We need to have a difficult conversation about prison abolitionist responses to police violence. Many abolitionists have responded to the Chauvin conviction by opposing any calls to imprison or punish him. This response is something I find politically and ethically unconvincing.
Yes, prisons are a nightmare and the bane of a just society. Yes, they eviscerate social relations and exacerbate structural violence, foreclose futures, and denigrate human dignity, and in the U.S do so in service of a larger system of white supremacy. Yes, retribution is a shallow conception of justice that fails to mend wrongs. And yet, what is to be done — right now — with your Derek Chauvins, your Darren Wilsons, your Daniel Pantaleos?
What could adequate restorative justice even begin to look like for these killer cops, or in response to everyday police violence more generally? You can’t have true restoration where grossly inequitable relations of power and violence persist. We have seen what that looks like, especially when the Restorative Justice Industry becomes an adjunct of policing itself… it becomes a restoration of status quo violence. Most abolitionists would, of course, not be satisfied with this liberal prescription, and instead call for transformative justice, as they should. Transformative approaches to justice would partially resolve the problem by dismantling policing and punishment as we know it, and by building an equitable society free from structural violence in order to eliminate root causes of other social violence. But what do we do in this moment, right now, in response to this agent of the state murdering yet another Black person?
This is speculation on my part, but there seem to be two logics of abolitionism right now: categorical and dialectical. These aren’t substantially oppositional to each other in most regards, but their differences are clearer in cases like Chauvin’s.
For categorical abolitionists, it seems like punishment and the policing and prison systems are first and foremost unjust processes, and these processes must be opposed and interrupted at every step and in every domain in which they spread. The way to oppose them is by ethically rejecting them in categorical terms, and strategically by demanding a different set of processes and conditions that can obviate them and reduce their scope. In their categorical opposition to punishment, policing, and prisons as unjust processes, it makes sense to maintain this even when evaluating responses to police brutality. The logic of prefiguration is important for this approach.
For dialectical abolitionists, it seems like the policing and prison systems are first and foremost forces of domination and control in service of racial and class hierarchies. Opposing these forces can entail prefiguration practices, such as with transformative and restorative justice. But dialectical abolitionists may still support prosecuting and jailing killer cops and do so on abolitionist grounds. Significantly, doing so can function as an expression of collective power from people mobilizing in the streets against the domination and violence exercised through and by the police and prison system. It can show people that they can win, however limited a victory, in the terrain of struggle over white supremacy.
By extension, such pushbacks can serve as platforms to constrain what the police in particular can get away with, shifting political and discursive boundaries. It is only after continuous rioting and organizing throughout 2020 (and years before) that the gratuitousness of the murder of George Floyd resulted in murder convictions instead of involuntary manslaughter, or a promotion. As George Ciccariello-Maher said about this issue, showing up in court to condemn one of their own is the last thing police want to do, and is already a sign of their strategic weakness and defensiveness. Prisons were designed to contain the poor and the marginal, not the police who were designed to do the same. Demanding the imprisonment of police undermines the political functions of both.
The path forward is not a clear one, and there are legitimate worries and criticisms. While condemning Chauvin is a defensive maneuver by police who would normally protect their own at all costs, this can be deployed by police defenders to demonstrate that “the system works” and that policing itself is not problematic. This was the overt argument of the prosecution in Chauvin’s case, that this is about this cop, not all cops. The momentum could be picked up to advance calls to defund the police but could also be derailed into useless or harmful reforms that preserve these systems. Empirically, we do not know how this will bear out, and we should have humility about this.
Ultimately, though, collective efforts to challenge and prosecute the police are putting them on the retreat. They don’t want it. They are losing, lashing out, abandoning the job in droves, feeling the eyes that are on them, and feeling their impunity slip away. The courts are offering the worst ones up in defensive self-preservation, and this is a symptom of the criminal justice system’s weakness, rather than its integrity. While some will condemn the prosecution of killer cops on the grounds of categorical configuration, to me this seems like the time to keep pushing. We’re at a point where we’ll have to make the road by walking, learn, and be willing to adjust course together along the way.
We need to have a difficult conversation about prison abolitionist responses to police violence. Many abolitionists have responded to the Chauvin conviction by opposing any calls to imprison or punish him. This response is something I find politically and ethically unconvincing.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, dozens of U.S. cities have be rocked with unrest, ranging from small protests to open rebellion and riots. In watching coverage of the protests over the last week, several predictable issues and themes have emerged in how these protests are being framed by city and state leaders, police, and mainstream media outlets. I think that those of us who are committed to anti-racist politics need to directly grapple with some of these frames if we are going to shift how our collective efforts to challenge racism and injustice are understood going forward, for the wider public and for ourselves:
1.) “Outside agitators”
Both the governments and the media are going all in on dividing the good vs bad, legitimate vs illegitimate protesters, in order to control the unrest by turning people’s sympathies against it. They will say they support the cause but not the methods, but these are crocodile tears. They will cite MLK as a weapon against black protest, but it was MLK who said that his biggest enemy was the white moderate who valued order over the struggle for justice. It is these same moderates who condemn rioters rather than blame those in power who make riots inevitable.
The city government leaders are just lying, point blank, saying that the people who are doing anything other than quietly praying in their Sunday best are outside agitators. They have no evidence of this at all, and there is actual evidence from arrest records that most people vigorously protesting enough to be arrested are locals. This is an old tactic, and is used around the world by those in power seeking to discredit energetic social and political movements.
