Monsters of disaster are special kinds of divine warning. They are harbingers of things we do not want to face, of catastrophes, and we fear they will bring such events upon us by coming to us.
– Jane Anna Gordon and Lewis R. Gordon
At present, Americans are fascinated by a particular kind of monstrosity, by vampires and zombies condemned to live an eternity by feeding off the souls of the living. The preoccupation with such parasitic relations speaks uncannily to the threat most Americans perceive from the shameless blood lust of contemporary captains of industry, which Matt Taibbi, a writer for Rolling Stone, has aptly described as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  Media culture, as the enormous popularity of the Twilight franchise and HBO’s True Blood reveal, is nonetheless enchanted by this seductive force of such omnipotent beings. More frightening, however, than the danger posed by these creatures is the coming revolution enacted by the hordes of the unthinking, caught in the spell of voodoo economics and compelled to acts of obscene violence and mayhem. They are the living dead, whose contagion threatens the very life force of the nation.
Press play to hear an excerpt of the interview
Henry Giroux Interviewed by Peter B. Collins
Only a decade or so ago, citizens feared the wrath of robots – terminators and cyborgs – who wanted to destroy us – the legacy of a highly rationalized, technocratic culture that eludes human regulation, even comprehension. That moment has passed as we are now in the 2.0 phase of that same society where instrumental rationality and technocracy still threaten the planet as never before. But now, those who are not part of a technocratic elite are helpless and adrift, caught in the grips of a society that denies them any alternative condemned to roam the earth with a blind unthinking rage.
Zombies are invading almost every aspect of our daily lives. Not only are the flesh-chomping, blood-lusting, pale-faced creatures with mouths full of black goo appearing in movie theaters, television series, and everywhere in screen culture as shock advertisements, but these flesh-eating zombies have become an apt metaphor for the current state of American politics. Not only do zombies portend a new aesthetic in which hyper-violence is embodied in the form of a carnival of snarling creatures engorging elements of human anatomy, but they also portend the arrival of a revolting politics that has a ravenous appetite for spreading destruction and promoting human suffering and hardship. This is a politics in which cadres of the unthinking and living dead promote civic catastrophes and harbor apocalyptic visions, focusing more on death than life. Death-dealing zombie politicians and their acolytes support modes of corporate and militarized governance through which entire populations now become either redundant, disposable or criminalized. This is especially true for poor minority youth who, as flawed consumers and unwanted workers, are offered the narrow choice of joining the military, going to prison or being exiled into various dead zones in which they become socially embedded and invisible. Zombie values find expression in an aesthetic that is aired daily in the mainstream media, a visual landscape filled with the spectacle of destruction and decay, wrought by human parasites in the form of abandoned houses, cars, guttered cities, trashed businesses. There are no zombie free spaces in this politics, as a country paralyzed by fear has become the site of a series of planned, precision attacks on constitutional rights, dissent and justice itself. Torture, kidnappings, secret prisons, preventive detention, illegal domestic spying and the dissolution of habeas corpus have become the protocol of a newly fashioned dystopian mode of governance. Zombie politics reveals much about the gory social and political undercurrent of American society.
This is a politics where the undead, or more aptly, the living dead, rule and rail against any institution, set of values, and social relations that embrace the common good or exhibit compassion for the suffering of others. Zombie politics supports megacorporations that cannibalize the economy, feeding off taxpayer dollars while undercutting much-needed spending for social services. The vampires of Wall Street reach above and beyond the trajectories of traditional politics, exercising an influence that has no national or civic allegiance, displaying an arrogance that is as unchecked as its power is unregulated. As Maureen Dowd has pointed out, one particularly glaring example of such arrogance can be found in Lloyd Blankfein’s response to a reporter’s question when he asked the chief of Goldman Sachs if “it is possible to make too much money.” Blankfein responded by insisting, without irony, that he, and I presume his fellow Wall Street vampires, were “doing God’s work.” A response truly worthy of one of the high priests of voodoo economics who feels no remorse and offers no apology for promoting a global financial crisis while justifying a bloated and money-obsessed culture of greed and exploitation that has caused enormous pain, suffering and hardship for millions of people. Unfortunately, victim to their own voodoo economics, the undead along with their once barely breathing financial institutions keep coming back, even when it appears that the zombie banks and investment houses have failed one last time, with no hope of once again wreaking their destruction upon society.
