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Arts and Culture

Zombie Politics, Democracy, and the Threat of Authoritarianism - Part I

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Posted on Apr 30, 2012
Peter Lang Publishing

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

The following excerpt is taken from Henry Giroux’s “Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism” (Peter Lang Publishing 2010) and first appeared at Truthout.

The Rise of Zombie Politics

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 signals a shift away from the hope that accompanies the living to a politics of cynicism and despair. The macabre double movement between “the dead that walk” [2] and those who are alive but 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, gutted landscapes, and trashed gas stations.

The twenty-first-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 points out, the new zombies of free-market fundamentalism turned “the financial system into a casino. Like gambling, the transactions mostly just shifted paper money around the globe. Unlike gambling, they packed an enormous capacity for collective and economic destruction—hobbling banks that made bad bets, freezing credit and economic activity. Society—not the bankers—bore the cost.” [3] 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. [4] This is an authoritarianism in which mindless self-gratification becomes the sanctioned norm and public issues collapse into the 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 numbers 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 in the second Gilded Age. Any mention of the social state, putting limits on casino capitalism, and regulating corporate zombies puts Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck,?Rush Limbaugh, and other talking heads 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 points 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.” [5] The walking hyper-dead even oppose providing the extension of unemployment benefits to millions of Americans who are out of work, food, and hope. 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 Sarah 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 U.S. House Representative Barney Frank already speak to a fixation with images of death, violence, and war that now grips the country. Sarah 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 of 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 that “It’s time for Americans across this great country to stand up and say, ‘We’re all Arizonians now.’” [6] 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. [7]

The hyper-dead celebrate talk radio haters such as Rush 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”? [8] 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 of people 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 gossip-laden entertainment, game, and reality TV shows, transfixed by the empty lure of celebrity culture.

The roaming hordes 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, anxious to further the demands of empire as automated drones kill innocent civilians—conveniently dismissed as collateral damage—and the torture state rolls inexorably along in Afghanistan, Iraq, 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.


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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, May 1, 2012 at 8:25 pm Link to this comment

The games declined in the 5th Century as Christianity (whose leaders disapproved of the games) became more influential.  They were gradually supplanted by theatrical productions and chariot races.  Or so Wikipedia says.

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By Mondobizarro, May 1, 2012 at 11:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The better metaphor might come from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Folks
everywhere wake up one day and find themselves ready to fight to the death - not
for their own freedom, but for that of an abstract notion, the market.  As if a
market being unconstrained represents some kind of moral imperative.

A zombie is easy to mark - as is a jackbooted, swastika’d, Nazi. But the pod-
people look just like us, and they won’t rest until we think and believe just like
them.

It’s particularly ironic to be writing this today, as the entire country celebrates the
assassination of a sickly old man in his pajamas. If you’re one of those who
considers this a triumph, rather than a missed opportunity to put terrorism itself
on trial, you may be closer to a pod-person than you think.

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By felicity, May 1, 2012 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

Didn’t ‘entertainment’ for the masses in the Roman
coliseum get more and more gruesome, grotesque and
violent during the dying days of the Empire?

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americanme's avatar

By americanme, May 1, 2012 at 9:44 am Link to this comment

balkas:  All indicators show very clearly that there will be no enlightenment.

Infact the trend towards deliberate stupidity and denial has been in place for close to as long as authoritarianism.

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By balkas, May 1, 2012 at 9:15 am Link to this comment

ok, so, really—as noticed by ages and sages, first of all, and
recently by communists—we’ve had for millennia in some
regions near utter or utter diktatorship of select few over
vast numbers of people.
and there appear only two ways to end the ‘elite’
diktatorship: by a revolution or by an enlightenment.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, May 1, 2012 at 9:01 am Link to this comment

Many people seem to like authoritarianism.  Although this taste is spread across the nominal political spectrum, in the past I’ve taken some care to point out its particular appearances among those who call themselves progressives.

It could be, then, that the ruling class is happily giving the people what they want, gratified by the desire of the ruled to accept rulers.  It’s a kind of tragic romance, certain to end in tears.  But nothing seems to cure the love-smitten.

Actual zombies, though, seem to be worn out at the moment.

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By gerard, April 30, 2012 at 10:36 pm Link to this comment

“—...more nuanced, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent—what one might call a mode of authoritarianism with a distinctly American character.”
  Personally, though I found this article very interesting and worthwhile, there were some statements I wanted to question.  The above is one.
  As I observe the degree of authoritarianism increasing rapidly, day by day, I find it obvious, theatrical and although modes of control are more cunning in the sense that they are mostly kept as secret as possible, the media are so obvious in “manipulating consent” that one stumbles over the “message” every time one turns on the TV.
  What is stunning is that so many people (with insufficient education) are deceived and resistant to being undeceived. 
  Here’s how I account for that fact:  None of us want to believe that the United States of America has turned against democracy and that government has no respect for us. Those with more education, tend to both resent the facts and to propose that we (or somebody else somewhere) will “fix” things or “come to their senses.”  Those with less education, being already unable to understand compications yet still feeling victimized, are angry, sullen and defensive-aggressive.
  The increases in authoritarianism have happened relatively rapidly, as government fear and ineptitude mount. The country is huge—and seriously divided by class, race and status. We have no way of talking together productively. “The Lonely Crowd”. There is little to no creative guidance anywhere—only reaction, confusion and government-sponsored fear (“surveillance”, joblessness,future uncertainties, and repression right when openness is most needed!).
  The vacuum in leadership is very dangerous, I feel.
We need a true statesman—thoughtful, measured, wise and broadminded. We need broad public cooperation.  Nothing less will fill the gap.

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OzarkMichael's avatar

By OzarkMichael, April 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm Link to this comment

Nothing is so hip and with it as two tired cliches welded together in one book title:

“Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism”

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, April 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm Link to this comment

My thoughts exactly americanme; too many here long for the day for America to become something she never was.

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By william manson, ph.d., April 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Urgently important. The covert (irrational) motives
behind this politics of cruelty and barbarism. 
Complementary insights are to be found in writings of
psychoanalysts Justin Frank (on Bush’s sadism); and
more broadly, Erich Fromm on authoritarianism,
destructiveness and political “necrophilia.”

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americanme's avatar

By americanme, April 30, 2012 at 11:09 am Link to this comment

THREAT of authoritarianism?

How can something be threatening if it’s been the mode of operation for a number of decades?

In fact, as many decades as I can remember—and that’s almost 7.

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