On (In)justice: Undisciplined Abolitionism in Canada.

Author:Carrier, Nicolas


In this article, we analyze the ways in which abolitionism is presented as an imperative in communications operating outside of the constraints of academia in Canada. More specifically, we examine how abolitionist discourses concerning what is (un)just present themselves when they do not have to play by the rules of academic communications, how groups and individuals explain the need for abolitionist struggles when communicating in a way that is not described as a social scientific practice, and whether these discourses reveal aspects of abolitionist thought that have yet to enter academic debates.


RECENTLY, THERE HAS BEEN A RESURGENCE IN ABOLITIONIST WORK within academic networks of communication (e.g., Ben-Moshe et al. 2014; Brown & Schept 2017; Carrier & Piche 2015a; Coyle & Schept 2017, 2018; Law 2011; Mathiesen 2015; Mayrl 2013; Ruggiero 2010; Schept 2015). Although many contributions limit the aim of abolitionism to the eradication of the prison (for illustrations, see Carrier & Piche 2015b), many others have, like activists and social movements, embraced the broader project of delegitimizing "criminal justice" in its totality (penal abolitionism) (e.g., Coyle 2013, Hulsman 1986, Saleh-Hanna 2008). Others have also proposed to go even further by working to eradicate all forms of containment (carceral abolitionism) (e.g., Piche & Larsen 2010) or even the state itself (e.g., Dixon 2015, Walby 2011).

Such abolitionist scholarship is communicated in particular privileged sites that present a unique normativity (truth claims are legitimated through the practices of the social sciences) and are policed by a peculiar process (academic peer review).The result has been described, notably, as "academic abolitionism"--a form of abolitionist discourse distinguished from, albeit not necessarily unconnected to, abolitionist activism, organizing, and praxis (Hulsman 1986, Mathiesen & Hjemdal 2011).

In this article, we continue our analysis of contemporary abolitionist logics (see Carrier & Piche 2015b,c), this time analyzing the ways in which abolitionism is presented as an imperative in communications operating outside of the constraints of academia. How do abolitionist discourses present themselves when they do not have to play by the rules of academic communications? How do groups and individuals explain the need for abolitionist struggles when communicating in a way that is not described as social scientific practice? Could analyzing materials (e.g., webpages, zines, manifestos, pamphlets, public lectures) distributed by actors and groups situated in different sociopolitical contexts reveal aspects of abolitionist thought that have yet to enter academic debates? Is the notion of academic abolitionism significant (e.g., as a distinct strategy) within these undisciplined communications?

To work toward answering the questions raised above, we examined the online communications of groups and organizations operating within Canada that identified as abolitionists at the time of our analysis in 2016, including the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) in Ottawa, End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) in Kingston, Rittenhouse in Toronto, Bar None in Winnipeg, and Prison Justice in Vancouver. For the purposes of this paper, we explore how these groups conceptualize what is unjust and needs to be abolished on the one hand, and what needs to be built to work toward a more just world on the other. Epistemologically constructivist, our project is about understanding the ways in which the present and its alternatives are observed in undisciplined abolitionist communications published online. Given our interest in meaning (reproduction, our methodology is necessarily attached to the phenomenological tradition of qualitative research in the social sciences (see Denzin & Lincoln 2003) and proximate to what Altheide (1987, 1996) terms ethnographic content analysis.

When one investigates communications circulating on Canadian websites self-described as abolitionist, one is struck not only by their diversity, but also by the flexible or loose character of their structure. Such groups in Canada communicate freely about abolitionism--what is it, what are its main forms, what are its principles, and so on. One browsing undisciplined abolitionist communications in Canada can easily find standard themes in the critique of domestic criminal legal systems and bureaucracies. As we discuss below, these might be formulated by radical or anarchistic voices, but they are, in some cases, also uttered from a classical liberal-reformist posture, and even from the position of an orthodox criminology, confident in its ability to unearth and cure the pathos responsible for the existence of "crime" and "criminals. "However, Canadian sites of distribution of abolitionist thought and praxis also communicate about--or (re)post multifarious discourses and audiovisual materials related to--an incredibly wide array of issues and events. The link to abolitionism is not always self-evident. For instance, on the websites of Canadian abolitionist groups, an online flaneur might read declarations of resistance to "the racist, colonialist mentality that positions the Western nuclear family as superior to other conceptions of family" (Rittenhouse 2010a). One might also encounter an invitation to "teach yourself to make yourself cum ... without the help of vibrators, porn, a partner or anything else, because someday you might find yourself on the inside with nothing but your own body to help you" (Rittenhouse 2014).

