By late March, just 10 days after the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Slavoj Žižek had already put out a book on the subject.
Pandemic: COVID-19 Shakes the World is a collection of essays amalgamated from what Žižek has been writing for Russia TV since the start of the media frenzy on the topic. It is an easy Sunday morning read that contains a mash-up of ideas, rhetorical questions and loose suggestions.
There is discussion of the social conditions that made the pandemic possible, such as the “globalization, the capitalist market [and] the transience of the rich;” questions about the unpreparedness of our public health systems, economic and social predictions (for instance, Žižek anticipates the libertarian, anti-lockdown protests that unfolded in the U.S. in April); and his typical Lacanian insertions, as when he interprets physical distancing as a way to fully experience the absence of one’s presence.
Continuing the thoughts expressed in his 2012 book The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, that the old bourgeoisie is no longer the old bourgeoisie that we knew, but rather has become a class of salaried managers (i.e., corporate executives), Žižek argues that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, workers are not a homogenized class. Alongside the precarious workers labouring in unsafe conditions so that the privileged few can quarantine, there are also the self-entrepreneurial workers, who have creatively learned to self-exploit and are now carrying the responsibility of their companies in continuing the business-as-usual approach through the pandemic.
COVID-19, which manifests itself in triple form — medical, economic and psychological — is a crisis of contingency, Žižek argues. It did not happen because we matter in some profound way, nor is it some kind of punishment for exploiting nature. “In the larger order of things, we are just a species with no special importance,” he writes, and our lives have no special meaning. “No matter how magnificent the spiritual edifices we, humanity, construct, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or asteroid can end it all.” The book’s overall message is that the changes wrought by this pandemic are permanent: life will not return to the “smooth functioning of the old ways of doing things.”
Typically, however, Žižek fails to provide a clear vision of what this new form of society will look like.
The solution proposed in the book is loosely defined: since market mechanisms are insufficient, a new form of communism has to be invented, some sort of universal collectivism that would reflect the erasure of our differences in the face of the coronavirus, and would organize production in a way that goes beyond simple market imperatives.
We are all in the same boat, Žižek states, and so we need to implement a “global health care network” and work towards a “reorganization of global economy which will no longer be at the mercy of the market” and which will allow for “another way to produce and allocate necessary resources.” Yet these grand claims are supported by only two anemic suggestions: that the production of masks should be requisitioned and that those who have recovered from the virus should be mobilized for public works.
Žižek ignores the fact that, even if we’re all in the same boat, we have different seats in the boat. Despite all being enmeshed within the capitalist functioning of the world, we are all on particular trajectories, framed by their own inclusionary and exclusionary logic. We cannot all work to find a common solution because we cannot all equally benefit from such a solution.
Yet he seems convinced that the COVID-19 pandemic is indirectly questioning our current way of living, which is filled with nonsensical “hectic activity” but deprives us of the moments of withdrawal that are needed for life renewal. It is from within such a context that Žižek anticipates that the COVID-19 pandemic will have positive effects, such as the erasure of consumerist behaviours and the building of solidarity, perhaps the start of a philosophical revolution towards a “non-alienated, decent life.”
A failure to direct these positive consequences into a new form of reinvented communism leaves us with the undesirable choice of barbarism, which Žižek calls a barbarism with a human face, where “survival of the fittest” measures are “enforced with regret and even sympathy.” Some examples of this barbarism have indeed started unfolding since the book was published: in Italy, wartime triage measures were adopted in March to ration medical care by age, and Germany and the U.K. have been taking in Eastern European seasonal migrant workers for the agri-food business, despite the now-closed borders and without offering them adequate safety protections.
Žižek discusses at length the position of Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher who has gone against the grain in arguing that the measures adopted to contain the coronavirus pandemic have activated a “state of exception” as the normal governing paradigm — that is, the crisis has been used by the state to legitimize oppressive measures of control. Calling it an “extreme form of a wide-spread leftist stance” Žižek argues against Agamben, on the basis that the state has no motivation to promote panic, since it is not in the interest of capital to trigger a global economic crisis.
What Žižek has missed, however — along with many others from the mainstream and radical left, who were quick to tear down Agamben — is that a strong state is not de facto good, but rather that its goodness depends on the state’s intent. Trusting a state when it has already made a pact with the market, when its intentionality is a priori envisioned to fit national market needs, becomes problematic. Should this type of state be trusted to institute measures that are good for the public, when this very same state regularly implements measures that benefit the market at the expense of its people? How will a state that has the market as its point of reference operate outside market imperatives?
When Žižek states that the free-market play of globalization is unregulated, he disregards the fact that the playing field has very clear demarcations. Think of international arbitration trials, for example, where companies are able to sue governments for failing to allow foreign corporate projects in their own countries. If the job of the state is to support the market, whose interests will such a state serve? Certainly, a strong state is desirable when the state’s governance is focused on the welfare of its people, but not when the market is still very much part of the state.
When the pandemic began, I was halfway through Žižek’s Sex and the Failed Absolute, published in September 2019. This is a fine piece of theoretical thought, similar to The Sublime Object of Ideology, the Verso book that made him famous. Amidst the convulsions of the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, Žižek seems to have once again lost his theoretical compass, and is simply regurgitating many of his overused ideas in a shiny new COVID-19 packaging.
Žižek’s book on the 2015 migration crisis received so much backlash that he was basically blacklisted by major media outlets. Pandemic: COVID-19 Shakes the World is not even controversial enough to attract public hatred. It is rather destined to be received with indifference.
Raluca Bejan is assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Canada. She has a PhD and a MSW from the University of Toronto, and a BA in political sciences from Lucian Blaga University, Romania. Bejan was a former visiting academic at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford, U.K., in 2016 and 2018.
Author image: Amrei-Marie/Wikimedia Commons