Nice Strawman Ben

The conviction of Derek Chauvin in the extra-judicial execution of George Floyd has led to a moment with regard to prison abolition. Of course one of the principal attacks levied at prison abolitionists is, “Aha! Surely that means you think Derek Chauvin shouldn’t be in jail.” This is an old and favourite rhetorical tool of conservatives, liberals and all other people who want to oppose transformative change within society. Let’s look at one of them.

Ben Burgis opposes prison abolition. Mr. Burgis is a lecturer in philosophy at Georgia State University Perimeter College who writes for Jacobin and Quillette (yes that Quillette) and who writes books of political philosophy directed toward responding against conservative rhetoric through the use of formal logic. However it appears he forgot that the strawman is a failure of logic because he has constructed a remarkable one in his (ugh) Socratic dialog with the prison abolitionist.

The central position he takes is that prison abolitionists want to defer the moment of abolition into the future – that we are furthermore happy to see prison used now – and that any program to abolish the prison must be fully articulated before we bring out the wrecking ball. He does this through a cringe-inducing dialog script that I would expect from a C-graded undergraduate rather than somebody holding a doctorate. However in making his argument against prison abolition into a fiction he has moved it into my territory as an art critic. So let’s examine some of these lines:

Me {Ben}: “So, for example, you don’t think Derek Chauvin should be put it in prison? Because it seems to me that locking up murderous cops would be a really good first step toward correcting some of the crazy power imbalances between cops and ordinary people we’ve got right now…but if you’re an abolitionist about prisons, I assume you disagree?”
PA {Prison Abolitionist}: “No, don’t be ridiculous. I still want to lock up Chauvin. It’s not like abolitionists want to let everyone out of prison immediately. That’s a caricature.”

Here Ben establishes the parameters of the argument. The argument must center around the immediate task of what is to be done with this specific delinquent. The argument must further center around whether the prison abolitionist is fully consistent in their views when confronted with our protagonist. He has situated this within the genre of the Socratic dialog, positioning the Prison Abolitionist as one of Socrates’ interlocutors, and himself as the Gadfly of Athens. Charming.

Of course Ben misses the point here. I don’t want Chauvin locked up. Nor do I want him executed. I want Chauvin to never have been. And as the past is inaccessible to me, my principal objective, and the principal objective of most prison abolitionists is to bring about the world where no more Chauvins arise. Since Ben is well-versed in philosophy, I’m going to call this bad faith in a very specific meaning of the word. Ben’s argument is a flight from the position of his freedom. He’s free to imagine a world without Derek Chauvins, free to imagine somewhere beyond the prison. But he runs from it because the ambiguity of the situation terrifies him, and Ben cannot tolerate ambiguity:

Me again later: “Hmm. I still love Angela Davis but the only part of that book that was relevant to this discussion was pretty bad. The last chapter was the only one about alternatives to prisons and it was just astonishingly hand-wave-y.”
PA: “What do you mean?”
Me: “Well, for example, she talked about ways to reduce crime in the long term but she never exactly said whether she believes interpersonal violence would ever literally be reduced to zero, and if not what should be done with remaining offenders.”
PA: “You probably would have been just as dismissive about the movement to abolish slavery in the 19th century.”
Me: “Excuse me?”
PA: “You heard me. People can never imagine what radical change will look like until it’s happened.”
Me: “You don’t think 19th century abolitionists knew about wage labor when they were talking about abolishing slavery?”
PA: “Maybe they did. But what as socialists you and I agree is the next historical step after that — abolishing wage labor? Didn’t Marx say that we shouldn’t write detailed recipes for the cookshops of the future?”
Me: “Marx was wrong. He was right about most subjects but he was wrong about this one. When you don’t write those detailed recipes, the people you’re trying to convince will be understandably skeptical about whether they’ll have anything to eat in that future. The good thing, though, is that lots of people have written recipes. I wrote a quick one here. Bhaskar Sunkara wrote a more detailed version in the first chapter of his book The Socialist Manifesto. David Schweickart wrote a super-rigorous book-length one you can read here and…”

I cannot look at this section as anything other than an expression of fear. He’s terrified that, in Davis’ vision of the future, there would not be a perfect solution to violence but let’s be real here: there is not, now, a perfect solution to violence. In fact, in the United States, one of the greatest vectors of violence is the police force. Burgis, in this dialog, demands perfection of the critic before he will countenance the destruction of the established system. And furthermore, he acts as if no proposals had been put forward. This is categorically untrue. And I don’t even need to go to communism to find strong arguments for abolition. I don’t need Marx to make this case.

