As an admirer of Žižek’s work, I found his viral responses to Covid-19 (books, short texts, interviews) rather disappointing, and in many ways representative of the Left’s capitulation to the ideology of ‘emergency capitalism’. The inability to see how the coronavirus crisis works as a perfect storm to expedite the ascent of authoritarian capitalism, suggests to me that the Left is either opportunistically compliant or hopelessly in denial (or both). The vanishing of any meaningful left-wing opposition, already a key factor in the success of the neoliberal revolution, is now decisive for the rolling out of a new phase of capitalist domination based on the demolition of the ‘work society’ and its liberal-democratic superstructure.
Being mindful of the power of censorship in today’s corporate-owned infosphere, I am eager to stress that I am neither a Covid-denier nor a conspiracy theorist. Far from undermining the narrative related to our health emergency, conspiracy theories actually strengthen it, since they legitimise the pillorying of any form of dissent. At least this should be clear by now: it is by demonising all deviations from the official agenda that today’s ideology perpetuates its hegemony. The main problem with conspiracy theories is that they stop too soon in their hunt for the culprit. While the current state of emergency is a battleground for competing forms of abhorrent human greed and corruption, the cause of our predicament is intra-systemic. That is to say: the Orwellian rabbit hole into which we are descending is being dug by capitalism as an anonymous mode of production attempting to escape its structural crisis. This is not merely a war against the virus, but against a work-based society whose profitability has waned dramatically over the last four decades, inflating financial bubbles that are now threatening a bankruptcy that could bring the entire house of cards tumbling down.
We should not forget that the pre-pandemic world economy was suffocating under an unsustainable mountain of debt (both private and public). In autumn 2019, the global debt-to-GDP ratio had risen to an all-time high of 322%, and warnings that a devastating slump was imminent were issued on a daily basis. The coronavirus crisis should also be framed as a response to this volatile situation. Western governments are now setting up biosecurity infrastructures whose aim is to manage the unavoidable disorders resulting from the economy’s breakdown, with financial reset and hyperinflation included in the ‘deal’. The latter is likely to trigger a severe devaluation of most people’s assets, followed by the elites mopping up the mess by laying claim to pretty much everything that can be owned and controlled. This is why we are not just facing a temporary health emergency that will dissolve as soon as the danger is declared extinct. Rather, we are dealing with an instrumentum regni of global magnitude that will be replicated with every given opportunity.
In short, only by reproducing its conditions of possibility by authoritarian means can capitalism avoid collapse. And the acceleration toward a future where we will “own nothing and be happy” involves the re-engineering of our identities from consumer-centred to legally disenfranchised. The relentless pathologizing of life serves this precise purpose: to pulverise the last remnants of resistance to the installation of a new tyrannical regime of accumulation. Competition, understood as the free movement of capital, is remorselessly ‘emancipating’ from the (no matter how hypocritical) ideal of a common good. No wonder the key word today is not resistance but resilience: people must learn to endure being crushed. The aim is to reproduce old social relations (owners of the means of production vs sellers of labour-power) as a system of social castes. Capitalism, in other words, is reinventing itself as a fully digitalised feudal technocracy. Ultimately, the respiratory virus functions as a decoy: under the pretext of biosecurity, we are giving our approval to a capitalist coup that will condemn most of us to immiseration and (voluntary) servitude.
The above point is (dis)missed by Žižek (and many other leftists), who instead believes that 1) the draconian responses to Covid-19 (lockdowns, curfews, facemasks, social distancing, and the whole corona liturgy) are totally justified, liberating even; and 2) the social destruction wreaked by the pandemic will now make global emancipation (almost) inevitable. Indeed, many progressive minds, including old & new-born Marxists, fully support the capitalist State and its increasingly untenable narratives of salvation. More than a year since the official start of the pandemic, they continue to welcome measures which, on the one hand, reassure them that the State is in good health, and on the other (the ‘radical’ one), are supposed to self-sabotage the global capitalist assembly-line. In my opinion, both arguments are misplaced. Firstly, the technocratic State, whether liberal or conservative, red, blue, or green, is nothing but the political muscle of the economy. Capitalist realism tends to prevail today precisely by hijacking the State, no longer employed as a benevolent liberal-democratic ‘guardian angel’ but increasingly as a despotic Leviathan (to paraphrase Hobbes, ‘fear the Leviathan, so that you he will protect you from the fear of violent death!’). Secondly, the socio-economic devastation visited on large parts of the world by Covid-19 is perfectly in tune with the dystopian appetite of emergency capitalism – indeed, it is an integral feature of capital’s ‘insane rationality’, which is completely indifferent to those who are trodden on and left behind.
When Covid-19 erupted, Žižek was quick off the blocks to argue that the disease would deal a mortal blow to capitalism, “a kind of ‘Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique’ on the global capitalist system”, as he put it in reference to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2. However, just as that technique is part of the mythology of martial arts, Žižek’s claim may well belong to the mythology of leftist radicalism in its assumption that capitalist contradictions will (sooner or later) give birth to ‘some form’ of Communism. As Žižek writes in Pandemic 2: “If the last few weeks have demonstrated anything, it is that global capitalism cannot contain the Covid-19 crisis” and that therefore “something like a new form of Communism will have to emerge precisely if we want to survive!”.
