Part of the Series
The Public Intellectual
In the world of popular culture, zombies seem to be everywhere as evidenced by the relentless slew of books, movies, video games and comics. From the haunting Night of the Living Dead to the comic movie Zombieland, the figure of the zombie has captured and touched something unique in the contemporary imagination. But the dark and terrifying image of the zombie with missing body parts, oozing body fluids and an appetite for fresh, living, human brains does more than feed the mass marketing machines that prey on the spectacle of the violent, grotesque and ethically comatose. There is more at work in this wave of fascination with the grotesquely walking hyper-dead than a Hollywood appropriation of the dark recesses and unrestrained urges of the human mind. The zombie phenomenon is now on display nightly on television alongside endless examples of destruction unfolding in real time. Such a cultural fascination with proliferating images of the living hyper-dead and unrelenting human catastrophes that extend from a global economic meltdown to the earthquake in Haiti to the ecological disaster caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico signal a shift away from the hope that accompanies the living to a politics of cynicism and despair. The macabre double movement between the living dead and those alive who are dying and suffering cannot be understood outside of the casino capitalism that now shapes every aspect of society in its own image. A casino capitalist zombie politics views competition as a form of social combat, celebrates war as an extension of politics and legitimates a ruthless social Darwinism in which particular individuals and groups are considered simply redundant, disposable – nothing more than human waste left to stew in their own misfortune – easy prey for the zombies who have a ravenous appetite for chaos and revel in apocalyptic visions filled with destruction, decay, abandoned houses, burned out cars, guttered landscapes and trashed gas stations.
The 21st century zombies no longer emerge from the grave; they now inhabit the rich environs of Wall Street and roam the halls of the gilded monuments of greed such as Goldman Sachs. As an editorial in The New York Times pointed out, the new zombies of free-market fundamentalism turned “the financial system into a casino. Like gambling, the transactions mostly just shifted money around. Unlike gambling, they packed an enormous capacity for economic destruction – hobbling banks that made bad bets, freezing credit and economic activity. Society – not the bankers – bore the cost.” In this way, the zombie – the immoral, sub-Nietzschean, id-driven “other” who is “hyper-dead,” but still alive as an avatar of death and cruelty – provides an apt metaphor for a new kind of authoritarianism that has a grip on contemporary politics in the United States. This is an authoritarianism in which mindless self-gratification becomes the norm, and public issues collapse into realm of privatized anger and rage. The rule of the market offers the hyper-dead an opportunity to exercise unprecedented power in American society, reconstructing civic and political culture almost entirely in the service of a politics that fuels the friend/enemy divide, even as democracy becomes the scandal of casino capitalism – its ultimate humiliation.
But the new zombies are not only wandering around in the banks, investment houses and death chambers of high finance; they have an ever increasing presence in the highest reaches of government and in the forefront of mainstream media. The growing number of zombies in the mainstream media have huge financial backing from the corporate elite and represent the new face of the culture of cruelty and hatred. Any mention of the social state, putting limits on casino capitalism and regulating corporate zombies puts Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh into a state of high rage. They disparage any discourse that embraces social justice, social responsibility and human rights. Appealing to “real” American values such as family, God and guns, they are in the forefront of a zombie politics that opposes any legislation or policy designed to lessen human suffering and promote economic and social progress. As Arun Gupta pointed out, they are insistent in their opposition to “civil rights, school desegregation, women’s rights, labor organizing, the minimum wage, social security LGBT rights, welfare, immigrant rights, public education, reproductive rights, Medicare [and] Medicaid.” They spectacularize hatred and trade in lies and misinformation. They make populist appeals to the people while legitimating the power of the rich. They appeal to common sense as a way of devaluing a culture of questioning and critical exchange. Unrelenting in their role as archetypes of the hyper-dead, they are misanthropes trading in fear, hatred and hyper-nationalism.
The human suffering produced by the walking hyper-dead can also be seen in the nativist apoplexy resulting in the racist anti-immigration laws passed in Arizona, the attempts to ban ethnic studies in public schools, the rise of the punishing state, the social dumping of millions of people of color into prisons and the attempts of Tea Party fanatics and politicians who want to “take back America” from President Barack Obama – described in the new lexicon of right-wing political illiteracy as both an alleged socialist and the new Hitler. Newt Gingrich joins Glenn Beck and other members of the elite squad of the hyper-dead in arguing that Obama is just another version of Joseph Stalin. For Gingrich and the rest of the zombie ideologues, any discourse that advocates for social protections, easing human suffering or imagining a better future is dismissed by being compared to the horrors of the Nazi holocaust. Dystopian discourse and end-times morbidity rule the collective consciousness of this group.
