Mourning in America, with Judith Butler

Stephen Tumino


An Open Issue on the Pandemic

The Masked Life: Abjection, COVID-19, and the Social Division of Death

The War Against the
Virus is a Class War
Stephen Tumino

The Virus is Not a New Ontology
Rob Wilkie

Trump Speak and its Discontents
Stephen Tumino

Trump, Fascism, and the Metaphysics of Democracy
Rob Wilkie

The Hunger of Vibrant Matter: Materialism and Food in the Pandemic
Julie Torrant





The COVID-19 pandemic has, among other things, provided American intellectuals with a new political opportunity to affirm the order of things while criticizing it. This has, of course, always been their main strategy: to criticize capitalism's culture from the left and thus acquire ethical and political authority for leaving its economic order intact.

The pandemic has provided a unique cultural target: it has become almost routine for the left friends of capital to say that communities of color have suffered more from the pandemic and the suffering shows that there is need for a new direction in social justice. The communities of color in the left narrative suffer more in other words because race is the determining factor in who is affected by the pandemic and who gets care. But communities of color do not exist in an economic vacuum: they are affected more not because of race (although that is not irrelevant). They suffer more because of lack of resources—from loss of work, to absence of health care, to lack of information about the pandemic, to…, to simply the lack of inexpensive disposable masks. The communities of color suffer not because of race but because of the class relation.

To make my argument more inclusive, more explaining of the American social relations now, I will read in this essay the recent article by Judith Butler, "Why Donald Trump will never admit defeat" (The Guardian). Here Butler updates her anti-transformative social theory the basic elements of which she articulated in her essay "Merely Cultural." In that essay she argued that class is not the primary source of social relations but race is. Class, she argued, is "lived"  (i.e., it is basically a subjective fact) through "race" (38). In her recent article in The Guardian she reiterates by writing that COVID-19 is not a class issue that effects all workers who must work to live and lack workplace protections and health care, but a racial one as "communities of color are most adversely affected" because "white supremacy has now resumed an open place in US politics".

In this familiar narrative, which appears under different signatures across the spectrum of corporate media outlets, the class politics of the pandemic are racialized and the recognition that white working class people die in the same way and for the same reasons as workers of color—because the "war against the virus" is a class war and, as in every country, the needs of the owning class take precedence over the needs of the working class—is taken to be a denial of the difference of black lives that underwrites an hysterically racist fear of whites "being 'replaced' by black and brown communities, by Jews" (Butler). Butler's "solution" to the social inequality she has racialized is to psychologize it and in a pop-Freudian language she says that whites must learn to properly "mourn" the "historical reality" of the death of white supremacy and give up the "political fantasy" it represents. What is considered "social justice" here is ending discrimination in the market, in other words, the equalization of the conditions of exploitation, which is how the left friends of capital serve to maintain the basic class oppression of workers by owners whose property allows them to extract profit from their unpaid labor.

But clearly Butler's own argument perpetuates the "fantasy" of "white supremacy" by psychologizing it as a racist refusal to face the "reality" of the death of whiteness. Neither "blackness" nor "whiteness" are ontological conditions (essences), but are produced historically under specific material relations through which they come to appear as "natural" and essential justifications for unequal access to the conditions of life. Unequal access to social wealth between whites and blacks in the US, for example, as evidenced in the unemployment rates and family income of these groups among other things, are due not to "extra-economic" factors such as "white supremacy," but by the economics of production for exchange in which technological innovation cheapens the value of labor by putting workers in competition with each other over fewer jobs at less pay. The cause of the disparities of outcome in the market is not explained by race but the rule of profit over production which insures that not everyone will have access to the means to live.

The difference between the employed and unemployed workers that is historically produced by the mechanism of exploitation is used by pro-capitalist intellectuals to explain (away) the appropriation of social wealth by the owners from its primary producers, the multicultural working class, by deflecting attention onto how the wealth is unequally distributed among the workers as "cultural capital" (Bourdieu), or, more commonly, lifestyle differences. Although racial difference is physically apparent it is not natural but social and no longer has "any distinctive social validity" when "all are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use" (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party). Cheap labor has always been racially stigmatized under the property relations of capitalism irrespective of the skin color of the workers so as to keep wages at subsistence levels and block the political solidarity of the workers against the owners. This is why revolutionary Marxists have always argued that "labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded" (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Chapt. 10, "The Working Day").

Because the social labor of workers is appropriated by property owners in the form of profit and workers are forced to compete with each other for access to wages to live, not all can be provided with jobs, despite the democratic promise of equality and opportunity for all. The capitalist system therefore requires an explanation for why, despite everyone not being able to be given the same opportunity, the wages-system is still the best possible system ever devised. Such an apologetic "explanation" must be grounded in an "extra-economic" reason for it to justify the class structure of the wages-system and in effect must blame the workers for the failures of capitalism. Race is one such non-explanatory "theory" for why in a society where there is no objective reason why everyone's needs could not be met, for health care, housing, physical and cultural sustenance, etc., there is yet mass hunger, mental and physical suffering, and millions go houseless, which says some are more deserving than others because they are made of better "stuff". This "stuff" is the ontological "matter" whose origin is made "extra-economic" in bourgeois theory—whether the essentialized "blackness" of the afro-pessimists (Wilderson, Hartman), or, the mysterious "objects" of the object-oriented ontologists (Harman, Morton), or, the microbial "actants" of the transspeciesists (Latour, Haraway)—to argue for the incoherence of social explanation.

