by Joy James, excerpt from “Academia, Activism & Imprisoned Intellectuals” in Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order Vol. 30, No. 2 (2003)

Activism is as multidimensional in its appearances as the academy; as academia’s alter ego, or problematic twin, it also reflects the best and worst tendencies of the marketplace. When structured by the market, activism is not inherently infused with responsible behavior or compassion. In its push for productivity — more rallies, demos, conferences, meetings — it can lose sight of effective strategies, community, and the importance of young activists exercising decision-making power. The value one’s presence, i.e. just showing up for work, class, or demonstrations, over one’s preparedness to fully participate in transformational acts is a feature of the crass market (where volume or quantity of a product register more than quality or utility). Likewise, expectations for unquestioning obedience to managerial elites — whether radical instructor or organizer — are also features of the market found in activism and academia.

Thus, beyond confronting the social crises and military and ideological wards enacted by the state, we are disturbed, destabilized, and therefore challenged by the commodification of our own educational sites and political movements. The marketplace — as the dominant metaphor and construct — influences our consciousness and regulates our lives to shape both academia and activism. Conformity and compliance, rebellion and resistance, are often channeled through and structured by markets that turn intellect and action into objects for trade and barter in competition for status and acquisition, while making our ideals (freedom and justice) and their representatives (prisoners and resistance) into commodities.

Through books, videos, and CDs, political representations are purchased and circulated with the intent of creating greater demand not only for the “product” but also for social justice, release campaigns, opposition to expanding police and military powers, and executions and state violence. For the imprisoned, the possibility of release, or at least remembrance, mitigates their social death in prison (or physical death, as in the cases of MOVE’s Merle Africa and former Black Panther Albert Nuh Washington)….

The irony is that commodification is another form of containment…. [and] not all activism provides and alternative. Some of it re-inscribes the competition, opportunism, disciplinary mechanisms, and demands for instiutional loyalty that characterize the marketplace. Activism or activists, like academia and academics, have their own forms of commerce. At their weakest and most problematic points, they share, in their respective sites, careerism, appropriation, and the assertion of “authoritative” voices.”

For instance the “political prisoner-as-icon” can be deployed to minimize or silence external and internal critiques. Editors, translators, and advocates can wield iconic power as surrogates (and in surreal fashion use that proxy against the incarcerated themselves). The structural position that the non-incarcerated possess, a quite valuable commodity, permits the appropriation of voice and new forms of dependencies….

Political prisoners have strategies to counter “free” progressives, given that in the social death of the prisoner rebel, the state is not the only entity that has the ability to cannibalize on or cannibalize captive bodies. If indeed the political prisoner or imprisoned intellectual can be either “freed” or frozen in academic and/or activist discourse and productivity, then it is essential that academics-activists, students-scholars, directly communicate with political prisoners, as openly as possible given the structural disparities.

[pages 5 to 6]