The following essay was written for and performed at a spoken word event on Nov. 15 in Philadelphia. Enjoy! [alex]

A specter is haunting Europe; the specter of zombie-ism.” – Zombie Karl Marx

Art by guitarbri. Still from the film “They Live.”

Why has the archetype of the zombie been so ever-present in pop culture over the last five years or so? Is it just a passing fad, like Justin Bieber’s latest hairstyle or the eye-rolling annoyance of YOLO? Is it simply because it’s so much fun to dress up in tattered rags, skin covered with fake blood and oozing sores? Or could this zombie fixation reflect something buried in our subconscious about the society we live in today? Something about our ideas about ourselves, minds turned off and eyes glued to flickering screens, fatalistically attempting to forge human relationships through virtual social networks, working meaningless jobs to pay inescapable debts, groaning towards a future that promises no better than what already exists, and at worse may offer apocalyptic disaster, a remix of Fukushima and Hurricane Sandy set on repeat?

But beyond detachment and doom, could our obsession with the undead reflect the reality of the state of institutional decay, political futility, and economic stagnation the world as a whole is struggling to wade through, like some pungent swamp that won’t release its brambles from our ankles?

I submit that the answer is all that and more. I believe we are, in fact, living through a historic period tied to the image of the zombie because the system which dictates and dominates our globe, from the world-markets to the workplace to the propaganda machines, and I do not hesitate to name it – capitalism, has in fact zombified right before our eyes, transforming into a monster that threatens to tear all of our lives apart, unless we can find some way to annihilate the sucker, or at the very least evade it until its virus extinguishes itself in an orgy of self-destruction.

And yes, this is a hopeful theory, more hopeful than almost anything else a left-wing radical like myself is likely to propose to you in this day and age. In this age of grimness and despair, scheduled to climax in about a month, any hope for a better future may sound like the naïve ramblings of a starry-eyed child who’s watched too many Disney movies. Nevertheless, hear me out, I have a point.

Definitions

Zombies

In 2009, the radical UK magazine Turbulence published an excellent editorial called “Life in Limbo?”, which courageously declared that neoliberalism, the dominant ideological and political project of the capitalist elites over the last forty years, had failed and been replaced by what they called “Zombie-Liberalism”:

Neoliberalism is dead but it doesn’t seem to realise it. Although the project no longer ‘makes sense’, its logic keeps stumbling on, like a zombie in a 1970s splatter movie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. If no new middle ground is able to cohere sufficiently to replace it, this situation could last a while… all the major crises – economic, climate, food, energy – will remain unresolved; stagnation and long-term drift will set in. Such is the ‘unlife’ of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. A zombie can only act habitually, continuing to operate even as it decomposes. Isn’t this where we find ourselves today, in the world of zombie-liberalism? The body of neoliberalism staggers on, but without direction or teleology.

Any project that wants to slay this zombie will have to operate on many different levels, just as neoliberalism did, which means that it must be tied to a new manner of living. And it must start from the here and now, the current composition of global society, large parts of which are still in the grip of the neoliberal zombie. This is the greatest challenge facing those advocating a New or Green New Deal. It isn’t a case of simply changing elite thinking or dabbling with government spending: it requires a more fundamental change. Not just a change of consciousness at the head of society, but a transformation of the social body.

From the Turbulence article then, we can define a zombie with the following elements:

  1. It’s dead. Yet it’s still walking.
  2. It’s dangerous. It can kill people, presumably through cannibalism.
  3. It lacks intentional thought or long-term planning. It acts compulsively.
  4. It continues to decay. It’s not capable of getting better or being reformed. It just has to be killed.

Capitalism

On my website endofcapitalism.com, I define capitalism as “the power structure that currently dominates all human society, and which has done so for the last 500 years. It is a system based on ecological and social exploitation for the profit of the wealthy few… Life under capitalism is increasingly one of work, consumption, debt, isolation, and emotional and spiritual emptiness. We are losing connection with the two most vital sources of meaning in our lives: community with other people, and communion with nature.”

John Holloway, in his book Change the World Without Taking Power, builds on the philosophy of Karl Marx to elaborate that the nature of capitalism is fetishization. In other words, the system’s power over us is rooted in the separation of “the doing” and “the done,” the subject and the object. Capitalism turns humans into objects – labor, consumers, and commodities. Meanwhile, objects under capitalism are given the illusion of subjectivity – think of any of the millions of commercials you’ve seen on TV; products and corporations are presented to you as living, breathing creatures, with personalities, hopes, and senses of humor.

