We hear the word uttered in streets, on signs, in think pieces. We see it used as an analytic through which to understand how the radical among us seek to initiate change. It is on the cover of books and in course titles. It is a politic, a modality of living and relating, a call, a demand, an invitation, a wish.
With such an increase in its utterance, it grows more and more imperative that we come to a clearer understanding of what abolition is and seeks. Certainly, the clarification here will not settle the record on abolition's meaning, nor is that the aim; instead, we seek only to supplement abolition with a multifaceted articulation of additional ways—philosophical, geographical, and historical—the term can resound. In this contemporary moment, which is fed and sustained, fractured and cohered, by an assemblage of other moments, abolition as a term and practice has become, to say the least, a hot button issue. Often when it is discussed, it is in the context of prisons, and perhaps police, conversation often bearing the scope of should we or should we not get rid of prison/police? What will replace them if we got rid of them? In other words, abolition is a fulcrum around which questions of harm reduction, and specifically the institutions that proliferate harm, are debated.
Let us, then, think intentionally about the terms under which we gather for this discursive occasion. Abolition, to introduce for the uninitiated and perhaps clarify for the already on board, has a history often rooted—which is too often to say, immobilized—in particularity, namely the particularity of the cessation of slavery. Narrowly and simplistically, abolition is the term used for when slavery has ended, but we might begin to rethink the term in light of its use by activists and scholars in Black, Indigenous, queer, trans, and feminist thought. It serves to raise a different set of questions, ones that inquire into the shape and duration of enslavement, the conditions under which enslavement shifts or lessens, the various ways enslavement manifests, the effects of it; and it rethinks the operative terms we ought to use to make sense—or nonsense—of what exists and, importantly too, what might exist, such as carcerality, dispossession, and the like. It is, in short, to struggle over the terms and tenor, and possibility, of that which might come (see Haley 2018: 9).
But in the contemporary moment, abolition has drawn from, departed from, and expanded on its context of enslavement and has taken on a differently textured meaning. Today, abolition is most often a call for the abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Understood as a bastion of privatized and sequestered resources better used in service of communities; unmitigated violence in the form of assault, surveillance, and disciplining; the gender binary and gendered harm and circumscription; the reduction of safety by way of its proliferation of force and police and criminality and resource scarcity and severing of kinship ties, the PIC is the primary aim of abolitionist efforts, for abolition, in large part, seeks the elimination of the violence and harm characteristic of prisons.
And it is quite sensible for many to ask, as they have, what this looks like. How might this be actualized, how does it work, when have people done this? What does abolition look like? And we could respond in myriad ways: Surely we can respond very specifically, with avowedly organizationally abolitionist projects like cutting police and prison budgets, shrinking the size of those employed for carceral punishment, closing detention and immigration centers, developing networks of care in communities, and a host of other practices. These are things that organizations like BYP100, We Charge Genocide, Critical Resistance, No Cop Academy, and Project NIA, among others, have been enacting and agitating for years. But additionally, and in line with the ways this dossier seeks to expand our notion of what abolition can be and in what realms it might travel, we can note as abolitionist, too: when they insurrect and smash windows and burn buildings because those sites serve as edifices of racial capitalist empire; when they circulate tips for extinguishing tear gas and use lasers to foreclose the sight of police and law enforcement during the riot; when they loot; when they skip class and drive downtown to give out water and carpool protestors back home because cops have shut down the city and bus lines; when they open up schools and hotels to temporarily or permanently house unhoused people; when they push and push for reparations in the city in which your university is located and actually get those reparations; when they shut down prisons and steal money from government agencies. In short, one need not deem oneself abolitionist to do, and to have been doing, abolitionist work. Because when they love even when it is hard; when they watch Criminal Queers and read Captive Genders together; when they refuse to dispose of, exile, punish anyone, no matter whom; when they feed you and clothe you and hug you because everybody need some loving sometimes—that, too, is an abolitionist project in all but name. When they keep the underground party going. When not even the threat, pervasive as it always is, of death will stop their living.
