Earlier this year, a landlord presented a group of Kansas City tenants with the following choice: renew their leases at triple the rent or move. But rather than accept these terms, the tenants came together and declared “we won’t go.” This rejection of the options presented to them, originally a reflection of their desperation, soon became an expression of their power.
Critical Race Theorists have long been concerned with the dangers inherent to legal reform. Drawing on their insights, we should approach the struggle for non-reformist reforms not as a search for some self-evident formula, but as a practice that requires close and disciplined engagement with the social and economic conditions we seek to change.
Amna Akbar’s recent article on non-reformist reforms foregrounds a question that the LPE movement often bypasses: namely, how might systemic social change occur in the 21st century? However, in considering this question, the article erases nearly fifty years of theory-work, which has much to teach the legal left as it recovers the notion of non-reformist reform.
Today’s left social movements are increasingly turning to a framework of “non-reformist reform” to guide their efforts to build a just society. But what do non-reformist reforms require? How do they differ from liberal and neoliberal approaches to reform? And what role do law and lawyers have to play in advancing such reforms?
Within the LPE movement, there is a broad consensus that “law is central to the creation and maintenance of structural inequalities in the state and the market” and that “class power is inextricably connected to the development of racial and gender hierarchies.” These claims, while often articulated in response to neoliberalism, go to the very origins of capitalism and its particular patterns of inequality.
According to Sam Moyn, capitalism and the ills it is said to generate are nothing more than a contingent jumble of various legal rules and regulations. Indeed, “capitalism” is merely a term of abuse, to which nineteenth-century thinkers made a misguided attempt to attribute “general laws.” This critique, however, overlooks the extent to which Marx’s conception of capitalism is itself historically specific, even contingent. Capitalism is not a consequence of ineluctable laws of nature, human or otherwise, but a fortuitous convergence of a peculiar constellation of social relations and institutions.
In his recent post about the LPE Movement’s reticence toward legal theory, Sam Moyn speculates that this aversion may be born of a noble yet misguided deference towards grassroots social movements. Deference, however, does not capture the dynamic relationship between critical legal theory and radical political practice. One does not precede the other or take priority. Instead, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Michel Foucault to Angela Davis, our most important critical thinkers have always engaged in a productive back-and-forth, in which theory and practice constantly challenge, check, and transform each other.
Sam Moyn’s recent call for a renewed interest in a radical theory of law is timely and welcome. However, if LPE wants a social and legal theory adequate to its ambitions, we cannot turn to the insights of the earlier CLS movement to develop it. This is because CLS, in the relevant respects, did not have (much of) any theory at all.
In carefully chronicling the history, logic, and operations of the child welfare system and Tennessee’s fetal assault law, Dorothy Roberts and Wendy Bach give us accounts not of singular systems, but of something much more wide-ranging: an almost suffocating network of authorities surrounding marginalized mothers.
Throughout America’s history, the deep-seated idea that poverty is fundamentally a moral failing on the part of the poor has shaped social welfare policies and practices. If they could run their lives properly, the logic goes, they would not be poor in the first place. Accordingly, poor and non-white folks cannot be trusted to care for their children, and thus need to be coerced, through the threat of punishment, into forms of supposedly “therapeutic” state interventions.
When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton reportedly replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” To understand our current system of family policing and punishment, we similarly need begin from the idea that this is a profit-focused system, one that extracts resources by investigating, surveilling, prosecuting, and separating low-income families.
According to the official organs of the family policing system, their goal is to ensure that children are safe and receive proper care. But a closer look at this system demonstrates just how little concern it has for the well-being of children. Instead, its primary purpose is to punish parents – a cruelty exacerbated by the fact that we live in a country that makes parenting nearly impossible.
What is the relationship between “non-reformist reforms” and academic research? Scholars can, of course, write about the legislation and policy that they believe will advance transformative change. Yet the way a group seeks reform – how a group organizes and fights for political change – is as important, if not more, than the substance of the reform. Scholarship should thus highlight and analyze the work of organizers on the ground who are indispensable to achieving transformational change.
The carceral state is in a deep legitimacy crisis, with questions about its proper function up for public debate, and social movements pushing for care, public safety, and accountability. Municipalities, meanwhile, are experimenting with non-police responses to varied social problems. These efforts are important: they signal that abolitionist organizing and social insurgency have built sufficient power that the political elite has had to respond. But as Dorothy Roberts and Wendy Bach teach us, care often provides cover for criminalization, and the deployment of professional services often works hand in glove with systems of punishment.
In 2013, a group of Tennessee legislators made it a crime for a pregnant woman to transmit narcotics to a fetus. The law’s supporters offered many of the traditional justifications for criminal law, but they also leaned heavily on a less familiar argument: that creating this crime would, in effect, create care. Indeed, they argued that criminalizing this behavior was a logical response to Tennessee’s opiate epidemic and healthcare crisis, as it would create incentives for judges to draw more treatment resources into court. However, to the extent that the women prosecuted under this law received any care from our legal and social welfare systems, that care was corrupted by its location within or near punishment systems.