Zombie Apocalypse and How Not to End Capitalism

Paresh Chandra

Introduction: Zombies beyond Zizek (and Jameson)

The following statement, often quoted, and attributed at times to Slavoj Zizek and at others to Fredric Jameson, sums up a persuasive theorization of the ubiquity of the apocalypse theme in contemporary popular culture: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”(1) The desire to go beyond the condition of capitalism hits a limit and is unable to envision an outside. The circuits of capital are so large and complicated and capital moves with such velocity that the mind boggles, unable to stabilize images; it is difficult to form a cognitive map of this totality (Jameson); sensibility is saturated, the imagination’s limits already reached (Berardi). In trying to reach beyond capital, the mind extends beyond itself and the world.

There is undeniably much to be gained by mining into this statement. But while it has the beauty of simplicity, it also suffers from simplicity’s inevitable partiality. Is not the impossibility of imagining an end to capital itself a brilliant ideological effect? In which case, should we not look upon the failed fantasy of capitalism’s end also as the wish fulfilling fiction of its continued reproduction/expansion? The Jamesonian lesson is that utopia (or, as in this case, dystopia) and ideology always exist together, verso and recto. So the project, really, is to think the text in opposite directions at the same time, see it as a disjunctive synthesis of the desire to see an end to capitalism and the one to see it reborn. Although this essay attempts such fork-tongued speech, because it addresses an imbalance in past theorization (marked by the popularity of the statement we began by quoting), it too lays more emphasis one side of the dialectic.(2)

There are two arguments this essay seeks to make, one explicit and the other implied. First, it argues that the principal lesson of the zombie apocalypse is that disaster is not simply an undesired, though inevitable outcome of capitalist development, but the remedy meant to save capitalism from collapse. Global destruction is the next logical step in the history of capitalist development and capitalism actively desires such destruction. Hence we have the paradoxical if obvious truth, that the narrative of such destruction (the apocalypse film/comic book/TV series) is essentially not about death and destruction, but survival.

This observation, notwithstanding its banality, is key. What is the nature of survival? Under what conditions will humanity survive? This survival is a return, in many ways to a state of nature from where history can begin all over again. It returns us to a basic contradiction that takes two distinct forms at two separate levels of abstraction, class struggle, and the struggle between nature and human production, and which culminates in the restoration/reproduction of capital. Should the world end then, capitalism will survive with the few survivors. In the absence of capitalist structuration reality will be disordered, a dark age of violence and naked force etc., an age that may eventually yield to a new history of capitalist becoming.

The second argument, implicit, is the real excuse for the writing of this essay. It is that while this idea – that destruction is the logical next step of capitalist development – can only be stated and examined using concepts borrowed from theory (Marx’s idea of General Intellect for example), it is clearly discernible only in the kind of texts we seek to explore. In other words the zombie apocalypse has an important lesson for radical theory, a lesson that may not be learnt anywhere else.

Primitive Accumulation and War

Thinking back to the Black Death, what surfaces is not just disorder and violence. Or rather, disorder did not limit itself to violence as its only form. Silvia Federici, in Caliban and the Witch, speaks of radical heretic tendencies in the European peasantry that had transformed that apocalyptic moment into a genuine crisis of feudalism (which was also, by instituting a likely foreclosure of the possibility of capital’s emergence, a crisis of capitalism). Federici is able to perform the difficult task of looking beyond history’s narrative of necessity, to a moment of possibility, to recover it as a moment in which the history of class struggle could have ended. History that has formed us, has been one in which the crisis of feudalism was the transition to capitalism. That was the extent of society’s recomposition. Class struggle continued to be, though in an altered condition.

The apocalypse narrative in popular culture today seems to take cue from this history of continuity, and refuses to brush it against its grain (in Federici’s style). Though according to the formulation (it is easier to imagine…) with which we began this essay, the apocalypse film/comic book/TV series tries to trace desire’s line of flight, the possibility of subtraction from capitalism, we cannot overlook the fact that but these are primarily narratives of its inevitable folding back into capitalism. (In that these narratives are quite like the kind of historiography that reads the crisis of feudalism, the heretic revolt, as the originary moment of capitalism, as primitive accumulation.) They are fantasies of capitalist refoundation. Example: In the graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Rises a Russian nuke disables all electronics, and blocks out the sun (taking out Superman’s energy source). Gotham is in disarray, riots, and criminals on a free rein. Batman mobilizes a bunch of lunatics and criminals, rides out on horseback, cowboy style, to take control of the situation. With the social and the scientific technologies that enable social control without the use of force having been rendered temporarily dysfunctional, the law needs to make use of the vigilante, who emerges to supplement the law, making use of primitive technologies of power.