This speculative conclusion is no doubt enticing, but far too abstract and simplistic. The main problem here is that capitalism can contain Covid-19, for the simple reason that the crisis it triggered is the fundamental presupposition behind the implementation of what the apologists of the Fourth Industrial Revolution openly welcome as “the Great Reset”: a grandiose transformation of society aimed at replicating capitalist oppression at a higher level of technological complexity, with biosecurity playing the ideological watchdog. In his recent publications, Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, has provided detailed descriptions of the social Darwinism that awaits us, which I have called “Franciscan capitalism”.
Yet, Žižek suggests that the virus is “democratic”, as “we are all on the same boat”: “It is difficult to miss the supreme irony of the fact that what has brought us all together and promoted global solidarity expresses itself at the level of everyday life in strict commands to avoid close contacts with others, even to self-isolate.” Again, what Žižek underestimates is the extent to which the virus has provided the ideal terrain not for the blossoming of global solidarity and the inevitability of Communism, but for the precipitation of a violent process of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter) aimed at installing socio-economic apartheid through a lethal mix of destitution, repression, and propaganda. Politically speaking, there is no revolutionary opening on the horizon. Linking the coronavirus standstill to the possibility of Communism may be theoretically astute, but it remains idealistic. It leads Žižek to argue that “the rejection of lockdowns is […] a rejection of change”, an argument supplemented by the worst type of regime propaganda: if you protest against lockdowns, you must be a right-winger.
The political point here is that no objective dialectical process unifies the ‘exploited and oppressed’ – or, to use today’s somewhat depoliticised language, the ‘poor and marginalised’. Žižek is fond of dialectical reversals like Walter Benjamin’s “every fascism is a failed revolution”. However, while we wait for a Godot-like revolution, we experience only failure and oppression. Speculative wisdom is enlightening, and yet it can easily become the refuge of beautiful souls who overlook the political and socio-economic stakes. Today, the very meaning of rebellion is being erased from our vocabulary and collective memory. Since the late 1980s, we have been gradually convinced that rebelling is undemocratic and uncivilized, a practice for violent thugs (mostly neo-fascists) who refuse ‘dialogue’. In the UK, the government’s new ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ now aims to literally silence even non-violent protests while turbocharging police powers. It should be clear that without collective forms of popular resistance, society itself turns into an open-air prison – that is, if we are allowed out of our homes.
In this respect, my biggest problem with Žižek’s claim that the coronavirus may bring us Communism comes when he suggests that Communism is “a name for what is already going on”, to the extent that “it is being enacted by politicians like Boris Johnson”; or, as he put it in a recent interview with Owen Jones, that is even discernible in someone like Bill Gates. The dialectical reversal here is not even particularly amusing. While there is little doubt that we are witnessing the implosion of capitalism, it is naïve to assume that such implosion is necessarily explosive: though it creates misery for most, it does not spontaneously breed revolutionary contradictions. Rather, in its current phase the slow-motion collapse of our civilisation engenders only its authoritarian double. Capitalist implosion is not telling us that we need Communism if we want to survive. Rather, it is forcing us to believe that, to survive, we must say yes to heavier doses of (‘greener, safer, fairer’) emergency capitalism. Amidst the devastation ignited by coronavirus, greed is the only answer, as Boris Johnson recently reminded us in his Gordon Gekko impression.
In brief, we are experiencing a tectonic shift in which capitalism seeks to outlive itself in the way it has always done: by self-revolutionising. No doubt, the stakes are now higher than, say, at the time of the First Industrial Revolution, when millions of agricultural labourers were dispossessed of their lands and turned into factory workers. However, the method is identical: a given ‘world’ (social constellation) is destroyed and the impoverished masses are disciplined. For this to succeed today, however, ideology is more crucial than ever.
For many Western left-wingers, belief in Covid-19 as a cataclysmic occurrence was always a political choice, especially on the back of the electoral contest between Trump and Biden. Their reasoning can be summarised as follows: since most Covid-sceptics come from the Right, the official narrative must be trusted. Incidentally, the same ‘misunderstanding’ applies to right-wingers who berate lockdowns as socialist measures. Such political befuddlement is typical of our time. It confirms that the Left/Right binary is cynically manipulated as ‘perception management’ within a divide-and-rule rationale whose only aim is to accelerate a violent systemic transition. By now, however, more and more people are suspecting what many authoritative (but systematically silenced) voices have been saying from the start: that the crisis unleashed by coronavirus has been largely manufactured.