MLK felt compelled to condemn this rhetorical tactic, since it is the same one that was used by Jim Crow mayors and sheriffs against him and other civil rights protesters. The most important of his numerous criticisms here is that *it does not matter* if someone comes from elsewhere to stand with those protesting injustice. Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere: the logic of domination and oppression breeds and spreads, and produces further domination and oppression, while insensitivity to injustice anywhere breeds insensitivity to other injustices. We are all woven into a single garment of destiny, and cannot pretend that any injustice could (or should) stay parochially contained.
2.) Violent vs peaceful protests
Those who condemn property damage during protests should reflect on a few specific points:
First, tactically, riots and the damage they cause raise the economic and political cost of continuing with the everyday violence of business as usual, and have been an integral part of successful struggles for democracy and equality throughout history. This increase in cost can force elites to make concessions, and shift what counts as an acceptable policy bargain to buy peace again. Polite tactics have not worked whatsoever to ease the systemic racial and class inequalities and violence of places like Minneapolis. What else is left, besides people of color opting to die without a fuss?
Second, the human costs of continuing business as usual, from the early deaths and sicknesses imposed by police violence, racism, poverty, lack of healthcare, environmental racism, stress, etc, are incomprehensibly massive. They are far higher than any costs from these riots, at a minimum producing hundreds of thousands of early deaths in the U.S. a year.
This means that if you are opposed to “violence”, then you must prioritize ending these systemic conditions over the flash in the pan of any riot damage. It also means that if you truly oppose violence, then you must consider what given tactics *do* about this systemic and state-enforced violence. If your “peaceful” tactics don’t pose a threat to the continuation of a violent status quo, and even help sustain it by institutionally channeling, containing, and de-fanging challenges to it, then those measures are *more violent* in what they produce than riotous street clashes or mass strikes that compel actual concessions and change.
3.) Property damage as “violence”
Conceptually, calling broken windows, burnt cars and looting “violence” is extremely dubious in it’s implications. It puts unexpected forms of damage to or destruction of things as such in the same moral continuum as human suffering, and conveniently only those things that pose a direct threat to the people who own the world. Legal material destruction, of course — such as through a manufacturer shuttering and offshoring a factory (and with it a community’s ability to thrive), or a developer destroying poor people’s housing to put up empty luxury condos for investment, or a company spilling pollutants into the environment and our bodies — is never really framed as “violent”, even though it is more widespread and destructive.
Calling property damage violence also ignores the violence entailed simply by the state-backed imposition of particular rules and distributions of property. Property isn’t just stuff, it is also the rules for deciding who will be denied the right to use that stuff, and how that denial will be legitimized. If you’re concerned about looting, consider it in light of this.
The current distribution of resources is the result of racist state violence, centuries of openly white supremacist policies, imperialism, and exploitation. No honest person can disagree. It cannot be considered just or moral. Even in market terms, it cannot be considered a result of consent or fair competition. The pitifully low wage exploitation perpetuated by retail outlets in these areas are a product of these violently imposed unjust conditions and systems, and is itself a looting of the time, sweat, and well-being of people who are not truly free to do otherwise.
What, then, justifies condemnation of people’s attempts to grab goods that alleviate conditions of violently imposed and flatly unjust conditions of inequality and poverty? If just distributions are blocked politically, then how can we condemn what essentially amounts to material self defense against illegitimately imposed conditions?
4.) On looting during protests
Charges that people looting are acting opportunistically, or without pure enough motives make the mistake of thinking that pursuing material enhancement amidst unjust conditions is at odds with, rather than a central component of the demand for dismantling systemic racism. This isn’t separate from the fight against police brutality, since policing as such, as well as police brutality in particular are historically and tightly connected to state efforts to maintain racial and class inequalities and property rules under American capitalism. Demanding saintly selflessness from rioters is a dehumanizing double standard, and itself undercuts the legitimacy of demands for material justice and restitution.
Insofar as looting contributes to raising the cost for elites to ignore an unjust status quo, we can consider looting to be a useful element in producing an actually status quo-threatening pressure for concessions and change. Depending on the target (or Target), we may even say that it is ethically obligatory, if we take the struggle against violence seriously.
Ultimately, whenever those in power attempt to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate protesters during times of social unrest, this should be interpreted as nothing more than a classic divide and conquer tool designed to make the unrest more manageable and to divert a fraction of the less demanding participants towards the least costly (to those in power) concessions. It means they are scared. It also means we should investigate what it is that they are truly scared of losing — and what we stand to gain.
Five people work diligently on a railroad track, oblivious to the train barreling towards them. Sometimes the five people are tied down to the track by a villain, rather than workers caught unaware. Sometimes the engineer of the train is incapacitated, and sometimes the brakes have failed. Regardless, you, the student in an introductory ethics class, find yourself next to a lever. If you pull the lever, the train will be redirected onto another track and avoid horribly killing the five innocents. There’s a catch, however, because the second track still has one person on it, another innocent in the wrong place at the wrong time who will certainly be killed. Do you pull the lever?
