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How Abolition Democracy Can Save Us From Ourselves

Donald Trump may have lost the election (even if he won’t accept it), but as our guest Bernard Harcourt explains this week, we have a long road to justice ahead of us. Harcourt is the author of The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens. In it—and in his interview with Mila—he charts the chilling trajectory of state-sponsored violence in the U.S.

Listen to Mila interview Bernard Harcourt here!

“Since 9/11, everything from the torture under the George Bush administration, to the indefinite detention at Guantanamo since then, throughout all of the administrations, to drone strikes against the innocent victims, are extraordinary and exceptional and unheard of and intolerable,” he said. “But the point I try to make in the book is that it’s actually become the way that we govern and that it’s not a state of exception, but it’s become a state of legality.”

Harcourt described how the U.S government operates in a strategic form of counterinsurgency—even on home soil where no insurgency exists. This counterinsurgency or counterrevolutionary way of governing necessitates the creation of internal enemies such as immigrants, Muslims, and minorities. These new enemies are then violently repressed “for the good of the people.” Think of the Muslim ban, fear over the immigrant caravan, or ‘super-predators,’ for example. Harcourt also explains that counterrevolutionary governing tactics require brutal, state-sponsored violence, which is often justified through our legal system until it becomes the norm. 

“We all of a sudden saw the police appearing as if they were military,” he noted. “Those images were really shocking, but what they reflected was that we were internalizing the logics of counterinsurgency and starting to apply them here domestically.”

Think about it: does the sight of police officers clad in full combat gear, hoisting polished assault rifles and driving tanks through American cities surprise you as much as it did five years ago? Probably not and, according to Harcourt, it’s a problem we must dig deep to remove from our society. 

“There aren’t easy keys to just kind of opening up a new and alternative path forward because so much of this logic gets deeply internalized,” he lamented. His solution to moving past counterrevolutionary governing? WEB DuBois’ 85-year-old idea of Abolition Democracy.

According to legendary civil rights activist Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy contends that “the abolition of slavery was accomplished only in the negative sense. In order to achieve the comprehensive abolition of slavery — after the institution was rendered illegal and black people were released from their chains—new institutions should have been created to incorporate black people into the social order.”

Essentially, America is still dealing with the legacy of slavery because we never addressed it adequately in the first place. Removing the ability to own humans should have been the beginning of a monumental effort to create a government and society that put former slaves on equal footing with their one-time masters. Instead, it ended the abolitionist discussion.  

As a consequence of this failure, our institutions—particularly related to justice and the economy—perpetuate the injustices and inequities of slavery. They will continue as long as we allow them to operate.

“Realizing abolition democracy, then, requires that we develop new ways of preventing and redressing violence while more expansively envisioning justice anew,” wrote Allegra M. McLeod in her essay Envisioning Abolition Democracy. “Justice for abolitionists must entail a democratically informed effort to target the causes of interpersonal harm while ensuring peace and well-being, as well as the displacement of policing and imprisonment in connection with efforts to realize greater social and economic equality.”

Abolition Democracy predates America’s turn to counterrevolutionary governing, but it provides a groundwork for solving it. Many of the repressive systems identified by DuBois, Davis, and others are deeply involved in our government’s internal counterinsurgency. Abolition democracy necessitates reimagining our justice system and our penal system—two of the most instrumental tools in Washington’s counterrevolutionary arsenal. 

Reallocating police budgets, firing bad cops, demilitarizing police forces, ending mandatory minimum sentences, and shuttering Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp are the 21st century equivalent of ending slavery. They sound great on paper and provide surface-level benefits to those impacted—but the dark heart of the problem will remain. As long as we justify brutality, create and attack imaginary enemies, and govern under the veil of an existential yet non-existent threat, nothing will truly change. 

Americans are more motivated to end police brutality and racial injustice than ever before. If we can collectively enact Abolition Democracy and kill this two-headed viper by plugging up its nest, we’ll kill off its insidious counterrevolutionary spawn in the process, creating a safer, more just world for all. 

Works Cited:

Davis, Angela Y. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture. ReadHowYouWant, 2010. 

Dubois, William Edward B. Black Reconstruction. Russell & Russell, 1962. 

Harcourt, Bernard. The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizen. Seal Press, 2018. 

McLeod, Allegra M. “ENVISIONING ABOLITION DEMOCRACY.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 132, 2019, pp. 1613–1649. 

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