Abolition Means Reclaiming the Commons and Rejecting Securitization 

“When you have a power that is designed to be unaccountable and has been unaccountable for so damn long, the reforms that stick to it just make it stronger and more efficient as they cover it in a veneer of legitimacy,” says author Brendan McQuade. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with abolitionist criminology professor and activist Brendan McQuade about how securitization has shaped popular ideas about what it means to be free, and how we can build something better.

Music by Son MonarcasAmaranth Cove


Note: This is a rushed transcript. It has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not appear in its final form.

Kelly Hayes Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a TruthoutPodcast about the things you need to know if you want change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. We discuss a lot on this show about building the relationships, analysis, and strategies that are necessary to create movements that can win. Today, we are going to nerd out. We’ll be talking about security and the abolition thereof, in addition to the abolition prisons. Some of our listeners are probably nodding, and some are probably wondering what I’m smoking, but yes, we are going to talk about the anti-security critique, Karl Marx, mutual aid and more. But I think we’re ready for this, because as my friend Ruth Wilson Gilmore recently said, “Activists throughout the history of struggle have been nerds.” My guest Brendan McQuade and I definitely fall within that proud tradition, so here we go.

Regular listeners will know that I am a prison industrial complex abolitionist. Therefore, winning means creating a world without the need for the prison system. People’s needs would be met, from health care to food, housing, education and conflict resolution. We would have developed alternatives to punishment for harms that occurred. The prison system would be a monstrosity. The carceral state, however, is much more than the prison system. So in addition to cages, what would we have to eliminate in order to end the system of control that punitively monitors people’s lives and manages their movements? Surveillance and control, as extensions of state power, are ever-growing in our health care system, schools, workplaces, in the family regulation system (often referred to as the “child welfare system”), and other areas of our lives as well. These manifestations are policing by the prison industrial complex, which tries to maintain order in an unstable and unreliable world without safety nets. Modern states have created systems of exclusion, confinement, and disposal through securitization. These efforts supposedly reduce insecurity – at least for protected member groups, like U.S. citizens. But whose interests and well-being are really being protected by measures defined as “security”?

I know many of us have been conditioned to think of “security” as a good thing. When I organize marches and actions, we use the word “security” to describe our collective safety planning efforts, because we have come to understand security as the creation of safety, organized in response to potential threats. But what about when the word “security” is used to describe the maintenance of conditions that ensure suffering? And what if the maintenance of that kind of “security” is destroying the world?

Brendan McQuade, my friend and assistant professor of criminalology at the University of Southern Maine, is the author of Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Surveillance. Brendan was the first to introduce me the concept of anti security and its relationship to abolishition. I asked him to explain that idea to our audience.

Brendan McQuadeAnti-security is a collective critique. We’re a small group, mostly of academics in the U.K., Canada, U.S., and Turkey. And we’re trying to understand and write about security without becoming part of security. So when we talk about security, we usually talk about it as if it’s an unambiguous good. Who doesn’t want to be secure? What could possibly be wrong with security? But the problem isn’t so much what security promises, namely safety, but how it packages that promise. “Security” communicates an entire world view. Liberal theory, which makes up most of contemporary politics’ apparent common sense, links liberty, security, property concepts. Everything revolves around a self-contained individual who owns property, which is often simply described as human nature.

Think of the foundational works of Western political thought, such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith. All of them start from the premise that human beings are unique. We are born alone, we die alone. And in this conception, we can only be free if we’re liberated from the demands of others. We can only be free if we’re separate from them. If we have property, we can only be meaningfully individuals. And we can only maintain our property if we’re secure against the threats of others. Security is based on the assumption that we are all in a cruel world that is constantly at war with each other. Individuals, households and nations are always at war. That’s just what it is to be human.

Of course, that’s a lie, a fabrication. Over 100 years ago, Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, and naturalist, argued that mutual aid is a key factor in human evolution. We’re social creatures and as such, we’re collaborative, we’re not alone. When you look at human history, the notion of an individual who owns property is not common. The rule is communal living on common land. So let’s think about those three classic European thinkers I mentioned a minute ago, Hobbes, Locke and Smith. They were not describing human nature but the nature of humans at a particular time in history. They were describing an emergent system. They were describing capitalism.

Capitalism starts with a separation between people and the land. The bourgeoisie has to have a proletariat that is free and without rights, to earn a wage. Not peasant communities which are tied to the land and have customary right to subsist on it. Capitalism also individualizes knowledge and skills, and turns them into property. These peasant communities shared, reproduced, and passed on knowledge about the environment and the skills required to live in it. Capitalism revolutionizes the way work is organized. It makes work as efficient and profitable and makes people as powerless as possible.