Me: “So why do you call yourself an ‘abolitionist’?”
PA: “Because I want to abolish prisons.”
PA: “It’s not my job to educate you.”

I suppose, since your protagonist in this little play wants to play dumb, that it is my job to educate you about what it means to be an abolitionist, and I know you’re a philosophy instructor. You’re published in zero books so I’m going to assume you read Fisher. I mean with how extensively your book borrows from Exiting the Vampire Castle I would assume we could skip the 101 stuff. Even so, I’m a bit apprehensive by the weakness of your Socratic dialog so, just to be safe, let’s talk about Foucault for a second.

“This delinquency, with its specificity, is a result of the system; but it also becomes a part and an instrument of it. So that one should speak of an ensemble whose three terms (police-prison-delinquency) support one another and form a circuit that is never interrupted. Police surveillance provides the prison with offenders, which the prison transforms into delinquents, the targets and auxiliaries of police supervision, which regularly send back a certain number of them to prison,” he says in Discipline and Punish. Foucault demonstrated in this book how the carcerial is constructed of an interlocking system of power relations that both create the police officer and that create the delinquent – the lens through which we view the subject who undertakes crime. As this is an uninterrupted system, the abolition of one depends upon and must necessarily be constructed of the abolition of all three. Chauvin exists because the carcerial exists. So to say that the carcerial must exist so that Chauvin may be punished is circular logic. Chauvin is a product of the carcerial just like every cop and every criminal processed through its ministrations. Doubly so being a delinquent-police officer. I want to tear down the prison because it creates Derek Chauvins.

Furthermore your “prison minimalism” has another word: Reform. And Foucault rightly points out that efforts to reform the prison began immediately upon the formation of the prison. The effort to reform the prison is, in fact, a principal vector of its functioning. And so we cannot reform. That will merely perpetuate the carcerial and all the cruelty it creates.

Tiqqun understood the stakes. In Theses on the Terrible Community, they said:

Evasion is like the opening of a blocked door: initially it gives an impression of not seeing as far: we stop looking at the horizon and begin putting into place the details for getting out.
But evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.

We must have a mass desertion of the prison. Not tomorrow. Not in the future. Today! This very minute! Right this second! We must vacate the cells, pull down the police forces, smash the prison and end its panopticism, we must break the cycle of arrest-delinquency-release-collaboration. You might say I’m being a revolutionary firebrand (I am) you might say I’m being unrealistic (I am not). And I don’t need to depend on revolution to declare the prison obsolete. In fact I can look to one of the most famous critiques of Discipline and Punish to do just that. So let’s turn our attention to what Deleuze had to say about the episteme we occupy.

On prisons, and other disciplinary institutions, he said, “everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods… These are the societies of control which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies.” Deleuze is explicit in his postscript that the days of the disciplinary societies that gave rise to the prison are ended and that we already have new epistemic tools for dealing with such problems.

“Controls are a modulation,” he tells us and he proceeds to describe Guattari’s keycard-controlled city: the nightmare whereby at any arbitrary moment access to this place or that could be withdrawn like an unwanted module of a complicated machine. Of course this is a nightmare, but is it a worse nightmare than the one we want to wake from? The nightmare of the panopticon and the cellular instruction toward docility that mark the carcerial? I think not. But you are so incurious in your dialog that you imagine there is no alternative.

Of course it sometimes seems to be that this is true and there is no alternative. It’s terrifying to imagine yourself so radically free that the prison could be deserted. And there will almost certainly be violence. Only less so once the guns have been taken from the police and the prison guards. Less so when the social field has been reordered such that the people who would use violence to impose their will upon another do not have the sanction of a state and its monopoly to prop them up.

“The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again,” Fisher said, and this is a kernel of revolutionary optimism we revolutionaries cling to. I have shown you it’s possible to imagine the world without the prison, and if it’s a nightmare I have given you it is at least a gentler one than the nightmare we are all currently live within. It is the duty of all of us to break out, this minute, all at once. And so long as people remain trapped in this nightmare, we abolitionists and revolutionaries will call for the wrecking ball. Release the terrified grip you have on the devil you know: freedom, real radical freedom, is terrifying. I know. It scares me too. Heavens knows it scared Sartre. But what frightens me far more is the idea that people would rather this familiar cruelty than the possibility of anything better.

