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On Contact: Pandemic!

On the show this week, the first of a two-part interview, Chris Hedges discusses the social, political, cultural and economic ramifications of the pandemic with the philosopher Slavoj Zizek.

“Driven by demand to persevere and not to fail, as well as by the ambition of efficiency, we become committers and sacrificers at the same time and enter a swirl of demarcation, self-exploitation and collapse. When production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production him – or herself. The neoliberal system is no longer a class system in the proper sense. It does not consist of classes that display mutual antagonism. This is what accounts for the system’s stability," Byung-Chul Han argues, in The Burnout Society, that subjects become self-exploiters. “Today, everyone is an auto-exploiting laborer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.”

Excerpt from Slavoj Zizek new book – Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World.

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we will discuss the social, political, cultural, and economic ramifications of the pandemic with the Philosopher Slavoj Zizek.

Slavoj Zizek: Political correctness is a way to change superficially, the way we talk, we interact.  But as they say, the task is how to change some things so that basically nothing really changes.  The same relations of power remain and so on and so on.

CH: The ongoing pandemic hasn’t just brought out social and economic conflicts that were raging beneath the surface all along, writes the philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek.  It hasn’t just confronted us with immense political problems.  More and more, it has become a genuine conflict of global visions about society.  Joining me to discuss in a two-part discussion, the physical, emotional, and ideological rupture in our lives caused by the global pandemic is Professor Zizek.  Author of Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World.  He is a researcher at the Department of Philosophy and of the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Arts, the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London and the Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University.  He is also the author of numerous books on political theory, psychoanalysis, philosophy, Marxist dialectic, and Hegelian metaphysics.  So, you open the book and you quote “Byung-Chul Han.”  You say, “Driven by the demand to preserve and not to fail, as well as by the ambition of efficiency, we become committers and sacrificers at the same time and enter a swirl of demarcation, self-exploitation and collapse when the production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production him or herself.”  Talk about that idea of the means of production him or herself which you then addressed at some length in your book.

SZ: This has, of course, nothing to do with pandemic.  But the basic idea is that and it just become more visibly--visible with the pandemic.  Namely, by means of production, I mean this, a typical today’s worker, not just intellectual worker, even at least in my country those who deliver food.  It’s a big business now with lockdown, food deliver and so on.  They usually own their own small motor or whatever.  You own--you own your own PC and so on.  So the point is no longer that you are exploited in the classical way but you own your own means of production.  You’re--you are a temporary or contractual worker and so on and so on.  And one interest that Korean sociologist that you referred to Byung-Chul Han, is something very interesting how this new situation makes us tired more and more.  And my idea here developed in the book is the following one, that we are not dealing with the same tiredness.  There are three different types of tiredness.  The first tiredness is simple physical tiredness when you are doing some boring job, repeating the same gesture again and again, putting, I don’t know, some piece of wood into its frame or whatever.  That’s simple physical tiredness, but at least your mind is free while you are doing it.  Then there is the second type of tiredness, with all the healthcare providers, caretakers, and so on and so on, educators where it’s part of your job.  It’s part of your job to be kind to people.  You get to act your kindness.  You cannot just do your job with total indifference.  You have to do it in the right way.  That’s a different type of tiredness.  But then there is the third type of tiredness, with typical intellectual workers today where you have to defend, present your ideas, you have to show your best.  The point is not that you are the best, but that you appear interested, inventive, and so on and so on.  You know the pressure to be original to propose the best idea and so on and so on.  This pressure itself can make you tired.  And the Korean sociologist Han, to whom I refer, he puts emphasis on this type of tiredness.  He claims that to sustain this tiredness of being constantly in the guard, appearing the best in front of others, or if you are part of some create--so-called creative group present the best idea, being kind, attentive to other, and so on and so on.  Before COVID, we had then private social life.  Then you went to a cafeteria, to a bar with your friends, you can relax there.  But with the pandemic, with lockdowns, Zoom meetings and so on, all your social contacts most of them at least are in this--are spent in this tangent.  How you will appear to others is attentiveness, you have to be at your best.  And so, you don’t have any time to relax.  At the same time, what this Zoom culture and lockdown did is to ruin much of our ordinary daily customs.  And customs, by customs, I don’t mean these politically correct rules.  I mean, the silent unwritten rules how we interact with each other and so on and so on.  This is more and more ruined.  The state even up to a point, for obvious medical reasons, the state even regulates, intervenes at this level, regulates our daily interaction.  It’s no longer the spontaneous manners which tell me when I meet a friend, how to interact with him.  It’s also a non-relaxed attention.  Should I shake his hand?  How close do I get to him?  And so on and so on.  So, these are the three types simple tiredness, physical work, attend--then being kind to other, put on a nice face as part of your job and especially this tiredness of presenting yourself all the time at your best with no space for social relaxation, which causes I think big psychic problem, even more than psychic problems.  I would say problems of our basic self-understanding with COVID.

CH: You picked on up on this theme that he writes about everyone is auto-exploiting--an auto-exploiting laborer in his or her own enterprise.  People are now master and slave in one.  And this is, of course, countering those Marxian idea of the proletariat.  Can you talk about that phenomena?

