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 II).
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.
(Go back to the first part of the interview)
Sevgi Doğan: As a result of the economic crisis related to the spread of Covid-19 – what we can call “corona-economy”, based on layoffs, furloughs, freezing hiring and pay, budgetary constraints, etc. – existing inequalities have been exacerbated. Indeed, it has become evident how job security and precarity are always a great problem. This affects also universities. Do you think that with Covid-19 the gulf between secure and precarious academics deepens? Could you evaluate the situation of universities in the US and how students and staff, including academics, are being affected by budgetary constraints?
Peter Hudis: It goes without saying that social inequities of all sorts deepen whenever capitalism responds to an endemic crisis. And so it is now. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being given to big banks and major corporations in bailouts by the government while immigrants, prisoners, and the homeless get nothing, and even those workers who obtained some government assistance will no longer receive them in the U.S. after July. And many small businesses are obtaining little or no support while their larger cousins reap in a financial windfall. However, the crisis is deeper even than this. Global capitalism was facing a profound economic morass even before the pandemic—it was pumping massive amounts of liquidity into the system while earning lower and lower rates of profit. Now the pandemic is here, and the response is to use it to drive the weaker, smaller, and less-profitable units of capital out of existence. Capital will grow big with value at the expense of its more expendable components. So it has been, so it will always be so long as capital is the all dominant power in society. It is not a conspiracy, and it is not even planned out; it is capitalism’s natural way of responding to conditions of adversity. The only question at hand is how extensive will this destruction of capital turn out to be, and how much destruction of human life it will entail. That is what we should concerned about: our theories exist for the sake of benefitting humanity, not the other way around.
In terms of the impact of the crisis on students, many now face no job prospects, huge student loan debt, and an educational system that is making a virtue out of necessity by emphasizing ever-more online “learning” (which is a complete misnomer in my view). Those who suffer first and most are the part time instructors, who teach 70% of the classes at many institutions. Many universities are now planning 20% to 25% salary cuts and/or layoff across the board of fulltime faculty as well. Many students are asking, why pay $50,000 a year to take online classes at an “elite” college, so enrollment rates in many of them are plummeting. What we have demanded is that any cuts are done from the top, by laying off and reducing the pay of administrators, eliminating subsidies to athletic programs, and refusing to pay off the massive debt many colleges have accumulated.
ALL inequities—racial, gender-based, sexual, national, and pertaining to class—become more and more severe in a crisis like this. Hence, job security is greatly undermined, and those who had the least of it, such as adjunct professors, are facing a serious attack on their livelihood. The better paid academics at elite institutions will not suffer, but those with less seniority (or none at all) will be hammered. The situation is however complex and it is not completely clear how all of this will play out. Some community and public colleges may see their enrollments increase as students who have been fired from their jobs look for less-expensive schools to attend. So there is no one tendency that applies across the board.
We already have evidence though of how the response to the pandemic is worsening the conditions of contingent workers. Amazon has hired over 150,000 new workers since the pandemic began, but it is actively resisting unionization efforts and demand by the workers for safer working conditions and social distancing in the workplace. There is a struggle here, a class struggle, whose outcome at Amazon and hundreds of other companies is playing out as we speak. I see signs of a possible new labor movement in the U.S. coming out of this, but time will tell as to whether that will actually occur.
Sevgi Doğan: Could you say something about the US healthcare system concerning coronavirus? How is it affected? Can people handle it notwithstanding its costs?
Peter Hudis: The U.S. has the worse health care system of any industrialized country. If the campaign for a single-payer health care system as advocated by Sanders ever made sense, it surely does now. That he is now out of the election pushes this needed transformation of the health care system out of sight to a certain degree, although many who did not pay much attention to the demand a few months are doing so now. Most people cannot handle the cost of medical care even in the best of times, even if they are lucky enough to have some of insurance given the costly deductibles and premiums. But it is much worse now. People are deciding whether to eat or get medical treatment, it is that serious.
Sevgi Doğan: It seems that in the midst of Covid-19 women are more vulnerable than men because their workload at home is duplicated, particularly for those who have children. According to research, women's research productivity has decreased in connection to Covid-19. For example, the editors of some journals claim that submission by men increases by contrast with female academics. Do you think that we may begin to talk about invisible labor or hidden work more than ever?
Peter Hudis: Yes, I think these gender divisions also become exacerbated, since so many women now must work from home at the same time as their children are also at home and not in school. When domestic labor has not been restructured or reorganized, a crisis such as this brings to the fore its innumerable inequities. I think however the racial divisions become the most pronounced at this moment, since racism has been the Achilles heel of U.S. society since its founding. Which is why it is no accident that the first rebellion against the inequities that have risen to the surface over this crisis came from Black Americans protesting the police murder of George Floyd.
Sevgi Doğan: You told me that you are teaching and right now you are doing it on online platforms because of lockdown. What is your point of view about this new online-academic system? What sort of challenges are there?
Peter Hudis: The only sensible way to teach philosophy, in my view, is with classroom discussion, and so all my philosophy classes were conducted synchronously as ZOOM meetings scheduled at the regular class time. My students overwhelmingly appreciated this and expressed their disdain for online classes that forsakes classroom discussion.
Sevgi Doğan: In one of your writings on the comparison of Engels and Marx’s views of post-capitalist society, you claim that in US there is an interest in socialism. Could you talk a little bit about it? How could you define this interest?
Peter Hudis: Young people in the U.S. today are openly discussing and in many cases embracing socialism on a level not seen in close to a century. It was reflected in the Sanders campaign, though he is not the proximate cause of it: he won the votes of those under 35 in every single demographic—Black, Latinx, white, college degree or no college degree, etc. We are only at the initial phases of this, since the vast majority of people interested in socialism, and virtually of the publicly-known “Marxist” or socialist “theoreticians,” define socialism as little more than a “fair” redistribution of value. However, if anything has exposed the horrors of capitalism for all to see, it is this crisis. I therefore expect to see a socialist movement gain much more traction in the coming period. Whether it will progress to a sufficient degree or not, depends on whether a vision of socialism that transcends not just existing capitalism but the failed variants of statist “socialism” and “communism” that have predominated since Marx’s death becomes developed. That is an enormous task that I hope to live long enough not just to see but contribute to.
Sevgi Doğan: Do you think Covid-19 will provoke a change in society? If so, what sort of change do you expect?
Peter Hudis: Time will tell: as Raya Dunayevskaya put it in one of her last writings, this is either the darkness before the dawn or the plunge into utter darkness; in either case, however, the task is to dig deep into and develop a philosophy of liberation than can address the question: “where and how to begin anew?”
Cover photo © REUTERS / EDUARDO MUNOZ