This is the third post in a five-part series on the issue of the reform of the police versus its abolition. It is more philosophical than the first two posts since it deals with the relation of the present to the future–and the future to the present.
The context of this post is explained thus (from the previous posts):
Mr. Rosenfeld, a self-declared radical and Marxist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in an article published in the social-democratic magazine Canadian Dimension on April 20, 2020, Reform and Transform: Police Abolitionism and Sloppy Thinking), responded to another article published on April 12 in the same magazine, written by James Wilt, Abolishing the police is the only reasonable response to Winnipeg Police killings. Wilt argues that the police cannot be reformed but must be abolished since their function is essentially repressive, and that essential function is sufficient for demanding its abolition
Near the end of my last post, I quoted Mr. Rosenfeld:
It is one thing to envision what a future socialist and decolonized society might look like in 100 years and strive to move in that direction. But to talk as if the necessary political and social conditions of such a society exist at this moment is to fly in the face of reality. And, once again, it takes the struggle to transform or democratize these institutions off the agenda.
I will now address the issue of “a future socialist and decolonised society” in terms of the nature of the relation of the future to present reality, or more generally the relation of the future to the present.
In general, there are two ways of imagining the future among the left: the social-democratic way and the Marxist way.
The social-democratic way imagines the future as some distant event that we aim at but has little to do with our present activities and realities. The aim is indeed there–to achieve a socialist society–but only as an external aim that has little or no self-organizing function of our present activities and realities. Here the present and the future are separated, with the future being simply beyond present reality. This is indeed how Mr. Rosenfeld presents the future–as illustrated by the above quote.
This view of the future has a long history among the left. Karl Kautsky was a leader of the German Social Democratic Party in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Jukka Gronow says (2016), in On the Formation of Marxism: Karl Kautsky’s Theory of Capitalism, the Marxism of the Second International and Karl Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, page 162:
The revolutionary goal principally accepted by the party in its programmes seems
to be of no practical importance.
He then quotes Kautsky:
We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what conditions, or what forms it will come
This is the attitude of a reformist, not someone who aims to change the present conditions through aiming at socialism. This is also Mr. Rosenfeld’s attitude–as it is of so many leftists–really social reformers or social democrats.
Let us look at John Dewey’s view of the nature of aims to see the difference between an internal aim (what Dewey called a good aim) that incorporates the future in the present and an external aim that has little relation to the present. From Democracy and Education (2004). Let us begin with his characterization of a good aim:
The aim must always represent a freeing of activities. The term end in view is suggestive, for it puts before the mind the termination or conclusion of some process. The only way in which we can define an activity is by putting before ourselves the objects in which it terminates—as one’s aim in shooting is the target. But we must remember that the object is only a mark or sign by which the mind specifies the activity one desires to carry out. Strictly speaking, not the target but hitting the target is the end in view; one takes aim by means of the target, but also by the sight on the gun. The different objects which are thought of are means of directing the activity. Thus one aims at, say, a rabbit; what he wants is to shoot straight; a certain kind of activity. Or, if it is the rabbit he wants, it is not rabbit apart from his activity, but as a factor in activity; he wants to eat the rabbit, or to show it as evidence of his marksmanship—he wants to do something with it. The doing with the thing, not the thing in isolation, is his end. The object is but a phase of the active end,—continuing the activity successfully. This is what is meant by the phrase, used above, “freeing activity”
Let us now turn to his characterization of a bad aim–what is typical of the social-democratic or social-reformist left in general and Mr. Rosenfeld’s attitude in particular. Dewey had this to say:
In contrast with fulfilling some process in order that activity may go on, stands the static character of an end which is imposed from without the activity. It is always conceived of as fixed; it is something to be attained and possessed. When one has such a notion, activity is a mere unavoidable means to something else; it is not significant or important on its own account. As compared with the end it is but a necessary evil; something which must be gone through before one can reach the object which is alone worth while. In other words, the external idea of the aim leads to a separation of means from end, while an end which grows up within an activity as plan for its direction is always both ends and means, the distinction being only one of convenience. Every means is a temporary end until we have attained it. Every end becomes a means of carrying activity further as soon as it is achieved. We call it
end when it marks off the future direction of the activity in which we are engaged; means when it marks off the present direction.
A quote from Dewey in another post is also relevant (see Intelligent Activity According to John Dewey: Its Political Implications for the Left):
The net conclusion is that acting with an aim is all one with acting intelligently. To foresee a terminus of an act is to have a basis upon which to observe, to select, and to order objects and our own capacities. To do these things means to have a mind—for mind is precisely intentional purposeful activity controlled by perception of facts and their relationships to one another. To have a mind to do a thing is to foresee a future possibility; it is to have a plan for its accomplishment; it is to note the means which make the plan capable of execution and the obstructions in the way,—or, if it is really a mind to do the thing and not a vague aspiration—it is to have a plan which takes account of resources and difficulties. Mind is capacity to refer present conditions to future results, and future consequences to present conditions. And these traits are just what is meant by having an aim or a purpose. A man is stupid or blind or unintelligent—lacking in mind—just in the degree in which in any activity he does not know what he is about, namely, the probable consequences of his acts. A man is imperfectly intelligent when he contents himself with looser guesses about the outcome than is needful, just taking a chance with his luck, or when he forms plans apart from study of the actual conditions, including his own capacities. Such relative absence of mind means to make our feelings the measure of what is to happen. To be intelligent we must “stop, look, listen” in making the plan of an activity.
Intelligent activity–which is really intelligent thinking–involves the unity of the future in the present and the present in the future.
Mr. Rosenfeld’s article is a good example of the social-democratic left; he sees socialism as an end that will be realized only in the distant future–hence his reference to “100 years.” Such a goal is only vaguely related to the organization of present activities–hence his disdain for all talk of abolition in the present. He, like his social-democrat comrades, split the present and the future, and the future from the present.
Since Mr. Rosenfeld claims that police abolitionism is “sloppy thinking,” presumably his own reasoning illustrates “non-sloppy thinking.” I hope to have shown that his thinking is in fact the opposite of what he accuses the abolitionist stance. The abolitionist stance incorporates the future into the present and the present into the future by organizing present activities in real preparation for the creation of a socialist society. Socialist society cannot arise in any other way–because the future is always through the present and not something external to it.
This view of the relation of the future to the present and the present to the future has philosophical predecessors before Dewey. A later post in this series will refer to these philosophical predecessors in order to round out the issue of reform versus the abolition of the police and to link the previous concrete issues to more general issues so that the reader can, hopefully, see the connections between more abstract theory and more concrete considerations–as well the connections between more concrete considerations and more abstract theory.
2 thoughts on “Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three”
Is part four of “Reform Verses Abolition of Police” in the works? This is an issue our group Worthington Racial Justice Organizing is grappling with. In an essay, I intend to point out two major problems with reform: The co-opting of the dominant society to appear to reform but create stasis in a covert form, and society’s habit of quitting before the goal is reached due to “Gosh! Things are so much better now”, only to leave the germs of the disease to proliferate once again.
I usually try to post once a week, on Fridays (for consistency and in order not to stress myself out too much (I have had cancer twice in three parts of my body (including metastatic liver cancer). There is also the question of quality over quantity). I also try to post on different topics rather than on the same series one after another in order to make it more interesting to readers. However, I can always make exceptions. If you need the posts right away, I could post both part 4 (a few examples of alternatives to the police) and part 5 (a much more philosophical look at reform versus abolition) this week sometime (but then I would probably not post anything else for a couple of weeks).
Your group sounds interesting and relevant to my own concerns.
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