Zombie ideologies proliferate like the breathing, blood-lusting corpses in the classic “Night of the Living Dead.” They spew out toxic gore that supports the market as the organizing template for all institutional and social relations, mindlessly compelled, it seems, to privatize everything and aim invective at the idea of big government but never at the notion of the bloated corporate and militarized state. Zombie culture hates big government, a euphemism for the social state, but loves big corporations and is infatuated with the ideology that, in Zombieland, unregulated banks, insurance companies and other megacorporations should make major decisions not only about governing society but also about who is privileged and who is disposable, who should live and who should die. Zombie politics rejects the welfare state for a hybridized corporate and punishing state. Just as it views any vestige of a social safety net as a sign of weakness, if not pathology, its central message seems to be that we are all responsible for ourselves and that the war of all against all is at the core of the apocalyptic vision that makes zombie politics both appealing as a spectacle and convincing as a politics. Zombie violence and policies are everywhere backed by an army of zombie economic advisers, lobbyists and legislators, all of whom seem to revel in spreading the culture of the undead while feasting on the spread of war, human suffering, violence and catastrophe across the United States and the larger globe.
Evidence of the long legacy of zombie politics and its death-dealing policies are on full display as we move into the early stages of the Obama administration. Even progressive zombie books such as Max Brooks’s “World War Z” have a hard time keeping up with the wrath of destruction overtaking American society, especially as the mutually determining forces of economic inequality, corporate power and a growing punishing corporate state become the defining features of zombie politics at the beginning of the new millennium. A millennium in this case marked by a burgeoning landscape filled with the wreckage of those populations now considered disposable, especially with regards to children who are increasingly treated as one of the most disposable populations. For instance, the Obama administration now labors under the burden of death-dealing institutions and advisers, along with a predatory market-driven economics that continues to produce an economic recession in which 13 million children live in poverty, 17 percent of poor children lack insurance, one million children are homeless, nearly half of all children and 90 percent of black youth will be on food stamps at some point in their youth, 45,000 people die every year because of a lack of health insurance, 3.6 million elderly live in poverty, and more than 16 million people are unemployed. The violence of zombie politics is also evident in the fact that more and more working- and middle-class youth and poor youth of color find themselves confronted with either vastly diminishing opportunities or are fed into an ever-expanding system of disciplinary control that dehumanizes, medicalizes and criminalizes their behavior in multiple sites, extending from the home and school to the criminal justice system – not, of course, devoured in order to be “integrated” or “incorporated” into the system, but rather ingested and vomited up, thus securing the permanence of their exclusion.
