Slavoj Zizek is considered a rock star philosopher. One of the most important popular thinkers of the 21st century, he is wild and funny and bursting with charisma. A scholar rooted in the here and now and a philosopher who references Jacques Lacan and Quentin Tarantino in equal measure, he is a sought-after lecturer and a learned provocateur.
With the outbreak of the global COVID-19 health crisis, Zizek published a book called “Pandemic!” which triggered a maelstrom of reactions. The text is a brilliant analysis, delivered in real time, of the significance of the crisis that has swamped the world.
He depicts the panic and the manner in which the pandemic was fanned mercilessly by the international media — shots of mass graves and empty supermarket shelves, along with forecasts of tens of millions of dead. But the panic is not unwarranted, Zizek writes. Study after study over the past decade warned of the repercussions of the outbreak of a major epidemic. Yet governments and media preferred to ignore the warnings, conveying them to the public as dark, apocalyptic forecasts.
Zizek views this exceptional period as a crossroads, and wonders which form the world will take: A system of barbaric capitalism, in which the unrestrained lust for money will cost hundreds of thousands lives and widen economic gaps? Or perhaps a neo-communism?
On account of our efforts to save humanity from self-destruction, we are creating a new kind of humanity
“The threat of virus contagion provided us with new forms of solidarity and clarified the need for control over power,” he said. “On account of our efforts to save humanity from self-destruction, we are creating a new kind of humanity.”
On a recent late afternoon, Zizek sat down for a long and challenging interview via Skype from his home in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, which he shares with his fourth wife.
The Times of Israel: You’ve been charged with entrenching a communist viewpoint under the cover of the pandemic.
Zizek: I am not talking about old school communism of the 20th century. I am not talking about totalitarianism. Nor am I talking about a new utopian form of government. I write about what’s happening in the here and now.
If last year someone had classified the policies of [Chancellor of Germany] Angela Merkel and [President of France] Emmanuel Macron in the time of the epidemic as a socio-political working plan, they’d have faced these accusations: “You’re a Communist! You’re crazy! You’re out of your mind!” Boris Johnson temporarily nationalized the railroads. There are those who classify this as a social-democratic policy.
No. It’s much more that. Even [US President Donald] Trump transferred billions of dollars to the public. He issued calls to take over the private sector insofar as medical supplies are concerned. If [former president Barack] Obama would have made that sort of statement, the Republicans would have exploded in anger.
It seems practically unfathomable.
When governments decide to purchase ventilators and distribute masks and support citizens with billions of dollars — this is a new situation, uncharted waters. These funds will never be returned to the government and everyone knows it. Governments have realized that they can’t ignore their citizens and continue on with the existing system.
But maybe this is a form of sophisticated capitalism which in times of emergency finds seemingly socialist ways to preserve itself. In that way, people won’t rebel against the system.
We’ll have to live more fragile lives, accompanied by constant threat
A capitalist system that believes the situation is temporary and requires unique actions, but believes that soon enough we will revert to the old policies, is mistaken. The “new normal” is going to be different. We’ll have to live more fragile lives, accompanied by constant threat.
I agree with the philosopher Bruno Latour who has argued that the present health crisis is not rooted in its own independent crisis, but rather is part of a continuing and irreversible process of ecological change.
How could a single virus, a life form that is basically primitive and not sophisticated, as described in your book, change established patterns of thought that have endured for decades?
The cooperation that I’m talking about does not come from a naïve place, but from the egotistical interests of each country. Solidarity as a means of survival. Even America can be saved only if it cooperates with the rest of the world. I heard that a textile factory in Gaza has started mass producing face masks and that some of the products are being sold in Israel. This is a win-win for both sides.
My friend [Israeli filmmaker] Udi Aloni told me that leaders among Palestinian citizens of Israel were being viewed favorably by the Israeli public because they, unlike the government, advocated openly for humanitarian solidarity. They looked out for workers, small businesses, and the privacy and rights of the individual that were trampled by the measures put in place to combat corona — and they did so irrespective of the individual’s ethnicity and national identity.
And the incredible thing is that the leadership, [head of the Joint List MK] Ayman Odeh and [Hadash MK] Aida Touma-Sliman, come from a decidedly communist background. It made me very happy that they could take the old communism to a new place.
The best example these days is to check out Udi Aloni’s brilliant film, “Why Is We Americans?” on the black Marxist family of Amiri Baraka as a background for the current demonstrations. There you can see loud and clear the evolution of revolutionary ideas from 1967 to 2020.
Is that the neo-communism of which you speak?
How did communism survive after the 20th century and reinvent itself? Let’s remove from the equation the strange forms that have manifested in North Korea and Cuba, and what remains is a unique blend of authoritarian communism and capitalism at its most ruthless. For instance, Vietnam and China. For me, this sort of communism is over and done. So don’t talk to me about this communism.
The epidemic is a variation of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. We need catastrophe in order to be able to think anew about the society in which we live. Since I first mentioned this in writing, the simile has become more realistic. When nations need to end the quarantines and to open up society again, they have no idea what to do.
Author’s note: Zizek’s use of the term “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique,” which appears at the end of the movie “Kill Bill 2,” has become one of his trademarks recognized globally. In the movie, Beatrice (Uma Thurman) and Bill (David Carradine) square off against each other. Bill attacks Beatrice with a sword and she defends herself with a technique she learned from a Chinese martial arts instructor called Pai Mei, which consists of five swift blows, one after the other, to the region of the heart. From that moment on, Bill is on borrowed time — once he takes five steps, his heart will burst. After he is attacked, Bill conducts a quiet conversation with Beatrice; then he walks and dies.
