beyond the university” who draw inspiration from Moten and Harney’s writings on the undercommons—US universities are implicated in “the marginalization and containment of nontraditional inquiry,” “training corporate kleptocrats,” from the “white supremacist and Eurocentric knowledge. . .  exalt[ed] . . .  to . . . dark collaborations with the military-industrial complex” (“Undercommoning Within, Against and Beyond the University-as-Such,” ROAR Magazine, June 4, 2016). Moten and Harney understand the American university as primarily concerned with professionalization— “there is no distinction between the American university and professionalization”—and they write that we should ultimately think of this “professionalization . . . as . . . an encircling of war wagons around the last camp of indigenous women and children” (30, 34). With this image, Moten and Harney drive home that the harms perpetrated by the university, in which critical academics are complicit in their “assertion of bourgeois individualism,” do not concern professionalization as it is typically identified (31). Instead, the university system serves to legitimate the myth of meritocracy, implicitly rationalizing the upward distribution of wealth, individualizing and privatizing the pursuit of knowledge and sociality, simultaneously reinforcing and denying despair, subjugation, and violence. The undercommons—that “downlow, low-down maroon community” that Moten and Harney argue embodies a commitment to emancipation at odds with the professionalization of intellectual life—must be understood as existing largely outside the bounds of the university, not primarily within the margins of university life where Moten and Harney often seem to locate it, but also far from university campuses, inside US prisons, and in the movements protesting the violence of American policing.

I write these words from the relative comfort of my position as a tenured faculty member at a major American university and law school, anticipating our upcoming convening at Columbia University to explore this question—what is to be done?—in connection with Moten and Harney’s important provocations. Among its many crucial contributions, The Undercommons sets the stage for an honest reckoning with the hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, and fraudulence present in much of what passes as critical scholarship or praxis directed at the wrongs of our world. We must begin, I think, as Bernard Harcourt urges too in his introductory post this week, by recognizing that many of us are directly implicated in these charges even if we also wish to be members of or in solidarity with the subversive potential described as the undercommons. The challenge then becomes whether it is possible, from our current locations, to somehow move beyond the corruption of professionalization, hierarchy, elitism to contribute to an emancipatory project beyond the university. And if so, how.

Moten and Harney propose as an initial response, in the opening heading of their essay “The University and the Undercommons,” that “The Only Possible Relationship to the University Today is a Criminal One”:

In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of—this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university (26).

But steal what, for whom, and toward what ends?

Moten and Harney align the undercommons with movements for abolition—summoning the centuries-long struggle against slavery and its afterlives, against racialized penal control in the present, against the legally rationalized theft that occurs daily through mainstream economic practices some describe as racial capitalism. To steal from the university is presumably connected to this abolitionist mission in spite of the university’s own commitments, by and large, to preserve the status quo.

Too often, critical academics understand the extension of the opportunities the university affords to a wider circle of human beings—to people of color, in certain fields to queer people and white women, occasionally to poor people, sometimes to prisoners—as stealing the resources of the university to realize more just or at least radically redistributive ends. This work alone, however, as significant as it has been for those of us who are its beneficiaries, misses the upshot of Moten and Harney’s intervention. As the abolitionist scholar and activist Angela Davis explains:

When equality is measured in terms of access to repressive institutions that remain unchanged or even become strengthened by the admission of those who were previously barred, it seems to me that we need to insist on different criteria for democracy…. (Davis, Abolition Democracy 103 (2005)).

Indeed, Moten and Harney conceptualize abolition, which is at least in part the mission of the undercommons, as about realizing abolition democracy: “[n]ot so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society” (42).

