Drafted on 24 July 2020 | Published, unaltered, as a blog post on 7 February 2023
Slavoj Žižek, known as “the most dangerous philosopher in the West,” is perhaps the only thinker alive who makes “theory” regularly confront the challenges of “praxis.” Prolific as he is, he did not fail to deliver a fine book in the wake of COVID-19. Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World, published in March 2020 by OR Books and spread just over 100 pages, contains, arguably, the best set of reflections so far on the coronavirus crisis.
Žižek begins Pandemic! with a biblical injunction. After His resurrection, seeing Mary Magdalene in front of him, Jesus said – noli me tangere (touch-me-not)! Jesus implied, says Žižek, he was no longer to be treated as “a person to touch” but simply as “a bond of love and solidarity” among his followers. By this, Jesus demanded corporeal distancing but ensured spiritual bonding. Coronavirus, Žižek claims, has put to test our love and care for people whom we have all this while considered important in our life. Love in times of corona is “unconcealed” to its bare essence – defined only by spiritual proximity and physical distance. “It is only now,” he writes, “when I have to avoid many of those who are close to me, that I fully experience their presence, their importance to me.”
But Žižek quickly switches from metaphysics to the grim reality we are all experiencing. The virus has turned the world into a “viral desert.” This is not only because the world is at the mercy of a virus but also because coronavirus has triggered an “epidemic of ideological viruses,” including fake news, conspiracy theories, and racism. In this viral desert, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, the only reality which could be considered safe is the virtual reality. However, thanks to the “digital viruses” which can steal our data or “hang” our system, our “web-space” is not safe either. COVID-19 pandemic has thus created a world unimaginable earlier – a world where the viral threat is felt both in the real and the virtual spaces.
The pandemic has created a new form of class divide as well, splitting the global population broadly into two categories – those who are overworked (medical staff and carers) and are stationed outside their homes and those who experience a kind of “enforced inactivity” and are, willingly or forcibly, staying home. For Žižek, the class divide is evident in that while some have the luxury to stay home or earn through work-from-home, others are forced to starve or to face the virus, working in factories, fields, stores, hospitals and public transport. “Many things have to take place in the unsafe outside,” he observes, “so that others can survive in their private quarantine.”
The key question for Žižek is – how come we were caught so unprepared by a catastrophe about which scientists have been warning us for years? The usual suspects of the crisis are “globalization, the capitalist market and the transience of the rich” which enabled the spread of the virus worldwide. However, Žižek criticizes the Chinese government because China has royally failed to adhere to Mao Zedong’s dictum, “Trust the people!” It is the contemporary anti-Mao government, forcefully suppressing any kind of Marxist debate in the country, which is ultimately held responsible by Žižek as instrumental to the coronavirus crisis. The suppression of Li Wenliang, the doctor who first warned us about the deadliness of the virus, is the very manifestation of Chinese authoritarianism. Repression of freedom of speech is the root cause of the advent and spread of an epidemic, instead of its containment, in China. By extension, it is the failure and incompetence of the state powers in general that has caused the failure in containing the virus in different parts of the globe too.
For Žižek, both the Alt-Right and Ultra-Left are mistaken in denouncing the epidemic through a “social-constructionist reduction.” From a rightist/ nationalist perspective, one may continue blaming China for the virus (the “Chinese virus,” as Donald Trump calls it), and develop strategies to fight China or secure one’s own country or its select population (i.e., a particular race or an age group). From an ultra-leftist perspective, on the other hand, one may strongly resist the state control over health measures and freedom of movement, denouncing them as a product of xenophobia and privilege of the few. However, for Žižek, both the Ultra-Left and Alt-Right are misguided. He emphasizes that even the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben, representing the extreme Left, is wrong in his social interpretation of the pandemic. Unlike Agamben who has strongly criticized the monitoring of people by the state, Žižek thinks that the true revolution today rests in supporting the state surveillance. For Žižek, “not to shake hands and isolate when needed is today’s form of solidarity.” The state must monitor and punish us and we must demand that the state shows its power. The pandemic has created a situation wherein the issue is not about “power” controlling the people but the virus controlling power – both power and people being at its mercy.
