Slavoj Zizek's 'Brutal, Dark' Formula for Saving the World

The pandemic is liable to worsen, ecological disasters loom and technological surveillance will terminate democracy. Salvation will come only by reorganizing human society. A conversation with the radical – and anxious – philosopher Slavoj Zizek

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Slavoj Zizek.
Slavoj Zizek.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

This is not an easy time for Slavoj Zizek. Quite the opposite, and he’s the first to admit it. Reoccurring panic attacks incapacitate him for hours at a time and, unlike in the past, the nights have stopped providing him with an easy escape. His sleep is wracked by nightmares of what the future holds for humanity. There are days when he fantasizes about being infected by the coronavirus. At least, that way all of the uncertainty would come to an end, or so he imagines. Finally, he would be able to cope with the virus concretely, instead of continuously being haunted by it, as some sort of a spectral entity.

Our conversation begins with him in the interviewer’s seat. “What’s happening there? How do you survive? Do you stay in the apartment? Do people go out? How is it in Israel, can you swim again?” His questions come in rapid-fire succession, and then stop as quickly and abruptly as they started, and then he apologizes: He’s worried that his anxiety won’t allow him to complete the interview. But gradually he hits his stride.

We’re speaking in the wake of the publication last month of his new book, “Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World,” which he wrote at lightning speed, in just a few weeks. It’s unmistakably Zizek: Its pages are a bag full of tricks, and provocative, as always. Still, it’s not the most impressive work he’s produced. Mirroring his state of mind, the book is a conceptual maelstrom, an unpolished sprawl of fragments of ideas, not all of which are fully developed. However, criticism along those lines is liable to miss the heart of the matter: This is an attempt by one of the leading philosophers of our time to address the broadest possible public as quickly as possible, while we are still at a crossroads.

He’s one of the very few living intellectuals who need no introduction. Still, it’s hard to refrain from describing the phenomenon that answers to the name of Slavoj Zizek. A philosopher, a cultural critic, a dynamo of ideas who loathes political correctness and bashes left and right with equal abandon. He leaps between Kant and Hegel, Freud and Lacan, deconstructing everything he encounters: historical events, political movements, theological treatises, films, symphonies, technological developments and Coca-Cola ads. This is the stuff of his charismatic solo performances in interviews, lectures, documentary films and of course his books.

He’s been tagged the “Elvis of culture theory,” “the greatest philosopher of the New Left” and “the most dangerous philosopher in the West.” He has plenty of advocates, but also no few critics who have wondered if he isn’t just a philosopher clown, “the Borat of the philosophers,” as one journalist once suggested. Be that as it may, in the past decade he has featured on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the world’s 100 leading thinkers. He is that rarest of phenomena: a celebrity philosopher.

Not getting it

At age 71, Zizek is currently closeted in his home in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, with his fourth wife, the Slovene writer and journalist Jela Krecic, who is three decades younger than him. During the past couple of weeks the epidemic seems to have faded in his country, with only two or three new cases being reported daily. But Zizek, who spoke to Haaretz via Skype, is in no hurry to breathe a sigh of relief.

Let’s start with how you’re feeling these days.

“Still alive. I’m so-so, depressed as always.”

What is it that worries you so much?

“What worries me lately is what I would call similar mass psychological mood shifts in different places. Until just recently there was quarantine paranoia, and suddenly the atmosphere magically changed: ‘Oh, maybe it’s not so serious, maybe it’s not so bad.’ The right-wing nationalist government in Slovenia wants to score points from this, as if life should be allowed to return to normal. The prime minister, Janez Jansa, who is a close friend of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, presents himself as the father of Slovenian independence. Now his motto will be, ‘I saved Slovenia two times – from communism and from the virus.’”

Sounds familiar.

“Yes, I understood something similar is happening in Israel. I think this is a dangerous moment. I detect a sinister logic behind it. It’s something like, ‘Who knows what will be in the autumn with the second wave, so let’s live the little bit of freedom we can get now.’ It’s a ‘Kill Bill’ moment, as I noted in my book.”

