Krakow Film Festival 2024

The State of Abolition During Late-Stage Capitalism

ACTIVISM / Angela Y. Davis's essays and speeches on abolition, feminism, and the fight for collective liberation.

Abolition: Politics, Practices, Promises
Author: Angela Y. Davis
Publisher: Haymarket Books, USA

Angela Davis’s new book, Abolition: Politics, Practices, Promises, is just out, published by the «radically independent nonprofit» Haymarket Books. While she’s replaced her fiery rhetoric with textual erudition, her causes and themes remain the same. In this volume, she returns to her familiar examination of the meaning and implementation of abolition — and its co-evolution with capitalist exploitation of African Americans since the Reconstruction days following the US Civil War. She locates this tension in the #13th Amendment# of the US Constitution, which she succinctly (and repeatedly as if to drive the point home to thick-witted types) writes,

19th FIFDH full programme
Angela Davis

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction. [Davis’s emphasis]

The exception is the rub. Except for. How can it be exploited by capitalists?

In Abolition, Davis argues that the Exception Clause negates the abolition of slavery by providing a means for capitalist exploiters to garner fresh labour for few if any, wages. Davis equates the PIC to the MIC. both of which were rallying points for change in the more radical 60s and 70s than now, writing:

There is an ironic but telling similarity between the economic impact of the prison-industrial complex and that of the military-industrial complex, with which it shares important structural features. Both systems simultaneously produce vast profits and social destruction. What is beneficial to the corporations, politicians, and state entities involved in systems brings blight and death to poor and racially marginalized communities throughout the world.

The vast profits, according to a 2022 American Civil Liberty Union, came to $11bn annually.

This focus alone makes the book worth reading, as it provides a ‘woke’-up call to a comfortably numb (h/t Pink Floyd) public, largely white, largely middle class, that is unaware of the corporate connection to prison labour in many of the products and services they enjoy, such as Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Verizon, Fidelity Investments, and American Airlines. But many more companies are participating, as outlined in a study by Corporate Accountability Lab. Says the Lab, every state has an iron in the profit fire, except Alaska.

In Abolition, Davis once again reiterates her life’s life motif that «African American males, who comprise less than 7 percent of the US population, constitute nearly half of the people in jail and prison, the vast majority of folks in prison.» She describes how young African Americans have been intentionally profiled. She writes:

The current notion that the «criminals» with which prisons are overcrowded are largely beyond the pale of rehabilitation—that «nothing works»—is very much connected with the fact that in the contemporary era, the terms «Black» and «male,» when combined, have become virtually synonymous with «criminal» in the popular imagination.

Essentially, it’s a system in which young African Americans (especially) are seen as runaway slaves needing to be brought back to the cotton fields where they belong.

Davis writes that the PIC has something else in common with the MIC — stoking fear in citizens, jacking the idea that we are being menaced by enemies abroad (Terrorists) and fear of crime at home (‘Super-Predatory’ criminals):

The ideological space for the proliferation of this racialized fear of crime has been opened by the transformations in international politics created by the fall of the European socialist countries. Communism is no longer the quintessential enemy against which the nation imagines its identity. Ideological constructions of crime, drugs, immigration, and welfare now inhabit this space. Of course, the enemy within is far more dangerous than the enemy without, and a Black enemy within is the most dangerous of all.

And the most dangerous of the most dangerous are those Blacks who have not introjected white hatred for their being.

It’s a curious irony that the so-called super predator is described that way because of a presumed predisposition to violence and an attendant lack of empathy, which is to say they are only technically human and dispositionally animals. Compare this to a study of the kinds of ‘people’ said to fill the ranks of prison work, the guards and other turn-keys:

On average, those who signed up after seeing the «of prison life» ad were higher on five traits we measured that predict aggression (dispositional aggressiveness, authoritarianism, social dominance, Machiavellianism and narcissism) than those who volunteered after seeing the latter ad, and they were lower in empathy and altruism, two traits inversely related to aggression. [my emphasis]

It begins to sound like Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, the corporate exploiters of the MIC and PIC laughing their ass off as they play prison dolly house with the prols, be he pressed or oppressor.

Essentially, it’s a system in which young African Americans (especially) are seen as runaway slaves needing to be brought back to the cotton fields where they belong.

Davis also draws much-needed attention to the growing population of Black women being imprisoned. She writes,

The staggering numbers of imprisoned Black men should not, however, eclipse the fact that Black women—a majority of whom are arrested for drug-related offences—constitute the most rapidly expanding of all imprisoned populations.

She locates this change in the realignment of the social safety net. Davis devotes all of Part V to incarcerated women, focussing her critical acumen on three countries: the US, the Netherlands, and Cuba.

While Abolition provides no blueprint for the radical changes necessary to bring about the true abolition of slavery, but it does continue the project of keeping consciousness alive. Davis sums up her project here in her Preface:

This moment of abolition—and of abolition feminism—helps us to create new points of departure for our ongoing efforts to reveal how repressive systems and structures that thrive on racism, heteropatriarchy, and class hierarchies hold us captive to the past, tether us to capitalism in so many ways, and prevent us from collectively envisioning socialist futures.

Davis, a lifelong communist, keeps pushing for a socialist future. Her many references to «late capitalism» come across as an enervated proposition, but the alternatives seem bleaker.


A companion to Abolition is the documentary film 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay. It unpacks the 13th Amendment and covers many of the same grounds as Abolition (and even includes an interview with Angela Davis). It is available for free viewing on YouTube.

John Hawkins
John Hawkins
John Kendall Hawkins is a poet and an American freelance journalist currently residing in Oceania. His poetry, commentary and reviews have appeared in publications in Australia, Europe and America. He is a former columnist for the Prague Post. He is currently a regular contributor to Counterpunch magazine. He is pursuing a PhD in philosophy at the University of New England, researching the future of human consciousness in the age of AI. He's currently working on a book of poetry, a fiction collection and a novel.

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