Ioannis Papagaryfallou By: Ioannis Papagaryfallou
Research Assistant in Global Health
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06 Dec 2020 : Zizek and Agamben on COVID-19

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has been consistently problematizing official attitudes towards COVID-19 writing in his personal blog and elsewhere. In particular, Agamben has been criticizing the undisguised and continuous violation of fundamental freedoms in the name of public health. The Italian philosopher interprets the official response to COVID-19 as a sign that modern societies are committed to the preservation of what he defines as ‘bare life’, man’s physical existence, zoe as opposed to bios. In Italy and other countries, the normal flow of life has been disrupted in the name of an exaggerated public health threat, a threat not so distant from others we have faced in the past without resorting to such extreme measures. Agamben’s depiction of COVID-19 as just another version of the flu may not be entirely convincing, but does not cancel the general merit of his argument, especially the defence of a full human life, which is impossible without sustained contact with others. In Pandemic! The philosopher Slavoj Zizek questions many ideas put forward by Agamben and other radical intellectuals in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Zizek is keen to emphasize the so-called ‘reality’ of the virus, and to demonstrate that the interests of states and capital are not genuinely served by the lockdowns and the other restrictive measures adopted all over the world. Whereas Agamben points out that the official response to COVID-19 confirms and reaffirms the transformation of the state of exception into a normal governing paradigm, Zizek claims that the ongoing economic and political crisis makes most states seem weak. To the extent that there are winners from the crisis, they do not include in their ranks Western states and mainstream capitalists. Other aspects of Zizek’s response to COVID-19 are less congruent with dominant ideological assumptions. Zizek interprets the crisis as a sign that communism has now been transformed from a utopian aspiration into a practical necessity. Zizek’s (2020, 45) broadly defined ‘communism’ refers among else to a new international organization which will be able to ‘control and regulate the economy, as well as limit the sovereignty of nation-states when needed’. In the global health field, this means strengthening the executive powers of the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Although methodologically indebted to classical Marxism, Zizek’s understanding of communism in the aftermath of COVID-19 is practically indistinguishable from contemporary capitalism, or at least the realization of political tendencies immanent in the global capitalist system. Whereas Marxian communism emerges out of capitalism as a new historical period and a radical break with the past, Zizek’s loosely defined ‘communism’ appears to be nothing more than the final stage of global capitalism. The fact that the COVID-19 crisis does not serve the interests of states and capital in any unambiguous way does not mean that one should forget about the ways in which global public health has been used as an alternative to economic development and individual liberties. Although lockdowns and the tiered system currently adopted in England may seem necessary, their disastrous consequences will only be appreciated ex post facto confirming the Hegelian intuition that the owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

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