Revolution, Reform, and Abolition

I did a post a little while back about revolution, so I thought I might try one or two about reform. What sorts of reform should be supported, which opposed, which ignored?

This is actually something that comes up separately in a number of areas. Two examples are eating animals and assaulting migrants, though both cases the issue is not phrased so much in terms of ‘revolution’ as much as ‘abolition’. Let’s take, for example, abolitionism about meat.

A commonly encountered reformist thought here is that demanding full abolition is unrealistic, because that policy is not going to be accepted in the foreseeable future – and if one is ‘all or nothing’, then one will get nothing. It’s much more sensible to accept gradual piecemeal reforms, each of which is a step in the right direction: things like new regulations on cage size, more humane methods of slaughter, higher welfare standards, etc.

But this misses the point. Obviously it’s foolish to look for ‘all or nothing’. We have to focus on gradual steps. But gradual steps can be in two very different directions.

What abolitionists object to is gradual steps which involve strengthening, stabilising, and legitimising the meat industry. What they support is gradual steps which involve weaking, de-stabilising, and de-legitimising it.

For example, arranging a deal between a vegan organisation and KFC to give them a ‘happy chicken’ sticker for their meat, in exchange for an improvement in the methods they use to kill their chickens, works directly to the benefit of KFC. KFC comes out less worried about that vegan organisation than it was before, and indeed quite possibly with a competitive advantage that lets it expand its business. Customers get the impression that they don’t need to feel any compunction against eating KFC chicken. This is not going to lead anywhere – there will not come a point where suddenly, after a long succession of small changes that made KFC work better, one more change will bring it crashing to the ground.

Conversely, persuading more people to become vegan, or carrying out direct action to bring down the profit margins of meat companies, directly harms those companies – not by much, certainly, but nothing that one or two people can do will acheive much. What’s important is that after each action taken by one or two or a hundred people, the balance of power has shifted: the meat industry is a little bit worse off than before.

Similarly, on border controls, the criticisms that have been offered of campaigns like ‘Strangers into Citizens‘ and ‘Citizens for Sanctuary‘ is not that they are ‘gradual’, or simply that they should ‘go further’. It’s that their effect will be to leave the system of borders controls stronger, stabilised and legitimised. It will make it easier to justify a crackdown, easier to enfroce a crackdown, easier to identify those people who come forward for amnesty or whatnot and get rejected, easier to find those who are left. It smooths out some of the kinks in the system.

There are plenty of actions that can be taken which don’t do this. Fighting any and all deportations, unionising migrants, providing skills and direct support. And the great thing about this is that it intensifies the contradictions of the system – for example, by integrating migrants better into a community, which the government supposedly supports, it makes it harder to round them up and deport them.

A particular issue is the idea that an amnesty should require an employer reference. I imagine any migrant workers who stand up for their workplace rights and demand better pay or conditions will definitely be the first to receive that. It doesn’t remotely give employers an additional tool by which to control their migrant workforces.

But, but, but. Surely an amnesty will at least help people? Sure. After regularisation, many individuals will be better off (though others may well be worse off). But what are the opportunity costs? Other things could be done with the same time and effort, which could benefit people just as much, but in a way that contributed to, rather than holding back, the long term aim of abolition.

The theoretical accompaniment of this practical orientation is the idea of ‘class struggle’, though in a sense broader than economic class alone: that society is characterised by structurally opposed interests. Reformist campaigns are often motivated by or cloaked in the language of the idea of society without structurally opposed interests: they enjoin people to ‘come together’ and ‘put aside their differences’.

There’s also an important point regarding the spread of ideas. To be ‘moderate’ in an unjust system means supporting doing extreme things to people, like locking them up or killing and cooking them. It undermines the credibility of any condemnation of them. If abolitionist ideas are currently so marginalised that no party could think of adopting them, then it’s important to act in such a way that maybe ten years down the line that isn’t the case. And even having people put forward a view can have an effect: people think differently about views which people they know hold than they do about views held only by ‘someone else’.

In a similar vein, we might look at some of the results found in various versions of the ‘Milgran Experiments‘ – one of the biggest factors that stopped people from following the possibly-murderous orders of the experimenter was to have someone else with them who disobeyed. Having a sense that a certain view is represented by a real person or group can be of psychological importance.

This isn’t the last word, and certainly isn’t the last word on the more tricky question of systematic social change. Any further issue of tactics and strategy would need to be considered in more detail and with more context. But these I think are the general contours that stand out to me: we shouldn’t think in terms of the ‘immediate’ vs. the ‘long-term’, but rather aim for immediate activities which acheive their results through undermining, rather than strengthening, the power of those from whom those results are wrung.

One Response to “Revolution, Reform, and Abolition”

  1. links for 2009-05-11 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] Revolution, Reform, and Abolition « Directionless Bones […]

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