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Dossier : Abolitionnisme

The State of Abolitionism

Nicolas Carrier et Justin Piché
Cet article est une traduction de :
Actualité de l’abolitionnisme [fr]


Cette introduction au dossier sur l’abolitionnisme offre un synopsis détaillé de la pensée abolitionniste, telle qu’elle est communiquée dans les réseaux universitaires. Son objectif est d’introduire les lectrices et les lecteurs à la diversité et au dynamisme des travaux académiques abolitionnistes. Dans le champ pénal, on peut distinguer l’abolitionnisme ciblant la prison, le pénal, et le carcéral, mais cette distinction n’est pas tout à fait satisfaisante ; en effet, l’abolitionnisme est également articulé à des finalités soit plus étroites, soit plus ambitieuses. Les multiples finalités abolitionnistes sont soutenues par une variété de logiques constituées d’assemblages d’éléments normatifs, conceptuels et factuels. Notre contribution identifie et propose une dissection de sept logiques centrales qui nourrissent la pensée abolitionniste dans le monde universitaire d’aujourd’hui.

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  • 1 We wish to express our gratitude to Jean-François Cauchie, Gilles Chantraine, Augustine SJ Park, Da (...)

1When Thomas Mathiesen wrote The Politics of Abolition he firmly believed that he would witness the abolition of prisons in his lifetime.1 More than a decade after this seminal book had been translated and published in English in 1974, Mathiesen observed a considerable disillusionment, and, indeed, a turning away from the goal of abolition among his academic peers, more or less as if it were a youthful and confused prank from the late sixties which the middle aged and wise can hardly uphold (1986, 84). Invoking a generalized process of what is now called penal intensification (Sim, 2009), Mathiesen (1986, 82) suggested that the times are no longer with the abolitionists.

  • 2 In Does Abolitionism Have a Future, Feest and Paul (2008) published an exchange between several fir (...)
  • 3 This interpretation is highly debatable given that the literature on the ‘new punitiveness’ (or ‘pu (...)

2More recently, in a debate on what became of abolitionism,2 van Swaaningen (2008) submitted that many abolitionists have shifted their target from abolition per se towards a critique of the new punitiveness.3 One could perhaps suggest that abolitionist thought might still be alive by partly informing some contemporary theoretical perspectives and some restorative or transformative justice initiatives, but that it has nevertheless been virtually discarded in favor of a less radical orientation towards penal parsimony (Bosworth, 2010; Loader, 2010). Such an interpretation could propose that abolitionism belongs to the joyful and enchanted era that preceded the rise of the risk society, the surveillance society, the society of control, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, contemporary authoritarianism, the precautionary logic, the punitive turn, militarized pacification strategies, penal populism, mass incarceration, sovereign exceptionality, as well as many other ills spotlighted by critical social sciences. In other words, such an interpretation would suggest, as did Bertrand (2008), that if abolitionism might still be seen as a necessary utopia, pragmatism dictates an orientation towards penal minimalism and the defense of human rights.

3Abolitionists certainly do not oppose ‘pragmatic’ strategies that can, more or less immediately, alleviate the conditions of penalized individuals (e.g. Russell, Carlton, 2013). As Aubert and Mary show in their contribution to the special issue, there are multiple ways in which depenalization can bridge reformist and abolitionist strategies. Yet, the peculiar affinities between abolitionism and reformism (see Mathiesen, 1974) have not produced a situation where abolitionism has been totally obliterated in favor of a more ‘reasonable’ quest for penal moderation. Indeed, penal intensification never altered the viability or the necessity of abolitionism in the eyes of many of its proponents and it has even led to a widening of its targets. For instance, the first International Conference on Prison Abolition (ICOPA) held in Toronto in 1983 (see Nagel, 2003; Finateri, Saleh-Hanna, 2000) quickly led this conference-movement (Piché, Larsen, 2010, 391) to shift its target from incarceration to punishment. Since 1987, ICOPA thus stands for International Conference on Penal Abolitionism, and meetings have been organized biannually across the world. Delisle’s et al.. contribution to the special issue provides a window on the recent past of ICOPA, including unsettled debates and tensions, of which the role of reform in abolitionist work is one.

4The idea that abolitionism somehow needed to sober up and de-radicalize or disillusion itself to confront more effectively what Steinert (2008) referred to as the shift to a neoliberal mode of production and its political form of authoritarian populism has failed to produce anything remotely close to the virtual dismantling of abolitionism in academia, social movements, grassroots organizing, decentralized collectives, direct action, and alternative, non-corporate media. To the contrary, many suggest that abolitionism is resurgent or growing (e.g. Mayrl, 2013; Law, 2011; Faith, 2002), with the publication of Ruggiero’s (2010) Penal Abolitionism held up as yet another symptom of the remarkable revival of interest in the old ideas of the abolitionist school in criminology (Daems, 2012, 518). Growth, resurgence, revival: certainly not all academic observations portray abolitionism as an old fetish collecting dust. In his contribution to the special issue, Ruggiero notably discusses how the strong legacy of the ‘founding fathers’ of the European tradition of abolitionism is reflected in contemporary abolitionist theory and praxis.

5In our introduction to this collection, we submit a detailed overview of developments in abolitionist thought within academic publications. We are thus necessarily leaving a blind spot on the rigorous empirical examination of the many and heterogeneous contemporary abolitionist praxes articulated elsewhere. If some might contest the establishment of a sharp dichotomy between academia and activism, it is certainly a way in which tensions within abolitionism have been, and continue to be, formulated (Delisle et al., 2015; Saleh-Hanna, 2000). Indeed, academic armchair radicalism that does not translate into active engagements in concrete struggles is the object of vigorous moralizing indictments within some circles, in the same way that many concrete strategies geared towards emancipation have been academically denounced as expanding sites of penal capture (Cohen, 1985), or as ‘reformist reforms’ strengthening pain delivery mechanisms (Mathiesen, 1974). This opposition is reformulated when some forms of abolitionist communications are distinguished from others on the grounds that they are theoretical, that they are a form of academic abolitionism (Hulsman, 1986) or an academic exercise (Mathiesen, Hjemdal, 2011). We prefer to speak of abolitionist thought, a decision which avoids two problems related to this opposition between the realm of the theoretical and that of concrete political struggles: 1) limiting the sites where abolitionist thought evolves to academic journal articles and books, and 2) organizing hierarchically abolitionist communications to suggest that its academic forms are somehow more theoretical, sophisticated or complex.

  • 4 Many aspects of the critiques forwarded to contemporary projects of ‘public criminology’ are also i (...)

6Abolitionism is not saturated with communications (self-referentially) seen as presenting the forms and the symbols of academic validity. Abolitionism communicated through leaflets, zines, websites and other modes of dissemination such as public discourse mobilizes a theory frequently produced by the subjugated knowledges (Foucault, 1976[1997]) of penalized individuals, of their friends and family members, of activists and many others. As such, in so far as it informs contemporary praxes, abolitionist thought is at least partly built on knowledges that academic standards would disqualify as non conceptual, lacking in elaboration; naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior (Foucault, 1976[1997, 9], our translation). Obviously, academic abolitionist communications are particularly sensitive to this subjugation and are oftentimes produced in a way that tries to undo it. This is notably illustrated in the construction of truth claims through processes of action research (Mathiesen, 1974) and in practicing a criminology from below (Sim, 1994).4 Yet, a comprehensive analysis of the dialogical relationship between academic and non-academic abolitionist communications is beyond the scope of this introduction. Our empirical corpus is limited to academic communications, and our objective is to show how abolitionism presents itself today when formulated within the relatively unconstrained and privileged space of academia.

7The meaning of abolitionism is not limited to issues related to the penal field or to a problematization of incarceration. Indeed, criminalization and punishment are strategies advocated to abolish child labor or to enforce the rights of non-human sentient beings, and to these struggles correspond abolitionist identities that differ sharply from prison abolitionists. Moreover, the term abolitionism has been used in specific ways in the context of debates on sex work, as Nagel and Mathieu Mathieu show in their respective contributions to the special issue.