With the cruelest of ironies, zombie politics and culture invoke life as they promote death and human suffering. For example, zombie politicians who oppose the welfare state, health care reforms, investing in a quality education for all children, rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and creating a federally funded jobs program for young people and the unemployed often argue that they oppose such programs because they will saddle the next generation with a massive debt. And yet, they have no regrets about funding a military budget that since 2001 has cost American taxpayers over $930 billion or supporting under the Clinton and Bush administrations massive tax breaks for the rich that reduced government revenue by trillions of dollars. Nor in their embrace of market deregulation do they say or do anything about a food industry “that is spending millions of dollars on slick digital marketing campaigns promoting fatty and sugary products to teenagers and children on the Internet, on cell phones and even inside video games – often without the knowledge of parents. Nor do the zombie politicians utter a whisper about a country that is singularly responsible for jailing over 2,500 juvenile offenders for life without the possibility of parole or address the shameful fact that “just over 100 people in the world [are] serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles in which no one was killed [and that all] are in the United States.”  Instead, zombie politicians, blood-sucking CEO’s and media pundits resort to deceit and misrepresentation, inhabiting a culture of deception and cruelty. This is the group that even as they imagine death panels and deny their own morbid predilections warn that the health care reform efforts are “stealthy reparations for slavery,” and, in the case of Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), proclaim, “there are no Americans who don’t have health care.”  Foxx rates high as one of the zombie politicians spewing forth the kind of blood-soaked venom that would make even the most hardened vampire cringe. She has not only argued that health care reform poses a greater threat to the United States than “any terrorist right now in any country” – she has also, as Joshua Holland points out, insists that health care reform “would be just like an ax-murderer crawling into the room of a small, defenseless child in the dark of night, only much scarier.”
One of the cardinal policies of zombie politics is to redistribute wealth upwards to produce record high levels of inequality, just as corporate power is simultaneously consolidated at a speed that threatens to erase the most critical gains made over the last fifty years to curb the anti-democratic power of corporations. Zombie policies aimed at hollowing out the social state are now matched by an increase in repressive legislation to curb the unrest that might explode among those populations falling into the despair and suffering unleashed by a “savage, fanatical capitalism” that constitutes a war against the public good, the welfare state and “social citizenship.” Deregulation, privatization, commodification, corporate mergers and asset stripping go hand in hand with the curbing of civil liberties, the increasing criminalization of social problems and the fashioning of the prison as the preeminent space of racial containment (one in nine black males between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated).  The alleged morality of market freedom is now secured through the ongoing immorality of a militarized state that embraces torture, war and violence as legitimate functions of political sovereignty and the ordering of daily life. As the rich get richer, corporations become more powerful, and the reach of the punishing state extends itself further, those forces and public spheres that once provided a modicum of protection for workers, the poor, sick, aged and young are undermined, leaving large numbers of people impoverished and with little hope for the future.
David Harvey refers to this primary feature of zombie politics as “accumulation by dispossession,” which encompasses the privatization and commodification of public assets, deregulation of the financial sector, and the use of the state to direct the flow of wealth upward through, among other practices, tax policies that favor the rich and cut back the social wage. As Harvey points out, “All of these processes amount to the transfer of assets from the public and popular realms to the private and class privileged domains” and to the overwhelming of political institutions by powerful corporations that keep them in check. Zygmunt Bauman goes further and argues that not only do zombie politics and predatory capitalism draw their life blood from the relentless process of asset stripping, but they also produce “the acute crisis of the ‘human waste’ disposal industry, as each new outpost conquered by capitalist markets adds new thousands or millions to the mass of men and women already deprived of their lands, workshops, and communal safety nets.” The upshot of such policies is that larger segments of the population are now struggling under the burden of massive debts, bankruptcy, unemployment, lack of adequate health care and a brooding sense of hopelessness. Once again, what is unique about this type of zombie politics is not merely the anti-democratic notion that the market should be the guide for all human actions but also the sheer hatred for any form of sovereignty in which the government could promote the general welfare. Zombie politics and the devaluation of the public good go hand in hand.
As Thom Hartmann points out, zombie politics has given way to punishment as one of the central features of governing. He describes the policies that flow from such politics as follows: “Government should punish, they agree, but it should never nurture, protect, or defend individuals. Nurturing and protecting, they suggest, is the more appropriate role of religious institutions, private charities, families, and – perhaps most important – corporations. Let the corporations handle your old-age pension. Let the corporations decide how much protection we and our environment need from their toxins. Let the corporations decide what we’re paid. Let the corporations decide what doctor we can see, when, and for what purpose.”  But the zombie politics and the punishing state do more than substitute charity and private aid for government-backed social provisions, while they criminalize a range of existing social problems. They also cultivate a culture of fear and suspicion towards all those others – immigrants, refugees, Muslims, youth, minorities of class and color, the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly – who, in the absence of dense social networks and social supports, fall prey to unprecedented levels of displaced resentment from the media, public scorn for their vulnerability and increased criminalization because it is considered too costly, thus rendering these groups both dangerous and unfit for integration into American society.
