9 January 2020

Robbie Shilliam, (Professor of International Relations, Department of Politics, John Hopkins, US)


Abolish prisons; abolish police; abolish immigration enforcement: current “abolition” movements have yet to receive the attention that international political economy has given to its social justice forerunners, e.g. World Social Forum and Occupy. I argue that to make the current abolition movement legible to the field first requires a retrieval of abolition’s import for classical political economy. Towards this aim, I examine the ways in which Adam Smith’s prospecting of commercial society’s “liberal reward” to labor referenced abolition. I then contextualize Smith’s ethical argument within late seventeenth to early nineteenth century struggles over imperial commerce, especially Atlantic slavery. For this purpose, I take a prompt from the narrative frame of “abolition democracy” provided by Angela Davis and WEB Du Bois. I reassess Smith’s claims to labor’s liberal reward by reference to the ways in which abolition challenged: a) existing institutionsthat rendered enslaved labor in plantation economies as property; as well as b) the patriarchal institutions in England that rendered labor through a “master/servant” relation. I conclude by arguing that current abolition movements prompt us to address the obfuscation in classical political economy of particular agents and sites through which struggles over freedom have been waged across capital’s imperium.


Robbie Shilliam researches the political and intellectual complicities of colonialism and race in the global order. He is co-editor of the Rowman & Littlefield book series, Kilombo: International Relations and Colonial Question. Robbie was a co-founder of the Colonial/Postcolonial/Decolonial working group of the British International Studies Association and is a long-standing active member of the Global Development section of the International Studies Association. Robbie is committed to building capacity in Political Science and International Relations for postcolonial teaching and learning. To that effect, he is presently writing a book for undergraduates which reveals the colonial and postcolonial roots of the academic study of politics as well as providing alternative routes of investigation and understanding. Decolonizing Politics will be published by Polity Press in 2020.

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