This thought experiment, The Trolley Problem is a standard “intuition pump” of ethics teachers everywhere, because it draws out the seemingly self-evident intuitions we have about what is right and wrong in our ethical judgments, and then adds complications that challenge those initial intuitions. If you do it right, students are confronted with the limits and potential contradictions in their own values and compelled to clarify and strengthen their own ethical commitments. Some surveys have shown that 90% of respondents would pull the lever in this first case.
The classic follow-up to this first response is to then change the scene. The situation is the same, except instead of having two tracks, you now find yourself on a bridge, overlooking a runaway train that is about to hit the five workers on the tracks. Next to you is a very large man. He’s standing very, very close to the edge of the bridge. If you push him just a little bit, he will fall off the bridge and die, but he is large enough that he will certainly stop the train from hitting the five workers. Do you push him? Even though the same number of people’s lives are on the line in each alternative, students usually balk at this second question, with the majority usually saying that now they would not sacrifice the one person for the sake of the five.
For the first time, all the students in one of my classes chose not to pull the lever when confronted with the original question. I was so surprised that it took me a moment to recover and remember my counter-questions to that outcome. Initially I thought “wow, a whole class of Kantians, what are the odds?” Their rationale, however, was overwhelmingly one of wanting to avoid being responsible or culpable, rather than of not wanting to violate an absolute moral rule. At first, they wanted to avoid being held legally liable for murder. When that was set aside, they wanted to do nothing, regardless of outcome, because they could tell themselves they weren’t responsible. After all, they had made no choice to interfere.
I offered a few more examples and questions, each time being met with a stubborn refusal or fear of doing, until I switched up the scenario. Instead of at the lever, I put them on the tracks and asked them what they would wish the person at the lever to do. It was like the clouds parted, and the fog of vague hostility towards all of these uncomfortable questions dissipated. Now, the majority hoped that someone would pull the lever in the original scenario, especially if the students don’t know which track they would end up on. Many continued to choose this even if they knew they would be killed.
I was stunned at how this played out, and what it seemed to say about this group. The relationship these students have to ethical reasoning, to making impactful decisions, and to being responsible toward others is avoidant and defensive, but it’s not, as I initially suspected, even consistently egoistic. They are more afraid of being deemed guilty or of bearing responsibility for doing something that affects others than they are committed to a moral imperative or a utilitarian calculus.
When I compelled them to make decisions, they stubbornly resisted ethical reasoning itself, and instead reasoned like competitive institution-navigating individualists, thinking in terms of liability, punishment, advantage, and exchange. They tried to shift responsibility to the workers for being on the tracks, or the train company for poor maintenance, or the government for insufficient regulations, doing anything to avoid accepting the challenge and burden of even potential responsibility for themselves and the power they hand. When the ability to choose was taken away, and instead they were only asked to wish for someone else to decide, then they had a psychologically easier time thinking in terms of what would be ethical, responsible, or good.
This experience sheds a light on the ways in which ethical reasoning can truly be a challenge that unsettles people. This is especially the case for folks who are taught and socialized to just keep their head down, follow the well-trod path for social advancement, and not rock the boat. These students feel that the challenges posed by ethical reasoning are a threat to their commitment to safe pathways and a kind of unexamined existential conservatism. I suspect the resistance to it is also fueled by a kind of latent resentment towards those safe modes of living themselves. They promised security and the comfort of predictability at least, and if nothing else, ethical reasoning highlights the shoddy, illusory nature of the certainties provided for by these second-hand defenses. This frustration is nothing to scoff at, given the lifetime of promises that have underwritten it. At the same time, this frustration is precisely the symptom that philosophizing, at its best, is designed to produce and transform. Building resilience towards that transformation should be one of our chief pedagogical goals as teachers.
Once, people dreamed of the end of slavery. Such dreams were needed, because utopias don’t birth themselves, and a world without chains was utopian before it was imagined to be inevitable. In the US, which holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, it still is.
We mark the culmination of that past utopia with the commemoration of Juneteenth, honoring when chattel slavery was finally ended in all former Confederate states. The Union Major General Gordon Granger landed in Texas, the last slaver state bastion, on June 19, 1865 with enough military power to finally enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. The Republic of Texas was already established in large part as a militant pro-slavery revolt by white settlers against the Mexican empire and it’s ban on slavery, but as the luck of the Confederacy dwindled during the war, slavers had further migrated to Texas. Fully a quarter of whites held slaves by the time Granger landed, and 30% of the Texas population were slaves.
Slavery would not die out on it’s own. It took centuries of slave resistance, abolitionist organizing, and a bloody civil war and military occupation of the South for chattel slavery and the slaver class to finally be dismantled. The re-creation of informal slavery through the Black Codes and convict leasing, debt bondage, and exploitative sharecropping conditions immediately after the Civil War, as well as the steady introduction and spread of Jim Crow laws after the end of Reconstruction led to the retrenchment of white supremacy. Yet, Juneteenth is an important holiday commemorating a rare moment of victory, however incomplete, in the dismantling of one of the systems of racial dominance and inequality that has defined the character of the United States and citizenship within it since its creation.
