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14 Aug, 2020 07:01

Slavoj Zizek: We need wartime communism

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the need to rethink the way our societies function. We reflect on this with one of the world’s most influential thinkers, legendary philosopher Slavoj Zizek.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Slavoj Zizek, legendary philosopher, author of “Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World”, I've been wanting to talk to you for the longest time. Welcome to our program.

Slavoj Zizek: I'm glad to be here. And I know it will be a disappointment if you wanted it. I just hope, not too muchof a disappointment. 

SS: Well, let me be the judge of it. Okay, so let's start from this. I remember during last year's famous debate with Jordan Peterson you said that humanity will continue to slide toward some kind of apocalypse until some major catastrophe awakens us. 

SZ: Yes. 

SS: Can this pandemic be categorised as such a catastrophe?

SZ: Not the pandemic as such. But the pandemic, if one looks at it together with other already actual or potential catastrophes that accompany it and will accompany it. There is a pandemic, and the pandemic is now connected with other natural disasters. The one which really worries me, you remember, around Norilsk - that oil spill in the Arctic sea in Russia. Everybody knows that the main cause was the global warming because permafrost is melting and so on. So we have another catastrophe. Then there are social tensions because certain classes, races suffer much more, unrests are exploding, the United States are, let's be frank, almost on the border of some kind of civil war. The United States is simply splitting into two: the state of those who wear masks and the state of those who are reluctant towards it. Then there is the economic catastrophe. We know now numbers from Europe, from the United States, we didn't yet pay the price for it. Western European states, United States are just printing money and so on. You can do this up to a certain point. And finally, it is the psychic crisis, mental health. Don’t underestimate this. I don't know how it is in your part, Russia, Georgia. But I always follow this. Did you notice these first signs of “irrational” public unrest? You know, like in Germany, those demonstrations in Berlin almost 20,000 people, and it's not based on any knowledge. It’s just “I want to stick to my old free way of life, I'm not ready to obey all the stupid rules”. In the United States, in England, I fear there is mostly this type of psychic collapse, — and I use this term being clinically educated — a psychotic breakdown. You are above reality, you just say, “I’ve had enough of this,” even if you don't have any explicit conspiracy theory. You just say, “Enough of this, I want my normal life back.”

SS: It's only normal because uncertainty and fear makes people go crazy. Uncertainty is the toughest thing for us for a person's psyche to take because we need order in our head.

SZ: Yes, and here also authorities were not… If ever, we need now (I'm sorry to say this, it will offend some of my democratic friends), we need now figures of strong leaders, leaders who tell the bitter truth, but also, as you said, give you a certain perspective. What I find, I’m not bluffing, I’m afraid, too... What I find so terrifying is how, although I agree, we should rely on science but even science doesn't know, doesn't have a clear image. Do you remember how, when it began, in February-March? The motto was “Just wait for the heat, the heat will burn the virus.” Then there was the quarantine, some friends of mine were even glad about it, they said, “Fine, one month at home playing with children, I’ll re-connect with my family, wonderful.” It goes on. Then there were all those theories of the wave: first wave, second wave. Now we see it one big wave, all the predictions were wrong. We know some basic things, but we really don't know what's going on. All I want to say is that (that's my basic message all the time) forget about that old stupidity, you know, “It's a couple of months, then life will return to normal.” Life will not return to normal. This is just what some philosopher called a dress rehearsal for a time of a permanent state with other problems, global warming, tornadoes, they are now also in Europe, and so on and so on. We are entering globally a new state, we can confront it, but in a different organised way. We have to change our lives.

SS: Okay. So let's deconstruct your final message that we're never going to go back to what we are used to call “normal,” right? And I read your recent op-ed, you say that the thing with certain crises is that they can drag on for years and in some cases may never end. Is this the case was COVID-19? I mean, there may be no light at the end of the tunnel?

SZ: I don’t know what to expect of vaccines and so on. What worries me is something else. And I wonder (I'm not bluffing, I want a real dialogue), if you have the same impression, but in countries that I follow closely, my own central Western European, we are more and more getting something that people call “Corona-fatigue”. People are simply tired of constant news about Corona, of the tensions and so on and so on, and somehow don't want even to deal with it and they go out in my own country Slovenia, Ljubljana here, even if there is now a new not panic, but raised attention, many people don't wear masks even inside, in restaurants. If they do, I noticed, quite a few of them wear them in a nonsensical way — not only below the nose, but even below — yeah, just here. So it’s, “Ok, I have a mask”. Again, this is what I am afraid of. Of course, I agree with those economic realists who say we cannot be indefinitely in the quarantine. Incidentally, we never were, we, middle-class, intellectuals, bureaucrats were in the quarantine, but quite a few people, at least 30-40%, you know, have to work outside. Like they, “you order food”, yes, somebody has to bring you food, and so on and so on. So what I'm saying is that it may get a little bit better, we may control it or not, but what we have to accept is that this is with variations, with hope and so on, a kind of a permanent state, and that we will have to change our way of life, including economy.