In an essay published in 2008 in the New Left Review, later republished as a chapter in Distant Reading Franco Moretti had tried to forge a connection between war and narratives of adventure. Adventure, to rephrase Moretti (3), is the motif that dramatizes and mythologizes moments of exception, in which the law suspends itself to protect itself (and we know that capitalism recomposes itself and expands when it is threatened; like a shark, to survive, it has to keep moving); one symbol through which we understand these moments is the outlaw fashioned to protect the law (Batman). The outlaw signals a moment of breakdown but also the law’s recomposition. It is accepted wisdom now that capital preserves primitive accumulation; it is a path capitalism returns to when the accumulation of relative surplus value slows down and the market founders; direct but guaranteed accumulation remains a fantasy that is occasionally realized. To primitive accumulation we add war: two inseparable but not altogether indistinct methods that emerge every once in a while to preserve capitalism. Capitalism on the offensive, war, is at the same time capital on the defensive. Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” made some observations that are of interest in context of this discussion. Responding to Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, Benjamin writes

If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production…(4)

Capital, while it constantly expands its productive capacities, is also threatened by the possibility of plenty, of too much productive power. Benjamin argues that war is capital’s deployment of this plenty in an enterprise that allows capitalist relations to sustain. There is scholarship that has tried to demonstrate the relation between war, the consequent mobilization of the industry and the resuscitation of the market depressed by crisis.(5) It has been argued, for example, that the Bush II’s wars as much about reigniting industry as they were about oil. It is destruction that has pumped fuel into slowing circuits of capital.

There is still more to the apocalypse text though. Destruction is much more comprehensive and invariably of a permanent nature. In fact, it is insofar as destruction is irreversible that we can speak of a new kind of apocalypse that has increasingly begun to occupy contemporary popular culture. Destruction is not marginal; it does not just limit itself to one city, or the borders of a nation, or a foreign land. It is the generalized nature of the event that forces us beyond the primitive accumulation/war thesis, though we do not disavow it entirely; it certainly suggests a direction.

General Intellect, the Social Factory, and Revolution

In an extract from the Grundrisse, usually referred to as the “Fragment on Machine,” Marx speaks of the development of technology within capitalism and the possible advent of an automaton or organism, with whose arrival it will no longer be “the distinct individual entities of the productive workers that are useful for capitalist production, nor even their ‘work’ in a conventional sense of the word, but the whole ensemble of sciences, languages, knowledges, activities, and skills that circulate through society that Marx seeks to describe with the terms general intellect (706), social brain (694), and social individual (705).”(6)

Living labor is the determinant of surplus value and this process of automation reduces living labor “quantitatively, to a smaller proportion, and qualitatively, as an, of course, indispensable but subordinate moment, compared to general scientific labour, technological application of natural sciences, on one side, and to the general productive force arising from social combination [Gliederung] in total production on the other side”.(7) In this then capital, the “moving contradiction,” drives itself to its own dissolution.

[In this situation it is] the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labor time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself…[Now] labor time ceases and must cease to be [the] measure of [wealth], and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labor of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labor of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis…(8)

Marx goes on to speak of the expansion of free time and the possibilities that open for the free development of human creativity outside the arbitrary limits set by capital. It is a strangely utopic view of technology, a view that has been difficult to endorse in light of the lessons of the 20th century; the extent to which relations of production are immanent to the forces of production became starkly visible in the consequences of Lenin’s introduction of Taylorist production in the Soviet Union. In any case, what Marx notes is that as productivity becomes independent of the imposition of work, the capitalist valuation of life in terms of hours of labor extracted becomes superfluous. This coding of life and human production comes under threat as new possibilities based on free time become conceivable. In other words, technology, capital’s response to every cycle of the working class’s struggle, and the most important tool with which capital recomposes work and the working class, becomes a serious obstacle for its continued and expanded reproduction.

As the role of living labor decreases, a parallel process of socialization of work is also underway. Marx speaks of a “dialectical inversion,” where this “most powerful instrument for reducing labour time…becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole life-time of the worker and his family into labour time at capital’s disposal for its own valorization”. This was a thesis that Mario Tronti developed to argue that “At the highest level of capitalist development social relations become moments of the relations of production, and the whole society becomes an articulation of production. In short, all of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over all of society.”(9) The development of General Intellect has been accompanied by the emergence of the “socialized worker,” and of the “social factory” where capitalism reaches a stage of unprecedented totality, tapping into every source that everyday life can muster. This totalization is, however, another sign that the final throw of the capitalist dice comes closer. Technology continues to advance and capitalism already seems to have no outside left.(10) With no new territories and the return of the specter of moribundity in what form will the primitive return? With technology now based on microelectronics, with the expansion of the world’s nuclear armory, war too is a changed prospect. Destruction has become harder to localize. Weapons become more precise, but their circulation less restricted. What now?

