Slavoj Žižek: “The ordeal we face is not lockdown and isolation, but what happens when our societies start to move again”

Authoritarians are exploiting this crisis, writes Slavoj Žižek. If China succeeds in Hong Kong, the violent takeover of Taiwan could be the next step – then a full scale Pacific war

Article text as posted on The Independant, 14th May 2020

In a documentary on life in the Chernobyl zone after the accident, an ordinary farmers’ family is shown simply continuing to live in their hut, defying the orders to evacuate and forgotten by the state authorities. They don’t believe in any mysterious nuclear rays – nature is there and life just goes on for them. They were lucky, they said: radiation didn’t seriously affect them.

Does their stance not recall the famous scene from The Matrix in which Neo is given the option to take the blue pill or the red pill? The blue pill would allow him go on living in our common reality, while the red pill would awaken him into the true state of things: our reality is a collective virtual dream manipulated by a gigantic artificial intelligence, and our bodies are actually used as human batteries to provide the energy for the AI machine.

The Chernobyl farmers chose the blue pill, and got away with it… or did they? From the perspective of the farmers, it is the world around them which swallowed the blue pill and believed in the grand lie about radioactive rays while they refused to be seduced by this panic and remained firmly rooted in their daily reality.

One cannot but notice how the metaphor of choosing the red pill and rejecting society’s grand lies is now predominantly used by the new populist right, especially with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. Elon Musk recently joined their ranks, calling the predominant response to it a “panic” and “dumb.” He exhorted his Twitter followers to “take the red pill,” and his comment was quickly embraced by Ivanka Trump who announced that she has taken the pill already.

One should notice the irony that Musk who advocates return to normality at the same time publicizes his project of “neuralink” – all of us immersed into a collective wired brain where our minds directly communicate, bypassing the need for language. Is this vision not the ultimate version of taking the blue pill from Matrix, with humans isolated in cocoon beds, together floating in a shared virtual space?

Paradoxically, the populist new right is here joined by some radical leftists who also see in the Covid-19 panic a conspiracy of the state to impose total control over population. Here is an extreme case: Giorgio Agamben claims that “professors who agree to submit to the new dictatorship of telematics and to hold their courses only online are the perfect equivalent of the university teachers who in 1931 swore allegiance to the fascist regime.”

In the US, the polemics about continuing lockdown is turning into culture war: some stores hung signs “Entrance forbidden with masks!” (not without, but with); Trump ordered all churches, synagogues and mosques to open.

My aim here is not to score cheap points against those who disavow the reality of viral epidemics but to bring out what pushes them to this disavowal. The coronavirus pandemic threatens to develop into a perfect storm, the combination of three (or even four) storms that multiplies their effects. While the first two storms – health catastrophe, economic crisis – are widely debated, the other two – international crises and wars, mental health costs – are much less covered.

We often read that the pandemic was a shock which changed everything, that nothing is the same now. True. But at the same time nothing really changed. The pandemic just brought out more clearly what was already there.

Libertarians critique the use of phone signals to locate you, trace infected individuals and prevent the spread of the disease, yet state apparatuses were already for years registering all our digital communications and phone calls. Now, at least, they are at least using this ability to control us publicly, openly, and to our benefit – and to ascertain one single data (where we move).

Much more dangerous that that is the new turn in tensions between China and the US, which were growing already before the outbreak of coronavirus. China is now making moves to tighten its control over Hong Kong. A new security law is being discussed which would allow Beijing to take aim at the protests that have roiled the semiautonomous city.

This measure, the most aggressive one since Beijing took over Hong Kong in 1997, should be read together with another fact much less reported in our media: for the first time since Xi Jinping took over in 2013, the Taiwan section of the State Council annual report does not include any mention of the “1992 Consensus”, “One Country Two Systems”, “peace” or “peaceful unification.”

This is a major departure from the past which might mean that Beijing has given up the idea of a peaceful unification with Taiwan. If China succeeds in Hong Kong, the violent takeover of Taiwan could be the next step – and this could lead to a full scale Pacific war. Yes, Taiwan and Hong Kong are parts of China, but is this the moment to pose military threats?

And so it goes on elsewhere: Israel plans to annexe parts of West Bank; the US is considering to restart nuclear weapons tests; many other states are using coronavirus to pursue even more ruthlessly their aggressive politics as usual. We live in a mad world where nobody seems ready to do the rational thing and obey a truce in the time of a public health crisis.

Madness brings us to the fourth, no less ominous, storm: collective madness itself, the threatening collapse of our mental health.

Signs are already multiplying. In northern Italy, up to 80 percent of adult men are mentally affected; in Spain, half of the children in metropolitan areas have nightmares; in the US, tens of thousands of suicides are expected.

This trend should not surprise us when the very fundamentals of our daily lives are disappearing. In an essay entitled The Moon under Water, writer George Orwell describes the atmosphere of his ideal pub. For Orwell, pubs were the key element of socialising for the working classes, the place where their common mores were asserted – and now, after coronavirus, it is doubtful if the pub life will ever return as we once knew it. One should never underestimate the shattering effect of seeing one‘s daily customs collapse.

The true ordeal is not so much the lockdown and isolation, it is what happens next, when our societies are start to move again.

I have already once compared the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the global capitalist order to the “five point palm exploding heart technique” from the final scene of Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2. The move consists of a combination of five strikes with one’s fingertips to five different pressure points on the target’s body. The target can go on living and talking if he doesn’t move, but after he stands up and takes five steps, his heart explodes. Is this not how Covid-19 has affected global capitalist? Lockdown and isolation are relatively easy to sustain, we are aware that it is a temporary measure like taking a break; but problems explode when we will have invent a new form of life, since there is no return to the old.

Taking the true red pill means to gather the strength to confront the threat of these storms. We can do it because, to a considerable degree, they depend on us and on how we act and react in these difficult times.

Let’s not dream about a return to the old normality, but let us also abandon those Matrix-esque dreams about entering a new post-human era of collective spiritual existence.

The ongoing pandemic makes us aware that we are rooted in our individual bodies – and it is here that we should engage in the struggle.

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