Ian Parker reads Slavoj Žižek’s PANDEMIC!: COVID-19 Shakes the World very fast.
A few days ago a little old lady at the greengrocers edged to the side of the vegetable display to let me pass, smiling as she said brightly ‘we are all enemies now’. In the midst of the lockdown, at a time when there is enforced separation from others and when we are urged, quite rightly, to engage in a measure – two metres – of social distancing, we are faced again and again with a paradox. We are divided from others, yet the very social process through which we do that brings about a heightened sense of solidarity. As we stand on our doorsteps in Britain at 8pm each Thursday evenings to clap for the NHS, we glimpse a sight of neighbours we may never otherwise speak to, and the distant glances create new forms of connection.
Slavoj Žižek’s latest book mines the possibilities of exactly these new conditions in which we respect others in a quite new way, and he repeatedly returns to the question of what kind of social link COVID-19 creates in the world now. The answer: ‘Full unconditional solidarity and a globally coordinated response are needed, a new form of what was once called Communism’. These new conditions, in which he admits to his own anxiety, and nightmares, and of the need to respond to these new conditions and the difficulty of doing that, seem to have shaken him into a new radical sensibility in which some of the more ridiculous of his recent pronouncements about politics are thankfully shorn away.
This book, some potential readers will be delighted to hear is also Hegel and Lacan-lite, and all the better; his engagement with some key ideas from these theorists is simply in order to make directly political points. It is Hegel, for example, who shows us how that paradox of distance entailing a new sense of solidarity is more than that, can be understood dialectically, we learn that ‘It is only now, when I have to avoid many of those who are close to me, that I fully experience their presence, their importance to me’. Lacan appears in the book quite late on, implicitly so in the distinction between reality and the real, and explicitly so in exploration of fantasies about what the mysterious causes of the emergence of the virus is, and who benefits.
In these terms, ‘reality’ is what we appeal to in order to make sense of the world, organised symbolic frameworks which might include ideological commonsense and also radical theoretical analysis of political-historical conditions, and we do our best to incorporate what is happening to us now into those contradictory frameworks. The ‘real’ is something else, the brute matter and unpredictability of the world which appears in the forms of shocks and trauma which disorganise our reality, throw it into question: ‘viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives’. What is COVID-19 but the name through which we try to tame and make sense of what is emerging, take it into reality, something senseless that is hitting us, and killing us, something of the real.
The shock of the real, of viruses of this kind, produces a sense of disorientation, but also provokes attempts to come to terms with it, and, in the process, to seize on any and every explanation that is swirling around. Here Žižek takes off into some fruitful sideways moves, into the international dimension of the COVID-19 crisis, describing how Russian media continues its programme of ambiguous and deliberately disorientating propaganda. It continues sowing seeds of suspicion of the West as site of mysterious ideas about the virus, which include conspiracy theories of various kinds, and, while reporting on these, suggests that each and every theory may have a kernel of truth. These are the masters of fake news who understand full well how it can corrode our grasp of reality and our ability to make sense of what emerges from the real.
Other theoretical forays are into a critical engagement with the work of Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher of ‘state of exception’, that is, of the idea that the rule of law around the world is being suspended in such a way as to render certain categories of human being as less than human. Reporting of COVID-19 is fertile ground for exactly such a suspicion that someone somewhere is benefitting from the spread of the virus, and although Agamben is broadly on the left, it is right-wing libertarians today who are objecting to lockdown, seeing in it another attempt to impose a ‘state of exception’. Agamben himself gives licence to this kind of thing in his comments that the virus is really just a bad kind of flu, the kind of line that leads us to a Trump-like response; denial then omnipotence.
The international dimension appears in discussion of the collusive relationship between Russia and Turkey and the cynical instrumental use of war and refugees in Syria, a phenomenon Žižek refers to as ‘Putogan’. There is discussion, of course, of the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, and the role of the Chinese state in covering up the extent of the crisis, and then, as they claim that the virus is under control, warning that people will have to work weekends to make up for lost time. Here, capitalism in China shows the depth of the crisis, a crisis of the political-economic system that enabled the virus to jump into human species and then spread.
