On Contact: Pandemic 2
On the show this week, in the second of a two-part interview, Chris Hedges continues his discussion with philosopher Slavoj Zizek about the social, political and psychological consequences of prolonged lockdowns and social distancing, as well as the mass illness and death caused by the pandemic.
In his new book, 'Pandemic 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost,' Zizek argues the failure of global capitalism to cope with the pandemic presages, he fears, a systems collapse, a dress rehearsal for a frightening new form of authoritarianism in which the world is starkly divided between the elites and the rest of us. "...[T]he return to normality thus becomes the supreme psychotic gesture, the sign of collective madness," Zizek writes.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we continue part two of our discussion with the philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, about the political, economic, cultural, social effects of the pandemic.
Slavoj Zizek: Social effects of pandemic are not simply inscribed into faith. Today, what I really oppose is those who think that today, we live in a depoliticized era, you know, like, “No, it’s a pandemic. Now it’s not time for political games for a change. We just have to survive.” No, we live in the most radically politicized time of our--of many, many generations because we will have to decide. Will it be a kind of a brutal survivalist authoritarian society like Brazil up to a point, Russia and so on? Will it be this technocratic big corporations reset, which is another way I think for a new authoritarian society? Forty, thirty percent of the people are protected in their bubbles. Others are running out getting infected. Will it be this or will it be something new?
CH: What does a huge spike in sex doll sales, a suffocating cancel culture, locust swarms, and Elon Musk’s laboratory pigs with brain implants that make their metal processes readable to a computer have to do with the Coronavirus pandemic? Everything. The philosopher and cultural theorist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, argues in his book “Pandemic! 2 Chronicles of a Time Lost.” Professor Zizek explores the sociopolitical and psychological consequences of the prolonged lockdown, social distancing, and mass illness, and death caused by the pandemic. The failure of global capitalism to cope with the pandemic presages, he fears, systems collapse, address rehearsal for a frightening form of authoritarianism where the world is starkly divided between the elites and the rest of us. He writes that, “The return to normality thus becomes the supreme psychotic gesture, the sign of collective madness.” Joining me to discuss his second of two books on the pandemic is Professor Slavoj Zizek, a researcher at the Department of Philosophy 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’s also the author of numerous books on political theory, psychoanalysis, philosophy, Marxist, dialectic, and Hegelian metaphysics. So let’s start with that quote that I read, “…that, even if life does eventually return to some semblance of normality, it will not be the same normal as the one we experienced before the outbreak.” Why? Explain.
SZ: Well, let me first make--I like this point, remark about time. You remember a year ago or a little bit more, the most referred to temporal period in our media was two weeks for a fortnight. They said, “Okay. For two weeks--” even Fauci, a good guy, he talked like this, “Okay. For two weeks, we’re in trouble then it will get better.” You know? Then in the summer, I would say somewhere there, it became half a year, you know. For half a year it will be tough then it will get better. And now, in winter and spring, they’re just postponing it all. Now, we hear may--we will have all to be vaccinated again and again. The pandemic will go on, viruses are--sorry, are changing and so on and so on. And this, I will answer in around away your question, this, I think, is what makes the situation depressive. I must tell you, I wonder if you or our viewers share the same experience that the first panic in March, April, it was serious. Two of my friends died at the doors of a hospital in New York City, incidentally, you know. So, back it was in a way--sorry for this obscene expression, a healthy panic, you know. We have an enemy. We have to obey the rules. It will get better. Now, there is something much stranger, it’s no longer oppression like, “Obey the rules, it will get better.” It’s more--I call this the passage for oppression to depression. I don’t know how this in United States, but here in my country and many other countries, it’s not even that people expect that at some point it will get better. But it’s--again, a kind of a long-term depression. It will never end. Who knows what it will be. And even if some of them become like almost trying to enjoy their life in a maniac way, let’s do it, sex, drugs, whatever, there is something desperate in you. It’s not the spontaneous enjoyment. It is like, “Enjoy while you can because who knows what will happen.” And I fear this depression. I fear--you see what I’m saying here? A very precise thing. It’s not that our desires are oppressed. And then in this way you can always resist, you violate oppressive rules, and so on. No, it’s even that we are more and more confused with regard to what we even desire. It’s--as if people literally don’t know what they want. And I will give you here one example, which I think it’s a totally wrong reaction, same deep reaction to the pandemic. One things that even many philosophers