Revolution. A fantasy appears, naked, in a none too sophisticated TV series baldly titled Revolution. It is 2027, fifteen years after “The Blackout” that caused the permanent disabling of electricity! All devices stop; lights, computers, vehicles, machines. In one blow all technologies of production and control are disabled. In these fifteen years people have tried to adapt to this new situation of low productivity, lack of centralization and political instability. Militias run the only governments. The problem of technology has been resolved by a quasi-magical event. The absurdity of the event is the most obvious sign of desire at work. This event is not primitive accumulation or war, but the desire that produces them is also the one that produces this event.

Apocalypse and the Resuscitation of Popular Culture

The zombie apocalypse narrative usually begins with a mutant virus, perhaps an experiment gone awry, or an out of control biological weapon. The biological weapon that attacks everybody without discriminating is but a sign that capital’s wars no longer limit themselves to the borders and to other nations. (In a sense they never have limited themselves in that fashion: war abroad, austerity measures and displacement of peoples within the borders.) But with each crisis capital expands further, productivity increases, with each recurrence capital’s war generalizes itself more and leaves fewer avenues of life untouched, more people affected.

Quarantine (2008) (there is a sequel too, Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)) begins in a chemical weapons lab. 28 Days Later (from 2002, the sequel: 28 Weeks Later (2007)) begins in a research lab with the “Rage virus”. The virus in I am Legend (2007) too is born in medical experimentation. Resident Evil, which began as a video game in 1996, developed into a six film series about an outbreak of the “T-virus,” product of genetic experimentation by the Umbrella Corporation. The virus transforms its first victims, researchers at the Umbrella Corporation research facility (The Hive) into zombies and spreads out from here.(11)

The cause of the outbreak, while it may offer interesting interpretative possibilities, is of limited significance overall. The important thing is that the event that generates the plot occurs. Furthermore, unlike say a work of detective fiction, the plot is not moved by a desire for discovery of first cause, it does not lead back to its origin, but moves forward towards survival and reconstruction.

After the basic premise is put into place, after the meta-plot has been generated, a large number of themes and subplots that have populated popular culture over the last century and have been stretched to exhaustion begin to find fertile ground. The meta-plot is always one of survival. It traces the shape existence takes in this world and becomes the source of multiple experiences whose hollowing out the twentieth century has mourned too often. It appears as if for a humanity whose sensibility is utterly saturated (an idea that appears in Bifo Berardi’s Soul at Work, which we will discuss later) a break like this is necessary for it to be able to experience emotions that ordinarily are seen to be central to life.

In A Friend for the End of the World (2012), for example, it is the end of the world that makes love and friendship possible, and through a typically crude reversal, it is this love that makes the end of the world inconsequential. The return of rom-com humanism is signaled even better by Warm Bodies (2013), in which zombies return to life and are reaccepted by human society after the real bad zombies (Bonies) are taken care of; to be able to recognize that bodies are getting warmer a person in love is needed. Slant magazine’s comment about the film typifies what we speak of: “The ubiquity of Shakespeare’s original template allows Warm Bodies some leeway in terms of believability, where otherwise it sometimes strains against its own logic. But the film’s persistent charm encourages us to look past a few festering surface wounds and see the human heart beating inside, which is really what love is all about.”(12)

I am Legend (2007) sees the return of heroism and sacrifice, and affirmation of relationships (man and woman, man and dog). How does The Walking Dead (which debuted in 2010) fill up its seasons? The continuity of generations (Rick’s children); love and marriage (Glenn and Maggie; Sasha and Bob) wisdom (Herschel); human resourcefulness and the will to survive; more generally the power of human relations to revive society and meaning. The plot moves through a series of encounters, a series of false promises, failed socialities (the Governor and his settlement at Woodbury in Season 3, Terminus in Season 4, the Hospital and the Church in Season 5). The group contains a small number of core members and a loose circle of shifting members (characters die with each encounter, and new ones join in). The constant shifting, moving, creates the desire for stability, which is found momentarily at the Prison.(13) The safety of walls and the possibility of growing food, a settled life defines this brief period. Like in Resident Evil, violence and gore are significant features of The Walking Dead too, but the latter forages on to other sources to extend the plot. (The Resident Evil video games increasingly limit themselves to shooting and weapons upgrade.) The excess of violence, and the instability of these lives allow the show to make intermittent periods of slowness (farming, conversations, mourning, caring etc.) desirable and good entertainment for the audience.

In other words, it is destruction of capitalist reality (as we know it) that becomes the basis of the refounding of the myths of capitalist common sense. One of the key ways in which the crisis of capitalism manifests itself is the evident hollowing out of its myths – like the crisis of the myth of individuality or that of nationalism (in Europe) after WWI; hard work does not guarantee success; success does not get love; saving no longer guarantees a comfortable old age; education no longer gets jobs. Capital’s revival, at least in this case, is indicated first in the revival of key myths (mentioned in preceding passages), reinvigorated by the apocalypse, bestowed with new substance by the metaplot of survival and human ingenuity.