A bushfire in Australia, January 2020.Credit: SAEED KHAN / AFP

Zizek likens the coronavirus crisis to the concluding scene in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Kill Bill: Volume 2.” During the final confrontation, the heroine strikes the evil Bill in several places, causing his heart to explode after he takes a few steps. According to Zizek, the moment that elapses between the blows and the death resembles the state of the global capitalist system now, after the blows it took at the height of the pandemic.

On the other hand, in many places the epidemic has in fact faded.

“We are more and more disoriented. There is a little good news, but at the same time there are new dimensions to the virus, and new variations that might turn out to be more dangerous. We now have this fake return to normal. The really frustrating thing is this lack of basic orientation. It’s the absence of what [the philosopher and literary critic] Fredric Jameson calls ‘cognitive mapping’ – having a general idea of the situation, where it is moving and so on. Our desire to function requires some kind of clear coordinates, but we simply, to a large extent, don’t know where we are.”

You write in your new book, “There is no return to normal, the new ‘normal’ will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives.” But what if the peak of the epidemic is behind us? Maybe the world won’t change so fast.

“It’s so frustrating, all these myths we desperately tried to cling to. First ‘the summer heat will make it better,’ then ‘in the fall there will be a vaccine,’ then ‘we will achieve herd immunity.’ All that is disappearing, and the virus looks like it is here to stay. What happens if there is a second wave at the same time that there’s a flu wave? We had the illusion that ‘one month of quarantine and then life will go back to normal.’ That is over, so now we’re confronting the real problem: how to build a new world in these conditions.”

'I don’t agree with those who claim that now is no time for politics, that we should mobilize to survive. No! Now is a great time for politics, because the world in its current form is disappearing.'

In his book, Zizek recalls the warnings of scientists after the SARS and Ebola epidemics. Persistently, we were told that the outbreak of a new epidemic was only a matter of time, but instead of preparing for the various scenarios we escaped into apocalypse movies. Zizek enumerates different scenarios of looming catastrophes, most of them consequences of the climate crisis, and calls for tough decisions to be made now.

In the end, all roads lead to global warming.

“I want to quote the French philosopher Bruno Latour, even though philosophically, I’m not on his side. He said that the coronavirus crisis is just a dress rehearsal for future problems that await us in the form of global warming, epidemics and other troubles. I don’t think this is necessarily a pessimistic view, it’s simply realistic. So many people have been warning us about this – there will be epidemics and ecological disasters – and now we know what it looks like. We need to stop thinking through a capitalist prism. I don’t agree with those who claim that now is no time for politics, that we should just mobilize to survive these dangers. No! Now is a great time for politics, because the world in its current form is disappearing. Scientists will just tell us, ‘If you want to play it safe, keep this level of quarantine,’ or whatever. But we have a political decision to make, and we are offered different options.”

Let’s talk about what you suggest.

“What if we will need another lockdown, even longer? Or multiple lockdowns? It’s a sad prospect, but we should get ready to live in some kind of permanent state of emergency. What we should fear now is a perfect storm: a health, economic and mental health crisis. You know, Marxists like to make fun of the state mechanisms of oppression and domination, but we desperately need an efficient state apparatus. I think we’re entering a new era. This virus doesn’t mean everything is over, but we need to reorganize our social life.”

What will that societal reorganization look like?

“We should focus on what is crucial, which is, first, health care. The coronavirus epidemic is a universal crisis. In the long term, states cannot preserve themselves in a safe bubble while the epidemic rages all around. We need coordinated efforts, centralized at least in some sense, and we need to get ready for long periods of infection. We shouldn’t think in terms of money when it comes to health. Materially, we have the means to organize some kind of global health care. If we don’t, our global unity is liable to disappear, and it could be the end of globalization as we know it. People will continue to die in certain places, at the same time that others try to continue functioning as isolated bubbles. Australia and New Zealand are trying to establish their own joint bubble, but I don’t think this will work. Every country has a right to protect its citizens, but it’s dangerous to see this approach as a solution, because in this way the long-term threat will remain.”

What is the solution?

