ZEIT ONLINE: In your book you critically assess Hannah Arendt's distinction between the public and the private sphere. What is problematic about it?

Butler: In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt clearly makes a distinction between private domestic activity – reproduction or sleeping; all those activities that are meant to reproduce the body are not political – and the political domain is one which figures the presumably well-fed body. Arendt's idea of democratic principles assumes that food is distributed, that food is available, that somebody is going to be sheltered, that they are not going to be ill without available healthcare. But the problem is of course that, given the times of precarity we live in, there are so many of the basic requirements of life for which we are struggling: Who has shelter, who has healthcare, who can move through a border? These are all political issues that pertain fundamentally to bodily sustenance and bodily mobility. We cannot have freedom of association or assembly or even speech without presupposing embodied life.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is there greater precarity now?

Butler: I think precarity has become a more important political concept. The scholar Isabel Lorey suggests that it is an economic and political condition that actually belongs to our present moment. The proletariat, those are workers who are not getting paid enough to eat or live well, but the precariat is a different category. The precariat may not have jobs at all. They may have a job and lose a job in quick succession. They may be transient labourers. They may have shelter and lose it the next day. The future is radically unpredictable.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why is that?

Butler: I think as labour is becoming increasingly temporary and precarious so that markets can expand without impediment, public obligations towards working people and a liveable wage become increasingly threatened. So we do see more and more people who are abandoned and dispossessed, in a certain way. Post World War I, post World War II we saw tremendous numbers of people dispossessed, but dispossession was of a different kind. Dispossession today is also happening through war, but also through fiscal policies, Neoliberalism, and its effect on working conditions and housing, on housing market and housing possibilities, but also on food. I don't think we have to go very far, to see that many populations are suffering with very basic questions.

ZEIT ONLINE: Do you think the current rise of populism is connected to the fact that there are more people who think of themselves as – but are also part of – this new precariat?

Butler: I do think there are still good reasons to distinguish between right-wing and left-wing populism, like movements in South America, for example in Argentina. For Ernesto Laclau, who was interested in these kinds of movements, populism was a positive concept, or could be made one.


Butler: Because different people, who are rallying around different causes and different kinds of identities, link with each other. They start to see a common condition, and they seek to understand each other's situation. Through those links a new sense of the people emerges, or can emerge. So for Laclau, populism held out a left-wing promise. He did not understand populism to stay as an extra-parliamentary political movement; he actually saw its possibility to transform into elective assemblies, representative democracy, even state power.

ZEIT ONLINE: So how do you differentiate this apparently positive form of populism from a negative form of populism?

Butler: Perhaps we have to understand it before we start discriminating between its good and bad forms. After all, one we might call "good" can in time turn into one that we call "bad". There are kinds of populism that are aimed against all state power, hate all state processes, and want to remain in the extra-parliamentary domain. I think that there are forms of right-wing populism that we are seeing now that object to laws that were securing equality between men and women, laws against racism, laws that permit migration and even affirm an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous population. And that kind of reactionary populism wants to restore an earlier state of society, driven by nostalgia or a perceived loss of privilege. They want to take down state power for the loss of their former world.

ZEIT ONLINE: An argument that is often made in Germany is: Some people support AfD because they feel they are pushed to the margins of society and left alone in their precarity. Do you agree?

Butler: Sometimes a right-wing group might feel that they are excluded, but what they really mean, is that their privilege has been lost. Their privilege, their white presumption, is being shaken. And you know what: Yes they are losing their privilege, they are losing their white privilege. They are losing a former world in which white privilege could be assumed. Yes, they are losing and it is their job to adjust, to accept their loss and to embrace a larger, more democratic and heterogeneous world.

ZEIT ONLINE: But you would not include them into your notion of the precariat?

Butler: The problem is, neoliberal economics produces precarity throughout the population without discriminating between right and left. So there are some right-wing people, or people who have become more right-wing, because they are blaming the migrants for taking their position, but they are not identifying the root of their problem, which is an expanding precarity that cuts across economic class, though the very rich continue to profit. They have decided to blame the migrant rather than to look more carefully at some fiscal and financial policies that are actually jeopardizing the well-being of increasing numbers of people.

ZEIT ONLINE: Could you say a similar thing about Trump supporters?

Butler: Oh, the Trump supporters….

ZEIT ONLINE: … something that is very interesting to Germans.

Butler: Well, it is all rather unfathomable. I think there is an economic component to the support for Trump. For some of his supporters government has gotten in the way of their capacity to make a good living and to succeed financially, so they are against regulations, against government. And that can include paying taxes and workplace regulations meant to secure the health and safety of workers. They applaud the fact that Trump has not apparently paid federal taxes and they think: "Yeah, I want to be that person".

ZEIT ONLINE: There is a lot of rage?

Butler: I think they have an enormous rage. Not just against women, not only against racial minorities or against migrants – they are thrilled that that their rage is being liberated by his public and uncensored speech. We on the left, we are apparently the superego. What Trump has managed to do, rhetorically, is to identify not just the left, but liberalism – basic American liberalism and the left – as just a bunch of censors. We are the instruments of repression and he is the vehicle for emancipation. It is a nightmare.

ZEIT ONLINE: What about his overt sexism and racism?

Butler: What Trump is emancipating is unbridled hatred and, as we see recently, forms of sexual action that don't even care about anybody's consent. Since when did we have to ask women whether they are okay with being touched, or why? He does not actually say that, but that is exactly what he is indicating. It liberates people, their rage, and their hatred. And these people may be wealthy, they may be poor, they may be in the middle; they feel themselves to have been repressed or censored by the left, by the feminists, by the movement for civil rights and equality, by Obama's presidency, which allowed a black man to represent the nation.