Politics in Captivity: An Interview with Professor Lena Zuckerwise
The conversation below is between Professor Lena Zuckerwise, political theorist and Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons University, and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student of Gender and Cultural Studies at Simmons University. This discussion acts as an introduction to Lena’s upcoming book Politics in Captivity: Plantations, Prisons, and World Building, which explores Black political rebellion in the captive spheres of slavery and incarceration in the United States.
What is your current project?
Lena Zuckerwise: My book manuscript is called Politics in Captivity: Plantations, Prisons, and World Building. I like to think of it as a hybrid of history and political theory. Basically I’m arguing that the conventional tropes of democratic theory are unequipped for analysis of Black captive rebellion. These constructs include deliberative democracy, the divide between the public and private sphere, self-government, and more. We use them to think and talk about democratic politics, though they don't actually work for, and are essentially irrelevant to, Black resistance on plantations and in prisons.
When enslaved and incarcerated people rebel...they are radically resisting the terms of their captivity.
When political theorists look to politics of resistance—like protest, occupations, or other forms of uprising, they tend to think of these as democratic acts. I’m taking a different approach here: essentially repurposing a concept in Hannah Arendt’s political theory called “world” and “world building” which I argue can better speak to Black resistance than any of the other concepts in democratic politics.
What is Hannah Arendt’s particular definition of “world”?
Lena Zuckerwise: Her definition of “world” is the space where politics can originate. Arendt’s most famous text of political theory, The Human Condition, argues that all humans are born with three basic abilities: to labor, to work, and to act. To labor refers to the things we do which are most tethered to the biological life process of birth, growth and decay. It is the cyclical, endless tasks of the everyday. For example, when you do laundry, you're standing there in socks that you'll then need to launder; it is an ongoing process. There is no clear beginning and end to the tasks of labor – they're cyclical, constant and unending.
Action for Arendt is kind of the opposite of labor. To act is to speak in public spaces among equals. It is the only way to become free and the only way for humans to disclose who they truly are. This ability is rare with the rise of the modern period, but it is something the ancient Greeks understood well. For various historical reasons, humans have lost their taste for political action, according to Arendt, but not their capacity to act.
Work, unlike labor, has clear beginnings and ends. A person doing laundry is performing the tasks of labor, but a person who builds a table begins with a plan, they have tools, there is a starting point to the process of making a table, and then there's a clear ending to that task when the table is built. The object can have a lifespan or independence that outlasts its maker; a table can last hundreds of years, well beyond the maker.
That is the big difference between the product of labor and the product of work. Work contributes to a world in common, and what we share in common makes our ability to communicate possible as well as our ability to form relationships and connections with others. Arendt often says if humans didn't have a table to separate them, then they wouldn’t have a table to bring them together. In other words, worldly things connect people by separating them. People have to have physical and non-physical things in common to relate to. Because each individual is so different from one another, the absence of worldly things would be entirely disorienting: how could humans communicate without a common language? How could they share space without a thing in common to share—whether that is a meal, an activity, or some other common object? Providing these objects of commonality is the primary function of a world in common.
Human interactions and human relationships are impossible without, among other things, a basis for shared meanings, without the product of work. So, I'm arguing that in captivity, Black captives are denied a world. One of the ways to describe slavery and incarceration, which are the two examples of captivity that I discuss in my book, is a condition of forced worthlessness where people cannot come together, where they are forbidden from connecting with one another in meaningful ways; forbidden from world building.
When enslaved and incarcerated people rebel, I think they are radically resisting the terms of their captivity. The creation of a world, in this case, is a crucial act of radical resistance against white domination and captivity. This is the premise of my book.
What does resistance in world building look like within enslavement and incarceration?
Lena Zuckerwise: One example that I really love to use from the antebellum period is the everyday resistance of enslaved women. They often spent hours pilfering items from slaveholder’s homes and might keep those items themselves, or use those items to create their own craft products; such as dyeing fabric or designing their own dresses, which was an alternative to the standard issue attire they were forced to wear. Enslaved women would adorn their dresses in ways that were both in keeping with fashions at the time but also productive of new ones.
There aren't a lot of historians who attend to these small scale forms of everyday resistance, except for Stephanie Camp, who writes about this in depth in her book Closer to Freedom (2004). I'm arguing this everyday resistance is an example of world building under conditions of forced worldlessness within enslavement. Making their own clothes is a really good example of the insurgent creation of a world against the backdrop of forced worldlessness.
In incarceration settings, large organized uprisings completely changed public narratives of incarcerated people by radically inserting them into a public sphere. Because media coverage of those uprisings pushed back against the argument that incarcerated people are self-interested, criminal, and therefore shouldn't be allowed to vote or participate in politics in any meaningful way. It highlighted this false idea that incarcerated populations are incapable of real political action. Punitive regulations in prison are often geared toward preempting large scale resistance, like the Attica prison uprising, which I talk about in my book.
Uprisings completely change the way the stories are told about incarcerated people and the way in which public memory is oriented around them. This kind of world building produces new narratives and new stories.
Bringing it back to labor, in your current chapter you say that chattel slavery is a system of racial labor, while prison is a system of racial control. What do you mean by this distinction?
Lena Zuckerwise: What I'm trying to do in that chapter is push back against the rhetorical claim “prison labor is slavery.” I think this is important because slavery and prisons developed very differently, and they had hugely different economic impacts. In the early years of the American colonies, African workers and indentured servants lived more or less side by side. They were able to intermarry, run for minor political office, own property, bear arms.