SS: So if you look at it from the other side, and if you're saying…

SZ: Which is the other side, sorry? 

SS: Well, you're saying it's a permanent state, and when you say it's a permanent state, many people would panic because they don't want the uncertainty. But on the other hand, if this is something that we need to get used to, to adjust our habits, points of views, economies, maybe it is a good thing that happened to us because maybe it was a long time that we needed to stop and think, where are we’re going as humans?

SZ: I tend to agree with you here, although I don't want to be too cynical. You know, cynics are saying, it's worth the trouble. And I always say, “If you think like this too much, and if you are a Zionist, you can then justify the Holocaust, because without the Holocaust, probably no state of Israel would be created.” No, no, this still is a tragedy, but this is how I would agree with you. Don't you think that at the same time, this didn’t happen out of anywhere? It made much more visible all other tensions, military, security conflict, social tensions and so on, which were already here. COVID is not just what it is, it is also a catalyst for other tensions. In this sense, I totally agree with you. It can be, I wouldn't say a good thing, but something that will confront us with the necessity of change.

SS: Okay, so there is another question. If we dig deeper and we accept the fact that the crisis is permanent, it's a permanent state. But after a while, if it becomes a permanent state. It's no longer a crisis. And as soon as the threat of virus is accepted as the new normal, the sense of urgency and the need to reform, to change is gone. How should societies keep the determination to act upon the change alive if we accept the crisis as the new normal?

SZ: First, IF we accept. I think we are not yet there. If we accept it and we have a new normal, it will be okay. But first, it's not just that the crisis should be a norm. Of course, here we have nonetheless big variations: we can lower the danger and so on and so on. The basic message should be just that at the economic level, at the healthcare level and so on, there is no return to the old normality. And I think we are far from really accepting this. The dream is still  “When will this nightmare be over?” That's what we have to accept. An epidemic is not just an objective, biological, biochemical, whatever event. We have this explosion because of a global society in which we live in. Let's make a cynical experiment. Let's imagine that a similar outburst would have occurred in mid- or late 1950s in Wuhan in China. We probably wouldn't have even heard about it. It would have been a small local thing. So, you know, even if we are up to a point helpless towards the virus, helpless in the sense of, we don't get a vaccine, all we are doing is defensive measures, social distancing and so on, I think that we can do quite a lot at the level of social organization.

SS: Slavoj, like you said, this is not just economic or paradigm crisis. It's also a psychological crisis. And what we see is instead of people out in the streets demanding an end to massive corporations or banks, we have people out demanding an end to certain statues and police racism, or an end to the mandatory wearing of masks and forced isolation. What needs to happen in your view for people's protest energy to be directed into a path of fundamental social change?

SZ: I am here rather a pessimist if you ask me. Although I was sometimes accused of this tendency, I don't think that now if all of these energies will come together, fight against the virus, economic troubles, protests against racism, sexism, and so on, that there will be a new mega progressive movement, and so on and so on. We know that these different struggles that we have today are not well coordinated. Sometimes they're even in tension. For example, you mentioned this protest in the United States, in Western Europe against the so-called colonial inheritance, tearing the statues down and so on and so on. Or generally, the struggle, demonstrations in the United States against racism. With all respect for these protests, don't you think that they were a little bit sustained by this logic of relief, “oh, finally we have some ordinary old-fashioned problem, racism, it's not a virus where we can’t do anything”.That people were glad that finally, we have a good old-fashioned political protest with clear opponent and so on and so on. There was something of an escape and some, not only right-wingers but also left-wingers joined hands here. I don't agree with even some of my friends who claim this is a purely medical crisis, it's not a time for emancipatory politics. No, we live in a political moment at its purest. It's not a point of “do we want change or not” - our lives are changing, and the only path I see is a much stronger role of state and society. I like to provoke my friends who use the word “communism” here. But economy will have to be politicised. By “politicised” I don't mean in the old stalinist way. By “politicise” I mean that there should be political, public concerns which determine, have a key influence on economy. We need healthcare, hospitals, masks, we need food, how will the harvest be done, again, the problem is coming up. Here you need a political intervention. It's no longer the old market economy.

SS: But when you’re saying we need masks, we need hospitals, this, that, that could be just as a massive global response to tackle the pandemic. But when you say we need new communism, I don't always understand, because to me or for someone who's lived half of their life in communism like you, communism is a great idea but it just doesn't work when applied to people. So you tell me, what exactly does that entail when you say we need new communism? What needs to be done, reform by reform?

