Photo: A collage of pictures from the World Economic Forum and the International Institute for Environment and Development, indicating that the future of the world economy will be influenced by OVID-19. - Photo: 2020

Welcome to the Viral Desert – Coronavirus and the Reinvention of Communism

Viewpoint by Slavoj Žižek*

LJUBLJANA (IDN) – The current spread of the coronavirus epidemic has also triggered a huge contagion of ideological viruses, which had been lying in a dormant state in our societies: fake news, paranoid conspiracy theories, outbursts of racism, and so on.

The founded and real need for the implementation of quarantine has reverberated, manifesting itself in the ideological pressures that invite us to erect clear borders and put down “enemies” that would represent a threat to our identity and the conditions of isolation.

But it is possible that another ideological virus is spreading – this one much more benign – and which, with a little luck, can infect us all: the virus of starting to think about possible alternative societies beyond the nation-State, and which take shape as cooperation in the form of global solidarity.

Today there is much speculation that coronavirus could cause the fall of the communist government in China, in the same way that (as Mikhail Gorbachev flatly stated), the Chernobyl catastrophe was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But here is a paradox: because coronavirus should also push us to reinvent communism starting from trust in people and science.

In the final scene of Kill Bill: Volume 2  by Quentin Tarantino, the protagonist Beatrix (Uma Thurman) defeats the evil Bill (David Carradine) by striking him with the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique”, the deadliest blow of all martial arts.

The technique consists of a combination of five strikes performed with the fingertips on five different pressure points in the opponent’s body: after suffering the blow, as soon as the victim turns his back and takes five steps, his heart explodes and he drops dead. (This blow – needless to say –  is part of the martial arts mythology of Chinese origin but cannot be reproduced in reality). In the film, after Beatrix has struck Bill, he calmly makes peace with her before taking five steps and dying.

What makes such a blow so fascinating is the interval it entails between its execution and the moment of death: from when I have been hit, I can still have a tranquil conversation, although I am fully aware that from the moment I get up to leave, my heart will end up exploding and I will fall to the ground dead.

It could be said that the idea behind how coronavirus would lead to the fall of the communist government in China goes even further. As if this epidemic put into practice a sort of social attack on the Chinese communist regime with the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique”. Once struck, one can still sit there and calmly comment on the situation, talking about routine quarantine procedures, etc., but any real change in what is the social order (such as that of actually trusting people) will inevitably lead to its collapse.

However, my humble opinion is much more radical still: I venture to say that this coronavirus epidemic is a kind of attack using the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” against the whole global capitalist system: the signal that tells us that we cannot continue to touch things the same way we did before, that radical change is needed.

A few years ago, literary critic and essayist Fredric Jameson drew attention to the utopian potential present in movies about cosmic catastrophes. That is to say, a global threat, such as that of an asteroid, to life on planet Earth, or a pandemic that is destroying humanity, has the potential to achieve a new global solidarity: in the face of it our small differences become insignificant and we all start working together to find a solution.

And here we are today, in real life. The point here is not to sadistically take advantage of generalised suffering, counting on the fact that it will contribute to our interests. On the contrary, it is a matter of reflecting on the sad reality that we need a catastrophe of this magnitude to rethink the basic characteristics of the society in which we live.

The first model, still vague, of this type of global coordination is the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has not come out with the usual palaver and bureaucratic nonsense, but with precise alarms, spread without fanfare. Such organisations need to be given greater executive power.

Bernie Sanders has been ridiculed by sceptics for supporting free universal health care in the United States; but isn’t this the lesson from this coronavirus that we need even more, and that we have to start building some kind of global health care network?

A day after the Iranian deputy minister of Health and Medical Education, Iraj Harirchi, had held a press conference to try to minimise the hype about the spread of coronavirus, stating that there was no need to implement mass quarantines, he himself issued a short statement in which he admitted that he had contracted coronavirus and that he had placed himself in isolation (already during the first television appearance, he had presented sudden symptoms of fever and weakness).

