Compulsory Schooling and Police Abolition

I’ve been thinking and reading about police abolition for eight years now, and have become convinced that the world doesn’t necessarily need another rich white male academic having thoughts about the nature and effects of police oppression on the oppressed. But learning from the privileged about how policing and the prison industrial complex benefits them personally would have been very valuable to me. I haven’t found much writing like this so I thought I’d make some myself.

If I’m going to make a strong argument for police abolition I have to try to make a complete account of the ways that policing supports my present way of life. Without some kind of connection to my own lived experience at best I’d just be reframing other people’s more experientially grounded arguments. It hasn’t helped me at all to read this kind of material so what a waste of time to write more of it, eh? Not only that, but accounting for the ways I rely on policing is a way for me to understand what I’d be giving up if we do manage to abolish cops. Without understanding this my arguments for abolition would seem hollow to me, and so probably to others also.

One of the ways policing supports me is through compulsory K12 schooling. Some of my reliance has to do with the fact that I teach mathematics at a local liberal arts school, and some of it is shared more generally with other privileged people. But regardless of that, first I want to talk about why compulsory schooling requires police to exist. Is this controversial or implausible? It seems obvious to me and probably to any parent who’s been criminally charged and subsequently taken to court over a truant child, or whose truant child has been criminally charged and taken to court independently. Without police this whole coercive infrastructure evaporates and along with it the possibility of requiring children to attend school.

Cops force students into school and anyone other than their parent who forces them is a cop. Without cops they can’t be forced. And the only power of the police is the power to harm, to hurt, to torture, to kill. Ultimately children are violently forced to attend school.1 This fact is sufficient evidence that schools are not a net benefit to parents and children, then. If they were there’d be no need for coercion. No one needs to be forced at gunpoint to accept something which is in fact good for them.2 Which is not to say there’s no such thing as schooling without police, just that it couldn’t be compulsory. Schools are old and police are new. Schools existed before police and they will exist after police. Even now schools serve all kinds of life affirming purposes in ways that no one has to be forced at gunpoint to accept.

Not only do schools provide education but also day care, food distribution, emotional support, community, companionship, green space, and on and on and on. No one with good intentions wants to get rid of schools. But without police schools, like every other social institution, will have to be voluntary. Everything schools now do that the recipients are forced to accept at gunpoint will have to go, and this clearly includes compulsory attendance. In order to survive, schools will have to meet the actual needs of the people who have the capacity to maintain and reproduce them, and they’ll have to meet them to an extent sufficient to justify those people continuing to maintain them.

Schools will have to serve their actual constituents who, without police, will be parents, students, teachers, whatever kind of government we end up with after abolition, and other interested community members. Schools will have to stop serving zillionaires3 and their proxy government, which is carefully tuned to ensure schools, along with every other social system managed by a government, serve zillionaires’ interests. Schools serve the interests of zillionaires because zillionaires control governments and governments control schools. Zillionaires benefit from the compulsory schooling system or it wouldn’t exist. But how do I, rich but not a zillionaire, personally benefit?

I teach mathematics at Whittier College, a local liberal arts school. Without a reliable supply of incoming students I’d be out of a job, and compulsory schooling provides this reliable supply. If police are abolished, as I said, there will certainly still be schools for kids, and probably at least some of those kids will study mathematics, which at least some people find intrinsically worthwhile enough to study it without being forced, but mostly not. For the most part, though, even if these students want to go to college, and even if they want to study math when they arrive, there won’t be close to as many of them, surely not enough to keep every currently existing math department funded. Almost surely not the Whittier College math department.

But things are more complicated than that. To even exist my job requires not only a reliable supply of students, but a reliable supply of mathematically qualified students. Students are not only forced at gunpoint into schools, they’re forced at gunpoint to study mathematics for essentially the entire twelve years, and my job wouldn’t exist without these students.4 Furthermore, the fact that K12 students are forced to study 12 years of mathematics creates a need for K12 math teachers, whom I get paid to train.

Not just college teachers, but most adults, and certainly all rich white adults, benefit from compulsory K12 school in a bunch of ways.5 Schools train kids to be workers and workers make money for rich people, who take a percentage of all productive activity just because they can. Schools facilitate capitalism not only by supplying workers but by facilitating their work. E.g. mandatory schooling keeps rowdy kids off the streets while their parents are working, which makes it feasible for more parents to work for wages, or they provide childcare to the same end. When people work for wages all rich people end up with a percentage, even if it’s very indirect.6 This is only one example out of very, very many.

And schools don’t just train kids in skills that capital requires of them. They also train them to think in ways that capital requires them to think. This is really the subject of a different essay, but here are a couple fairly simple examples. Schools teach American history as if every step embodies moral progress. This idea, that politics leads step by step to a better future for all, is valuable to capitalists, who rely on this story to stave off Bastille Day.

The cause of capital advances even if a few high school history teachers give more radical versions of the story. These teachers support the story that high schools aren’t propaganda pushers while at the same time being so clearly out of the mainstream that their views don’t spread. These dissenters strengthen the system they dissent from.7 They appear to children, not of their own will, as outliers, cautionary stories, and so on. There are many, many ways in which compulsory schooling supports capitalism and therefore supports anyone in a position to get a net benefit from capitalism.