  • 5 Our contribution is unfortunately limited to abolitionist thought communicated in French and Englis (...)

8When used only in relation to the penal field, abolitionism still presents a relative polysemy, with some distinguishing between prison, penal and carceral forms of abolitionism (Piché, Larsen, 2010). These distinctions are clarified and discussed in the first section of our introduction. We then propose a general dissection of the logics underpinning various forms of abolitionist thought within academic communications, focusing on key conceptual, factual and normative elements.5 Our critical assessment of abolitionism thought, in which we revisit some old critiques of abolitionism which remains unsatisfactorily answered, and identify new ones stemming from recent shifts in abolitionist targets and logics, is communicated in our other contribution to this special issue.

I - The Complexity of Abolitionism: Ends

  • 6 We use the term criminal legal system instead of penal system to distinguish it from other punishin (...)

9As reflected in the enlargement of ICOPA’s focus quickly invoked above, abolitionism in the penal field first aimed at the abolition of prisons, and then progressively extended its endeavor to punishment (i.e. to all forms of afflictive sanctions legally constructed as an imperative response to criminalized actions, omissions or conditions). Prison abolitionism and penal abolitionism together constitute the traditional forms of abolitionist thought within academia. If they at times also target psychiatric total institutions (Goffman, 1961), these traditional forms frequently lock themselves up within the narrow space constituted by criminal legal systems,6 mobilizing a methodological nationalism (Beck, 2002) in adopting the scale of the nation-state. The emergence of a third form of abolitionism, carceral abolitionism, can largely be seen as an attempt to go beyond these frontiers. To concerns for individuals snatched by criminal legal systems, carceral abolitionism adds new ones for those detained on other grounds than ‘criminal justice’, including those reduced to a naked form of life, confined in camps described as operating neither within, nor outside, law (Dunn, Cons, 2013; Larsen, Piché, 2009). The move from penal to carceral abolitionism is done by examining preventative detention used under the guise of the ‘war on terror’, the skyrocketing confinement of immigrants and refugees, as well as the rise of mass surveillance that is increasingly transforming the world into an open-air prison (Piché, Larsen, 2010; Smaus, 2008).

  • 7 We refer here to a Luhmannian conception of science as a complex autopoeitic social system; see not (...)

10If it might seem heuristically useful to distinguish between prison, penal and carceral abolitionism, it is a strategy that can problematically suggest a linear and simple evolution in abolitionist thought. It is also a strategy that hides the fact that, oftentimes, the very identity of abolitionism is constituted differently within academic communications. By this we mean that the forms constituted by the threefold typology do not completely organize the recursivity of communications manipulating the symbols and forms of academic validity, and self-describing themselves as abolitionist.7 More simply, what is constituted as abolitionism contains normative and programmatic discourses that are both narrower and wider than prison, penal and carceral abolitionism. Our first observation can be unpacked quickly, whereas the second one warrants more development.

11Firstly, prison, penal and carceral abolitionism are co-occurring, not sequential or incremental discourses. Even thirty years after the formalization of penal abolitionism, abolitionism is not always enlarged so as to include all forms of legally valid forms of afflictive sanctions, let alone all forms of administrative punishments (Velloso, 2013). One can still distinguish prison and penal abolitionism within contemporary academic communications. Within these communications, they constitute the abolitionist norm, and the carceral form remains, quantitatively, clearly deviant.

  • 8 In the eyes of some abolitionists, the attrition model is even a dangerous, counterproductive, reci (...)

12Secondly, what constitutes abolitionism in academic communications does not always so easily fit within the prison/penal/carceral tripartition. The porous identity of abolitionism is clearly illustrated in the inclusion of Nils Christie’s work (e.g. 2000, 1982, 1977) within the catechism of traditional abolitionism (e.g. Ruggiero, 2010; Sim, 2006; van Swaaningen, 2006; Faith, 2002). If Christie cherishes the project of unmasking conflicts over values, making it a duty for criminologists and other social scientists to nurture a quarreling society (2011, 709; 1977), he clearly opts for penal minimalism. Despite proximities with abolitionism, he cannot wholeheartedly espouse it: some individuals might be totally remorseless and incarceration might be a necessary, temporary last resort for the ‘dangerous few’, preferable to strategies of control masked by therapeutic euphemisms (Christie, 2008, 2004). The plurality of abolitionist telos, illustrative of the porous identity of abolitionism, is also seen in the description of the ‘attrition model’ or ‘abolitionism by attrition’ (Knopp et al., 1976). This model is presented as a long-term strategy proceeding through three distinct phases. First, the focus is on freezing the massive expansion of carceral spaces that the criminal legal systems can rely on. The second step is the reorientation towards ‘decarcerating’ as many prisoners as possible. The third phase entails ‘excarcerating’ as widely as possible by radically limiting the possibility for criminal legal systems to rely on incarceration (at both pre- and post-trial stages). The attrition model is commonly treated as an abolitionist strategy (e.g. Meiners, 2011; Walby, 2011; de Haan, 1992, 1987) even if it is rather a minimalist agenda.8 Struggles against indefinite incarceration in France are also described in terms of abolitionism, even when the focus is placed on the indefinite quality of the sanction rather than on the sanction of imprisonment itself (Salas, 2012). The identity of abolitionism is thus constituted by discourses that are not limited to prison, penal and carceral abolitionism, including some which explicitly advance a minimalist, rather than a properly abolitionist posture, as well as programmatic discourses pertaining only to the abolition of singular criminal norms (decriminalization/legalization), of singular norms of sanctions (e.g. indeterminate incarceration), or of singular institutions (e.g. borstals).

13Moreover, the multiplicity of abolitionist aims is not solely produced by the inclusion of discourses of a narrower diameter than full-fledged prison, penal or carceral abolitionism. In the penal field, the complexity of abolitionist telos is also a product of the inclusion of normative and programmatic discourses that are even more far-ranging, gravitating around anarchism, socialism and/or the notion of the ‘prison industrial complex’. The prison industrial complex (further discussed below) is a notion sometimes taken as synonymous to Christie’s (2000) Crime Control as Industry (e.g. Zedner, 2007). Yet, it has come to carry a broader meaning within abolitionist discourses, more particularly amongst American interlocutors, in which it refers not only to structural couplings between the infliction of pain and the production of surplus value, but to a much wider, eminently racialized, capitalist system of oppression (e.g. Gilmore, 2007; Davis, Mendieta, 2005; Sudbury, 2005, 2004; Davis, 2003, 2000). The result is that prison abolitionism aimed at the dismantling of the prison industrial complex in fact frequently corresponds to much wider revolutionary projects concerning, but not limited to, the legacies of colonialism and slavery, globalized Capital, representative democracy, and gender binaries. Saleh-Hanna’s contribution to the special issue, in which she develops a Black Feminist Hauntology, illustrates and complicates an abolitionist problematization of colonialism and slavery. Similarly, modern and contemporary anarchism produce an abolitionist posture that is epiphenomenal to the foundational normative opposition to all forms of archon (ruler, magistrate, sovereign, authority, hierarchy). The notion of the prison industrial complex might inform contemporary anarchistic critiques of criminal law, but revolutionary projects associated with struggles against it generally do not encompass the post-sovereigntist reality promoted by anarchism (e.g. Walby, 2011; Day, 2005).

  • 9 To be clear, Mathiesen does not limit the potential modalities of abolitionism to a stance. He also (...)

14In sum, the complexity of abolitionist ends resides not only in the fact that prison, penal and carceral abolitionism cohabitates discursively, but that they are also at times either less or more than normative and programmatic discourses concerning the prisons, retribution and confinement. This is further illustrated in the variable set of historical abolitions that abolitionists regularly list. Among these achievements we find slavery (e.g. Jacquard, 1993), witch burning (e.g. Rubin, 1973), the Roman Empire (e.g. Scheerer, 1986), the abolition of closed psychiatric institutions in Italy (e.g. Feest, 2008), the legalization of gay marriage (e.g. Golash, 2005), the fall of the Iron Curtain (Mathiesen, 2000), the abolition of bortsals and of forced labour for alcoholic vagrants in Norway (Mathiesen, Hjemdal, 2011), and the 1972 abolition of Massachusetts’ youth reform schools (e.g. Piché, Larsen, 2010). This listing fastens contemporary abolitionism to struggles associated with major historical achievements of Western civilization. In this way, abolitionism is naturalized as a symptom of the general human urge to do away with and to struggle against those phenomena or institutions of a social, political or religious nature that at a given time are considered to be unjust, wrong or unfair (Bianchi, 1991, 9). This is quite visible in Mathiesen’s (2008) suggestion that abolitionism is a stance, an attitude of saying ‘no’ to inhumane institutions.9 No wonder, then, that abolitionism pursues multiple ends.

