Thursday, January 22, 2015

We Are the Insurgency: An Interview with Abolition

We Are the Insurgency: An Interview with Abolition

Below is a transcript of a recent interview I had with the members of the collective and open access academic journal Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics.

1. What made you create the journal and what made you go with the name Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics?

Eli Meyerhoff: Academia monopolizes resources for research and study. I see this journal as a tool for siphoning those resources into radical movements. The project started with a few political scientists who organized a mini-conference on abolitionism and decolonization. We wanted to publish the presentations, but it was difficult to find journals of radical politics that were also free and open access. We refused the compromise of submitting them to an existing journal with a paywall that would be inaccessible to non-academic organizers of radical movements, our ideal audience. So, we started our own journal.

We stuck with our refusal to compromise, turned to the tradition of abolitionists before us, and encoded this principle in our manifesto’s first line: “Abolitionist politics is not about what is possible, but about making the impossible a reality.” Of course, in our own lives, we are always caught up in compromises—buying commodified goods made through exploited labor, legitimating the settler colonial state through obeying its laws, etc. But why should we let our personal compromises bleed into our radical projects? The title, Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics, also signals this ‘no compromises’ fanaticism of our approach. We want to distinguish our form of insurgent abolitionism from other approaches that might take on the banner of ‘abolition.’ Obviously, we oppose its right-wing uses, such as the ‘Abolish Human Abortion’ campaign. But we also oppose liberal forms of abolitionism that seek mediating, reformist solutions to social problems. To distinguish our approach, we highlight the multiplicity of abolitionist movements—those seeking to end all of the different forms of oppression, exploitation, and domination, from white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonialism to ableism, hetero-and-cis-sexism, and capitalism—while emphasizing the interconnected, co-constitutive character of these institutions.

Trying to hold together these goals for abolitionism—as fanatical, multiplicitous, and intersecting—is really difficult, riddled with complex tensions, and seems almost impossible to do not merely in theory but in practice. As we say in our manifesto: “we seek to understand the specific power dynamics within and between these systems so we can make the impossible possible; so we can bring the entire monstrosity down.” Our journal seeks to create forums for grappling collectively with questions about how this can happen—what are our different ways of imagining abolitionism, what are the histories behind our visions, what are the tensions between them, what are the obstacles to realizing them, how can we overcome those obstacles together?

2. What kind of political lean does the journal have? It seems to be somewhat anarchistic in nature.

Dylan Rodriguez:  I have been encouraged and impressed by the journal collective’s decidedly non-sectarian approach to its work.  If anything, there is a generally shared commitment to incite a breadth and quality of radical intellectual-cultural work that will both contribute to and potentially disrupt existing academic (and social movement) discourses.

Eli: The journal’s collective members (currently 33) have a variety of political leanings, generally of a far left and/or anarchist persuasion. Yet, the journal’s politics are not a mere synthesis of those of its members. Rather, we seek to create a new political position for a radical research and publishing project. The manifesto is an initial attempt at articulating our approach, though we are still working on it and expect to always be working on it, as a living document. We wrote it with the initial six members, then sent it out as a prĂ©cis of the project to invite new members. Twenty-seven members have joined since then, including many radical academics from disciplines other than political science as well as twelve non-academic activists, two of whom are currently incarcerated. Given the large size of the collective, we do take on some anarchist practices in how we run the collective, such as embracing the messiness of making decisions amongst many different people, using consensus process, and making it ‘leader-full’ while avoiding fixed hierarchies of leadership.

Instead of the self-entrepreneurial motivations for doing collaborative intellectual work in academic capitalism, we promote principles of mutual aid and ‘from each according to their abilities and passions, to each according to their needs and desires.’ These principles play out, for example, in how we recognize that our collective members will have different capacities to contribute at different times, and feeling okay with some members taking on more work without needing to give them some kind of marketable ‘credit’ for it, such as anointing them with an official position.

With our crew together, we are now putting the engine of the journal to work as a prefigurative project, conducting the process in a way that mirrors the world we desire to live in. The first publication will be an ‘Issue Zero’ composed of writings by some of the collective members on questions related to the mission of the journal, such as ‘what should abolitionism mean today?’ So, the journal itself does not have a unified political position in the normal sense, but rather it aims to create a common space for people of various ‘abolitionist’ stripes to experiment, play, and work together intellectually. 

It’s an institution of abolition-democracy, creating forums for debating and grappling with the big questions facing abolitionist movements. The collective members bring to the project their understandings of abolitionism out of many different backgrounds and struggles—from decolonization, indigenous resurgence, and ‘no borders’ work to gender justice, labor organizing, and prison and police abolition. These different experiences lead us to prioritize some questions over others, but we also share a lot of strategic and theoretical questions, due to the intersections of the institutions we are struggling against. This project provides us an opportunity to seek out, explore, and strengthen collaborations between our different movements.

3. What do you think that Abolition will bring to the table that many radical journals have not?

Eli Meyerhoff: Many radical journals gesture toward problems with the boundaries between academia and radical activism. We have taken that gesture and made it a core part of our mission. For each of our processes, we ask how academia vs. activism divisions play out and how we could better negotiate them for abolitionist purposes. To guide our grappling with these boundaries, we draw insights from the essay, “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally-Industrial Complex”: “An accomplice as academic would seek ways to leverage resources and material support and/or betray their institution to further liberation struggles. An intellectual accomplice would strategize with, not for and not be afraid to pick up a hammer.” Taking on the intertwined ally-and-academic-industrial complexes simultaneously, those of us with institutional positions in academia or other non-profit organizations seek to use our positions for purposes of accompliceship in abolitionist struggles—picking the locks on academia’s treasure chests of resources for study.