When I was a teenager it used to be a joke that Carson Daly, host of the disgustingly popular MTV show TRL, was “a massive tool.” This was more than gallows humor, it was an honest reflection of fetishized reality. Capitalism simply transforms human beings into servants of capital, most at the level of alienated wage worker or teenage mallrat, a few at the level of smiling celebrity spokesperson, and the most loyal servants at the level of corporate executive or hedge fund manager – life becomes subordinated to the regime of money-making.

One of my mentors is the Italian autonomist feminist Silvia Federici, whose landmark book Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation contains a fascinating critique of Marx’s (and by extension Holloway’s) argument. For Federici, the fact that capitalism dehumanizes and exploits workers through the production process is actually secondary to the primary violence of the system, which is aimed at the Earth, at women, at gender non-conformists, at people of color, and at all of our communities of care.

Marx acknowledged the immense violence which launched the capitalist system around 500 years ago – the genocide of the Native Americans, the Atlantic slave trade, and the Enclosures which evicted the European farmers from their land and into the urban workforce. He labeled this “primitive accumulation,” as if the system needed an infusion of blood and destruction in order to boost itself into global hegemony, but now it can coast along, fueled by the more mundane and subtle violence of wage labor. But Federici points out that this violent underbelly of capital never ended, it has merely extended itself into less visible forms of displacement, like the virtually ignored genocide, war, mass rape and child slavery in the Congo, a process that is by no means “primitive” since its mineral output forms the basis of the microchips computing trillions of operations in billions of laptops and cell-phones sold across the global market.

To this horror she adds the sexual division of labor, since it is merely an unspoken daily fact that women are the ones doing the vast majority of reproductive labor – the labor necessary to reproduce the working class so that capital always has a stable population of healthy workers. Reproductive labor being a term that includes not only birthing and raising children, but also cooking, cleaning, and doing the emotional caretaking of people which allows families and communities to continue to exist without completely disintegrating. All of which is of course largely unrecognized and unpaid labor.

Finally, unlike Marx, we can’t at all ignore the fact that capitalism would be nowhere if it were not for the constant encroachments on nature, and the complete disregard for ecological sustainability. The current economy literally could not exist if not for massive theft and destruction of whole bio-systems, which are, to be blunt, currently facing global collapse.

Leave these elements out of the equation, and you’re left with a textbook definition of capitalism, something about free markets and rational individual actors, which offers no real insight into the meaning of our world today or how it came about.

Zombie-Capitalism

Image by Zina Saunders.

For seven years I’ve been developing the theory that global capitalism is approaching an historic endpoint, and that a non-capitalist future, for better or worse, awaits us all. (Ultimately, I think it’s for the better, although it may be for the worse in the short run.) Since 2008, I’ve had to continually re-write my book and my website, both titled “The End of Capitalism,” as real-world events have begun to put the theory into action. I’m a little worried that by the time I publish my book, capitalism will have long-since ended and to state such a thing will be as old hat as comparing the presidential elections every four years to a choice between the “lesser of two evils.” Yes, this is obviously true, but what use it is to point out, if there are realistically no alternatives?

I don’t believe we’re quite there yet, so let me put my argument forth to you in the hope that it’s still an original idea.

The end of capitalism theory states that the global capitalist system is breaking down, due to ecological and social limits to growth, which are impeding global markets from continuing to expand, a necessary condition for the mobility of capital and therefore for the organization of global power through subservience to that mobility. In other words, the economy cannot grow anymore because

A) the Earth cannot sustain it – there aren’t enough resources left to develop and the damage caused to the biosphere by ever-increasing production levels is deteriorating the ecological base for economic activity, and

B) social movements across the globe are rejecting the possibility of increased exploitation, which is the only way that capital can re-fuel itself, and those movements are beginning to show more and more power from the Chinese workers movement to the Arab Spring to Occupy to Quebec to the General Strike across Europe which started on Nov. 14th.

These two prongs, ecological and social, are hard limits, which together form a vice-grip on the system, constraining it and preventing it from expansion. And for capital, expansion is survival. Like a shark that must keep swimming to breathe, capital is a beast which cannot exist without investing and expanding itself. It can only command by continuing to remain mobile. If it freezes, it suffocates.