II - The Complexity of Abolitionism: Logics

15The complexity of abolitionist ends is grounded on an even greater diversity of logics, whose effects are to problematize a wide array of social realities, practices, discourses and institutions. They are typically mobilized to make the need for abolition a commonsensical project that could be taken-up more widely. Abolitionist logics sustain abolitionist ends in so far as they constitute, for a given observer, an effective provision of motives (i.e. unquestioned answer[s] to questions (Mills, 1939[1963]) concerning abolitionist goals). Yet, abolitionist logics do not necessarily encompass programs envisioned for social arrangements devoid of incarceration, punishment and the like.

  • 10 One can also at times observe abolitionist thought including theological elements. This is illustra (...)

16We can conceptualize abolitionist logics as idiomatic claims-making activities in the constructivist tradition of the study of social problems (see Carrier, 2013). The diverse abolitionist logics are discursive modalities or resources available to construct social problems, with the prison and the criminal legal systems (or the idea of ‘criminal justice’) representing the social problems par excellence for traditional forms of abolitionist thought. The communication of abolitionist logics within academic networks present diverse montages of cognitive and normative elements,10 that can be grasped and re-described through the following categories: the notion of ‘crime’ as a ‘devilish invention’; the malign neglect of the needs and interests of victims and communities; heteronomy; the impossible justification of punishment; the irrational pursuit of harmful failures; the prison industrial complex; and global carceralization.

1) ‘Crime’ and Other ‘Devilish Inventions’

  • 11 The grammar of criminalization can be used by mobilizing the symbols of juridical validity or not ( (...)

17Claims about the need to abolish the prison and/or the possibility to rely on institutionalized forms of retributive, afflictive sanctions are not a corollary of claims pertaining to the need to abandon the grammar of criminalization, by which we mean a particular mode of social control symbolically constituting ‘crime’ as a social object, necessarily excluding, at least temporarily, other ways of meaningful reduction of phenomenal complexity (Carrier, forthcoming, 2011, 2008a).11 It is indeed possible to construct incarceration and punishment within criminal legal systems as social problems without abandoning the culturally efficient form of normative communication that criminalization offers. As such, the critique of incarceration and punishment can lead to constructing the need for disentangling the constitution of the social object ‘crime’ from an imperative of incarceration or punishment, rather than to a critique of the grammar of criminalization in itself (e.g. Golash, 2005; Davis, Rodriguez, 2000). Yet, the critique of the grammar of criminalization, most particularly Hulsman’s (1986) de-ontologization of ‘crime’, has federated many abolitionist discourses.

18Among the many problems observed in the constitution of social objects as ‘crimes’ is the violent and baseless amalgamation of practices or events that share no similarities whatsoever, notably in regard of their concrete impacts on the lives of those directly involved (Slingeneyer, 2005; Hulsman, Bernat de Celis, 1982; Hulsman, 1970). It is in this sense that abolitionism might suggest that ‘crime’ is a myth (de Haan, 1992), that it has no ontology, or that there are no ‘crimes’ but only acts, omissions or conditions that can be criminalized. Hulsman powerfully made the case that the notion of ‘crime’ has no descriptive value, that the cultural organization of criminal justice creates ‘fictitious individuals’ and a ‘fictitious’ interaction between them, and that one cannot work with the definitions of reality produced by criminal justice (1997, 9). In front of the shortcomings of the notion of ‘crime’, part of the means to abolish criminal legal systems rests on academic abolition, by which Hulsman (1997, 9-10) means the elaboration of a new way to reconstruct the events; the development of a new language, independent of the grammar of criminalization, and respecting the dynamics of the development of events for those directly involved and their environment. In this way, academic abolition shall also make visible the diversity of strategies employed to negotiate with criminalizable events.

  • 12 As Slingeneyer perceptively remarks in his superb analysis of Hulsman’s abolitionist thought:

19As is well known, Hulsman’s strategy for academic abolition is to replace the notion of ‘crime’ with that of problem, and the focus on behavior with a focus on situation. The notion of problematic situations reveals that to begin at the level of a behavioral infraction is the fundamental error (Hulsman, 1981, 12), implying the reliance on a catascopic view, privileging the perspective of the state and defining the problems in terms of the regulations (criminal legislation) and the organizational requirements of the system itself (Hulsman, 1986, 64). By contrast, the notion of problematic situations stems from the adoption of an anascopic view, enabling us to observe how conflicts are defined as events which are in a negative way deviating from the order in which we see and feel our lives rooted (Hulsman, 1986, 72). This perspective would increase the possibilities to reach by negotiation a common meaning of problematic situations (Hulsman, 1986, 77). Problematic situations cannot be reified (Ruggiero, 2010, 21), and Hulsman has proposed to distinguish types of problematic situations depending on whether or not the problematic quality of the situation is consensual or debated among those directly involved, or if this quality is totally absent in their eyes and solely imposed on them externally.12 In keeping with the latter argument, perhaps Hulsman’s (1986) ideas could be taken further by referring to these conflicts as ‘problematized situations’. This shift would draw attention to the fact that phenomena become social problems when actors successfully define them as being problematic, and that any form of problematization necessarily exclude other possible ways of thinking about and responding to events. In any case, the Hulsmanian perspective is necessarily negating the possibility of any criminological pretention to build a scientific knowledge of problematic situations (see the debate between Hulsman, 1990, and Cusson, 1990a, 1990b).

20The critique of the notion of ‘crime’ is integral to many abolitionist discourses precisely because its social construction is seen as necessarily implying that the infliction of pain is the conditio sine qua non of justice. As the theory of modern penal rationality (e.g. Garcia, 2013; Pires, 2008, 2001) makes particularly legible, in the traditional framework of criminal law theory, talking about the attribution of guilt to a perpetrator for an act deemed unlawful is equivalent to speaking about the enforcement of a punishment (Machado, 2013,105). For Foucault, who has clearly inspired the concept of modern penal rationality, our contemporary notion of ‘criminal justice’ is largely indebted to a set of devilish inventions (1974 [2001, 1448]) that took on concrete institutional forms in the High Middle Ages (roughly circa 1001-1300). Foucault’s discussion of these devilish inventions, notably the current legal construction of the meaning of ‘crime’, grasps many dimensions of the abolitionist critique.

21First, there is the progressive deprivation of the rights for individuals to deal themselves with conflicts legally coded as ‘criminal’ ones. That is, they have to submit themselves to an external power, which imposes itself as a legal power and as political power (Foucault, 1974 [2001, 1447], our translation). Second, there is the creation of a completely new personage, without precedents in roman law: the prosecutor (Foucault, 1974 [2001, 1447], our translation). It is through this devilish invention that sovereign power will first double, and then progressively double-cross, the concrete victim. Third, the very notion of infraction is invented and will come to replace the old notion of tort that, until then, had been embedded within the notion of ‘crime’:

An infraction is not a tort committed by an individual against another one, it is the offense or wound of an individual towards order, towards the State, towards the law, towards society, towards sovereignty, towards the sovereign. The infraction is one of the great invention of medieval thought (...) state power confiscates all the judiciary procedure, all the mechanism of inter-individual liquidation of disputes in the High Middle Ages (Foucault, 1974 [2001, 1448], our translation).

22And finally, the last devilish invention observed by Foucault is the idea that not only the party wounded by the infraction is the State, but it is towards the State that its author now stands indebted. Thus appears, with the mechanism of fines, the grand mechanism of confiscations (Foucault, 1974 [2001, 1448], our translation). These devilish inventions have been re-described as criminal law operating an expropriation (Christie, 1977) or a theft (Hulsman, 1984) of conflicts, and will enable abolitionists to claim that criminalization and penalization do not serve the interests nor meet the needs of people directly suffering from criminalized events.

