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.

Dismantle & Transform: On Abolition, Decolonization, & Insurgent Politics

A conversation between Harsha Walia and Andrew Dilts, recorded February 5, 2015.

Edited for length and clarity, January 2016.

Although the conversation is somewhat dated and political contexts are shifting, the overall issues remain relevant.

Andrew Dilts (AD): I want to start by asking about “No One is Illegal” and your involvement with it. You talk about this a lot in your book, Undoing Border Imperialism (AK Press, 2013). For people who haven’t read the book, could you explain how you became involved with that organization?


Harsha Walia (HW): My work around migrant justice is based on personal experiences and fifteen years as an organizer. I grew up in a family of migrants with an even longer history of displacement. Partition in South Asia was a very violent process. The colonially-imposed border between what is now known as India and Pakistan led to over 14 million people being killed or displaced. It is known by the United Nations as one the largest mass displacements and migrations in human history. And when I came to Turtle Island, I lived as a migrant for many years, part of it with precarious legal status. This familial history of displacement, migration, labour exploitation and race—all the issues discussed in the book—are very personal for me. So after 9/11 when we witnessed massive roundups, surveillance, increasing deportations, and new anti-migrant and anti-terror laws being passed, that became my entry point into organizing within the migrant justice movement and No One Is Illegal.


AD: I want to ask you about the proliferation of security check points and border check points, because in your analysis, you describe how the border does not exist at the exterior of any nation. Is it right to say that borders are almost entirely inside of nations and that the production of illegal persons is happening not at historical or geographic borders but as a practice of bordering?


HW: The border extends far beyond the geographic border. The practice of bordering is being both internalized and externalized as power and modes of control are increasingly diffused. The border is externalized through interdiction, which is the interception of migrants before the border by disallowing migrants to board airplanes and making their journeys more perilous. In Europe, this outsourcing of border regimes has resulted in the drowning deaths of tens of thousands of migrants over the past decade.

The internalization of borders is happening in so-called public institutions—schools, hospitals, transit—that are operating as checkpoints and either denying migrants access and often acting as border guards to detain and report people to immigration authorities. The temporary foreign worker program also operates as a domesticated border and form of incarceration both literally and figuratively. Migrant workers often have their documents confiscated and are held captive to work under conditions of indentured servitude. For live-in caregivers in Canada, for example, historically Caribbean women and now Filipina women came to work as domestic workers and the rates of sexual violence are incredibly high because vulnerable migrant women are being forced to live with predominantly white middle class employers. The internalized form of control and bordering that is inherent to such state-sanctioned indentured labor programs is the new template for global migration, or ‘managed migration’ as the elites call it.

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