The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
An abolition(ist) university would be kinda like an abolition(ist) prison or an abolitionist plantation
Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, ‘the university: last words’
We charge that the university-as-such is a criminal institution … We understand the university today as a key institution of an emerging form of global, racial capitalism, one that is a laboratory for new forms of oppression and exploitation, rather than an innocent institution for the common good.
undercommoning, Undercommoning Within, Against and Beyond the University-as-Such
There is a pleasure in hierarchy. We begin with an education in our hierarchies. We begin with childhood and childhood begins with education. To be exact, education begins our childhood. We are called by race, by gender, by class, and so on. Our education cultivates our desire in the direction of our hierarchies.
Education and freedom are the same call, the same calling. Education requires abolition. Abolition requires education. Freedom is the only education. One can only be called to freedom … Education is dangerous to slavery, to the system of white-over-black.
Anthony Farley, The Perfection of Slavery
Thomas Lynch’s book ends with a call for an immanent apocalypticism, a hope not in some positive future utopia but in the possibility of the end of the world: the end of nature, capital, gender and race. These death-dealing systems cannot be reformed, cannot be fixed by the demand that they be better versions of themselves; they can only be abolished.
I think we can see what Lynch describes as the apocalyptic desire for the end of the world also in Jared Sexton’s terms, as a politics of abolition. Thinking about apocalypticism in terms of abolition helps us to think about what lessons political theology might learn from the practices of abolitionist politics, and in particular from the work of police and prison abolitionists. Mariame Kaba talks about abolition as a horizon: we might not be able, immediately, to imagine or to work towards the absolute end of policing or the prison industrial complex, but we can ask ourselves whether the small changes which are within our grasp work towards that horizon or against it. To take police and prison abolition as our horizon might mean refusing to organise against prison expansion as a solution to prison overcrowding; it might mean opposing the criminalization of ‘hate crimes’ as a response to racist or gendered violence; it might mean organising against an increase to police numbers in response to rises in theft or knife crime. More women prison guards; prisons for non-binary people; more stop-and-search of white people will not make us more free but will, instead strengthen the hand of the order whose death-dealing violence makes the world be making it possible to recast ‘previous injustices … as a misapplication of principles now corrected through the same political order that re-establishes itself as the arbiter of justice’ (129).
These principles function too at the level of political theology: rather than expanding the bounds of ‘the human’ to include its racialized, gendered and classed others, what would it mean to work towards an abolition of ‘the human’ as such? What if instead of the more equitable distribution of wealth, the abolition of private property? What if instead of agitating for a more just exercise of sovereignty, we sought instead to think the abolition of sovereignty?
Lynch writers that ‘the rejection of the future is a hope for nothing – a hope for the end’ (141). We demand the abolition of the police not because we have found better ways to protect one another, not because we know what will replace them; but because the police are bad and a world with the police in is a world impoverished. I worry that Lynch’s ‘knight of infinite resignation’, participating in the world while not investing in it, doesn’t leave enough space for the joy of refusal, for the beauty of a burning cop car. What if we were to reinvest our desire in the hope of an end to this terrible world, not in the hope of return but because everything that is good, that is true, that is beautiful, lies in saying no to the world. On the slogan, ‘All Cops are Bastards’, @MediocreDave wrote, ‘it has been suggested that #ACAB is a useless slogan because the structural critique it is is a shorthand for requires further explanation. Reorient your politics to centre the people for whom, intellectually and intuitively, in the head and in the gut, it makes absolute sense.’ What Lynch is asking us, I think, is to reorient our political theology to centre the people for whom the demand to end the world makes absolute sense.
perhaps say “rewrite the calendar” but after that, immediately
after that say fuck the police / for “philosopher’s stone” for
“royal wedding” for “the work of transmutation” for “love
of beauty” say fuck the police / don’t say “here is my new poem”
say fuck the police
say no justice no peace and then say fuck the police
Sean Bonney, ACAB: a nursery rhyme
Because I work in a university, I am interested in what an abolitionist politics looks like the context of a university. Universities have been central to the modern production of nature, capital, gender and race and modernity; they continue to reproduce and transform these worldly structures in order to reproduce the world as such. The proliferation of student debt has meant the production of a new generation of students whose indebtedness to the world produces an investment in the world which can be difficult to shake; and as Sylvia Wynter writes, ‘the central institutional mechanisms which integrate and regulate our present world system … are the prescriptive categories of our present order of knowledge, as disseminated in our present global university system and its correlated textbook industry’. Abolition of the world, then, demands abolition of the university: but how do we get there?
The proliferation of prisons, the multiplication of crimes, the intensification of stop-and-search, the funding of police departments does nothing but strengthen the hand of the prison industrial complex; but the same cannot be said for the university, whose class-reproductive function depends on the manufacturing of prestige. Universities trade in scarcity, hierarchy and elitism, in the worldly myth of meritocracy, and even as the generalization of indebtedness has its uses for capital, the liberalisation of the promise of middle class jobs in the context of neoliberal austerity has come to seem a problem to those invested in the reproduction of the world. As for many people I know, the brutal state repression of student protests against an increase in tuition fees was a key moment in disinvestment from the idea that the police existed to protect me. Over the past ten years, universities have come to take a central role in media debates about ‘free speech’, ‘identity politics’, and our collective ability to reckon with the violence of the world; it was not surprising, then, to see the UK’s Department for Education suggest that a state bailout of universities would be made conditional on universities agreeing to focus their energies on ‘subjects which deliver strong graduate employment outcomes in areas of economic and societal importance, such as STEM, nursing and teaching’; and suggest that some universities (guess which ones) might consider downgrading themselves from university-status to merge with Further Education colleges.
Something that is hard for academics to grapple with is the ways in which our changing material circumstances mean a change in material interests, which in turn makes it harder to hold to commitments formed when we were younger, more precarious, more acutely aware of the world as a system of violence. I like my job and I want to keep it; I like it both because it makes possible certain kinds of freedom – to think, to travel, to spend time thinking with other people, to plan courses, to teach, to be part of the process by which students are transformed by education – and also because it provides me certain kinds of security. I know that security is something which not everyone has; I know that the security I have is made possible by a world in which is constituted by the impossibility of making that security available to everyone.
Because of the ambiguous nature of the university, the task of disinvestment here is complex. First, because while the university reproduces the world it also contains the antagonisms of the world which make it possible for it to be–at least in small moments–the site of freedom, of resistance; a place to cultivate desires which bring us into conflict with the world. But also because the university is also a place of power and privilege, and however little of those may trickle down to us, they are seductive. I have some spiritual investment in the world as it is. The antagonisms which constitute the world are in us too. We cannot, I think, simply disinvest from the world while the work we do ensures its reproduction. I don’t find it easy to say with Moten and Harney that ‘the only possible relationship to the university is a criminal one … to be in but not of – this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university’. I think it is probably true that simply abolishing Oxford, Cambridge or Yale would move us closer to the end of the world, but I don’t think the same thing can be said of the possibly imminent abolition of my low-ranking, financially struggling university. What, then, would an abolitionist, apocalyptic relation to the various kinds of institutions which make up ‘the university’ look like?