“Globalization today shouldn’t mean abolishing quarantines and so on, it should mean tightly coordinating procedures and helping each other. That’s the life-and-death question: Will we be able as humanity to coordinate our resources in order to confront together what looms ahead, or will this logic of bubbles continue to predominate?”

Away with fashion

For starters, Zizek believes that international bodies need to be strengthened, among them the much maligned World Health Organization. In this spirit, he decided to donate all the royalties from his new book to the organization Doctors Without Borders.

“The next serious problem I see is a food shortage,” he continues. “States are aware of it and I hope they’re getting ready. At the moment, we are living off old stocks. Now it’s the spring harvest, and in Europe they have a problem. In France, for example, most of the spring harvest is done by people from other European countries, but now borders are closed. Who will do the work? The WHO is constantly warning that the pandemic could lead to mass starvation, so we need to reorganize our agriculture and food distribution.”

One thing that riles Zizek is the concern being shown by many for nonessential industries. “People say we need to revitalize the economy, and I say: Forget about the economy we have now. We have to treat simply as irrelevant things like the fashion industry, the need to have a new car every two years, or whatever. It’s tragic, I know, that all kinds of big companies are in deep shit, but are they worth saving?”

In your book you suggest reinventing communism, such that it will provide a solution to all our problems, now and in the future. Can you elaborate on this?

“The formula proposed by Marx and Engels was, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’! Yes! But this will not be in the way Marx meant it, where everyone will have a comfortable life, with whatever they need, and choose their creative job and so on. My formula is much more brutal, and darker. The state should simply guarantee that nobody actually starves, and perhaps this even needs to be done on an international scale, because otherwise you will get refugees. For our part, we need to forget about cars, air travel, fashion – and everyone should give back to society according to their ability. This means, for one thing, that the state should be given a certain right to mobilize people when needed. Can you imagine any other way to solve the problems we face?”

'Materially, we have the means to organize some kind of global health care. If we don’t, our global unity is liable to disappear, and it could be the end of globalization as we know it.'

I’m not sure that idea will get much support, especially not in the individualistic West.

“I am not some evil old communist, and I don’t have any great communist dreams. We don’t need a communist party exercising tight control for this. I hope it’s clear that I don’t mean what we usually associate with 20th-century communism, or the weird hybrid forms that exist in countries such as North Korea and Cuba, or the fusion between despotic communism and brutal capitalism that is practiced in China and Vietnam. That’s why I use the expression ‘war communism,’ to describe a situation in which society is on the edge and the point is to organize a minimal, decent survival.”

If we examine the new left – those who recognize the seriousness of the climate crisis and promote such ideas as universal medical insurance and a basic income for everyone – there is truly a momentum of ideas that were once considered off the wall. But it seems to me that, even so, the road to the dark communism you are proposing is still very long.

“People tell me, ‘You’re crazy, you exaggerate,’ but aren’t governments already thinking in these terms, already doing it? Look at what even Trump had to do. He gave billions to ordinary people, and despite the fact that he gave even more to save corporations, we should be aware that this is no longer capitalistic market logic; we changed the horizon and it’s difficult, it’s a risky experiment.”

There was a rescue package in 2008, too, but more than a decade later capitalism is still very much alive.

“We live in a time when many things are possible and more strange things will happen. The economic problems will compel those in power to take actions that before this crisis appeared to be radically leftist measures. Even conservatives are having to do things that run against their principles. There are some radical things that only a right-winger can do – if a left-winger does them, he will be considered a traitor. Nixon made peace with China, and de Gaulle accepted Algerian independence – while the socialist government before him didn’t dare do it. Take Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un: If Obama had done it, he would have been branded a communist puppet.”

That’s an argument that Israelis can relate to, because we remember that it was right-wing leaders who removed the settlements in Sinai and the Gaza Strip. On that note, do you share the view that the epidemic will serve as a cover for Israel to annex areas of the West Bank and deepen the occupation?

