Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?

Slavoj Žižek

These days I sometimes catch myself wishing to get the virus – in this way, at least the debilitating uncertainty would be over. . . A clear sign of how my anxiety is growing is how I relate to sleep. Till around a week ago I was eagerly awaiting the evening: finally, I can escape into sleep and forget about the fears of my daily life. . . Now it’s almost the opposite: I am afraid to fall asleep since nightmares haunt me in my dreams and awaken me in panic – nightmares about the reality that awaits me.

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What reality? These days we often hear that radical social changes are needed if we really want to cope with the consequences of the ongoing epidemics (I myself am among those spreading this mantra) – but radical changes are already taking place. The coronavirus epidemics confronts us with something that we considered impossible; we couldn’t imagine something like this really happening in our daily lives – the world we knew has stopped turning around, whole countries are in a lockdown, many of us are confined to one’s apartment (but what about those who cannot afford even this minimal safety precaution?), facing an uncertain future in which, even if most of us will survive, an economic mega-crisis lies ahead. . . What this means is that our reaction to it should also be to do the impossible – what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing world order. The impossible happened, our world has stopped, AND impossible is what we have to do to avoid the worst, which is – what? (I owe this line of thought to Alenka Zupančič.)

I don’t think the biggest threat is a regression to open barbarism, to brutal survivalist violence with public disorders, panic lynching, etc. (although, with the possible collapse of health care and some other public services, this is also quite possible). More than open barbarism, I fear barbarism with a human face – ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy but legitimized by expert opinions. A careful observer easily noticed the change in tone in how those in power address us: they are not just trying to project calm and confidence, they also regularly utter dire predictions – the pandemic is likely to take about two years to run its course, and the virus will eventually infect 60-70 percent of the global population, with millions of dead. . . In short, their true message is that we’ll have to curtail the basic premise of our social ethics: the care for the old and weak. (Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about life and death will have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.) One should note how the acceptance of such a logic of the “survival of the fittest” violates even the basic principle of the military ethics that tells us that, after the battle, one should first take care of the heavily wounded even if the chance of saving them is minimal. (However, upon a closer look, this shouldn’t surprise us: hospitals are already doing the same thing with cancer patients.) To avoid a misunderstanding, I am an utter realist here – one should even plan  to enable a painless death of the terminally ill, to spare them the unnecessary suffering. But our priority should be, nonetheless, not to economize but to help unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.

So I respectfully disagree with Giorgio Agamben, who sees in the ongoing crisis a sign that “our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.” Things are much more ambiguous: it DOES also unite them – to maintain a corporeal distance is to show respect to the other because I also may be a virus bearer. My sons avoid me now because they are afraid that they will contaminate me (what is to them a passing illness can be deadly for me).

In the last days, we hear again and again that each of us is personally responsible and has to follow the new rules. The media is full of stories about people who misbehave and put themselves and others in danger (a guy entered a store and started to cough, etc.) – the problem is here the same as with ecology where media again and again emphasize our personal responsibility (did you recycle all used newspapers, etc.). Such a focus on individual responsibility, necessary as it is, functions as ideology the moment it serves to obfuscate the big question of how to change our entire economic and social system. The struggle against the coronavirus can only be fought together with the struggle against ideological mystifications, plus as part of a general ecological struggle. As Kate Jones put it, the transmission of disease from wildlife to humans is “’a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.’”

So it is not enough to put together some kind of global healthcare for humans, nature should be included too – viruses also attack plants, which are the main sources of our food, like potato, wheat, and olives. We always have to bear in mind the global picture of the world we live in, with all the paradoxes this implies. For example, it is good to know that the lockdown in China saved more lives than the number of those killed by the virus (if one trusts official statistics of the dead):

Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke says there is a proven link between poor air quality and premature deaths linked to breathing that air. “With this in mind,” he said, “a natural – if admittedly strange – question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself.” “Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.” At just two months of reduction in pollution levels he says it likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China alone.

We are caught in a triple crisis: medical (the epidemic itself), economic (which will hit hard whatever the outcome of the epidemic), plus (not to underestimate) the mental health – the basic coordinates of the life-world of millions and millions are disintegrating, and the change will affect everything, from flying during holidays to everyday bodily contacts. We have to learn to think outside the coordinates of stock market and profit and simply find another way to produce and allocate the necessary resources. Say, when the authorities learn that a company is keeping millions of masks, waiting for the right moment to sell them, there should be no negotiations with the company – masks should be simply requisitioned.

The media has reported that Trump offered one billion dollars to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States.” The German health minister, Jens Spahn, said a takeover of CureVac by the Trump administration was “off the table”; CureVac would only develop vaccine “for the whole world, not for individual countries.” Here we have an exemplary case of the struggle between barbarism and civilization. But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies:

Trump announces proposal to take over private sector. The US president said he would invoke a federal provision allowing the government to marshal the private sector in response to the pandemic, the Associated Press reported. Trump said he would sign an act giving himself the authority to direct domestic industrial production “in case we need it.”

When I used the word communism a couple of weeks ago, I was mocked, but now there is the headline “Trump announces proposal to take over private sector” – can one imagine such a headline even a week ago? And this is just the beginning – many more measures like this should follow, plus local self-organization of communities will be necessary if the state-run health system is under too much stress. It is not enough just to isolate and survive – for some of us to do this, basic public services have to function: electricity, food, and medical supplies. . . (We’ll soon need a list of those who recovered and are at least for some time immune, so that they can be mobilized for the urgent public work.) It is not a utopian communist vision, it is a communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. It is unfortunately a version of what, in the Soviet Union in 1918, was called “war communism.”

