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Abolition Democracy

Updated on August 6, 2012
real democracy is possible
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Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture

Abolition Democracy consists of an interview of Angela Y. Davis by Eduardo Mendieta. Although known for activism, her intellectualism is equally strong. As such, her coinage of the term, prison-industrial complex, after the better known phrase, military-industrial complex, may seem a gimmick. Even so, it is useful for the sake of analysis. Another term she uses, Abolition Democracy, comes from W.E.B. DuBois. Today there are millions of prisoners and, as Prof. Davis points out, well over fifty percent are people of color. However, color is not the only concern. Inhumanity is more the focus. Prisoners are routinely subjected to horrors. As such, Abu Ghraib was no surprise. Further, Davis makes use of an authorial predecessor, Frederick Douglass, to point out how a process of criminalization replaced the Convict Lease System that Douglass commented on, designed to obtain free labor and certain dubious extras. The result is the same: destroyed lives, injustice, and cheap wages. Having studied with Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Jurgen Habermas, and Max Horkheimer, giants from academe, it is unlikely that she would ever employ the word evil in its religious context. But that perhaps is the only blank the reader of this small but pertinent book need fill in. Prison world is bad and as such needs no elaboration. But to Davis, it is also an integral part of a larger mechanism meant to demean and enslave.

Prof. Davis is being nice when she blames global capitalism for the wanton abuse of people "rendered dispensable". It still comes down to individual cases, isolated events, and the various persons themselves who are involved. And none are apt to identify with a global capitalist. Naturally, whoever holds real power sleeps better at night with a criminal justice system to virtually abuse enemies, real or imagined, till death. The French Terror was humane by comparison. To decapitate is much more merciful. Prison-keepers keep their prey both alive and miserable. Where did America learn such techniques? Probably from foreign countries. Few of them have qualms about any of this. Nor do religious maniacs who, playing on America's love affair with the above, ingratiate themselves into positions of influence.

For a long time now the press has been instructing viewers how to feel about almost every subject under the sun. Again, Prof. Davis is being far too nice. A picture of a man looking just so is enough to get him convicted, even if all he did was get his picture taken. Davis also asserts that "social circumstances" must be examined to find out how jailings-cum-atrocities take place on so regular a basis. One begs to differ. Things are far from perfect, but there is no direct correlation between upbringing and prison time. The surface, however, or appearance, is what is of significance for those who want to control both gun and gavel. As the world gravitates toward world war the prime instrument getting people to forsake a love of peace is the creation of stories -- that is to say, fictions, which owe much in equal amount to reality and imagination. War approaches as though it were Cecil B. DeMille time all over America, and guess who gets to be the jibber jabbing cast of thousands? At this point in time, there can be no reason big enough to justify a WWIII, starting with Syria, Iran, or any other favorite of politicians in search of constituents.

It is hard to match Prof. Davis in terms of the interweaving of current affairs, traditional scholarship, and the application of the latter to the former. Her language is that of the campus, which is to say, elegant and derivative. Like Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin, she has read and discussed heavy ideas and then been able to break them down and speak or write to those of us who are unable to penetrate these elite, erudite circles. Her affiliation with political groups that cannot muster either votes or campaign dollars is, nevertheless, a source of mystification. But for a refreshingly rational presentation of a subject of rather grave concern, this little book is well worth the effort. It is not a feel-good book, and yet it feels good to know that there are highly qualified minds at work in the attempt to thwart cryptic, covert neo-fascism from taking over.

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