SZ: It certainly doesn't entail a new Central Committee, KGB and so on. What it entails is just something that even conservative politicians in power have to view - economic measures which are not determined by market but by a public concern. When Trump is giving, although he's also bribing rich companies, but when Trump is giving every family $1,200 or whatever, sorry, this is already one step towards a universal basic income. This is all I mean by communism that some way — and it's a big problem what way, I agree with you, — public interest should take prevalence over pure economic calculus. We also need competition, economic calculus because I'm well aware, I agree with you, I remember from old communist times, how inefficient economy can be when the state simply takes over, it's a space of corruption and so on and so on. But we nonetheless need politicising of economy. 

SS: When you say the new communism is when, you know, you have the market economy, but it is a political economy as well, it makes sense. Of course, for me it has its downfalls because there is much less freedom. But you know, I guess then you’ll have to choose.

SZ: Yeah, but what kind of freedom? You know, here I am a little bit of a Leninist. You know, Lenin made this famous quote, “Freedom, yes, but for whom and to do what?”. I always think that It's not enough as Western liberals think, to limit freedom to personal choice in the sense of freedom being, “can I travel to United States or not”, “can I read this book or that book”? This is very precious, of course. But freedom should also mean the transparency of power, and that somehow people in totality somehow influence the way the society develops.

SS: But when you say that big corporations and banks should not tell societies and people what they want, what to do, how to live, do you mean that something else should or, I don't want to sound condescending, are people to be completely trusted with it?

SZ: I think that if you just introduce some radical democracy in the primitive sense that people decide everything, sorry, but who will tell people what to decide, who will formulate their choices? This is a terrible danger of demagoguery which can turn into an absolute authoritarian system and so on. I have no illusions here. All I'm saying is that market logic alone doesn't work here because market forces you to profit and there is such a space of manipulation here. For example, it's very interesting to rnewead books or essays on what goes on in medical industry today. Do you know how many companies have formulas, in the West at least, for new medicines, but they know that if they put them on the market, it will be less profitable than to go on selling the old more expensive medicines? So they buy the copyright and keep it shelved. We just need some kind of public, state, whatever control which should be transparent. Now, I hope you will like this formula that they’ve used a couple of time. My idea would have been a strange communism with Julian Assange. Because I'm here fair towards the United States, you know, people say, look, what United States are doing to Assange. I protest, I know. But to be a little bit cynical, can you even imagine what would have happened if somebody like Julian Assange would have emerged in China? We wouldn't even hear about it. He would certainly have disappeared, you know. 

SS: Yes. 

SZ: It’s crucial today when we are in this mediatic society. Yes, we need control. I don't have any problems if the state (or health ministry) follows on my iPhone where I move and so on. They're in any case already doing it at least in the cases of the United States, Israel and China where all our phone calls are automatically registered, they're controlled and so on and so on. But control should be transparent, we should know what they're doing to us. That's why I always repeat: the most dangerous form of unfreedom is when we are not even aware that we are not free. That’s the problem for me with the United States - people really think they're free there, I don’t think they are as free as they think. 

SS: Everything that you've highlighted is like the ideal post-Corona world according to Zizek. But now, let's come back to reality. 

SZ: But it will be poverty, it will also be modest life and so on. No, no, it will not be communism in the sense of affluence and so on. I used once this phrase “wartime communism”, when in the war you say, okay, we live in difficult times, everybody should survive, I’m very modest here. 

SS: But correct me if I'm wrong, you now use the notion of the war and this is what I want to ask you about because post-war relative stability always rested on a social contract that implied that citizens pay their dues while governments keep improving living standards. Now this crisis has completely highlighted all the issues with this social contracts, with citizens dully paying their dues and governments having nothing to give back. What will the elites, the governments of the world do now to regain the trust of the public because it's not going to be like before anymore? What can be done to regain that trust? 

SZ: What I am afraid, and this is happening, especially in the United States is that, you know, I don't think this is bad, but until 10 years ago, before Trump, in spite of all polemics, I mean, political battles between Republicans and Democrats, there was some kind of a basic public trust or I would say pact. We played the game of competition, but we had to acknowledge the rules and so on. This public pact, that in spite of all that we share the certain presupposition, this is now falling apart in the United States. That's why I don't consider this his personal madness, Trump gives hints that maybe he will not recognise electoral results and so on. Every successful democracy has a limit. Limit in the sense that we play the democratic game, but within a certain set of rules that we all agree to. What I am afraid is that not every country will be able after the epidemics in that period which will remain critical to build a new social contract. We will need a new social contract. I hope some countries will succeed, I'm afraid... I'm not anti-American, my God, I love Hollywood and so on. America did great things, but I’m not against America like some of my stupid leftist friends. No. If America gets in a big, mega social crisis, it will be very dangerous, we will all pay the price. I don't want to see America ruined, humiliated and so on. And what they need is a new social contract, they are far from it.

SS: Well, on that note of suspense, I want to end our wonderful talk. 

SZ: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

SS: Thank you so much and I hope we meet soon again.

SZ: Okay. Thanks very much. Bye-bye.

SS: Thank you. Bye-bye.