Coupled with this rewriting of the obligations of sovereign state power and the transfer of sovereignty to the market is a widely endorsed assumption that regardless of the suffering, misery and problems done to human beings by these arrangements, they are not only responsible for their fate but reliant ultimately on themselves for survival. There is more at stake here than the vengeful return of an older colonial fantasy that regarded the natives as less than human, or the now ubiquitous figure of the disposable worker as a prototypical byproduct of the casino capitalist order – though the histories of racist and class-based exclusion inform the withdrawal of moral and ethical concerns from these populations. What we are currently witnessing in this form of zombie politics and predatory capitalism is the unleashing of a powerfully regressive symbolic and corporeal violence against all those individuals and groups who have been “othered” because their very presence undermines the engines of wealth and inequality that drive the neoliberal dreams of consumption, power and profitability for the very few.
While the state still has the power of the law to reduce individuals to impoverishment and to strip them of civic rights, due process and civil liberties, zombie politics increasingly wields its own form of sovereignty through the invisible hand of the market, which has the power to produce new configurations of control, regulate social health and alter human life in unforeseen and profound ways. Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of how market sovereignty differs from traditional modes of state sovereignty is worth citing in full.
This strange sovereign [the market] has neither legislative nor executive agencies, not to mention courts of law – which are rightly viewed as the indispensable paraphernalia of the bona fide sovereigns explored and described in political science textbooks. In consequence, the market is, so to speak, more sovereign than the much advertised and eagerly self-advertising political sovereigns, since in addition to returning the verdicts of exclusion, the market allows for no appeals procedure. Its sentences are as firm and irrevocable as they are informal, tacit and seldom if ever spelled out in writing. Exemption by the organs of a sovereign state can be objected to and protested against, and so stands a chance of being annulled – but not eviction by the sovereign market, because no presiding judge is named here, no receptionist is in sight to accept appeal papers, while no address has been given to which they could be mailed.
Traditional modes of liberal politics recognized democracy’s dependency on the people it governed and to whom it remained accountable. But no one today votes for which corporations have the right to dominate the media and filter the information made available to the public; there is no electoral process that determines how private companies grant or deny people access to adequate health care and other social services. The reign of the market shapes conditions of life and death in a zombie economy. It is not restricted to a limited term of appointment, despite the market’s unprecedented sovereignty over the lives of citizens in democratic countries – sovereignty essentially defined as the “power and capacity to dictate who may live and who may die.” This shift to market sovereignty, values and power points to the importance of zombie politics as an attempt to think through not only how politics uses power to mediate the convergence of life and death, but also how sovereign power proliferates those conditions in which individuals marginalized by race, class and gender configurations are “stripped of political significance and exposed to murderous violence.”
Under such circumstances, it is more crucial than ever to develop a politics of resistance that echoes Theodor Adorno’s argument that “the undiminished presence of suffering, fear, and menace necessitates that the thought that cannot be realized should not be discarded…. [that individuals and citizens] must come to know, without any mitigation, why the world – which could be paradise here and now – can become hell itself tomorrow.” If Adorno is right, and I think he is, the task ahead is to fashion a more critical and redemptive notion of politics, one that takes seriously the emergence of a form of social death that is becoming the norm rather than the exception for many Americans and at the same time refuses to accept, even in its damaged forms, an apocalyptic zombie politics and its accompanying culture of fear, its endless spectacles of violence that promote airtight forms of domination. We need new political and educational narratives about what is possible in terms of producing a different future – especially for young people, what it means to promote new modes of social responsibility, and what it takes to create sites and strategies in which resistance to zombie politics becomes possible. Starting with how we might fight for real economic, institutional and structural reforms in the interest of children is not without merit for envisioning the broader reforms necessary in an aspiring democracy.