The extra-economic "matter" that is supposed to immunize capitalism from critique by explaining away its inequalities as natural differences has changed in form historically; from being the "spiritual" matter of a "heart" devoted to a god against which some have hardened in the early modern period, to the "biological" matter that shaped one's physical being as more "evolved" for survival in the late nineteenth century, to the "cultural" matter of "values" as manifest in communal practices that constitute pride in one's identity, as in Butler's (post)modern writings, to the "vital" matter of today's (post)humanists in which identity is made out to be an effect of a desire immanent to the transspecies commons that one is expected to "affirm" or be branded as a "speciesist" enemy of all those historically "excluded" by Western anthropocentrism. The "extra-economic" matter that is meant to elude reduction to the calculus of value by the logic of capital has at every turn reflected that logic in how it divides the social into conflicting moral orders and cultural identities and occulted the base-ic economic arrangements (class) that explains the material history of humans in relation to nature.

"White supremacy" is not a shared "fantasy" that makes white people "feel" different from non-white people, as Butler's outdated culturalist framing makes it out to be, but the ideology of a ruling class that can no longer afford to justify its rule as being universally good and so must resort to the violence and authoritarian ideology historically most associated with fascism. The fascist coup attempt of January 6 was after all bankrolled by capitalists (The Wall Street Journal,  February 1, 2021) and composed of the petty bourgeoisie—"business owners" and those with "white-collar jobs… CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants" (Pape and Ruby)—who oppose the "lockdowns," masks and social distancing as "communism" because such measures limit their ability to live off the exploitation of wage workers. Fascism of course is not an aberration of capitalism but one of its most brutal extensions that emerges when the regular periodic crises of capitalism threatens to turn the working people against capitalism, as evidenced today with the growing strike wave around the world and the renewed interest in socialism and Marxism. As Butler's essay shows, however, it is much easier and popular in bourgeois media to pin the fascist tail on the ignorant white (m)asses who haven't read enough cultural theory (Freud) and therefore do not know how to properly manage their emotions and need to be trained to do so rather than critique the roots of fascism in the logic of capital. It alleviates the need to address the social relations which allow the exploitation of the labor of the other and which naturalize it by naturalizing the other's difference.

Recently when Butler has turned to address Marx's theory of class, which it has become impossible to ignore any longer, she makes Marx speak Freud to justify her performative theory of "class" as "lived" (race). She hollows out Marx's theory of class as the exploitative social relation inscribed in the production process by turning the proletariat, which is the "special and essential product of modern industry" that explains the source of profit and the end of capitalism (Manifesto of the Communist Party), into the "precariat," which is a merely descriptive sociological category for "the collective for whom work is elusive, temporary, and debt has become unpayable" ("The Inorganic Body in the Early Marx"). Here again cultural differences among workers that have arisen in the market are used to obscure the social being of the proletariat as the propertyless class which must sell its labor for wages to live so as to increase the value of capital. Despite what Butler says in defense of critical theory against Latour et. al. in this essay she reconfirms their anti-critique-al social theory with her own descriptive cultural theory which remains on the surface of the social as "lived" while refusing to inquire "into the hidden abode of production" (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1), what Latour dismisses as "the deep dark below" ("Why has critique run out of steam?"). One of the consequences of her rejection of Marx's critique-al theory, which explains the experience of oppression in relation to its roots in the daily exploitation of working people, is a surface-al theory of capitalism.  For example, in "Capitalism Has its Limits" she argues that because "the virus demonstrates that the global human community is equally precarious" it shows that the "limits" of capitalism are "spatial" (i.e., demographically discriminatory). There is in short no core problem with capitalism as the root cause of inequality in production relations (class), only local problems in its unequal distribution of outcomes in the market (race). The unequal distribution of "life chances on the market" (Weber) do not of course have an extra-economic source in ideology ("white supremacy"), but an economic cause in the logic of exploitation—the law of profit—of class relations. The end of "whiteness" that results from the equal immiseration of whites alongside non-whites in the US will not end racial injustice which is a means to regulate the workforce among competing nation-states to insure the global supremacy of capital over labor.  The cultural form of social inequality has and will change, so long as its function in the totality to maintain class rule remains. Racial justice therefore demands international socialist revolution, as Marx was the first to argue.