Blog posts attached to some Canadian abolitionist websites, which are often not written by members of their own groups, typically operate according to the following motto: whatever makes the system look bad and whatever celebrates or supports resistance to the system is worthy of distribution. What exactly comprises the system is marred by polysemy or equivocality, and it can thus form the connective tissue of undisciplined abolitionist communications in Canada. This forces selectivity upon the analysts. What follows cannot do justice to the plurality of items and issues thematized by abolitionist communications operating outside academic networks in Canada. Criminology has been academically described as a "rendez-vous subject" (Downes 1988) and, similarly, Canadian abolitionist groups appear to attract and disseminate a wide range of texts, images, audio, and video feeds. Nevertheless, we limit our discussion to those related to abolitionism. This is not an easy task, and it might be described as artificial--if not plain wrong--by those convinced by the idea that the system is ubiquitous, that all forms of oppression are connected (see, for example, Mayrl 2013), and that, indeed, there is a link between the logics and practices of criminalization and punishment and the ways in which, say, Canadians have assisted Haitians in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake. (1)

In what follows, we aim to understand the ways in which undisciplined abolitionist communications make visible various forms of injustice in order to problematize the prison, punishment, or the carceral. We are thus choosing not to investigate how globalization (or capitalism, pollution, heteronormativity, etc.) is understood and denounced in undisciplined academic communications unless the connection to issues of criminalization and punishment is made explicit by the groups that have produced or circulated them. In sum, our analytical strategy could be seen as ungenerous, insofar as it excludes communications that are not overtly tied to these issues. Future studies could also examine undisciplined abolitionism in other parts of the world where there are longstanding and active groups promoting abolitionism as it relates to imprisonment and/or punishment within and beyond "criminal justice," as in the United States (e.g., Critical Resistance), Europe (e.g., the Norwegian Association for Penal Reform, or KROM), and Australia (e.g., Flat Out). With lots of ground to cover, our analysis offers a window into abolitionist discourses freed from the confines of academia that are more accessible to the masses, with no pretensions of having captured the total breadth and depth of other communications found outside the academic realm.

On (In)justice

In a context where "it is hardly acceptable to engage in serious public discussions about prison life and radical alternatives to prison ... as if prison were an inevitable fact of life, like birth and death" (Davis 2003, 15), abolitionists have the difficult task of transforming the prison and its appendages into social problems in order to create the space necessary to advance nonviolent ways of thinking about and responding to criminalized conflicts and harms. Central to this work is to make visible and accessible lived experiences of carceral injustices and other evidence to foster the energy necessary to imagine justice anew, in a way that is not entangled with the deeply held belief that it is accomplished through the deprivation of liberty and the infliction of pain (Mathiesen 2006). Through our analysis of undisciplined abolitionist discourses in Canada, we have identified five major types of moralizing discourses articulated to this end with corresponding alternatives for working toward justice. (2) In so doing, we highlight certain tensions between the visions offered by the groups examined with respect to what abolitionism implies for what is to be dismanded and built.

(Dismantling) The Wicked Uses of Criminalization and Punishment

The most typical form of communications distributed by Canadian abolitionist groups is the moralization of the logics and practices of criminalization and punishment, which are seen as simplistic, ineffective, costly, and harmful responses to social problems. Such moralizing discourses aim to deprive certain aspects of domestic criminal legal systems of...

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