“Maybe I’m too much a humanist utopian, but secretly I hope that the coronavirus crisis will scare the shit out of Israelis and Palestinians and seduce them into, ‘Okay, let’s try a little bit more of collaboration and mutual help.’ I know that now, in Gaza, textile factories are working full time making masks even for Israel. In this regard I’m almost a classical liberal capitalist – ‘commerce is good,’ you know? You begin by exporting masks to Israel, who knows what can happen… I don’t expect a big peace conference, let’s begin slowly by developing commercial links, without thinking in terms of total peace or a fight to the death. Let’s say, ‘Yes, maybe there will be a point in the future when we’ll try to kill each other, but until then – why don’t we sell you some masks, you’ll sell us some water or whatever?’ I believe in short-term pragmatic gestures, which can lead to something. I’m not a complete utopian, but maybe.”

A man wearing a protective mask walks under surveillance cameras in Shanghai, China, February 28, 2020.Credit: Aly Song / Reuters

The China syndrome

Although Zizek speaks of the need for a strong state, he is disturbed by the possibility that the West will follow China’s example with regard to citizen surveillance and the elimination of privacy.

“As I always said, even before the coronavirus, with all these new techniques of digital control, we’re approaching a new model. I can smell it in the air. You’re not openly controlled, you still appear to retain your personal freedoms, you order this and that food, you can do whatever you want in your own little isolated world, you can have your personal perversions. But in practice the control isn’t any less tight than in the Chinese model – maybe even more so. In China at least nobody has great democratic illusions, you know you’re tightly controlled by the party, the state apparatus and so on. The mechanisms of control in the West don’t work like that; I am very wary of the authorities’ cooperation with Google.”

Perhaps you could explain your concern, because as I understand it, you’re not just talking about surveillance and the infringement of privacy.

“I’m talking about what Naomi Klein calls the ‘Screen New Deal.’ The big technology companies like Google and Microsoft, which enjoy vast government support, will enable people to maintain Telexistence. You undergo a medical examination via the web, you do your job digitally from your apartment, your apartment becomes your world. I find this vision horrific.”

So those who see this change as an act of liberation are wrong?

“First, it’s class distinction at its purest. Maybe half the population, not even that, could live in this secluded way, but others will have to ensure that this digital machinery is functioning properly. Today, apart from the old working class, we have a ‘welfare working class,’ all those caregivers, educators, social workers, farmers. The dream of this program, the Screen New Deal, is that physically, at least, this class of caregivers disappears, they become as invisible as possible. Interaction with them will be increasingly reduced and be digital.”

In the book you take note of the price that the privileged class, too, will pay in this situation.

'It’s tragic, I know, that all kinds of big companies are in deep shit, but are they worth saving?'

“The irony here is that those who are privileged, those who, in this scenario, will be able to live in this perfect, secluded way, will also be totally controlled digitally. Their morning urine will be examined, and so on with every aspect of their life. Take the new analysis capabilities that can test you and provide results [for the coronavirus] in 10-15 minutes. I can imagine a new form of sexuality in this totally isolated world, in which I flirt with someone virtually, and then we say, ‘Okay, let’s meet in real life and test each other – if we’re both negative, we can do it.’”

Perhaps above all, Zizek is uneasy about the power that will be concentrated in the hands of the few. “Can you imagine how much power will be concentrated in the hands of the digital giants when they enjoy state collaboration? As Julian Assange wrote, we will get a privately controlled combination of Google and something like the NSA. So this is another reason that I am against the Screen New Deal; they will totally control our lives, and democracy in any meaningful sense will thereby be abolished. Maybe we need some sort of mechanism to cope with the pandemic, but it should be controlled publicly and transparently, because it’s our money. That can be done.”

Zizek enunciates each syllable of that last sentence separately, as though he were speaking in the town square. Possibly he misses the period when he addressed large audiences and forgot momentarily that he was speaking with one individual.

“We can be opposed to this [monitoring] without engaging in any health risks,” he continues. “I’m not saying, ‘No control, walk in the parks freely, embrace each other and so on.’ But it’s not necessary for this system that tracks us and so on to function in this nontransparent way.”