The “death panels” envisaged by Palin are not going to emerge from Obama’s health care reform plan, but from the toolkits the zombie politicians and talking heads open up every time they are given the opportunity to speak. The death threats, vandalism and crowds shouting homophobic slurs at openly gay Congressman Barney Frank already speak to a fixation with images of death, violence and war that now grips the country. Palin’s infamous call to a gathering of her followers to “reload” in opposition to President Obama’s policies soon followed in a nationally televised press conference with a request for the American people to embrace Arizona’s new xenophobic laws makes her one of the most prominent of the political zombies. Not only has she made less than vague endorsements for violence in many of her public speeches, she has cheerfully embraced the new face of white supremacy in her recent unapologetic endorsement of racial profiling, stating in a widely reported speech, “It’s time for Americans across this great country to stand up and say, ‘We’re all Arizonans now.'”  The current descent into racism, ignorance, corruption and mob idiocy makes clear the degree to which politics has become a sport for zombies rather than engaged and thoughtful citizens.
The hyper-dead celebrate talk radio hatemongers such as Limbaugh, whose fanaticism appears to pass without criticism in the mainstream media. Limbaugh echoes the fanatics who whipped up racial hatred in Weimar Germany, the ideological zombies who dissolved the line between reason and distortion-laden propaganda. How else to explain his claim “that environmentalist terrorists might have caused the ecological disaster in the gulf”? The ethically frozen zombies that dominate screen culture believe that only an appeal to self-interest motivates people – a convenient counterpart to a culture of cruelty that rebukes, if not disdains, any appeal to the virtues of a moral and just society. They smile at their audiences while collapsing the distinction between opinions and reasoned arguments. They report on Tea Party rallies while feeding the misplaced ideological frenzy that motivates such gatherings, but then refuse to comment on rallies all over the country that do not trade in violence or spectacle. They report uncritically on Islam bashers, such as the radical, right-wing, radio host Michael Savage, as if his ultra-extremist racist views are a legitimate part of the American mainstream. In the age of zombie politics, there is too little public outrage or informed public anger over the pushing of millions out of their homes and jobs, the defunding of schools and the rising tide of homeless families and destitute communities. Instead of organized, massive protests against casino capitalism, the American public is treated to an endless and arrogant display of wealth, greed and power. Armies of zombies tune in to game and reality TV shows, transfixed by the empty lure of celebrity culture.
The roaming armies of celebrity zombie intellectuals work hard to fuel a sense of misguided fear and indignation toward democratic politics, the social state and immigrants – all of which is spewed out in bitter words, and comes terribly close to inciting violence. Zombies love death-dealing institutions, which accounts for why they rarely criticize the bloated military budget and the rise of the punishing state and its expanding prison system. They smile with patriotic glee as automated drones kill innocent civilians – conveniently dismissed as collateral damage – and the torture state rolls inexorably along in Afghanistan and in other hidden and unknown sites. The slaughter that inevitably follows catastrophe is not new, but the current politics of death has reached new heights and threatens to transform a weak democracy into a full-fledged authoritarian state.
While the presence of zombies seems to dominate the news and the American political and cultural landscape, it does not signal the end of democratic politics. In fact, the increasing presence of the hyper-dead makes the need for resistance to such a politics all the more obvious, especially regarding those public spheres and institutions that produce knowledge, ideas, desires and values crucial to an aspiring democracy. While the struggle for reclaiming the government as a responsible social state capable of both placing limits on capital and providing protections for all Americans has to be central to such a challenge, so does the struggle over culture as a form of public pedagogy. The likes of Beck, Limbaugh and Palin matter not simply because of what they say, but because of the emergence and influence of anti-democratic institutions and the formations of capital that support them.
