Judith Butler's "Guantánamo Bay": A Marxist Critique

Rob Wilkie




In her essay, "Guantánamo Limbo", (The Nation, April 1, 2002), Judith Butler argues for the development of a more "nuanced" and "ethical" theory of international human rights. "Nuanced" and "ethical" are code words on the contemporary academic left for a subtle form of opportunism that textualizes the existing conditions and demonstrates their intricate layeredness but after many interpretive twists arrives at a verdict that legitimizes the ruling power structures in a new rhetoric. Judith Butler has not only mastered this technique, but has helped popularize it into a new form of red-baiting against those who dare to question the priority of rhetoric over class (a questioning she rejects out-of-hand as "left conservatism").

In "Guantánamo Limbo", Butler textualizes the Geneva Convention's "bias" for non-nomadic, nation-state combatants, arguing that the Geneva Convention accords function "as a civilizational discourse" (20) that "aid and abet" (22) the Bush administration's brutal acts of repression in Afghanistan and the U.S. This all sounds very "radical" and even progressive. But, and this is the politics of this subtle progressiveness, she concludes that the United States is essentially not acting outside of international law by indefinitely imprisoning hundreds of alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban, because they are not recognized by international law either: "The Geneva Conventions and the United States both engage in the questionable practice of distributing rights of protection differentially, depending upon a prisoner's affiliation with a state-based military operation" (22).

Butler's "conclusion" (never mind that such conclusion is obtained by discursive violence that fixes the meaning of the "non-nomadic", "nation-",) that the Geneva accords and the repressive actions of the Bush administration are merely two articulations of the same interests is justified as an enlightened, "left complexity". Her argument is, however, an instance of left intellectuals (following the example of Antonio Negri and others) providing a progressive alibi for imperialism—an alibi which "subtly" (and to the relief of the powerful) renders the line between oppressors and oppressed in a constant state of "limbo" and indeterminacy. Declaring as "outdated" and "unfashionable" political binaries such as "rich" and "poor", "North" and "South", "democracy" and "fascism", "socialism" and "capitalism",… post-political theorists such as Butler instead posit that, given the inevitability of the domination of global capital, political oscillation represents the only freedom from dogmatism. By obscuring the class interests behind the Bush administration's attack on democracy and, instead, turning the issue of democracy from the struggle for economic justice to the impossibility of textual representation, Butler erases the basis for collective political praxis and, in its place, substitutes a "fluctuating" and "flexible" post-politics that, not accidentally, always reiterates in a culturally radical idiom the clichés of the powerful.

Butler's call for a "post-national" politics repeats, in a post-bureaucratic language, the policies of the G-8, which favor a world-without-borders in which capital can travel without any restrictions. "Guantánamo Limbo" normalizes social contradictions and states that the U.S. attack on Afghanistan is not an effect of competing class interests (over who will own, control, and profit from the natural and social resources in the Middle East and central Asia), but rather the after-effect of outdated discourses and fixed ideas. In other words, there would be a more "just" war in Afghanistan if the combatants were just recognized as "combatants". Despite rhetorical distancing, Butler's left reading of the "war" echoes the theories of such right-wing writers as Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order) by getting rid of class and treating "war" as a purely cultural matter—a view that one can find in much more direct form at "" every day of the week.

 THE RED CRITIQUE 4  (May/June 2002)