Writing about our current condition is the new fad or the “new normal” as the pop-term goes, and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek – the toast of many thinkers – does not hesitate to self-reflectively poke fun at this need to articulate our relationship with the world around, as if that would solve the entire issue: “We were told again and again that a new, much stronger epidemic was just a matter of time, that the question was not IF but WHEN. Although we were convinced of the truth of these dire predictions, we…were reluctant to act and engage – the only place we dealt with them was in apocalyptic movies like Contagion.”
Ziezek’s book Pan(dem)ic: Covid 19 Shakes the World is a theorist’s-eye-view of the entire situation. True to his nature, he takes readers through the dire scenario, all the while chuckling and whispering ridicule in our ears.
The key argument of the book is simple, and is summarised beautifully by the title of his final chapter, “Communism or Barbarism, as simple as that!” He presents a reading of the current scenario and presents us with two possible outcomes. The first, barbarism, where the “survival of the fittest” rule will have to come into play, owing to a finite amount of resources. The old and the weak will be the first to be let go of, and not because of malice, mind you, but because of the lack of an alternative.
Zizek “respectfully disagrees with Giorgio Agamben” who sees the crisis as “not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them” due to this “barbaristic” approach in Italy, and states instead that the situation goes deeper than that. He says “we are all in the same boat,” and while the right and left position themselves differently, the situation is not going to change any time soon.
“‘Trump announces proposal to take over private sector.’ Could one even imagine such a headline prior to the epidemic? And this is just the beginning: many more measures of this sort will be needed, as well as local self-organisation of communities if state-run health systems collapse under too much stress.”
The alternative, Zizek proposes, is a reinvented communism: “The broad Communist approach I am advocating is the only way for us to leave behind such a primitive stand point (barbarism).” He says the only solution is to think outside the market mechanisms of profit, and come up with self-sustainable communities for allocation of resources.
Why is this the only solution? He walks us through some of the others: one, barbarism, as can be seen from Italy’s new prioritisation. Second, disaster capitalism, where the producers accumulate resources, such as masks or sanitisers, and then finally negotiate to the sell the price because what alternative do people have; here, the market will ensure society separates again into the haves and have-nots obviously. Third, regular communism, where nobody will listen to anybody, as Zizek argues the need for power is so inherent today that only in a strict dictatorship can quick measures be taken.
‘Exploding heart technique’
The solution? Disaster communism, where the State takes over several resources and institutions, while local self-run institutions also take control for effective cooperation. “Full unconditional solidarity and a globally coordinated response are needed, a new form of what was once called Communism.” How does Zizek argue this? Using pop-culture, of course. Quentin Tarantino, HG Wells and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross are his go-tos.
“In the final scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 2, Beatrix strikes Bill with the ‘Five Point Exploding Heart Technique,’ the deadliest blow in all of martial arts…after the target walks away or has taken five steps, their heart explodes in their body and they fall to the floor.”
Covid 19 is the Five Point Exploding Heart Technique on global capitalism, according to Zizek. It is a signal that the world cannot continue as is, and radical change is needed as we only pave the road to complete self-destruction. This is where his disagreement with Agamben is made clear.
While Agamben critiques the current situation with a suspicion and anger at the government, and the separation politics playing out, Zizek believes that this is all only the means to a joining of forces. He light-heartedly uses Kubler Ross’s famous schema on the reaction to terminal illness as a short summary of the reaction to the pandemic: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance, where we give up fighting it, and come to accept and prepare for it. That is when the new and improved Communism will come into play.
Zizek’s book presents an interesting and comically accurate examination of the activities of 2020. Perhaps a tad too long, and sometimes predictable, it plays with the ideas of thinkers like Foucault, Marx and Lacan, and arrives at what it finds to be the only feasible solution. Zizek’s own boredom from the long quarantine comes out in spurts, but his steadfast movement towards his critical urging for well-thought out action is never in doubt. An easy read, with a few profound, pause-worthy moments, this book is Zizek thinking aloud through the lockdown.
Pandemic!: COVID–19 Shakes the World, Slavoj Zizek, Polity Press.