2) The Malign Neglect of the Interests and Needs of Victims and Communities

  • 13 The idea that constructivism is based on the belief that not using the grammar of criminalization w (...)

23For many academic forms of abolitionist thought, ‘crime’ is a reality enacted by criminal legal systems. The counter-critique that such constructivist approach might negate the concrete harms suffered by victims is answered by suggesting that it is the legal construction of these harms as ‘criminal’ ones that compromises, in the first place, their phenomenological understanding. The involvement of criminal legal systems is also described as hindering the development of strategies to act upon societal structures in such a way that people can cope and deal with problems, in a way which permits growth and learning and avoids alienation (Hulsman, 1986, 73). This would stem largely from the notion of ‘crime’ being a simplistic label that enforces an individualized conception of causation, disabling any structural analyses allowing for a broader, more satisfying, understanding of what led to the problematic situation (van Swaaningen, 2005; Hulsman, 1986, 1981). If some old modern forms of anarchism (e.g. Kropotkin, 1892 [2006]) and some socialist criminological discourses (e.g. Taylor, Walton, Young, 1973) argued that radical social changes could lead to the disappearance of most ‘crimes’, or even to their very abolition, the constructivist attack on the notion of ‘crime’ mounted within abolitionism is never associated to the eradication of events that are currently criminalizable.13

24Whether abolitionists de-ontologize ‘crime’ or not, incarceration and/or punishment are seen as a malign neglect of the interests and needs of victims and communities. Compensation, healing, growth, mediation, restoration, transformation, cosmopolitanism, hospitality, solidarity, care, empathy, accountability, responsibility, empowerment are the key notions governing alternative (and oftentimes conflicting) conceptions of justice used to negate the necessity of responding to various harms either by locking people up, or through any form of retributive, afflictive sanctions.

25For instance, Saleh-Hanna (2000, 58) insists on the need for the community to empower itself with the right to deal with its problems, in its own terms. A corollary for abolitionism is that it should aim to de-professionalize the study of crime and the reactions to harm, notably through the adoption of a posture Against Criminology (Cohen, 1998), denouncing the academic profit (Saleh-Hanna, 2000:46) enabled by the political, legal and cultural investments in the notion of ‘crime’. Incarceration and punishment are denounced as tearing apart families and communities (e.g. Mauer, Chesney-Lind, 2002), and abolitionism is presented as a movement that works toward building a society that will function cohesively and, as a result, will have no use for penal sanctions (Saleh-Hanna, 2000, 45).

26Others insist on a need for communities to reclaim definitions of safety (Meiners, 2011, 559), in order to be able to protect themselves through means taken as more effective than state and corporate surveillance and policing, such as community-based self-defense (Law, 2011), and circles of support for ‘offenders’ (Golash, 2005). For Davis (2003, 16), the prison functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues affecting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.

27As for the interests and needs of the concrete victims, abolitionism obviously refuses the consumerist logic of criminal legal systems that increasingly try to include victims in various decisions, notably those regarding the proper infliction of pain (see Ruggiero, 2010, 186-189). If Mathiesen (2000) proposes to replace an obsession with the correct adjustment of punishment to the ‘crime’ with a new obsession with the correct level of help or support for the victim, and if Bianchi (1994, 1986) proposes to replace criminal law with a new reparative law, reactivating and revisiting a conception of ‘crime’ as tort against concrete individuals, Ruggiero (2010, 189) submits that the task of abolitionism is to supersede the distinction that opposes a conception of justice centered on the ‘offender’ to another one centered on the victim.

28We find no traces of strong abolitionist oppositions to projects aiming at compensating for the past or restoring previous relational states provided that the dynamics of these relationships (e.g. distribution of power) are not viewed by those in conflict as having precipitated the dispute, so long as these projects remain totally participatory, and uncontaminated by criminal legal institutions or actors. Where previous relational states are viewed as being rife with inequality, the structures that enable them become the object of transformative efforts (Morris, 2000). Academic communications on abolitionism may thus point to shortcomings or limitations in compensatory and restorative models, and propose that the interests and needs of victims and communities are better served and met through the development of models of transformative justice. This lens converts the problematic situation into an opportunity often coded in therapeutic language (e.g. Morris, 1995), leading to inclusive and egalitarian strategies of transformation or ‘growth’ that are not limited to the victim. Importantly, this means refusing the contractarian theory supporting the idea that it is only after expiation that the ‘criminal’ can again be treated as a member of a given community. As such, abolitionist claims that criminalization and punishment lead to neglecting the interests and needs of communities do, when articulated to transformative models of justice, necessarily also refer to the interests and needs of the ‘wrongdoer’.

3) Heteronomy

29It is clear that both the critiques of the notion of ‘crime’ as infraction and the critiques of the malign neglect of the interests and needs of victims and communities contain a problematization of heteronomy or forces beyond those in conflict. This problematization might be constituted differently whether one focuses on norms of criminalization or on norms of retributive, afflictive sanctions, although abolitionism can also aim to destitute both forms of norms or to at least break up the necessity of their association.

30Central to Hulsman’s academic abolition is the adoption of Habermas’ (e.g. 1987) critique of the colonization of the lifeworld, that Hulsman expresses in terms of alienation (e.g. 1986). In this perspective, the heteronomy of criminalization is problematized because it forces a frame of reference (Hulsman, Bernat de Celis, 1984) not only depriving the possibility of an autonomous intersubjective understanding of the situation, but also a construction of the situation which is totally indifferent to the experiences and perspectives of non-penal actors. This is not limited to the cases where criminalized acts are constituted even when no problematic situations exist from the perspective of social actors, as the alienating effects of criminal legal systems would make it so that victims do not know how to articulate their experience outside of the official narratives (Ruggiero, 2010, 21). Moreover, Hulsman analyses penal law as being cosmologically governed by the scholastic moral theology which foresees the Last Judgment and (...) the purgatory. Our penal law today is fundamentally the system of the purgatory (Hulsman, 1995, 156, our translation). For him, the problem of heteronomy resides also in the fact that this system of the purgatory implies a single God and a single law: the heteronomy of criminal legal systems is the enforcement of a normative monism. Criminalization externally imposes individual responsibility as an interpretive norm, and is (secularly) premised on the idea that the fictitious ‘reasonable person’ should have no problem seeing a consensus over norms and values mobilized in the construction of behaviors, omissions and conditions as ‘criminal’. She should also have no problem observing a consensus regarding the imperative connection between norms of criminalization and norms of sanctions. One logic animating abolitionist thought is found in the idea that it is normatively preferable to use an assensus model (Bianchi, 1994), or the model of the unfinished (Mathiesen, 1974), which both suppose a refusal to solidly fix criteria to establish both normative violations and desirable responses to them.

  • 14 Elaborating on Hulsmanian themes, Ruggiero (2010, 183) characterizes law by a lack of libido sciend (...)

31Despite major differences, early modern and contemporary collectivist anarchism both oppose criminal law and other forms of hierarchical authority on the grounds that it hinders autonomous ‘sociations’, which stand for the voluntary bonds that allow for the possibility of mutual aid: networks of self-organizing affinity groups providing solidarity (Walby, 2011, 294). If it can be argued that abolitionist thought in academic communications may oftentimes appear quite timorous when contrasted with anarchism, they are frequently symbiotic in the claim that the abstract scale used by criminal legal systems need to be replaced with a concrete one. This obviously implies that the politico-legal constitution of society as the decisively victimized party is refused and ultimately abolished, and many abolitionist logics put forward an ethics of knowledge, proximity and dialogue (Ruggiero, 2010, 183).14 Abolitionism seeks a deep and localized understanding of problematic situations in lieu of heteronomous criminalization, which depends on law remaining ignorant of, or indifferent to, the complexities and particularities of the situations and actors embroiled in them (Ruggiero, 2010; Hulsman, 1995). The distance created by penal bureaucracies, the de-autonomization of collectivities, as well as the generalized ignorance about what exactly criminal legal systems are doing to ‘criminals’ are interpreted as facilitating the consolidation and naturalization of norms of afflictive sanctions. For instance, Chartrand’s contribution to the special issue attempts to show the extent to which violence against incarcerated women has become normalized, which reflects the normalization of violence women experience beyond prison walls. Abolitionism proposes that knowledge and nearness can generate moral ambiguities or make visible complexities that criminal law does not tolerate, notably those leading to question the idea that the infliction of pain is a prerequisite of justice or an adequate strategy to deal with the situation.

