Aviah Sarah Day & Shanice Octavia McBean

ISBN 978-0-7453-4651-9 Pluto Press

reviewed by Alan Dent


Divided into sixteen theses followed by a symposium, this is advocacy for the abolition of “institutions of state coercion”. As such it falls short of the customary anarchist argument for the abolition of the State in its entirety. This may be perfectly sensible; perhaps denuding the State of its punitive elements and leaving its more benign functions intact is a reasonable tactic. Taking a longer view, however, the replacement of the State by self-governing institutions is arguably the best way to ensure people encounter one another on grounds of equality. Nevertheless, Day and McBean produce convincing, well-researched evidence for most of their arguments. They cut their teeth in Sisters Uncut which held its first meeting in November 2014 and which has been active and effective in imaginative ways, challenging the assumptions of our economic and social system. From its inception in London the group fanned out across the country. The point Day and McBean make in their second thesis is that there’s nothing like activism to convince you of the need for the change and no matter how much theory you are armed with, experience is an indispensable teacher.  

The book is impressive in its reference to specifics. For example, one of the targets they aim at is “carceral feminism”, the idea, originated in America (hardly surprisingly) that law, policing, the courts, prison, are the way to deal with abuse of women. Entrenched in the UK, it’s probable the degree of public support is high: people tend to make a simplistic and misguided connection between levels of policing and safety. The authors, however, spot that this brand of so-called feminism is hand in glove with the State, and leads to destructive, often racist and class-based interventions. We’ve been locking people up for centuries and we haven’t solved the problems of harm. As George Jackson, cited in the book as the inspiration for the Attica Prison revolt, remarked: there are hundreds upon hundreds of prisons and thousands upon thousands of laws but no social order, no social peace. Day and McBean have the anarchist’s understanding that society is beneficial but the State usually not. Carceral feminism, superficially attractive, looked at more closely turns out to reinforce what it’s intended to combat.  

Another example: the closure of Holloway prison in 2016. Reclaim Holloway, drawing ideas from a Radical Alternatives to Prison pamphlet, Alternative to Holloway, called for the site to be turned into housing for twenty thousand households. The campaign has been, at least partly successful, gaining support from Sadiq Khan (perhaps illustrating that social democrats can be persuaded to do the right thing). Among the many pertinent references are the cases of Mark Duggan and Sarah Everard. If you followed the media story about the former, you could be forgiven for believing he was an armed, hardened criminal gang member who took a pot-shot at the police. The account of the events provided  by the media, fed by the police, evoke the atmosphere of Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Day and McBean argue that policing is racist by nature, that despite the fine Enlightenment principles we pretend to live by, the State needs to keep a portion of the population suppressed and pigmentation is an easy identifier. They cite the hilarious opinion of Sir Kenneth Newman, ex-Met Commissioner that Jamaicans are “constitutionally disorderly”. Prejudice on the basis of pigmentation is less prevalent than fifty years ago when such an opinion was the stock-in-trade of golf club chatter, but it remains ingrained. Even liberal folk who are self-consciously anti-racist, harbour suspicion of people with darker skins and flatter noses, as Joseph Conrad put it.  

Their discussion of race rightly dismisses it as a biological category. Biologists recognize nine taxonomies descending from Life to Species. Race doesn’t feature. Richard Lewontin made the vital distinction: differences are biological, distinctions cultural. Eye-colour is a biological difference but it implies no social distinction. Nor does pigmentation. It might be sensible to drop the use of the word “race” altogether. It’s the oppressor’s word. What it means is pigmentation. For the racist a dark skin means inferiority. “Race” confuses the matter because it gives a tinge of scientific respectability to what is mystical stupidity. If we rename “racism”, “pigmentation prejudice” it ought to focus attention on the superficiality of the difference being used to sustain distinctions. Judging people by their pigmentation is as irrational as judging by the size of their feet.  

Their discussion of the origin of “race” recognizes its potency as a tool of exploitation and oppression. 1492 is a convenient date. If negative reaction to people of a different skin shade were natural, the Tainos would have viewed Columbus with horror. His journal tells us they were polite, friendly, decorous, welcoming, innocent. Naturally, he returned to Europe, gathered a body of men, went back, slaughtered them and took their treasure. It was during the sixteenth century in Europe that ideas of immutable racial difference took hold. The origin of racism, one of Europe’s most successful exports, was conquest in pursuit of lucre. If the majority of the world’s population could be categorised as less than human, their exploitation, degradation and elimination could be justified by upstanding European Christians. 

It follows as the night the day that if pigmentation is indicative of moral character, those of a darker hue are likely to be criminals. In a culture founded on conquest based on racism in pursuit of material wealth, how could a force tasked with defending property not be prejudiced against those deemed to be morally debilitated by biology? Hence the killing of Mark Duggan, the deaths in police custody and the alarmingly high levels of stop and search actions against people of colour.  