To note that the ends of a certain subversive intellectual practice within and beyond universities is connected to movements for abolition is not necessarily to deny Marquis Bey and Jack Halberstam’s claims that there may be “no end” to struggle in the undercommons and no ultimate concrete demands, no conventional politics, because we cannot say “what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet . . . once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming” (Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond: With and For the Undercommons,” 6 and Bey, “Critical Praxis Toward No ‘End’”). Thomas Mathiesen, a Norwegian scholar, active in the Nordic movements for penal abolition, suggests that a similar idea, which he calls “the unfinished” has long animated movements for penal abolition: “the alternative lies in the unfinished, in the sketch, in what is not yet fully existing. The ‘finished’ alternative is  ‘finished’ in the double sense of the word” (The Politics of Abolition: Essays in Political Action Theory 13 (1974)). Mathiesen offers as an example of the unfinished the “Parliaments of Thieves”—which brought together furloughed imprisoned people, formerly incarcerated citizens of Norway, Sweeden, Finland, and Denmark, abolitionist activists and scholars, psychologists, social workers, and community members—to reimagine and plan together how to effectuate abolition of penal practices and radical transformation of Scandinavian democracies in the late 1960s. Mathiesen explains that the unfinished alternative emerges, as with the “Parliament of Thieves,” when we refuse “to remain silent concerning that which we cannot talk about” or immediately enact (16). But a commitment to the unfinished alternative does not amount to a rejection of all organized struggle towards a more just state of affairs or to imagining in specific terms what justice should entail; rather, in our grasping attempts to fashion a new society, we “express the unfinished” (16).

What role, then, if any, might a subversive intellectual practice and the stolen or liberated resources of the university have in the founding a “new society,” in realizing abolition democracy in terms that reach beyond the expansion of “access to repressive institutions that remain unchanged”? To begin to think through this problem it might bear exploring further contemporary abolitionist efforts and some of the possible connections of critical scholarship and scholars to this fiercely oppositional and creative work. I will begin this exploration here and I will hope to continue to develop some of these ideas during our discussion on March 6.

One important component of contemporary abolitionist struggle involves what abolitionist philosopher Lisa Guenther describes as “collective resistance and revolution at the scene of crime itself” (Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives 61 (2013)). Such resistance begins by unmasking the illegitimacy of much of what is subject to criminalization—for instance, the prosecution of immigration offenses which compose at present more than half of the US federal criminal docket or the criminalization of poverty and survival which comprises much of the work of the so-called lower criminal courts. Resistance at the scene of crime itself also entails working to eliminate existing punitive institutions while identifying meaningful forms of accountability and prevention to respond to actual violence and wrongdoing. Finally, such resistance involves addressing how mainstream economic practices and social arrangements perpetrate violent theft every day in ways that can only be thoroughly redressed by democratizing economic and political institutions.

When 30,000 imprisoned people in California organized hunger strikes, beginning in 2013, to challenge the imposition of indefinite solitary confinement in the state’s prisons—an organized effort initiated by a group of men who had lived caged for years in isolation who began to read and study together communicating through small openings in their cells—these human beings recast the action of the state as criminal torture and their own practices as connected to survival. The study group of men locked down in solitary cells, who called themselves “The Short Corridor Collective” after the unit in the prison where they were confined, exposed the horrific brutality carried out by the state not only on them but on tens of thousands of others each day. The Short Corridor Collective, working over time with many others throughout California’s prisons, through their critical writings revealed how indefinite solitary confinement was regularly imposed as punishment without any “harmful behavioral basis” and often only for purportedly gang-related drawings–a form of artistic self-expression to be protected and even celebrated. The thousands of hunger strikers in California, in solidarity with people outside prison, read and wrote together in a way that reshaped their and our worlds, revising common understandings of wrong and right. California was forced to abandon certain of its prior practices of indefinite caging of human beings, though other forms of penal torture continue, and the study groups with their attendant hunger strikes and organized prisoner actions have persisted, sparking similar ongoing uprisings across California and beyond (Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity).