SZ: Here I reproduce the Korean guy, but I wouldn’t totally agree with it because I think exploitation still goes on just at many different levels.  My thesis is that it’s true that this classical exploitation on which Marxism, classical Marxism has a lot to say.  You have a job, you are paid your salary, but the surplus gets--it’s taken by your employer, by capitalists and so on and so on.  That’s no longer I would say even the predominant form of exploitation.  On the one, can we get the role of the unpaid work?  It became visible through the pandemic, unpaid work in the sense that it’s not work regulated by a contract as a salary.  Like the unpaid work of women, a lot of caretakers work is unpaid and so on and so on.  Then there is another type, this is also exploitation.  And it’s clear that the main type of exploitation, earning a wage, deprived of the profit or whatever and so on, cannot survive without this amount of unpaid work.  We mean others doing homework and so on.  That’s the first type of exploitation.  The second one is what some people call no longer vague exploitation but it’s more existence or existential exploitation and they mean this, Imagine now in Canada, Native American or however they are called, first people tribe, and they are doing fracking on their land.  They are not exploited.  Even the Native Americans there, or Canadians, whatever, they even get probably some support from the state and so on and so on.  But what fracking does is ruining their conditions of existence.  It’s ruining their life well.  Even if they try to repair things, the land remains devastated.  So, in this sense, they are exploited because they are gradually deprived of their material conditions of existence in that environment.  And it’s a similar story in many African nations or in South America.  I know in detail the story of Ecuador well, although many--not many natives are employed by Western companies there, big companies but that environment is ruined with mining and so on.  Then, the most interesting thing, it bothered me for a long time, for example, how did people like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and so on, get so wealthy?  And I think what happened now the reason is something that partially I think justifies the term used by some sociologists of neo-feudal capitalism.  Capitalism is, to some extent of course, entering a new stage where--what Marx called commons, by commons, he means something that we all refer to as the very medium background of our life.  When this is privatized, things change radically.  For example, Bezos, Amazon, they don’t exploit us in any direct way.  Okay.  They exploit their workers.  But us customers, no, you even get usually books through Amazon a little bit cheaper than if you go to a proper bookstore.  But the point is that this common space where you buy books, contact others and so on and so on is privatized, opened by a big company.  Facebook, the same, the space of these private conversations, presentations, is privacy--is privatized in one big company or Bill Gates, when we talk now, the cyberspace is more or less, not quite, but more or less privatized, monopolized by one big corporation, and Google the same.  And so, I claim that this is not--we are not exploited.  This is not classical exploitation.  It is not profit.  It is rent simply.  For example, when we want to communicate on through Zoom or whatever on the screen, Bill Gates gets a tiny, small percentage.  Bill Gates gets the rent out of it.  The same for Bezos and so on and so on.  It’s a new type where again, it’s not direct exploitation, it is rent.  They are modern form of rent.  So, although historically getting rent paid.  So, although the direction of the capitalism was from rent to profit now we are up to a point returning back to rent.  So, what I’m saying is that it is crucial in order to understand.  To take into account these other forms of exploitation, not only is the classical exploitation described by Marx, wage worker and so on.  Not only is that exploitation, not the dominant one, but I would even say to be exploited in that way, it’s almost a privilege today.  To be a worker with, not too high salary but a salary which enables you a solid life, you can make long-term plans, you can usually, if not Social Security then at least your retirement, healthcare organized and so on and so on.  That’s a privilege today.  We live in a situation where to be a classical Marxist proletarian is almost a privilege.  I don’t know how this in United States, even in my small country, Slovenia, almost half of the workers are no longer permanent employed workers.  You have to make these short-term contracts.  You never know what will be and, of course, ideology is telling you this is how you get even more free.  You can recreate your--you can recreate your life again and again.  No, I think this is what accounts for our daily anxiety.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the physical, emotional, and ideological rupture in our lives caused and exacerbated by the global pandemic with the Author and Professor Slavoj Zizek.

CH: Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the physical, emotional, and ideological ruptures in our lives causes and exacerbated by the global pandemic with the Author Slavoj Zizek.  So at the beginning of your book you also raised this issue about how limitations and constraints are definitely not only internally right.  New strict rules of behavior are being enforced especially among the members of the new intellectual class.  Just think about the politically correct constraints which form a special domain of the struggle against oneself against incorrect temptations.  What’s happening here psychologically and politically?