Killing Donna Haraway’s Cyborg

A state of nature then, a state without a state – this is the condition in which man struggles for survival. Capitalism has removed the obstacle it seemed to have created in its own path in what Marx identified as General Intellect; centuries of accumulated human labor, mental and physical, washed away.

We do not know, even now, what this tendency towards the formation of General Intellect could produce, and whether capitalism’s final crisis will ever arrive and what will be humanity after capitalism and work. Althusser, while exploring man’s alienation from nature as an essential aspect of society based on work, tries to think beyond this fundamental duality to only indicate that it is “a totality that has not achieved its concept”.(14) Concepts to think this totality appear by and by.

For example, Donna Haraway in her “Cyborg Manifesto,” theorizing in a manner that bears affinity to the Marx of “Fragment on Machine,” argues that “Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology.”(15) She imagines a posthuman that would show “a way out of the maze of dualitys in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves”.(16) What saves this image from indeterminacy is the concept of the cyborg. The cyborg is a hybrid, part machine part human – a “cybernetic organism”. It is an “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.”(17) Yet its lack of innocence does not scare Haraway. The cyborg that may have emerged as the culmination of the history of capitalism, (think of this history as the narrative recounted in The Dialectic of Enlightenment) as a kind of final product, could deliver us of this history. The history of man’s struggle against nature and of man’s exploitation of the environment seems to deliver the concept we needed to think beyond the contradiction that shapes this history. A new posthuman possibility is visible in the cyborg, an indication of something beyond the human-nature duality.

As we have seen already, fundamental to the post-apocalyptic reality is the removal of technology (whether we call it Cyborg or General Intellect).(18) The metanarrative of survival, scarcity and struggle against the non-human once more designates the human-nature/non-human duality as the shaper of history, the guarantor of meaning in history. To the extent that zombies become a part of the malignant landscape, an aspect of the background against which various subplots unfold, they participate in this dualist narrative. The human other will define itself by way of distinction from the zombie. In Season 5 of The Walking Dead the need to assert “we are not them” is strong; the confusion of boundaries between human and zombie is intolerable and those in whom this confusion appears have to be neutralized (even if it is a child – Lizzie). “The productive labor that post-apocalyptic survivors are forced into…works not only as a way to protect bodily integrity, but as a way to distinguish themselves from the simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar zombie horde, who are neither self-aware nor self-conscious.”(19) The dualities that Marx (in “Fragment on Machine”) and Haraway desired to escape are firmly reestablished and capitalism has begun its renewal through self-destruction.

Marc Foster’s 2013 zombie film World War Z, in addition to receiving good reviews grossed over $540 million against a production budget of $190 million; commercially, easily the most successful zombie film. The basic plot is familiar – a viral epidemic breaks out in a number of cities; it kills quickly and the dead become zombies, who by biting others spread the virus. The interesting, if not entirely novel twist the film introduces comes when Gerry, played by Brad Pitt, notices that the zombies tend to overlook the weak (diseased or old). He suggests this possibility to a group of scientists who find the idea tenable. The hypothesis is proved when on infecting himself with various disease causing microbes Gerry effectively becomes invisible to zombies. This gives the human race a chance for survival.

In an atmosphere unfit for the reproduction of the human body, the only way to sustain it is to weaken the body. In order to reproduce ourselves we must become sick. But the diseases we introduce into the body in order to escape the undefeatable enemy are diseases that we have the ability to cure. The virus does not attack the weakened human body. This weakened body can destroy the virus and those infected by it, subsequently curing itself and ensuring the survival of the species. In a much too obvious way, what we have here is an allegory for the strategy of survival that capitalism develops. In order to survive and to continue to reproduce itself capitalism will fantasize its own destruction. Much like the human body in World War Z, capitalism will sicken itself in order to survive.(20)

What is a Zombie? (I)

The zombie is not really the main thing in post-apocalyptic zombie texts. The chief problem is the disorder that is caused due to zombies; it is the collapse of technologies of production and power that produces the event proper. Once disorder has set in, zombies are just there making the survival game more complicated.

Yet zombies cannot mean nothing! The dead-living-undead sequence is too seductive to ignore when speaking in the context of capitalism. But one has to admit that there are no easy analogies to be made, structural correspondences to be traced. Dead labor, finally, refers to machines, to technology, not to people. The living in a zombie apocalypse text are the providers of labor. There is no meaning to be ascribed to the zombie in this fashion, not even the metaphorical kind that Marx projected onto the vampire. Where do we go from here? Scholarship has over the years offered interpretations.

