Book Commentary: “Pandemic!” by Slavoj Žižek — Choosing Reality and Survival Over Panic and Barbarism
By Jeremy Ray Jewell
“In a crisis we are all Socialists,” goes an old adage. But can that instinct be trusted in an increasingly barbaric world?
Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes The World by Slavoj Žižek. OR Books, 146 pages, $15, paperback.
The cover of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s slim new volume Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World spells it out: “PANIC!” stands prominently and, stuck in the middle, is “DEM” — the demos, or the people. After all, unknown viruses aside, what is a pandemic beyond the panic of the people? In this small, 146-page book recently published by OR Books (all royalties will go to Médecins Sans Frontières), the self-proclaimed Marxist, Hegelian, and Lacanian provocateur argues that we should ignore three fallacious logics fostered by the panic/pandemic: the desire to succumb to the mysterious threat, the imbuing of the event with superstitious significance, and the machinations of panic itself. Rejecting these three temptations, Žižek posits a sober, unidealized assessment of the paths forward.
“Panic,” warns Žižek, “has a logic of its own.” Of course, the pernicious effects of rumors in uncertain times is a given. The logic of panic, however, decrees that belief in the substance of rumors turns out to be of negligible importance. Žižek explains that rumors in times of crisis, even once they are dispelled, perpetuate panic: “I know there is enough toilet paper and the rumor is false, but what if some people take this rumor seriously and, in a panic, start to buy excessive reserves of toilet paper, causing an actual shortage?” We see this logic in action each time the media reassures us (yet again) that there is no need to panic, all the while cranking out statistics and stories designed to maintain their ratings via our alarm and uncertainty. Panic is already, therefore, a sign of failure. We have not properly grasped the danger: “When we react in panic, we do not take the threat seriously — we, on the contrary, trivialize it.”
The government’s efforts to reassure us similarly fail. Reminiscing about his youth in Yugoslavia, Žižek recalls “when government officials regularly assured the public there was no reason to panic … we all took such assurances as a clear sign that they themselves were panicking.” While this failure exposes the impotence of our leaders, it also exacerbates the symptoms of public panic. One of those symptoms is the exaggerated attribution of agency to those same governments who’ve failed us. This can be seen on both sides of the political spectrum, from the “reopen” protests to those on the left. Here Žižek notably disagrees with his Italian colleague Giorgio Agamben, who sees the current implementation of emergency measures around the world as reflecting an expansion of a so-called “state of exception” (an increase of state power at the expense of individual rights). For Žižek, such thinking constitutes “an exercise of social-constructivist reduction, i.e., denouncing [the pandemic] on behalf of its social meaning.”
Going further, Žižek calls on us to reject all of the “usual suspects” of the political left: “globalization, the capitalist market, the transience of the rich.” While he doesn’t take his eye off the fundamentally ideological nature of capitalism (“if we stop acting as if we believe in it … capital ceases to exist”), Žižek insists that we reject superstitious interpretations of Covid-19 which seek to put our human experience at the center, either as helpless victims or culprits receiving their just deserts. Rather than proffering any deep meaning, the horror of the pandemic is the natural follow-up to the virus: “What we should accept and reconcile ourselves to, is that there is a sub-layer of life, the undead, stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual life of viruses, which has always been there and which will always be with us as a dark shadow, posing a threat to our very survival, exploding when we least expect it.” Facing that threat squarely encourages new forms of solidarity — and only that can carry us into a safer future.
After all, what is the alternative? To look at the threat squarely but to neglect considerations of practical collective responses is to to be defeated by the threat’s morbid mysteriousness. Part of the logic of panic is to succumb to the seductive lull of the unknown. As the author admits, “these days I sometimes catch myself wishing to contract the virus — in this way, at least the debilitating uncertainty would be over.” Not merely has panic taken hold in the media and supermarkets, but it is in our nightmares and waking anxieties. Discussions of the psychological impacts of quarantine and social distancing have already garnered media attention, a spotlight that produces its own public health panic in turn. Given all the uncertainty, the desire to succumb to the threat in order to make it finally tangible becomes a concrete threat in itself: “The moment this spectral agent becomes part of our reality (even if it means catching a virus), its power is localized, it becomes something we can deal with (even if we lose the battle).” Of course, this individual fantasy will not serve as an acceptable social program in a pandemic, unless, like the lieutenant governor of Texas, we propose mass sacrifice of the most vulnerable among us. Žižek describes such measures as akin to the crudely utilitarian policy of Ceausescu’s Romania, in which retirees were barred from hospitals. Such beliefs only amount to one thing: “Barbarism with a human face — ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimized by expert opinions.”
This short volume is filled with other reality-based insights into work and productivity in the days of Covid-19 and beyond. With over 100 thousand confirmed victims in the US, an estimated 40 million Americans unemployed, and millions of renters unable to pay, Žižek is not going to play the role of philosopher as distracter or comforter. Rather, he points us back toward the only way forward, which is to confront the problems we face. Žižek repeats an old dictum in economics: “in a crisis we are all Socialists.” That is to say, governments are prepared to use policies that appear to be “Socialist” to relieve the popular pressures/unrest of the pandemic. The author asks us to consider whether putting such a “human face” on what will remain a barbarian’s world is sufficient. Is it enough to resolve the effects of this crisis or to prevent another one like it in the future? Is it enough to “reopen” and “return to normal” when, as scientists acknowledge, the spectral threat viruses pose to global public health will be ever-present? To Žižek the only alternative to barbarism is a reinvention of a much-maligned moment in history; one which aspired to international cooperation, equality, and human dignity. A moment which went by the name of Communism. Arguably, efforts to coordinate a Progressive International today may mirror that opportunity in the past, but there is less totalitarian baggage. And, if we chose to look around us with an open-mind, it is possible to glimpse other community-minded potentialities, some unexpected, coalescing. The first thing we must do, however, is to reject panic and to choose humanity.
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.