Moten and Harney also contribute to this revolution at the scene of crime itself, including by exposing as criminal the complicity of the university and the critical academic in legitimating the myth of meritocracy and ultimately rationalizing the existing unjust distribution of life chances. There is a certain double meaning to Moten and Harney’s claim that “the only possible relationship to the university today is a criminal one”—they both condemn the wrong perpetrated by the university system and also exhort and celebrate a certain kind of redistributive conduct that the law condemns as criminal (26). Moten and Harney’s critical work explodes the categories that define criminal and non-criminal conduct, categories that render anti-black social and economic violence innocent and condemn others to slow death for acts of survival or efforts towards emancipation. This abolitionist work of exposing the false morality manifest in law enforcement and constituting new ethical understandings is a project (and praxis) in which both those inside and outside prisons and universities can productively engage.

Abolitionists today also seek—as those working with the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance describe—to dismantle so as to change and build. These efforts involve collective study through public exhibitions and webinars, often far from universities but at times relying on redirected resources, as well as a commitment to realizing tangible change at a local level, transforming the conditions in which we live. This work has included reimagining justice in the aftermath of the most awful brutality, including police torture. After decades of racial violence and systematic torture perpetrated against men and women in Chicago police custody, organizers dedicated themselves to compiling a public record of the wrongs committed by police and to convening fora where survivors, activists, educators and others could think creatively together about what justice should entail. Ultimately, organizers sought and won reparations from the city for the survivors of police torture, a change to the Chicago public school curriculum to incorporate in all schools sustained focus on Chicago police torture, a center dedicated to the needs of survivors, and an ongoing commitment to memorialization and public focus on the persistence of these problems. Abolitionist organizer and thinker Mariame Kaba describes this effort as “abolitionist . . . because . . . [it] did not rely on the court, prison, and punishment system to try to envision a more expansive view of justice… [W]e asked for a whole series of things that we thought would be about re-thinking justice for people who have been wronged, survivors of violence…. Chicago is the first municipality in history to ever pass a reparations bill for law enforcement violence. So that’s something that other cities are looking at for themselves now, as avenues for justice that are not personal and individual indictments of the police, not calls for cops to be jailed . . . [not] the same kind of language we hear over and over again . . . .” (“A World Without Prisons: A Conversation with Mariame Kaba,” Lumpen Magazine, April 7, 2016). Elsewhere, abolitionists have worked to create alternative first responders and other community initiatives to address interpersonal harm, to negotiate “transformative justice” in the aftermath of serious assault, modeled in significant part on the self-help projects of the Black Panthers. And abolitionists associated with Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) and the Movement for Black Lives have launched a campaign in cities across the country for participatory budgeting—for democratic political economy institutions. Through sustained critical analysis, BYP100 has unmasked the actual allocation of public resources overwhelmingly to criminal law enforcement rather than to addressing urgent human needs with the hope of meaningfully democratizing public spending decisions. Across these contexts, abolitionists are engaged in a project of critical collective study oriented towards rendering the world more just through creative, collective, and constructive praxis, which prefigures in some form a new society.

These are efforts from which those of us located elsewhere, embedded in the university, have much to learn, especially from their rejection of the limits imposed by existing institutions and imaginaries, their commitment to radically revising what is thinkable and politically possible. But these are efforts where others lead and which if ultimately successful would bring about the obsolescence of our places of “refuge” (but not “enlightenment”) in the university (The Undercommons 26). In other words, if contemporary abolitionists prevail in time, however remote that possibility may be, they will fundamentally displace the university in order to realize a genuine democratization of knowledge and the disintegration of hierarchy, elitism, and the myth of meritocracy embodied by contemporary academic life. As the university and especially intellectual inquiry remain under threat from the right and the neoliberal center, it may be tempting to defend the university and academic work, to celebrate the values of academic life in contrast to those of an ascendant autocracy, or to locate the subversive potential of the undercommons within the margins of the university, as Moten and Harney at times seem to do. But we should not forget that the revolution—or any genuinely emancipatory praxis—will not be university sponsored, faculty conceived, or student led. As Moten and Harney remind us, despite the refuge the university has afforded some of us, it is also the relation between the university and the prison that must become the object of another abolitionism.