It begins with observing that “the mythological origins of the zombie are rooted in Haitian vodou (known popularly as “voodoo”) religion, which combined West African and Lower Congo beliefs in spirits, nzambi or zombé, that could become caught between worlds, trapped in a container, as liminal beings that were neither living nor dead. Zombification was understood to be a reversible state of hypnosis, under the control of a vodou practitioner who could work with spells or potions to make the living appear as dead, a form of mind control under direction by the zombie master.”(21) It is obvious that despite these origins the zombie synthesizes many other images constitutive of contemporary social life. The idea of a zombie controlled by a master sustains in the way in which the image enters American popular culture. First it is the slave controlled by the slave master, then later the industrial worker. “This view of the living dead, which entered the American culture industry in the 1930s and 1940s, carried a critical charge: the notion that capitalist society zombifies workers, reducing them to interchangeable beasts of burden, mere bodies for the expenditure of labor-time.”(22)

Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is by most accounts considered the inaugurator of the genre, as we know it now. It brought the zombie to the center of the American landscape; it also removed the zombie master, making the creature autonomous. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead places the zombie in the mall: the consumer’s mindlessness, infecting and producing more consumers, consumers roaming around the mall aimlessly, purely out of habit. The emphasis in all these interpretations is clearly that the post-apocalyptic world is not a possible future but an accentuated reflection of the present. Other readings are added, most of them sensible, grounded in some aspect of capitalist reality: the zombie as the hidden truth of neoliberal capitalism, the sweatshop worker hidden behind the smooth circuits of the supply chain, representative of the real conditions behind the reflective glass exterior of the postmodern factory.(23)

Offering an interesting formulation Aalya Ahmad writes, “the zombie apocalypse stops the machine, but the machine’s effects clearly linger on in the survivors”. One can think of Charlie Chaplin, still twitching and jerking, making his way away from the conveyor belt in Modern Times. Yet this image can be as misleading as it is alluring. It pushes us to imagine the body dominated by a mechanical rhythm alien to it. While this conception remains useful in describing a large portion of the capitalist imposition of work even today, it does not address a key mutation that has emerged in the last few decades, which is also the period which has seen the emergence of the cultural phenomena we are discussing. A glance at this mutation, to my mind, goes a long way in adding precision to our understanding of the zombie.

What is a Zombie? (II)

The zombie, while it may suggest a mechanical, machine like existence with its jerky gait, is actually a creature of appetite. Which is to say that it is not simply the body that has been conquered by an alien rhythm (leaving the mind free), the mind too has been subjugated; in fact the conquest of the mind is primary. The zombie is still subject to a master, but the master is invisible, not human. It is this aspect of the zombie image that me must explore in the light of this mutation in the nature of work that comes along with microelectronics. (We should keep in mind that it is microelectronics that makes General Intellect and the Cyborg, thinkable, determinate concepts today.)

Tracing capital’s response to the politics of “refusal of work” that defined the 1960s and 1970s, Bifo Berardi, in his book Soul at Work, also explores the implications of the coming of microelectronics. In distancing himself from the language of desire and its flows that is proposed by Deleuze and Guatarri in Anti-Oedipus, Berardi argues that it is desire itself that semiocapitalism (a term Berardi uses to describe capitalism today) taps; the proletariat realizes, or tries to realize her desires within this new capitalism and brings her soul to work. In response to the worker’s refusal of work that alienates desire, capital has recomposed itself to feed off this desire.

Earlier, leisure was the site for self-realization; now an injunction is in place that pushes the worker to realize herself in work. This new worker, working under the condition of semiocapitalism, trying to realize herself in work, exhausts herself without finding fulfillment. Realization in the fluid and ever expanding networks of semiocapitalism is an impossible ask; the world of simulation, finance and deregulation begins by precluding an encounter with the real, how then real-ization? Even as he speaks the Freudian language of a “libidinal economy”, Berardi touches upon the concerns of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Man has no being without objective being, which is man’s externalization of himself in the object of labor – this externalization leaves an objectively discernible trace, which is recognized by the other etc.(24) This externalization is impossible in the simulated world of semiocapitalism, ever expanding and so, unrepresentable, incomprehensible to the human mind. The individual constantly falls short, puts in more effort and falls short again. The validation that was available to the artisan from the community is also unobtainable for this creature because her ability to form community is destroyed with the saturation of sensibility that such work causes. In the end she is exhausted, depressed etc.

Berardi goes on to speak of “a morphogenetic modeling of the living operated by the habitat with which it is required to interact [biopower]”.(25) As it feeds off it, semiocapitalism also shapes desire; it models the soul. Alongside the mindless consumer, a mind (full) worker is created – the cognitariat. Referring back to Marx’s distinction between formal and real subsumption in the “Unpublished Sixth Chapter” of Capital Berardi offers an interesting paraphrase worth quoting here.

