Freedom and Justice
Blog #1 from the Letters for Abolition series
‘Freedom’ and ‘Justice’ are often seen as core cultural values within British society that permeate through every element of the state. These concepts are seen as great successes of western society, of capitalist liberal democracy. However with a little interrogation this facade quickly falls away.
Freedom in this context focuses on individual freedom within a capitalist society, freedom “to do what he wishes without fetters or impediments” unless it breaches a legal limit which is determined by the state. This understanding of freedom requires us to indulge the assumption that British society is a meritocracy, that every person has equal access to freedom and ignores the economic, social and political realities of the general population, of the working class and of racially oppressed groups.
This focus on freedom and justice also asks us to ignore the reality of western state violence enacted towards the working classes and communities of colour, whether that be through slavery, massacre or colonisation. These values form empty rhetoric that is used to preserve societal power structures. While the political narrative may tell a story of freedom and justice the reality is that freedom and justice is limited for many in society.
Primarily the state is designed to limit the freedoms of racialised people, whether that be through the racist ‘stop and search’ methods employed by the police or the indefinite incarceration of migrants in immigration detention centres like Yarl’s Wood. Law-and-order and criminal justice are both concepts that we often accept uncritically and are often enacted in the name of freedom and justice. These approaches however in reality do not provide freedom or justice but act to oppress racialised and working class communities. This is not a coincidence as these systems which enact punishment are founded on historical racism and racist institutions i.e. police, courts and prisons.
This racially limited freedom and harmful carceral solutions that disproportionately affect communities of colour are seen as acceptable by the political elite across the board from Labour to the Conservatives. These values are inherent to a capitalist society, passed down from generation to generation and create a culture where racial and class inequality is normalised and in turn makes maintaining this inequality easier. To break down these hierarchies and produce lasting equality, neoliberal politics tell us that we must change legislation, change individual behaviour and become ‘blind to race’. This approach to fighting injustice completely ignores the material and ideological ways that racism manifests.
Class is another factor that limits access to freedom and justice and is also deeply intertwined with race in the British context. Franz Fanon argues that the “originality of the colonial context is the economic reality, inequality and the immense difference of ways of life”. While we do not live in a colony in the historical context, the remanence of colonialism and the impacts on people of colour and working class PoC more specifically means that many still live in a colonial reality, whether that be through migrant detention, the displacement of the Windrush generation to the UK and the continued colonial violence they face alongside the numerous military engagements the UK government engages in throughout the Global South.
Mainstream politics suggests that our governance structure, a parliamentary democracy, means that we are all free to engage with politics, enact change and make the life we want to have for ourselves. However, the freedom of the market means that anyone who does not possess the capital, i.e. the working classes, do not have the ability to meaningfully engage and succeed. This need to gain capital to access freedom, of economic necessity, means that many are forced into situations where they must choose “survival over a noble exit”. This survival could take the form of sex work or theft which will in turn lead to carceral responses which then further the denial of freedom. Capitalism, carceral solutions and liberal politics cannot radically transform the material reality of many working class people and it is only through addressing these institutions and proposing a new way of doing things that can provide lasting change.
The needed change, however, is gate kept by a number of institutions which enact violence on working class and racialised people as well as those activists who are working within our communities. The police are one of these institutions, with its founding being for the protection of the “affluent” from the working classes in the Victorian era. Ultimately the role of the police is to protect capital and the state. Since the working classes do not have access to capital or have any significant control of the state, the police cannot and will never have the interests of working people at its heart.
This sentiment of anti-working class mechanisms also translates to institutions such as courts and prisons. Within those contexts we must acknowledge that no one comes out of prison ‘reformed’ as incarceration creates a state of ‘living death’ which further strips away freedom from those incarcerated and worsens the material conditions of the person and their community on release.
The dependence on carceral punishment is inherently linked to the capitalist and liberal understanding of freedom which sees it as “the right of the individual to do what he wishes without fetters or impediments, as long as it is lawful by the state”. This definition intertwines defining morality with legality which historically has done nothing to protect working class people or racialised people. This can be seen through the legal apartheid in South Africa and the legal holocaust in Nazi Germany. A legal system controlled by the state and not by the people will never operate in the interests of working class people or PoC.
The systemic organisation of racial-capitalism is violent to its core and permeates all aspects of life. In response we must look forward to new solutions and imagined futures to guide our activism and politics. First, we must look at redefining freedom. For this I turn to Angela Davis who argues for a “collective freedom: the freedom to earn a livelihood and live a healthy, fully realised life; freedom from violence; social justice; abolition of all forms of bondage and incarceration; freedom from exploitation; freedom of movement; freedom as movement, as a collective striving for real democracy”.
This expansive and collective definition must then permeate through all aspects of society. We must reject carceral solutions and address the social, education and health issues that are the root reason for the majority of incarcerations. We must provide the whole population with the social and political capital to live beyond just surviving and breaking the inevitable cycle between poverty, economic entrapment and incarceration.
To achieve this change, we must not only imagine abolitionist futures, but we must work towards it. We must avoid liberal solutions as ultimately; they only lead to more of the same. We must organise, educate, and fight as it is the future of our communities that are at stake.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains” — Assata Shakur
Written by Zeid
Revolting Prostitutes by Molly Smith & Juno Mac
Natives by Akala
The Meaning of Freedom by Angela Davis
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
Assata An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
- Robin D. G. Kelley, 2012, Foreword, In: Angela Davis, ‘The Meaning of Freedom’ (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012), 7
- Renni Eddo-Lodge, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 83
- Frantz Fanon, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (London: Penguin, 2001), 8
- Akala, ‘Natives’ (London: Two Roads, 2019), 10
- Angela Davis, ‘The Meaning of Freedom’ (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012), 30
- Davis, 2012, 169
- Davis, 2012, 169
- Fanon, 2001, 30
- Davis, 2012, 101
- Molly Smith and Juno Mac, ‘Revolting Prostitutes’ (London: Verso, 2020), 39
- Smith & Mac, 2020, 39
- Akala, 2019, 203
- Akala, 2019, 205
- Davis, 2012, 68–69
- Kelley, 2012, 7
- Kelley, 2012, 7
- Davis, 2012, 70
- Davis, 2012, 116
- Assata Shakur, ‘Assata An Autobiography’ (London: Zed, 2014), 75