Idea Landlords

The internet is being silly again and it’s kind of Dr. Seuss’ fault.

I promise this is going somewhere that isn’t tedious internet culture war silliness but we need to set the stage: two days ago, the business that administers Dr. Seuss’ estate announced that they would be withdrawing six books from future reprints. This led to conservatives across the internet, who had never previously expressed any interest in Seuss, or in children’s literature at all, to pull a collective wobbler that Seuss was being cancelled.

The books in question featured racially stereotyping images of Inuit, Chinese people, Japanese people and Black people. In one case, the racial stereotyping of Chinese people was so archaic that some of its coding (a Qing dynasty queue and clothes that might have been appropriate to a late 18th century official) might seem entirely foreign to a modern reader – while still managing to have the cringiness associated with an image that considers a person eating with chopsticks a wild and strange sight when on a daily walk. The images of Japanese people that Seuss had drawn as a propagandist during the second world war went far beyond merely being cringey or orientalist, explicitly calling Japanese Americans the fifth column. The remainder fell between these two poles of insensitivity.

The business made the business decision that they could continue profiting from Seuss best by burying these images that are so inappropriate in 21st century culture. And when it became clear to conservatives that this was not censorship but rather a business decision, this led some of them to have the epiphany that, perhaps, copyright is a problem. After all, if businesses believe it’s to the best interest of their bottom line to bury an historical artwork, copyright prevents anybody else from legally, “rescuing,” said racist art.

And this has sparked yet another round of debate regarding copyright between children who call artist-ownership of art, “idea landlordism,” and adult artists who should know better than to argue with children online. Two things are true: idea landlordism is an incredibly silly and surface understanding of the problems of copyright, and copyright still operates as the enclosing of a commons in which major media companies operate on a rentier business model. There are two principal problems with this idea landlordism description of copyright. The first is that the people making the claims fail to generate a cohesive material analysis of the power structures that underlie the ownership of art. The second is that they don’t go anywhere near far enough.

Artist, class and wasteful action

Artists, individual working artists, present a quandry for a basic class analysis because they seem, on the surface, to resemble petit bourgeoisie. Often an artist owns the means of their artistic production. I have a studio space, an easel I built, brushes I own, paints I bought, a computer and writing software which is mine to use. The petite bourgeoisie was once principally composed of individual skilled artisans: shoe makers, tailors, jewelers and such. They were people who earned their living by the means of production which they owned but who were generally too small-scale to exploit the labour of many workers like the big boys of the bourgeois proper. It’s also somewhat true that the principal body of the petit bourgeoisie in the modern era is the renter class. It’s small-scale landlords who derive a modest income off renting, buying and selling a small number of buildings. As such, tying the idea of rent seeking to petite bourgeoisie and from them to copyright holders is attractive.

However this disregards what the production of art is, and what is produced with regard to art within capitalism.

Principally art is waste.

You are taking the labour of the people who ground the pigment; who wove the canvas; who cut the wood; who mined copper, smelted it and shaped it into nails; who shaped the frame, stretched the canvas, jessoed it and packaged it, who operated the machines that produced the brushes, who stocked the shelves at the art store, and you are expending it.

The end product, a work of art, has no use value. Its value, in being aesthetic, is only in the pleasure we derive from it. Furthermore there is a significant break between the labour of the people who produce the material inputs to art and the labour of the artist. The value of art has no correlation to the material value of the labour and materials of the inputs. Nor does the value of art have a direct correlation to the labour of the artist. Rather, the labour of all these people is wasted. The act of artistic creation destroys the inputs as clearly when they are tubes of paint as when they are previous artistic iterations. An artist spends more or less time on a work of art in order to produce that which is pleasing to themselves. Later an audience will decide if the art is pleasing to them too. This is its value. We cannot claim the training of the artist is the source of value because no specific unit of training can be apportioned against a specific artwork. We cannot claim their labour in making the art is the source because a photograph produced in 1/32 of a second might very well be as artistically valid as a sculpture that takes a decade to complete.

Capitalism cannot handle waste well. It likes to forget waste. And so capital assigns exchange value to art. It says that this Picasso is more valuable than this child’s finger-painting because the market will bear $95 million as the purchase price of Dora Maar Au Chat but nobody wants to buy the child’s painting.