And without police we won’t have compulsory schooling, so what will we have instead? Well, voluntary schooling, or whatever you’d call schooling where kids attend because their families want them to, because whatever form schooling takes after abolition, whatever form any social system takes after, it’s going to have to be voluntary in that sense, because there won’t be anyone forcing anyone to do things at gunpoint. My eyes are too clouded by my having been raised in the world of police to be able to see clearly what that new world will look like.

It’s reasonable to wonder how I could support police abolition without knowing exactly how a world without police will work. I support abolition because I came to understand that a society fundamentally grounded in police violence, a society that would become unrecognizable almost immediately without police, that that society is not worth the pain and death it requires. It doesn’t matter what a world without police would look like given how bad the world is with police. Police were only invented recently. For most of our history there have been no police. We will get by without police, we will thrive without police, but the details can only be known in practice. I hope I live to see some of it.

  1. By the way, a lot of people get mad at me, literally yell at me in some cases, for saying that children are violently forced to attend school, but where’s the lie?
  2. A popular and very wrong counterargument to this position relies on the assumption that some people don’t know what’s best for them and have to be forced to accept it. If we’re not talking about children I disagree so completely with this that I don’t even want to argue against it. Competent adults are the most reliable source for what’s good for them personally. And parents, not the government or anyone else who uses police, are the most reliable source for what’s good for their children. I have no sympathy or time for arguments to the contrary.
  3. A zillionaire is a rich person who has the power to create, destroy, or otherwise materially alter government-run social systems. There is an (unknown) amount of money, $X, that automatically makes one a zillionaire, but some people with less money than $X are still zillionaires if they’ve worked out effective methods to shape society to their ends. There’s also a contextual element to the definition. In a small fairly isolated town a mere millionaire might be a local zillionaire if they have the talent and will to pull it off.
  4. This fact can’t be adequately explained by the fact that zillionaires require a steady supply of sufficiently competent technicians, but the full explanation is at least an essay in itself. Here’s a brief summary. The number of technicians produced is too small to justify the resources used to produce them. There must be some other point to it. By the way, I use the word “technician” to describe any professional whose work requires some technical knowledge of mathematics and/or some of the hard sciences.

    Most kids, the ones that don’t end up as technicians, graduate high school without mathematical competence but with a fairly unshakeable belief that mathematics is the key to understanding the world, that they can’t do it, and that therefore they should rely on putatively mathematically supported expertise over their own lived experience. The value to zillionaires of a population holding this general theory is clear.

    Their whole project relies on violent social control, but violence breeds resistance. How much more conducive to social stability and therefore to zillionaires continuing to hoard wealth are means of control that don’t rely directly on violence, like for instance education that teaches the controlled that scientists understand everything already and therefore resistance is pointless?

    By the way, it’s not necessary to argue for the existence of a conspiracy of zillionaires to establish that zillionaires benefit from particular qualities of social institutions. Social institutions are shaped by politics and zillionaires control politics. They have the power to tweak social institutions to further their purposes, so they use their power. This lets them work independently of one another, so no conspiracy necessary, but still cause social institutions to evolve towards meeting their needs ever more efficiently.

    Note that I’m omitting an analysis of the word “efficiency” here, but it’s a dangerous word. It implies the existence of purposes, which are often left unstated, and processes that efficiently promote one set of purposes may be completely antithetical to other purposes. The purposes with respect to which efficiency is measured with respect to are themselves an essential element of claims of efficiency. The word “efficiency” can’t be understood without an account of whose purposes the efficiency is measured against. Here the purposes are the zillionaires’ purposes, which I hope is clear already! Now multiply that by the last 600 years of racial capitalism and it’s no surprise at all that compulsory schooling furthers manifold zillionaire purposes. Instead it’s surprising when it fails to do so, if ever.

  5. I’m sure I haven’t thought of all of them.
  6. Is this controversial? It must be true. At every stage in the labor process, from physically digging raw materials out of the dirt to manipulating various sets of abstract concepts there’s some capitalist somewhere skimming some part off the top. Rich people are implicated in this and end up with some of the surplus even if through very circuitous routes.
  7. This isn’t a criticism of dissenting teachers, we all do what we can, and redirecting the effects of activism like this is a core capability of modern capitalism. They also have plenty of beneficial effects, but if they alone could bring down capitalism by dissent they would either have done so or have already been crushed. Since neither is the case they must at least be neutral, but I really think they, we, are a net benefit to capital, which is one of its insidious traps. It’s also one of its fundamental contradictions, one which contributes to its inevitable downfall. From slavery, which everyone could see was abominable, to our modern social system, capital has developed satanically effective means for hiding its foundational violence, but it seems to be the case that every one of those methods also contains a contradiction, which will lead to a need to camouflage its workings, which will ultimately lead to the downfall of capital. Or anyway, that’s what sense I’ve managed to make out of Marx all these years later.

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