Formal subsumption is based on the juridical subjugation of the laborers, on the formal disciplining of the bodies. Real subsumption means instead that the workers’ lifetimes have been captured by the capital flow, and the souls have been pervaded by techno-linguistic chains.(26)

We had touched upon capitalism’s swallowing up of all outsides in our discussion of General Intellect. The outside subsumed on this occasion is the worker’s soul. There is no boss breathing down the worker’s neck; the worker largely supervises herself, encourages herself (maybe she reads something from the self-help section). In her work she seeks to fulfill herself, and nothing visible structures her desires or shapes her will. While there is an injunction to find satisfaction in work, it is impossible to discern where the injunction comes from. Desire, already structured to find satisfaction in capital’s circuits takes over the person, transforming the body into little more than an interface (hands on the keyboard, eyes on the screen). What takes over the self is experienced as an aspect of the self, that nevertheless comes from the outside, something external which can never quite be comprehended as that (how can I fathom that my own desire is not my own?).

We tend to think of power in relation to the sublimity of the infinite, facing which imagination and reason both fail. But what of the infinitesimal? Nano technology, the microchip and an infinity of points through which power flows. Man is no longer the measure of all things, Berardi observes. The order of determinations is incomprehensible to the human mind, and this crisis of cognitive mapping comes with semiocapitalism, which is characterized by both infinite (the ever expanding circuits of capital) and the infinitesimal (microelectronics). Berardi speaks of Ingmar Bergman’s 1977 film The Serpent’s Egg that may be read as an attempt to represent this condition. According to Berardi the film redefines historicity as “a psychological and linguistic process” and in the process makes way toward a redefinition of alienation as a “material, chemical, or rather neuro-chemical mutation.” The social body is slowly poisoned by the Nazis, who use a toxic gas to deprive it of its will. “The metaphor of psychological submission that we find in this movie is pertinent far beyond the example of German Nazism: it can characterize other processes of collective mental pollution, such as consumerism, television commercials, the production of aggressive behaviors, religious fundamentalisms and competitive conformisms”.(27) This poisoning of the social body and its transformation into an “amorphous mass” is a useful figure for the modeling of the soul we have been speaking of. The virus that causes the zombie apocalypse can be thought of as a logical development from here.

The virus is an efficient device for representing the invisible force that controls the self as if it were internal to it. It is the organic infinitesimal, the only form possible after the network (electricity, technology, General Intellect) dies. The age old fear of epidemic and contagion, of plague, combines with the modern fear of biological weapons to deliver a perfect device, a near-perfect figure for how capital works now, representing its effects, when the machine is dead.

The cognitariat is pushed to breaking point in order to realize itself within capital’s network and underneath the promise of nourishment, the soul is poisoned, robbed of its capacity to feel, commune, robbed of its connection to the body, to sensibility. The only extension this soul possesses exists within capital’s network. Once this network is removed, once this machine is switched off what we have is uncontrollable, meaningless desire without end; a thing driven by desire but without the means to pursue or even comprehend it. A hunger that is never satiated; the body is never nourished because its demands have long been forgotten by the mind. The zombie, seemingly all body no soul, is by way of a fantastic reversal the form that the bodiless soul (the cognitariat robbed of sensibility) takes in the post-apocalyptic world.(28) The zombie bites and struggles and eats so the virus can spread itself; eating does not nourish this body. This is certainly a good image for the industrial worker who loses his body to capitalist work in the hours he spends in the factory; but it is even more appropriate for the cognitive worker who loses his mind entirely.

Conclusion: Zombie contra Cyborg

The cyborg was Donna Haraway’s way of thinking beyond the human-nature binary because it made a future of hybridity thinkable. The idealist-capitalist desire to successively subsume every aspect of nature into its logic of unending expansion suggests a second direction for history. Though, as this paper too has belabored, the thought of this end is terrifying for capital, for arrival would mean the end of expansion, end of movement and so the end. The zombie is a third possibility – the duality seems to end, but this vision of posthumanity is that of humanity’s decay into nature.

The zombies may overrun humanity, and humanity’s struggle to survive against them will reproduce the original duality and perhaps, capitalism. The image of nature consuming society to end duality mirrors the more familiar one of capital subsuming nature. In the light of the fact that the virus is invariably the product of human tampering, and of our own reading of the virus as a kind of organic metaphor for semiocapitalism, or its effects, this mirroring suggests a displaced connection. What finally is the result of this war that nature wages against human sociality but the reestablishing of the duality it evidently strives to end, and in that the resetting of history to zero, and the frightful prospect of its repetition from Odysseus to Fascism and the culture industry? Some speak of the eco-zombie, the greened zombie, “the zombie reimagined as an avenger that refuses to accept environmental destruction and ultimately rids the earth of humans”.(29) But nature’s avenger zombie merely plays a part in the prospective narrative of capitalism’s regeneration.