However to a parent, perhaps somebody who is something of a philistine, their own child’s painting may have far more value than a painting by yet another dead French dude.

“My kid could do that,” they might scoff when what they mean to say is, “I enjoy the art my kid does more.” The paint used on the Picasso and that of the child are both equally wasted. No further use can be made of it except in the receipt of subjective pleasure.

And so the means of production of art within capital isn’t about producing the objet d’art but rather about its marketing. And this is a place in which the individual artist is entirely alienated. If you self-publish you aren’t likely doing so by typesetting, printing and binding. You’re selling it on Kindle Unlimited – owned and operated by Amazon. If you write a cartoon you aren’t hand-drawing every cell and projecting it in your back-yard. You’re showing it on Netflix or Disney+. The individual artist is a proletarian. Their labour is exploited to make the actual rentiers of the artistic world – the marketers, distributors and copyright-buyers – wealthy even though these Bob Chapeks and Jeff Bezoses create nothing artistic in the slightest.

The real copyright rentiers

In fact, it is in the refusal to waste anything that might still hold exchange value that entities like Disney become antagonistic to the arts. Copyright, although conceived as a form of labour protection for working artists, has been reclaimed by capital as a tool by which these big corporations can extract rent. But a proper class analysis should demonstrate that the problem with copyright isn’t that an individual author can exercise some measure of control over the exchange of their work, it arises when the very wealthy are able to buy work rights the same way that one buys a house.

This commodification in turn causes real harm to real working artists. And not just from Disney claiming it bought the right to publish a work but not the contractual obligation to pay the artist. This is a widespread pattern of abuse. For instance, Nintendo is notorious for disregarding fair-use provisions in its prosecution of copyright matters.

Copyright, in its current form has metastasized from a worker-protection to yet another tool of capitalist exploitation. However, as is often the case when capital territorializes something, the occupation is incomplete. Foucault liked to point out that the arising of a new episteme didn’t obliterate the one that came before it. The systems of power and knowledge that underpinned one period remained, with the new systems superimposed on top. The end of the power of sovereign kings and their retributive justice gave way to the juridicial disciplinary state. But that didn’t eliminate retribution from justice. Likewise many working writers depend on royalties and other down-stream consequences of copyright to eat even though copyright is principally a tool of their exploitation.

Copyright is part of the superstructure of the arts. But it isn’t sufficiently modular to be plucked out of the rest of that superstructure. Furthermore, while it is critical that artists create an artistic superstructure that is built to suit the demands of art, the root of the exploitation endemic in the arts is a matter of the cultural base from which the superstructure arises. To put it bluntly, we cannot abolish copyright without ensuring that artists can continue eating, living indoors, and creating art. Certainly a strong case can be made for strictly limiting copyright and doing away with pernicious laws like DCMA. And I do think that it is best to do away with copyright, but this must be in the context of a revolutionary transformation of society and its relationship to art.

Moral right

And finally, those children who contend against copyright absent class analysis or with a flawed and incomplete one must still contend with the question of moral right. Simply put, the failure to respect the right of an artist to say, “this is my creation,” is one that copyright protects against poorly, but it remains one of the few protections that exists. We must make sure whatever wondrous new world we create in which copyright is not necessary still protects the moral right of an artist to be the artist of this work. All art is iterative but all art contains differences from what comes before into which an artist encodes meaning. And in fact the true value of the art is found here. Artists need to eat. Artists also need to be able to command that this is their art.

I said before that putting a work of art into the world is a gamble the artist makes: that the artwork may face a cruel reception. However the other side of this gamble, that an artist must allow themselves to be open to this violence, is that we affirm the art is theirs.

I sincerely believe the task of dismantling capitalism and replacing it with something different is an artistic task, the Body Without Organs, too, is the moral right of artists. And I also believe there is an urgency to this task – I don’t want to put off the abolition of copyright with a calm, “yes but not today.” However I do want every person who advocates against copyright to understand clearly and with intent what they are advocating to undertake. Nothing short of a revolutionary transformation of society will allow for the conditions of an abolition of copyright. We must raze the entire superstructure of art to the ground and then keep going, cutting at the roots of the art world with an axe, if we wish to do away with copyright. And then we must create something more pleasing from its ruins.