By Thomas Road (Fightback Otautahi / Christchurch).
A zombie is haunting New Zealand – the zombie of Marxism. The narrative of zombie apocalypse is familiar, and has had a significant resurgence in popular culture over the last few years. The image of the zombie has long been what Mark Dery punningly calls a ‘bloated signifier’, an image which is loaded with ideology, myths, ideas, and connotations.
Whether in Métraux‘s study Voodoo In Haiti where the colonial-economic origins of the zombie myth are explored and the reanimated wage slave is “a beast of burden that his master exploits without mercy”1 or in the resolution of the satirical zombie flick Shaun of the Dead where the undead are reintegrated into society with low paid jobs in the workforce, the zombie often seems to stand in as a gothic symbol of the ‘masses’. These unwashed masses, represented by the zombie, will come to represent the different anxieties of society at the time. George A. Romero’s series of zombie films made over a period of four decades (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead) exemplify this well. A particular comparison of Dawn and Land is especially informative. The zombies of Dawn of the Dead are memorable as the most blatant anti-consumerist symbolism – literally banging on the walls of a mall, coinciding with the rise of consumer culture they become a representation of the worst fears of a liberal middle class being kettled into the cultural quagmire of “I spend therefore I am”2. With Land of the Dead Romero’s zombies take on a wholly different character and become the protagonists – an oppressed class achieving consciousness to overthrow their exploiters in the form of the remnant human society which slaughters them for amusement3. Zombies, then, are much like the nostalgic musings of the social democratic Labour Party faithful – with the shambling remnants of organised labour on the march – a nostalgia which is no less a decaying reanimated corpse than the zombie itself.
Beyond this, zombie narratives changing character over time represent a world after the AIDS crisis, the fear of avian flu, of the insurgents within society seeking to disrupt the social order. A zombie crawling out of a grave as some kind of ‘outside’ threat has all but disappeared to be replaced with the zombie threat within – when our peers suddenly turn against us and destabilise society. Films like 28 Days Later and the shift from undead to infected indicates the more palpable fear of mega-bugs wiping out huge swathes of humanity. Rather than the shambling rotting corpse of yesterday, zombies now move at lightning speed – no longer the unionist strike but the riot. The post apocalyptic wastelands of zombie world’s are reflections of the economic apocalypse of the Global Financial Crisis, the curiosity of the ‘dead mall’ with a downturn in spending creating retail ghost-towns across much of the OECD.
The zombie, in fact, contains a much more sinister and reactionary image. As an iteration of the popular imaginary, it is a grand example of sooner imagining the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But more than that, zombie narratives are the fears of the elite generalised. It is always the gated community, often being in fact a space of embattled whiteness, which survives best in the looming zombie apocalypse. In an era when the middle and ruling classes are quickly cloistering themselves away from the rest of us, the dispossessed masses outside the gates appears as the majority of the planet – and the worst fear is that somehow the infected and subhuman will penetrate these zones of security. Travis County residents in Christchurch were in a furore over a prefab unit being built in their neighbourhood – an unacceptable insurgence of the unwashed masses, probably renters, into their idyllic community4. Phil Ochs’ classic Ringing of Revolution of and the mansion on a hill – the last bastion for the ruling classes mirrors the phenomenon:
In a building of gold, with riches untold, lived the families on which the country was founded
And the merchants of style, with their made velvet smiles, were there, for they also were hounded.
And the soft middle class crowded in to the last, for the building was fully surrounded.
And the noise outside was the ringing of revolution 5
Indeed, the cloistering of the survivors into highly militarised mini-states in a zombie narrative is reflected in real life by the actions of states across the Anglosphere and Western Europe. Most explicitly represented in World War Z by the state of Israel’s ability to resist the oncoming zombie horde, the highly militarised and exceptionalist nations of the world are clamping down on security and immigration. Whether it’s the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Labour Party and New Zealand First6, the Nauru Detention Centre7, Obama’s record rate of deportations8, or new legislation in the UK which looks to expel all immigrants earning less than £35,0009, it is clear that the ruling class is preparing for scenarios where separating the dispossessed and most exploited sections of society is essential.
It’s widely known that Marx himself was a great fan of the gothic novel, notably the opening passage of The Communist Manifesto spoke of the spectre haunting Europe – and the imagery associated to the ruling class is nothing less than vampiric. However, contemporary Marxist formations may have taken on this gothic character in quite the wrong ways. The Socialist Workers Party UK has been criticised since the 80s, along with many similar activist organisations, as a self-perpetuating ghoul. Recruiting from idealistic under graduates whose brains are consumed for fuel and are then discarded, burnt out, and are often put off politics for a life time. Richard Seymour, formerly of the SWP writes eloquently about how the business as usual Marxism in the UK seems more and more about banging our heads against a wall10. A futile re-enactment of the life of the glory days – various theorists arguing that we must return to whatever their personal favourite year was for true militant activism. This ritualistic headless activism may not be dominant in New Zealand. The anti-capitalist left is largely starting from square one, but woe to us if we do not learn from other parts of the world the easy traps of organisational forms that are more concerned with their own self preservation than with overthrowing the oppressive social order.
Avoiding the zombification of Marxism is paramount, and doing so will require a commitment to opposing the traps of headlessness, of the nostalgia for a reanimated corpse of the post-war welfare state, and instead developing a collective vision of a society beyond capitalism. We must allow ourselves the time to stop and seriously assess the situation, in order to avoid clawing aimlessly at the walls built to fortify the ruling class from the mess they’ve created. Capitalism itself alienates us completely from our own lives, and a left which does not clearly aim towards the continuous rupture of this state of affairs will be just as stale and paralysed with rigor mortis as the dead end of capitalism.
“More than this, capitalist society is death organized with all the appearances of life. Here it is not a question of death as the extinction of life, but death-in-life, death with all the substance and power of life. The human being is dead and is no more than a ritual of capital. Young people still have the strength to refuse this death; they are able to rebel against domestication. They demand to live. But to those great numbers of smugly complacent people, who live on empty dreams and fantasies, this demand, this passionate need just seems irrational, or, at best, a paradise which is by definition inaccessible.” 11
1Métraux , Alfred (1972) Voodoo In Haiti
2Dery, Mark (2012) Dead Man Walking
3Bishop, Kyle (2010) American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture
11Camatte, Jacques https://www.marxists.org/archive/camatte/agdom.htm