Utopias are won with hope and struggle, and their commemorations are time machines for drawing out their connection to the present and lessons for the future. As a memorial for the victory of a past utopia of abolition, Juneteenth can help us think about today’s struggles for abolition and the unfinished project of dismantling white supremacy. It can also, more immediately, help fuel the dreams needed to carry these utopias to fruition. We could take away many lessons, but here are three that I think are particularly important:
Lesson One: Extremism can be a more effective tool for producing a just world than moderation or compromise. The uncompromising firebrands for slavery abolition, like John Brown and Wendell Phillips, were widely castigated as impractical utopians at best and dangerously insane fanatics at worst. Alongside the persistent refusal of slaves to submit quietly to their enslavement, radical abolitionists’ firm refusal to compromise on their principles or accept “reasonable” electoral compromise with slavers played a key role in escalating the conflict over chattel slavery to the point where it could conceivably be dismantled. It was only after the smashing of the slaver regimes that the need for them to be uncompromisingly smashed could be seen as obvious or common sense. The political common sense of today is built on the dreams of dead radicals and past utopias.
The abolitionists of today who demand an end to prisons and policing are thought of as similarly unreasonable or extremist. Yet, it is by making demands that go beyond what is considered acceptable to the world as it currently is that new worlds and new boundaries of what counts as reasonable can come into being. Even when extremists don’t succeed, stridently advocating and organizing around ideas that are beyond the pale can shift what counts as a permissible reform. Remember that it is largely because of their fear of Malcolm X and the nascent, more militant Black power and Black nationalist movements that the white U.S. leadership of the 1960s eventually considered Martin Luther King, Jr. to be a comparatively safer figure to bargain with on civil rights legislation.
There are times when compromise is important in order to institutionalize political demands, but at other times compromise can be detrimental to the process of organizing people to push for comprehensive systemic change. Regardless of what is more strategically necessary at a given moment, it isn’t compromise in itself that brings about substantive or even incremental transformation.
Lesson Two: We must demand and expect more than utopia. This may seem absurd. Isn’t it unreasonable enough to demand utopia? Utopias, though, don’t require us to be naive. They can be used as standards of values and expectations that allow us, by contrast with the current world, to critically assess and understand the world as it actually is. Utopias are well-developed hopes and weaponized dreams, and they can be powerful. But, what is often forgotten about them is that they can be achieved. As underwhelming as the state of the world is today, it should be understood as the outcome of the victory of many people’s utopias, and not just the utopias of villains.
We should expect and demand utopia, not because we can’t achieve it, but precisely because we can, and will then need to demand more and continue struggling for more once those victories have been secured. Demanding a singular static utopia alone runs the risk of disillusionment, but being infinitely demanding of endlessly renewed utopian dreams both orients our struggles and protects us against disappointment at not achieving a “perfect” world.
Lesson Three: Abolitionism today must be both a negative demand and a positive vision for what alternative futures are possible. Many white abolitionists were perfectly content to retire from active political life after the end of chattel slavery, even with the continuation and emergence of new forms of white supremacy and Black unfreedom. For some, like the early white settlers of Oregon, their abolitionism was even fueled by their commitments to white supremacy. Opposition is not enough. An abolitionist politics today requires not just negative opposition, such as being against incarceration or policing, but also requires what Angela Davis describes as the creation of positive social, economic, political, cultural, and institutional conditions that would make these violent institutions obsolete. Achieving these abolitionist conditions requires a utopian vision in order to guide people’s struggles and practically achieve their goals.
The original Juneteenth marked the utopian achievement of a negative abolition, but also the beginning of a long struggle for the achievement of a new, positive vision wherein oppression could be rendered obsolete. We must remember our past utopias, then. Not just to learn from them, mind you, but also to appreciate that they aren’t even truly past. They are ready-at-hand palettes bequeathed by the struggles of those who fought for better worlds before us, and from which we can and will find inspiration to paint the utopias of the future.
As a national holiday, the commemoration of Martin Luther King jr. has been fraught with problems. Aside from the resistance to its creation, the act of collective remembrance itself is a deeply political affair. The building of monuments, the preservation of moments, and the mythologizing of symbols, people, and places are much more than a simple, dry cataloguing of dead facts. They are acts of creation that can be deeply contentious, as other recent conflicts surrounding Confederate symbols and statues have (again) reminded us. These fragments of pasts are commonly portrayed as something like a woven quilt, with patchwork pieces that we stitch, replace, and re-stitch together to tell shared stories that inform our understanding of the present and convey values and lessons for the future. We can also think of them as weapons, to be used and deployed in struggles over those same understandings, values, and lessons. As weapons, these commemorations can be dangerous, depending on how they are wielded and to what ends.
What dangers are promised by the remembrance of MLK? What dangers should be promised? There are three particularly important dangers that we should keep in mind as King is invoked in our present circumstances.
The first danger is posed by those who seek to co-opt MLK as a truncheon in defense of the status quo. It is the official representation of MLK in state speeches, the version adopted into the national histories, and the one safely relegated to the past and the Bad Old Days. This MLK Has a Dream of a future, one which is made politically palatable today only by virtue of the implicit notion that his imagined future is already our past. Or, as the Washington Post argues in its recent Whiggish, nationalist version of King’s thought and work (accompanying an equally superficial and selective portrayal of American conservatism as an ideological disposition and movement), he had always been a creature of the nation’s alleged true principles which had simply been forgotten or ignored, conveniently, for two centuries. That he was actually treated as an enemy of the state is certainly not taken as a lesson in and of itself for practical struggles today.
