Contemporary social movements in the West either forget past achievements made in their name or hold them in outright contempt. That is damaging to their ability to identify and work towards concrete goals. It leads to the maximalist trend in current debate where no solution is satisfactory and potential allies are discarded because of a lack of purity. In recent years policing and prison reform have been replaced in the imaginary with defunding the police and abolishing prisons. The scrubbing of history covers over that fact that we have had several prison abolition movements over the years. Prisons were effectively abolished in the 19th century and replaced with something else, reformatories. Another problem with the current progressive stance is it ignores backsliding. Because the current situation is so unreformable, it does not recognise that things can get worse. For example, prisons were partly de-abolished in the early 21st century, with the development of a network of CIA-run torture sites and the effective suspension of habeus corpus.
There is a serious argument about prison design, what gets defined as a crime, and why some people end up in prison and not others which current social movements can contribute to. There is no answer to the question though about what to do with people who refuse restorative justice, or transformative justice. You either coerce or ostracise. Which is sort of like… prison.
Recent years have seen two linked movements or policy positions come to the fore: defund the police, and prison abolition/anti-carceral politics. Both gained prominence as an arm of Black Lives Matter though they go much further back. Both also had a tendency not to mean what they said. Many ‘defund the police’ arguments ended up saying that of course they did not want to defund the police as such, just direct funding to better, less coercive solutions where possible. Many prison abolition arguments said that yes, we still need prisons (or something that looks like them) but we need to lock fewer people up and make more use of alternative routes. As in, we need to reform it.
These motte and bailey arguments are difficult to get to grips with because it becomes unclear what people actually want to happen. The argument type consists of making a strong, all encompassing, hard to defend statement (the bailey) but when challenged retreat to an easier to defend but largely bland and common sense statement (the motte). A fewer number of voices were prepared to stick to the bailey and argue that yes, society would be much better if we just got rid of both tomorrow. A criticism of the motte and bailey critique is that these are just clarifications. If so, political movements work best when they have defined aims, because then you know when you have got there, and they speak for themselves – and to the reality of people’s lives.
A problem underlies that tendency. It is the systematic forgetting that it promotes. A frustrating feature of several current social movements is their constant forgetting, rejection or devaluing of their own history. Occupy exemplified this and the situation has become more damaging since. These year zero type statements reflect the need to be the first ones to do this or that, and also to avoid any solutions that might have to be fought for and applied in the messy real world. It often involves setting fire to one’s predecessors, and often explicitly denigrating past feminist, civil rights and labour movement generations. It also minimises past achievements. The aims of many of these movements would be easier to achieve if they were linked into those traditions. So: ‘antiwork’ is just updated trade unionism. ‘Decarceral’ politics is just good old prison reform. ‘Defund’ the police is just police democratisation. These are venerable traditions stretching back tens and hundreds of years, but you would not know it to listen to their proponents. That matters when it comes to institutionalising their achievements and not backsliding from them.
It also draws on a harmful tendency in social theory. The worst thing to happen to the prison reform movement was the popularisation of a basic version of Foucault’s claim that all reform is really the opposite of reform. Every improvement in prison organisation, or the establishment of a welfare state or any kind of positive political change is, he argued, just another thread in the web of power that we are stuck to. No it is not. The radical chic rhetoric of these movements stops actual reform happening. They fail to recognise change that has happened and refuse to learn from the experience of others. They also have nothing to say when society degrades, when rights are lost, because to them progress itself means nothing. Being rendered, being held without any due process, are identifiable harms which should have been prevented. You cannot campaign against that or prison privatisation if you also think that reform is just another move in the carceral power game.