4) The Impossible Justification of Punishment

  • 15 The powerful critiques of law’s intrinsic violence and impossible legitimacy formulated by Benjamin (...)

32Penal abolitionism can be an end established by problematizing the responses provided to the question: why punish? Such a logic thus either accepts norms established at the scale of sovereign power or does not indulge in a critique of their legitimacy. This would enable the demonstration that, even if norms of criminalization were not problematic, it is impossible to morally justify punishment as enacted by criminal law.15 As such, the arguments here are not built on factual aspects of the enforcement of a legal order, which are used to suggest that the continued use of punishment represents an irrational pursuit of documented harmful failures (see below). Rather, the arguments are about the unjustifiable violence of any form of institutionalized retribution. The key contribution here is arguably Golash’s (2005) The Case Against Punishment.

  • 16 For Bentham (1781 [1948, 3]), the community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual person (...)

33In The Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham (1781 [1948, 170]) famously proposed that all punishment in itself is evil, and that upon the principle of utility, such evil ought only to be admitted in as far as it promises to exclude some greater evil. In developing her critique of utilitarianism, Golash (2005) mobilizes two interrelated objections. First, she asserts that the philosophy is actually compatible with the punishment of the innocent, as well as with the imposition of severe harm to a small group (Golash, 2005, 23) when one is able to calculate any amount of benefit for what Bentham (1781 [1948, 170]) referred to as the total happiness of the community.16 Secondly, she formulates an objection to consequentialism in the terms proposed by Kant (1797 [1999, 138]): human beings can never be manipulated merely as means to the purposes of someone else.

34If Golash uses one of the major thinkers associated with retributivism, it is only to immediately argue that this philosophy also does not provide an acceptable moral justification for institutionalized punishment. First, she engages with retributivism articulated to a will to preserve the moral order, particularly Hegel’s (1821 [1942, 70]) defense of punishment as the righting of a wrong, as the necessary annulling of ‘crime’ as an infringement of the right as right. Hegel has insisted on seeing the wrong of ‘crime’ not in its harmful consequences, but in the negation of the rightful manifestation or existence of the will of the victim. Punishment is an end in itself, the annulling of an annulment, the restoration of a right. As such, the target of punishment is actually the will as will (Hegel, 1821 [1942, 69]). In the eyes of Golash (2005, 52) Hegel’s retributivism does not provide a moral justification for punishment:

The coercion later exercised against the offender annuls his will; that second act of coercion is right because it annuls a will that is wrong. This argument clearly shows the moral justifiability of direct preventive measures such as intervening in [a] kidnapping to prevent the offender from completing it. (...) It is more problematic, however, to say that using coercion against him after the fact (...) is the annulment of his will to kidnap. The use of coercive punishment does not annul the will of the offender: he wills to be free, but he is confined. (...) There is no obvious sense in which this use of coercion (taken in abstraction from its possible effects on behavior) is a literal defense of the rights of others (Golash, 2005, 52).

  • 17 Consent in Kantian ethics thus has to do with consent over the punishable quality of an act, not wi (...)

35When formulated within a Kantian ethics, retributivism is based on the hypothetical, not factual, assumption of the consent of all in a legal order imposing punishment as a categorical imperative. From this perspective, there is an unavoidable relation between criminalized acts and punishment, notably because ‘crime’ is conceived as the expression of a will to commit an act that is punishable.17 As Golash (2005, 73-74) makes explicit, Kant’s discussion relies on an ontologized conception of homo criminalis, whose moral flaws would be revealed in his inclination to will punishable acts. The right to punish defended by Kant is thus premised on the individual responsibility of the ‘offender’. To find Kant’s right to punish morally indefensible, Golash problematizes this individual responsibility, the presumption of consent, particularly among those more likely to be criminalized and punished, as well as the idea that the violation of criminal norms ought to be met by a consequence taking the form of punishment.

  • 18 The example of the island is formulated as follows:

36Yet, this does not really address the question of deserts, which Kant has infamously discussed by way of his example of the island, in which even pointless punishment is seen as a condition for justice.18 Golash’s objections (2005, 79-85) are multiple. Like Mathiesen (2006), she sees the establishment of proper penal deserts as an impossible task. She also evokes social justice to trouble the idea that people deserve to suffer in the absence of a general commitment to desert[s] (Golash, 2005, 80). Following Wolgast (1987), she suggests that the idea that some ‘offenders’ deserve to suffer is not authorizing anyone to inflict pain. Most importantly perhaps, Golash argues that wrongs cannot be undone or annulled, that harm coded as ‘criminal justice’ boils down to the commission of additional wrongs, and that the notion of deserts fails to explain why the focus should be on punishing the ‘offender’ rather than on compensating the victim.

37An attempt to justify the right to punish can also be made by evoking a right to self-defense or societal-defense (Montague, 1995), which Golash also finds morally untenable. The problem here is not the uncontroversial threat to inflict sufficient harm on the aggressor to avert her attack, but rather the threat to inflict retaliatory harm if she succeeds in harming us (Golash, 2005, 100). The affirmation of a right to punish based on a ‘natural’ right to self-defense frequently mixes it with utilitarian concerns for deterrence, to the point where she suggests that the distinction between self-defense and deterrent punishment actually collapses, allowing the recoding of ex post facto harm as preventative measures. Golash (2005, 102) finds the moral foundation of self-defense faulty particularly because situations where future harms (e.g. ‘recidivism’) are certain are exceptionally rare, and cannot justify regular, non-immediate, self-defensive strategies. The problem with self-defense is thus located in the duty to justify punishment as a form of retroaction, given that both deontological and consequentialist traditions are unsatisfactory.

38Finally, Golash aims to establish that moral reform theories are also morally problematic. These theories are forms of legal moral paternalism. Although the level of paternalism varies among them, they all advance the idea that punishment is a justifiable means to promote the moral improvement of the ‘wrongdoer’. Duff (1986) has insisted on the need to respect the autonomy of the ‘wrongdoer’, suggesting that punishment is justified in so far as it aims to persuade about the wrongness of a practice, condition or omission in a way that leaves the person free to disagree and to experience the punishment as pure coercion (Golash, 2005, 119). However, proponents of moral reform typically adopt a stronger paternalism, which negates the individual’s self-determination (by refusing, for instance, that one might prefer liberty over ‘moral improvement’). For Golash (2005, 121), one of the fundamental problem here is the assumption that disobedience to criminal legal norms is symptomatic of a moral defect, since not all of these norms can be conflated with norms of attachment to the welfare of others. Yet, her key critique proceeds by troubling another assumption: if there is a need to communicate wrongfulness and that the end of moral reform is in itself unobjectionable (Golash, 2005, 130), it is unjustifiable to assume that punishment enacted by criminal law is either necessary to that end or that it is a means likely to achieve moral reform. Her argument here proceeds by submitting that, for punishment to morally affect the individual, she must be emotionally attached to the punisher. In the context of complex, highly differentiated, contemporary societies, the attachment of the ‘wrongdoer’ to the state simply cannot be assumed. Moral reform theories ultimately ground the right to punish in conjunction with theories of deterrence or retribution:

the aim of moral reform rescues other theories at the expense of vitiating them: if we may punish for deterrent or retributive purposes only if we also seek to promote the moral good of the offender in punishing her, we may not punish for those purposes, because punishment cannot promote her moral good (Golash, 2005, 123).