Although condemning the extremist leftism and rightism, Žižek claims that only a new form of Communism can save the world. For him, mankind is left with only two options in the wake of COVID-19 – barbarism or Communism. Opting for barbarism will force our society to regress into “brutal survivalist violence” like public disorders, panic lynching, etc. The way some Americans crowded the gun shops at the outbreak of the virus demonstrates the truth of it. By Communism, he refers to a new form of global solidarity which is highly practicable because “in a crisis we are all socialists.” “Even Trump,” he reminds us, “is now considering a form of Universal Basic Income – a check for $1,000 to every adult citizen.” Trump is also taking over the private sector. There are similar examples across the world (like the solidarity between Israel and Palestine). These are signs that all are forced, out of sheer necessity for survival, to embrace some kind of Communism. Unfortunately, this Communism resembles what, in the 1918 Soviet Union, was known as “war Communism.” Indeed, one must consider the viral crisis as a wartime urgency. For instance, the states must intervene to procure a vast number of respiratory machines the way, during the wartime, they have to get hold of guns. However, Žižek ultimately defines it as “disaster Communism.” He prefers the term “disaster” to “war” because our fight is against a virus which “is not an enemy with plans and strategies to destroy us, it is just a stupid self-replicating mechanism.” Disaster Communism would involve not only taking over of private sectors but also abandoning “market mechanisms.” For instance, without thinking of “market value,” the state must actively start “organizing the production of urgently needed things like masks, test kits and respirators, sequestering hotels and other resorts, guaranteeing the minimum of survival of all new unemployed.” In fact, unemployment is on the rise, and people are losing jobs, like those in the tourist industry, which are now rendered totally meaningless. The state must undertake appropriate measures accordingly. Disaster Communism would also include efforts from the local communities to cooperate with the institutional health system, and take care of the weak and the old.
While the great bulk of population can directly be part of disaster Communism, there may still be people, e.g., the weak and the old, who cannot engage in this project. For them too, Žižek has a formula, which he borrows from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: “Enjoy your symptom!” Symptom in Lacan is of two kinds – one that is pathological, wreaking havoc on our psychical life and the other that constitutes our life force, keeping our sanity or reason-to-live intact (love object, vocation as a writer, little obsessions, religious rituals etc. might constitute the latter). Thus, Žižek advises, instead of living in the constant fear of death, one should identify with what one enjoys doing the most in the home-space, i.e., the second kind of Lacanian symptom. For example, since the virtual world is the only safe space in this viral desert, one may explore this world in all possible ways from watching movies to playing videogames. His suggestion for the quarantined is to treat the lockdown almost like a game the way the horror of the Holocaust is dealt with in a movie like Life is Beautiful.
I fully agree with Žižek when he refuses to mechanically reproduce an Agambenian criticism against state surveillance in times of corona. Žižek is not only provocative and counterintuitive here; he is deeply pragmatic. And insofar as the term “symptom” as in “Enjoy Your Symptom” is used, only a Lacanian could realize the clinical precision with which Žižek uses this phrase in the context of COVID-19. Finally, when it comes to theorizing a new form of Communism, whether the stakeholders of today’s world accept the term or not, they are acting as “unconscious tools,” to use a famous phrase of Karl Marx, in expanding the sematic field of Communism. Pandemic! is far from being an act of abstract philosophizing from an armchair intellectual. In it, Žižek, deeply affected by the outbreak because of his vulnerable age (he is 71) and the loss of his friends, defines the viral crisis, diagnoses its causes, and devises concrete and innovative strategies to overcome it. The book, for those who have the luxury to read it in these trying times, can truly be an eye-opener and a source of hope too.