We might also respond less helpfully, though perhaps a bit more honestly: abolition looks like nothing at all, nothing in particular. Because abolition, to enact its politics, is to refuse to predetermine, to prefigure the future since such predetermination would belie its capacity, its breadth, its imaginative scope and possibility to be anything at all, primarily something we have not yet conceptualized. If it is about futures—futures that are, still, here and now—and in particular futures that radically rethink what ought to be, we cannot shuttle in extant regulations and grammars, for we would recapitulate the same logics that got us into this. So we imagine, we dream, we let the windows stay broken, unrepaired and unreformed, because “they are a living, breathing archive of a shared grammar of insurrection” (Hwang 2021: 92). If “to be anti-abolitionist” is “to exhibit a kind of preservative concern for the disruption of the structures, effects, and affects that accrue to the system of slavery,” of captivity and, too, carcerality; if “it is to be nervous about—and moreover to attempt to discipline and contain—the forces that fugitivity unleashes,” then abolition, in the way we move through it in these pages, is precisely the unleashing of such unruly fugitivity—in the realm of history, of the contemporary, of the ontological, of the geographical, of the terrestrial (Moten 2018: 109).
And now, politics. When one hears the word, it is almost rote by now to immediately imagine the partisan, the governmental, the policy-oriented, elections, voting, step-by-steps, and the like. Politics has become the name for a very specific sector with clearly demarcated criteria for behavior and inhabitation. It could then be misunderstood that our occasion for gathering in this particular forum seeks to bring abolition to such a sector and attempt to advance its demands on such a terrain, wanting Congress and senators to vote on its merits, trotting it out on a tour with podiums and debates. Instead, we wish to offer a very different conception of politics as we assert “abolition politics”; we wish to offer abolition's politics as a modality that undermines the logics of the aforementioned way of conceiving of politics. Here, we will be concerned with thinking about politics and the political as a nebulous and ongoing terrain of struggle and expanding, cultivating a different terrain on which to indeed do. This forum concerns the various ways abolition is done and lived and engendered in the quotidian, the ethical, the relational. Surely, this is not to the exclusion of prisons and police; it is instead a shift in the scope through which we conceptualize how abolitionist work is carried out at the level of ontology and epistemology, of affect and coalition. So, rather than asserting the importance of abolition and supporting its proliferation by running for office or appealing to courts, as some who wish to initiate change seek to do, which would be a kind of politics that lambastes abolition's radicality, we want to ask how might we engage politically the abolition of things like whiteness or borders; or, indeed, how might we think about gender as carceral, or abolition's relationship to (de)coloniality. It is, in short, the other things subject to abolition that fall under the capacious heading of the political that this forum seeks to examine.
Because the former definition of politics as adhering always and already to the government and electoral is a type of carcerality, one predicated on unimpeachable regulatory criteria unable to be gotten outside of, and indeed punished for being attempted to be breached. Such a politics places alternative possibilities for relationality in captivity; it demands specific checked boxes, prerequisites, an outness after three (or fewer) strikes, an individuated subject capable of speaking on certain terms, demographic and delimited thinking. On this, we can of course turn to Jacques Rancière, who provides an articulation of the narrow definition of politics characterized here as that which “exists when the figure of a specific subject is constituted, a supernumerary subject in relation to the calculated number of groups, places, and functions in a society,” which is to say that politics, properly understood, emerges when an unrecognized subject seeks equal recognition within an order already established to bestow such a status on the grounds of its extant criteria. Politics and the political, in other words, as the democratic pursuit of equality for human subjects (Rancière 2006: 51; Olivier 2015). For our purposes, “politics” cannot abide this because the affixed “abolition” is an abolition, a subversive vitiation, a making impossible the conditional violence, of the conceit of a singular and coherent self, the assumption of ownership, the binarity that inheres in the “bi” of bipartisan, the totality touted by the logics of the world. We desire here a certain reworking of the very landscape for what is possible, thinkable, doable, and what exists—a reconfiguration of the very terrain on which we relate to others. For our purposes, once more, the politics of abolition politics is not the domain of the governmental or the ontological, nor is it concerned with pluralism or egalitarianism. Our aim is perhaps more radical. We venture forth with an understanding of the political, the politics of abolition politics, as the insistent, quotidian engendering of different conditions for the cultivation of other possibilities that exceed what currently reigns as normative and “real.” Politics and the political as intellectual, ethical, social, and relational provocations, subtle and small as they may be, that promote the emergence of altered terrains of encounter.