In this safe portrayal, King is no longer a danger to existing racism, militarism, or massive class divisions and structural violence, because the beatification of King into a bumper sticker saint is premised on the notion that these problems have already been mostly vanquished. Having played his part and fallen conveniently off the stage at the end of the final act, this MLK is used primarily to silence present social criticisms and dissent under a flurry of milquetoast platitudes and moralizing condemnations, usually about proper ways to protest, but also in defense of a colorblind silence about race itself.
The second danger is instead posed by those who look to King’s life and ideas as a living, incomplete resource from which to draw lessons in order to disrupt and destabilize the racism, police brutality, militarism, and economic violence that remain pervasive. This is a dangerousness that should be embraced. This kind of commemoration is of the evolution of a man from a cautious, relatively safe, middle-class liberal reformer to an unapologetic radical. It is of the critic who found it more and more difficult to ignore the interconnected nature of the various manifestations of violence and oppressions found throughout the world, from Jim Crow to Vietnam, Apartheid to Harlem, capitalism to empire.
This is the King who warned of the greater dangers posed by the white moderate than the KKK in the fight against racism; who challenged the myth that time moved along an inherently progressive path of its own accord, without struggle; who defended the necessity of conflict and creative social disruption as a means to force those in power to the bargaining table and to achieve equality and freedom; who blamed institutional violence and man-made economic deprivation for social unrest; who refused to apologize for the U.S. government’s mass killing of millions of people in Southeast Asia, even though it lost him credibility and influence within the Democratic Party establishment; who was harassed, threatened, and undermined by the FBI.
The third danger is not one of remembrance as much as forgetting, namely forgetting King’s limitations. King is often invoked as a kind of secular authority within the American political discourse. In doing so, we are encouraged to forget many things. We forget that King was one political actor among many, and that he was not The Leader of the Civil Rights Movement, even though he was (like Gandhi) adept at acquiring the credit (and blame) from many other people’s labor. We forget that his strategic vision and arguments – especially regarding “nonviolence” – were often viscerally contested and rejected by others involved in those same struggles. We also forget that he was imagined to be the comparatively “safe” option for white liberal reformers, especially when judged against the threats posed by the emergent Black Power and Black nationalist movements inspired more by the likes of Malcolm X or Fred Hampton. It is important not to forget that the reason we have an MLK commemorative holiday at all is because of King’s limitations, as well as his achievements.
Martin Luther King jr. is indeed a dangerous figure today. The more important question, however, is for whom.
Here is a copy of a recent interview I gave for E-International Relations:
E-IR has partnered with the journal Politics to bring a series of interviews with authors of a special section of its November 2016 edition titled ‘Resurrecting International Theory‘. In this interview, Dr Justin Mueller discusses the themes of temporality, sovereignty and imperialism – and addresses the question ‘when’ is imperialism. He is currently Lecturer at Northeastern University and his latest book is The Temporality of Political Obligation (Routledge 2016).
You can find the full article by the author here (requires login / access).
Where do you see the most exciting research/debates happening in IR Theory?
Appropriately enough, I am really excited about the increasing attention being paid to the role of time and temporality in world politics. E-IR’s recent publication Time, Temporality, and Global Politics (2016) is just one testament to this, and includes some deeply insightful authors, like Kimberly Hutchings, who have influenced my own thinking. There is also amazing work being done with regards to the role of time in gender, sovereignty, democracy, race, war, and capitalism. In my own efforts to contribute to this, I have focused on issues of time and political obligation, freedom, social control, and more recently, imperialism.
How has the way you understand the world changed over time, and what (or who) prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?
I think that most of the changes of my worldview have involved the steady development of two trends. First, a longstanding drive to denaturalize and disenchant existing forms of social organization and power relations. Second, as an extension of the first, learning how to see the complex different ways in which inequality, domination, and hierarchy are created and sustained. I have been fascinated for as long as I can remember by how people come to accept, ignore, or even find fulfillment in different constellations of violence, systems of control, structures of authority, and mechanisms of disempowerment. My best guess is that I was exposed to the Holocaust, existentialism, and fantasy and science fiction writing (especially Ursula K. LeGuin, one of the most creative and analytically sharp social science fiction authors of all time) way too early for these not to leave an impact.
My earliest shifts were part of a rather haphazard process of getting into a lot of arguments, losing them, and then reassembling the pieces with better materials. Marx and Nietzsche loomed large early on. Marx let me think about inequality and class as a process for the first time, while Nietzsche provided an insurgent ethos for individuality, intentional doubt, and life fulfillment. The existential psychoanalysts and anarchists affected my thinking about authority and our internalized and intersubjective relationships with power. I encountered post-structural ideas by way of Max Stirner, oddly enough, and only later Foucault and company. Judith Butler and Cynthia Enloe let me really see gender in world politics, while Patricia Hill Collins, Joel Olson, WEB DuBois, Michelle Alexander and others allowed me to see the workings of race and racialization. Each of these encounters exposed something for me that I couldn’t unsee afterwards and I cherish them for that.
The biggest shift in my thinking was encountering time and temporality as a mutable sociopolitical force, out of which we fashion shelter, tools, weapons, and direction for life. It connects to so much that is crucial for our existence, yet for this very reason slips into the background of practical life. My friend and former advisor, Michael A. Weinstein, helped me see that for the first time in his seminars and several of his dozens of books, and learning to see it was a process that really took my breath away. Subsequently, it was through Henri Bergson and then Gilles Deleuze that I found more tools to examine time more carefully in political analysis. Reading great scholars of temporality like R.B.J. Walker also helped me link that mode of thinking with the peculiarities of world politics.
