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A Horizon Beyond Legalism: On Non-Reformist Reforms


Amna Akbar (@orangebegum) is the Charles W. Ebersold and Florence Whitcomb Ebersold Professor of Constitutional Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

This post kicks off a symposium on non-reformist reforms.

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At the start of my academic career, I analyzed the shifting ideological and material infrastructure of policing after 9/11. I wrote two articles, published in 2013 and 2015, that explored how the domestic footprint of the so-called war on terror entailed police in the United States marshaling significant resources toward monitoring Muslim communities in the United States. Programs that aimed at “counter-radicalization” and “countering violent extremism” conflated Muslim religious practices and critiques of U.S. empire with terrorism, thereby justifying the brutal surveillance, infiltration, and policing of Muslim communities that compounded long histories of the policing of Black and brown people in the United States. That framework is front and center again with the onslaught of repression against Palestinian solidarity work now.

When I presented these articles, senior colleagues frequently observed the absence of a “Part IV,” where I was expected to propose a solution to the problem I had documented in the preceding three parts. Similarly, at job talks, I was pushed, sometimes through questions shaded with anti-Muslim bias, to explain how, exactly, I proposed that we fix the problem. (How does it feel to be a problem? Moustafa Bayoumi wrote in 2010 about being Arab and Muslim, echoing W.E.B. Du Bois’s question about being Black from a century earlier.)

Sensing my reluctance on the fix, someone once insisted, “what would you do if you were in the position of advising the government?” I can’t remember exactly how I handled it, but I recall thinking, I wouldn’t advise them, before caving to the question. After all, to refuse to answer the question would be an act of petulance. As a law professor, it was supposed to be my responsibility—my very pride—my function to do this: to explain a problem, and offer a solution, as if I were literally at the same table with powerful elites debating ideas about how best to devise the law. 

With time, I started to understand my instinctive refusal. It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart enough to identify potential fixes, or even that I was overly critical of the idea of advising the state. I was feeling around and against the position lawyers and law faculty occupy within reform discourse. I didn’t want to blunt my critique in service of my authority, and I didn’t think a single law professor could advise the state on how to end, let alone redress, long histories of exploitation and violence that are with us to this day. It seemed a dangerous delusion to feed, that redressing colonialism past and present could be done through often narrow windows of academic debate and technocratic policy advice. To the contrary, law professors were often part of the problem: most law faculty writing on “national security” at the time had worked at one point or another in the government agencies administering the very practices I thought fundamentally flawed—in service of inequality in the name of safety. Redressing structures of exploitation required popular contestation of power, rather than coziness with it, and concrete and organized struggle from below.

What I didn’t understand then was that we were only just entering a renewed cycle of struggle, inaugurated by the global financial crisis and the protests it fomented against the state and the economy, that would bring to life the deep problems with the sort of reformism that was commonsense within the legal academy when I joined.

Reconceiving Reform

Now, other pathways are clear. In my latest law review article, I examine the turn of left social movements to “non-reformist reforms” as a framework for reconceiving reform: not as an end goal but as an ongoing struggle to reconstitute the terms of life, death, and democracy. Today’s left social movements are challenging formal law and politics for their capitulation to a regime of racial capitalism and how it reproduces raced, classed, and gendered domination, exploitation, dispossession, and exposure to premature death. The turn to non-reformist reform is thus part of a larger meditation on what strategies and tactics will help build a more equal and just society, one that works for the many rather than the few, where people have their needs met and democracy extends to all realms of life well beyond the ballot box.

Non-reformist reforms aim to undermine the prevailing political, economic, social order, construct an essentially different one, and build democratic power toward emancipatory horizons. In contrast to a reformist approach, which seeks to address social problems while leaving the prevailing governing system untouched, non-reformist reforms seek to redistribute power and reconstitute who governs and how. In the 1960s, André Gorz explained that a non-reformist reform requires “a restriction on the powers of State or Capital,” and “an extension of popular power, that is to say, a victory of democracy over the dictatorship of profit.” In 2007, Ruth Wilson Gilmore called for non-reformist reforms in the context of prison abolitionist struggles: “changes that, at the end of the day, unravel rather than widen the net of social control through criminalization.” More recently, in 2021, the Red Nation explained its approach as focused on “reallocat[ing] social wealth back to those who actually produce it: workers, the poor, Indigenous peoples, the Global South, women, migrants, caretakers of the land, and the land itself.”

