“The problem is not the imposition of social distancing, but the inconsistent and inequitable way it has been applied. The latter is rooted in the political economy of capitalism, not biopolitics.”
We talked with Peter Hudis about racism and other critical problems – including the political economy of capitalism and its dynamics in relation to Covid-19, gender issues, and the upcoming presidential elections in the United States (part I).
While the crisis related to the Covid-19 epidemic continues to influence people’s lives, racism is constantly acted out in different forms in different countries including Germany, Italy, Turkey, the US.
On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed African American man was suffocated to death by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His murder was followed by the outbreak of protests across the US where people took the streets to manifest against racism and police brutality in several states. These events were soon instrumentalized and turned into a political weapon by US President Donald Trump. At least 25 cities across 16 states have imposed a curfew, from Los Angeles to Atlanta.
The interview questions were sent out by email on 20 May 2020 – thus before the killing of Mr. George Floyd and the demonstrations related to it. The answers were nonetheless received after these events occurred.
Peter Hudis is a professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Oakton Community College and author of Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Brill, 2012) and Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (Pluto, 2015). He edited The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (Monthly Review Press, 2004), The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 2013) and is the general editor of the planned 14-volume The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, of which the first three volumes have been published by Verso in 2011, 2015 and 2019.
Sevgi Doğan: Dear Peter, first of all I would like to thank you for agreeing to this interview. I would like to ask you some questions about Covid-19, its effects and potential impacts on society and the individual, especially in the U.S. where the death toll has become far higher than any other state in the world. Donald Trump has declared that the federal government will not extend the coronavirus social distancing guidelines despite this dramatic death toll. Trump wants to return to “normality” as soon as possible and aims to restart the election campaign for the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Do you think this is the reason? What does Trump aim to? Could you evaluate Trump’s policies concerning coronavirus?
Peter Hudis: The death toll from Covid-19 has now surpassed 100,000. And those numbers will continue to go up, especially since many businesses and schools are being pushed into opening prematurely. The main reason Trump and his supporters want to end the social distancing as soon as possible is that they value quantitative economic growth over human life. The U.S. economy is now experiencing its most severe economic collapse ever—far worse even than the Great Depression of the 1930s. But it is not the harm this causes the populace as much as the risks to profit and accumulation of capital that concerns Trump. Of course, he also wants to win re-election, but he need not push for a rapid end to social distancing to do so since the vast majority of Americans approve the social distancing guidelines and most want to keep them in place in order to prevent a second wave of infections. And of course, great economic harm is being done by the shutdown to tens of millions of people. However, Trump is fully aware that the vast majority of those dying from the illness are Black, Latinx, immigrants, the elderly, and those living in areas of high population density—which tend to vote Democratic. Why should he be worried about them, given his racist and misogynist worldview? But the problem goes even deeper than this, since what Trump represents as a social phenomenon is something of profound social significance — misanthropy. To love profit and capital —dead labor— over living labor —people— is the ultimate expression of the hatred of humanity. You cannot understand Trump and the reason for his support by a significant section of the U.S. populace without considering this issue of misanthropy as what largely guides them both.
Sevgi Doğan: Trump’s policy concerning coronavirus seems to run counter science and scientists. In one of his speeches, he suggested the idea of “Covid disinfectant injections” as a way to cope with the virus. It seems that his politics relies on anti-intellectualism or anti-science. All polls these days show a marked decline in Americans' satisfaction with how Trump is leading the fight against Covid-19. How do you see Trump’s position in the next elections?
Peter Hudis: It is no secret that hatred of humanity, misanthropy, always goes along with misology, the hatred of reason. This is evident from the history of the European counter-enlightenment, whose most extreme and outstanding expression is fascism. One can debate whether or not Trump and his followers should be labeled “fascist” but the hatred of both humanity and reason clearly animated it. And this is why Trump pays no attention to medical facts or rational arguments. U.S. society has always had a strong anti-intellectualist strain, but this has become especially predominant in recent years, as the alienated character of U.S. “society” becomes increasingly evident. One reason he has so much support is that he trumpets his ignorance so openly, which gives many of his followers the assurance that someone “like them” can actually run the country! There is indeed a rising disgust with Trump among large sections of the public, but do not count him out for re-election in 2020. He has several things going for him: one, solid support from about 40% of the population, a very weak opponent in Biden who is capable of making all sorts of blunders during a campaign, and a tanking economy that he claims to be aiming to reverse by ending the social distancing guidelines as soon as possible. If Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren were the nominees Trump would be facing much stronger opponents, but there is so much that can happen between now and November that no one can predict the outcome. But what we do know is that the Republicans will engage in massive voter suppression which they have been preparing for some time. Trump need not get 50% of the vote to be re-elected, given the Electoral College; he could pull off a win with less than 45%.