Distinguish for our readers between formal and informal imperialism, and how, despite their differences, they both maintain a troublesome answer to question of “when” is imperialism?
Formal imperialism refers to the formal control or acquisition of one state by another, and the integration (to some degree) of that conquered state into the power structure of the imperial home state or “metropole”. Great Britain’s official imperial control and administration of India is an example of formal imperialism. The concept of informal imperialism is usually used to refer to persistent forms of domination and exploitation of one state by another that are unofficial, yet still quite real. The role of economic institutions in maintaining asymmetries of power have been especially important for theorists of informal imperialism. The history of the dominance of the U.S.’s United Fruit Company in Guatemala is an example of this kind of imperialism. There was official independence of the subordinated country, however simultaneously there was preponderant economic control by the United Fruit Company. This control was sustained through the economic institutions of markets and concentrated company ownership, and was reinforced by coups, puppet regimes, death squads, and an occasional “police action” invasion as needed.
Both of these conceptions of imperialism allow us to see something important about relations of persistent domination, violence, vulnerability, and exploitation. In order to highlight the power relations within imperialism, the relations and processes constituting “internal” state rule are normalized, reified, and pre-emptively defined as different in kind than those of imperialism. The “external” is highlighted as imperialism, but only by obscuring and naturalizing the “internal” and the continuities between them.
Describe the relationship between a spatial and a temporal analysis of imperialism
The conventional spatial conception of imperialism treats imperialism as something that exists outside of the boundaries of legitimate state sovereignty. It is the notion that imperialism is what happens when political and economic power spill over their natural banks. The conventional temporality that supports this spatial conception of imperialism would be the idea that a state’s imperialism “begins” where its sovereignty ends. In order for this way of thinking about imperialism to make sense, people have had to engage in what R.B.J. Walker refers to as a “discourse of eternity” wherein the state and its sovereignty is treated as an effectively timeless, semi-Platonic form of social organization encompassing things as diverse as ancient Athens and the modern United States.
If state sovereignty is treated as a given then a state’s various zones, modes, and institutions of rule also become naturalized as givens. If the analysis relies on a sense of practical givenness, then resistance to this conception is seen as futile. The sovereign state is transformed into the default, against which other political relations are evaluated. Even while scholars may admit a state’s historical contingency, they usually bracket it off from their conclusions about the naturalized character of state sovereignty today.
While treating state sovereignty as a given in order to conceptualize imperialism can have practical and normative value, it has negative side effects. It normalizes the overt and structural violence, domination, and inequalities that sustain that rule, which is itself a dubious practice for us as scholars to acquiesce to. But, it also affects the kind of political ontology we can use by pre-emptively limiting our ability to see continuity between sovereign state rule and imperialism.
The critical temporal conception of imperialism I use essentially refuses to grant this presumed qualitative distinction, and refuses to affirm the discourse of eternity and state legitimacy that undergirds it. Instead, in setting those aside and by showing the continuities between imperialism and sovereign state rule, we can then see sovereign state rule as always-already imperial in nature. A state doesn’t “begin” to be imperial by overstepping its sovereign bounds. Rather, its effective exercise of sovereignty presumes its ability to engage in imperial processes of domination, control, and exploitation, and asymmetric conditions of vulnerability between those in positions of dominance and those subject to their authority. These are constitutive features, inflected by things like histories of resistance to rule and elite concessions offered to sustain systemic stability. When conventional “imperial” activities appear to stand out to us it is not because they are different in kind, but because they are extensions of the always-already existing imperial practices supporting sovereign state rule without the varnish of legitimacy that subjects of states are usually socialized into perceiving (with the aid of a variety of other temporal constructs I discuss in my book, The Temporality of Political Obligation (Routledge, 2016)).
Why is using imperialism to frame the concept of sovereignty important for analyzing current global issues?
There are a few advantages that come with framing sovereignty as being contiguous with imperialism. Analytically, it helps us avoid pre-emptively (if implicitly) legitimizing relationships of domination, exploitation, and violence by refusing to grant states one of their primary tools of rationalizing themselves and the inequities that constitute them: the status of sovereignty and all its connotations.
This critical temporal conception of imperialism still allows us to make use of the traditional concept of imperialism, but in even more flexible ways. I try to emphasize that conventional conceptions of imperialism are of value. They are powerful for polemically and analytically highlighting and making visible conditions of vulnerability, brutality, exploitation, and degradation because the concept of imperialism has become intertwined with that of illegitimacy (in part because of this spatial conception of imperialism and sovereignty). By dropping their conventional temporality, however, we can actually deploy the frame of imperialism in more situations, to highlight other comparable conditions within and outside of the boundaries of a state. That, after all, is one of the key values of the idea of “internal” colonialism/imperialism developed by radical Chicano/a and Black theorists like Harold Cruse. It sets aside this veil between the sovereign and imperial and allows us to see the processes of constituting sovereign state rule as always-ready imperial.
Why do you think there hasn’t been much exploration of the temporal elements of imperialism thus far in the field of IR?