At the very least, this suggests fighting for a child welfare system that would reduce “family poverty by increasing the minimum wage,” institute “a guaranteed income, provide high-quality subsidized child care, preschool education, and paid parental leaves for all families.” Young people need a federally funded jobs creation program and wage subsidy that would provide year-round employment for out-of-school youth and summer jobs that target in-school, low-income youth. Public and higher education, increasingly defined by corporate and military agendas, must be reclaimed as democratic public spheres that educate young people about how to govern rather than merely being governed. Incarceration should be the last resort, not the first resort, for dealing with our children. We need to get the police out of public schools, greatly reduce spending for prisons and hire more teachers, support staff, and community people in order to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline. In order to make life livable for young people and others, basic supports must be put in place, such as a system of national health insurance that covers everybody, along with affordable housing. At the very least, we need guaranteed heath care for young people and we need to lower age of eligibility of Medicare to 55 in order to keep poor families from going bankrupt. And, of course, none of this will take place unless the institutions, power relations and values that legitimate and reproduce current levels of inequality, power and human suffering are dismantled. The widening gap between the rich and the poor has to be addressed if young people are to have a viable future. Ensuring this future for our children will require pervasive structural reforms that constitute a real shift in both power and politics away from a market-driven system that views too many young people and other vulnerable populations as disposable. Against a zombie politics and a predatory capitalism, we need to reimagine what liberty, equality and freedom might mean as truly democratic values and practices.
I want to thank Susan Searls Giroux for her substantial and brilliant suggestions in putting this piece together.
. Jane Anna Gordon and Lewis R. Gordon, “Of Divine Warning: Reading Disaster in the Modern Age” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009), p. 10.
. The relationship between zombies and the politics of culture has been explored in David Sirota, “Zombie Zeitgeist: Why Undead Corpses Are Dominating at the Box Office,” AlterNet (October 8, 2009)
. This is especially, Christopher Robbins, “Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling” (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008) and Ken Saltman, “The Edison School: Corporate Schooling and the Assault on Public Education” (New York: Routledge, 2005). Also, see Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
. Cited in Maureen Dowd, “Virtuous Bankers? Really!?!,” New York Times (November 11, 2009), p. A27.
. Cited in Maureen Dowd, “Virtuous Bankers? Really!?!,” New York Times (November 11, 2009), p. A27.
. Adam Liptak, “Justices Weigh Life in Prison for Youths Who Never Killed,” New York Times (November 8, 2009), p. A1. For an excellent analysis of this issue that focuses on one particularly tragic case, see Tolu Olorunda, “Sarah Kruzan: 16-Year-old Sentenced to Life for Killing Pimp,” The Daily Voice (October 26, 2009)
. Joshua Holland, “10 of the Nuttiest Statements Elected Officials Have Made in the Health Care Battle,” Alternet (November 7, 2009)
. Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, eds., “Introduction,” Evil Paradises (New York: The New Press, 2007), p. ix.
. David Harvey, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 7.
. Ibid., p. 161.
. Zygmunt Bauman, “Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty” (London: Polity, 2007), p. 28.
. Thom Hartmann, “You Can’t Govern if You Don’t Believe in Government,” CommonDreams.Org (September 6, 2005)
. Some of the most brilliant work on racist exclusion can be found in David Theo Goldberg, “Racist Culture” (Malden: Blackwell, 1993); and David Theo Goldberg, “The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism” (Malden: Blackwell, 2009).
. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15:1 (2003), pp. 11-12.
. Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, “Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107:1 (Winter 2008), p. 90.
. Theodor W. Adorno, “Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords,” trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 14.
. Dorothy Roberts, “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare” (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2008), p. 268.