Mourning in a Capitalist, COVID, and Necropolitical World

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the most English major source to cite, I know), mourning is (3.a.) “to feel or express sorrow, grief, or regret,” (4.a.) “to lament or grieve over a death,” and (4.b.) “to lament, grieve, or sorrow for (someone dead or someone’s death); to express grief for.” Going further, the OED notes a connection between mourning, the appearance of mourning, and a time for mourning in later definitions of the word; (3.c) notes mourning as “to exhibit the conventional signs of grief for a period following the death of a person” and (3.e.) contributes to this idea of time-specific mourning with its definition “to pass (time) in mourning.”

Since appearance of and a specific time frame have been included as part of the commonly understood definitions of mourning, I want to explore these questions within this post: what is the appropriate amount of time for mourning? And do we, as subjects under a capitalist system, have the space and time necessary for mourning?

Within our current economic system, grieving is limited to how much time off we’re able to take from work. There is bereavement leave, vacation time, and unpaid time we’re able to take off (if we can afford it, as workers), but beyond those measures, there’s little to no way to support ourselves if our period of grieving extends past those time allowances created within the work-for-pay and pay-to-live system we currently occupy.

Going further, part-time workers and non-traditional workspaces (self-employed, at a new start up without established norms or HR, or, like me, in upper academia), sometimes don’t have the same access to time off, resources, or are not clearly told when we’re able to take time off and when we’re still expected to work. Additionally, a lot of shift-workplaces, like Starbucks, require workers to find their own coverage for sick time or family leave, which puts an extra burden and barrier on workers who are already in a vulnerable state due to illness or loss.

Using myself as an example here, I lost a lot of people in 2020 and 2021 – none of which were directly related to COVID-19. In the summer of 2020, my longtime friend, comrade, fellow organizer, and past educator for the Maggie Phair Institute, Mimi Soltysik, passed from cancer. My paternal grandfather passed shortly after that in the late summer/early fall. Following that, a fellow campus activist passed away in November unexpectedly. In April, my maternal grandmother passed after battling cancer for a handful of months.

How many losses are too many losses to take bereavement leave? Additionally, as an academic worker, it was never made clear to me who to contact in the case of direct family members dying. I have a union and I have support from the department I research in and am getting my degree in, but none of that information transferred clearly into the program I teach for. I had no idea who to contact to have my classes covered, nor how to catch them up on what my class was doing since we have no direct supervisors – only a set of standards we must meet. I am lucky in that my committee members were understanding and let me work on my dissertation at my own pace, when I was able, and that I could push back my testing. But having space to mourn and grieve as workers (and doing graduate research is a form of labor and should be coded as paid work even though academia often doesn’t grant this as paid labor to its graduate students) shouldn’t depend upon the kindness of those in supervisory positions because that makes this not a right and not a guarantee but a gamble on those in positions of power feeling sympathetic.

While my family and comrades did not die of COVID, my ability to grieve, to mourn, and to come together with a shared community that loved and loss these people too was severely impacted by the pandemic. There were no funerals to physically attend save for my grandmother’s, but my sister and I lived too far away to attend the quiet, 6 a.m. service up in Oregon a few days after her passing. We also didn’t have the funds to get last-minute flights and transportation up to Shady Cove and neither of us could afford to or had the ability to take time off of work and drive up to say goodbye.

And I am not alone in facing an immense amount of loss during 2020 and 2021. I am just one of many who have faced these limitations to mourning and grieving under capitalism which have further been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the Delta variant are spiking in the U.S. As I write this post, the U.S. alone has had 34.9M cases and 612K deaths (sources for those numbers come from Wikipedia, The New York Times, and Our World in Data). As noted in the World Socialist Web Site, or WSWS.Org:

“This fundamental socio-economic contradiction—i.e., the irreconcilable conflict between the capitalist class and the working class—finds its most obscene expression in the correlation between the number of dead, unemployed and impoverished, and, on the other side of the ledger, the explosive rise of share values on Wall Street.

Since the passage of the multi-trillion-dollar bailout in late March, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen approximately 35 percent. The Nasdaq index is at its 2020 high. During the first 10 days of May, while the number of dead rose by approximately 15,000, the Dow gained more than 600 points.

The more terrible the reports of death and human suffering [during the COVID-19 pandemic], the more ecstatic the response of the capitalist markets. The contrast between “Wall Street” and “Main Street” is so extreme that it is now being commented on widely in the financial press.”

In other words, workers are the ones at risk and being asked to shoulder the risk posed by COVID to keep the economy, and the wealthy elite in the U.S., afloat while we drown in our fears and sorrows. This creates a perpetual state of danger and a perpetual state of loss in addition to the alienation the standard U.S. worker feels from being perpetually exploited at work.