They were definitely oppressed and exploited, because they were poor, but they had a similar civic standing in the colonies at the time. Once the European economies from which indentured servants were drawn — Germany, France, Ireland — there was less emigration from Europe to work for elite landowners in the colonies. At that point, those landowners decided they would need another source of cheap labor, so they turned to the Transatlantic slave trade.
If prison labor disappeared tomorrow the impact on the economy would barely be felt.
Additionally, because there were suddenly more Africans in the colonies, and this resonates a lot today, I think, the landowners were looking for a way to preempt relationships of class solidarity from forming between the poor African workers and the poor white workers, so they introduced this concept of race as a way of exploiting the labor of the African workers and introducing a completely fabricated concept of white superiority. It was at this time that the idea of chattel slavery as an inherited lifelong condition was ushered into early colonial America.
This also installs an artificial sense of superiority that poor white people would feel at the expense of the Black workers. It created what the late political theorist Joel Olson calls “cross-class solidarity” between poor white people who now believe they had shared interests in common with wealthy white landowners on the basis of race, rather than the group with whom they actually share common interests: poor Black workers.
Race was economically instrumental in the sense that it wasn't about white superiority for the sake of racism. This is at least how I interpret this history. But it was a functional move that allowed this system of cheap labor to be reproduced over time and it solves this political problem of making sure that white and Black people didn't come together and rebel, or do anything that would negatively impact the wealth and prosperity of white elites.
This matters because it’s very different from the way prisons developed. Prisons stepped in to maintain the conditions of slavery because white supremacy was now the core organizing principle of society. I’m not trying to downplay the importance of cheap labor to the early authors of the carceral state, because that was important, but what really mattered to the white elites after the Civil War was the continuation and the perpetuation of white domination over the social order.
There were plenty of non-carceral ways to exploit the labor of Black Americans, of which white planters availed themselves, like sharecropping and tenant farming and other forms of debt peonage. So my point is simply that the prison system wasn’t the lone necessary way of maintaining a slave economy. The intention of prisons was to keep the status quo of white domination intact.
Why did the carceral state become more prominent than the other solutions like sharecropping? Why did incarceration become the focus?
Lena Zuckerwise: Because the 13th amendment states that slavery is illegal, except as punishment for crime. The carceral state became the obvious solution to the question of how to keep slavery going, how to perpetuate it past 1865 when it was formally terminated in law. That's why I think the need to keep white supremacy as the dominant social order of the whole country, but especially the South, was the foundation of the contemporary carceral system.
And that is just not true for what race was trotted out to accomplish in the 1660s and 1670s. Slavery is the foundation for the US economy; it's the reason why the US economy went from being a small agrarian economy to a booming economic superpower. That happened because of slavery.
Whereas the contribution of prison labor to the US economy is minuscule by comparison. Percentage-wise, there are very few prisoners today who are doing labor that actually feeds into the US economy. Most prison jobs are intended to cut operation costs to the prison. It doesn't provide a vast economic contribution to the economy. Prison labor is pretty economically minimal and the economic impact of slavery was tremendous.
For people like me who are interested in prison abolition and want to see an end to the carceral state all together, we shouldn't talk about prison labor like it's slavery because that overstates the significance of prison labor. If prison labor disappeared tomorrow the impact on the economy would barely be felt. As we're trying to imagine alternatives to the carceral system we shouldn't overstate the significance of labor in that way because it undermines the abolitionist claim that the prison system could be disbanded.
How does all of this relate to the genre of Black carceral political thought you discuss in your book?
Lena Zuckerwise: That is a really critical question which I haven't really fleshed out enough in my chapter yet. But Black carceral political thought is a genre of political theory that best showcases the degree to which Black imprisoned authors understand that what enslaved and incarcerated people have in common is resistance, not labor. I begin the chapter by critiquing this idea that prison labor is slavery because what I'm really trying to do is introduce the idea that resistance is the common thread between prisoners and bondpeople. Black carceral political theorists understood this in a way that other authors, especially political theorists, don't.
It was understood by Black incarcerated people in the 1960s and 1970s better than anyone else, and they understand in the same way today better than anyone else.
In that sense, I'm not making a new claim. I’m trying to amplify one that's already been made by incarcerated Black authors like Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, George Jackson, and Ruchell Magee, and hopefully to bring the language of political theory more in-line with Black carceral political thought.
And wouldn’t incarcerated people know better than anyone the politicized consequences of the carceral state?
Lena Zuckerwise: Yes, and they do. Through teaching in prisons, I saw firsthand that the students, even without a formal schooling, are highly educated, extremely well read, 100% politicized and can articulate better than anyone I've ever interacted with in any formal academic setting the degree to which the carceral state is a racial regime. The same is true of the authors of Black carceral political thought in the 60s and 70s.
Is that what makes this an important subject?
Lena Zuckerwise: I think it's important because no political theorist has ever written on Black resistance in captivity before. There have been a couple of folks who have written on slave resistance, but none who have put together the resistance of enslaved people with that of incarcerated people to try to come up with a unifying theory of politics in captivity. That is the unique contribution I'm hoping to make in my field.
The political contributions of incarcerated people are not taken seriously, are not viewed as real politics. Prison is a hyper-visible part of the social and political landscape, though the political work of incarcerated people is so invisible. It is generally left out of political theory, and that needs to change.