Abolition's politics, its politicality, and the political's abolitionism incite for us a steadfast and concerted intellectual, philosophical, historical, geographic, and relational ethic that is broad and imaginative. The commingling of the terms insists that abolition does not merely take place in movement or organizing spaces, nor is it simply about prisons; it is not simply to be in the streets demanding non-reformism and being unwavering in the demand for the end of police and carceral institutions; nor is it to be fixed into an appeal to policy and lawmakers, a valorization of voting, or a reprising of tenets of past movements as templatic doctrine for contemporary movements. “Abolition politics” seeks to undercut all modes of carcerality, via myriad means, and it understands carcerality as any form of (non)relation that necessitates the circumscription, punishing, or disposing of any one and non-one. Prisons, detention centers, immigration camps, militarized borders are all, deeply, instantiations of carcerality. So, too, however, are racializing categorizations, the gender binary, liberal democracy, food deserts, privatized property, “law” and “order,” miseducation. It is this expansive definition of carcerality that abolition politics sets its sights on, because abolition politics is a political and politicized abolition of the very grammars of existence and relationality, necessitating not mere eradication but imagination, an imaginative politics that predicates its vision—and its listening, its feeling, its taste, its smell—on so many other things here and now, yet also neither here nor now. “Abolitionist praxis,” writes Ren-yo Hwang, though it is also a thought, a politics, an expansive Foucauldian and Derridean “way of life,” must “always be and remain in relation to not just those behind cages and institutional walls but, to quote Foucault, to be concerned about any shared practice in which one tolerates the ‘[pushing of] a portion of the population to the margins’” (Hwang 2021: 91). These populations are not always legible; at times, and perhaps in the most radical of times, these populations are not even conceptualized as such because they have not been made legible by extant grammars of life and relationality. Think of the beaver and the dam (Guenther), the trans (Hewitt), the non- and un-white “white” accomplice workers (Cutrone), the radically autonomous (Bey-West).
That abolition as a discourse gaining in legitimacy is undeniable, as activists and thinkers, even politicians, begin using its language and seeing it as, if not a viable option (with all the accusations of “idealism” and impossibility, and non-practicality, ascribed to it), something that demands being acknowledged. Indeed, even in the sphere of the literary there are more and more books with abolition in their titles, more and more publishers dedicated to publishing and promoting abolitionist literature—most notably Haymarket Books, which has routinely published texts on leftist and abolitionist ideas and has recently established the Abolitionist Papers book series with titles such as Abolition. Feminism. Now; We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice; Rehearsals for Living; and Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition. Such growth is significant, if ostensibly small in the grand scheme of a cultural landscape hostile to the radical imaginative call of abolition, precisely because abolitionist discourse promotes and expands and, importantly, makes more possible and thinkable abolitionist politics (though, of course, the two—discourse and politics—are not mutually exclusive). The more others understand that doing and thinking abolition is possible and being done, the more likely it is that they will, as it were, get on board. Changing the conditions, material surely, but also intellectual and ethical and relational, will permit the capacity for others to change themselves, their ways of moving and being and feeling. And that is at the heart of abolition, its optimism (see Kaba 2021; Taylor 2021).
In this Against the Day, abolition is multifaceted and is approached from a number of angles—indeed, not only approached but enacted and made manifest via a number of intensities, inflections, and with a number of aims. Hence, even though I have attempted to invite readers into a general understanding of abolition and its politics, politics and its abolition, I will not attempt to give the final word on abolition or abolition politics, as that might very well belie its aims, and certainly the aims of this dossier. These entries inflect abolition politics historically, culturally, philosophically, and ethnographically, and this range is indicative of its aims. It is this breadth, a coalitional and non-hierarchized breadth, that illuminates abolition politics so well, so generatively, so, if you will, abolitionistly.