Here are whiffs of Žižek’s old Maoism, and he cannot resist claiming that in the good old days, this kind of thing would never have happened: ‘if it had happened before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, we probably wouldn’t even have heard about it.’ This present-day disaster reminds him of Naomi Klein’s analyses of ‘disaster capitalism’; the nature of shocks to the system that are provoked in such a way as to enable capital accumulation to resume upon the broken bodies of workers.
There is actually a double response to COVID-19 by Žižek in this book. The first is a rather surprising self-help message about the importance of structure and routine in a day for people suffering in the lockdown; a message to himself, perhaps. This follows a good discussion of different forms of tiredness in which he points out that there is the kind of tiredness of physical mechanical repetitive activity – classic alienating labour during the time spent exerting labour power sold to an employer – and another kind of tiredness that afflicts those caring for others, what in feminist analysis (that he does not cite) would be called ‘emotional labour’. His advice: ‘Don’t think too much in the long term, just focus on today, what you will be doing till sleep’, and here a quasi-psychoanalytic line reappears: ‘identify with your symptom, without any shame, which means (I am simplifying a bit here), fully assume all small rituals, formulas, quirks, and so on, that will help stabilize your daily life.’
This self-help motif keys into the anxieties of people rendered passive in these new conditions, but it contains within it an injunction to maintain involvement with others. And, perhaps, ‘some people at least will use their time released from hectic activity and think about the (non)sense of their predicament’. Žižek points out something that Marxists will not be very amazed by, but it bears repeating; that those who are engaged with the world, actively doing something, are less prone to fatalistic paranoid fantasies about unearthly conspiracies that are spreading now almost as fast the virus itself: ‘if there is no great change in our daily reality, then the threat is experienced as a spectral fantasy nowhere to be seen and all the more powerful for that reason’.
The second aspect of Žižek’s response comes in his recourse to ‘communism’ as a solution to the underlying problems that COVID-19 exacerbates, problems of capitalism itself, but here we have to ask what this ‘communism’ is that Žižek is talking about. It seems in most cases, and he says it himself, that this is a kind of communism that appears at a moment when we, human beings, are ‘in it all together’ and when we must call on the state to act. This is not communism as the self-organisation of workers, but communism as a necessary dialectical moment in the development of capitalism itself at a time of crisis.
Here there are old Žižek motifs of ‘overidentification’, of making claims to the state and keeping it to account: ‘People are right to hold state power responsible: you have the power, now show us what you can do!’ This crisis opens the way to what he calls ‘“disaster Communism” as an antidote to disaster capitalism’. Meanwhile, in the midst of this, there is the injunction to keep thinking: ‘We should follow Immanuel Kant here who wrote with regard to the laws of the state: “Obey, but think, maintain the freedom of thought!”’
There are limits to this strategy, of course, and another manifestation of Žižek’s own political demoralisation after his experiences of state power in Slovenia and the collapse of actually-existing ‘communism’, what we would understand as Stalinism.
Nevertheless, he argues this very neatly in this book, with some nice dialectical reversals. In a discussion of the Orbán regime in Hungary, for example, he cites the claim levelled at the left that the liberals who criticise Orbán are really communists in disguise, but worse, a liberal elite who have been educated and are all the more devious; liberals, according to Orbán are communists with diplomas. Well, Ok, says Žižek, lets reclaim this, why not, and reverse the terms of this slur: ‘those of us who still recognize ourselves as Communists, are liberals with a diploma—liberals who seriously studied why our liberal values are under threat and became aware that only a radical change can save them.’
Žižek must have written this book quicker than I wrote this review to be so fast off the track; it’s overall good stuff, and well worth reading, and if you are quick you can get a free download of it at OR Books.