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In Defense of Hopelessness

Even in our abolitionist ranks, there's room for people without hope.


Hope is often seen as essential to the work of social movements, but it may not be. Overestimating hope may risk alienating those for whom hope does not come easily, if at all. This is a vital conversation to have in the context of abolition, as the movement experiences this current moment of unparalleled growth and public interest.

Organizing to abolish the prison–industrial complex (PIC) involves two distinct strategies. We must dismantle the institutions of exploitation and punishment that structure the present social order and distort democratic forms of collective governance. Yet success at this first aim requires the creation of new relationships of solidarity and accountability. As W. E. B. Du Bois argues in Black Reconstruction, the unfinished work of abolition democracy necessitates the creation of a new social order premised on abolishing the institutions that underpin the distorted version of democracy permitted by the dictatorship of capital.

The PIC is a product of the codependence of government and private industry. Police and prison are presented as solutions to managing social crises, but they serve only to reproduce the many crises of racial capitalism. Given how entrenched this codependence has become, PIC abolition demands a long-term vision. At the same time, the practical necessity of abolition requires a sense of urgency about what is to be done in the short term.

Abolitionists therefore in our current moment push for reforms (sometimes branded as “non-reformist reforms”) that immediately reduce the power of the PIC while shining light on its stubborn inability to remedy the crises it claims to solve but in fact continually reproduces. Hence abolitionists fight to eradicate cash bail. They gather facts about police budgets and engage in political education, court watches, and participatory defense campaigns for criminalized survivors of violence. They take on individual parole support. They organize to block new prison construction. They lead mass commutation campaigns and promote legislation to create alternative pathways for release. But they don’t accept that any of these changes comes close to solving the root problem; only full abolition would do that. These interim demands are simply about harm reduction.

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To renew a sense of urgency from one day to the next, abolitionist organizer and author Mariame Kaba recommends a “discipline of hope.” Hope—the sense that a desirable, even if seemingly impossible, outcome is possible—has an important role in the organized fight for abolition. For Kaba, everyday practices of organizing sustain hope in the long-term horizon of PIC abolition. Organizing with others nourishes that hope, despite a lack of evidence of a sea change in either policy or public opinion. In those dubious moments when the goal seems distant if not unreachable, collective action reinforces the hope in the possibility of a better society.

The moment the importance of hope is affirmed, however, it seems only natural to adopt an unfavorable stance toward hopelessness and the absence of hope. Hopelessness is usually disparaged as a malady, or a disease, one that breeds inaction, despair, or complacency with the current social order. And yet, instead of dismissing hopelessness, there is good reason for organizers to reconsider this repudiation as potentially ill-advised, and perhaps even welcome a type of hopelessness within our abolitionist ranks.

There is a misleading simplification at work with the negative view of hopelessness. A dismissive stance makes it nearly impossible to comprehend the phenomenon of acting with others irrespective of hope. Such incomprehension deprives people of an insight into the internal dynamics of coordinated, collective action.

There is more than one type of abolitionist who engages in collective action.

A first type is a person who desires the short-term success of a particular action as well as the more distant outcome, which Amna Akbar aptly calls the “hopeful horizon” of PIC abolition. They are hopeful that collective action will lead to the success of a particular outcome. In addition, there is hope that this outcome will be a step in the direction of the long-term horizon. By joining a local campaign to defund the police or remove them from schools, they are engaging in hoped-based action.

A second type of abolitionist acts in the same way, placing hope in the same distant horizon. They, however, hold a different view on the possibility of the short-term outcome. On their view, the short-term success of defunding (however partial or incremental) is simply unavailable in the present moment—and yet they pursue that outcome anyway. Why act anyway? one might ask. This person would answer that they act because they reserve hope in the PIC’s demise over the long term. As an abolitionist, moreover, they desire a better society than the one currently upheld by the PIC and feel the urgent necessity of collaborating with others here and now to oppose it. This abolitionist engages in here-and-now opposition because they feel the urgency to build skills and collective power for the long term. The movement for abolition has for them intrinsic instrumental value independent of the success of the immediate campaign. They act with hope but also from practical necessity, which means that they cannot but act to oppose the PIC, feeling that if such organized action is not taken then and there, whatever the outcome, something important will have been lost. Participating in the campaign to defund, the abolitionist gets to act on their desire to create new forms of social life.

