The dates are by now well-rehearsed. 31 December: China informs the World Health Organisation that cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause have been detected in Wuhan. 20 January: human-to-human transmission is confirmed. 24 January: scientists publish an article in the Lancet noting the coronavirus’s “pandemic potential”. 9 March: Italy imposes a national quarantine and enters lockdown. To this list of key moments, we can now add 24 March: Slavoj Zizek’s publisher announces that he has written a book about coronavirus.
That’s roughly 100 days between the outbreak of Covid-19 and Zizek firing up the presses. It’s an impressive feat, and for a prolific philosopher-provocateur known for his use of humour, feels like it was designed to be the punchline to a gag: what reproduces itself more quickly, the coronavirus or the commentary?
But Pandemic!: Covid-19 Shakes the World is thin on humour. In fact, Zizek wonders aloud whether he should exercise caution with his distinctive flights of conceptual fancy, given his “(as yet) safe external position” from the widespread suffering. He doesn’t. Over the course of the short book, he enlists those typically Zizekian thinkers and tactics – Hegel, Lacan, an analogy for capitalism’s health derived from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – to form 10 impressionistic chapters. Each circles a different subject, very occasionally landing on the thesis: a “new form of what was once called communism” is needed to avoid this pandemic resolving into a global nightmare.
The opening gambit is to use Jesus Christ’s injunction on resurrection to Mary – “Touch me not” – to explain how social distancing can underwrite solidarity. Zizek describes himself as a “Christian atheist”, so it’s not a surprising start and is also a little too neat. An odd chapter on “Putogan”, a portmanteau of Russia and Turkey’s leaders, allows him to write about the refugee crisis, oddly implying that it is the main challenge facing European “operational unity” during the pandemic. “Political correctness”, one of the philosopher’s bugbears, is mentioned twice. It’s hard to shake off a sense that Zizek, with the speed and efficiency of a just-in-time production line, has simply corralled events into a shape that fits his pre-existing interests and logical operations.
There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But what in the book works? There is a nice passage that counters the view that humanity is being “punished” by this epidemic for exploiting the natural world. Zizek thinks that such arguments have a reassuring function, since they assume that humans “matter in some profound way”; the really difficult thing to accept is that this “stupid self-replicating mechanism”, as he describes the virus, “hides no deeper meaning”. He is at his most powerful – useful, even – when simply pointing out that the moral task during this pandemic is to alleviate suffering, not to “economise”. There is something profoundly radical in the way states have adhered to this anti-economistic logic by locking down, and the temptation to return to “normal” at the expense of the sick must be resisted.
That said, Zizek has an inner liberal that stops him from praising China’s leaders – pioneers of the lockdown – for their handling of the crisis. He endorses journalist Verna Yu‘s comment that “if China valued free speech, there would be no coronavirus crisis”, in reference to the muzzling of whistleblowers. This disguises an inconvenient truth: as the months pass, China will likely emerge as the most effective superpower at dealing with the pandemic; the comparison with the poorly organised systems centred in Washington and Brussels is already stark. A crisis of legitimacy will follow and in anticipation of this – to find a way out of the binary between an incompetent western barbarism and ruthlessly efficient eastern totalitarianism – Zizek plumbs the present to find the unfolding of a latent “communism”.
When Zizek uses the term “communism” he is not talking about the “old-style” states of the 20th century, he tells us, but the necessity for a “global organisation that can control and regulate the economy as well as limit the sovereignty of nation states when needed”, and a coordinated shift away from the market. He sees stirrings of this in the massive mobilisation of state resources to pay private sector wages, nationalise services and direct industrial production.
When Donald Trump is issuing cheques to millions of Americans, and a Conservative British government is effectively nationalising the railways, old orthodoxies melt into air. And what further encourages Zizek is that this newfound solidarity is not based on leftwing idealistic sloganeering, but bare necessity. In Israel, the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “immediately offered help and coordination to the Palestinian authorities” to fight coronavirus because, as Zizek puts it, “if one group is affected, the other will inevitably also suffer”. Communism is the translation of this epidemiological reality into a durable politics.
Though this is interesting, it’s an image of communism that lacks a central scene: the fate of the working class. In the global south, where most of the world’s labourers live, millions find themselves desperate and immediately without income. In countries where there are fewer ventilators than cabinet members, where social distancing in crowded slums is impossible, where debt repayments to western creditors are set to rise, where there are no powerful central banks to issue bonds that investors will trust, Zizek’s “communism” means little. And contrary to his sketch of the situation in Israel, reports show Palestinians are worried about coronavirus overwhelming the West Bank after one sick labourer was “unceremoniously dumped” at the border by Israeli police. Israel has also linked the political conditions of returning captured soldiers to any future coronavirus-aid to Gaza, Reuters reports. It turns out the logic of domination trumps even the rationalism of “biological” solidarity.
Zizek has spent his career writing in anticipation of a world-historic moment like the coronavirus pandemic, a truly totalising event that would allow the Hegelian philosopher – Hegel’s being a totalising philosophy – to deploy his skills on the frontline. But this first attempt from our philosophical key-worker is forgettable. It’s frustrating, because there are moments when his analysis would be clearly useful, as when he asks: “Where does data end and ideology begin?” It’s a vital question as we spend our days glued to fatality graphs, but he doesn’t answer it. That, as he argues, “the virus hides no deeper meaning” must be a chilling prospect indeed.
o Pandemic!: Covid-19 Shakes the World by Slavoj Zizek is published by OR Books and is available from www.orbooks.com