Economics is a Trap: Some Thoughts on the “Economics” of Abolition

A few months ago I was invited to a panel on discussing the prospects of “Abolitionist Economics: Moving Beyond Carceral Capitalism” at the New School for Social Research with Jackie Wang (NSSR), Alyx Goodwin (ACRE), and Jasson Perez (ACRE). I’m always chewing over my thoughts, thinking and then rethinking, but I’ve finally gotten around to posting what I said back in March. It may or may not make sense, I’ll probably keep rethinking all of it, and once my brain works again I’ll post an annotated version with some references and citations. I keep growing saltier and more critical, so I’m sure I’ll critique myself in due time.

Watch the panel here:

“Economics is a Trap: Economics of Abolition in a Carceral Capitalist Society”

A thought that runs through my head when I think about the notion of abolitionist economics is: “Economics is a Trap”. A famous economist once said something about how the purpose of studying economics is to avoid being deceived by economists. As a discipline (keyword discipline), the primary function of economics is the bourgeois science of managing capitalism. But the tools used to do so, especially when demystified from their oppressive function, still may offer important insights into mapping the terrain for the struggle for the abolition of policing, prisons, and (state sanctioned and punitive) violence- the abolition of carceral capitalism. But I say economics is a trap, because different frameworks within economics and political economy (as well as its critique) have varying degrees of compatibility with upholding and legitimizing, or potentially rupturing the logics of carceral, racial capitalism. To sub some words from Mariame Kaba, “try everything” and “experiment”. And here we will try and experiment to start building an abolitionist political economy, and as we walk and question, and talk together to avoid those potential traps. 

I have many critiques of the mainstream economics of ‘crime’. From ethical issues of data collection, its role in surveillance, and to the technocratic economism that drives much of the research. While some of these analyses move away from moralizing ideas of criminality, the economics of crime does little to interrogate why criminality is constructed in the first place. There’s limited discussion of criminalization and its relationship to capitalism, work and expropriation, anti-Blackness, patriarchy, settler-colonialism and imperialism. There also limited analysis of the other actors in the economic model of crime: the construct of criminality is not just about the so-called criminal, it is also those who do the policing, those who choose and benefit from the policies and priorities of the carceral apparatus, and who participates in and benefits from its enactment. 

But what if abolition is a lens we can view the economy through, rather than just through functions like growth, incentives, costs, and benefits? I propose that we use abolition as a lens for building a political economy (and its critique) that centers how to actually work towards making these carceral institutions economically obsolete (to borrow words from Angela Davis). This talk of course is at an institution that shares my own approach to economics, which is heterodox political economy, where we can see through the rhetoric and demystify the mainstream, while building a political economy that recognizes carceral systems as a central feature of capitalism, rather than as part of some separate sphere of social issues. So, if we look further into broader approaches to the issue-like those found in Post Keynesian economics, Marxist and post Marxist approaches, and other alternative schools of thought, we can start to map the terrain of an “economics of abolition”, or work to center abolition as a framework (and perhaps this isn’t actually possible within the confines of “economics” or even “political economy”). 

Post Keynesian approaches help us to interrogate the disciplining role of public spending and budgets, and the “surplus population” management approach to understanding incarceration and its relationship to employment. These insights also argue that we both may begin disrupting carceral logics by boldly investing in communities, instead of in policing and prisons, as well how to see connections between sectors like finance and real estate and the carceral apparatus, through gentrification, financialized public finance, fines and fees farming, and debt. These approaches often propose specific potentially disruptive policies: reparations, housing guarantees, debt forgiveness, investment in health and care, public banking, and many others, along with participatory processes. 

But this brings up questions of the state and capitalism. And as we go in developing this abolitionist lens for understanding the economy, Marxist, post Marxist, and other approaches help us to understand how capitalism is always innately carceral by its logic, and that criminality, like our subjectivities of race, gender, class, and other axes, is produced and socially reproduced through this capitalistic organization of society and work. This includes the imposition of work, and the organization of our social relations vis-a-vis capital.  Capitalism compels work, and therefore value, by relying on coercion and domination under threat of violence, especially that which is state sanctioned. From this perspective, it turns out the invisible hand is more like a velvet gloved, iron fist.

These approaches from heterodox political economy (and its critique) can offer us analysis, strategies, ideas and salve for thinking through this project of abolitionist “economics” together, interrogating the role of the state, and for finding potential points of rupture. This can hopefully lead us towards liberation, repair (or at least regeneration), and an economy and society based on meeting people’s needs rather than imposing work, and fostering autonomy and addressing conflict, rather than coercion through punishment and exclusion. There may be some policies to advocate for in the meantime, like expanding “public” goods and services. Or perhaps strategies involving solidarity economy, mutual aid, refusal and other ways that can shine light towards that path to abolition. But as we walk and question our way forward, it won’t be the words or theories of economists that are the condition of possibility, but our collective participation in struggle and mapping of the terrain towards autonomy and liberation as we make our break from carceral racial capitalism, globally. So out of care I emphasize to be mindful of the traps set by economics, but I am hopeful for struggling while we walk and question towards that path to abolition. 

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