So to put it crudely, there’s a progressive de-skilling. The craft of artisans and peasants is reduced to the simplest tasks. Technology replaces humans in the name efficiency. Different forms of work are transformed into alienated drudgery over which workers have little or no control. As this happens, the basic needs of the people are becoming increasingly disconnected from their ability to provide them. In previous ways of organizing human existence, basic needs were usually met in some form of subsistence economy.

All the requisites of life, from the minimum necessities of survival to the most frivolous and vulgar consumer thing, are provided for by capitalism. This can be done through the market, commodity exchange or state social policy. This means that capitalism is a system of constant change. Capitalism is a generalized system of insecurity that demands a security politics. Here we are back to the connection between a particular conception liberty, which is individual freedom from others, the ability to own property, as well as the need for security.

Marx stated in 1843 that security was the ultimate concept of bourgeois society. The concept of police is a way to express the fact that society exists to protect each member’s property, rights, and person. So this line comes from a piece called “On the Jewish Question” where Marx was responding to claims being made in Germany that Jews had to renounce their Jewishness, become German and fight with Germans in order to gain political rights. Marx’s response to this was that the freedom won by gaining recognition from the state is an unreal universality. Jews can’t simply renounce their Jewishness. We can’t volunteer away history. These differences will continue and be used to discriminate between each other.

This argument should be familiar to those on the left. Okay, Black people have the right to vote in the U.S., but that didn’t end racism because racism persists in the accumulated power differences between Black people and white people. The right to vote and anti-discrimination laws don’t erase the racial wealth gap. The right to vote on paper does not guarantee universality. It exists as a formal right but it doesn’t mean that Black and white people are really substantively equal in their life chances and choices.

This argument is further supported by the argument that security is the supreme concept of bourgeoisie societies. It’s not just that legal recognition by the state, political emancipation from masters is not freedom. This recognition actually deepens capital’s control over our lives. Again, society exists in order to protect each individual’s rights, property, and person. Freedom is therefore the freedom to compete on the market, to acquire property, and, most importantly, to call upon the state and its violence for the protection of that property.

So that’s the brief intellectual history of security as it’s been defined since what we refer to as the enlightenment. It’s important because when we hear security invoked today, we’re not hearing what we think we’re hearing. Because your life is intrinsically valuable, the state will not protect it. If you can control enough property to be considered a real asset, the state will protect you.

KHBrendan introduced me to a document titled Anti-Security: A Declaration. It was written by George Rigakos & Mark Neocleous in 2010. The words at the beginning of the document are:

Simply put, the purpose of this project is to show that security can be a lie that has lost its illusion. Security is simply a misunderstanding. dangerous illusion. Why ‘dangerous’? Because it has become a blockage in politics: The more security discourses are used, the less we can talk about exploitation or alienation.

These words resonate deeply for me as someone who has spent hours studying the security trappings in the United States. From Shotspotter microphones at my home to the high-tech hunting grounds at our southern border, and more. While the idea of security being a fetish is unsettling, it feels indisputable to me. People in the U.S. accept violence and fixate on violent responses that serve no purpose. Our government has delegitimized investments for the common good while pouring seemingly endless amounts of money into the police and military without question. We are told that increased surveillance and control will stabilize the situation in a society that has cut its social safety nets without any plan for rebuilding them. We are told that if these interventions fail in generating safety, it is necessary to invest more in surveillance and control. Many people, even those who are negatively affected by this cycle, start to think in these terms and demand more police surveillance. Most people cannot imagine a social context in which our own insecurity is not maintained, and inequality is not maintained. They cry out for violence, surveillance, and control to improve their situation. It’s a failing approach, and we all bear witness to that, but in most people’s minds, there is no alternative.

As Neocleous wrote and Rigakos penned:

Security deradicalizes and colonizes discourse: hunger to feed the world; imperialism to energy security; globalization of supply chain security; welfare, social security; personal security to private security. Security makes all that is communal inherently bourgeois. It makes us distant from solutions that are naturally communal and forces us into the language of corporate interest, state rationality, and individual egoism. Instead of sharing we hoard. Instead of helping, they build dependence. Instead of feeding others we let them starve… all in the name of security.

How did we get here? We need to discuss the evolution of police force in order to understand this.

BMThe majority of accounts of police start in the 19th Century with the first uniformed public officers, but the history of the word is much more detailed. The 15th century saw the first use of the term police. At this time, police meant what we’d now call social policy. It covered welfare, education and urban planning. It also included workforce development and policing. This is the original expanded concept of police that Marx mentioned in “On the Jewish Question.” This is what’s sometimes called the “older police science.” It’s a pre-disciplinary conversation, so this is before social science was a thing, and it was a conversation among statesmen, jurists, moral philosophers and proto political economists. Their main concern was order in prosperity, in the broadest possible sense.