5) The Irrational Pursuit of Harmful Failures

39Abolitionist ends are also sustained by the claim that it is irrational to continue relying on incarceration, or to use any form of institutionalized infliction of pain as a response to problematic situations: these harmful strategies would be factually replete with aberrant shortcomings. In contradistinction to philosophical invalidations of the right to punish, claims-making strategies here typically rely on exposing hideous and inconvenient truths related to incarceration or institutionalized punishment. The continued reliance on incarceration and punishment is thus interpreted as the result of various mystifications.

40Critiques of the modern prison have been ferocious and widespread ever since its birth. Still, Mathiesen (2006, 23) interprets the irrational pursuit of harmful failures as resulting, at least partly, from the shortcomings of the punitive approach remaining the semi-secrets of criminological and sociological specialists, consequently having little or no bearing on policy. If people really knew, then, they would find abolitionism to be a rational requirement (Mathiesen, 2006, 145). So what are these truths remaining in the shadows and preventing ‘the public’ to follow the majestic rule of Reason?

41First, mobilizing an etymological understanding of rehabilitation as a return to competence (re-habilis), a review of the research literature would make easy to expose the idea that prison rehabilitates is a scam: not only can we most certainly say that the prison does not rehabilitate. Most likely we can also say that it in fact dehabilitates (Mathiesen, 2006, 53, original emphasis). In the postscript of the third edition of Prison on Trial, Mathiesen is perhaps more honest in noting that contemporary meta-analyses can document some modest positive results, as normatively defined by ‘correctional’ standards (for instance in terms of cognitive competence or skills, that the Correctional Services of Canada (1990) once presented as ‘rehabilitation through clearer thinking’). The idea that rehabilitation is a scam has recently been used in an abolitionist critique of the more recent correctionalist quest to establish ‘gender responsive’ programs within carceral settings (Russell, Carlton, 2013). In their contribution to the special issue, Carlton and Russell focus on how abolitionists have modified their strategies when confronted with the establishment of such programs that are packaged in radical language once used by feminist critics to denounce state punishment.

  • 19 The normative claim that rehabilitation is a desirable or even useful way to punish is obviously ch (...)

42The factual claim that the prison produces no rehabilitative effects whatsoever is likely to be judged purely rhetorical within many post-positivist academic communications.19 Yet, two other factual claims made by abolitionists are uncontroversial even from the perspective of orthodox forms of criminology: there is a staggering amount of evidence-based claims that rehabilitation is characteristically ‘ineffective’ or counterproductive, and, in prison, imperatives of ‘security’ have always trumped projects coded as helpful or otherwise benevolent (Mathiesen, 2006). As Pires has suggested (2013, 307), rehabilitation is the penological rationale towards which mounting a strong empirical critique is the easiest. Nevertheless, critiques of this kind have had a limited impact, and Dubé’s contribution to the special issue identifies some factors limiting the potency of critiques of criminalization and punishment.

43Secondly, abolitionists insist that we simply do not know to what extent punishment guides the behavior of ‘the public’ through a terroristic pedagogy of norms. For Mathiesen (2006, 55-65), it is problematic and irrational that the performance of criminal legal systems in terms of general prevention is elevated as a social paradigm when we actually know the extent of our ignorance in this matter. And the fact that criminalized and penalized individuals are characteristically poor and racialized or otherwise marginalized is interpreted as a performative contradiction of a system pretending to serve as a moral compass. Abolitionist thought typically leads to an analysis of the performance of criminal legal systems in terms of the creation, maintenance and reinforcement of inequalities, discriminations and power relations. Such performance does not prevent but rather multiplies and exacerbates problematic situations (e.g. Mathiesen, 2006; de Haan, 1992; Hulsman, 1986). This is seen as both immoral and irrational.

44Thirdly, abolitionists argue that there is a solid research literature showing that the decisions of criminal legal systems cannot accurately distinguish between false positives and false negatives when using incarceration as a strategy of incapacitation (Mathiesen, 2006, 85-103). This fact is mobilized alongside claims about the dubious morality of punishment premised on the potentiality of future criminalizable acts: incapacitation is an immoral and irrational penological principle. Similarly, Mathiesen (2006, 105) submits that we can conclude nothing about [individual] deterrence, and argues that incarceration, therefore, cannot be rationally connected to individual deterrence. In his postscript to the third edition of Prison on Trial, he partly lays the blame for the continued reliance on incarceration, employed as a means to incapacitate and produce specific deterrence, on orthodox criminology. It has become increasingly establishment oriented (2006, 188), and stubbornly continues its journey into the murky waters of prediction (see Carrier, Walby, 2014; Kemshall, 2011; Harcourt, 2007; Castel, 1991).

45For abolitionist thought, the irrationality and immorality of penal policies aimed at general prevention, rehabilitation, incapacitation and specific deterrence are further compounded by the fact that they lead to the infliction of pain on individuals treated as pure means (de Haan, 1992). Producing and disseminating knowledge on the experience and the debilitating effects of the institutionalized infliction of pain is a key element of abolitionist praxis. It is not only focused on prisoners, but sees imprisonment as destructive to the cagers as to the caged (Morris, 2000, 70). The idea that the prison or punishment produce no net gain in protection (Rubin, 1973, 252) is marshaled as a key factual indication of irrationality, while the harmfulness of penal failures leads to calls to develop anti-authoritarian ideologies (Mathiesen, 1986, 86) emphasizing care, support, compensation, autonomy and solidarity. Such was the project in a short-lived attempt at unionizing prisoners in France in the 1980s, which is the focus of Charbit et Ricordeau’s contribution to the special issue.

6) The Prison Industrial Complex

46The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a relatively recent addition to abolitionist logics. The PIC is central to contemporary American abolitionist movement, epitomized in Critical Resistance, a national organization that grew out of the ‘Critical Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex’ conference held in California in 1998. Embraced within activist circles (see Mayrl, 2013), the notion is also circulating within academic communications on abolitionism. Definitions of the PIC vary, but typically correspond to the establishment of vast networks involving political, legal, and mass media institutions, actively producing and reinforcing capitalistic domination, as well as racialized oppressions. For instance, Sudbury (2002, 61) defines the PIC as a symbiotic and profitable relationship between politicians, corporations, the media and state correctional institutions that generates racialized use of incarceration as a response to social problems rooted in the globalization of capital. Davis (2003, 107) suggests that it is a set of symbiotic relationships among correctional communities, transnational corporations, media conglomerates, guards’ unions, and legislative and court agendas. Sudbury (2005, xvii) proposes that the PIC is a child of global capitalism born to warehouse those surplus to the global economy and creating profits for private prison operators and corporations servicing prisons (see also De Lissovoy, 2013; Gilmore, 2007; Welch, 2003). Relying on the notion of the PIC usually involves entangling capitalism and racism from an American historicist perspective, allowing the PIC to be re-described as the new form of American enslavement (e.g., Davis, Mendieta, 2005, 95). Others, notably Alexander (2010), have argued that the mass incarceration of people of colour in the United States has extended the racial caste system that was thought to have disappeared following the abolition of racial segregation laws in the first few decades following the Second World War.

  • 20 Which also goes by the name ‘carceral studies’ depending on the scholar (see Brown, 2014).

47The PIC has notably been mobilized to interpret the American carceral boom and a generalized process of penal intensification (see Carrier, 2010). It is also mobilized in the American academic field of ‘prison studies’,20 where the PIC is notably seen as an analytical instrument enabling the ‘queering’ of abolitionism (i.e. allowing for an abolitionist thought also premised on the idea that the PIC is one of the central modality of the production and enforcement of gender and sexual norms). The abolition of the PIC is then seen as coterminous with trans and queer liberation (Stanley, et al., 2012, 115). Eradicating the PIC is also seen as necessary to challenge the ableism that legitimates the exclusion of those with disabilities, notably through incarceration and other forms of institutionalization (Ben-Moshe, et al., 2014). Moreover, it has been suggested that research demonstrates that education must be included in the definition of the PIC (Meiners, 2011, 549). Not only many (American) schools make an increasing use of surveillance, policing and incarceration strategies and devices, but the expansion of prison budgets would be made at the expense of the education system, resulting in the establishment of a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ reinforcing structural racism and maximizing the extraction of surplus value. Such intersectional work goes well beyond earlier feminist scholarship by Carlen (1990) and others who argued that the march towards abolition and gender equality ought to begin by eradicating state violence targeting criminalized women (see also Carlen, 2006).