I think that one good reason is simply rooted in the traditional function of the concept of imperialism in IR scholarship and political practice. Despite its limitations, the traditional spatial account of imperialism has definite cash value for criticizing aggressive projections of power abroad and persistent forms of politico-economic domination and exploitation. It is easy to see the appeal of criticizing imperialism as a violation of sovereignty when such important stakes are on the line. This reason likely also combines with a second one, namely that people usually do see sovereignty and imperialism as different in kind because they accept the legitimacy and normalcy of state sovereignty as such. If that is a starting assumption, then the conventional spatial analysis of imperialism follows easily.
In your article, you dismiss the concept that statehood could be a mutually beneficial social contract, and that there are always elements of power imbalance and coercion in the making of even a sovereign state. Can you imagine a situation in which this isn’t true?
No. This is in large part, however, an artifact of definitions and political ontology. As I see it, it isn’t just that there is power imbalance and coercion “even” in a sovereign state, but rather especially in a sovereign state. The sovereign state is the culmination of the same logic contained in imperialism; managing asymmetries of power, economic exploitation, repressive violence, and control of subordinated groups. That logic isn’t superseded and transmuted, it simply becomes (at best) mediated and constrained in response to differentiated histories of resistance and institutional integration. That sovereign states (especially liberal democracies) are normalized today and widely perceived to be legitimate is not itself evidence that they are different in kind. This perceived legitimacy and qualitative difference should instead be understood as an artifact of the effectiveness of states’ culmination of the imperial logic. It is an effect of various political mechanisms of self-subjection and discipline. We can say that this perception is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in relation to the state’s monopoly on violence.
Now, I can of course imagine forms of sovereign states wherein people have more successfully resisted exploitation and extortion, where redistributive concessions have been won, and with more resilient forms of economic democratization. I can imagine sovereign states containing more substantially organized popular counter-power that could better resist the tendencies of state institutions to recuperate and enervate social movements. I can imagine sovereign states where the autonomy of elites has been more comprehensively brought to heel for fear of public displeasure. I can imagine sovereign states where there is a closer correlation between popular will and political action, and less mediation between the two. I would much prefer to live under such states instead of more brutal, uncontrollable, and exploitative ones. We could even call these historically rooted struggles for political and economic concessions, institutionalized limitations on state authority, or the enactment of desirable social functions something like “mutually beneficial” – at least in the barest technical sense. Non-elites can often lay claim to something more beneficial for themselves than abject degradation and arbitrary violence, while elites may feel compelled to provide some goods to remain in their positions. But, this is hardly compatible with the idea of consent, equity, or a harmony of interests implied in the conventional liberal notion of the social contract.
I think that no sovereign state could abandon its coerciveness and hierarchical power relations and still lay claim to being a sovereign state. To supersede these features by supplanting hierarchical, centralized, compulsory political authority would be to create a qualitatively distinct form of collective organization utterly unlike a state in every way.
What is the most important advice you could give to young scholars of International Relations?
The most important advice I would give (for the purposes of thinking better, more carefully, and more deeply about the world) is to read as much as possible from outside the formal field of International Relations, as soon as possible. There is certainly much of value there, but like all disciplines it has blind spots and priorities. Some things that count as “problems” in IR can evaporate under scrutiny from alternative disciplinary vantage points, or come out radically reconfigured. Although I have been swimming in the IR world from the beginning of my college education, I am primarily a political theorist by training and so already approached IR with a somewhat different set of interests and predilections. But, I have also had the fortune to be surrounded by historians and historical scholarship more recently, and the tools and perspective that has provided has been wonderful and challenging to many of the “givens” of IR.
This interview was conducted by Kaela Bamberger. Kaela is a Commissioning Editor at E-IR.
Since the end of the Cold War, the rise of the United States as a unipolar hegemon, and the string of military ventures it launched after the 9/11 attacks, popular and scholarly efforts to understand and deploy the concept of imperialism have been plentiful. Its utility as a theoretical tool for highlighting certain forms of political and economic violence, domination, and exploitation seems clear, as does its polemical value in practical political struggles over foreign policy. Regularly juxtaposed against sovereign state rule, modern imperialism conjures the sense of moving beyond the pale of legitimate political activity and carrying aspects of rule beyond their prescribed limits. In essence, imperialism is conceived of as beginning at the point where legitimate rule ends. In spite of its usefulness, this conventional way of thinking about when imperialism begins – its temporality – carries some usually unrecognized drawbacks and complications. My recent article in Politics, “Temporality, sovereignty, and imperialism: When is imperialism?” explores these limitations and provides an alternative means of conceptualizing imperialism by rethinking its temporality.
One of the key problems with imperialism’s conventional temporality is its effects on how we perceive state sovereignty. By externalizing imperialism from sovereignty and diminishing our ability to see their continuity, this conventional temporality helps normalize state rule over a given people and territory by manufacturing a kind of “givenness” to that rule (what RBJ walker calls a “discourse of eternity” and Paul Kramer refers to as a “spatial ideology”). It reifies the state, naturalizes and reinforces its mechanisms of social control, violence, and legitimation, and thus helps (however inadvertently) sustain the “internal” inequalities and dominations that comprise a given state’s rule. While this conception of imperialism opens up possibilities for understanding and challenging great harms inflicted outside of state borders, it simultaneously undermines our ability to consistently understand and challenge comparable harms within those borders, especially when there are continuities between the two.
