‘Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World’ by Slavoj Žižek reviewed by Sukriti Sharma


Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World

Polity, Cambridge UK and Medford, MA, 2020. 140 pp., $14.95 pb
ISBN 9781509546114

Reviewed by Sukriti Sharma

About the reviewer

Sukriti Sharma is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian …

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Crisis, understood as an interruption of the normal, is seen as a negative moment that has to be either postponed, managed or overcome by a return to the normal. It is the Marxist tradition of thinking, on the contrary, that opposes this conservative reaction to crisis by viewing the interruption as a possibility for a radical change. This tradition proposes an ‘opening up of history’ at the moment of the irruption of crisis. It is a revolutionary tradition of reading history as pregnant with possibilities (both of catastrophes, on the one hand, and revolution, on the other). It is in this tradition, which carries the names of the likes of Walter Benjamin, that we can perhaps add the name of Slavoj Zizek. Zizek attempts to revitalise this thinking by arguing in Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World that the Coronavirus crisis, that has interrupted our normal lives, is a political moment full of possibilities, where one must decide between ‘barbaric capitalism’ and a ‘reinvented communism’.

In times of crisis, the state temporarily declares a state of emergency in order to restore its authority that the crisis threatens. During the Covid crisis, when the state declared emergency measures such as lockdowns and quarantine, philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben saw this declaration as a dangerous tendency of the state to ‘use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm’. Others like Alain Badiou saw in this moment nothing exceptional but a routine response of the bourgeois state to save its authority in times of war. Zizek, on the contrary, sees in this moment, a possibility for what Benjamin called a ‘real state of emergency’: a moment that explodes the continuum of capitalism, abolishes the ‘barbarism’ of privatisation and intensifies what he calls ‘solidarity’. It is this antagonism between barbarism and solidarity which is at the heart of Zizek’s book.

Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World asks three fundamental questions. Firstly, what is the nature of crisis today with the ‘catastrophes’, ‘storms’ and threats of ‘barbarism’ that we face? Secondly, why is it impossible to think of any return to the normal? And finally, how does this situation point to the urgent need to reinvent communism, a name Zizek gives to the signs of global coordination and solidarity within the present crisis?

Zizek argues that today we are facing a situation in which the threats of a ‘new barbarism’ are ‘already clearly discernible’ (3). For instance, he reflects on the subjective effects of this barbarism by examining the ‘different ways in which we become tired’ as a result of the nature of work in neoliberal capitalism (19). Contesting Byung-Chul Han’s argument that class divisions today are replaced by the ‘auto-exploiting labourer’ who is now ‘master and slave in one’, Zizek shows the continuity of class divisions and exploitation in neoliberal capitalism. He argues that assembly line work is not replaced but ‘outsourced’ to the Third World, so that we now have three categories or divisions of work: ‘self-employed and self-exploited workers in the developed West, debilitating assembly work in the Third World plus the growing domain of human care workers in all its forms (caretakers, waiters […]) where exploitation also abounds’ (20-23). Each of these figures are tired and overworked in different ways within the Coronavirus crisis: the assembly line workers risk their lives in the unsafe conditions outside, the precarious self-exploiting labourers follow the imperative of ‘work from home’ and ‘gain even more time’ to exploit themselves, and the medical workers or the care givers are overworked due to the sheer scale of the pandemic (26). So, this is the new form of exhaustion intensified by the Coronavirus crisis which can be seen as a crisis of the self, or the subjective aspect of what Zizek calls ‘barbaric capitalism’.

At a more objective level, barbaric capitalism is reflected in the curtailing of ‘unconditional solidarity’ and unity in the face of the proliferation of crises like the economic crisis, climate crisis, the Coronavirus crisis and its concomitant explosion of a ‘vast epidemic of ideological viruses: fake news, paranoiac conspiracy theories, explosions of racism’ (39). For Zizek, barbaric capitalism denies what is of absolute necessity in the face of these global crises: international cooperation and collaboration. An example of such destruction of solidarity would be what Zizek calls the ‘Putogan virus’: the violence in Syria orchestrated by both Putin and Erdogan creating a new wave of refugees in the middle of the Covid crisis. The danger here lies in how this situation would further provide the ground to fuel the anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe as ‘populist racists […] will be able to justify the exclusion of foreigners with scientific medical reasons’, making Hungary the ‘model for all Europe to follow’ (34). Another such instance Zizek highlights is the logic of the ‘survival of the fittest’ that the states would adopt once market mechanisms fail to protect all, sacrificing, in the process, the ‘cornerstone of our social ethics: the care for the old and weak’. Notions of ‘herd immunity’ and ‘let’s get back to work’ exemplify this logic. The real danger here for Zizek is not that this would result in open barbarism, but what he calls ‘barbarism with a human face – ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimised by expert opinions’ (86).