However, the police murder of an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis on May 25 has the potential to dramatically reshape the political landscape. Even Trump had to admit at first the wrong done by the police officer who killed George Floyd by suffocating him; but as soon as protests among Black and their Latinx and white supporters broke out, Trump threatened to violently shoot to kill anyone on the streets by bringing in the National Guard. The murder and the response by the administration has led to demonstrations through the country, some involving 10,000 or more people at a time, and in Minneapolis itself it has taken on the form of an outright rebellion. We can expect the racist reactionaries who support Trump to become ever more virulent in their racism, at the same time as the determination of their opponents, especially among youth, becomes ever-more intense. These recent protests mark the first time that large-scale public demonstrations have broken out since the pandemic occurred, and it is a sign that a renewed movement is emerging that will not go away anytime soon, if at all.
Sevgi Doğan: Perhaps you have been following the discussion about the relationship between biopolitics and coronavirus. The discussion began with Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben claiming that the state of emergency in relation to individual and public health becomes ordinary life and anti-Covid-19 containment policies and social precautionary measures (like lockdowns) are violations of human rights. Another Italian philosopher – Roberto Esposito – claims that nonetheless, if one’s position was to reject in toto these measures, the alternative one would be faced with would be that of “herd immunity”. An alternative that also poses socio-political, moral and philosophical problems. So, Esposito believes that “the intermediate way is to identify those who have already developed some immunity and begin freeing them from isolation.” What do you think about the measures adopted in Europe, first of all by Italy? Do you agree that it is biopolitics that dominates the intellectual discussion in particular in this period?
Peter Hudis: I have written a critique of Agamben’s arguments for the web journal The International Marxist-Humanist. It is no secret that each time a social crisis is reached the forces of existing society seek to take advantage of it for their own purposes. One need not read Agamben to know this. Agamben however is completely wrong to argue that there is not a crisis to begin with, that the pandemic is an illusion that has been grossly exaggerated. In this he sounds, remarkably enough, much like Trump and his supporters, who see the pandemic as a conspiracy created by the Chinese government or as a non-issue invented by Democrats to “sabotage” the economic “recovery” under Trump. The pandemic is real, people are dying because of it, and far more would be dying of it were it not for the very social restrictions that Agamben denounces. I understand where he is coming from: he has his theory of the state of exception, his variant of biopolitics, which he is so much in love with that he allows it to blind him from understanding the human toll this pandemic is actually having. In a word, he loves his theory more than humanity. It is, frankly, the expression of another form of misanthropy. But we should not be too surprised about this, since much of left-Heidegerrian thought over the past half century and more has proceeded from misanthropic premises.
Now, are some containment policies a violation of human rights? Perhaps. But most of them are not: they affirm the fight of people to live, which Agamben as well as Trump’s followers pay little attention to. I do not have the right to risk killing another person by walking down the street while refusing to put on a face mask; I do not have the right to risk killing my students by insisting they attend in-person lectures instead of conducting the class on ZOOM. And he does not have the right to ignore reality for the sake of his theory if that leads to the illness and deaths of others.
To be clear, I disdain online teaching and consider it a pox upon humanity. But in these exceptional—yes, exceptional—circumstances it is necessary to teach on line. Some of my colleagues live with older relatives who are at extremely high risk of contracting Covid-19: are we supposed to condemn their loved ones to a painful death by forcing teachers back into the classroom just because Prof. Agamben has decided to emphasize his particular variant of biopolitics? So no, I don’t think the response to the pandemic has anything to do with biopolitics. It has to do with a global health emergency. The problem is not the social restrictions on movement, employment, etc.; the problem is the exact opposite—the poorer, more marginalized, and oppressed sectors of society find it much harder to follow these restrictions. If you are in prison, working in a meat processing plant, drive a bus, or are homeless, it is much harder to avoid contact with others who may carry the virus. And so it is no accident that those individuals are dying at far higher numbers than others. The problem is not the imposition of social distancing, but the inconsistent and inequitable way it has been applied. The latter is rooted in the political economy of capitalism, not biopolitics.
>> Second part of the interview
Cover photo: 3 June 2020: ‘I Can’t Breathe’ is scrawled on the pavement outside the district attorney’s office during a peaceful demonstration in Los Angeles, California, in the United States over George Floyd’s death. (Photograph by Mario Tama/ Getty Images)