To get around such limitations, I develop an alternative “critical” temporality of imperialism. Instead of framing imperialism as emerging beyond the limits of state sovereignty, I argue for why we should think of sovereign state rule as always-already imperial in character. Emphasizing the continuity of imperialism and sovereign state rule with regards to many of imperialism’s ostensibly defining characteristics (such as scalar power distributions, brutality, economic exploitation, hierarchically differentiated groups, and vulnerability of subject populations), we see that imperialism is something that always-already emerges in the process of constituting sovereign state rule in each moment. Highlighting the work of Charles Tilly, radical Chicano and Black scholars who have used the idea of “internal colonialism” as a lens for explaining the formation and maintenance of systems of racialized inequalities, as well as historical scholarship on the imperial relationship between the expansionist Sunbelt cities in the U.S. and their exploited hinterlands, I argue that imperialism is part and parcel of state sovereignty rather than something beyond it. This critical temporal shift lets us retain imperialism as a useful explanatory and normative tool for highlighting forms of violence, exploitation, and domination beyond state borders. At the same time, it opens up its use for critiquing forms of violence, exploitation, and domination within those borders.
Hate crime laws are usually intended to escalate punishments levied against people who commit crimes against protected classes of persons because of the target’s membership in a particular group or category of people. The establishment of protected classes usually aims to prevent discrimination against sociopolitically marginalized groups along lines of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, or other more “intrinsic” traits (let’s leave aside problems with that idea of “intrinsic” for now). Louisiana just enacted a law that includes police (firefighters and paramedics were tacked on, but clearly not the primary targets) as part of a protected class of persons in hate crime law; a piece of “Blue Lives Matter” legislation. This law will be mirrored in other states. The bill supporters argue that this will help counter-balance a supposed “anti-police prejudice” that is making the lives of police especially dangerous. This kind of rationalization is little more than a form of authoritarian gas-lighting that obfuscates substantive and serious grievances people (especially more vulnerable people) have against the violence and political obstacles systematically produced and defended by police as an institution.
It is old hat to observe the lack of special danger for police when compared to loggers, gardeners, construction workers, garbage collectors, fishers, among other lines of work, and the danger has been on a downward trend for years. The “war on cops” cited by Blue Lives Matter supporters is a fabrication. Police may feel anxious that they are under more scrutiny or being counter-surveilled more frequently, but their frustrated expectations of possessing impunity behind a Thin Blue Line hardly constitutes evidence of a “war”. Even if it were more dangerous to be a cop, or more serious popular resistance against the police itself materialized, this would not justify categorizing police as a protected class within hate crime laws.
First, much like the phrase “Blue Lives Matter” itself, as well as its “All Lives Matter” cousin, this deflects attention from systematically perpetuated inequalities, discrimination, and violence by projecting an imagined situation of false equality. Completely abstracted from social context and power relations, police Continue reading
[[ The purpose of Concepts of Note entries is to provide summaries and reflections on important concepts in political theory, social science, and the humanities ]]
“Herrenvolk democracy” is a crucial concept for understanding the potential racial dimension of democratic belonging and exclusion within a political body, as well as the inequalities of power, rights, and resources that follow. Coined by Pierre van den Berghe, a Herrenvolk democracy is a political order that is “democratic for the master race but tyrannical for subordinate groups” (p.18). There is equality, but only within the dominant racial group. Most importantly, the sociopolitical equality enjoyed within the dominant racial group is premised upon rather than in contradiction with the inequality that sustains the order as a whole. The idea that this should be considered a “real” form of democracy at all may sound strange or appear hypocritical on its face, especially to contemporary citizens of liberal democracies. The fierce international criticisms and boycotts of the apartheid regime in South Africa (where whites ruled, and people of color were disenfranchised, segregated, and stripped of citizenship) during the second half of the 20th century exemplifies this sense of its illegitimacy. Yet, the apparent contradiction of Herrenvolk democracy is something that was fought for and achieved, rather than being transhistorically obvious to all.
Consider the formally racialized character of democracy in the United States from its inception to at least the 1960s. Those who could successfully claim to possess “whiteness” (as judged by those others who already possessed it) were able to access a slate of benefits (unevenly, along gender and class lines especially) including voting rights, higher wages and two-tiered wage scales, minimal expectations of courtesy and status in the public sphere, more lenient court sentencing, exclusive access to some jobs, privileged access to public services, informal “first hired last fired” employment insurance, privileged potential access to housing, loans, and capital, a sense of superiority over all non-whites, and (most importantly before the Civil War) the right to avoid enslavement. Those who were judged to be not-white were denied or given restricted access to these economic, political, cultural, and psychological “wages” that came with whiteness (Du Bois; also Roediger). While certainly also being inflected by gendered and class divisions, the “color line” between the “white world” and the “dark world” that WEB Du Bois describes was the foundational principle of inclusion in or exclusion from the power, resources, and privileges of the democratic order, however else they may be inequitably distributed. As Joel Olson argues, whiteness was the essential characteristic defining full American citizenship as such.
In order to lay claim to what Judith Shklar refers to as American citizenship’s provision of “standing”, the necessity of being able to prove one’s possession of whiteness was ever-present and operative through widely inculcated discrimination norms and practices among whites, threat of state persecution through law, lynching, mob violence, and a generalized extralegal enforcement of racialized terror. Continue reading