48Whether the focus is placed on racism, youth delinquency, ‘crime’, punishment, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, or gender and sexualities, the mass media are typically condemned for providing a key modality of ideological reproduction on which the PIC largely depends. Hulsman, Mathiesen and other abolitionists have long insisted on the impossibility to abolish the prisons or punishment without first making possible different representations of problematic situations and criminalized individuals, through an active deconstruction or demystification of mass mediated realities, and a politics of proximity. The PIC provides an abolitionist logic that supposes the very same imperative, but with a far wider scope: abolitionism would also require struggles against mass mediated realities supporting and reproducing white supremacy, heterosexism, ableism, imperialism and capitalism. If the PIC provides motives to abolish the prisons, punishment and all carceral spaces, they clearly cannot be limited to the traditional criminological concerns of the older European tradition of abolitionist thought in the penal field.

7) Global Carceralization

49The analyses motivating claims that abolitionism should enlarge its ends so as to include all forms of detention might rely on the notion of the prison industrial complex, yet they remain autonomous from it and constitute a distinct abolitionist logic. One can problematize confinement without interpreting it as a product of deliberate strategies of surplus extraction coupled to racialized oppressions and colonial legacies. There are vast and diverse academic literatures on the proliferation and normalization of detention (Larsen, 2008, 2), where detention refers to multiple forms of confinement, distinguished from incarceration as an ex post facto strategy used by criminal legal systems. Yet, it is only recently – and still quite atypically – that these literatures are interpreted or self-describe themselves in terms of an abolitionist logic contiguous to those animating prison and penal abolitionism. In other words, the problematization of detention within academic communications usually operates discontinuously from traditional forms of abolitionist thought. The formalization of global carceralization as an abolitionist logic, challenging the narrowness of prison and penal abolitionism, pleads for ending this discontinuity.

  • 21 For what regards the extension of the carceral through traditional juridical means, the literature (...)

50Global carceralization is academically constituted as an abolitionist logic essentially through critiques of preventative detention and immigration detention (see Piché, Larsen, 2010, 398-406). Critiques of preventative detention are mounted towards different regimes of practices. Some of these regimes are instituted through traditional juridical means, whereas others are dependent on an increasingly normalized suspension of law that would be dictated by necessity. It is through the problematization of this latter form of regimes and immigration detention that this recent abolitionist logic is constituted.21

51Global carceralization is an abolitionist logic heavily influenced by Agamben’s claims that the state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics (2005, 2) and that, consequently, the camp is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West (1998, 181). For Agamben, the state of exception corresponds to an annihilation of the rule of law through law as a strategy of self-preservation; it is a suspension of the order that is in force in order to guarantee its existence (Agamben, 2005, 31). The state of exception results in the inability to distinguish between factuality and legality, and opens the space of the camp, confining a naked form of life. Agamben (1998) refuses Foucault’s (1979 [2004]) certification of the birth of biopolitics in the governmentalization of the state, which posits that the relationship between sovereign power and life is dependent upon the invention and knowledge of the population. Rather, Agamben (1998, 177) maintains, the original, foundational, political structure is the exclusive inclusion of bare life within political existence: political life is premised on the exclusion of naked life from the realm of politics, and thus law. This celebrated Agambendian corrective on biopolitics is the core of the abolitionist logic of global carceralization: no forms of life should be confined on any grounds, particularly not on the grounds that some forms of life are denied political existence and recognition.

  • 22 The camp has also been used to describe the spaces in which many individuals found guilty of sexual (...)
  • 23 This has also obviously stimulated new strategies and technologies of surveillance and policing (Bi (...)

52The camp has been used to describe and problematize the confinement of enemy combatants and individuals suspected of posing a threat to national security on the basis of intelligence usually undisclosed, sometimes gathered through the use of torture.22 For instance, Larsen and Piché (2009) have analyzed the institution of a camp within the confines of a Canadian federal penitentiary, which has been used to indefinitely detain individuals who were never charged of any infraction. Immigration detention facilities have also been characterized as instantiations of Agamben’s concept of camp (e.g. Razack, 2008). The confinement of individuals on the grounds of the illegality of their sole presence within sovereign borders has been massively contributing to the expansion of carceral spaces at a global scale (see Mountz et al., 2012).23 This has been interpreted as operating according to a logic of management and a biopolitics of disposability, and the transnational movement no one is illegal has been characterized as formulating a decidedly abolitionist statement (Piché, Larsen, 2010, 403). However, as a means to contest confinement, activists and detainees themselves often distinguish those affected by immigration and (in)security detention from incarcerated ‘criminals’, which does not problematize the carceral in its totality, and indeed conveys the idea that confinement is not unjust when used to punish ‘criminals’.

Marginality, Diversity, Vitality

53Abolitionist thought, as it manifests itself within academic communications, thus presents a complexity in both its aims and the logics that sustain them. Our above discussion of seven core abolitionist logics might indeed be disputed on the grounds that it overly simplified them. We referred to many sources of the abundant and diverse abolitionist academic literatures, where readers shall find, in many cases, a more elaborate discussion on precise abolitionist themes. Despite the limitations of our synopsis of the complexity of abolitionist ends and logics, we think that we have treated them with enough depth to allow readers to critically assess the various contributions on abolitionism collected in this special issue and to avoid fundamental misunderstandings, misrepresentations or oversimplifications of abolitionist thought. For it is usually the cultural fate of radicalism to be derided through such means – a fate so visible in the solidly established symbolic association of anarchism with chaos and violence (Baillargeon, 2004).

54Abolitionism remains mostly at the margins of academic communications, and it is only atypically that institutional curriculums in criminology, sociology, legal studies or political science contain courses devoted to it. In Canada, the major and honour’s programs in criminology at the University of Ottawa are, to our knowledge, the only ones where students are required to take a course on abolitionism in order to complete their undergraduate degree. In contradistinction, all criminologists trained in North America have to display a minimal understanding of things such as the etiological theories of crime, which tend to be increasingly refashioned through the influence of neurobiological truth claims (see Carrier, Walby, 2014), and the ‘best practices’ in so-called correctional endeavors (e.g. Cullen, Gendreau, 2001).

  • 24 Here is a very short list: interdisciplinary studies, intercultural studies, women’s studies, subur (...)

55Despite the marginality of abolitionist thought within academic networks taking the penal field as their object, this special issue demonstrates its presence, vitality and diversity. The ever growing internal complexity of academic communications – testified in the mushrooming of hyper-specialized fields of ‘studies’24 – certainly provides a structural context favorable to the further solidification and growth of a set of communications self-referentially organized by abolitionism. Yet, abolitionism solely practiced as an academic exercise (Mathiesen, Hjemdal, 2011), if such a thing exists, is likely to be condemned for being, indeed, purely self-referential.

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1 We wish to express our gratitude to Jean-François Cauchie, Gilles Chantraine, Augustine SJ Park, Dale Spencer, Jeffrey Monaghan, Kevin Walby and the two reviewers for their astute comments on an earlier version of this article.

2 In Does Abolitionism Have a Future, Feest and Paul (2008) published an exchange between several first and second-generation key abolitionist thinkers on what happened, and might happen, to the movement. Published in the German Kriminologischen Journals, the debate can be accessed (in English) at [].

3 This interpretation is highly debatable given that the literature on the ‘new punitiveness’ (or ‘punitive turn’) formulates a critique of criminalization and penalization along quantitative lines (we repress and punish too much), or along operational ones (we repress and punish inadequately), while the uses of the force and power of criminal law, as well as the various logics supporting them, are never radically questioned (Carrier, 2010, 48).

4 Many aspects of the critiques forwarded to contemporary projects of ‘public criminology’ are also illustrative of this sensibility; see Piché (2015), Carrier (2014), Ruggiero (2012).

