Democracy Against Representation: A Radical Realist View

by Paul Raekstad

Abstract: 

In recent years, radical movements from the Arab Spring to Occupy and beyond have been calling for “democracy.” These movements also claim to reject representation—a keystone of many contemporary liberal understandings of democracy. How can we make sense of this? There is ongoing debate about this in these movements and their descendants, part of which consists in figuring out what we should take “democracy” to mean. This article tries to contribute to this process of collective self-clarification by reconstructing one notion of what we could take “democracy” to mean. Thereafter, we will see how we can use this concept to make sense of the critique of representation in many contemporary radical movements and how useful it can be for helping to guide social change and the practices seeking to bring it about. I will thus argue that a coherent conception of democracy can be found, and that it can be a powerful tool both for understanding and critiquing the shortcomings of contemporary societies and for guiding our efforts to overcome them.

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Already Something More: Heteropatriarchy and the Limitations of Rights, Inclusion, And the Universal

There have been significant expansions in civil and human rights for queer and trans people, yet systemic power relations that cause violence and harm continue. How might we account for this contradiction? This article examines how this problem does not exist in the “misapplication of rights” but rather in the root connections between heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, and universal rights. This article argues, by way of engagement with a genealogical inquiry into the colonial disciplining of “civility” through the imposition of the gender binary and heterosexuality, that demands for LGBT inclusion into the sphere of universal protection via rights-based redress is inherently limited because of its colonial construction. This article builds from contemporary queer and trans critique of the mainstream gay rights agenda, and aims to demonstrate that incorporation through the achievement of rights-based inclusion ultimately will not shift the deeper power dynamics of heteropatriarchy within settler colonialism.

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Burn it Down: Abolition, Insurgent Political Praxis, and the Destruction of Decency

“Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”

-Claire Vaye Watkins

In this article, the authors examine the ways in which the state, broadly understood as a technique, practice, and effect of modern governance and its optimization, creates impossible conditions for radical political transformation in the U.S. To illustrate these conditions, the authors show how the state relies upon notions of decency or civility to enact and elide blatant colonialism. The authors draw from the following examples to advance this argument: the “EPA Spill” or the ongoing environmental genocide shaping life across occupied Indigenous lands in the U.S. Southwest; the surprising, yet all too ordinary, election of President Trump; and the racist detainment of children from Central America in the name of humanitarian “law and order.” The authors contend that because these acts illustrate how Euro-American colonial norms continue to shape everyday violence, abolition as a praxis and vision must contend with how to burn down all of the mechanics of contemporary governance, to cooperatively dismantle the state as such, before promoting alternative social systems and political worlds. One way that the authors propose to accomplish this is to incinerate decency as an organizing precept for democracy, civic comportment, and political participation.

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All our Community’s Voices: Unteaching the Prison Literacy Complex

by Michael Sutcliffe

Education, and particularly literacy, is often held up as a panacea for criminality and the key to prisoners’ reinvented social mobility. Reformers, educators, administrators, and government-funded corporate surveys tell us that if prisoners are educated, their behaviors will change as they learn to “solve their problems” in constructive rather than destructive ways. While much is to be said for the value of education, learning to read and write according to institutionally authorized conventional modes of discourse does little to counter the systems of state-sponsored violence, near-permanent poverty, racism, and devastating economic inequity that propagate the prison industrial complex.

This essay will demonstrate how current applications of prisoner education contribute to a “Prison Literacy Complex” by assuming deficits in the prisoner and positing education as remediation or as therapy. Traditional top-down models of literacy and their “voices-in” pedagogies mask systemic privilege and stratification. Instead, I argue for a “voices-out” pedagogical reframing for community programs in prisons and jails that can further substantive, redistributive social change. By bringing silenced voices and counterhegemonic memories out from behind bars, community efforts can reveal inconsistencies in popular “truths” and inspire the historicized criticism necessary for sustained projects of abolition. While primarily addressed to educators and community organizers working inside, the theoretical reorientation is a broader call for rethinking and reteaching ideological inheritance and community participation.

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Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Foter.com / CC BY-NC.

“Prison Treated Me Way Better Than You”: Reentry, Perplexity, and the Naturalization of Mass Imprisonment

Renée M. Byrd

In the absence of a critique of the logics at the heart of the prison industrial complex, seemingly progressive trends such as prisoner reentry initiatives will simply bolster racialized state violence. This essay grapples with questions of representation and power, and details how the disposability of imprisoned people is reproduced and renaturalized through carceral practices. Academic accounts continue to be complicit in this process, without a complex theorizing of subjectivity, representation, and state violence. This essay uses interviews with formerly imprisoned people in the Twin Cities to disrupt the way that formerly imprisoned people’s narratives are “mined as rich sources” in pathologizing and voyeuristic ways. Prisoner reentry programs appear progressive on the surface; however, they expand the prison industrial complex through perplexing logics that make it harder for women to navigate toward freedom. I use the notion of perplexity as a rubric for understanding penal logics and subjectivities as they emerged in my interviews with people recently released from Minnesota’s only women’s prison and analyze how they reproduce the vulnerability of people leaving prison. The gender-responsive façade of this unique prison and the surveillance orientation of reentry programs naturalized imprisonment as a solution to social problems in deeply problematic ways.

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Beyond revanchism? Gentrification, prisons and anti-colonial revenge

Max Haiven is Canada Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University in Northwest Ontario and director of the ReImagining Value Action Lab (RiVAL). He writes articles for both academic and general audiences and is the author of the books Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons, The Radical Imagination: Social […]

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Shifting Carceral Landscapes: Decarceration and the Reconfiguration of White Supremacy

by Colleen Hackett and Ben Turk

This essay explores the changing contours of white supremacy in the United States, and in particular its relationship to systems of control and confinement. Many critics have illuminated the ways that racial control is inherent to and embedded within the penal system. In light of some of the federal- and state-level reforms that claim to incarcerate less and use more “alternative,” community-based sanctions, we interrogate the ways that white racial interests continue to be secured across the carceral landscape, thus granting official politics limited space to entertain negligible decarceration policies. In this preliminary survey of the carceral landscape, we critique several white-dominant social institutions that work together to confine and control communities of color outside of the prison walls, while reproducing varying forms of racial caste. We incorporate historical understandings of racialization and colonization, as well as contemporary concepts and observations from academia and beyond to highlight the extent of this entrenchment. It is our hope that this survey will address the shape of racialized control in the United States that must be considered when addressing just one of its manifestations—the prison state.

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Looking Historically at the White Working Class in the U.S. | David Gilbert

by David Gilbert, political prisoner

The bizarre and dangerous rise of Donald Trump did not just pop up out of the thin air. The very foundation of the U.S. is white supremacy. This country is, at its core, imperialist, patriarchal and based in a range of ways human beings are delimited and demeaned. Nor are the specific and terribly virulent politics of racial scapegoating brand new. Always a part of U.S. culture, that approach became more central in mainstream politics, with various ups and downs in the rhetoric, since the end of the 1960s. A stable imperialism prefers to rule by keeping the population passive, with large sectors at home placated by relative prosperity. But when the system is in crisis, those running the economy often resort to diverting anger by scapegoating the racial “other.” The sectors of the population who buy into that get the “satisfaction” of stomping on their “inferiors,” which is a lot easier than confronting the mega-powerful ruling class.

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