Outrageously Sane and Hopeful – reviewing Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World by Slavoj Žižek7 min read
If you’ve ever encountered his work, his writings are impossible to ignore. If you’ve ever heard his voice, his characteristic manner of speech is impossible to forget. I’m referring to none other than Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
Žižek’s biography reads that “his inventive, provocative body of work mixes Hegelian metaphysics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Marxist dialectic in order to challenge conventional wisdom” and he does that with style. In this collection of essays about the Covid-19 pandemic, Žižek combats the depravity of governments controlled by capital and their reaction to the epidemic with ideas so humane that they appear outrageous in contrast to today’s discourse. With constant allusions to movies and music, you can’t help but chuckle as you encounter the subtly profound wisdom found in Žižek’s Pandemic!
From the get-go, he outlines the social conditions which made the Covid-19 epidemic possible. In this interconnected world, people travel, vacation, work, and interact – thereby infecting others with the virus. “The usual suspects are waiting in line to be questioned: globalization, the capitalist market, the transience of the rich. However, we should resist the temptation to treat the ongoing epidemic as something that has a deeper meaning: the cruel but just punishment of humanity for the ruthless exploitation of other forms of life on earth. If we search for such a hidden message, we remain premodern: we treat our universe as a partner in communication.” This reminder to readers who are so saturated in political, religious, and nationalist narratives that Covid-19 is merely a virus, not something for us to interpret – feels shockingly out of place.
Marxism in pandemic workplace relations
At the height of the pandemic, people who work at home, as well as essential workers, were faced with a crippling new type of exhaustion. The pressure of capitalism’s business-as-usual mentality requires more from workers everyday at a time when things are unpredictable. People with jobs who deal in interpersonal relationships are instinctively forced to put on an act. Žižek explains this phenomenon by writing, “what makes the human-care work so weary is the very fact that they are expected to labor with empathy, to seem to care about the ‘objects’ of their work: a kindergarten worker is paid not just to look after children but to show affection for them, the same goes for those who take care of the old or the sick. One can imagine the strain of constantly ‘being nice.’” This is a direct attack on long held ideals of Western work ethic – that one’s workplace is a home and one’s vocation is somehow a calling, a passion, or identity.
He shares similar sentiment when it comes to creative work during the pandemic. “The ability to organize labor and combine cooperation efficiently and economically, and to think about the socially useful character of labour, is useful for mankind and always will be. However, they are doing this under the continuous subordination of capital, i.e., with the aim of making the company more efficient and profitable, and it is this tension which makes such ‘creative team work’ so exhausting.” These ideas are growing in popularity through Twitter and forums across the internet. To know that Žižek champions much of the same ideas is a collective sigh of relief. When the act of coming up with new ways of being is so commodified and profit-driven, these words are reassuring for a burnt-out creative.
But hope exists in the “meaningful work for the benefit of the community which brings its own satisfaction, not the stupid effort of trying to succeed in the market.” Despite the endless churn for survival, Žižek finds only hope when people are committed to one another.
The humanism in caring for refugees
Žižek references politics as frequently as he does pop culture. His commentary about the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey demands a different outcome for the thousands displaced. He writes about Turkey’s inability to support the growing number of refugees despite it’s direct participation in the Syrian Civil War in supporting one faction against the other. Russia and Turkey have been exerting pressure on Europe as a means of blackmail. “The devilish dance between Erdogan and Putin, from conflict to alliance and back to conflict, should not deceive us: both extremes are part of the same geopolitical game at the expense of the Syrian people. Not only does neither side care about their suffering, they both actively exploit it.”
Žižek writes that if Europeans fail to take responsibility for the Third World’s poor and make decisions for the collective well-being, then refugees will continue to stream through the borders, despite all the odds. However, the anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe remains staunchly against welfare. “While it is vital to all stress tolerance and solidarity towards refugees who are arriving, this line of argument that dealing with the difficulties of refugee flows is likely to be much more effective than appeals to abstract humanitarianism, appealing to generosity and guilt stemming from the undeniable fact that the cause of much suffering in the poorer nation is the result of European racism and colonization.”
Profound change is the solution. With so much unknown, now is time to redesign an alternate society, a society beyond a nation-state. Žižek sees the pandemic as a key moment where everything can, and should change for the better from the ground up. He urges the global economy to reorganize and free people from the mercy of market mechanisms, but unlike the method of old-style Communism.
Žižek’s protectionist communism
What Žižek yearns for is a world that takes absolute care and respects of individuals, despite their age or health status. He advocates for a state that assumes a more active role in curbing the pandemic such as producing masks and task kits, organizing isolation sites, and guaranteeing minimum survival for newly unemployed people by “abandoning market mechanisms. Just think about the millions, like those in the tourist industry, whose jobs will, for some time at least, be lost and meaningless. Their fate cannot be left to mere market mechanisms or one-off stimuluses. And let’s not forget that refugees are still trying to enter Europe. It’s hard to grasp their level of despair if a territory under lockdown in an epidemic is still an attractive destination for them.”
His vision for the future involves protection of society’s most unprotected. That would resemble a communal-style of economics and government -one that looks after the communities hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Out with Soviet-style communism, but rather a new form that is democratic and built from the ground up.
Perhaps the most unexpected moment in the book is his advice for the reader during the pandemic. It is mundane solace during this unpredictable year:
“Don’t think too much in the long term, just focus on today, what you will be doing till sleep. You might consider playing the game that features in the movie Life is Beautiful: pretend the lockdown is just a game that you and your family join freely and with the prospect of a big reward if you win. And, on the subject of movies and TV, gladly succumb to all your guilty pleasures: catastrophic dystopias, comedy series with canned laughter like Will and Grace, YouTube documentaries on the great battles of the past.”
What I love about Žižek’s work is that his philosophy is interwoven with media and culturally relevant references. Pandemic! is funny as much as it is a meaningful directive for anyone who does not have a seat at the table with the global elite. For the average worker beaten into exhaustion during these unpredictable times, Žižek’s words are a warm caress by way of logical reasoning, insightful prose, and humor.
Book details: Žižek, Slavoj. Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World, 2020. Polity. It is available to buy here.