Lets go over the argument once: capitalism has a tendency to go into crisis every once in a while. It comes out of each crisis by recomposing itself, and the working class, whose struggles push it into crisis. This recomposition happens primarily through technological advancement, but goes hand in hand with primitive accumulation, which is capitalism’s way of subsuming new territories. Over the last two hundred years it has managed to subsume increasingly large portions of the globe and technology has expanded by leaps and bounds (microelectronics being the most recent and by far the largest leap). The increase in technology (in Marx’s terms, the increase in the organic composition of capital) means that the proportion of living labor going into production decreases and with which decreases the surplus. To make up for this capital plugs in to more and more realms of life, formerly only formally subsumed, they are now really subsumed. We reach a point where expansion becomes impossible, as does the realization of surplus. War and primitive accumulation are now ever present to prop up this late capitalism but they become less effective each moment. It is now, the zombie apocalypse teaches us, that capitalism begins to fantasize destruction, self-destruction; an odd fantasy for a system which is reputedly the only one that exists solely for production. Not quite so odd for one that cannot exist without continuously expanding production. The process of expansion can begin again once the ground has been cleared.

It is capitalism’s relentless expansion that has led us to a moment that its interests can no longer be comprehended in terms of CEOs, owners, boards, or even nations. Its interests are as simple as ever, but no individuals represent them. We find no policy makers speaking of the need for destruction, nor CEO’s dreaming of zombie hordes. Capitalism’s interests have far transcended those of individuals (even those who are apportioned humongous shares of value). But what cannot be articulated in other discourses, we argue, can still be discerned in popular cultural production. The apocalypse narrative, especially the zombie apocalypse has a lesson, a political lesson that is hard to learn any other place.

So then, what if disaster is not an undesired, though inevitable outcome of capitalist development, but the prescription that will save capitalism from collapse? Perhaps it is by destroying the products of human labor that it has historically subsumed into its logic and by reestablishing man’s struggle with nature, by reestablishing that is, the binary Donna Haraway thinks the cyborg might help us transcend, that capital will sustain its hold over human history and nature alike. What if the apocalypse is produced, an incomplete one, just so that capitalist history can continue? How does this lesson affect discourses that anti-capitalists tendencies deploy in their criticism of capitalism?

The possibility of ecological disaster is ever on our minds now, and leftists, both liberal and radical, increasingly appeal to this fear in their criticism of capitalism. Ecological crisis is a key weapon in the arsenal of the anti-capitalist today. We have come to bemoan the fact that we had been oh so anthropocentric in basing our criticism of capital on the question of exploitation. (Indeed the zombie apocalypse has been read as a critique of what Naomi’s Klein calls “disaster capitalism”(30)). In her new book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that “There is still time to avoid catastrophic warming but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has ever been for changing those rules.”(31) (This argument is part of a larger tendency to attack not capitalism, but its most recent moment: for example, it is argued ever so often that it is neoliberalism that is destroying education and health services, it is this late capitalism that is enforcing austerity measures everywhere. What is implied in all these discourses is that a capitalism with slightly different rules (say the old welfarist capitalism) is better and we must struggle to defend its remaining vestiges, if possible go back to nationalizing things.)

The idea of persuading capitalism to change its rule so that it may avert ecological catastrophe, or any catastrophe begins to seem silly if catastrophe is what capitalism seeks. Once more, the lesson that the zombie apocalypse teaches us is that capitalism has us fooled into thinking that it cares to save the environment if only a way could be found to keep profit making green. The point is not that there can be no green capitalism (although that too is true), but that it wants to not be green. In the process of fooling us into thinking that it cares, it manages to make more profit as we amuse ourselves to death, watching/reading this moral tale, deceiving ourselves into thinking that we have learnt its lesson.


(1) Both Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson seem fond of quoting this statement, although nobody ever reveals whom it was who made it for the first time. For Jameson it is always “somebody” who once said it.

(2) As much as this essay is a reaction to utopic readings of the apocalypse theme, it also assumes them in a more affirmative manner, insofar its attempt to throw out the bathwater dirty with ideology, would be risky without those prior theorizations ascertaining the safety of the baby.

(3) Franco Moretti, “The Novel: History and Theory,” in Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 177.

(4) Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 242.

(5) See Andre Gunder Frank, “Third World War: A Political Economy of the Gulf War and New World Order.” (http://rrojasdatabank.info/agfrank/gulf_war.html; accessed on June 25, 2015).

(6) Nicholas Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 81.

(7) Karl Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1993), 700.

(8) Ibid., 705.

(9) Mario Tronti cited in Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, 72.