So my friends and I in the Anti-Security Collective — we’ve returned to this original and expanded concept of police in an effort to grasp the expansive set of institutions through which policing takes place. Policing is not just law enforcement, it’s order maintenance in the broadest sense. This order maintenance work cuts across the private and public. It is done by the state, but private actors also do it. There’s also something important about the moment when policing emerged. I mentioned that the term “policing” was first used around the 15th century. This was the beginning of what historians called the “early modern period.” This was an extended epic of systems transition when the modern order of things was still being consolidated and older ways of living were still being systematically destroyed.

The plebs and the proles and the working class in the making were entangled in both circuits of capital accumulation and the vestiges of pre-capitalist’s economy centered on the commons. The idea of police was born to organize violent state intervention to transform the commons in private property, to dispossess and uproot people from the land, to rebuild social order through market. Police power is the patriarchal discretion exercised by the head or household to solve the problems of the city. polis, the Greek word that means city and is the root of policy and police. While the meaning of police has changed over time, its fundamental nature has not. The police are not here for you. They’re here to protect the order of private property and the continued accumulation of private wealth.

The essence of police power does not include violence, but discretion, the ability decide whether violence should be used in any situation. The stop is the most fundamental interaction of police officers. It is not clear why. It is possible to walk too fast, too slowly, or be stationary and it will stop. These are all grounds that have been unfairly and unequally used. Because to limit discretion would be to limit it, the courts have never defined discretion. So this isn’t just an individual matter; it’s institutional. The courts won’t tell police they can’t drop a bomb on a house as they did in Philadelphia in 1985, or use a robot to kill an active shooter with a bomb as they did in Dallas in 2016, or use lethal force against an autistic man having a mental health crisis as they did in Augusta, Maine, in October 2021. The courts won’t tell police ahead of time what is reasonable or necessary since all situations are always and forever unpredictable.

What then is police? Discretion or the use of state power to make decisions. Police have no obligation to enforce the law because they are not subject to it. Police interpret the law to justify their actions to restore order after the fact. Law is based upon a liberal view of society as a free and self-governing group of individuals. The rule of law, which respects individual rights, allows the state to exercise its power. Police power is based on the traditional conception of society as a house and the state as its master. The householder has almost unlimited discretionary power over his household, which is one of the defining characteristics of police force. Police then don’t deal with law; they deal with threats.

The law won’t hold police responsible because police aren’t meant to be accountable to or enforce the law. Police is the patriarchal power that manages people and things in the name good order. The only rational response to police is abolition. A power that is designed to not be accountable and has been unaccountable since so damned long makes it more powerful and efficient. Reforms that stick to it make it stronger, more efficient, and cover it up with legitimacy.

KHIn Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, Truthout’s editor-in-chief Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law describe the many ways prison reforms have further extended the surveillance and control of the carceral state, exerting power over targeted communities within the medical system, public schools, their neighborhoods, and within their own homes. As Maya and Victoria write, “Some people are surveilled from birth — whether the eye that’s on them is that of the police, child protective services, a parent’s parole officer, or state welfare agencies.”

This means that many people spend their entire lives trying to navigate the carceral state’s dragnets. The Anti-Security Collective identifies the security capital network as the deeper set relations at the core these dragnets.

BM: So there’s a relationship between capitalist economies, which are premised on infinite and endless growth, and thus infinite and endless change. There’s a connection between that and the varied apparatuses of security that are used to administer this order, to keep it creaking along, to keep it from pulling itself apart. The state subsumes all conflict within itself, and that is what I believe is its fundamental function. It transforms all forms of resistance into something that can expand, enliven, and relegitimize the state’s power. We see it all the time. Democrats are in power and the selective appropriation and radical criticisms to on one hand placate descent and on the opposite hand legitimize the system are examples of this.

So I think when we reject security, we reject this idea that the state is going to help us and we start thinking about what we can do to not just help ourselves but to transform the state and transform the work of the state from administering poverty and assuring that we live atomized lives apart and transforming it into a communal anti-state so to speak where the separation between people’s needs and their capacity to meet them is eliminated and people have the freedom to take control of their lives in the most basic way.

KH: Prison abolitionists are known for organizing projects that create safety in their communities, without the intervention of the state. The Creative Interventions Toolkit is an example of this. It was the result a long-running effort in which abolitionists worked closely with people who were subject to interpersonal violence to create a new vision of violence intervention. As an organization, Creative Interventions sought to “strengthen community-based systems to resist

violence in all of its forms.” As the group wrote in the toolkit: “For CI, the community-based approach is one in which everyday people such as family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, members of community organizations such as faith institutions, civic organizations or businesses are the people who take action to intervene in violence.”