Building on these and the insights of contemporary campaigns, I argue that non-reformist reforms reorient liberal and neoliberal approaches to reform in significant ways. They require a horizon beyond legalism; they embrace antagonism and conflict rather than depoliticization and neutrality; they aim to shift the balance of power; and they build mass organization and prepare the people to govern.

Law and lawyers have a role to play within such efforts, but to assert these roles as primary is to capitulate to a conception of power that is top-down and centralized rather than everywhere and relational. What does it mean to think about law in relation to emancipation and long freedom struggles? To begin, it requires that we understand law as a site of domination, exploitation, expropriation, and legitimation—and lawyers as central partners therein. Law is neither above nor below politics or reason, nor is it the entire domain of politics or reason itself. Law is a partial and dynamic terrain of political, economic, and social struggle. It is a place and a language where power is shaped and contested, and where relations of class, race, gender, and ability are made and remade. It is a tool, a strategy, a tactic, and it contributes to the terms of life, death, and democracy.

To understand what an orientation towards non-reformist reforms might look like, we should look to social movements. For this is where people experience and organize around conflicts over dignity and resources, life and death. And so, in the article I attend to actually existing sites of struggle in the United States: #StopCopCity in Atlanta; organizing to cancel rent by KC Tenants in Kansas City, Missouri, and to cancel student debt by the Debt Collective; and workers organizing for collective power, with a focus on the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) joint campaign for the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Green New Deal. I identify these movements as representing prevailing winds of contemporary protest and organizing with which law faculty, lawyers, legal workers, and students interested in emancipation should engage.

These movements focus on three intersecting areas. First, abolitionist campaigns across the country take on mass criminalization as antithetical to a just society, and call for investments in communities and non-carceral state capacity. Second, campaigns to decommodify and decolonize center the needs of people and the planet over profit. And third, democratization campaigns expand democracy far beyond a narrow or siloed conception of politics, with labor organizing and the economy a key front. These three areas embody an aspiration to disrupt aspects of our juridical order and its fealties to the prison and the market. Within each, there are campaigns at the local, state, and federal level. Each has some broad appeal in the public and across domains of social-movement activity. Each builds on popular insurgencies.

Together, these campaigns reveal a larger concern with building a state, market, and/or society responsive to popular input and human and planetary need. They are necessary if incomplete components of a larger strategy to chip away at pillars of the state captured by the capitalist class and prison-industrial complex. These campaigns refuse the division between politics and the economy essential to liberal conceptions of state and law, and the elevation of the economy over politics essential to neoliberal conceptions.

In my view, these campaigns also largely operate within the domain of non-reformist reforms. But whether a particular tactic or strategy counts as a non-reformist reform is an assessment better made by collective social movement formations than by an academic. Such assessments require an analysis of conditions and power in the time and place in which an organization or campaign intervenes. They require debate. That the debate should sharpen collective strategy and tactics—collective power and consciousness even—is constitutive to the concept of non-reformist reform itself.

The lines between reformist and non-reformist efforts are blurry. The same demand may look non-reformist from one point of view and reformist from another; non-reformist when proposed and reformist down the line. The same demand within a campaign may be fought for in reformist and non-reformist ways. Imagine a campaign calling for a five-percent cut to a multibillion dollar budget for the police. Within the coalition backing that demand, you might find an abolitionist organization advocating the cut as a step toward prison and police abolition, while a reformist organization hopes the cut will recalibrate police function to a proper, somewhat diminished level. The abolitionist organization might emphasize the fundamental violence and illegitimacy of the police, while the reformist one might emphasize the need to reestablish police legitimacy. Given the immensity of police budgets in the United States, even such a relatively minor cut could make a real impact in the lives of ordinary people. But the demand is non-reformist only to the extent that the campaign is undertaken as a strategic step in a larger ongoing struggle. And only to the extent it is part of a larger bid to build people power. 

Some scholars may find the concept of non-reformist reforms overly facile or empty, lacking any true content. But in my view, the concept starts to unearth more insurgent ways of relating to law. Rather than serving individuated expertise or policy prowess that might lend itself to an excellent Part IV, the framework allows one to approach current political and economic crises head on, attune to the contradictions of the law, and in service of popular power.