Harirchi added: “This virus is democratic, and it doesn’t distinguish between poor and rich or statesman and an ordinary citizen.” In this sense, he is quite right, we are all in the same boat. And we are not dealing only with viral threats, but other catastrophes are also gathering on our horizon, if they are not already happening: drought, heat waves, storms of enormous proportions, and so on. In all these cases, the right answer should not be generalised panic, but hard and urgent work of establishing some sort of efficient global coordination.

The first illusion we must get rid of is that which was formulated by Donald Trump during his recent visit to India: that is, that the epidemic will soon regress and that we only have to wait for the peak, since life will return to normal soon after.

China is already preparing for this moment: its media have already announced that, once the epidemic is over, people will have to work on Saturday and Sunday to be able to clear up the backlog.

Against these too easy hopes, the first thing to do is to admit that the threat is here to stay: even if this wave should recede, it will return in new, perhaps even more dangerous forms.

For this reason, it is desirable that viral epidemics have an impact on what are our most basic interactions with other people, with the objects that surround us, and even with our own bodies: avoiding coming into contact with things that could be “contaminated”, not touching books, not sitting in public toilets or on public seats, trying not to embrace others and holding their hands … maybe we will even come to be even more jealous of our spontaneous gestures: not poking our noses and avoiding rubbing our eyes and scratching. In short, in other words, it will not be only the state and other institutions that control us: we must learn to control and discipline ourselves.

Perhaps it will be only virtual reality that will be considered safe and moving freely in an open space will become something reserved for the private islands of the ultra-rich.

But even at the level of virtual reality and the Internet, it is worth remembering that in recent decades the term “virus” and “viral” have been used above all to designate digital phenomena that have been infecting our virtual space, and of which we were not aware, at least not until the destructive power was released (for example, corrupting our data or frying our hard drives).

What we are witnessing now is a massive return to what was the original literary meaning of the term. Viral infections operate hand in hand in both real and virtual dimensions.

Another bizarre phenomenon we can observe is that of the triumphant return of capitalist animism, which treats social phenomena, such as markets or financial capital, as if they were living entities.

In reading some of the major headlines in the major media, the impression is that what should really concern us does not concern the thousands of people who have already died (and the thousands who are yet to die), but the fact that “the markets are becoming nervous”: coronavirus is increasingly disturbing the proper functioning of the world market, and, as we are told, growth can suffer a fall of two or three percent.

Doesn’t this all clearly indicate to us the urgent need to reorganise our global economy so as not to leave it at the mercy of market mechanisms any longer? Of course, here I am not referring to the old type of communism, but simply to some sort of global organisation that is capable of controlling and regulating the economy, as well as limiting the sovereignty of nation-States when necessary. Whole countries have been able to do so in conditions of war, and indeed we are all approaching a situation of medical war.

Beyond all this, moreover, we must not be afraid to underline some potentially beneficial side effects of this epidemic. One of the symbols of the epidemic was the passengers trapped (quarantined) on large cruise ships: this because – I am tempted to say irony of fate – of the obscenity that these ships represent. (We just have to be careful that travel to deserted islands, or other exclusive resorts, does not become a privilege for the wealthy minority, as it did decades ago with air travel.) Car production has been seriously affected: well, this could also force you to think of alternatives to our obsession with individual vehicles … and the list could go on indefinitely.

In one of his recent speeches, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said: “There are no liberals, only communists with university degrees.” And what if, in the end, the opposite is true? What if we call those who care about our freedom “liberals” and those who are aware that we can save that freedom only by means of radical change “communists”, since “global capitalism” is approaching a crisis?

So, today we must say that those who still consider themselves communists are liberals with degrees: liberals who have seriously studied the reasons why our liberal values are under threat and realise that only radical change can save them.

* Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher, currently a researcher at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Arts, and International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 April 2020]

This article was originally published on March 18 in Italian by Sinistrainrete under the title Benvenuti del deserto virale: Il Coronavirus e la reinvenzione del comunismo. Translated by Phil Harris.

Photo: A collage of pictures from the World Economic Forum and the International Institute for Environment and Development, indicating that the future of the world economy will be influenced by OVID-19.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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