These are irretrievable changes which lead Zizek to argue that ‘there is no return to normal’. He insists that ‘the new “normal’ will have to be constructed ‘on the ruins of our old lives’ which can only lead to the choice between ‘new barbarism whose signs are already clearly discernible’ or ‘some kind of reinvented communism’ (3,70).

If the Coronavirus crisis shows the dangerous unsustainability of unregulated free market globalisation, it also shows the possibility of an intervention that brings it to a halt, ‘something previously thought to be impossible’. For Zizek, it is this possibility that must be seized: ‘our reaction to all this, what we should do, should also be the impossible’ (86). He locates this ‘impossible’ in the idea of solidarity, calling it the new name of communism today. The imperative of isolating oneself during the pandemic does not imply an ‘apolitical survivalism’ (98), where the other is seen only as a deadly other. Rather, the ‘impossible’ gesture in the face of the necessary isolation and the looming barbarism is to intensify ‘new forms of local and global solidarity’ along with a ‘control over power itself’ (75). This for Zizek is a new form of communism or what he calls ‘disaster Communism as an antidote to disaster capitalism’ (103). This would involve a ‘local mobilisation of people’ and an international coordination beyond state control as well as a strong interventionist state that abandons market mechanisms, grounds itself in science and ‘trust in the people’ (48,103). This is where Zizek differs from others on the left who decry state-imposed measures like the wearing of masks and quarantines as measures that curtail freedom and strengthen state surveillance. What is needed in the crisis is ‘mutual trust between the people and state apparatuses’ (12).

This perhaps is the most controversial and puzzling point of Zizek’s proposal and is where we would pose three critical questions to the book. First, the book does not clearly distinguish between the state as it exists today and the people’s state that it envisions. Further, how would this new form of state arise out of a crisis? How will it become possible given the real conditions today? Surely it has to first begin with a destruction of the existent state which primarily operates through two logics: on the one hand, it separates and divides people by creating a fictional nationalist identity, while on the other, it is compelled to protect and provide for the population as a whole, where the state must take everyone into account (as seen in the policies of universal healthcare, universal basic income and so on). This is perhaps what we saw during the pandemic when populist racist leaders like Donald Trump were compelled to adopt such measures. This idea of welfare, however, is not antithetical to capitalism as it does not change existing hierarchies. Nor does it weaken in any way the separating logic of the state mentioned above. Therefore, it seems that Zizek makes a hasty move in viewing the measures adopted by conservative, authoritarian leaders as signs of a possible radical change today and risks affirming the state in its present form. Further, given this situation, Zizek does not make clear how we would move towards the ‘trust’ between the state and the people.

This brings us to our second critical question about the subject of politics today. Given that there are some ‘unintended positive consequences’ of the crisis today, who would undertake the task of translating these consequences into a new communist politics? Who seizes the emergence of global solidarity in the crisis and gives it an enduring form outside the crisis as well? Does Zizek hint towards locating this new subjectivity in the medical worker today, when he calls their tiredness ‘worthwhile’ (since this tiredness is not for the sake of one’s own career but rather for the community) (27)? Then, is there a possibility for this ‘worthwhile tiredness’ to be translated into a new subjectivity in the crisis? How can we create the conditions for such a transformation? This perhaps is a fundamental question which Zizek does not build on.

Finally, isn’t it precisely this crisis of locating the subject of today’s politics that is reflected in Zizek’s hope that the mortal threat of the Coronavirus will unify humanity (105)? Zizek writes, ‘maybe, in this time of isolation and forced quietness, Israelis will gather the courage to feel shame in relation to the politics done on their behalf by Netanyahu and Trump […] some British people will gather the courage to feel shame about falling for the ideological dream that brought them Brexit’ (58). What such a statement risks arguing is that human finitude and mortality can become the condition of the thought of politics, overcoming social antagonism and thereby becoming the platform for a new unified subjectivity. But is this not an apolitical move inconsistent with the rest of the book, where politics is defined precisely as antagonism (between barbarism and communism)?

Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World courageously tries to respond to an exceptional time with a provocative immediacy. However, as a result of its immediacy, many of its ideas that otherwise have a definite theoretical and political potential demand more discussion. Though it might seem easy to dismiss Zizek’s book, like many did, on these grounds and on his wager that the Coronavirus situation would be a death blow to capitalism, its indispensability lies in the questions that it opens up about politics today. Hence one would not want to give up on thinking along with Zizek on the questions that are of fundamental concern to any thinking of change today.

4 May 2022

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