Photo by Adam Nieścioruk for Unsplash

As the world grapples with the disease COVID-19 caused by the coronavirus, some are questioning what kind of society best looks after its own people.

Getting Philosophical: What our Response Says about Us

My last day of “real” school on Friday, March 13, was odd. Students were jumping around, some were laughing, others were sleeping. Some could not follow instructions, others could not care at all. Some were glad, as I was, to not have “real” school. Still others could not believe it and looked numb, as if they had no reaction at all. The obvious cause of all these reactions: COVID-19.

 At first, I did not think much of COVID-19, the disease brought on by the coronavirus. To me, COVID-19 did not exist, even though all the evidence for COVID-19 was present. Yes, I was not allowed to go to “real” school for some time, prohibited from soccer practice until further notice and was strictly restricted from going outside. But, I thought, it’s whatever. I was still sitting in my house, reading books, going to online school and most importantly, spending time with my family. 

After thinking about COVID-19 and my reaction to it, I thought to myself, why am I thinking this way? Don’t I realize the danger of this epidemic? The short answer: No. Is my ignorance of what is going on with COVID-19 to blame for my nonchalance? Partly. Is it due to my partially developed brain that believes I will never die? Partly. Is it that when I look outside of my bedroom window and I don’t see chaos roaming throughout the streets as if an apocalypse (although COVID-19 is legitimately a pandemic) were occurring, but rather see tranquility? Partly.

But ultimately, like everyone else, I am deeply concerned with me, myself, and I. The narcissism inherent in human nature drives me to think this way. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Denial of Death,” the late American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker put it this way: “This narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart, one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him.” But, continuing Becker’s analogy, when do I feel sorry for the man next to me? I feel sorry for him when I see someone I know, or me, suffer from COVID-19.

 This, unfortunately, has occurred. I won’t describe the person whom I know to have suffered from COVID-19, for, even though her family is important to me, this essay is a response to the various questions I am asking myself right now.

What am I supposed to do? Why are people hoarding items from the stores and leaving no food for the elderly? Will I die due to COVID-19? Will my family die from COVID-19? Will people comply with government restrictions instead of falling into a panic?

These questions are raised not only by looking at my own behavior, which is not always perfect, but by thinking about the potential actions of people I know and don’t know. While I was thinking about these questions, I was scrolling on Instagram and saw a tweet/photo from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who said:

As panic over coronavirus spreads, we have to make the ultimate choice – either we enact the most brutal logic of the survival of the fittest or some kind of reinvented communism with global coordination and collaboration.

  I thought to myself, “Oh, how true this is!” Then, ten seconds passed and I thought, “Wait, what does he mean by the survival of the fittest and reinvented communism?” Then, another five seconds passed and I thought, “I have no idea what Žižek is talking about.” However, Žižek’s answer was so interesting to me that I had to discover what he meant, for if I didn’t understand, how could I decide whether what he said was true or not?

So, what does Žižek mean?

 First, what is the “survival of the fittest?” The survival of the fittest is defined, according to as “the principle that those who are strong and apply ruthless self-interest will be most successful.”  In other words — “every man for themselves,” or “killed or be killed.” However, it is important to note that our current situation does not represent a state of anarchy. Rather, some are in a state of panic over a pandemic which also causes people to act with unsensible amounts of greed. This behavior is unfortunately apparent: stores selling out of necessities such as food, toilet paper, water, soap, and other vital supplies.

 Several countries have adopted this survival-of-the-fittest stance in actions Žižek describes as “national bans on exports of key products such as medical supplies, with countries falling back on their analysis of the crisis amid localized shortages and haphazard, primitive approaches to containment.” 

And who is hurt by such a position? The elderly is one key group. If they are not physically able to go to stores, they cannot purchase supplies. How will the elderly be able to go to the stores to receive their necessities? How will the elderly receive medicine if the ban on national exports continues? This is the point where Žižek explains reinvented communism with global coordination and collaboration.

 Žižek is writing on RT, an international news channel that, according to its website, “acquaints international audiences with a Russian viewpoint on major global events.” So it may be no surprise that he is advocating a political system favorable to Russia. He argues that global communism will allow “global solidarity and cooperation” which is “in the interest of the survival of all and each of us” and also “is the only rational egotist thing to do.”

 Žižek offers global communism as a solution because global communism is, as he puts it, “the only way for us to leave behind such a primitive vitalist standpoint.” This primitive vitalist standpoint, Žižek describes, is when one would “be tempted to see coronavirus as a beneficial infection which allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out the half-rotten weed, and thus contribute to global health.” Although Žižek hits the nail on the head in regards to the survival of the fittest being a horrible, rotten idea, will global communism do what Žižek says?

Since Žižek advises for re-invented global communism, what is global communism? Global communism is a form of communism-a political theory derived from Karl Marx, in which all property is publicly owned. In addition, each person works and is paid according to his or her abilities and needs. The “global” aspect implies that this brand is  international in scope.

The long-term goal of world communism, at least its stated purpose, is a worldwide communist society that is stateless. On the positive side, he argues, such a system could signal the end of the exploitation of labor, the act of treating one’s workers unfairly for one’s benefit. This could be achieved, the thinking goes, either through a voluntary association of sovereign states or a world government.

Žižek, to his credit, however, shows the limitations of the practical applications of communism. One of them was that, in Communist China, at the beginning of the pandemic, local government officials so feared bringing bad news to those in power (and to the public) that they did not convey the information at a critical time. The consequences for public health, including artificially low numbers of infected people, were dire. In other circumstances, as reported in a Bloomberg story he cites, Chinese factory leaders, acting in order to please Chinese authorities tracking power usage, ran machines in empty factories to pretend that life had returned to normal. Generally, when this happens, Žižek said, local managers will be “accused of sabotage and severely punished, thus reproducing the vicious cycle of distrust.”

Thus, Žižek concludes with what he means: re-invented global communism. What he means by that, he writes, is this: “As in a military campaign, information should be shared (among nations) and plans fully coordinated. This is all I mean by ‘communism’ needed today.”

 For Žižek’s description of global communism, it is reasonable to believe it is ethical, for it is focused on looking after the other person and it is useful, for it rids us of the horrible idea of survival of the fittest and uses that logic to proceed towards progress for the whole instead of the few.

While Žižek provides logical reasons for his expansive vision, I cannot say whether I agree.

After all, as a high school student, I am only now starting out on my intellectual journey. A coordinated response to a global pandemic makes sense. But why  do we need a communist system in order for that to happen?

What his essay does make me think about is this: What kind of society needs to exist to best facilitate the crisis in public health we are facing and likely will continue to face? That needs further pondering.

This is part of a continuing blog tracking the highs and lows of life in the St. Benedict’s community as its members weather the effects of a worldwide coronavirus outbreak.    

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