SZ: I think and not criticize from all sides for this, I think that what we designate and it’s not the same thing, with different parents like cancel car culture, woke, political correctness and so on is first something to be understood against the background of the disintegration, gradual disintegration of what already great philosophers like Hegel, so is the very base of our social existence which is Hegel uses a precise German term “zeiten” which means not simply ethics but unwritten rules, customs.  And what is happening today is that these unwritten rules are disintegrated.  And I see for example political correctness as an attempt to re-impose rules but in this way rules become explicit.  You are directly told, for example, I saw as for the seduction process we have precise rules that for every step further like may I unbutton your blouse and so on and so on.  You have to ask for permission and all that stuff.  So I see the basic problem in this disintegration of basic--of basic rules of social life.  And I cannot emphasize.  This is my eternal motive.  How these unwritten rules form the very backbone, the very base of our social existence.  These are not simply rules which we all implicitly know.  No.  Some of these rules only work, that’s the beauty of social interaction, they only work if you don’t explicitly formulate them.  For example, politeness or--politeness or dignity only works if it’s not consciously enacted as dignity.  If somebody acts as if he has dignity, it becomes ridiculous.  It must be as they say displayed.  It must be expressed by your spontaneous stances and so on and so on.  And here I see again back to our original point, the--sorry.  Another example which may interest our viewers and listeners, you know where you can get at its purest these unwritten rules?  I love these examples from different cultures, how often something is prohibited, but the unwritten rules tell you that nonetheless you should violate the rule.  You know, it’s prohibited but in the prohibition there is a silent call nonetheless do it but discreetly.  Or even more interesting, the other way around.  Something is permitted.  You are even drawn to do it but the silent understanding is you are permitted but rather don’t do it.  It’s considered impolite to do it and so on.  And this rich texture of rules that are explicitly stated, implicit, and so on, to give you a simple example and I love this example.  In the United States, in my country also, let’s say I invite my friend to a dinner.  I have more money than my friend.  He expects me of course to pay.  We know it in advance.  But there is a firm ritual here.  When the bill arrives, my friend should say, you know, “Okay.  Listen.  Allow me to pay something.”  And then you said, “No ,no, no, I invited you.”  This game goes on for I don’t know, one minute.  And then, of course, your friend concedes, “Okay.  You will pay.”  But you have to go through this ritual.  Although you know in advance the result.  I think that political correctness on the one side and then the necessities of COVID kind of undermined this reliance on unwritten rules.  So many rules are now getting explicit and this in a way ruins communication.  Human communication only functions with this tangent between what is said, what is not said, and so on, and so on.  This is why to conclude so that I don’t get lost.  This is why I have kind of sympathy, although I oppose them of course politically and medically.  To those Trump supporters or rather to those who opposed the pandemic rules like a lockdown, wearing mask, and so on, they say, “This makes me inhuman.  I’m no longer human in the sense in which humanity was experienced still now in my daily life.  Open communication with friends and so on, and so on.”  Let’s not just laugh at them.  This in some sense they are right, that is to say the pandemic did undermine some basic forms of our social being.  It’s the first time maybe in the history of humanity that we have to reinvent our basic unwritten rules.  And this I think will in the long term be even a more radical traumatic process than the direct healthcare problem of pandemic.  The very base of what we consider human behavior, authentic contact with others is in some sense threatened.

CH: Doesn’t the hyper-moralizing also divert energy and attention away from structures of oppression?  Isn’t that always true in a hyper-moralized culture…

SZ: Absolutely.

CH: …that essentially it diverts?

SZ: Yeah.  But here my answer would have been paradoxical and basically--and I’ve written again and again about it.  I totally agree with your question.  I think that this--let’s call it whatever name we use, local, radically, politically correct tense and so on is basically fake.  My argument against it is not, “These guys are too radical.  We have to proceed more moderately.”  But no, this radicality is a false one.  It’s a way to change our superficial behavior and in this way void really changing things.  For example, recently I read a couple of days ago that in some American states, the idea is now that even differences in high school or elementary school class for example in mathematics.  Some pupils are much more successful than others.  And the idea is that it’s false to talk about natural talent and so on.  No, this is all socially conditioned.  So those pupils who are the best should be kept in the back side, so that all get an equal chance and so on and so on.  Now, I agree that there is no pure meritocracy.  I know how success even in mathematics can be socially conditioned.  But to resolve the problem in this way is I think false because it just mixes the counts, makes the situation apparently more egalitarian on the surface.  It doesn’t change things basically to all people have the access to--access to education, their material conditions and so on, and so on.  So for me again, political correctness is a way to change superficially the way we talk, we interact, but as they say, the task is how to change something so that basically nothing really changes.  The same relations of power remain and so on and so on.  So yes, I’m highly critical of this, also from my personal experience.  Look.  When I get really friendly with somebody, isn’t it a common human experience that to get really friendly, there must be an element of aggressive, or ironic joke, some obscenity, and so on, and so on.  Without this, there is no authentic human contact.  The pleasure that they get is the pleasure of analyzing others but also themselves.  Like, was I--was I really non-racist in what I said?  Wasn’t there nonetheless a trace of racism in that and so on and so on.  So I totally agree with you.  In politics, moralism is always a sign that you don’t have an actual real program of how to change things effectively in social reality.  That’s why I think this moralization of the left in the last three decades I would say is simply a sign of the fact that after 1990, the left didn’t yet find a proper way to propose a workable alternative to the existing system.  That’s why on the other hand, so that people will not…

CH: Okay.  We’re going to--Professor Zizek, we’re going to--we’re just going to stop there.  That was Slavoj Zizek on his new book Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World.  Join me next week for part two of our discussion which focuses on his second book on the pandemic.

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