Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Žižek on the Covid-19 PAN(dem)IC and Communism (Part 1/2)

It is now some ten weeks into the US and UK Covid-19 lockdown. I’ve been on the lookout for what intellectuals have been writing in reaction to the profound consequences of the global pandemic sweeping across the planet. The more recent responses have been recorded on individual or collective blogs such as Critical Inquiry’s “Posts From the Pandemic”. Notable examples include Catherine Malabou, Bruno Latour, Michael Taussig and Slavoj Žižek. Of these people it seems that Žižek is the first one to have produced a full length book on the pandemic.

Over the past few years I have not been particularly inclined towards Žižek’s philosophical stance based on dialectical materialism. But his recent book on Covid-19, developed out of his blogpost on the Critical Inquiry site) caught my attention immediately. And yes, in the ten weeks or so since lockdown started he has pumped out an entire book! A pretty impressive feat when you consider how long it takes for books to be physically published. The book is called Pan(dem)ic: Covid-19 Shakes the World and it is published by Polity Press. In this blog post and the one to follow in a few days, I want to present and comment on a couple of the more interesting insights from this little book of 135 pages. The two trains of thought I want to tease out are (i) the effect of the pandemic on how we think about life and politics, and (ii) the idea that Covid-19 is already catalyzing not so much the return of communism but a new form of communism. I want to focus on the second train of thought here and treat the first one more fully in my next post.

As the book’s advertising blurb states, “according to Žižek a new form of communism – the outlines of which can be seen in the very heartlands of neoliberalism – may be the only way of averting a descent into global barbarism”. Note that Žižek, a self-avowed Christian atheist, is not talking about socialism but communism, which, once the Iron Curtain had fallen and the USSR ‘defeated’ by the forces of Western capitalism in 1989, was supposed to have been exorcised from the Western imaginary. Of course communism has survived in China and a handful of other former Soviet bloc countries even as they have also embraced an aspect of the free market global trade.

Žižek acknowledges that he has been widely ridiculed by fellow intellectuals for suggesting such a preposterous idea. If the possibility of socialism coming back has produced such allergic reactions in the UK and USA, then the very mention of communism, let alone the idea that communism could be a way out of the Covid-induced crisis, seems laughable, no?

But Žižek is certainly not laughing about this. What he seems to be saying is that as the global pandemic develops and continues to linger in one way or another, our reliance on the mechanisms of the free market will not be enough to stop social chaos or hunger. Measures that most of us might regard as “Communist” will have to be brought into consideration at a global level (p. 12), in the sense that production and distribution will have to be coordinated outside the mechanisms of the free market. This would have been unthinkable as late as mid-March this year. But as the world has basically ground to a halt, the very word “communism” (once labelled by Ronald Reagan as the ideology of the “evil empire”) is now being touted as more than just a possibility. Listen to what Žižek says:

When I suggested that a way out of this crisis was a form of “communism” I was widely mocked. But now we read, “Trump announces proposal to take over the 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-organization of communities if state-run health systems collapse….  It is not enough just to isolate and survive – for this to be possible, basic public services will have to continue functioning: electricity and water, food and medicine will have to continue being available…. This is not a utopian Communist vision, it is a Communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. p. 92

There is something brazen about Žižek’s use of the term communism, particularly in light of widespread speculation that Covid-19 could bring about the collapse of the ruling communist regime in China. But Žižek is very clear that he is not talking about the “old style Communism” or any actualized forms that have existed or continue to exist. These have all ended up being perversions of the progressive core of communism.

Rather he seems to be suggesting something along the lines of a “global organization that can control and regulate the economy as well as limit the sovereignty of nation-states” (45). While Žižek doesn’t completely disagree with the neoliberal pundits who continue to push the idea that Communist Party in China will fall (for the simple reason that any change they make to the social order will in effect loosen their control over the Chinese people), Žižek reverses this pattern of thought and directs it right back at neoliberals. Using a hilarious but very clever analogy, he suggests that the Covid-19 epidemic will have the same effect on the global capitalism that the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” had on the character Bill in “Kill Bill – Part 2”, where Beatrix delivers the deadliest blow in martial arts to her former lover and kills him. Žižek’s point is that after Covid-19, the global capitalist system, with its incessant push to privatize everything, can never recover. Something fundamental about it will have to change.

We can see this already in the kind of measures that right wing populists like Trump are having to impose on the market economy to curtail “the freedom of private enterprises and forcing them to produce what is needed for the fight against coronavirus” (93); or the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing the temporary nationalization of the UK’s railways. How different is this from the kind of measures that the Chinese government has been taking recently. As Žižek wryly notes: “In a crisis we are all Socialists”.

However, it is in chapter 7 “Calm Down and Panic” that Žižek gives us the best definition of what he means by “communism”. What he is talking about is not a system but a “comprehensive approach [that] should reach well beyond the machinery of single governments: it should encompass local mobilization of people outside state control as well as strong and efficient international coordination and collaboration… [where] information is shared and plans fully coordinated…” (67).

This is the exact opposite of what is happening today when predominant stance is “every country for itself”. In a way that seems difficult to comprehend with all the ideological and physical wall-building that has been going on throughout the world, the true effect of Covid-19 according to Žižek won’t be limited to a state regulation of the free market economy. Just as importantly it also signals a body blow to the spread of nationalist populism which insists on absolute sovereignty of nation states. As Žižek provactively states Covid-19 should signal the end of the primitive tribalism of the “America-first!” attitude since America itself “can only be saved through global coordination and collaboration” (68).