Sustainability and the Politics of Abolition


I was asked to be part of a panel at the University of Gloucestershire looking at the future of higher education, with a focus on sustainability. Each of the panel members had to make a five minute presentation on their position with regard to sustainability and higher education. Please see my contribution below.


I am arguing for abolitionism not sustainability. I am an abolitionist; part of a dissenting tradition with roots in the anti-slavery movement (Davis 2003), with a history of organising opposition to capital punishment (Linebaugh 2006), as a project to tear down the prison-industrial complex (Mathiesen 1994) and a campaign to ban nuclear weapons (Nuttall 1970). What I want to abolish is a society where no-thing is sustainable (Harney and Moten 2013 42), where everything about humanity-in-nature that we consider worth preserving is at risk (Moore 2016), where modernity itself is defined as a ‘risk society’ (Beck 1992).

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, writing in the Communist Manifesto (1848) had it that ‘all that is solid melts into air’, describing a capitalist civilisation where the mode of production reduces everything to heat and dust, in ways now recognised as environmental destruction and global warming. But the Manifesto points to another aspect of unsustainability: capitalism itself is at risk, haunted by the spectre of resistance and refusal which Marx and Engels refer to as communism.

Following the financial crisis of 2008 it is clear that capitalism’s capacity to reproduce itself as a market-based system of social development has been discredited. Neoliberalism is finished. The progressive aspects of capitalist society, distributing wealth in the form of expanding wages and welfare was the bankrupting logic for the 1970s global economic crisis (Cleaver 2017). Keynesianism is dead. Paul Mason argues we are already living in a post-capitalist world (2015). So what comes next: barbarism, socialism, communism, fascism?  The militarisation of police and the brutality of state power becomes ever more intense as capital struggles to find renewed techniques for productive expansion (Graham 2010, Neary 2015).

A model of sustainability that avoids the logic of the Capitalocene (Moore 2016) is unlikely to achieve its development goals; reduced to a sterile debate between science-deniers, with their heads buried in the profits to be fracked from tar sands and other despoilisations of nature, and science-survivors, for whom the future depends on humanity’s resilience and adaptability and sustainability.

How can we avoid becoming apologists for a system that we claim to be against? We can recognise capitalism’s motive power as the exploitation of human energy and ‘cheap nature’, where value is calculated in measures of labour time and sold as commodities in exchange for money (Moore 2016). The accumulation of money rather than the satisfaction of human needs is the logic of capitalist expansion. In this life-world money becomes the supreme social power, as an impersonal form of social domination, relying for its continuing expansion on the imposition of poverty, debt and negative consequences beyond the human imagination.

My work focuses on the problem of labour, creating human associations in ways that undermine the logic of capitalist relations of production (Neary 2015, 2017). In the short term this means building cooperative institutions, which reconfigure the meaning of work (Neary and Winn 2017, Neary and Saunders 2016). I am now collaborating with others to create a new cooperative university where the contribution of students to the production of knowledge and performance of teaching and learning events: Student as Producer, is recognised, along with the centrality of workplace democracy as the basis for experimental science; where the natural and social sciences are combined to form “One Science’ (Marx 1844). In the longer term this means not resilience or adaptability or sustainability, not creating jobs or promoting employability, but to transform, revolutionise and abolish capitalist work so that a new society can be created not on the back of human and animal labour but on the principle of life-enhancing-life.


Beck, Ulrich (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London and New York: Sage Books.

Clarke, Simon (1988) Keynesianism, Monetarism and the Crisis of the State. Aldershot: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Cleaver, Harry (2017) Rupturing the Dialectic: the Struggle against Work, Money and Financialisation. AK Press.

Davis, Angela (2003) Are Prisons Obsolete. Seven Stories Press: New York.

Graham, Stephen Graham (2010) Cities Under Siege: the New Military Urbanism. London and New York: Verso.

Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.

Linebaugh, Peter (2006) The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. London and New York: Verso.

Marx, Karl (2000) Early Writings. London and New York: Penguin Classics.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels (2002) Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin Classic.

Mason Paul (2015) Post-Capitalism: A Guide to the Future.  Allen Lane:London.

Moore, Jason (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London and New York: Verso.

Mathiesen Thomas (1974) The Politics of Abolition. Wiley.

Neary, Mike (2015) Educative Power: the Myth of Dronic Violence in a Period of Civil War. Culture Machine.

Neary, Mike (2017) Pedagogy of Hate. Policy Futures in Education.

Neary, Mike and Saunders, Gary (2016) Student as Producer and the Politics of Abolition: Making a New Form of Dissident Institution. Critical Education.

Neary Mike and Winn Joss (2017) Beyond Public and Private: A Model for Co-operative Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities. [pre-publication version

Nuttall, Jeff (1970) Bomb Culture. Paladin: London.







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