evoke as the big lesson of the pandemic is, we humans have to abandon our arrogance. We have to accept that we are not masters of the universe. We are just one of the species on this Earth and our life depends on the quality of life, also of other species. We have to accept this more [INDISTINCT] of not just dominating nature, but acting as a part of nature, and so on and so on. It sounds nice, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth of even it’s not the basic fundamental moment of truth. Look, look how--even those who--and they are right, too, ring the alarm bell for global warming and so on, how do they argue? Putting all the efforts into how the temperature should not raise more than two or three degrees Celsius and so on and so on. So they speak precisely as total masters of--they want to regulate life on Earth. All the serious plans against global warming are plans of extremely, extremely strong, literally Earth-shaking interventions into nature. And I think the two are always connected, like, where--those who claim we are just one among the species on the Earth, they forget to mention the obvious fact that this humility is false, that no animal thinks like this. They are just aggressive animals. I don’t know a wolf wants to eat as many sheep or chicken that he or she or it can. But this idea that I’m not alone in the world, that I’m just among, one among of the beings, presupposes that at the same time that I’m that limited being, I can, as it were, step on my shoulder and see the totality of life. Then this is an extremely arrogant position to say, you know, some radical deep ecologist claim that not only animals or trees, even beautiful rivers, valleys have their own rights. But this is for me an extremely arrogant position. You perceive yourself as universal caretaker. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this, we should. But you see my point? We should accept this fact that we are--to survive, we are forced to intervene in an extremely brutal way, if you want, into the natural cycle of life on this Earth. And I find it hypocritical when people say we should care also about animals and so on. No, we care basically for ourselves. And we know that if there is too much distraction around us, there will be no place for us. And I found also for this reason, hypocritical this idea of what we--are we doing to Mother Nature and so on. Listen, let’s demystify things here. Sorry for one vulgar word, but not prohibited, Mother Nature is an evil bitch. Just think about how many catastrophes happened on our Earth before we, humanity, emerged and how we today even literally profit from these catastrophes? What are our main sources of energy, steel, oil, and coal, but can we even imagine what kind of mega ecological catastrophes happened on the Earth so that we get all those reserves of oil and coal and so on? So, you see my point? Don’t mystify nature into a big [INDISTINCT] and we humans were too aggressive and so on and so on. No, we humans in some sense have to become much stronger than we are, regulators of the life on Earth. This is also what we try to do with pandemic but we failed. It was very sad. And it’s important here to block the--I call them the political ideological exploitation of pandemic. The--this is my--although I’m a radical leftist, my last official self-definition is, you will like the paradox I hope, I define myself as a moderately conservative communist. That’s what I like. But look, Chinese always say, oh, we solved the problem and so on and so on. But wait a minute, there is one country which is not so small, it has 20, 30 million people which solved it even better. You know who? Taiwan. Taiwan, that China wants to swallow. So, I don’t like this false politicization or even ethnic specification, like many people say, “Yeah, we in the West, we are too arrogant that’s why pandemic did strike us.” People in these are more collective--for collective solidarity cooperation. Yeah, look what’s happening now in India and so on and so on. You know? It’s a very mixed situation. And I think--although I’m all for science, but for real science and real scientists, what the--I spoke with many of them. What they will tell you, admit it about pandemic, is that it’s true that we learn a lot about the virus, but maybe we learned even more about how much we don’t know, you know. It’s a open situation. We should rely on science. It’s the only thing we have, but at the same time we should accept. And this is not the same as our modest place, the utter contingency on our life. For example, who knows one big--one big asteroid or whatever can hit the Earth, it will be all over. And the important thing here, I’m talking about etiology here, is to accept nature in its meaninglessness. Yes, it can happen. But there is no deeper meaning in it. Stop about this is a divine punishment for something we did and so on and so on. I even think--because I define myself another paradox as an atheist Christian, no, I don’t think that this is the deepest lesson of Christianity, of Christ. Christ is no longer the big Savior. Christ is not the old guy sitting above the clouds and we know whatever happens, He is up there, He will save us in the last moment. No. Christ offers just sympathy. Christ’s message is Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit means the community of believer. He says, “When the two of you love yourself in solidarity, I am there.” Here I see the lesson of the pandemic and it’s a contradictory, difficult lesson. We see the limit of our technology of science, but at the same time all we have is science.
