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Review and reflection on Slavoj Žižek’s book PANDEMIC

It is not surprising that cultural and political theorists like influential Slovenian philosopher, Salvoj Žizek, are already mapping out the societal changes they believe, or hope, will follow the socio-economic devastation of successive lockdowns. It is clear that governments all over the world have bought time at a cost unprecedented in peacetime. There will be many long years of painful reckoning if we continue to follow old solutions. Anyone who proposes a new vision and a new kind of politics to lead us along a smoother path to a better future will have a ready audience. The forced pause in normal living has led us all to review our largely unexamined ways of life.  Žižek’s book Pandemic, with the middle syllable,’dem’ written down the letter ‘I’, so the title can also be read  as Panic, published in May 2020, taps into this general stocktaking and uncertainty about the post-pandemic world.

Fundamentally, Žižek predicts a paradigm shift from freewheeling market economics towards models defined by centralised planning and global solidarity and cooperation. He envisages societies no longer limited by ‘nationalist populism’, nor obsessed with consumerism and the intense productivity that feeds it. Such a society would give its citizens a more human, ‘non-alienated, decent life’, leaving each and everyone to enjoy the fullest life it is possible to live in our world, one that centers on essential human needs like ‘food, shelter, love and a task that matters’.  Such a re-set would leave the world better prepared for catastrophes such as pandemics. He does not shy away from naming what he has in mind. It is no more or less than ‘a new form of what was once called communism’.

He believes, like many leftist thinkers, that the pandemic has revealed fundamental flaws in our systems. Why was the world so unprepared for something that had been well flagged, he asks ?  For Žižek, our systems have failed a key test; there can be no returning ‘to old normal’ in any form. ‘We must rebuild anew on the ruins of our lives, livelihoods and systems’.  But then Žižek didn’t really need a pandemic to find deficiencies and limitations in global market economics. It is safe to say he is reading the signs of the times with a significant degree of bias confirmation.

Many would argue that it is human nature rather than any system that explains our unreadiness for crises. Collectively, we tend to err on the side of risk when faced with the known unknowns of life, often because there is some more immediate and visible problem to consume our anxiety.  Individuals as well as corporate and public bodies alike, took little heed of the economic doomsayers before the 2008 crash.  Despite warnings, communities around the globe still live at sea level and on the slopes of volcanic mountains. Very often health and safety protocols are only followed because breaches carry penalties.

Žižek believes that scientific and expert bodies should be central to the new inter-connected, co-operating world order he proposes. Bodies like WHO, he says, should be given more executive power. Governments would be committed to adhere to their directives. For all his talk of trusting people, Žižek seems to have more faith in systems.

Yet, the very body he would make pivotal in the new order, WHO, has been found more wanting than most in this crisis.  Expertise and putative independence did not prevent it from being politically entrammelled. The heavy hand of Chinese influence on WHO was evident from the onset of the pandemic to the enquiry it conducted in Wuhan, the source of the virus, one year later.  Following strong criticism of the enquiry’s politically nuanced conclusions, WHO chief, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebruysus, was forced to admit publicly that efforts to get to the truth were hampered by lack of data and access to data. Likewise, the fumbling response of the EU to the initial crisis in Italy and later its vaccine procurement process offer further evidence of the relative ineffectiveness of transnational bodies to act promptly and decisively in a crisis or to be any more outward-looking than national governments when it comes to putting self interest first.

Many of the most effective decisions about managing the crisis appear to have been made by national governments who took initiatives based on the geographic, cultural, socio-economic and demographic particularities of their own countries. New Zealand, the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and Israel offer examples of how thinking local within a global challenge can deliver better outcomes. When Boris Johnson wanted to secure supply of reliable vaccines for the UK, he asked a British venture capitalist, Kate Bingham, to undertake the task. The team she assembled was mainly drawn from the private sector.  As we now know the success of her approach is in marked contrast with the efforts of the EU despite its collective resources. According to Bingham, the venture capitalist approach is one of ‘partnership’ with suppliers.  It is not about ‘penny pinching’. Public bodies, she says, are more likely to be risk averse. Venture capitalists expect ‘a proportion of failures’. In government, ‘if you have one failure, the press is all over you’.

This is indeed an interesting insight and could explain why the private market tends to deliver even in a crisis. Yet Žižek contends, we are ‘all socialists in a crisis’. He cites Trump’s and Johnson’s readiness to take equity and control in public service companies struggling during the covid lockdowns and newly dependent on government support. However, wartime, even when the foe is a virus, has always called for ad hoc initiatives.  Like lockdowns and all the other emergency measures we have become familiar with, their use is contingent and acceptable only because they are considered necessary and temporary. If they worked outside emergencies, one might expect them to be deployed already, somewhere in the democratic world ?

