Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World
By Slavoj Zizek
Sweeping across the globe like a wildfire, the Covid-19 pandemic shook the very foundations of our life and its assumptions, and challenged the world’s mechanical order dictated by market forces. Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek delves into the political, ideological and socio-economic aspects of our headlong plunge into chaos, and proposes nothing less than a radical change, to confront “a stupid, self-replicating mechanism of Covid-19.”
With his typical enthusiasm for paradoxes, Zizek pits spiritual reflection against his atheism and communism by lambasting state control in China. The avowed atheist’s book begins with a story from the Gospel preaching love and solidarity among people, and relates it to forced physical distancing in the pandemic’s wake. Zizek frequently references Hegelian idealism to further the idea of metaphysical need and its importance for sustaining life in times of social distancing.
In the same breath that Georg Hegel is quoted as “we learn nothing from history”, Zizek holds that “I doubt the epidemic will make us any wiser.” The pandemic, according to Zizek, has no deeper meaning to ponder; instead, it has dethroned humans from their central place in the universe by catching them unprepared and leaving them struggling for survival.
Despite being a proponent of communism, Zizek takes China head on, criticising its social and political controls over freedom of speech, and declares Dr Li Wenliang — the first to raise the coronavirus alarm and silenced under the pretext of controlling panic — a hero. Zizek maintains that “This control itself spreads distrust and thus helps create more conspiracy theories.”
Maverick philosopher Slavoj Zizek delves into the political, ideological and socio-economic aspects of the coronavirus pandemic and brings forth some of his own contradictions
However, seemingly in two minds, the author believes perhaps stricter state control in China’s Hubei province saved the world. Keeping Dr Li’s last words — “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society” — in view, can there be more than one voice in Zizek’s brand of communism? The book does not discuss it.
Taking the Marxist perspective further, Zizek finds class divisions taking a new dimension during the pandemic. Critiquing Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han — who believes that the external class struggle has now morphed into an inner conflict — Zizek argues for a new set of restrictions to be imposed on the “intellectual class” from the outside. Citing Pakistani-British Kamila Shamsie’s example of her being divested of the Nelly Sachs Prize after her support for boycott measures against the Israeli government for its Palestinian policies, Zizek invites us to think “where we stand today” — man confronting man.
While Covid-19 has called for working from home — possible for a certain class of people who, according to Byung-Chul Han, are “master and slave in one” — it has also made it necessary for others to work and fight for the survival and well being of the sick. In Zizek’s view, the selfless devotion of a medical worker “is a meaningful work for the benefit of the community which brings its own satisfaction, not the stupid effort of trying to succeed in the market.”
Each chapter deals with a variety of ideas, simultaneously drawing examples from science fiction and current political turmoil, to suggesting solutions as radical as post-nationalism and global coordination. Going beyond nothing but a vague proposal of an organisation that “can control and regulate the economy”, the author feels content with clarifying that it is “not the old style communism.” But no clear roadmap comes from the author of this “little book” as to how the concept of global coordination on a humanitarian basis can be put into practice in the wake of what he calls “ideological viruses” of “fake news, conspiracy theories and racism.”
With multiple waves already widespread and deadlier variants hovering globally, predictions by this ‘most dangerous philosopher in the West’ have already begun coming true — writing during the first wave, Zizek predicted “if this wave recedes, it will likely reappear in new, perhaps even more dangerous, forms.”
The ideological virus seems to be most relevant in Pakistan’s context. Ranging from identifying Covid-19 with a Jewish plot against Muslims, to complete denial of the virus’s existence, conspiracy theories flourished in Pakistan in the absence of any cohesive national policy against the menace. The firm conviction on part of a large chunk of our society that it’s all a hoax, takes us to a character in Albert Camus’s The Plague who, despite a doctor’s assurance of finding dead rats, adamantly believes “there were no rats in the house, so this one must have been brought from outside. In short, it was a practical joke.”
As the race to produce the vaccine subsided and the vaccine survived cyber attacks, it was also suspected of engineering human DNA through the planting of microchips. The mastermind of this plot was declared to be Bill Gates, whose support for the anti-polio campaign in Pakistan was met with allegations of running an undercover birth control campaign.
Marvelling at the pandemic’s paradoxes, the book, too, appears to have incongruities. While Zizek criticises China for being an authoritarian state, he appreciates the enforcement of large-scale quarantines in the country. On the one hand, he recognises the horrors of state control in a communist society; on the other, he proposes a neo-communism, lending the state active and strong control to tackle the problem in a manner he calls “war communism.”
Zizek admits that “when I suggested recently that a way out of this crisis was a form of communism, I was widely mocked.” Similarly, though he considers it anathema that the wheel of the economy be driven and guided by market forces, to deal with the pandemic he suggests the establishment of an organisation modelled on the World Health Organisation (WHO), which, from the Marxist perspective, is a bureaucratic arm of capitalism to ensure its agenda.
Lastly, in hopes of getting “back to normal”, while the author imagines a utopian state in “[d]ead time — moments of withdrawal, of what old mystics called Gelassenheit, releasement — …crucial for the revitalisation of our life experience”, in more than one place he takes a scientific position, saying the pandemic “just happened and hides no deeper meaning” and that “this is not the time to search for some spiritual authenticity.”
Zizek proclaims Covid-19 a political situation. Whether we agree or not with his alternative model of neo-communism or with post-nationalism, capitalism has capitalised on Covid-19, both politically and economically. Vaccines from the inventing countries emerged with nationalistic labels as if competing in realpolitik. After masks, sanitisers and toilet paper, the vaccine is vulnerable to drug cartels creating a false shortage. Though the vaccine is a sigh of relief and it will have health benefits around the world, it enters into the market as a political vaccine.
The reviewer teaches English literature and linguistics at Greenwich University
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 1st, 2021