5 Our contribution is unfortunately limited to abolitionist thought communicated in French and English.

6 We use the term criminal legal system instead of penal system to distinguish it from other punishing legal systems that rely on administrative law (e.g. immigration detention and deportation regimes). At the same time, we want to underscore that criminal legal systems produce or construct ‘crime’ through its criminalization processes rather than simply responding to it as is conventionally portrayed in criminological research (Hulsman, 1986).

7 We refer here to a Luhmannian conception of science as a complex autopoeitic social system; see notably Luhmann (2013, 1998, 1995) and Carrier (forthcoming, 2011, 2008a, 2008b).

8 In the eyes of some abolitionists, the attrition model is even a dangerous, counterproductive, recipe. For instance, Morris (1995) critiques decarceration and excarceration as de facto net widening strategies, and suggests that freezing the expansion of prison capacity without also operating a turn towards transformative justice is doomed to failure: the material conditions of incarceration will worsen with the ageing of institutions, and this will inevitably lead well-meaning humanists to ask for new, modern, humane ones (see also Piché, 2014).

9 To be clear, Mathiesen does not limit the potential modalities of abolitionism to a stance. He also conceives of abolitionism as a theoretical exercise, as well as an active, tactical, artful, more practical engagement with matters relative to penal policies and culture, involving the full participation of penalized individuals (see Mathiesen, 2014).

10 One can also at times observe abolitionist thought including theological elements. This is illustrated in the idea that incarceration is form of blasphemy (Knopp et al., 1976) and that various theologies of liberation are tools to strengthen the abolitionist movement (Lydon, 2011). Indeed, the International Conference on Penal Abolition began as an initiative led by the Canadian Quaker Committee on Jails and Justice (Piché, Larsen, 2010), and many of the responses to harm privileged by those who have contributed to the intellectual development of these meetings, notably restorative justice (e.g. Elliott, 2011) and transformative justice (e.g. Morris, 2000), are often deeply rooted in spirituality with their emphasis on holistic encounters that work towards healing. Theological elements are also quite visible within peacemaking criminology (Quinney, 2006; Pepinsky, Quinney, 1991), that many see as an offshoot of abolitionism.

11 The grammar of criminalization can be used by mobilizing the symbols of juridical validity or not (see Carrier, 2008b). For instance, one can problematize various practices as ‘crimes’ even if they are not constituted as such by criminal legal systems. When abolitionism is limited to the prisons and not extended to all forms of legally valid retributive sanctions, the grammar of criminalization is left unproblematized.

12 As Slingeneyer perceptively remarks in his superb analysis of Hulsman’s abolitionist thought:

It would probably be possible to illustrate this typology with examples, yet such an illustration would be contrary to the spirit of the Hulsmanian perspective. Indeed, I think that exemplification might lead some to think that we can “lock up” entire categories of similar situations in one of the three types of problematic situations, which would negate the active role of individuals directly concerned by the definition of the problematic quality of lived situations (2005, n.115; our translation).

13 The idea that constructivism is based on the belief that not using the grammar of criminalization will make crime as a behavioral reality disappears (Akers, 1997, 177) is either rhetorical or stupid. See notably the debate between Walsh and Wright (2015) and Carrier and Walby (2015).

14 Elaborating on Hulsmanian themes, Ruggiero (2010, 183) characterizes law by a lack of libido sciendi (i.e. a lack of desire for knowledge about problematic situations).

15 The powerful critiques of law’s intrinsic violence and impossible legitimacy formulated by Benjamin (1920 [2000]), Cover (1986), Derrida (1990), and Luhmann (2004) are not mobilized as abolitionist logics, although they are appropriated by contemporary poststructuralist anarchism (e.g. Newman, 2005, 2001), which necessarily adopts an abolitionist teleology.

16 For Bentham (1781 [1948, 3]), the community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is, what? - the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it. A justification of punishment on the grounds of the utility of general prevention shall thus be null and void if it does not manipulate precise numbers (e.g. exactly how many ‘crimes’ are actually not taking place because of the institution of punishment). It should be noted that Golash’s claim that Utilitarianism is compatible with punishing the innocent is based on a problematic deduction rather than on a proper description of the doctrine as formulated by Bentham, who cannot be associated with this idea.

17 Consent in Kantian ethics thus has to do with consent over the punishable quality of an act, not with a postulated consent to be punished.

18 The example of the island is formulated as follows:

Even if a civil society were to be dissolved by the consent of all its members (e.g., if a people inhabiting an island decided to separate and disperse throughout the world), the last murderer remaining in prison would first have to be executed, so that each has done to him what his deeds deserve and blood guilt does not cling to the people for not having insisted upon this punishment; for otherwise the people can be regarded as collaborators in this public violation of justice (Kant, 1797 [1999, 140]).

19 The normative claim that rehabilitation is a desirable or even useful way to punish is obviously challenged by abolitionist thought, notably because it requires a criminological, non-juridical, mode of establishing the criminal/non-criminal distinction.

20 Which also goes by the name ‘carceral studies’ depending on the scholar (see Brown, 2014).

21 For what regards the extension of the carceral through traditional juridical means, the literature that abolitionists relate to and nurture problematizes the colonization of criminal legal systems by the logics of risk and precaution, or, more broadly, the politics of insecurity (e.g. Ericson, 2007; Zedner, 2007; Haggerty, 2003). Condemned is the increased reliance on processes of criminalization fueled by anxieties and fears, irrespective of actual harm, such as the many offenses instituted, with many national variations, to curb ‘incivilities’ or ‘anti-social behavior’ - for instance, the offense of being in a public place without having any apparent purpose (Levi, 2009). Ericson (2007, 24) has described this as an instance of counter-law or laws against law, whereby new laws are enacted and new uses of existing laws are invented to erode or eliminate traditional principles, standards and procedures or criminal law that get in the way of preempting imagined sources of harm. In many cases, criminalization is thus able to operate independently of the foundational principles of actus reus and mens rea, feeding the expansion of the carceral. When the focus is on risk rather than precaution, abolitionism can be motivated by the increasing aversion for risk in criminal legal systems, resulting notably in the exploding carceral population of remanded individuals, i.e. individuals detained prior to trial, legally presumed innocent. In Canadian provincial and territorial prisons, for instance, there are more remanded individuals in custody than individuals incarcerated as a consequence of a finding of guilt (see Perreault, 2014; Piché, 2014). The cross-fertilization of abolitionist thought with criminological literatures problematizing the logics of risk and precaution does not produce a new abolitionist logic, although it clearly contributes to the actualization of the logics animating traditional forms of abolitionism.

22 The camp has also been used to describe the spaces in which many individuals found guilty of sexual offenses are condemned to err (Spencer, 2009).

23 This has also obviously stimulated new strategies and technologies of surveillance and policing (Bigo, 2014, 2005; Vukov, Sheller, 2013; Monaghan, 2013; Wall, Monahan, 2011; Pratt, 2005), and some now discuss the constitution of an ‘immigration industrial complex’ (Trujillo-Pagán, 2014; Dotty, Wheatley, 2013). The interpenetration of legal regimes of ‘crime’ and immigration control (e.g. Kubal, 2014; van der Woude et al., 2014; Stumpf, 2006), and the generalized mobilization of the grammar of criminalization to relate culturally and politically to asylum seekers (Bosworth, Guild, 2008), have led to calls to expand criminology or the sociology of punishment to incorporate questions related to borders and the movement of bodies (e.g. Bosworth, 2012; Aas, 2011).

24 Here is a very short list: interdisciplinary studies, intercultural studies, women’s studies, suburban studies, masculinity studies, porn studies, fashion studies, security studies, museum studies, game studies, infant studies, food studies, consciousness studies, Aboriginal studies, whiteness studies, film studies, subaltern studies, prison studies, disability studies, Eurasian studies, health studies, consumer studies, global studies, region studies, rural studies, tourism studies, Islamic studies, Chicano studies, childhood studies, sport studies.

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Nicolas Carrier et Justin Piché, « The State of Abolitionism  »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. XII | 2015, mis en ligne le 21 août 2015, consulté le 27 février 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Nicolas Carrier

Carleton University. Contact :

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Justin Piché

Université d’Ottawa. Contact :

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