Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Five: More Philosophical Considerations

This is the fifth and perhaps the last post in a five-part series on the issue of the reform of the police versus its abolition. (I came across an article on unions and the police (not police unions) and may write a post on that still). It is more theoretical than the first four posts since it deals with references to philosophies that try to link the present to the future and the future to the present in a much more general way. The issue has general significance for a socialist strategy.

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

I also quoted Mr. Rosenfeld in a previous post:

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.

It is my contention that Mr. Rosenfeld has a mechanical or external conception of the relation between the present and the future, as well as the relation between the future and the present. This mechanical or external conception is characteristic of all reformist socialists. It is, in other words, a pattern that is consistent with what I called a bad aim in the previous post. By contrast, the abolitionist stance incorporates the future in the present and the present in the future. This internal purpose or aim is characteristic of the more profound philosophies in the past.

The linking of the present to the future in an internal way goes back at least to Aristotle, perhaps the greatest ancient Greek philosopher. From Alfredo Ferrarin (2004), Hegel and Aristotle, pages 21-22 :

But, Aristotle asks, does not a physician cure himself? When such a phrase is used we must indicate that what we actually mean is that the physician heals himself qua [as] patient, not qua [as] physician. Here the doctor is an active principle of change in another thing or in the same qua [as] other. The distinction of respects is crucial, and such examples can be multiplied. Yet Met. Θ 8 [reference to Aristotle’s work Metaphysics] proves that this does not extinguish the question. This “active principle of change,” dunamis, must mean generally “every active principle of change and rest. Nature . . . is an active principle of change but not in another thing but in the thing itself qua [as[ itself” (1049b 5–10). So there do seem to be cases in which agent and patient are the same, and in which different respects cannot be distinguished. Such cases still have to do with becoming, but with a highly qualified notion of becoming. If I use a tool, say, a saw to cut a piece of wood, here agent, means, and patient fall asunder [apart]; but in the case of a living being, agent and patient are identical; the animal acts on itself qua [as] itself. Such cases have to do with a peculiar kind of activity, an activity in which the end and the agent are the same; but in such cases the idea of a self-actualization of sorts, a becoming that is not external to the patient because it is effected by and directed to itself, is central.

Life is constituted by self-movement and self-change; change in this case is the same as self-change and is different from mechanical or external change. External or mechanical change does indeed occur, but there is no identity of the beginning, the means and the end or result.

Aristotle views internal ends to be very distinct from external ends (pages 23-24):

Activities are ranked according to whether their ultimate end is internal to the agent or outside of the agent. The end of production is the product, an object external to the producer; here the activity is instrumental to the usage, so that the ship captain’s expertise and knowledge of the form and end is architectonic and directive for the ship builder’s art. In action, by contrast, producer and user are the same, for good action is the end (Eth.nic. VI 2, 1139b 3–4; 5, 1140b 7), [reference to Aristotle’s work Nichomachean Ethics] and action has no end outside itself (Pol. VII 3, 1325b
15 ff.) [reference to Aristotle’s work Politics]. An end that is chosen for its own sake is a complete and perfect end in an absolute sense (haplôs, Eth.nic. I 5, 1097a 30). This praxis or action is a complete activity (Met. Θ 6, 1048b 18 ff.), which gives a determinate meaning to individual existence.

The importance of the incorporation of life–and its internal purposefulness–for philosophy is also seen later. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, incorporated purpose into his philosophy in what is called his third critique Critique of Judgement (the first two were Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason). Kant’s incorporation of internal purposiveness into his philosophy was itself incorporated into the philosophy of another German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. From Karen Ng (2020), Hegel’s Concept of Life: Self-Consciousness, Freedom, Logic, pages 5-6:

In order to provide a systematic account of the concept of life, this study will defend three interrelated claims. The first is that the core tenets of Hegel’s philosophy, and particularly those that concern his concept of the Concept, center on the purposiveness theme, inherited from Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790).5 In the third Critique, a text that is considered by many to be the key for the development of post- Kantian philosophy,6 Kant introduced the problem of nature’s purposiveness in connection with an investigation into the powers of judgment, essentially arguing that a principle of nature’s purposiveness is the condition for the non- arbitrary operation of judgment in its pursuit of empirical knowledge.7 As part of his investigation, Kant introduces an idea that I argue is central for the development of Hegel’s concept of the Concept— namely, the notion of internal purposiveness manifest in the self- organizing form of an organism or natural purpose (Naturzweck). The idea of internal purposiveness is the Kantian ancestor and model for Hegel’s concept of the Concept, and Hegel repeatedly attests to its importance, claiming that “reason is purposive activity,” and more emphatically, that internal purposiveness is “Kant’s great service to philosophy” (PhG ¶22/ 3:26; WL 654/ 6:440).8 [Reference to Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit]. Although the details of Kant’s own account are, to be sure, much disputed, what is indisputable is Hegel’s unequivocal endorsement of Kant’s conception of internal purposiveness and his insistence that it plays a positive, constitutive role with respect to the activities of reason and thought.

