It is difficult to think of a society without prisons. As Angela Davis (2003) has argued, prisons are wholly ingrained in our culture and social lives, thereby obtaining the status of indispensable to human existence (9). Consequently, abolitionist theories are often immediately rejected and “dismissed as utopians and idealists” (Ibid., 9-10). In this paper, I wish to reflect on the matter of abolitionism in more detail. In doing so, I will first argue, using Sufjan Stevens’ and Angelo De Augustine’s Murder And Crime, that the intensification of law leads to a paradox of lawlessness. Second, I want to elaborate on possible solutions to this paradox by borrowing from abolitionist theory. Lastly, I return to Murder And Crime and the despair that accompanies the project of abolitionism.
“Evidence known so long. Oh God, I’m lost in my wrongs. Everything froze like stone. Saw you heart couldn’t take much more”, Angelo De Augustine commences the song (Stevens and De Augustine, 2021). It is this human fallibility and the despair it causes that Murder And Crime laments on. As De Augustine continues: “My boy, I don’t know why this life is so cruel and unkind but it weighs on my heart” (Ibid.). In addition to this, however, not only is life cruel and unkind, this reality is sustained through its embeddedness in legal systems. As expressed in the next line: “All joys were taken from your eyes as the law would abide in murder and crime” (Ibid.). It is here that a much more profound idea is expressed. Defined by its institutionalised racism, legal violence, and overall injustice, De Augustine and Stevens argue that contemporary society is akin to a state of lawlessness. As the two harmonise: “If anything goes, then everything’s flawed. Oh, my love, what the violence has caused” (Ibid.). Ultimately, this points to a paradox: a legal system that sanctions violence, produces a lawless condition.
To find a way out of this paradox, it is useful to turn to abolitionist theory. Prison abolitionists have similarly argued that the strategy to be harder on crime – exemplified by Reagan and Bush – has only led to a situation in which legal violence can flourish and inequalities are exacerbated. Consequently, it has led to “the proliferation of prisons and the rise of the prison industrial complex” (Davis 2003, 17). Exploring possible alternatives, abolitionists first and foremost argue that it is “not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons” that is at stake (Moten and Harney 2004, 114). Ultimately, a society characterised by the paradox of lawlessness can only be repudiated through the foundation of a new society, one characterised by equal distributions of wealth and wellbeing (Davis 2003, 105, 107). Such efforts include but are not limited to: equal and universal access to education and health care, the cultivation of a justice system built around reparation and reconciliation, and the decriminalisation of minor crimes (Ibid., 107-108; McLeod 2019, 1642, 1646-1647). In such a society prisons would become superfluous. In a word, less aggressive law enforcement and the establishment of better laws would help us escape the paradox of lawlessness, the abolitionist argument goes.
While abolitionist alternatives are undeniably attractive, I wish to express some doubts. As Davis herself concedes, it is difficult to imagine a prison-less society. How can we establish a new, abolitionist society while the current legal order, with all its injustice, is ingrained in our sociality? This doubt is shared by Stevens and De Augustine. Expressing a despair that can only be articulated in music, Murder And Crime tells us the story of a world that is reaching its inevitable end. “Oh god, I’m lost in the antiphon”, De Augustine laments. Reinforcing this profound sense of desperation, he asks us: “Where does everything go when everything’s gone? For my heart cannot break much more” (Stevens and De Augustine, 2021).
Ultimately, the question that remains is whether the paradox of lawlessness can be escaped. Are abolitionist alternatives viable, or is humanity slowly reaching an end-stage? In this paper I have aimed to reflect on abolitionist alternatives to the status quo. Through an exploration of Sufjan Stevens’ and Angelo De Augustine’s Murder And Crime, I have illustrated the paradoxical nature of contemporary legal systems. Abolitionists such as Angela Davis, expressing similar concerns, have offered alternatives to counter this paradox. Primarily, this entails reforming society in such a way that wealth, wellbeing, and justice are distributed equally. Returning to Murder And Crime, I question the viability of such alternatives. Can this paradox be escaped? Are we not, ultimately, walking towards an inevitable dead end?
Davis, Angela, Yvonne. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
McLeod, Allegra, M. 2019. “Envisioning Abolition Democracy.” Harvard Law Review 132: 1613-1649.
Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. 2004. “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses.” Social Text 22, no. 2: 101-115.