Conversely, we aim to combat those who try to recuperate struggles for shoring up their institutional positions. Some journals fall into such recuperative roles unwittingly, as academics who publish in them about an abolitionist movement can gain academic capital for their careers without helping the movement (or even hurting the movement by aiding state surveillance of it or exacerbating internal tensions under the guise of ‘critique’).

4. What are some of the overall goals for Abolition?

Andrew Dilts: In one sense, it is difficult to talk about “goals” for this project, in that we think a large part of what we are doing is captured in the doing itself. But at the same time, there are clearly some concrete things that we want to see come of this work, and some specific horizons that we want to bring into the foreground of our lives, first and foremost to make abolition democracy a reality. In the immediate term, we simply want to publish a journal that reflects our manifesto, that is open-access, and that both reflects and reaches people who have been excluded from social and political life by the intersecting oppressions that define our moment. We want to do this in a prefigurative way, that is, to publish a journal whose making is reflective of how we imagine a different world.

5. You also state in the manifesto that "academia has more often been an opponent to abolitionist movements," however you do note the exception of people such as W.E.B. Du Bois. Do you think that academia is still a place where the status quo reins? Do you think there are some academics today that actively use the academy as a space of rebellion?

Dylan Rodriguez: Academia--and colleges, universities, and other schooling institutions generally--is no more insulated from the logics of power, domination, and oppressive institutionalized violence than any other hegemonic apparatus.  In this sense, it also constitutes a historical site of political-cultural struggle that is tantamount to protracted low-intensity warfare.  People who take this site seriously as a place of activist mobilization and radical intellectual innovation have often--usually collectively--played  crucial roles in catalyzing, transforming, and/or sustaining liberation/revolutionary movements through their work, from the renaissance of mid-20th century Black freedom struggle to the recent formation of an early-21st century abolitionist politics, theory, and pedagogy.

6. How does Abolition operate as a traditional academic journal? In what ways does it veer from tradition?

Eli Meyerhoff: In tension with our struggles against and beyond academia, we recognize the benefits for abolitionist academics to maintain institutional positions within it, for the access to resources that inclusion can offer. The impetus for this project came from academics, particularly some in political science who are fed up with how the tenured ruling class in their discipline use academia’s resources to uphold the liberal capitalist status quo. A key role of most academic journals is to act as mechanisms for maintaining a culture of conformity, legitimated with myths of ‘political neutrality’ and ‘meritocracy.’ In contrast, we decided to create a new journal that will openly take sides in political struggles—with abolitionist movements. Inspired by previous efforts for radical change in academia, especially the unfinished projects of the campus movements that have created radical new fields like Black Studies, we aim to take on the gate-keepers of the major disciplines—contesting their claims of legitimate control over the resources for studying the phenomena that they frame as ‘politics,’ ‘economics,’ ‘society,’ ‘environment,’ ‘history,’ etc.  

Rather than taking academics’ desires to survive within the academy as eternal necessities, we foresee that the success of abolitionist projects will change the availability of resources for intellectual activity as well as the terms on which we understand what counts as a ‘resource.’ For such visions, we take inspiration from places where colonial capitalism has relatively less hold, such as the Zapatista communities and the Venezuelan communes, where collective studying infuses everyday life. To help abolitionist academics grapple with the tensions around transgressing academia’s boundaries, our journal aims to provide some means for legitimacy within the dominant value practices of academia (e.g., publication requirements for hiring, tenure, and promotion), while simultaneously pushing the limits of those value practices.

One key path toward exploding the limits is to reject the rankings of journals. Following the lead of other radical journals, such as the ACME critical geography journal, we will refuse to submit material for the rankings of the publishing industry. All rankings of journals are biased toward the dominant regime of knowledge production, and submitting to them would catch us in its processes of financialization and dispossession. Our reasoning is not that these particular rankings are ‘inaccurate’ or ‘corrupt,’ but rather that the quantification of knowledge production is necessarily bound up with capitalist circuits of value accumulation.

Despite our rejection of the rankings game, we are neither abandoning the institution of peer review nor discounting the value that is associated with it in academia and beyond. Practicing peer review of texts—sharing writing with respected comrades and giving each other feedback for revision before circulation with wider audiences—can be useful for movements to make their intellectual activities better means for building their power. Against academia’s control over access to a wealth of resources designated for peer-reviewed knowledge production, our project offers a means for movement actors to contest this control and to expropriate such resources.

Recognizing that the legitimacy and validity of peer review processes are ultimately based on the relationships of trust amongst those who are seen as ‘peers,’ most academics take for granted the belief that only other academics should be seen as legitimate peers. I question that assumption and wonder why we should view those academics whose work situates them on the opposite side of our struggles as our ‘peers.’ In doing so, our project takes the lead from the movements, such as the Black Campus Movement, who withdrew their trust from academics in universities bound up with the regimes they sought to abolish. Considering the accumulated capital of the publishing industry—e.g., Thomson Reuters’s market capitalization of over 30 billion dollars—I am reminded of a quote from Marx that "capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks." With the largest publishing corporation running the key academic rankings system, academia is dead to us. For escaping its vampire fangs, we devote our living labor to building relationships for alternative institutions of peer review.

Our journal’s approach to peer review will entail more movement-relevant practices for curating themes of issues, including activist-intellectuals in the peer review process, making the review process more dialogical by allowing reviewers to be involved via open peer review, and promoting a more inclusive and democratic process for evaluating the importance of an article. We are starting this practice in our Issue Zero by having each submission openly reviewed by at least one academic and one non-academic activist. Through such practices, we not only aim to create a means for expropriating academia’s resources for abolitionist movements but also to prefigure a mode of collective study beyond academic capitalism.