“There is no return to normal, the new ‘normal’ will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives, or we will find ourselves in a new barbarism whose signs are already clearly discernible.”
Thus writes the Slovenian philosophical “rock star” Slavoj Žižek in his quick and dirty little book, entitled PANdemIC!: Covid-19 Shakes the World and made available for readers within just weeks after the start of the spread of the Covid-19 virus beyond China. (12)
Žižek has come to be revered over his years for his instant punditry on a mad miscellany of topics from Lacanian psychoanalysis to film criticism to Hegel scholarship to Donald Trump’s 2016 election. The book itself, a compendium of very brief, random musings on just about everything that popped up in the headlines from January to early March of this year, was treated with both wry amusement and ridicule by those who took time to review it.
But in contrast to Žižek’s well-known substantive reflections on theoretical topics that are strategically leavened with jokes as well as with engaging asides and eccentric literary references, PANdemIC! strikes the reader as more the mere jottings of what publishers love to call the “educated lay person.” Instead of effusing Žižek’s accustomed academic gravitas as the post-Soviet generation’s first and only authentically global public intellectual, that is, as one authorized somehow to speak on just about anything and everything, the book confronts the reader with the same kind of free-floating anxiety and vague nescience that seemed typical of most self-styled “experts” both in the early and later stages of the pandemic.
Most significantly, Žižek’s mildly confessional style of writing in PANdemIC! gives unmistakable utterance to his ongoing “core” commitment in his works over the past few decades, one which throughout various financial shocks, populist revanchements, and political screw-turning since the dawn of the new millennium has been the insistent mind trip of both comfortable academics and minimum-wage workers with highbrow aspirations.
The economic shortfalls and social dislocations of the pandemic, Žižek writes, will “compel us to re-invent Communism based on trust in the people and in science.”(46-7) Communism with a New Yorker magazine face!
At the same time, Žižek seems to fear that instead of such a smily-faced “communism” might not turn out to prevail in a post-Covid world. Instead we are just as likely to experience “barbarism with a human face—ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimized by expert opinions”.(96) Further on in his meandering, little tractate, however, Žižek makes it clear that what he is calling “communism” is really nothing more or less “simply as a name for what is already going on (or at least perceived by many as a necessity), measures which are already being considered and even partially enforced” – in other words, city-wide lockdowns, closures of restaurants, demands for “social distancing,” and so forth.
With typical demurral Žižek admits: “It’s not a vision of a bright future but more one of ‘disaster Communism’ as an antidote to disaster capitalism. Not only should the state assume a much more active role, organizing the production of urgently needed things like masks, test kits and respirators, sequestering hotels and other resorts, guaranteeing the minimum of survival of all new unemployed, and so on, doing all of this by abandoning market mechanisms.”(116)
Aside from the obvious fact that what Žižek describes as “communism” is nothing more than the kinds of garden variety emergency measures adopted as a response to the pandemic by most government entities just about anywhere on the planet, one scratches their head over what precisely are the political stakes nowadays. All visions of communism heretofore have focused on the “expropriators of the expropriators,” that is, the seizure of the means of production by the disempowered classes and a radical redistribution of both generative and rentier wealth in all sectors of the economy.
It is worth noting that Marx was really the first major thinker to characterize the system of both economic and political control in the early stages of the industrial revolution as “capitalism” per se, a term that earlier theorists would have found odd, insofar as the deployment of surplus stock, whether material or financial, for the sake of even larger remunerative ventures down the road was as old and time-honored as merchant trading practices.
What Marx saw happening around him in the first half of the nineteenth century was truly unparalleled, much as the latest wave of globalization and the planetary integration of once regional economies into gigantic transnational networks of finance, communication, and intellectual property deployment that began after the turn of the millennium to acquire the rather slippery sobriquet of “neoliberalism” could not easily be captured in the older frames of analysis.
If the new “disaster communism” that Žižek sees as facing its own summons to manage the world after the presumed collapse of the neoliberal world order following the viral onslaught were to be worthy of its name, it would have had a distinctive plan for the dissolution of the asset-holding classes. Instead, the asset-holders have become even more entrenched, while what was left of the working class became truly (in Marx’s famous phrasing)“immiserated.”
Thus “disaster capitalism” can hardly be distinguished from “disaster communism”, as Žižek attempts to do. In practice, they are one and the same. After all, it is the urban citadels of finance capitalism such as New York, San Francisco, and London, for the most part quite firmly in the hands of “progressive neoliberal” regimes, that have been most stringent and have persevered the longest in enforcing policies that protect the virus from spreading while safeguarding the lifestyles and prerogatives of the work-from-home professional gentry.
While the now laid-off nouveau-proletariat of service workers (sometimes referred to as the “precariat”) along with entrepreneurs of the so-called “gig economy” have been filing massive and unprecedented numbers of unemployment claims, and the chronically homeless and penniless huddle in even more dangerous back streets of cities as the stock market strangely starts to recover much of its earlier value, the de Blasios and the Whitmers of the world. It becomes a bit hypocritical to pontificate about protecting the “lives” of les miserables under progressive neoliberalism when the immediate knock-on effect is to destroy their livelihoods.
Of course, we have already witnessed from the late twentieth century onward a unique kind of “zoonostic” transfer of the chromosomic material of” disaster capitalism” to the genomes of what was supposed to be the purest form of communism itself – Chinese Maoism. It is not at all ironic that some of the boldest of Western progressive neoliberals, such as Dilip Hiro writing in The Nation, have praised the draconian Chinese response to the very virus that originated on their very own turf and spread to the rest of the world.
Continuing lockdown may indeed be the way to saving the planet, Hiro implies, not only from disease but from the already looming environmental crisis. The American president’s stated preoccupation with putting ordinary people back to work is something the Chinese know better than to hold out for. “Ignoring the warnings of scientists and public health experts,” Hiro argues, “President Trump threatens to disastrously extend his coronavirus chronology from hell into an increasingly painful future by ‘reopening’ the country too soon. By so doing, he will only accelerate the day when the World Leadership Trophy, held by America since 1946, is handed to the People’s Republic of China.”
Knowing what we do about how the Chinese ruthlessly enforced their lockdowns early on to get what many experts believe are pari passu a suspiciously meager number of confirmed cases, we may begin to wonder whether the progressive neoliberal adulation of President Xi’s own comm-capitalist brand of political economy isn’t also a call for what Žižek specifically terms “barbarism with a human face.”
Or perhaps Rosa Luxemburg wearing a mask of Tony Fauci! Or vice-versa. At any event, the reality behind the mask is quite different.
The point is that at some point – which may be much sooner than one anticipates – a certain politico-theological pseudo-Trinitarian homoousiosis of “disaster capitalism,” “disaster communism”, and smiling neoliberal barbarism may become the preferred political strategy for the urban, cosmopolitan political elites who desperately want to hold on to their capital assets while the real workers starve but the planet cools down.
It is noteworthy that few of the world’s most prominent academic Marxists showed up for May Day rallies this year, which would have required too much social distancing anyway to make the appropriate statement. Instead the dais was left open for ragtag bands of burly delivery truck drivers, Michigan gunslingers, angry independent salon owners, and worn out Amazon warehouse workers to wave the stars and stripes rather than the hammer and sickle while singing the Star Spangled Banner rather than the Internationale.
Way back when Marx had talked about turning Marx on his head, but now it is the “Marxists” doing the same to Marx. Maybe that is why Zizek’s Pandemic! will probably not have the same long-term knock-on impact as The Communist Manifesto.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.