Let us now listen to 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. Further, considering what it would take for a socialist government to challenge capital and bring in critical transformations of the state and the economy, policing would certainly have to change, but it would have to play a role in dealing with those who organize to oppose these changes.

If a socialist society involves the abolition of the police as a separate power, then that end, if it is to be internal to present activity, must function to organize our activities in the present towards that end. Otherwise, the reference to striving “to move in that direction” involves an external purpose that has no function in the present. It is a mere “ought” that will never arrive since it always pushed into the future rather than linked to the present.

The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel criticized the ought typical of this point of view. From The Encyclopedia Logic (originally published in 1830; new publication 1991), page 30:

However, the severing of actuality from the Idea is particularly dear to the understanding, which regards its dreams (L e., its abstractions) as something genuine, and is puffed up about the “ought” that it likes to prescribe, especially in the political field-as if the world had had to wait for it, in order to
learn how it ought to be, but is not. If the world were the way it ought to be, what then would become of the pedantic wisdom of the understanding’s “ought to be”?

Hegel also saw clearly that, theoretically, this ought is really an aim that is designed to never be reached; he called such an aim the “bad infinite.” Mr. Rosenfeld’s socialist society (100 years from now) is like the (bad) infinite that lies beyond the finite world in which we live. From G.W.F. Hegel, The Science of Logic (originally published in 1812/1816 , new publication in 2010), page 111:

When, therefore, the understanding, elevating itself above this finite world, rises to what is the highest for it, to the infinite, the finite world remains for it as something on this side here, and, thus posited only above the finite, the infinite is separated from the finite and, for the same reason, the finite from the infinite: each is placed in a different location, the finite as existence here, and the infinite, although the being-in-itself of the finite, there as a beyond, at a nebulous, inaccessible distance outside which there stands, enduring, the finite.

Another interesting aspect of Mr. Rosenfeld’s article is the arrogance expressed in the article towards more radical views. Mr. Rosenfeld characterizes explicitly more radical views as “ridiculous” and “sloganeering”:

Calling for the abolition of the police force sounds ridiculous to most people because it is. Radical sloganeering is no substitute for engaging with the complexities and requirements of serious left strategies for change.

Mr. Rosenfeld shows explicitly his real contempt for workers and others who are, directly or indirectly, oppressed by a separate police force–for that is the issue, not his ridiculous characterization of the problem. His “reformist sloganeering” is also ridiculous since he provides an external model of how we are to move from where we are now to where we want to go–by offering us an external model of aims.

Mr. Rosenfeld also explicitly expresses his contempt for workers and others who are, directly or indirectly, oppressed by a separate police force in the title of his article: “Reform and Transform: Police Abolitionism and Sloppy Thinking” [my emphasis]. Mr. Rosenfeld, apparently, does not even understand what intelligent thinking involves. Among other things, it involves linking means to ends, and ends to means, in an internal fashion. From John Dewey (1938), The Logic of Inquiry, pages 9-10:

Reasonableness or rationality is, according to the position here taken, as well as in its ordinary usage, an affair of the relation of means and consequences. In framing ends-in-view, it is unreasonable to set up those which have no connection with available means and without reference to the obstacles standing in the way of attaining the end. It is reasonable to search for and select the means that will, with the maximum probability, yield the consequences which are intended. It is highly unreasonable to employ as means, materials and processes which would be found, if they were examined, to be such that they produce consequences which are different from the intended end; so different that they
preclude its attainment. Rationality as an abstract conception is precisely the generalized idea of the means-consequence relation as such.

Mr. Rosenfeld, by using a model of thought that is characterized by an external relation between means and ends, necessarily engages in unintelligent or irrational thinking. He then accuses anyone who disagrees with his model of sloppy thinking.