In the summer of 2008, global oil production reached what appears to be its historic peak at about 82 million barrels a day.1 Since then, although new horrible fuels continue to be exploited, like the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, production of the fuels so necessary for global transportation, food production, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and much more, has flat-lined. If we accept that this peak oil corresponds with the peak of energy production as a whole, which Richard Heinberg argues in The End of Growth, then right away the idea of an expansionary economy is obsolete. And this is without considering every other resource Heinberg argues is also peaking, from aluminum to zinc.

September 2008, the global financial markets crashed in the greatest loss of wealth in history. While committing trillions of dollars in relief funds to select “too big to fail” banks, President Bush proclaimed: “Democratic capitalism is the best system ever devised.”2 Was he eulogizing the system which had just perished? Perhaps we underestimated Bush, and he possesses a keen sense of ironic timing. Come to think of it, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”? “No Child Left Behind”? The whole Bush administration was little more than a joke on us after all.

Shortly before leaving office, he reflected, “Well, I have obviously made a decision to make sure the economy doesn’t collapse. I’ve abandoned free market principles to save the free market system.”3 Since then the economy has not recovered. In the U.S. and across the industrialized Global North, unemployment remains high, debt is skyrocketing, and the cost of living continues to inflate. Is capitalism sick? Has it fallen into a coma? Does it merely need time to recover, some new products developed to get the machine of investment and consumption going again? Or, does it make sense to view the panicked bailouts of 2008 to the present as a last-ditch attempt to put the system on life-support?

Keep in mind, former investment banker Nomi Prins in her book It Takes A Pillage documented that the total in loans, loan-guarantees and giveaways from the US government alone has exceeded $12 Trillion. This level of government intervention in the supposedly “free” market is quite unprecedented. What if these efforts to “save the free market system” actually failed? What if the causes of the economic crisis go far beyond fraud and abuse in the housing market, speculative bubbles, and shady lending practices?

I argue that the shocks pulsing through the economy over the last four years are due to much deeper tectonic rifts in the system, namely capital’s aforementioned need for eternal growth ramming up against the limits of the Earth’s and the populace’s ability to provide for that growth by being even more exploited than we are already.

This is not 1929, when enormous quantities of fossil fuels remained to be tapped by the war, automobile and petrochemical industries. Nor is it 1971, when computerization had yet to multiply productivity ten-fold, and huge reserves of landless peasants still remained to be rounded up in places like India and China for rock-bottom wage labor. This is 2012, when capital has already saturated the entire globe and transformed it into its own image. Where else has capital yet to install itself?

If this argument is accepted, then capitalism surely must face mortality in the near-future, because its terminal sickness is not going to improve. There is no real avenue for recovery on a planet already stretched to the absolute maximum. So we could argue that the bailout/life support strategy is doomed, and the possibility of an economic structure not based on profit and exploitation might become more likely as the end of capitalism provides an opening through which new worlds can emerge.

This was roughly my argument until about a year ago. Lately, though, I’ve started wondering what it would mean if the end of capitalism had already passed us by and what we’re struggling with now is actually the rotten corpse of capitalism, lingering on past its expiration date.

Since the shock of 2008, capitalism no longer appears interested in saving itself in the long term, in creating the conditions for its own reproduction. Perhaps it has seen the writing on the wall, that there’s not going to be another massive round of enclosures, no new dramatic energy sources to replace the old polluting fuels, no way to coax extra work-hours and higher levels of productivity out of a public that already does little more than work and recover from work.

So instead of looking for legit solutions to this crisis, or even pretending that they exist, what is capital doing? It is cannibalizing. It is throwing everything into tumult in order to realize limited short-term gains, even at the expense of poisoning its own well. Cut social services! Cut wages! Cut everything! Offer the unemployed nothing! Offer the debt-ridden, the foreclosed, the post-traumatic stressed nothing! Just keep tightening the screws.

It’s not just the US, it’s also Canada, Japan and Europe, the entire Global North, which has embarked on this suicidal strategy. In the past, the US could get away with stagnating wages and shitty benefits for their workers because the economy was resting on an enormous bubble of debt, with most of the world confident in the US economy and willing to buy Treasury bonds at the drop of a hat. Meanwhile, debt in the forms of credit cards, student loans, mortgages, etc. was the supplemental income making it possible for the working class to steadily increase its consumption, the very consumption which has sustained global economic growth for decades. Austerity is making this all impossible now.

