Opinion

Abolish Performative Abolitionist Movements

5 min read

Why won’t soon-to-be millionaire AOC pay her capitalist party dues? The media has been reporting on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent decision not to pay her $250,000 in dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the PAC responsible for funding re-election campaigns for Democrats in US Congress. Some are calling her “deadbeat,” while others call her “brave” for “riling the Dems” and “standing up” to what amounts to the electoral wing of the Democrats doing what they said they would do: block all attempts at undermining the capitalist institution of the ruling-class duopoly in this country.

While she opposes the DCCC’s moves at blocking “progressive” candidates, she seems to be doing it out of a concern for her friends, not out of an interest in the material conditions of working-class families and the daily sabotage they face from the Democrats.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made a decision early in her career to run as a Democrat and has pretty much toed the party line when it comes to important issues. She may be branding herself as a rebel (or a “socialist,” at least before she was elected), but she is, as Elizabeth Warren calls herself, a capitalist to her bones. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has branded herself an outsider and claimed to be bucking the system while taking in record millions of dollars in campaign contributions and doing nothing to challenge the neoliberal status quo.

AOC says you can be a capitalist and a socialist at the same time.

It is no news to the left that she is taking part in a performative grift by a new generation of professional opportunists labeling themselves as “progressives taking over the party.” As part of “The Squad” (alongside Ayanna Pressley, a conservative Democrat and former Hillary Clinton surrogate), this has been a pretty successful branding exercise, but entirely false advertising. One example is in Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s claim to be for the abolition of ICE while voting to provide the agency with billions of dollars in additional funding.

Some may not remember all the way back to a year ago: January 2019. These were her first days in Congress and the beginning of her performance. One of her first votes was on 2019 House Joint Resolution #1: funding for ICE and other agencies under the Department of Homeland Security. For some reason, the media (including Fox News) reported that she was the “lone Democrat” voting against funding for ICE. This claim seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how congressional voting works (or an intentional deception by conflating completely separate votes for general funding of the government to prevent a shutdown).

Bills don’t get just one up or down vote, they often have dozens of amendments, calls for tabling, calls for continuing debate, etc. HJ Res #1 (2019) has an unambiguous public record, which shows there were 17 separate actions on the bill, including two crucial votes by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez.

The vote she and supporters tout as her essential “NO” vote on funding for ICE, Roll Call Vote #8, was not on passing the bill, but actually on a “motion to recommit.” What this means is a vote on whether to continue to allow for debate and amendments. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s “NO” vote translates to “I believe the discussion is over; let’s move to pass the bill as-is.” Just nine minutes after voting to end the discussion, she voted YEA to pass the funding bill as-is in Roll Call Vote #9.

While the Joint Resolution itself doesn’t outline specific line items (you’d have to read the original proposed budget to see that), Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s vote for the bill delivered $7.4 billion in funding for ICE—$328 million above what the department requested in FY 2018. Specifically:

  • $78 million to hire over 400 additional ICE agents.
  • $1.9 billion (an increase of $275 million above the requested level) for immigration investigation.
  • $4.1 billion for ICE detention, including 44,000 additional beds (an increase of 3,480 beds over FY 2018).
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the southern US border.
Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre, June 24, 2018 “Abolish ICE” event in Tornillo, Texas.

In summary, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is fine giving $7.4 billion to ICE to continue to abuse migrants and separate children from their families but won’t give $250,000 to the club she joined and works to promote regularly with her votes in Congress. So much for “abolishing” anything but working-class power!

In July 2018, before Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s term began, Democrats introduced an “abolish ICE” bill which technically abolished the agency by splitting its various responsibilities into other existing agencies. While this didn’t actually solve the problem of an out of control agency abusing migrants, the proposed bill would have technically abolished the agency. Given the opportunity to vote for it, the very Democrats who introduced the bill voted against it. They then released a statement claiming they won’t support it because Republicans “aren’t serious,” and will instead call for an “urgently needed and long-overdue conversation on the House floor.”

This purely performative activism is not a new phenomenon in newer “woke” abolitionist movements, or even in older groups recently taken over by neoliberals. In the January 7, 2020 episode of “What’s Left?” (“Abolish the Police“), hosts Aimee Terese and Benjamin Studebaker discuss how modern police, prison, and ICE abolitionist movements are nothing but another way for opportunists to infiltrate and defuse anti-capitalist movements.

One metric of success touted by leaders and proponents of these movements is a go-to move for neoliberals: endless meetings and debate

A recent Jacobin article on the movement cites a 1998 one-day conference where “thousands” met to discuss abolishing prisons. Jacobin claims this meeting and others like it have “born fruit” because over a decade later, at the 2010 US Social Forum in Detroit, activists met again for a single day and then issued a statement “the prison industrial complex must be abolished.”

But what have these movements actually accomplished besides endless discourse and supporting the activist industrial complex? What has their discourse achieved other than continuous churning towards a self-imposed required consensus?

Ironically, critics of these organizations are treated like criminals, policed out of the movement, and branded heretics. Any opposition to these organizations and their views and tactics face responses that critics “haven’t read the right things,” or they “haven’t talked to the right people.” They point to the big structural change of convincing existing legal systems to use more inclusive language, pay some small reparations to the people it recognizes as victims, or elect people with a specific identity to be prosecutors in an unchanged system.

Movements that take infinite baby steps, beginning with merely “calling it by its name” and goals of “reducing state violence,” treat the actual abolition of these institutions as out of reach, relegating it to the territory of a forever-long-term goal. In doing so, these organizations never seem to realize that all state coercive force is violent, and in turn, will only ever succeed in serving the careers of the movement’s leadership.

These purely performative abolitionist movements see calling out broken systems as a victory. However, the continued delay of actually abolishing these systems only reifies the implied institutionality of them. In other words, saying “abolish ICE” and then funding it means it’s too important to be abolished, even though fewer than two decades ago, it didn’t even exist.

Further reading

‘Abolish ICE by funding it’ by Scott Jay via Libcom.org, Jan 8, 2019