Almost a year since his book was released, others from the mainstream of politics and public commentary have taken up the notion of ‘a great re-set’, once the dust begins to settle on this crisis.  Žižek may prove right in believing that Covid19 will ‘give a new boost of life to communism’. However, as a philosopher, he should be asked to consider the ‘Chesterton fence’ principle -and Žižek has declared himself elsewhere a great admirer of the English writer and humorist.  According to Chesterton, it is foolish to remove a fence before first discovering why it was put there.  The corollary also holds. Why would Žižek or anyone else propose reinstating a discredited system without first seeking to understand why all its experiments have so far failed ? If he can’t identify this, one might suggest he is doing little more than re-branding snake oil for people whose usual relatively effective remedies have fallen short in an unprecedented, deadly pandemic.

Žižek does indeed point to the lack of ‘trust in people’ as one explanation for the historic failure of communist systems.  It is indeed plausible that if China had given space ‘for citizens’ critical reactions to circulate the global pandemic might have been averted’. It would certainly have given the world time to prepare its defences.  However, governments of every hue, like people, will try to hide their failures and transgressions with the means at their disposal. History shows it is much more difficult for power holders to suppress free speech in an open economy and democratic order of government than in a centralised, less accountable system.

Perhaps the fundamental flaw in Žižek’s reasoning is that he relies too much on the power of human rationality to override the human orientation towards self-seeking as well as everything else that makes us want to be free agents rather than just mere cogs in a system no matter how well ordered and sustaining it pledges itself to be. The history of politics and systems of government shows that maximum freedom for citizens, compatible with the common good, also delivers the best outcomes for societies.  Systems are as good as the people who operate them so long as they remain visible and accountable to those they serve.  When they become unwieldy, labyrinthine and opaque, they become elitist, remote, self-serving and almost certainly corrupt.

It is certainly a very natural response to sudden, unsettling disruption to take stock in both the private and public spheres of life. Many people, perhaps most of us, are already planning our personal ‘re-sets’. The forced break from the pressured pace of modern life suggests there may be better ways of organising time and resources. Żiźek’s conclusion that we have become ‘a burnout society, slaves to our own competitive drives and the optimization of performance’ will resonate with many. For Žižek, corporate and commercial life are full of ‘falseness and pretence’ as well as ceaseless striving. We sell products we don’t care about by seducing others to buy what they have no reason to really care about either. In this artificial world where profit is the measure of worth, we exploit those at the base of the capitalist model, particularly those who work as carers. They too have to display empathy and enthusiasm that they may not feel but for very much less reward. Like their economic betters, their work security too depends on a great deal of fakery.

Some of the market invented needs that Žižek identifies can no longer be met while we battle the pandemic. We may find living without them is something of a relief. Covid 19 has forced us to forego things like the ‘obscenity’ of cruise ships, our ‘obsession with individual vehicles’ and with ‘boring, stupid amusement parks’. Many of us already realise that a simpler way of life can be healthier and more beneficial on many levels. There are many, many things about our consumerist, capitalist culture that are not conducive to human flourishing. Few would argue with Žižek on that point. There is unquestionably ongoing need to reform and update systems and institutions that humankind has developed to support public life.

However, the ‘Chesteron fence’ objection arises here again, in its positive formulation.  How prudent can it be to discard systems that have evolved alongside human development over centuries while allowing maximum freedom to citizens to actively shape and reshape them, either directly by engaging with them or indirectly through the ongoing shifts in behaviours and attitudes that characterise free societies?  Besides, Žižek’s contention that our systems have failed categorically and conclusively and that we must undertake ‘rebuilding anew on the ruins of our lives’ presumes his diagnosis is beyond contest. It is not.

People are indeed thinking outside their usual boxes at this point. They may well be setting the seeds of radical social, economic and cultural changes of the kind that will radically, and most likely gradually, modify our corporate and political systems.  Paradigm changes, drawn up in the intellects of philosophers and ideologues, have a poor track record against the more measured progress of free societies.  One of the chief reasons for this is, perhaps, that the anthropological understanding on which their thinking tends to be based does not acknowledge a sense of transcendence as a dimension of human consciousness. Faith, religion, the itch of the ‘big questions’ which are always more to the fore at times of crisis, are not understood as a distinct, let alone defining, constituent in what makes us human. Faith in a transcendent power has defined human beings across cultures, continents and millennia. Yet, secularists and atheists like Žižek, do not see it as a distinct facet of our nature but rather something that may or may not be part of the psychological and the sociological dimensions.

