Zizek: The End of the World As We Know It
Speculations are often heard today that coronavirus may lead to the fall of the Communist rule in China. But there is a paradox here: Coronavirus will also compel us to re-invent Communism based on the trust in the people and in science.
The ongoing spread of the coronavirus epidemics has also triggered a vast epidemics of ideological viruses which were laying dormant in our societies: fake news, paranoiac conspiracy theories, explosions of racism… The well-grounded medical need for quarantines found an echo in the ideological pressure to establish clear borders and to quarantine enemies which pose a threat to our identity. But maybe, another and much more beneficent ideological virus will spread and hopefully infect us: the virus of thinking an alternate society, a society beyond nation-state, a society that actualizes itself in the forms of global solidarity and cooperation.
Speculations are often heard today that coronavirus may lead to the fall of the Communist rule in China, in the same way that (as Gorbachev himself admitted) the Chernobyl catastrophe was the event which triggered the end of the Soviet Communism. But there is a paradox here: coronavirus will also compel us to re-invent Communism based on the trust in the people and in science. In the final scene of Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2, Beatrix disables the evil Bill and strikes him with “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique,” the most deadly blow in all of martial arts. The move consists of a combination of five strikes with one‘s fingertips to five different pressure points on the target‘s body - after the target walks away and has taken five steps, their heart explodes in their body and they fall to the floor. (Such an attack is part of the martial arts mythology but is not possible in a real hand-to-hand combat.)
So, back to the film, after Beatrix does it, Bill calmly makes his peace with her, takes five steps and dies… What makes this attack so fascinating is the time between being hit and the moment of death: I can have a nice conversation as long as I sit calmly, but I am all this time aware that the moment I start to walk my heart will explode and I will drop dead. And is the idea of those who speculate on how coronavirus may lead to the fall of the Communist rule in China not that the coronavirus epidemics works as some kind of social “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” attack on the Chinese Communist regime: they can sit, observe and go through the usual motions of quarantine, etc., but every real change in the social order (like really trusting the people) will bring their downfall… My modest opinion is much more radical: the coronavirus epidemics is a kind of “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” attack on the global capitalist system – a signal that the we cannot go on the way we were doing it till now, that a radical change is needed.
Years ago, Fred Jameson drew attention to the utopian potential in movies about a cosmic catastrophe (an asteroid threatening life on earth, a virus killing humanity…): such a global threat gives birth to global solidarity, our petty differences become insignificant, we all work together to find a solution – and here we are today, in real life. The point is not to sadistically enjoy widespread suffering insofar as it helps our Cause – on the contrary, the point is to reflect upon a sad fact that we need a catastrophe to make us able to rethink the very basic features of the society in which we live.
The first vague model of such a global coordination is the World Health Organization from which we are not getting the usual bureaucratic gibberish but precise warnings proclaimed without panic. Such organizations should be given more executive power.
Bernie Sanders is mocked by sceptics for his advocacy of a universal healthcare in the US – is the lesson of the coronavirus epidemics not that even more is needed, that we should start to put together some kind of GLOBAL healthcare network? A day after Iran’s deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi appeared at a press conference in order to downplay the coronavirus spread and to assert that mass quarantines are not necessary, he made a short statement admitting that he has contracted the coronavirus and placed himself in isolation (already during his first TV appearance, he all of a sudden displayed signs of fever and weakness). Harirchi added: “This virus is democratic, and it doesn’t distinguish between poor and rich or between statesman and an ordinary citizen.”
In this, he was deeply right – we are all in the same boat. It is difficult to miss the supreme irony of the fact that what brought us all together and pushed us into global solidarity expresses itself at the level of everyday life in strict commands to avoid close contacts with others, even to self-isolate oneself. And we are not dealing only with viral threats – other catastrophes are looming on the horizon or already taking place: draughts, heatwaves, massive storms, etc. In all these cases, the answer is not panic but the hard and urgent work to establish some kind of efficient global coordination. The first illusion to get rid of is the one formulated by Trump during his visit to India: the epidemics will recede quickly, we just have to wait for the spike and then life will return to normal…
China is already preparing for this moment: their media announced that when the epidemics will be over, people will work Saturdays and Sundays to catch up… Against these all too easy hopes, the first thing to accept is that the threat is here to stay: even if this wave will recede, it will reappear in new, maybe even more dangerous, forms. For this reason, we can expect that viral epidemics will affect our most elementary interactions with other people and objects around, inclusive e of our own bodies: avoid touching things which may be (invisibly) „dirty,“ do not touch hooks, do not seat on public toilets or on benches in public places, avoid embracing others and shaking their hands… and even be careful about how you control your own body and your spontaneous gestures: do not touch your nose or rub your eyes – in short, do not play with yourself. So it’s not only the state and other agencies that will control us, we should learn to control and discipline ourselves! Maybe, only virtual reality will be considered safe, and moving freely in an open space will be reserved for the islands owned by the ultra-rich.
But even here, at the level of virtual reality and internet, we should remind ourselves that, in the last decades, the terms “virus” and “viral” were mostly used to designate digital viruses which were infecting our web-space and of which we were not aware, at least not until their destructive power (say, of destroying our data or our hard-drive) was unleashed. What we see now is a massive return to the original literal meaning of the term: viral infections work hand in hand in both dimensions, real and virtual.
Another weird phenomenon that we can observe is the triumphant return of capitalist animism, of treating social phenomena like markets or financial capital as living entities. If one reads our big media, the impression one gets is that what we should really worry about are not thousands who already died (and thousands more who will die) but the fact that “markets are getting nervous” – coronavirus is more and more disturbing the smooth functioning of the world market, and, as we hear, the growth may fell for 2 or 3 percent… Does all this not clearly signal the urgent need for a reorganization of global economy which will no longer be at the mercy of market mechanisms?
We are not talking here about the old-style Communism, of course, just about some kind of global organization that can control and regulate economy, as well as limit the sovereignty of nation-states when needed. Countries were able to do it in the conditions of war, and all of us effectively are now approaching a state of medical war. Plus we should also not be afraid to note some potentially beneficent side-effect of the epidemics. One of the symbols of the epidemics are passengers caught (quarantined) on large cruising ships – good riddance to the obscenity of such ships, I am tempted to say. (We only have to be careful that travel to lone islands or other exclusive resorts will not become again the privilege of the few rich, as it was decades ago with flying.) Car production is seriously affected – good, this may compels us to think about alternatives to our obsession with individual vehicles… The list can be prolonged at will. In a recent speech, Viktor Orban said: “There is no such thing as a liberal. A liberal is nothing more than a Communist with a diploma.”
What if the opposite is true? If we designate as “liberals” those who care for our freedoms, and as “Communists” those who are aware that we can save these freedoms only with radical changes since global capitalism is approaching a crisis, then we should say that, today, those who still recognize themselves as Communists are liberals with a diploma - liberals who seriously studied why our liberal values are under threat and became aware that only a radical change can save them.