You can find many more examples of community-based safety strategies in One Million ExperimentsProject NIA and Interrupting Criminalization jointly organized the virtual zine project. Readers can use the project’s website to explore “snapshots of community-based safety strategies that expand our ideas about what keeps us safe.” In fact, I highly recommend checking out the One Million Experiments podcastThis is a collaboration between AirGoInterrupting Criminalization, which really explores the idea behind the project as well as some of the efforts it uplifts.

We’ve also talked about Get In Formation: A Community Safety ToolkitYou can listen to the podcast, which is a great resource. Vision Change WinThis book helps activists and organizers plan safety for protests, and many other things. Its authors refers to that work as security. But if we can ignore that contradiction, and remember that language, rather than a set of conclusions, is a grappling process. I would like you to engage me more. Brendan has a way that he refers to these types of efforts, and mutual aid in general, which I find fascinating. He describes these projects as “commoning against security.”

BM: Abolition is closing the prisons and defunding the police, but it’s also something bigger. It’s creating different institutions to manage the problems that we now leave to the police and prisons. And I think the way we build those different institutions is by commoning against security, by coming together to take responsibility for ourselves and for each other, to care for each other, to build systems to care for each other that don’t rely on the intervention of the state, whether through the armed police or the soft social police, for the state to come in and fix the problem for us or make the problem go somewhere else and disappear and preserve our right to live atomized lives apart.

And I think the one thing I would say is, like, sometimes when you talk about abolition, it’s viewed as an extremist position. Like it’s just an off the wall position. I can’t think of anything more extreme than accepting routine violence, and now under COVID like mass death that is just normal. In my perspective, abolition is not an extreme position, it’s an incredibly sensible one and it’s one that starts with incredibly practical things and opens up to systems transition. What does this mean? When we think about police abolition we begin with the obvious: defund the Police, reduce police budgets 50 to 80 per cent, limit the mission of police departments in the investigation of reported crime, and create non-police alternatives for the so-called problems or public order related to drug use, mental health, and other things.

But then from there, it’s what I was talking about as commoning against security, work to recreate the commons and work towards a new order based on cooperation not competition, based on meeting human needs and not advancing the endless and infinite accumulation of private wealth. So I think this begins with a certain social democratic common sense, a universal right to housing, health care, livelihood, unemployment, but it doesn’t end there. Mariame Kaba is a friend and often says that defunding police will bring down the ceiling. To this, I will add communism. I don’t mean 20th-century state socialism, but I mean the communism of the commons. A world of decentralized communal living where we all care for each other.

KH: I know we have wandered pretty far into abolitionist nerd territory, so for those who are not aware: Many prison abolitionists are socialists, some are communists, some are anarchists, and some don’t identify as any of those things. We all share the goal to eliminate social disposal and annihilation. This means ending capitalism. There are many friendly disagreements over how to accomplish this. But I have learned a lot from abolitionists who hold all of those ideological perspectives, so I think it’s important for us to explore these ideas together. Because I don’t think anyone among us is carrying around a universal formula for justice-making in an era of collapse.

But circling back to the matter at hand, something about that phrase “commoning against security” really resonated with me. Because I think it captures something about the work that many of us are doing, and also, the moment and context in which we’re doing it. Our experiences of each other are often reduced to the mundane. We can create new social pathways, reclaim space and offer assistance to one other, which are life-giving projects. However, we also have the potential to stop disposability. We are resisting our isolation and atomization. We are recommitting to compassion in a cynical age by overriding individualism’s inbuilt impulses. In the face of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls organized abandonment, we are embracing what Monica Cosby has called a “refusal to abandon.” I believe in that work.

In his book Pacifying the Homeland, Brendan wrote, “While security discourses rest on assumption of risk and mutual hostility (a war against all, waged among both individuals and nations), the critique of security invites us to consider what relations produce these conflicts and how they have been managed.”

I hope we will all accept that invitation, because I think it’s an important one. We have the power to create safety and care in our communities and to work together to fix the root causes of harm. Many of us have been turned on one another at a crucial time when we need each others most. There are many disasters on the horizon, politically and environmentally, and I think “commoning against security” is the kind of energy we are going to need in these times. I hope you will all check out One Million Experiments, Critical Interventions ToolkitWe will also include other resources in the show notes section of our website. These projects can be a great source for inspiration. You might find something you like and want to start or grow your own community. And don’t forget to check out Brendan’s book Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision. Trust me, it’s an essential resource.

Brendan was a great guest today. I also want to thank everyone who listened to us nerding out about anti-security. This week, please take care of yourself and remember that our best defense against cynicism lies in doing good. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show notes