At the core of Butler's recourse to universal precarity and mourning lessons is the ontologizing of "loss" that is produced in the relations of wage labor. The only way to adequately respond to the present crises, she suggests, is to accept the loss of "white privilege" as part of the wider "precarity" of "all." There are those who "accept" loss and appropriately "mourn" and those who do not and are filled with resentment. Loss, however, is not ontological or psychological but historical and material. People lose family and friends unnecessarily due to COVID-19; they lose the ability to pay their mortgages and feed their families; they are deemed "essential" workers and then denied the basic safety equipment to protect themselves as they save the lives of others, etc.—not because loss is the condition of life, as in religious discourses, but because life is conditioned by material relations (property). The people who lose are working people, what they lose is an outcome of their relation to the means of production. Under the relations of wage labor, the lives of those who do not own the means of production are put at the material mercy of those who do. Butler's gospel of mourning preaches acceptance of economic precarity to the white working class as the precondition for social justice among the already equally immiserated.

Butler appeals to the ontology of loss because that which "appears in the worker as an activity of alienation, of estrangement, appears in the non-worker as a state of alienation, of estrangement" (Marx, Economic Manuscripts, 282). To make material loss the state of loss is of course to affirm the negation of the lives of working people. Which is another way of saying that to insist that the most radical way to address race is to treat it experientially and affectively is to perpetuate the conditions of racism lying in the division of workers into productive (currently employed) and unproductive (contingently unemployed) on a global scale.

Butler's story in The Guardian about the racial fragility of the white precariat is part of the manufacturing of the new affective condition of capital in crisis. Her writing absorbs class relations into moods and feelings, and reproduces class divisions in its mood(y) cultural politics. It divides the social not according to a material logic (class, exploitation, profit, etc.), but according to an immaterial desire (affect, values, race,…); between those who attend to and "affirm" their moods (i.e., accept "loss" by reaffirming faith in bourgeois democracy's commitment to diversity) and those who refuse to do so, "negate" them and become "destructive." In the new moody cultural divisions, mourning, joy, and reconciliation represent the progressive moods, while anger is a right-wing mood. There is no place for class critique in Butler's woke capitalism except as a form of white ressentiment (Nietzsche). No basis, in other words, for grasping class as an objective social category that explains the universal interest of the global working class in ending their common exploitation by capital.

Butler explains Trump's fascism in terms of Freud (libidinal economy) not Marx (political economy) because Freud psychologizes class contradictions and turns them into the human condition beyond history, beyond transformation and preaches abnegation and mourning, which sells at a time of crisis when millions are forced into poverty, hunger, and death so as to profit the few.

But affect has in Butler's recent writings become even more spiritual—less "bodily" and more "ambient"— it is "in the air" she says—the "atmospheric" condition of "spirit" that mediates the social. She has moved from Bodies That Matter (1995)—the matter of language and signification—to bodies that feel—the matter of sensation and impression—now that the old discourse theory has lost its cachet with the fading of neoliberalism. "Matter" of course represents the "outside" of the social as "beyond" comprehension and transformation, the bare reality with which we must learn to live. What it denies is the social as historically produced through labor from which is manufactured the "limits" of the "real" in ideology.

The discursive play of what "matters" that traces itself through Butler's writings are badges of class distinction that are taken as signs that she is a "subtle" and above all "non-dogmatic" thinker which shows that she can be reliably called upon to provide the up-to-date ideological cover for what capital requires. Under the sclerotic measures of the Biden administration which plans to monetize solutions to the health and economic crisis through deficit financing while "raising" the minimum wage to poverty levels under the most diverse cabinet the US has ever seen, this means representing such measures as socially progressive acts of "healing" the nation through the public performance of cultural reconciliation while failing to do what is minimally required to prevent the loss of millions of lives, by, for example, instituting a federally guaranteed jobs program and federal lockdowns at full pay while raising taxes on those grown obscenely wealthy from their immiseration of the workers.

Butler's recent writings on the pandemic therefore display her class allegiance by refusing to penetrate to the root of the issues in class—the economics of the pandemic and the fascist policy of "herd immunity," actually "social murder," favored by capital as a whole to force the workers back to work (Abbasi)—and instead set the requisite tone of mourning and melancholia in the lite tabloid style of the popular genre of "woke storytelling".


A version of this essay was originally published in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, February 23, 2021.


Works Cited

Abbasi, "Covid-19: Social murder, they wrote—elected, unaccountable, and unrepentant," The BMJ (February 4, 2021).

Butler, Judith. "Why Donald Trump will never admit defeat." The Guardian (January 20, 2021).

—. "Capitalism Has its Limits." Verso Blog (March 30, 2020).

—. "The Inorganic Body in the Early Marx." Radical Philosophy, 2.06 (Winter, 2019).

—. "Merely Cultural." New Left Review, I/227 (January-February, 1998).

"January 6 Rally Funded by Top Trump Donor, Helped by Alex Jones, Organizers Say," The Wall Street Journal(February 1, 2021).

Latour, Bruno. "Why has critique run out of steam?" Critical Inquiry, 30.2 (Winter, 2004): 225-248.

Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume 1. Marx Engels Collected Works. Volume 35. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983.

—. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marx Engels Collected Works, Volume 3. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx Engels Collected Works. Volume 6. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976.

Pape, Robert A. and Keven Ruby, "The Capitol Rioters Aren't Like Other Extremists," The Atlantic (February 2, 2021).

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