Power does not work simply through the control and influence of wealth, income and resources. It also has to legitimate itself, and for that it needs to create a pedagogical culture through which it can promote its ideologies and values. Vast right-wing cultural apparatuses now exist in the mainstream media, on college campuses and in the government – a kind of stealth pedagogical machine that does everything it can to promote its political agenda. The current fiascoes in Texas and Arizona speak to the seriousness of such a struggle as ethnic studies is banned, social studies curricula are written so as to erase any vestige of progressive history and freedom is sabotaged as it is abstracted from politics and reduced to the practice of consumerism. Mythic history now combines with a notion freedom that is as reactionary as it is depoliticizing. Zombie politics thrives on a culture of blinding illiteracy, and for such a culture to be challenged, labor, youth, unions, and other groups must unite over the need to address at the very least two pressing and interrelated issues.
Effective resistance to zombie politics first requires addressing the political, economic and cultural conditions of massive inequality produced by casino capitalism. These conditions must be challenged in every sphere in which such injustices appear. Such inequality is destructive of human lives and human societies, defines matters of life and death – whose life is valued and whose life only counts as redundant and disposable – and determines which members of society will have access to vital resources and which ones won’t.  This is demonstrated by the inequitable funding of public schools and political campaigns, the poisonous influence of corporate lobbyists in shaping legislation that benefits corporations and the rich, access to quality health care based on wealth rather than need and the massive corrupt financial institutions that make a mockery of democracy while providing a beachhead for expanding inequality in every aspect of our lives.
The second most pressing issue involves the educational force of political and popular culture. Democratic ideas cannot exist without the public spheres that make them possible. Culture in the form of the Internet and mass media is the most powerful influence now used by the hyper-dead to promote their zombie politics. These spheres must be taken back. Intellectuals, parents, unions, workers, and other concerned citizens need to reclaim those places that give the voiceless a voice, allow those marginalized by class and race to speak and offer everyone the opportunity to reclaim an America that currently offers them little hope in terms of a better and more just life. This not only means using alternative media to counter the hatemongers, the conservative foundations and right-wing radio and television, but also organizing in churches, synagogues, mosques, union halls, and public schools in order collectively to reclaim such institutions as democratic public spheres while gaining the experience needed to challenge zombie pedagogy in its all of its manifestations throughout the culture and society.
Hannah Arendt has written that there are turning points in history when “the decline of the old, the birth of the new, is not necessarily an affair of continuity.” What emerges in this liminal space between generations, according to Arendt, is a “kind of historical no man’s land” that can only be described in terms of “no longer and not yet.” Today, we are living in one of these in-between times. The looming abyss is most obvious between the “no longer” of casino capitalism and the politics of the hyper-dead and the “not yet,” which holds the potential of a new politics to emerge and assert the imperatives of a democracy that values trust, compassion, equality, freedom and social justice. As Americans, we must choose now whether to fall back into a pit of despair and death, ever-widening to contain all but the immensely rich and powerful, or to move forward as politicized individuals and organized communities into a future rooted in and sustained by democratic principles. The “not yet” of this presently unknown future demands of us that we connect thoughtful critique and outrage to a notion of realizable hope and that we heed a rallying cry for justice against a zombie politics in which democracy has been reduced to a graveyard for the hyper-dead.
1. Editorial, “Wall Street Casino,” New York Times (April 28, 2010), p. A24. Online here.
2. Some of the ideas come from Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad, eds., “Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead,” (Chicago: Open Court, 2010).
3. Arim Gupta, “Party of No: How Republicans and the Right have Tried to Thwart all Social Progress, Truthout.org (May 21, 2010). www.alternet.org/story/146965
4. Jonathan J. Cooper, “We’re All Arizonians Now,” Huffington Post (May 15, 2010). Online here.
5. See the excellent commentary on this issue by Frank Rich, “The Rage is not About Health Care,” New York Times (March 28, 2010), p. WK10. See also Justine Sharrock, “The Oath Keepers: The Militant and Armed Side of the Tea Party Movement,” AlterNet (March 6, 2010); and Mark Potok, “Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism,” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report 137 (Spring 2010).
6. Paul Krugman, “Going to Extreme,” New York Times (May 16, 2010), p. A23.
7. Göran Therborn, “The Killing Fields of Inequality,” Open Democracy (April 6, 2009). Online here.
8. Hannah Arendt, “No Longer and Not Yet,” in Reflections on Literature and Culture, ed. Susannah Yong-ah Gottlieb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 121.
Updated: Correction to Weimar Germany.
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