In defence of utopian speculation: what might a safe and just world look like?

Debates about prison abolition tend to revolve around whether or not it is a pragmatic idea. For some people, the absence of police and prisons sounds difficult to imagine—even though proponents of abolition have made and continue to make compelling arguments that these institutions have failed to deliver on their promise of a safe and just world.

However, instead of engaging directly with these arguments, critics often lean into the doubt some may feel and present abolition as nothing more than utopian speculation.

In responding to these criticisms, there is no doubt merit in exploring what abolition might look like ‘in practice’. However, to focus solely on defending abolition on pragmatic grounds is to concede that political change must be ‘realistic’ to be compelling. In addition to arguing that abolition is pragmatic, it’s also important to not lose sight of its principles—and one way to do this may involve leaning into the power of utopian speculation to shape our sense of the possible.

Utopian thinking

Utopia is an ambiguous word deriving from Ancient Greek—ambiguous in that it resembles both the expressions ‘no place’ (outopos) and ‘good place’ (eutopos). Its conventional meaning combines these two expressions. That is to say, utopia is understood as an imaginary place where all is good. The term is sometimes used derisively to dismiss idealistic thinking as folly, unable to be realised.

These connotations bleed into debates about crime and justice policy. As sociologist Ruth Levitas writes, ‘pragmatism is the dominant form of legitimation in contemporary political culture,’ and abolitionists may well see greater uptake of their more idealistic ideas by measuring them against this standard.

However, the rulebook of pragmatism doesn’t put emphasis on the strengths of the case for abolition—rather, it limits our thinking to the world as it is, rather than the world as it could be. It is in this spirit that Levitas (and others) call for advocates to rethink and embrace the idea of utopia.

For Levitas, utopia is not an otherworldly place but rather an expression of the kind of place our world could be. For example, at its heart abolition expresses a desire for a world where conflicts are resolved without exclusion or punishment. By treating utopia as an expression rather than a (non-existent) place, it becomes something inherent to all political positions, not just those that advocate for change.

This perspective enables us to identify and critique the utopian formulations that underlie the status quo—for example, criminal justice institutions appear to express a desire for order and control through deterrence and the threat of punishment. Seeing both of these expressions as utopian then brings them to a more level playing field. Pragmatism aside, it opens up the question: which world would you rather live in?

Imagination, and then

The answer to this question may not be obvious to some, but even considering it in good faith has merit. It gives pause to imagine what an ideal world, the ‘good society’, looks like, and how we might resolve conflict or treat transgression within it.

This imaginative dimension is important, and one way for us to access it more readily may be by considering these kinds of questions through the eyes of children. A good example of their insights can be found in a study in which children were asked to read and discuss the Curious George books. The books are often framed around the eponymous monkey’s misbehaviour, punishment, and subsequent rescue by a man in a yellow hat—for example, in the original book George accidentally calls the fire brigade, is reprimanded and incarcerated, and is rescued by the man after escaping prison.

When children read this scene during the study, they point out George’s punishment was disproportionate given he was only copying how the man used the telephone, and learning even if making some mistakes along the way. They also point out it was unproductive—George never learns the rule he has broken, only that breaking the rules leads to exclusion.

Though this instalment of Curious George is somewhat dated, these themes remain relevant for imagining what an ideal justice system looks like. Would we prefer to live in a world where transgressions—especially, but not exclusively, the transgressions of children—are met with exclusion or education?

Imagining these worlds implies a further step to utopian thinking—one of enactment. Enactment here refers not to pragmatism, or the concrete steps to follow, but rather to the wholesale shift from one world to another.

It sounds complex, but at its core this shift requires two things of us. Firstly, it requires will, and the work of Sara Ahmed is particularly edifying here. Ahmed writes about will similarly to how Levitas and others write about utopia: defining as any charge made by some against others, Ahmed suggests that some forms of will become embedded in institutions such that they become implicit and invisible, ‘a continuation of willing that no longer needs to be willed.’  The criminal justice system doesn’t just facilitate certain forms of punishment for certain people—it wills it.

In this sense, to expose the utopian expressions that underlie this justice system is to recognise that it doesn’t simply exist as indisputable fact—it is upheld by the will of some, and it is the will of others that will transform it.

Willing, then, requires persistence, through keeping in sight of the principles of the ‘good society’ under abolition and continuing to articulate these principles in opposition to those that uphold the status quo. For abolitionists, that might mean finding a place for principled arguments alongside the pragmatic. It might mean telling stories not of punishment and exclusion of so-called offenders but of safety and justice for all. It might mean eschewing engagement with the criminal justice system altogether and appealing towards broader principles of economic and racial justice, which also have an important place in the abolitionist utopia.

In any case, as criminologist Peter Young aptly argues, ‘utopias provide much of the conceptual vocabulary in which we all think.’ They compose the worlds we are capable of imagining for ourselves and willing ourselves into.

To imagine then compels us to will. To will compels us to persist. And to persist compels us to ask questions, tell stories and carve out a better world within our own.

Mark Yin

Mark Yin is a PhD student in Criminology based in Naarm (Melbourne). His research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship.

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