yes, carceral feminism is A Thing

Amber A’Lee Frost critiques this (excellent) Jacobin post by Victoria Law about carceral feminism:

Here are the interpretations of the term I am able to come up with.

a) There is a feminist movement for whom imprisonment is the primary political project or cornerstone policy. I know of no such feminist subculture, and I consider myself pretty well-versed on even the more marginal feminisms. Of course there are feminists who support or fail to criticize incarceration, but that is generally part and parcel to a larger neoliberal politic, making them… liberal feminists. 


b) that feminists have an overwhelming and powerful presence in incarceration policy. How strange, that we would have such a concentrated power in such a specific sphere. You’d think we’d have at least passed equal pay by now. I was sure even had bigger priorities than throwing people in jail.

So why is it that the Violence Against Women Act, a properly neoliberal piece of Clinton-era legislation, penned by meathead Joe Biden, is blamed on women? Well… why not? We blame them for everything else.

There’s a few problems here. First: feminists, and particularly feminist women, pushed very hard for the Violence Against Women Act. That’s just a historical fact, as Law points out. The point is not to blame those feminist women; there’s no value in doing that. The point is to demonstrate that the best intentions can result in ugly consequences. That’s an essential historical point and I wish Frost didn’t dismiss it.

More importantly, Frost is confusing a critique of a political tendency with a critique of a political philosophy. Carceral feminism is the tendency of self-identified feminists to become credulous to the emancipatory power of the violent apparatus of the state in their efforts to achieve feminist ends like reductions in violence against women. Of course nobody chooses the name “carceral feminist,” any more than people choose the name neoliberal. But in each case, the term aptly fits a destruction political and rhetorical practice. Mistaking a criticism of a tendency for a criticism of a philosophy is particularly damaging because almost nobody actually has a political philosophy. We instead have a collection of tendencies that we then knit together into something resembling a coherent philosophy out of self-protective and egotistical motives. What’s undeniable, in the present moment, is that many people who consider themselves leftists are betraying a breathtaking amount of trust in the police and prosecutors. They are doing so at precisely the same time that they are passionately animated against the police state in Ferguson, in New York City, and elsewhere. Many are capable of holding together these utterly incompatible positions because they don’t have a political philosophy, but rather a set of cultural and social customs that they confuse with a politics. The result is an incoherent denigration of the police state on one hand and the elevation of that same police state to the role of savior on the other.

Finally: I get that, to a lefty like Frost, “liberal feminist” is a critique that stings. But to the vast majority of feminists — exactly the people that need to be convinced that the police state is not their friend — “liberal feminist” is a badge of honor. You cannot use it to get them to examine the flat inconsistencies in their current political preferences. Saying that there is no such thing as a carceral feminist because there is already such a thing as a liberal feminist is like saying, in the mid-50s, that there is no such thing as a McCarthyist because there is already such a thing as a authoritarian. It’s abstracting away from a particular political crisis to a grand ideological point of almost no immediate political valence. Right now, some feminists are using the mantle of feminism to defend the processes and people that they correctly identify as the source of racism and misery in the black community. The term “carceral  feminism” is as good a term as any to provoke a conversation about that condition.

At the end of the most well-intentioned law in the history of laws, there’s a cop. That’s what we’re talking about here. The rest is window dressing.