Sarah Everard was a “wholly blameless victim” according to the sentencing judge. Day and McBean point up the difference between this and the inculpation of Mark Duggan. In the same way, the Establishment gasped in disbelief that a serving police officer could be guilty of terrible violence; but his colleagues knew. They kept quiet in the time-honoured, close-ranks-and-defend-the-institution manner (a technique beautifully perfected by the royal family). Had the victim been a lesbian of colour the judge might have had other remarks to make.  

The discussion of moral panic is excellently handled. By sticking to the evidence, the authors show that, for example, the hysteria about knife-crime and gangs is a deliberate ploy to justify heavy-handed interventions, more policing, more targeting. The media suppress the statistics which could calm the public mood. The result is moral panic and authoritarian but ineffective measures. That thirty youngsters were fatally stabbed in London in 2021 is tragic, but what needs to be done is more provision for young people, places for them to go, things for them to do, a culture that they can own. Instead, we expect good behaviour to grow from hanging around shopping malls.

The linkage of what is happening today to the history of colonisation is very astute. The Victorians distinguished the deserving from the undeserving poor, the latter associated with slaves, vagabonds, people without property and fixed lives. The creation of a police force was more than anything a response to the poor organising to improve their lives. It was tested in Ireland through measures like the Dublin Police Act of 1786. What was good for the upstart colonised could be good for a recalcitrant common people. There is discussion of Patrick Colquhoun and the Marine River Police, established to prevent London dockers filching once their  “perks” had been criminalised, but not of the Bow Street Runners, brought into existence in 1749 partly through the efforts of Henry Fielding, one of the 18th century’s best novelists and, despite having condemned a man to death for murder, in his time, a relatively enlightened figure. Prior to their establishment, law enforcement was in the hands of private citizens and subject to significant corruption, like that of Jonathan Wilde for example. Fielding’s Bow Street Runners were a response to an increase in crime from 1680. The magistrate’s concern was more justice than control and he was ahead of his time in his recognition that much crime was generated by appalling social conditions. Of course, Fielding was well-to-do and early 18th century London was, if not a fully-fledged capitalist economy, at least a “commercial” one, in Adam Smith’s sense, but it’s important to recognise the ambiguous motivation in the emergence of a police force. 

The essential point is well-made, however: police and prisons have always been about social control. 1556 is a crucial date: the creation of the Bridewell where vagabonds, disorderly women and other undesirables were imprisoned. Just what was meant by “disorderly women” in the sixteenth century is anybody’s guess. Police and prisons require criminals. Firefighters don’t require houses ablaze. They are delighted if their preventative work stops disasters; but if everybody behaved themselves, it would be a calamity for the police and the prisons. When Peel’s police force was established in 1829 Britain was riven by class struggle. The Combination Acts had been repealed in 1824 (not because the government favoured trade unions but because it wrongly believed the repeal would quell the demand for them), 60,000 workers had been on strike in Scotland in 1820, the State needed to impose itself. Of course, the State had long been the protector of property. Day and McBean stress the role of the enclosure movement (which began in 1265 with the Statute of Merton) in forcing the common folk into the towns which burgeoned during the Industrial Revolution. The contention that the State is the enemy of capitalism doesn’t tally with the evidence. Capitalism is characterised by the use of State power in defence of property. As the police force was brought into existence to respond to growing work autonomy, it follows that it needs an ideology ie a masking function. The notion that criminality is rife, that we are all in permanent danger of being murdered in our beds, that more or less everyone is a potential criminal, that only the existence of the police prevents the complete breakdown of social peace, is the result.

 In fact, given the nature of economic injustice, the level of crime is surprisingly low. What is constantly whipped up is the fear of crime. Some 60% of UK prisoners committed non-violent crimes. Some 40% were given sentences of 6 months or less. The argument is always used that these tend to be “prolific offenders”, but if they were given the amount of money it costs the State to incarcerate them, how many would continue to commit crimes against property? The extraordinary high rates of imprisonment of ethnic minorities tells the story: the police and prison systems exist to defend the lucre that is the product of colonialism and exploitation of working people; but Day and McBean are right, this has had to be done by “consent” (bamboozling might be a better term). The true nature of the control has to be concealed. Hence the vital work of the propaganda system.  

When the London Makhnovists occupied Oleg Deripraska’s empty London mansion in March 2022, 176 police officers responded supported by numerous vehicles and a helicopter. Had there been a report of ongoing rape, the response might have been more muted. Everyone knows the conviction rate for rape is dismal. Make no mistake, if as many bank robberies happened as rapes, the clear-up rate would be a little higher. Capitalist property is the problem.  