Suddenly he recalls an interview he read with the entrepreneur Elon Musk, and once again he’s fired up. “He talked about the progress being made by his company, Neuralink [which seeks to enable a direct hookup between computers and the human brain]. He said that 10 years from now we will no longer need spoken language, because we’ll have direct, brain-to-brain, computer-mediated communication. I am skeptical about the scientific feasibility of this. But I think the timing of the interview is highly significant, during the coronavirus crisis, because the tendency is the same as with the Screen New Deal: to bypass material reality, and to establish a kind of digitally mediated direct communication in the virtual universe.”

Slavoj Zizek.Credit: Nick Paleologos / SOOC via AFP

And you see this as a perverse idea.

“This is what I really fear, the combination of viral and ecological catastrophes and the subsequent self-isolation, with these escapes into a digital world, where we’re directly connected to a computer. Combine this with Neuralink and you get a Matrix-like vision of our future.”

So people who may think things are bad now don’t know what’s in store for them.

“I like to use Stalin’s ridiculous answer, when he was asked which deviation was worse – right wing or left wing. He answered, ‘They are both worse.’ You know this nonsense?” Zizek asks, with rolling laughter. “So, if you ask me which way is worse, the Trump way – brutal capitalism – or the Screen New Deal, I think both are worse. As I said, the problems we’re facing are desperate, aren’t they? But excuse me for talking too much.”

Screen fatigue

In his book “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud referred to an enigma that troubled him deeply: Soldiers who returned wounded from World War I were more successful in processing their traumatic experiences than those who came back without a scratch. The soldiers who were physically unscathed tended to have recurring dreams about the war’s horrors. In “Pandemic!,” Zizek takes a Lacanian approach and proposes that a distinction be made between reality – the social and material space we inhabit – and the real, “a spectral entity, invisible and for that very reason appearing as all-powerful.” According to Zizek, it is only when the real becomes part of our reality – for example, in the case of infection by the virus – that it becomes “something we can deal with.”

Accordingly, Zizek divides workers during the crisis into those who encounter the virus and its consequences as part of their daily reality – medical staff, welfare-service people, farmers, the food industry – and those who are secluded in their homes, for whom the epidemic remains in the realm of the Lacanian spectral and omnipresent. Yet, both groups are condemned to weariness: the essential workers because of their high-stress work and its dangers, and the people confined to their home because of the lassitude that engulfs those who observe the end of their familiar world, as it is projected from the screens.

As for Zizek himself, his new book appears to be not only an attempt to sound his voice and be counted in the category of the essential workers, but also a personal struggle against symptoms that were observed in people who were locked down at home during the recent confinement. To a certain extent, he is already practiced in this. He opens the appendix to the book with a “personal confession”: He likes the idea of being confined to his apartment. Even when he travels, he prefers “to stay in a nice hotel room and ignore all the attractions of the place I’m visiting.” He would rather read a good essay about a famous painting than see the painting in a crowded museum. Still, “being obliged to confine myself [is] more difficult.”

“The fact that everyone is behaving like me doesn’t make it easier,” he tells me. “Paradoxically, it is even more painful and more troubling for me. In the meantime, as I warned you, I am already exhausted. You see, this is exactly my problem – I get too excited and then comes a bout of depression.”

Then perhaps one last question, please. In the book you call for a philosophical revolution. What will be the future of academia in general and philosophy in particular in the brave new world that awaits us?

“I don’t know what will happen with academia. Will humanities survive and so on? Humanities professors in the United States tell me that many of their students feel that the world is falling apart, so why should they now be interested in 19th-century literature and philosophy? It’s a sad world.”

Although he had wanted to conclude the conversation, Zizek gets carried away momentarily: “It sometimes makes me cry to watch old films, because they take place in a world that, at least for some time, will not be here. It’s a lost world. How will literature and cinema reinvent themselves? Will they still try to fake the old reality?”

What about philosophy?

“I think philosophical reflection will be needed, even if for no other reason than because the reality in which we’re living is dissolving. It’s no longer the same world, so people are totally at a loss. Look at what’s already happening in the United States, all this racism exploding, and of course antisemitism. Philosophy, or whatever you want to call it – reflections on the meaning of life – will have to be there to allow people to orient themselves in the new world.”

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