Communism and Barbarism: The Choices of Slavoj Zizek 

When Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, suggested last spring that the only way to save us from the Covid-19 pandemic was for society to organize through communism, many intellectuals and readers laughed at the proposal. The Covid-19 pandemic was barely escalating in the United States, it did not have the more than 200,000 deaths that it currently has. Moreover, it did no seemed that the Covid-19 would hit the economy the way it did.  For many, communism was an archaic form of economics that went to its grave when the Soviet Union fell in the 1990s.

Slavoj Zizek Proposes Communism to Adjust After the Pandemic

And yet, Zizek did not retreat. His pamphlet, PANDEMIC! Covid-19 Shakes the World emphasizes the communist measures that the world needs to make. “Measures that appear to most of us today as ‘Communist’ will have to be considered on a global level: coordination of production and distribution will have to take place outside the coordinates of the market,” says Zizek on the possibilities of his thesis. One would think that he was waiting all along for this moment; a moment in which a global pandemic brings the Capitalist system to its knees. But Zizek argues the contrary, “we should resist the temptation to treat the ongoing pandemic as something that has deeper meaning…” (After all, this is the man that has argued that is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism.)

Zizek’s essay explores the way in which the capitalist system makes people tired all the time. In the hyper globalized, interconnected world, where your boss can contact you even after the work hours, a new type of exploitation of the working class is surging. More precisely, a new dichotomy, “the self-employed and the self-exploited workers (described by Han) in the developed West, debilitating assembly line work in the Third World, plus the growing domain of human care workers in all of its forms (caretakers, waiters…) where exploitations also abound.” Moreover, the exploitation reaches new heights when: “They [the workers] are held responsible for the success of the company, while their teamwork also involves competition among themselves and with other groups. As organizers of the work process, they are paid to perform a role that traditionally belonged to capitalists.” It’s in this frame that Zizek’s notion that “we’re all in the same boat” suffers; those who own most of the Capital are not in fact in the same boat. Essential workers, like nurses, doctors, paramedics, even grocery store workers must go outside and risk their lives during the pandemic, while billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk get to increase their wealth during the crisis.

Zizek knows this, after all. He proposes that the Pandemic is “a signal that we cannot go on the way we have till now, that a radical change is needed.” What’s the radical change? Communism, of course. But, not just old-fashion communism, but “disaster communism,” one that could answer “disaster capitalism.” Zizek expands, the state must “assume a 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.”

If not communism, we’ll be descending into barbarism. That barbarism is the basic motto of those who don’t want to stop the economy, “a general Mad Max-style struggle for survival,” with some extremist groups adopting “the Nazi strategy: let the old and weak die.” Many leaders, like the President of the United States Donald Trump, has had the knee-jerk reaction of letting the economy flow, without the proper safety measures for the population. For Zizek, this behavior is an example of a capitalist system in which ‘everything goes.’ Zizek’s pamphlet wants to supply a daring and radical idea to escape such barbarism.

Zizek’s small work encapsulates the various steps in which we accepted the current pandemic. As the five steps of grief, we started with negation all the way up to acceptance. Of course, Zizek’s writing is not defeatism. It’s a cry for radical change; a longing to finally see the end of this form of “disaster capitalism” and a new wave of communism. We’ll have to wait to see if his old saying stays unscathed.

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A review of Slavoj Zizek, PANDEMIC! COVID-19 Shakes the World (OR Books, 2020, pp.85) 

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