Clearly income levels and economic stability cannot be attacked and undermined across the entire Global North working class simultaneously as that same working class is expected to increase consumption new levels. Their marketing wizards may convince us to want that new car or the latest iPhone, but how can we buy them if we’re struggling just to make rent?

It makes no logical sense. If the goal were to boost spending and rescue the markets, the strategy would be similar to the New Deal, which rescued the system from the last Great Depression, except Green this time – massive public spending to restore incomes and the standard of living. Yet neither Obama nor Romney offered anything of the sort – just the opposite. It isn’t even being mentioned. So the only conclusion I can come to is that at this point, capital is willing to destroy its own system just for a taste of profits right now. It desires only to consume, and it will consume all that is living, without thought, so long as its bloodlust is immediately gratified.

Is There An Antidote?

November 14th General Strike across Europe. This photo is from Madrid, Spain.

Earlier I mentioned this theory of zombie-capitalism was a hopeful theory. Do I still think so? Yes, and in order to explain why, I need to acknowledge the biggest difficulty of all. To my earlier list defining the zombie, I now add:

  1. Impossible to kill with the traditional methods.

The old idea of how to escape capitalism was to take state power and install socialism from above, i.e. Leninism. This notion of how to develop communism has now zombified itself; it’s long since faded into the dustbin of history, so the fact that this logic is still walking in our midst means that perhaps it, too, cannot be killed Yet it must be confronted, because the idea that we can put the good people in charge of the world and they will force everyone else to be good is just a way to escape our own responsibility for the world that we have created and continue to create through our fetishized behavior.

Capitalism is nothing without us, in fact it is the way we act, it is our relationships with one another. And so, if capitalism is a zombie, it is only because WE are the cannibals. Saying this does not evade the reality of class struggle, or the fact that there is a system of power of which we are all the victims. But it acknowledges that we are also the creators of this reality, and this power-structure could not exist without our daily activity which sustains it, our complicity in it.4 Maybe this is the reason we’re fascinated with zombies – we have become them.

Here then lies the hope. If zombie-capitalism is the outward expression of our activity and decisions, then we have the power to change it or destroy it. But what does that even look like? Overthrowing capital and the state was already a tall enough task, but how do you overthrow an undead social system?

First, we know what won’t kill it is to hide and pray. It will find us. Nor does it make sense to hunker in our bunkers, hoarding cans of beans and passing ammunition. Survivalism is just another word for predatory Social Darwinism. Let the rich try to escape to their fortress communities; we’re outside the compounds. We’re not trying to kill the zombies out there, like we’re pure humans, and the bad people are lurking in the bushes, ready to strike. The zombies are we, and so the first battle-line is in our own heads.

Are we going to give in to zombie impulses, obedient to a zombie culture and selfish, short-sighted desires, or are we going to snap out of it and treat one another as human beings? Why are brains what zombies most want to unleash their ravenous aggression upon? Perhaps because using our minds, seeing the reality of the world and patiently considering our goals and actions, is the only real way to evade zombie-ism. Like wearing the sunglasses in the cult classic political sci-fi film They Live, if you haven’t put them on, you don’t know the true radical nature of the world, and you’re trapped in a culture of complicity and obedience.

Equally important to seeing and knowing is to join a collective and fight for collective change. No individual, however radical their ideas or lifestyle, can escape the hoard alone. What we are interested in is total social transformation. And this is only possible through organizing, and building communities of care and support, which will allow us to fight that two-front battle, challenging ourselves as we challenge the system.

Perhaps what we most need is clarity of vision – we need to be able to articulate the world we want to live in. I submit that the core value we ought to fight for is life. So the goal of an anti-zombie movement is to create a world in which we learn to appreciate and honor life as the source and site of all value. In place of zombie-capitalism, my proposed antidote is the opposite: living radicalism.

Footnotes:

1 “World Oil Production Peaked in 2008.” The Oil Drum. http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5177

2 “President George W. Bush’s Speech to the Nation on the Economic Crisis.” New York Times. September 25, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/25/business/worldbusiness/25iht-24textbush.16463831.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

3 “Bush: ‘I’ve Abandoned Free Market Principles to Save the Free Market System.’” Think Progress. December 16, 2008. http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2008/12/16/33798/bush-free-market/?mobile=nc

4 Holloway, John. Change the World Without Taking Power. Chapter 5. 2002.

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