Slavoj Žižek: Why a Philosopher Should Write About Securing Crops
“Pandemics tell us the reality of class differences, the fact that we are not in the same ship.” — Slavoj Žižek
Two days ago, I walked into a bookstore. At first, I was just a fad and didn’t plan to buy any books because I still had a lot of reading material that I hadn’t finished. Shelf after shelf I passed, until I stopped on one of them. There was a book that caught my attention. The cover of the book is dark blue entitled “Pandemic 2: The Inability of Capitalism to Face Crisis”. I’m human after all, and I decided to buy it. Actually, there were two things that made me decide to buy it. First, the author is one of my favourite philosophers, Slavoj Žižek. Second, I don’t yet have a reading that specifically addresses the pandemics of Covid-19. Žižek wrote the introduction of this book titled as above, where the points conveyed are strong enough that I decided to rewrite it. Let’s start…
There’s something rotting between the north-by-northwests — I mean not the Hitchock classic but the town of Gutersloh, a town between north-northwest Germany. As of mid-June 2020, more than 650 workers at a Covid-19 positive meat processing plant and thousands more are currently under quarantine. As usual, we are dealing with class differences: that there are foreign workers imported to do dirty work in vulnerable conditions.
Almost the same unpleasant smell spread all over the world. By the end of spring 2020, something was rotting in the state of South Tennessee — tons of fruit and vegetables failed to pick. Why? Because 100% of the workforce is on a farm in Tennessee, a total of about 200 workers tested positive for Covid-19 after one of its workers had previously been infected with the virus.
The case is just one of many examples of the threat that pandemics pose to food supplies: products that must be picked directly by hand depend on hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers. Most of them are claustrophobic and sleep in cramped room — an ideal contagion site for Covid-19. The rate of transmission will definitely increase because the order must be completed quickly and briefly when the product is mature. These seasonal workers are in a very vulnerable position: their jobs are heavy and vulnerable, their incomes are low, health protections for them are usually inadequate, and their average immigration status is illegal. These facts are another example of how pandemics tell the reality of class differences, the fact that we are not in the same ship.
Cases like this are spread evenly around the world. The shortage of people harvesting fruit and vegetables in southern Italy and Spain, the decay of tons of oranges in Florida, is a problem that can also be found in England, France, Germany and Russia. As a result of the pandemic, we are faced with a typical absurd capitalist crisis: thousands of hard workers are unable to get jobs and are forced to sit idly by. Meanwhile, there were tons of rotting fruit in the fields.
Not only harvesting and distributing products that are beset by difficulties — crop growth is also affected. Today, locusts have damaged crops from East Africa to the western part of India. Both places are also threatened by drought. The conclusion of all this is that we face the possibility of considerable food shortages, or maybe even famine and that is not just the case in Third World countries. In the West, the problem is that we have to pay a little more than the proper price for a box of strawberries. The current situation is not without hope, but a swift and internationally coordinated response is needed — more than a call to voluntarily assist on the ground. Government organizations need to be involved in mobilizing people to prevent crises.
At this point, I (Žižek) can hear the critics’ laughter over me, and there are some friends who mock how the pandemic marked the end of my time as a philosopher: Who cares about Lacanian reading of Hegel’s thinking when the foundations of our existence are threatened? In fact, right now I have to focus on how to secure the crop.
However, these critics are carrying the wrong assumptions. Pandemics that are not only ongoing bring social and economic conflicts that have been raging beneath the surface: pandemics not only expose us to a very broad political problem. More than that, pandemics have become a fundamental conflict of the global vision of society. At the beginning of the crisis, it appeared that the solution was a kind of fundamental global solidarity with an emphasis on helping those most threatened to survive: however, as John Authers put it, this solidarity gradually “gave way to a bitter factional and cultural battle with rival moral principles thrown like metaphysical grenades.” Many countries have taken an antithetical approach, while the United States has split itself almost into two countries divided between those who wear masks and those who don’t.
This conflict is a serious existential conflict that one cannot simply make fun of those who refuse to wear masks. Here’s how Brenden Dilley, a talk show host in Arizona explained why he doesn’t wear a mask: “It’s better to die than look an idiot. Yes, I mean literally. I’d rather die than look like an idiot.” Dilley refused to wear a mask because for him, wearing a mask was incompatible with the most basic dignity of a human being.
That’s why it’s so appropriate right now for a philosopher to write about securing the crop: the way we deal with this problem ultimately depends on our basic stance on human life. Do we vote like Dilley, a libertarian who rejects anything if something violates individual freedom? Are we utilitarians ready to sacrifice thousands of lives for the economic well-being of the majority? Are we becoming an authoritarian who believes that only the power of state control and regulation can save us? Are we New Age spiritualists who regard pandemics as a warning from nature, as punishment for the exploitation of natural resources? Do we believe that God is only testing us and will ultimately help us find a way out? Each of these attitudes rests on a specific view of what a human being is. For that, in proposing ways of overcoming crises, we must all be philosophers. What a word by Žižek. I’m surely recommend this book for those of you who wants to acknowledge more about the pandemic of Covid-19.