CH: We’re going to come back. When we come back we’ll continue our conversation about the consequences of the lockdown, social distancing, mass illness, and death caused the pandemic--caused by the pandemic with the author and Professor Slavoj Zizek. So, before the break, we were talking about how the universe is, indeed, morally neutral, something I learned as a war correspondent, which probably makes some Moby Dick America’s greatest novel.
SZ: Can I ask you where you were? Where you were a correspondent?
CH: I covered the war in El Salvador for five years. I covered the war in Yugoslavia from Sarajevo. I covered--I was seven years in the Middle East covered the first Gulf War. Civil wars in Yemen, Algeria, Sudan, 20 years.
SZ: Then maybe without irony, maybe I should ask you some questions. Maybe this would be more interesting.
CH: Let me…
SZ: But did you see the--you know what was the--you know what was the shock for us here? We thought primitive wars, Middle East and so on. But some of my Middle East friends, Jews and Palestinians, followed and even visit Sarajevo and so on and they told me, sorry, but this is much more cruel than what you are doing there, you know. It sobered me up, that war. Oh, sorry.
CH: Let me go to another issue you raise in your book, you said that one of the things that strikes you is that contract--contrary to the cheap motto “we are now all in the same boat’, class divisions have exploded because of the pandemic,” and you’re right quite a bit about that. Can you explain?
SZ: No. First, I hate that metaphor, because it’s always for me a sign of falsity. That’s metaphor. Even--although I use it in one of the early text of Pandemic, you know. But you know, even if the boat is sinking, maybe the boat will not sink. And I will prefer to be in a deluxe suite on the top than in one of those small cabins in the middle of--on the bottom of the hill. But what I want to say is that this is the big tension that I see in pandemic. Contrary to what my friends expect that, I still think that on the one hand, pandemic opened up a--new ways of more progressive things that the government can do. First, at least at the level of public program, although all states keep that. It was publicly agreed that the virus can--COVID can only be--the war against COVID can only be won if we are all together. In the long term, you cannot have this country safe, another country not safe, and so on and so on. So, second thing, are you aware that even states like United States, United Kingdom and so on are now doing things which two years ago, if somebody were to mention them, would have been dismissed as are you crazy? Do you want communism or whatever and so on? There is a forum of basic income that it’s emerging. It’s agreed that we need some kind of, not totally nationalized, but at least globally internationally coordinated healthcare. It is admitted that with global warming, it’s an international coordinated effort. It’s the only one that will work. And even I would say, look at the political consequences, and economic, because people--and I was among them. Dismissed by them too easily even I proposed this formula of which I’m not proud, you know, by who is just Trump with a human face. Now I’m more skeptical, maybe, but look what he is doing, trillions for ecology, for greening of Earth, then he made the proposal which was too radical even for Western Europe to--how do you call? Waive the patent, the copyright for vaccines, then probably this was submitted to him by Janet Yellen, his treasury, secretary or what. You remember his idea of--to try to regulate taxes internationally, globally on big corporations. So we will no longer have this [INDISTINCT] I just learned now that in the last decade or two, Amazon got from Europe, $44,000,000,000 of profit without paying any tax and so on and so on. Sorry, but this measure to equalize standard device internationally tax rate, this is something that radical leftists like Thomas Piketty proposed. And now, Biden is playing with it. Now, what I’m saying is that this is all, in some sense, the result of COVID. Let’s be frank, it’s a common sense insight, I claim what I will say now. Don’t you think that without COVID, Trump would be--have been triumphantly reelected? That’s probably in point two, if somehow somebody like Biden were to take power, it would have been much more modest. So yes, pandemic did make us aware of a certain necessities of social politics, and so on, and so on. On the other hand, I am well aware that is the dark reality, fight for women rights, and here you know, I’m a brutal Marxist realist. When you tell me women’s right, my--with all my sympathy for them. My primordial worry is not either how a successful waitress was asked to do this typically. Me, too, examples, relatively well known, but not quite, actress was asked to spend the night with a producer to get a role. But you know Kristen Stewart, a nice progressive actress, you know what she said? She said, “I’m