It is interesting that Mr. Rosenfeld had the opportunity to comment on some of my views on the police in a couple of posts (see Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part One  and   Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part Two). The first one was posted on August 30, 2020, and the second one on February 21, 2020. On May 29, 2020, Mr. Rosenfeld made the following comment on the article I posted (see Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Three): “Well, I’ve finally had enough.” He unsubscribed from my blog. I guess this is the expression of the democratic nature of of the social-reformist left–a lack of debate and discussion. The accusations of “being ridiculous” and engaging in “sloppy thinking” also express the democratic nature of the social-reformist left.

This does not mean that the police can immediately be abolished (any more than can the enemy in any war)–but it does mean that we need to begin to organize for the purposes of abolishing the police (just as, in any war, we need to begin immediately to organize to engage in battle and–to win the war)–and calling for such abolition. Mr. Rosenfeld forever will push the abolition of the police into the future–like all social-democratic reformists. Mr. Rosenfeld’s means do not correspond to his end, and his end does not correspond to his means. He engages in irrational thinking.

As I will show in another post (while criticizing Sam Gindin’s views (a political colleague of Mr. Rosenfeld here in Toronto and joint author of a book, with Leo Panitch, on globalization), the issue of an external purpose versus an internal purpose is relevant for determining or characterizing the nature of socialist society and socialist relations.

John Dewey, perhaps the greatest philosopher of education, incorporated the life process–and internal purposiveness–into his own philosophy. He has this to say about the present and its relation to the future (and to the past): will leave him to provide the last word philosophically on this topic. From Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), pages 238-239:

For the purposes of a particular inquiry, the to and from in question may be intelligently located at any chosen date and place. But it is evident that the limitation is relative to the purpose and problem of the inquiry; it is not inherent in the course of ongoing events. The present state of affairs is in some respect the present limit-to-which; but it is itself a moving limit. As historical, it is becoming something which a future historian may take as a limit ab quo[from which, as in a beginning] in a temporal continuum.

That which is now past was once a living present, just as the now living present is already in course of becoming the past of another present. There is no history except in terms of movement toward some outcome, something taken as an issue, whether it be the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Negro Slavery in the United States, the Polish Question, the Industrial Revolution or Land Tenure. The selection of outcome, of what is taken as the close, determines the selection and organization of subject-matter, due critical control being exercised, of course, with respect to the
authenticity of evidential data. But the selection of the end or outcome marks an interest and the interest reaches into the future. It is a sign that the issue is not closed; that the close in question is not existentially final. The urgency of the social problems which are now developing out of the forces of industrial production and distribution is the source of a new interest in history from the economic point of view.

There is accordingly, a double process. On the one hand,  changes going on in the present, giving a new turn to social problems, throw the significance of what happened in the past into a new perspective. They set new issues from the standpoint of which to rewrite the story of the past. On the other hand, as
judgment of the significance of past events is changed, we gain new instruments for estimating the force of present conditions as potentialities of the future. Intelligent understanding of past history is to some extent a lever for moving the present into a certain kind of future. No historic present is a mere redistribution, by means of permutations and combinations, of the elements of the past. Men are engaged neither in mechanical transposition of the conditions they have inherited, nor yet in simply preparing for something to come after. They have their own problems to solve; their own adaptations to make. They face the future, but for the sake of the present, not of the future. In using what has come to them as an inheritance from the past they are compelled to modify it to meet their own needs, and this process creates a new present in which the process continues. History cannot escape its own process. It will, therefore, always be rewritten. As the new present arises, the past is the past of a different present. Judgment in which emphasis falls upon the historic or temporal phase of redetermination of unsettled situations is thus a culminating evidence that judgment is not a bare enunciation of what already exists but is itself an existential requalification. That the requalifications that are made from time to time are subject to the conditions that all authentic inquiry has to meet goes without saying.

Present problems include the oppressive, racist and deadly power of a separate group called the police that preserve the existing class power of employers as well as the systemic racism that has accompanied it in various countries. Socialist relations between people would not require such an oppressive, racist and deadly power. To link the future in the present, and the present in the future, by proposing the abolition of the police, is to think and to act intelligently.

It is not sloppy thinking to incorporate internal purposefulness  into our actions; it is intelligent thinking. Some of the greatest philosophers have incorporated such a view into their own philosophies.

What do you now think of Mr. Rosenfeld’s title of his article: “Reform and Transform: Police Abolitionism and Sloppy Thinking”?

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