The book is very astute also about the way policing is insinuated into all our lives: teachers are required to report potential terrorists (Islamic of course); doctors, nurses, civil servants are co-opted to recognise “pre-criminality”. The concept has a long, colonial history, but is vacuous. Thinking of robbing a bank isn’t a crime. Nor is wanting to assassinate the Prime Minister. A crime is defined by its commission, our thoughts and intentions are none of the State’s business. This kind of paranoid snooping is the irrational alternative to what is really needed: the justice and equality which can attenuate nefarious motivation.  

The book is at its best when it relies on evidence and draws arguments from it. In this, it is an inheritor of the Enlightenment tradition: Hume had a point in arguing that a wise person will adjust their thinking to the evidence. The evidence is well-researched and presented, the arguments logical and the style clear and unencumbered. The overall thesis is that as there is growing support for abolition of the State’s punitive functions, this can be used to power revolutionary change: “Abolition must work towards the wider goal of seizing the land, natural resources and wealth stolen from us by capitalists: abolition must work in service of proletarian revolution.”  

Proletarian revolution is a Marxist concept. It’s important to recognise Marx didn’t believe capitalists have “stolen” their wealth. He thought capitalism was a necessary phase in the development of society and bourgeois property perfectly legitimate under capitalist conditions. The Communist Manifesto is full of praise for the dynamism of capitalism. He virtually never argued for equality. He didn’t like the term because it implied comparisons he rejected. In communist society, each individual would be free to fulfil their potential as they wished. What need then for invidious comparisons? The problem with Marx’s theory of proletarian revolution is that it assumes the absence of democracy of even the most limited kind. Towards the end of his life, he argued that in the particular conditions prevailing in Britain, there might be a slow war of attrition between capital and labour, but he had not a word to say about how radical change might be brought about by democratic means. Granting universal suffrage is a piece of capitalist genius. A far-sighted Tory like Disraeli understood it would engender the working-class reactionary. Add to this that as soon as universal suffrage was conceded, the capitalists began working night and day to ensure their ideas were in everyone’s heads. Hence, the propaganda system.  

Chomsky argues that the propaganda system serves the function in democracies that the bludgeon fulfils in authoritarian regimes. The media play a crucial role: debate appears to be free, but in fact operates within very narrow limits; but the system goes well beyond the news media. Day and McBean refer to “copaganda”. Popular culture is filled with material which valorises capitalism. Pop stars are capitalists with guitars. Footballers are capitalists in sports shirts. We don’t live in a society where people fear the knock on the door at three in the morning. People can say what they like in the pub. Day and McBean can publish this book with a relatively large house; but the propaganda system ensures it will have little reach. In this context, what evidence is there that the British working-class is revolutionary? The research suggests that working-class radicalism has always focused on immediate gains rather than fundamental change, which makes sense: people will always try to make the best of their existing circumstances.  

In the same way, what evidence is there that a majority of people favour abolishing police and prisons? Without a majority in favour it can’t be brought about democratically and revolution looks unlikely. Even if there were a revolution (the nearest in Europe since 1945 was Paris 1968) what happens after? Who makes the decisions? How is legitimacy established? What happened in France was the inevitable general election which returned de Gaulle. The conundrum we have to deal with is how to change from capitalism to co-operation by democratic means. The greatest obstacle is the propaganda system. 

When Day and McBean speak of proletarian revolution they let go of the evidence and take hold of theory. They suggest violent confrontation with the capitalist State; but there is no force in contemporary society which can match the potential violence of the State. They don’t just have the police, courts and prisons, they have an army. If revolution broke out people would be shot on the streets in their thousands. Why would they risk that when they can walk to a polling booth?  

Our democracy is hobbled by the propaganda system which stuffs people’s heads with pro-capitalist ideas night and day. We have to work out how to defeat it. Getting ourselves shot or beaten up by the police isn’t intelligent politics and Martin Luther King was pertinent: if he wasn’t morally opposed to violence, he would be tactically opposed. Faced with the extraordinary capacity for violence of the modern State, we have to work out democratic means of change.  

It's also vital not to reinforce the divisions capitalism thrives on. Stop and search is used much more against people of colour than the general population, but doesn’t a campaign against stop and search against coloured people suggest it is their issue alone, and doesn’t that risk alienating, or at least leaving indifferent, those who aren’t coloured? Why not a campaign against stop and search, on the grounds that no citizen should be subject to it without very powerful cause?  

Day and McBean’s book is full of excellent research, convincing evidence, fascinating detail and well-placed moral outrage at the nature of our economic and social arrangements. They are in the tradition of anarchist thought which brought into existence the only example we have of a functioning modern society with neither capitalists nor the State: Barcelona in 1936. That was the result of a revolution crushed by Stalinists and fascists. What we have to work out is how to arrive at such a society democratically. There is every reason to believe we can.