David W. McIvor, Juliet Hooker, Ashley Atkins, Athena Athanasiou, and George Shulman recently published an article, “Mourning work: Death and democracy during a pandemic” in Contemporary Political Theory that highlights how this pandemic is not just further alienating and exploiting workers, but is also targeting communities of color who have already been placed in a perpetual state of mourning in the U.S.:

“The differential vulnerability to death and mourning during the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed enduring racial and class divides in the USA and clarified the impact of spreading inequality. For Hooker, in particular, the pandemic has clarified patterns of racialized precarity to which political theorists and social actors have not adequately responded. Disavowed precarity also calls into question the supposedly recent phenomenon of ‘democracy grief’ in the global north or what Hooker refers to here as the ‘civic sadness that has arisen with the recognition that the USA is a democracy in need of repair’. Such recognitions are belated – and, like the owl of Minerva, may have come too late – and they elide the experiences of black citizens who have been paying the ‘psychic tax’ of democracy grief for generations, and who are paying a steep price once again during the pandemic.”

This article also reaffirms that those without traditional workspaces are more vulnerable to exploitation during this pandemic and have an inability to take any time off for grieving:

“Hooker and Atkins also take up the relationship between democracy and sacrifice. Democratic theorists such as Danielle Allen and Anne Norton have argued for an inherent link between democracy and sacrifice, yet both Hooker and Atkins challenge the logic or the value of this link, albeit in different ways. For Hooker, calls for sacrifice often overlook the facts of who is being asked to sacrifice, or – more pointedly – who is being sacrificed for democracy. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the so-called essential workers – many of them, including grocery store workers, nursing assistants, farmworkers, and delivery drivers, lacking paid sick leave, a living wage, or health benefits that are not linked to their employment – are positioned as sacrifices to the relatively well off and protected.”

I would argue that these above manifestations of capitalism’s control over our ability to mourn, work, and survive all ties into what Achille Mbembe termed the necropolitical and the state’s real source of power being not in grating the means to live but in its ability to control and deny people access to things that grant life. Comrade Teen Vogue elaborates in their article, “What is Necropolitics? The Political Calculation of Life and Death:”

“Why does COVID-19 impact marginalized communities disproportionately? I think the answer is rooted in necropolitics. Marginalized communities face immense access barriers to healthcare, education, and opportunities for professional advancement. In his book Against the Terror of Neoliberalism, cultural critic Henry Giroux lays bare that the most vulnerable people in the United States are considered “disposable, unnecessary burdens on state coffers, and consigned to fend for themselves.”

These disparities are exacerbated and compounded through the COVID-19 crisis. Take Dr. Susan Moore’s harrowing story. Moore, a physician, made a viral video while undergoing treatment for COVID-19. The video cast a spotlight on the way her white doctor handled her case. She posted that after she complained of pain, the doctor said he felt uncomfortable giving her more narcotics and suggested that she be discharged. “I was crushed,” Moore said. “He made me feel like I was a drug addict.” She added: “I maintain if I was white, I wouldn’t have to go through that.” Just two weeks later, Moore died of coronavirus-related complications. (At the time, a spokesman for Indiana University Health, the hospital system where Moore was a patient, told the New York Times that privacy laws prevented them from commenting on her specific case, but added that the organization investigates any allegation of discrimination and is “committed to equity and reducing racial disparities in health care.”) Necropolitics renders stories like Moore’s all too common. Medical bias can be fatal for Black women.

At its core, I see necropolitics as a manifestation of capitalism and its related institutions of violence: white supremacy, the prison-industrial complex, cisheteropatriarchy, and colonialism. Capitalism bleeds us all. It quantifies our lives. It predestines our deaths. In the sinking-raft scenario that opened this article, I would argue that a capitalist will choose the CEOs life over yours or mine in every instance. Capitalism drives necropolitics through the scarcity myth — that, during a global pandemic, for example, there are simply insufficient resources for us all, so some of us have to die. But that doesn’t have to be true. If we prioritize redistributing wealth and taking care of each other, there might be enough for everyone.”

Loss, death, and mourning are all a part of life but within the confines of a capitalist system, we are given limited time off and even more limitations on how much time off we can take in order to grieve – an essential and inescapable part of living. But, as Teen Vogue suggests, when we address the root of the state’s power, necropolitics, we can redistribute what our society needs to live and ensure that all of us have core rights – the right to life, the right to housing, the right to food, the right to clean water, the right to healthcare, and the right to mourn, among others.

Whatever world we build after capitalism, we have to keep in mind that humans are social creatures and when our networks of friends, family, and community experiences a loss, we all need time to process. A day or week off from labor may not be enough – a lifetime may not be enough but forcing people to perform work in exchange for money, which is the mode of being able to survive under capitalism, must not continue if we are to take people’s mental health and ability to mourn and grieve seriously and as an inalienable human right.