This view of man means essentially that humankind is no more or less a species than the viruses that threaten our survival. There is ‘no meaning, no message from either God or nature’ for humanity in this pandemic, according to Žižek.  We are dealing with, as we always have, ‘a sub layer of life, the undead, stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual viruses that have always been there, and always will be with us as a dark shadow to remind us of the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives’.  According to this formulation of existence, human rationality is the only advantage in our survival struggles alongside hosts of other competing, predatory and parasitic species. But rationality, however underpinned by expertise and science, is as easily harnessed by the dark forces of our nature as by what we might call ‘our better angels’. History shows our rationality has no built in moral compass.  It can equally be an agent of good and evil.

Why would Žižek, with such a reductionist view of human nature have such faith in our ability to construct and administer systems capable of delivering something approximating a modern Utopia ? What would he say to the argument that it is only through the guidance and grace that flows from faith in a loving creator that we are capable of directing our rationality towards positive ends? As a European of a certain age, he describes himself as ‘ a Christian atheist’, but nowhere in this work does he explain how his thinking is influenced by Europe’s religious patrimony.  In Pandemic, he confines his comments to the exploitative and corrupting legacy of Europe’s colonialism.  Yet, colonisation and the evangelisation it facilitated it had many undeniable positives. As well as founding numerous networks of hospitals, clinics and schools, it promoted concepts like the rule of law, the presumption of innocence and ultimately democracy and the universal franchise. Finally, it was the world’s most far flung, colonizing power, Great Britain, that led the movement against slavery, something it did not invent though it has come to be associated with it in a wildly disproportionate way.

Colonialism too ended or at least challenged many of the cultic barbarities that Christianity had already wiped out in Europe itself. It is often forgotten, because of the identification of ‘Christendom’ with Europe, that the faith is not indigenous to the continent. Its first foundations were in the Middle East and North Africa from which it spread over four centuries or so across the European continent. It inspired and shaped the great achievements of our civilization  It still survives in relative freedom in our continent but who would say that its uprooting in its original heartlands has made life better for their peoples? There are countries in Africa and Asia that were never colonised by European powers, never evangelised under colonial rule, whose state today is more troubled than those that were.

In the great post pandemic reckoning that Žižek outlines, he hopes that Israel will be brought also to re-imagine its policies towards its Palestinian neighbours. It is hard not to suspect unconscious anti-semitism whenever Israel is singled out as an example of what needs fixing in a world so engulfed in barbarism of almost unimaginable and diabolical depravity.

Yet, it is descent into barbarism that Žižek believes the world is now facing unless we discard the systems that, according to his reasoning, have failed us so catastrophically in the last year and embrace a radical new paradigm of politics and economics. For him, there is only a binary choice, ‘barbarism or communism’. Given that much of the barbarism of the 20th century was the result of communism, something he would not deny, his proposals sound optimistic to the point of denial.

How much more reasonable to define the choice we face in terms of ‘barbarism or Christianity’ ? It is only Christianity that teaches an anthropology that sees every individual as a son or daughter of a sovereign Creator. Equally, it is only Christianity that teaches we are all sinners, called to both receive and dispense mercy, that there are no saved and no damned this side of eternity.  It is only Christianity that urges us to love our enemies. It is only Christianity that believes in Truth that is not relativised by ideological fashion. The philosophy of our age, or any other, has no such foundation. In fact its positions are the reverse of all those tenets. And they have led consistently, logically and inevitably, to the absurdities of wokedom, something Žižek abhors as much as any conservative.

Žižek’s Pandemic offers a compelling critique of the arid, shallow, alienated venality of our times. His slim book opens up many interesting discussions because it touches on the central question of life: in its Gospel iteration, ‘What then must we do?’ His answer rests on the foundation of our collective good sense, rationality and science, the limitations of which arguably give rise to the question in the first place. He offers the reader no grounds to believe why the current pandemic and its aftermath will render old, failed solutions sufficient on this occasion. He bypasses the rather obvious point that it is the great, eternal questions rather than the temporal ones, that tend to most occupy people when they find themselves walking ‘in the valley of the shadow of death’ as the world has been in a particularly immediate way over the last twelve months.


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