What’s in a Slogan?

The Provocations of "Defund the Police"

December 16, 2020

This past summer saw the resurgence of Black-led struggle in the United States, with the question of police brutality front and center. But for the first time in recent memory, movement demands were not articulated in terms of reforming the police, but in terms of abolishing them. Thus was born the slogan, “Defund the police,” which now has global recognizability. To no one’s surprise, this radical demand has inspired a number of vitriolic distortions across the political spectrum. The conservative response mobilized the same old “law and order” mantras that are far too mainstream and predictable to warrant a rehearsal here. Liberal reformers donned Kente cloth and embarked on familiar performances of feigned morose and dismay.

But it is the response from certain pockets of the Left – encapsulated in this segment of an unfortunate launch episode of a new Jacobin series – that has emerged as one of the most reactionary, entirely cowering to the same facile liberal denigrations launched by the Democratic establishment that many of us so deeply despise.

The rebuttal I offer here is based on the following broad themes identified in these responses. I argue that the absence of political imagination animates the stubborn reticence by certain segments of the Left to urgently seize on this evental moment in the history of movements.

 

“Defund the Police is not a Winning Slogan”

 Although many might find the phrase “defunding the police” jarring, this sense of unease emerges when the choice put forth – as mainstream media, Conservative, and most Democrats have done – is “only police” or “no police.” But no one is actually making this argument.

While the phrase “defund the police” has been distorted, its main impetus has been to get us to rethink the role of police and the persistent investment in an institution that has neither worked to improve lives nor to prevent crime. No, the police won’t be defunded overnight but a gradual shift away from policing towards a meaningful redistributive politics would actually be in line with evidence-based policies that have, time and again, shown that investment in public services and infrastructure, not policing, paves the way for human flourishing.

To suggest that this isn’t a movement or that it isn’t an important policy framework is to re-center and re-commit the parochial interests of a “working-class” that doesn’t suffer (or certainly not to the same fatal degrees) the violence of police brutality outside of the workplace. This stance amounts to both an act of willful abandonment and calculated ignorance.

The bold and revolutionary demands to defund the police, as blunt as they be, are successful precisely because they invite us to interrogate the broader political economic context in which policing in general and police violence in particular are embedded. The friendliest of abolitionist slogans, like “Build Schools not Jails” favored by Vivek Chibber, was met with arrogant derision by VP-elect Kamala Harris. In other words, no amount of slick sloganeering will make radical demands palatable to ruling classes.

 

“Defunding the Police is a Concession to Austerity Politics”

 The “defund the police” movement is a direct intervention into how resources are allocated, away from policing to life-making institutions and an array of public services that target the structures of inequality and wealth distribution. In short, this is an effort to advance socialist policies of universal programs. When even the most liberal of mainstream media outlets, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, run stories exploring the “defund” aspect of this movement, it is difficult to imagine any engaged Leftist would harbor confusion about the demands put forth by abolitionists in this moment of cacophonous crises.

 

If there is a logic of scarcity at play here, it is the starved political imagination that fabricates false antinomies in the fashion of opportunity cost.

Not unlike the debates over slogan efficacy discussed above, those who animate this logic suggest that “defunding the rich” would serve as a better marketing strategy to advance a resource redistribution agenda. There is no absence of slogans that call for taxing the rich, even if those calls have yet to be heeded. However, reframing the problem of policing as solely an issue redistribution collapses the full scope of the movements’ demands to a crudely economic rendition. But the movement roars: bloated police budgets are not only wasteful, but they also cause harm.

If there is a logic of scarcity at play here, it is the starved political imagination that fabricates false antinomies in the fashion of opportunity cost. We can demand to tax the rich and reduce our reliance on militarized police.

Consider this bizarre abstraction:

“Defund” falls prey to austerity in another way: by focusing the fight on the small part of the pie that is the municipal budget. This is where the race/class short-circuit is particularly pernicious.

Let’s talk about municipalities.

Seattle’s socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant, who led and won a long and bitter struggle to Tax Amazon (no “small part” of the proverbial pie), was successful in centering both racial and economic justice. This entailed dedicating funds to build affordable housing for displaced and incarcerated members of Seattle’s Central District’s historically Black community.

As US cities raged against police brutality, Seattle too became embroiled in its own confrontation with its police forces. Sawant subsequently put forth a motion to defund Seattle’s Police Department, arguing for reinvestment in a gamut of transformational and restorative justice social policies. This is bold socialist strategy that does not subordinate its vision to the receptiveness of ruling elites with timid demands that fray, not strengthen, working-class solidarity.

Most importantly, policing is not merely incidental to austerity. Austerity’s deleterious effects on our everyday lives necessitates the state’s authoritarian tendency to discipline and punish working and unemployed people displaced and dispossessed by capital – a phenomenon explored meticulously in Stuart Hall’s Policing the Crisis.