One way to address this pitfall now is to advocate for a universal basic income where everyone’s needs are met without having to work in order to survive. With this system of support in place, people aren’t faced with double alienation (being alienated from the fruits of their labor in a capitalist, exploitative system and being alienated from their selves and their feelings of grief and loss) because they’d have the means to take as much time as needed to process their emotions and feel connected to themselves, their kinship networks, their friends, and their communities once again.

While I mentioned above the loss of my comrade and fellow MPI educator Mimi, The Maggie Phair institute has also recently loss its founder and namesake – Maggie Phair. Another member of the MPI, Kielan Hammans, wrote “The Life of an Essential Activist: Maggie Phair, 1930-2021” which was published in CounterPunch. During her memorial service, the same comrade noted three lessons he learned from Maggie that were an essential part of her activist philosophy and how she related to others.

The first was education – and not in an academic sense, but to be a lifelong learner, to use the Socratic method, to always be reading, and to engage with the central question when it came to a problem that arose, “what do you think we can do about this?”

The second was generosity, in every sense of the word. Maggie was generous with her time, with the spaces she had, and with the things she owned. One comrade noted her opening up her home and allowing people to stay over, others noted how generous she was with food and how she always made sure comrades were cared for.

The third was her humanity and her belief in humanity. Maggie was a firm believer in solidarity, in people power, and accepted people where they were at. She believed in people over politics and was a figure that could talk to anyone and guide them, gently, towards sharing her belief in people, community, and humanity.

As a way to end this post and discussion (that could really go on for much much longer) and to celebrate the life and work of our comrades Mimi and Maggie, here are some of their works centered on education available here for download and distribution.

This is Mimi Soltysik’s Activist Reading List

And here is Maggie Phair’s Guide to The Feminist Process

All of these and more can be found on our Education tab, which is constantly under expansion and development. This is a resource for both teachers and activists alike. There are lesson plans being developed for educators and handouts like reading lists and pamphlets being created for activists.

While we can all fight for time and space to grieve, we can also fight to keep our comrades and their works in the public consciousness. One thing Mimi taught me was that our fight is an intergenerational fight. We may not see results in our lifetime, but the work we do while we are here isn’t about us – it’s about our community and those who fight alongside us and who carry on organizing after we leave. As long as I’m here, I’ll remember, appreciate, and spread the lessons taught to me by comrades, past and present, and do my best to share that knowledge with my peers and future activists I engage with on every platform made available to me.

One thought on “Mourning in a Capitalist, COVID, and Necropolitical World”

  1. I really like your discussion of necropolitics as a space where our basic right to grieve and mourn in the wake of loss is denied, as a symptom and indicator of late-stage capitalism. If you’re interested in more Radical Death Studies work, which emphasizes anti-racism and decolonizing the necropolitical sphere, I encourage you to think about what “counts” as a grievable loss.

    Sarah Chavez’s guest chapter of Caitlin Doughty’s “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death” (2017) follows her devastating account of losing her son at 7 months of pregnancy, and how her miscarriage was an unapproachable subject with friends and family who couldn’t conceptualize her miscarriage as the same kind of grievable loss as that of a child who had lived and breathed outside the womb. I also think about each and every community-felt trauma of mass graves of children uncovered at residential schools in what we call the Northern Americas, and whether that constitutes a grievable loss for which Indigenous folks need bereavement “time off” from labor. Or when important cultural icons such as Kobe Bryant or Chadwick Boseman die unexpectedly and the loss reverberates among the Black community. Or how hyperpop trans icon Sophie’s death affected the queer community. How and when do Indigenous and Black folks and Queer folks grieve when their communities are retraumatized?

    Not only do we need to critique bereavement “time off” and how vacation or sick days are utilized from a personal standpoint as you have done so nicely, but we should also consider the conditions for bereavement in the first place. What is a grievable loss, what constitutes mourning, and *who* exactly is grievable? Primary and secondary family members and close friends are often considered grievable deaths that open us up to the traumatic process of finding bereavement time within late-stage capitalism. However, Queer folks might choose their own families when alienated from their birth families – the potential complication of explaining that a family member has died when that family member is not legally family can be a specifically Queer experience, an added trauma. And some deaths – deaths that don’t look like what we’re used to, like a miscarriage, deaths that retraumatize an entire community of Black, Indigenous, People of Color – are not considered “grievable” deaths. Community grief is not given the same consideration as individual loss, though the trauma and pain may be the same.

    Thanks for making me think about this! Grief and mourning are often unspoken in Western cultures, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that capitalism has something to do with that – grief and loss prevent us from performing the labor it requires. But the inhuman machine of capitalism fails to consider that *not* developing a death literacy and processing grief healthily *also* prevents us from performing labor, lol. Reclaiming our ability to grieve and process loss and joy are crucial at this stage. This is what I love so much about RDS and necropolitics, how it is so a part of every part of our lives, and can help us remember our emotional capacity where emotional literacy is antithetical to capitalism. I have tons of recommendations for other reading/watching if you’re interested. Thanks for your thoughtful article, and thanks for reading my comment 🙂

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