A third type of abolitionist cannot but act in solidarity with the previous two, but they do not share hope in any outcome—short term or long term—separate from the action itself. They desire the radical change that PIC abolition demands, and act with others despite internally lacking hope that such changes are possible. Those outcomes are, for them, beside the point. Instead, they act, and continue to act, out of pure practical necessity: to express something of cardinal importance to them, namely, a commitment to the principles of the abolitionist movement. Thus they act as if they hope for the hopeful horizon of abolition.

Philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò argues for the value of talking about action in terms of the as if because it allows us to shift our focus from hope and belief to actual behavior. Why would someone engage in collective action without any hope in the successful outcome of abolition? Because they get to act on their desire to create new forms of social life. In this regard, they are no different—and, importantly, no less sincere—than those who act in hope of the hopeful horizon.

This motivation for acting is what philosopher Fabian Freyenhagen identifies as a “merely expressive act.” According to Freyenhagen, the merely expressive act is one in which “the action and the expression of value commitments are not two separate things,” but one and the same. Said more simply: “the action is that expression.” Rather than aim solely at some separable outcome—for example, a fully realized abolitionist future—merely expressive acts manifest the value commitments of the person undertaking the action. To elucidate the expressive act, Freyenhagen invokes twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s example of an individual kissing the picture of a loved one. Wittgenstein writes: “This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction, and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.” The expressive act is intelligible, on this reckoning, without ascribing to the person any hope or concern with the likelihood of success separate from the act itself. It is intelligible without such hope simply by appealing to the cares and commitments of the individual who undertakes the action. The expressive act manifests those individual commitments in society; it gives material reality to the person’s desires beyond the inside of their head.

Freyenhagen’s account of the “merely expressive act” focuses narrowly on individual agency. But there is another dimension to acting irrespective of hope. On the level of collective action, the merely expressive act manifests values and commitments over and above the values and commitments of an individual. That is, actions undertaken collectively express the principles and commitments of a group, embedding those commitments in a real social context. In such cases, hope for an outcome can be beside the point for someone who undertakes collective, coordinated action as if they hope for some outcome separable from collective action itself. Doing so may nevertheless strengthen the collective, and it entails no judgment on others who act just the same yet from a place of hope. But for the abolitionists without hope, it is the mutual interdependence expressed through collective action—and how it makes concrete their shared values and commitments as abolitionists—that constitutes success.

In no way is this rescue of hopelessness intended to deny the importance of hope for collective action. My goal is not to displace hope, but to supplement it. In addition to hope-based agency, abolitionists might do well to consider how collective action can bring the hopeful and the hopeless together in acts of solidarity.

What does this type of as if agency bring to the abolition movement? Participants who act solely out of the desire to collaborate with those who share the same principles and commitments bring an awareness to the movement that success is not simply outcome dependent. Awareness of the intrinsic success of collective action may help speak to those outside the movement who embrace the values of PIC abolition but refrain from action because, on their view, collective action is solely or primarily about realizing short- or long-term outcomes and they see this kind of success as unavailable. To mobilize such people, it may help to appeal to them with another view of success, one that does not depend on hope. That is, the success of enacting with others, here and now, the values and commitments of PIC abolition.

In addition to Kaba’s discipline of hope, abolitionists may consider a multidisciplinary approach that includes a discipline of hopelessness. This could stave off a potentially toxic dynamic within the movement that places hopefuls in a position of dictating to everyone else what abolition must look like and why it must involve hope. A multidisciplinary approach to action involves making space within the movement for engaging in collective action as if there is hope for short- and long-term outcomes separate from the collective expression of abolitionist commitments. Training in the regular undertaking of organized action, irrespective of hope, would help us see that the hopeful and hopeless can learn from one another, and that if conditions cause many of the hopeful to fall into hopelessness, it is still possible for the collective to proceed with its work.

Image: Jose Fontano/Unsplash