Covid-19, the Anti-Racist Movement, and the Search for a Socialist Alternative: An Interview with Peter Hudis

Sevgi Doğan,
Peter Hudis

Interview with Peter Hudis by Sevgi Doğan on the pandemic, the recent rebellion, and the socialist alternative. First appeared in in Turkish translation in the journal Gazete DuvaR – Editors.

Originally appeared in Turkish translation here.

While the crisis caused by Covid-19 continues to affect people’s lives the endless racism of U.S. society shows itself again. George Floyd, a disarmed African-American, was strangled by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After his murder, protests spread across the United States, and people in most every state hit the streets against racism and police violence. This has already been turned into a political weapon by the President of the United States, Donald Trump, as curfews have been imposed at least in 25 cities in 16 states, from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Unfortunately, George Floyd is not the first to be killed by a police officer. In 2014, Eric Garner was killed the same way. In the case of Eric Garner, the police officer was fired, but he was not found guilty. Failure to take measures against racism and leaving police criminals unpunished enabled the same events to be repeated easily. Eric Garner’s mother said the following about the death of George Floyd: “They must stop coming to our neighborhoods and being ruthless, terrorists, murdering. This continues to happen again and again.” As this brutal massacre shows, racism never fails to define the political agenda of the United States.

 

SD: Dear Peter, firstly, I thank you so much for accepting this interview. I would like to ask some questions about Covid-19, its effects and its possible results on the society and individual, especially in the U.S. In the U.S., the death toll has surpassed 60,000 because of coronavirus. However, Donald Trump said that the federal government will not extend the coronavirus social distancing guidelines despite this death toll. Trump wants to return to normal as soon as possible, and aims to restart the election campaign for the USA 2020. Is it the reason? What does Trump aim? Could you evaluate Trump’s policies concerning coronavirus?

PH: Actually, 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 of 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 we 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.

 

SD: Trump’s policy concerning coronavirus seems against the idea of scientists. In one of his speech, he said that “Covid disinfectant injections.” 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 in election?

PH: 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 down 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 sending in the U.S. military against the protesters. The murder and the response by the administration and police forces has led to demonstrations through the country, some involving 10,000 or more people at a time, and in Minneapolis and many other cities 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, to become 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.

 

SD: Perhaps you are already following the discussion about the relationship between biopolitics and coronavirus. The discussion began with Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben who claims that the ordinary life becomes the state of emergence and these containment policies and the precautions of closures are violations of human rights. Another Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito claims that the alternative is that of the British government’s way of handling the pandemic. What do you think about these measures done in Europe first by Italy? Do you agree that it is biopolitics that dominates the intellectual discussion in particular in this period?

PH: 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-Heideggerian 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 online. 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 exactly 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.

 

SD: As a result of corona crisis, what we can call “corona-economy,” based on layoffs, furloughs, freezing hiring and pay, budgetary constraints, etc. exacerbates existing inequalities. This affects also universities. Indeed, the problem of job security and precarity are always great problem. Do you think with Covid-19 the gulf between these two, that is the secure and precarious academics deepen? Could you evaluate the situation in terms of universities in US and how students and staffs including academics are affected by these budgetary constraints?

PH: 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 this destruction of capital will turn out to be, and how much destruction of human life it will entail. That is what we should be 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.

 

SD: Could you say something about healthcare system concerning coronavirus in US? How is it affected? Can people handle it because it costs?

PH: 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.

 

SD: It seems that in Covid-19 period 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 decreases by lockdown. For example, the editors of some journals claim that submission by men increase by contrast with female academics. Do you think that we begin to talk about invisible labor or hidden work more than ever?

PH: 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.

 

SD: You told me that you are teaching and right now you are doing it on online platform because of lockdown. What is your observation about this new online-academic system? What sort of challenges are there?

PH: 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.

 

SD: 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?

PH: 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 all of the publicly-known “Marxist” or socialist “theoreticians,” define socialism as little more than a “fair” redistribution of value. Which has a lot to do with why so many of them find it extremely difficult (if they even try) to integrate such core issues as the critique of racism, colonialism, and sexism into their conception of “socialism.” Yet if anything has exposed the horrors of capitalism for all to see, it is this crisis. I therefore expect to see a socialist perspective gain much more traction in the coming years. Whether it will truly flower 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.

 

SG: Do you think Covid-19 will provoke a change in society? If so, what sort of change do you expect?

PH: 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?”

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1 Comment

  1. James

    I like that Peter begins with the observation, “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 I like that he ends with the reference to Raya Dunayevskaya and the need for a philosophy of liberation that addresses the question of where and how to begin anew. But what about the question of organization? At the end of her life Raya was trying to work out the dialectics of organization. If we reject the vanguard party to lead, and we know spontaneous movements like the one we are witnessing now alone will not get us to the new society. What kind organization should we be building now to met the challenges of this moment?

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