A few days ago my wife and I saw a British TV series called “Doc Martin.” I almost cried. You know why? The daily routine — of leaving the house, of meeting people freely, is almost impossible nowadays. Basic human relations cannot be taken for granted. Ask yourself how will they make films nowadays? Will they abide by distancing rules? What we think of now as daily routine will change to nostalgia.
That sounds dreadful.
We are in the midst of a unique historical moment. We will have to invent a new way of life, new rituals. I did not only criticize the American demonstrators who called for the end of the closures, which may cost lives, but also understood their distress. They are in a tragic position. The life that they knew will not return. Both the left and the right don’t understand the reality of the epidemic, and refuse to accept the full consequences of it.
We will have to invent a new way of life, new rituals
How did the epidemic change you?
I’m trying to write in a more naive and popular way than in the past. I think it is now time to turn to people.
Is this a true shift or just a strategy?
Humanism was always a part of me. When people talked about revolution, I said that the moment when hundreds of thousands of protestors stood on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul or in Syntagma Square in Athens doesn’t interest me. What does interest me is the way that lives of ordinary people will change after such events.
That has been my main focus, to respect the ordinary person — one who is immersed in the daily struggle to survive: looking for work, for money to pay school tuition for his children. His problems are not communism or any other ideology.
When I speak of the changes in our lives due to the epidemic, those topics can cause me to panic. Will there be enough food in the world, for everyone? When a famine does occur, how will we work together? We are only at the beginning of the climate crisis, in which there will be huge consequences. What will the morning after look like?
Let’s talk about the morning after.
I don’t think that the primary threat is a regression to barbarism and survivalist violence. I fear a “human-faced barbarism” — a survival through inhuman means forced upon us regretfully and even with sympathy, based upon the advice of experts, along with messages that undermine the cornerstone of our social ethics. For example, how do we deal with the elderly and the feeble? They must be helped without terms and without consideration of the costs.
Your book notes three models that nations have taken. The Trump model, which you say is “willing to get the economy up and running even at the expense of tens of thousands of lives, the unbridled and barbaric capitalist approach”; the hopeful European approach; and the Chinese approach. What happens if the European approach fails?
You know what I’m afraid of? To live many years in complete isolation, a world in which you dream all the time, watch Netflix for hours, and lose all sense of time
Then we live in despair. You know what I’m afraid of? To live many years in complete isolation, a world in which you dream all the time, watch Netflix for hours, and lose all sense of time. This will be a real possibility if we do not find a way of coping with the situation.
In Israel the government drafted the Shin Bet internal security service into the war on COVID-19, and asked to extend the security agency’s mandate so as to identify those who had been in contact with those who have the virus.
Intelligence agencies don’t need the corona virus as an excuse to keep tabs on us. They do it anyway. We live in a digital age, smartphones, internet. That world has control over us. It has to be regulated by the public. I will tell you something that may sound absurd: the dominance already exists; it just has to undergo a transformation. It must be made transparent, so that people know when they are being followed.
You’ve partially supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as former UK Labour head Jeremy Corbyn, which has caused people to label you as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic. Most recently, Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo wrote in a letter to the editor in The Times of Israel that your book had “an unashamed anti-Semitic tone.”
He sent off a tweet in which he compared the closure of Gaza to the concentration camps, and now he wants to shirk it and direct the fire at me and blame me. That’s absurd!
This is a manipulative reading of my text by an anti-Semitic right-wing populist leader. Of course, the comparison is unreasonable, a continuum of lies. I wrote that “Work Makes You Free” is a good motto that was distorted by the Nazis. When they put those words on the gates to Auschwitz, it was brutal sarcasm. Yes, creative work can free you, help you realize your potential. But the Nazis used this motto to justify the most inhuman of actions.
I do not see in the closures that countries have put in place as a form of totalitarianism. Today you self-quarantine in order to protect your life and that of others. In Auschwitz you were forcefully imprisoned and then they killed you. What does he think, that they told the Jews, “Work and then you’ll go home,” and the Jews said, “No, we’re staying here in Auschwitz?”
Even mainstream publications in Israel have depicted you as either anti-Semitic or an Israel hater.
To accuse me of anti-Semitism is a pure manipulation of racist, right-wing propaganda in order to silence our support of progressive Jews. Starting with my first book I devoted dozens of pages to the examination of all sorts of anti-Semitism as a form and model of racism. My fight against anti-Semitism is one and the same with my battle for the rights of the Palestinians.
The odds are that someone who supports Israel has a far greater chance of being an anti-Semite than the opposite
I’ve always underscored that in Europe anti-Semitism is alive and kicking. The extreme right-wing parties in Europe, which support Israel in its fight against the Palestinians, want the Jews to live in Israel and not in Europe. Even the terrible Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik said, “I support Israel against the Arabs, but here there are too many Jews and they have to get out of here.” The odds are that someone who supports Israel has a far greater chance of being an anti-Semite than the opposite.
Down through the ages, Judaism was perceived as an almost radical idea. As opposed to other peoples who had a homeland, the Jews had no territory for hundreds of years. The model of a people drawn together and defined by a system of values, by culture and not by land — in my eyes this is a humanist idea.
Therefore, the Jews had a great role in the Enlightenment in Europe and also in the socialist and communist revolutions. Without them Europe would not have achieved what it did.
Instead of us becoming like the Jews, the Zionist Jews have become just like us. In other words, the identity of Israeli Jews is connected absolutely to territory and as things stand now, this identity is defined by a territory in which they see themselves — as per Israeli law — as a race enjoying privileges over the natives.
A version of this article originally appeared on Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.