Anyone who chooses to think for themselves should have realised by now that this emergency narrative (like many in the past and more to come) is inconsistent. If, for instance, we take the virus’s infection-fatality rate, even the WHO acknowledges it at around 0.23% across the population and 0.05% for those under 70. Plenty of evidence suggests that ‘Covid deaths’ have been inflated by the timely introduction of new medical protocols instructing medical professionals to certify Covid-19 as cause of death when it is merely assumed to have caused or contributed to causing death, and even without clinical verification. In the WHO’s words: “always apply these instructions, whether they can be considered medically correct or not.” We also know that asymptomatic transmission is virtually non-existent, and that the RT-PCR test – the main trigger for emergency measures – is diagnostically unreliable and prone to misuse, as confirmed by its inventor (Nobel-prize winner Kary Mullis) and in a recent WHO bulletin. Moreover, there is a plethora of documented evidence (e.g. see here, here, here, and here) that lockdowns are both ineffective and socially destructive, not least in causing thousands of home deaths through the withdrawal of medical care. We should also be aware that there are huge conflicts of interest between the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry, their financial backers (including the usual philanthropists), and national/supranational medical agencies.
As with every ideology, however, access to evidence is not enough. Rather, the power of what is promoted as ‘real science’ (so real that it bans doubt and prohibits debate) is akin to the power of a new religion, as Jacques Lacan cautioned in 1974: “Science is in the process of substituting itself for religion, and it is still more despotic, obtuse and obscurantist.” And capitalism, of course, banks on the power of ‘real science’, just as much as it capitalises on health, by now easily the most profitable business in the world. In ideological terms, the main novelty today relates to the disciplinarian use of the fear/salvation couple. While some countries are resisting the ideological wave, most Western democracies have chosen to ride it. The outcome is that we are giving in to domination through fear and isolation (and snitching on our neighbours) imposed as civic virtue. We are surrendering to regulatory tools tried and tested in decades of ‘states of emergency’ deliberately created to enforce special laws, censorship, the obliteration of public spaces, the atomisation and militarization of society, and an unprecedented Denkverboten – the prohibition (including self-censorship) of critical thinking, as I have argued here. In this respect, corona-ideology supports itself through a simple and irresistible moral injunction: to save lives, which reduces human life to the status of something that must be saved irrespective of what is sacrificed in the process. As noted by Giorgio Agamben, the figure that best embodies the condition of ‘bare life’ (vita nuda) in pandemic times is the “asymptomatic patient”, whose potentially pathogenic status makes permanent vaccination and testing essential to retain access to society.
It is interesting to observe how global (ideological) inoculation is now called upon to guarantee some form of social identity that might compensate for the ongoing devastation. Indeed, the coronavirus crisis resembles more and more a new global religion, organized in a liturgical structure replete with sacraments and rituals: social distancing, wearing a facemask (even outdoors or while driving a car alone), the compulsive sanitizing of hands, systematic suspicion of others, and so on. All this is solidifying into a belief-system whose purpose is to elevate biosecurity to the role of a new divinity, while the rules of the game are changed behind our backs. Replacing the ‘war on Terror’ (criminally unleashed by the propaganda on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction), the ‘war on Covid’ fulfils the same ideological purpose as it turns the screw on populations now helplessly delivered to media fearmongering and bio-technological control – not only through health passports and the segregation of the unvaccinated, but through the implementation of the ID2020 project alongside the likely rolling out of social credit and a rent-only economy.
The main dilemma faced by capitalism today is that the new normal must find plausible justifications for its increasingly repressive character. With the waning of the golden age of consumer capitalism, the system has very few ‘gifts’ left in stock for humanity (to borrow from Marcel Mauss’s well-known theory). With rampant technological automation and dwindling natural resources, capitalism ‘knows’ that work ethics and mass-consumerism can no longer function as the superglue of social life, while ‘democracy’ itself needs to be radically redefined. Capitalism also ‘knows’ that what is threatening its mode of production is no longer Marx’s ‘tendency of the law of profit to fall’, but rather an absolute fall in the mass of profits. And this is precisely why, today, the ‘war on Covid’ is capital’s perfect alibi, as are all those other emergencies waiting in the wings.
Without developing collective forms of opposition to this predicament, we will soon wake up not in Communism (which one?), but in a neo-feudal inferno where our Lords enslave us in order to protect us, and protect us in order to enslave us. Inevitably, as the petit-bourgeoisie vaporizes, workers morph into neo-serfs like the Amazon employees forced to urinate in bottles and defecate in bags. For all the rest, there will be segregation as fate. Or, at best, the alms of some form of Universal Basic Income, which is not a socialist measure but one of the pillars of the new global order which capitalism and its multi-billionaire pioneers of change have had in store for us for some time.
 Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World (New York and London: OR Books, 2020), 31.
 Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic! 2. Chronicles of a Time Lost (New York and London: OR Books, 2020), 113.
 See The Fourth Industrial Revolution (2016), Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution: A Guide to Building a Better World (2018) and The Great Reset (2020, co-authored with Thierry Malleret).
 Žižek, Pandemic!, 32-33.
 Žižek, Pandemic 2, 110.
 Ibid, 71-72.
 Jacques Lacan, Freud Forever: An Interview with Panorama, trans P. Dravers, Hurly Burly, No. 12 (2015), 18.