getting tired of it.” In an interview, she said that in the same studio where the producer did this, just look a little bit around street girls, secretaries, this is not once sleep with me and you get a role. This is their daily life. And suffering of women, for me is this, forget about this, for a favor from a professor, you have to spend the night with him. But imagine millions of everyday women, let’s say you are in the--sorry, your other woman is in her early 30s. Gradually, I put it--I know he [INDISTINCT] losing her sexual attraction, he have to care to take care of the children, cannot survive on her own, depends on husband. Husband is not even necessarily beating her, but just neglecting her and so on. And this is no way out. And this, the true nightmare. And at this level, it’s clear that the situation got much worse with the pandemic, at this level. This is--but then with all this shitty celebration of caretakers, nurses, even in Slovenia, we have a military parade and plane fighters cross the sky celebrating them. But their salaries didn’t go up, not even a little bit, and so on. And not to mention the obvious fact how the further destruction of middle class, how the ultra-rich got even richer, and so on, and so on. So, my conclusion from this is that Social effects of pandemic are not simply inscribed into faith. Today, what I really oppose is those who think that today, we live in a depoliticized era, you know, like, “No, it’s a pandemic. Now it’s not time for political games for a change. We just have to survive.” No, we live in the most radically politicized time of our--of many, many generations because we will have to decide. Will it be a kind of a brutal survivalist authoritarian society like Brazil up to a point, Russia and so on? Will it be this technocratic big corporations reset, which is another way I think for a new authoritarian society? Forty, thirty percent of the people are protected in their bubbles. Others are running out getting infected. Will it be this or will it be something new? When I say communism, I use this term to provoke my friends. I know what [BLEEP] communism was. I lived there. No, what I mean is just more socialization of economy. Look what Trump had to do when you need respirators, vaccines. You don’t ask how the market will sustain this. You have to do it. You order production and so on. We absolutely, taking into account COVID, pandemic, but also global warming and so on, we will need much larger social actions. Now I am not advocating some world government. In today’s conditions, we both agree this will be ultra-global corruption as in who will--no, just stronger coordination. We need this, we need global healthcare. This has to be solved, and so on, and so on. That’s what I mean. It’s an open space. It can get worse, it can get better.
CH: Just to close, we have just about a minute. I’ll have to--well, the readers of your book will have to read what you write about sex dolls. I will ask just about this experiment that you highlight with Elon Musk implanting electrodes into pig’s brains to read them. And now he’s looking for human volunteers for that experiment. And you use that as a metaphor.
SZ: That’s the point. Yeah, but still, I think that if this will become reality, and I know if--we are not yet there. By this, I mean--I mean--I mean, direct link between our brain and computers, the digital space. So the computer read my brain. Now scientists, obviously to make this palpable, emphasize the good things like isn’t it wonderful? That little person will be able to move objects and so on. Yeah, but we will also be controlled in totally new ways. Indescribable. So, I wrote another book on it, Hegel in A Wire World. I mean, why our brain--look, you know, even our most elementary sense of free subjectivity, okay, reality is out there. But in my head, I’m free. I think about whatever I want and so on. What will happen if I can directly interact with the machine? Which means machine can read my mind. What will happen? Will we be human in the same sense? I’m not a pessimist here. I think we will be, but it’s a very complex question. It is a big revolution. Another--just imagine, let’s end with a more hot way. Imagine sexual flirtation, let’s say that you are directly wired that you can read your desired partner’s brain and three if it’s a woman can read yours. Well, that’s all the flirtation go. You just immediately exchange mind I would like to do it me also, okay, or me, yes, love, all the flirtation, which is maybe the most beautiful thing we human have. This [INDISTINCT] full of innuendos and so on, will be threatened. So I think that this is a genuine philosophical problem also. It’s not just a technical problem, and it’s also not just a moral problem in the sense will we still be free? No, we will have to think what does freedom mean in these new conditions?
CH: Great. That was Slavoj Zizek on his new book, Pandemic! 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost.