In this bonus episode, we speak with Dr. George Ciccariello-Maher, Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University. Placed on forced leave by Drexel, he is among a growing number of academics subjected to retaliation for their critiques of white supremacy and openly fascist organizing. Ciccariello-Maher shows us how this university-centered backlash must be situated within the broader resurgence of fascism and white nationalism, which, in turn, cannot be understood apart from the deep structures of white supremacy, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy from which fascism emerges. He also sheds light on the false hope of educational reform within prisons, and how we ought to look instead to the forms of insurgent intellectuality abolitionists are creating both inside and outside prison walls. Our conversation gestures to the possibility for a renewed anti-racist, anti-fascist resistance, both on university campuses and beyond them.
Painting by Norman Lewis, Untitled (Alabama) 1967.
Click here to display the episode transcript.
Kaif Syed: In this special bonus episode of Rustbelt Abolition Radio, we speak with Dr. George Ciccariello-Maher, Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University. Placed on forced leave by Drexel, he is among a growing number of academics subjected to retaliation for their critiques of white supremacy and openly fascist organizing. Ciccariello-Maher shows us how this university-centered backlash must be situated within the broader resurgence of fascism and white nationalism, which, in turn, cannot be understood apart from the deep structures of white supremacy, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy from which fascism emerges. He also sheds light on the false hope of educational reform within prisons, and how we ought to look instead to the forms of insurgent intellectuality abolitionists are creating both inside and outside prison walls. Our conversation gestures to the possibility for a renewed anti-racist, anti-fascist resistance, both on university campuses and beyond them.
George Ciccarielo-Maher: My name is George Ciccarielo-Maher, I teach political theory at Drexel University in Philadelphia. And I’m also engaged in anti police organizing, abolitionist organizing, and writing about and in relation to political struggles that are going on today. Whether they be antifascist, antiracist, or abolitionist struggles more generally.
Alejo Stark: In December 2016 the Abolition collective, which runs the abolition journal, wrote a statement in your support. Quote – racist fascist attacks on other academics are part of an emerging pattern of suppressing dissent… attacks will continue to rise unless we collectively resist them – end quote. This was part of a greater call for academics and abolitionists to join in your defense and in resistance to the white supremacist carceral settler-colonial heteropatriarchy we seek to abolish. Can you tell us about your relationship to the abolition journal, and the importance of abolition in the fight against fascism?
George Ciccarielo-Maher: I was one of a group of people who started to discuss a few years ago now, the establishment of a radical, revolutionary, politically motivated, but at the same time semi-academic journal. And the goal was to create a space for abolitionist thought to be developed, to expand, to have a major audience. But also to take advantage of some of the resources of academia, so that people who were struggling as young academics, grad students, untenured faculty, doing really politicised work, would have a place for that work that could support them in stabilizing their work and their careers as well. So it had a bunch of different objectives, and it;s I think it’s really begun to play a major role in debates. In social media, the presence of the abolition journal on Facebook, the memes put out by the abolition journal, have been very effective in grappling with what’s going on today. And what we’ve seen going on of course since that moment has been over this ramping up of this overt, white supremacist, patriarchal brutality embodied in the president of the United States. But which of course, has been a long and continuous presence in this country. And so I think part of what the journal helps us to do and part of what we’re all grappling with at this moment is understanding the relationship between this underlying structure, white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, colonial structure; and this momentary resurgence we’re seeing of the overt Nazism, white supremacy, anti Semitism, and trying to fight both of those things at once.
a Maria: What do you see in the shift away from radical educational possibilities, which were brought to prisons and universities by social movements on the inside and out. Is there a parallel between the removal of Pell Grants from prisons in 1994, replaced with miniscule trade jobs program’s like Michigan’s “Vocational Village”, and the neoliberalization of universities?
George Ciccarielo-Maher: I view the withdrawal of federal funding for prison education is really the final, just blatant admission that no one gives a shit about inmates, or about reform, or about all these buzzwords that are used to describe prison and incarceration as a sort of positive and beneficial institution in society. And just the sort of admission that it is the destructive force, it is the containment apparatus that everyone knows that it is. And so there’s no real point in educating garbage populations that you just seek to control, contain, and get rid of ultimately. And I think that really frames our understanding of how to orient ourselves towards prisons, to understand on the one hand what the prison means, and what those who support incarceration think about the population. This is visible on an everyday level. I taught in San Quentin, taught philosophy to lifers. And this was an amazing transformative experience by students who were incredibly motivated and thoughtful, and were using theory to think about their contemporary existence and lives. And the everyday behavior of the guards was to demean them, to degrade them, to treat them as if they weren’t worthy of anything, much less education. Not to mention healthcare, the healthcare crisis was going on in the prison at the same time. And I think this question also orients our understanding towards what the transformative importance of education can be in prisons, not just as a palliative measure to make people’s lives better, but to think and to struggle with questions about how to transform this apparatus. Fouqoet of course very famously compared prisons and schools, in many ways this vision of the panopticon is not one is not one that reflects the reality of US incarceration. Where what Fouquet would understand was much more sovereign power, a brutal arbitrary power, is enacted everyday on many inmates. But at the same time this parallel to what’s going on across society, I think holds true. An increasingly central role of incarceration in that, we have this mass incarceration wave that comes in the aftermath of civil rights, not as something different but really as the continuity of the legacy of slavery and of Jim Crow. And what you have over time is the ways in which these institutions that are transformed or overthrown or eliminated, are recast and reformulated in new forms. And you have that happening in incarceration, and you have that running in parallel with the radical transformations society as a whole. Including neoliberalization of education, and of course, the oft noted relationship between the collapse of public education and incarceration itself.
a Maria: You started talking about your experience teaching in San Quentin. I wonder if you can tell us a little more about that and the limitations –but also the possibilities– that exist in having a relationship between the university and folks inside?
George Ciccarielo-Maher: First of all I think we need to understand that everyone can be an intellectual, as Gramsci made very clear. And when you speak to inmates, when you speak to lifers, that becomes very very evident. Because you have people who take their own experience and look at theory, and look at what’s concrete and what’s important in that theory, and use it to reflect on their own lives. Right? This doesn’t always move in one direction or in the direction of liberation, although we would Fanon, we would teach amazing decolonial anti-racist thinkers. But you saw ways in which consciousness shaped by the mass incarceration apparatus is a consciousness struggling for understanding of what’s going on in the world. And so at the same time, people will be using these theories to think about their own errors, and their own mistakes, and their own failings. They would also be using them to think about the structural shortcomings of the system, the ways that they were set up and trapped into incarceration, without ever really having an alternative. I think when it comes to the ways in which prison education can serve a variety of different ends, I think that’s absolutely true, and one of course is the role of prison education as a sort of of palliative, or as buttressing and upholding the idea that prisons are about reform in any sense. About reforming the individual, about facilitating the re-entry of people into society when literally every aspect of incarceration is about making re-entry into any kind of human life impossible. And that’s leaving out the fact that what people are re-entering is in many cases not all that different, it’s this sort of closed circuit between poor neighborhoods of color and the prison, in which there’s hardly any opportunity no matter how educated you are. Your associate’s degree that you earned is not going to get you a job if no one is hiring, and if they’re not hiring felons certainly. And so prison education can be one of the small palliative measures that can take the edge off as well, take the edge off of abolitionist work. And we’ve seen the ways in which reforms, for example life without a parole as an alternative, these sort of reforms as an alternative to capital punishment are performed as reforms that actually uphold the carceral apparatus. They do not allow, and they in fact obstruct, a more abolitionist vision. And we always have to be aware of the ways in which reforms can work, and the ways in which small concessions to the welfare of inmates can actually be feeding into a different system.
Alejo Stark: Following this thread a little further: what are the possibilities of seeing campus anti-fascist organizing and struggles against police brutality articulating themselves in relation to each other and to abolition?
George Ciccarielo-Maher: So yeah, of course we’re seeing a resurgence of open fascism, although it disguises itself in certain ways. As traditionalism, as alt-right, and we should understand that this as I said in relation to a broader undercurrent of white supremacy that has always existed in the country. But when we take seriously that upsurge, we look at what is happening with someone like Trump, the connections become very clear. One of the first things Trump did and of course it points to the two constituencies, the two main fascistic constituencies of Trump, are the Border Patrol on the one hand and the police unions on the other. And what Trump has been doing is to give concessions to these two fascistic forces, the external face, the xenophobic face, that seeks to close off the border. That seeks to police internal migrants, and the internal face which seeks to police communities of color, specifically black communities. And Trump has essentially given both of these forces the green light to go beyond even the dictates of the law, to take in their own hands the sovereign power to police populations, to repress populations. And the reason I mention it is because I think it makes perfectly clear that these are all connected to one another, and that while they also reflect that underlying current, they’re also very sharply present in the very most fascistic elements of what is going on today. The opposition to Black Lives Matter, the anxiety around besieged aggrieved whiteness, the idea that white people are suddenly victims in this country is feeding into continued and increased violence against migrants and against black Americans as well.
Alejo Stark: To round off the conversation on potential possibilities… You’ve written extensively about communes and the commune form, particularly in Venezuela. What kind of futures can such organizational form provide? Is the commune something that has possibilities in the so-called U.S. and in what ways can it relate to the abolitionist horizon?
George Ciccarielo-Maher: The importance of the commune form is that it’s a mode of self government in economic, political, social, and self defense terms. In other words, you’re talking about everybody getting together governing themselves politically, producing economically, and protecting themselves. Engaging in popular grassroots self defense in which there are no specialized police, no specialized army, there are just everyone engaged in defending their own community. This is what the commune meant from Paris to the present, and this is what the communists meant in many examples that preceded and predated Paris in the colonized world. For example in different forms of anti colonial, anti-slavery communes, escaped slaves, Maroon communities that were engaged in this kind of popular self government. What we see in Venezuela today, I think draws out really important potential when it comes to what we can do ourselves. Because the communes, which represented in many ways the much more radical democratic aspect of the Bolivarian process in Venezuela, and then to be clear this is an element that’s in tension and in contradiction with the highest levels of the Chavista state of the government. And this is tension within radical movements over these questions. But the communes, what they do is they take and seize, and govern territory. And in Building the Commune, the short book that I wrote about it, I draw out this parallel a little bit with something like the Occupy Movement. I said what’s so good about the Occupy Movement, was that the genius of it was that they seize territory. And they self managed it, and they refused to leave. And this put the ownness on the enemy to displace them, which eventually happened, but also created this space in this time for the building of political relations and capacities and consciousness. And that’s really for me what the importance of the commune is, the seizure of space and territory to self govern. And we see examples of that, and attempts to put them to practice for example in Jackson, Mississippi. Where the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and others are attempting to build territorial control. And it’s very difficult in the United States to do that, but what happens when you begin to do so, is that you begin to build new people who are capable of pressing that forward. And the contrast I think becomes really clear, when you think about marches or protests which are geared toward a certain demand. For example, the end at a very specific time that lasts less than a day, and that the systems of power can very easily refuse to recognize. And what we need today is to build on aspects of this territoriality, this self defense, and this self government. For example, to build rapid response networks that can deal with police brutality in a certain neighborhood, so that all the neighbors get a text message when the police are on the scene. And to do the same thing, and there have been organizations that have done this in migrant communities to resist ICE, to engage in direct action resistance against ICE raids. To move people that maybe are being targeted by those raids. And in the last instance, to obstruct the functioning of ICE and to resist deportations. And I think that when we begin to do that on a daily basis of a localized self defense and collective consciousness raising, then I think we’re talking about already the beginnings of something like the commune.
Alejo Stark: Does a certain kind of state power operate in these territories as well?
George Ciccarielo-Maher: Yeah, absolutely. When you go back to Lenin’s analysis of what the commune was, the basis of Marxist analysis as well, what your talking about is the replacement. The abolition and replacement of the military and of the state, and replacement with something very very different. And it’s that kind of replacement and the structure of that replacement that I think is a challenge to abolition, and it’s something that needs to be grappled with. And you get this often when you’re talking in Philly, so for example organizing Philly for the abolition of the police, or around the argument that you need fewer police on the street. And a certain level of that is very intuitive to a lot of people, and they say they see police bringing violence into the communities, and they also say well what do we do without the police? What do we do with this violent society that we live in, in which the police may be seen as defending them? And this is precisely why the reality of the struggle involves building these alternatives, involves making it possible for abolition to be a common sense that people can identify with because they have alternatives. Because they can turn to their local community and say, oh we can do this ourselves.
a Maria: Can we close on the abolition of white supremacy, and any organizing that people are doing towards that end?
George Ciccarielo-Maher: I understand abolition in the United States, in particular on the basis of the guidelines set out by W.E.B DuBois in Black Reconstruction. And what DuBois does is to point towards the centrality of white supremacy in the United States, and the role of white society in general in upholding that, and the role of the police in the earliest stages as being coterminous with that whiteness and with that white supremacy. And so DuBois is talking about the Civil War, he’s talking about the formal abolition of slavery. But he’s also talking about the continuity that leads from slavery into this experiment of radical reconstruction, and back towards slavery as he puts it, with the institution of Jim Crow. And that happens through the participation, the betrayal of poor whites, of their poor black counterparts. And their embracing of what Dubois understands to be a police function. And the upshot of this in grassman US history is that you can’t abolish the police without abolishing whiteness, and you can’t abolish whiteness without abolishing the police. The two are these coterminous forces that are so tightly bound to each other. And we see that in the present, if we’re thinking about Trayvon Martin, he was not killed by a police officer. He was killed by a sort of wannabe police officer, who while multiracial, identified himself as white. John Crawford was killed in a Wal-Mart for holding a BB gun, not because the police showed up and saw him, but because a white bystander called 911 because they were scared. You have the killers of Mike Brown getting off, because of white citizens on grand juries deciding that there’s no grounds to charge the officers that killed him. And so you see the role of whiteness in policing as being so bound up with one another. And the only optimistic piece of this is that it means you can engage in reforms, you can engage in small changes that roll back the role of whiteness and policing. And you can expect in the US context, dramatic transformation. So for example, one of the targets today should be to eliminate the Fraternity of Police. To push back the power of these fascistic police organizations, that seek unhindered power of the police with total impunity. And if we push back this police power, we can begin to create a space for much more radical things to happen.
a Maria: Thank you so much for joining us today.
George Ciccarielo-Maher: No, thank you for having me. This was awesome.