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New Politics - June 19, 2020

In recent days, with the spread of increasingly militant Black Lives Matter protests across all 50 U.S. states and beyond, it is little wonder that abolition of the police is a common demand from the left. For many it is clear why abolitionist politics are gaining traction, given that a recent poll showed 54 percent of the U.S. public supported the Minnesota protests and burning down of the local police precinct. The brutal murder of George Floyd was sadly just the latest in a long line of racist violence committed by the police but the protests that have been sparked by the murder have been historic in their scale. What’s perhaps not clear is what abolishing the police might look like in more concrete terms. In a world dominated by procedural police dramas and Hollywood cop heroics it is often difficult to imagine justice and security could be any other way.

To understand police abolition, it is important to firstly look at the historical and structural role of the police and the wider criminal justice system. This also helps us understand why reforms have repeatedly failed in the past and stand little chance of succeeding in the future. Similarly, a historical analysis can demonstrate how criminal justice systems play a central role in supporting capitalist exploitation. Given the criminal justice system’s propensity to disproportionately target communities of color (especially black communities) and working-class communities it is no surprise that policing historically arose as a social phenomenon at the same time as the West embarked on colonial and capitalist ventures.

In the United States, the police’s historic roots in slave-catching and union-busting is a clear example of such origins. Similarly, in the UK the first establishment of publicly funded professional police forces was in Glasgow and London; two key ports for the British slave trade. As colonial profits and plunder filled these ports, protecting these riches from growing thefts became increasingly important.

Colonial looting also helped kick the industrial revolution into overdrive. To keep these factories running capitalists needed large numbers of workers desperate to work long hours in terrible conditions. To achieve this, the common land farmed by the peasant majority of the British population was enclosed by force. Common land was seized by private owners and dispossessed peasants were driven to the cities by hunger or the force of vagrancy laws designed to criminalize the newly homeless who refused to join the urban exodus. All of this was enforced under the aegis of new criminal acts which began to approximate the modern criminal justice systems we see today.

With rampant industrialization came trade unions and demands for universal suffrage. In 1829 the British home secretary Robert Peel set up the London Metropolitan Police in response to such revolts. Peel’s new police force was directly informed by his experience policing colonial unrest in Ireland. This new constabulary was widely unpopular earning them nicknames like ‘Raw Lobsters’, ‘Blue Devils’ and ‘Peel’s Bloody Gang’.

Angela Davis’ seminal work on prison abolition further highlights the capitalist logic of this new mode of criminal justice. She notes how the shift towards punishment computed in time-units mirrored the rise of commodified labor measured in hours and minutes[1]. The disciplining of workers into alienated individuals whose lives can be quantified based on labor time is clearly embedded into the modern criminal justice system.

Crucial to understanding the modern system of criminal justice is the abolitionist notion that crime is based on a ‘false ontology.’ This is the idea that there is no underlying ethical or philosophical justification for what makes certain acts a ‘crime’ and others merely ‘unlawful’ or completely legal. In essence then, the concept of criminality links a wide variety of acts, from “violence in an anonymous context” to “different types of conduct in traffic”, together[2]. The only unifying factor being the state’s choice to designate an act as a criminal one. This matters because it means that the criminal justice system is an attempt to address a host of vastly different social issues with the same approach, i.e. the punitive brute force of policing and carceral systems.

The notion of ‘crime’ focuses on individual acts classifying these as the unifying aspect of wrong-doing and often erasing the socioeconomic context behind the act. Even within the same category of crime, e.g. homicide, there is not necessarily a unifying social cause. Compare the killing of a domestic abuser in self-defense to the murder of an innocent citizen by a cop and this becomes fairly obvious. The necessary ethical response to these two acts is very different because the underlying social conditions that caused or enabled them are also very different.

This is why the abolitionist answer to ‘what would we replace the police or prisons with?’ cannot be one simple solution. The solution to these myriad social issues must be a correspondingly diverse set of radical social programs and institutions. A good illustration of this is the way drug addiction for the rich leads to rehab whilst for the poor the result is often criminalization by the state[3]: in fewer words, prison. A public health system with access to rehabilitation facilities free of charge is clearly a more effective approach to the social problem of drug addiction than the violent policing and incarceration imposed on communities of colour by the War on Drugs.

The carceral state of course is not really interested in addressing such social issues, whatever their rhetoric might claim. The purpose of criminal justice has always been social control over working classes and colonial subjects. Whilst this role has always been historically important to continued capitalist expansion, it has taken on a special importance in the context of post-industrial states like the UK or US.

A crucial part of the criminal justice system’s purpose has always been in the management of the ‘surplus population’. Capitalist production necessitates having a section of the population unemployed and in competition with wage-laborers to ensure wages remain low and labor power never becomes too powerful. However, with the outsourcing of production to the Global South beginning in the 1970s and a general rise in automation, the size of this unemployed or under-employed population ballooned.

Capitalist managers of course ensured that it was non-white workers who would be disproportionately affected by the collapse of industry. With factories in communities of color often being the first to be outsourced, and neighborhoods most populated by people of color often being the ones facing the harshest austerity measures[4]. This expansion of the ‘surplus population’ required a corresponding rise in criminal justice measures to ‘manage’ communities affected by de-industrialization. For example, in the US Davis notes “the massive prison-building project that began in the 1980s” to concentrate and manage “what the capitalist system had implicitly declared to be……human surplus” ...
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