As the saying goes, in a crisis we are all socialists – even Trump is considering a form of UBI – a check for a thousand dollars to every adult citizen. Trillions will be spent violating all the market rules – but how, where, for whom? Will this enforced socialism be the socialism for the rich (remember the bailing out of the bank in 2008 while millions of ordinary people lost their small savings)? Will the epidemics be reduced to another chapter in the long sad story of what Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism,” or will a new (more modest, maybe, but also more balanced) world order emerge out of it?

18 March 2020

[CORRECTION. For clarification, the author has asked us to modify the following: “Italy already announced that, if things get worse, those over eighty or with other heavy diseases will be simply left to die” The sentence now reads: “Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about who gets to live may have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.” Furthermore, President Trump did not “invoke the Defense Production Act.” The sentence now reads: “But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies.”-Ed.]


Slavoj Žižek, dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst, is codirector at the International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London.He is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry.

17 Comments

Filed under 2020 Pandemic

17 responses to “Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?

  1. Some points here need rectification.
    “(Italy already announced that, if things get worse, those over eighty or with other heavy diseases will be simply left to die.)”

    It’s more complicated than that; and “Italy” (whoever that’s supposed to be) hasn’t announced anything. See https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/mar/18/facebook-posts/italys-overwhelmed-hospitals-are-treating-elderly-/

    The scarcity of ventilators is the most notorious problem. Other countries (the US for example) will face the same shortage if the ICUs are crowded. I fear that Zizek is recycling a claim made by a person or bot on Facebook the other day: see https://www.facebook.com/gene.ballinger/posts/10222559357435311
    The author of that post used triage to denounce “socialized healthcare.”

    It sounds good to be warning us against “barbarism with a human face,” but it happens a lot. During the Ebola epidemic, hospitals all over West Africa, even some operated by charitable organizations, applied a principle of triage: “is this patient an African or an expat?” The expats were flown out, got the necessary care, and mostly survived. The others, not. You also see rationing in the US, on the basis of income, insurance, and citizenship status. The principle of triage in both these cases is, to say the least, unsound– I might even say barbaric.

    Medical ethicists have been working on the problem of rationing resources for a long time. Resources not being infinite, and being particularly scarce in a crisis, it’s essential to lay down decision procedures informed by utilitarianism and justice. I recommend the work of Jennifer Prah Ruger in particular, who starts from Amartya Sen’s axioms: try _Health and Social Justice_ (OUP, 2009). Or that of Paul Farmer: see for example https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/03/19/opinion/we-know-how-confront-coronavirus-pandemic-expert-mercy/. (I hope the word “expert” isn’t off-putting.)

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  4. DJC

    No Slavoj, I do not trust the statistics from China. Trump may be an ignorant fool, but Xi Jinping is not. Anyone who believes any of the BS coming from Beijing about anything at all is a lost cause.

  5. Tim Burr

    The story about Trump and CureVac is false.

  6. It’s frightening that no mainstream writer is seeing the opportunity here. The travel industry, which has run roughshod over consumer rights and which generally enjoys special tax status (offshore cruises) or a virtual monopoly (hubs), can be re-shaped overnight. In exchange for gov aid, airlines could be required to buy new airplanes with decent legroom, serve complimentary bottles of water, have larger bathrooms, allow at least 10 kg carry on luggage plus one backpack (for laptops), etc. Cruise companies could be incentivized to move HQ to the US and to keep all consumer data on US-based servers. The possibilities are obviously in front of us, and no one seems to be seizing the day.

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  8. Javier

    I think our man Zizek is absolutely right in wishing for a modest solution to the problem. You don’t need an immediate injection of money, 1.000€ for everyone, and so on (but that would still be good). What one wants here is a general trend of the rich losing some of their undeserved ground (not losing all their power, simply to obey basic rules, such as you must pay significant taxes, because everyone except you already pays significant taxes –so we can have a visage of just ruling and meritocracy), It is however clear that money injections are underway (Spain is a clear case) for the well-to-do, while plans for the poor are being postponed (again, see Spain). This is where a modest Europe must ensure that economic plans not-excluding the poor are seen through –but Europe won’t do the work yet, they need some more pressure springing directly from the events themselves, it seems. And, sadly, it seems this extra pressure is coming our way already. We are right to wonder, what should the homeless do? Die in the streets? What should beaten wives do? Get accostumed to the beatings at home? If this happens in a time where the rich and undisturbed have all the decision power , such results should be considered akin to a crime of treason from the rich against the homeless and the beaten that populate their nations. If that sounds populist to you, imagine buying kilos and kilos of toilet paper in panic, while your grandparents are dying in a filthy asylym (again: Spain’s case today, as reported in our national media). Letting your fellow citizens die in the streets and dismal asylums is just disgraceful and childish, and amply deserves some countermeasure.
    (which is not to say revenge, I am again thinking of mere fair taxing, so asylum carers can be properly paid for, people are at least housed, and there’s a plate with some rice on every table –that is, so there’s something there to remind us that we don’t live in the damned Middle Ages).

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