Sami Cleland | Book Review of The Undercommons

I. The Call for Abolition

In The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Moten and Harney examine the University, Debt, Politics and Logistics to help us grasp how these (and other) institutions, organizations and capitalist mechanisms (including the State as an agent of capital) reduce our ability to empathize, our capacity for true learning and our ability to love. Moten and Harney define the “The Undercommons” as “Maroon communities of composition teachers, mentorless graduate students, adjunct Marxist historians, out or queer management professors, state college ethnic studies departments, closed-down film programs, visa-expired Yemeni student newspaper editors, historically black college sociologists, and feminist engineers ” that “refuse to ask for recognition and instead want to take apart, dismantle, tear down the structure that, right now, limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places we know lie beyond its walls. ” The structure itself is holding us back; as we pour our energies into combatting mass incarceration, debt-slavery, and the professionalization of intellect, Moten and Harney argue that we only buttress the society that makes such singularly anti-human calamities possible in the first place. In place of destituting only the symptoms of this anti-human society, Moten and Harney demand their readers (who as critical academics, students, intellectuals, etc. are directly implicated and challenged by the book) examine the deep-seated disease the afflicts society instead. In doing so, Moten and Harney believe that only one conclusion is justifiable: “Not 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. ”

II. The Conquest of the University

At the heart of The Undercommons is Moten and Harney’s blistering critique of the University’s role in upholding this diseased society. They emphasize that the University is structured (and funded) to serve the ends of capital and the ends of the State: “teaching is merely a profession and operation of that onto-/auto-encyclopedic circle of the State that Jacques Derrida calls the Universitas. ” The Contemporary University professionalizes its students. Its “desperate business is nothing less than to convert the social individual… to turn the insurgents into state agents. ” The University creates a labor force that serves the ends of the State and the market; the metrics for top colleges focus not on the intellectual quality of the programs but on the success of students in the job market following graduation. In other words, Universities are literally ranked by their ability to convert students to the ends required by the capitalist/State machine. In this endeavor, Law Schools (especially Columbia) are exceedingly successful.

It should come as no surprise that upheld as almost holy in Law School is “Rule of Law.” Students at law schools are meticulously drilled into internalizing (1) society’s rules (law) and (2) the rules by which society’s rules are upheld (procedure). What is rarely forcefully examined is the basis of these rules themselves. Rule of Law goes unquestioned as students are taught to uphold laws that sustain dispossession, reinforce unjust distributions of life chances and bolster systemic racial exploitation. Slavery, segregation and Jim Crow were not exceptions to the Rule of Law; in fact, all were excessively legally inscribed and upheld. To use Moten and Harney’s example from The Undercommons, the experience of the black men and women in the Hold of the slave ships did and does not in any way represent a departure from the Rule of Law.
Law Students are taught to uphold and revere the Rule of Law as created by fundamentally flawed and inequitable political system designed to serve the ends of capital, the State, the wealthy and the status quo that serves them. These students are converted from activists and truth-seekers with a wild belief in what’s possible into agents of the Rule of Law. For Moten and Harney, this means that “the University, then, is not the opposite of the prison, since they are both involved in their way with the reduction and command of the social individual. ”

Columbia Law School is especially complicit. Statistically, none of the so-called top law schools is more likely to churn out a corporate lawyer than Columbia. During her historic Congressional campaign, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said (referring to the Democratic Party) that “I don’t believe we as a party can serve two masters — we’re either going to put corporate masters ahead of working class Americans or we’re going to put the working class ahead of the corporate masters.” According to Moten and Harney, Universities including Columbia Law School are irrevocably professionalized to the point that corporate masters are wholeheartedly served and embraced at the expense of those held in the Undercommons (oftentimes the direct descendants of those held in the Hold generations ago).

Moten and Harney’s critique does not spare the so-called critical academic. “To be a critical academic in the university is to be against the university, and to be against the university is always to recognize it and be recognized by it. ” Similarly, even the law student that rejects corporate law in favor of human rights fights at the altar of the Rule of Law on behalf of her clients, she is subtly vindicating Rule of Law and its unjust prescriptions. This is the silent outcome of “what Foucault called the conquest, the unspoken war that founded, and with the force of law refounds, society. ”

III. Debt as Socialization

The student, faced with the indoctrination of the University, also encounters another mechanism of conversion: debt. Moten and Harney call debt “a means of socialization, ” and their point is powerful. Initially, “the Student has no interests. ” A student without interests represents a problem for the State, for capitalism. This student can embody the wild existence possible outside the cooptation of the debt/capitalism system. Capitalism can’t have this. Capitalist structures require “the student’s interests be identified, declared pursued, assessed, counseled and credited. ” Because “debt produces interests… the student will be indebted. ”
Student debt changes the calculus for students upon graduation; debt requires students to center market value in making academic, extracurricular and, yes, professional decisions. The student thus becomes an agent of debt, serving their debt, servicing their debt, paying their debts to society by working the jobs that society values. While some students “will stay committed to black study in the university’s undercommon rooms. They will study without an end, plan without a pause, rebel without a policy, conserve without a patrimony, ” the power of debt can overwhelm. Many students who enter Columbia Law School passionate about human rights will succumb to the twin incentives of debt and income to serve the corporate masters that create and uphold this flawed system.

IV. The Failure of Politics

Moten and Harney opt out of politics as currently constructed: “we surround democracy’s false image in order to unsettle it. Every time it tries to enclose us in a decision, we’re undecided. Every time is tries to represent our will, we’re unwilling. Every time it tries to take root, we’re gone (because we’re already here, moving). ” For Moten and Harney, politics swallows the wild energies of those who yearn for “a new sense of wanting and being and becoming. ” Politics has failed and continues to fail the Maroon communities that constitute The Undercommons, and the illusions of hope politics perpetuates serve to stall off actions that get closer to the transformative goal of destituting and abolishing society as currently constructed. At the heart of this critique of politics is the illusion of difference perpetuated by a two-party system whose two parties band together on almost every major structural issue from foreign policy to economic strategy. As in the context of questioning the University structure, questioning our political structure “becomes not only incompetent and unethical but the enactment of a security breach.” The bipartisan reaction to Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (the first black Muslim woman ever elected to Congress) tweets highlighting the influence of AIPAC on the US’ anti-human foreign policy in Israel/Palestine illustrates just how narrow is our spectrum of acceptable debate. In the face of a politics that is built to fail (or built to perpetually forestall, depending on one’s perspective), Moten and Harney opt out. In their words: “An abdication of political responsibility? Ok. Whatever. We’re just anti-politically romantic about actually existing social life. We aren’t responsible for politics. We are the general antagonism to politics looming outside every attempt to politicize. ”