A 2018 report published by the Action Center on Race & the Economy reveals that the increasing cost of police misconduct gets downloaded onto the very same communities that are brutalized by police. This happens through a debt relation. The authors of the report refer to “police brutality bonds” to describe the funds that counties and municipalities borrow, in the form of bonds, to cover the costs of police violence-related settlements. This represents a direct transfer of wealth from poor overpoliced communities to Wall Street, which in turn only further encumbers taxpayers whose money (often double the amount of the original civil settlement) could have gone to expand capital projects like public schools, health facilities, and public infrastructure rather than to the pocketbooks of big banks and wealthy investors.

 

“But poor racialized communities actually want police…”

From this broad quibble flow a number of different dubious and unfounded claims. “But if you talk to people in poor communities, they’ll tell you that they want police protection” is perfectly in line with a what a plethora of criminology research refers to as the condition of being “over-policed and under-protected.”

The phenomenon of overpolicing and underprotection underscores a situation in which residents who live in racialized working-class neighborhoods “want police to provide protection and safety in the community while knowing that police presence often came with harassment, potential violence, the threat of incarceration, and likely an inadequate response to their problems.” These fears are entirely valid and not incongruous with the multifaceted demands made by the “defund the police” movement.

How these fears get taken up by skeptics, however, begins to take on a life of its own: “this is a movement propped up by white woke liberals who don’t live in crime-ridden communities.” It’s statements like these that reveal the inconsistencies of the “class only” Left. Anyone paying close attention to the unfolding of this political conjuncture would know that it is Black women community leaders (see also here and here) who have led this mass insurrection against violence.

More troubling is the subtle implication that racism ought to be fought by those looking down the figurative (and literal!) barrel, as though racism does not distort the lives of all who share and traverse the same social relations that construct differential experiences and the unequal distribution of resources and life chances.

Blithely dismissing any and all iterations of one’s standpoint – the place of personal experience – is entirely incongruent with a Marxist analysis.

In all, what unites these lazy critiques is the vehement rejection of all things not articulated exclusively and explicitly through the lexicon of “class,” and the near-pathological insistence on reducing discussions about real life-or-death issues to that tireless and seemingly endless race-or-class “debate.” But as Asad Haider very astutely points out:

The position which argues that antiracism is necessarily a neoliberal politics… is a symptom of absorption into the academic social world […] instead of building on ordinary impulses people have outside the academy that are perfectly reasonable.

 

Returning to Marx

Before I proceed, let me be very clear: we should be critical of the corporate cooptation of anti-racism and anti-oppression discourse, which many of us understand to be shallow and woefully inadequate in addressing the very grave inequalities that shape racially stratified societies. No amount of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” brand of (non)solutions can ever come remotely close to addressing the multiple crises that we face today. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor brilliantly elucidates

Black elected officials have become adept at mobilizing the tropes of black identity without any of its political content.

Acknowledging this need not lead us down the path of deep denial in the face of glaring truths, nor does it explain why these discussions tend to quickly devolve to misplaced tirades about so-called “identity politics.” That epithets of racial justice are misappropriated by the ruling classes only reveals their strength as deeply grounded and contested socio-cultural formations. If the left were to cede all the “sacred that becomes profaned,” we would just as well have surrendered any notion of “freedom” and “autonomy” mobilized to prop up exploitative work arrangements.

Blithely dismissing any and all iterations of one’s standpoint – the place of personal experience – is also entirely incongruent with a Marxist analysis. Marx himself found workers’ unique position within the broader web of capitalist relation to be an important point of inquiry. And it was Lukács’ analysis of the standpoint of the proletariat that would deeply influence feminist theoreticians of standpoint epistemology decades later.

Marxists like Dorothy Smith and Himani Bannerji, among so many others who have adopted Marx’s method, have pointed to the value of standpoint theory as a necessary corollary for mapping capitalist social relations. That is, we will always necessarily have a partial understanding of social relations if we don’t interrogate and understand specific standpoints or points of departure that come to comprise the integral whole of society. Without an adequate account of racism, and by collapsing anti-racism into the realm of bourgeois politics, this fragment of the Left ultimately fails to incorporate anti-oppression as a commitment and a strategy for the Left today.

In The German Ideology, Marx critiqued idealism’s treatment of consciousness as an autonomous social force devoid of material grounding. Marx argued that this philosophical phantasm attributes all human relations, activity, and “their chains and limitations” to consciousness. By giving primacy to consciousness as such, social transformation is erroneously interpreted as merely a task or “a demand to interpret reality in another way, i.e. to recognise it by means of another interpretation,” to maintain the chasm between the signifier and the signified, and to remain satisfied with a conviction in interpreting the signifier, or the representation of reality, and not reality itself. Its object of inquiry are “phrases”:

They [the philosophers] forget, however, that to these phrases they themselves are only opposing other phrases, and that they are in no way combating the real existing world when they are merely combating the phrases of this world.

Alas, the self-proclaimed “materialists” of today are, in the final instance, the Idealists of Marx’s time, awaiting a perfect(ly) abstracted historical subject while history passes them by.

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