(10) One must acknowledge Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis’s criticism of this position. They argue that lags remain central to capitalist development: there is segmentation within the working class in terms of the use of higher and lower technology, capitalism spreads both development and underdevelopment, and “capitalist subsumption of all forms of production does not require the extension of the level of science and technology achieved at any particular point of capitalist development to all workers contributing to the accumulation process”. (Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis, “Notes on the Edu-Factory and Cognitive Capitalism,” Towards a Global Autonomous University (New York: Autonomedia, 2009). They are completely correct. But we are only interested in the tendency towards totalization, and increasing pace at which capitalism is subsuming its outside. As this process accelerates, the fear of arrival begins to loom. There may always be lags and counter-tendencies, but that does not undermine the force of the tendency we here choose to emphasize.

(11) A major theme that the series also deploys in plot construction is that of the evils of monopoly. The Umbrella Corporation has no competition, no detractors. Concentration (and centralization) is another aspect of the history of capitalist development. Capitalism demonstrates its self-contradictory character in this case too by battling centralization through its conscience keeper that is the civil society, and by using laws dictating fair competition. Indeed, the Resident Evil films’ short circuiting of capitalism and monopoly makes the criticism of the two indistinguishable; actually of course they are not the same: the critique of monopoly tries to save capitalism, while a radical critique of capitalism seeks its destruction.

(12) Richard Larson, “Warm Bodies”, Slant. Accessed on Mach 6, 2015. http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/warm-bodies.

(13) The groups tries a democratic mode of self-governance, different from the earlier episodes where they decided to follow Rick as their leader, accepting that this was the form best suited for the swiftness with which the group needed to respond when threatened. Democracy collapses with the Prison, and for the next few seasons, the group returns to its “state of exception” state-form.

(14) Roland Boer, “The Ecclesiastical Eloquence of Louis Althusser,” in Marxism and Theology: Criticism of Heaven (Leiden and Boston: Brill), 157.

(15) Donna Haraway. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (New York: Routledge, 1991), 181.

(16) Ibid., 181.

(17) Ibid., 151.

(18) In the context of this discussion see Alicia Kozcma, “The post-apocalyptic renunciation of technology in The Walking Dead”, in Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means (London: Lexington Books, 2013) ed. Murali Balaji, 151. Kozma makes an interesting case, especially through her reading of the initial scenes after Rick wakes up in the hospital in Season 1 (Thinking Dead 151). She argues that the show renounces technology and moves towards the constitution of a parahumanity. Her argument is based on the notion of a choice between technology (which the show renounces) and human ingenuity (which it foregrounds). It is important here to reiterate Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument, and observe that this binary collapses if we see technology being rooted in precisely this notion of ingenuity of humanity struggling with nature.

(19) Alicia Kozcma, “The post-apocalyptic renunciation of technology in The Walking Dead”, in Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means (London: Lexington Books, 2013) ed. Murali Balaji, 153.

(20) Another revealing analogy: In an essay from 1937, called “Constructions in Analysis” Freud draws an interesting comparison between the constructions that appear in analysis and those that appear in psychosis.

The delusions of patients appear to me to be the equivalents of the constructions which we build up in the course of an analytic treatment – attempts at explanation and cure, though it is true that these, under the conditions of a psychosis, can do no more than replace the fragment of reality that is being disavowed in the present by another fragment that had already been disavowed in the remote past. (p. 204, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis)

The desire for subtraction from the symbolic order is visible in the analysand’s constructions. The constructions of analysis do not “reduce the analysand’s linguistic production to the mechanical insistence of the signifying chain…the aim of construction would not be to resignify these nodes [of non-sense] but to re-constellate them in order to attenuate the subject’s alienation in the symbolic order.” (p. 206, ibid) What is key is that in the rejuvenation of the traumatized ego, the traumatizing situation that the ego cannot transcend is replaced by one that had already been transcended “in the remote past”. In the psychotic-analyst couple we have a useful miniaturization of the contradiction (more technology-less technology; concentration-competition) that we have been tracing in capitalism as well as the coherence it (re)produces repeatedly without resolving the contradiction.

(21) Zara Zimbaro, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” Censored 2015 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2014), 272.

(22) Ibid., 272.

(23) Most of these readings can be found summarized in Zara Zimbardo’s chapter in Censored 2015.

(24) It would seem inconsistent to speak of ‘recognition’ in the same breath as Anti-Oedipus. But this inconsistency, if it exists, is rooted in Berardi’s work. The other way of thinking about it is that the break from Anti-Oedipus we mention, returns Berardi to a mode of theorizing in which this Hegelian-Marxian-Freudian category becomes productive again.

(25) Bifo Berardi, Soul at Work (MA: The MIT Press, 2009), 172.

(26) Ibid., 173.

(27) Ibid., 97.

(28) “The zombie is different from other monsters because the body is resurrected and retained: only consciousness is permanently lost. Like the vampire and the werewolf, the zombie threatens with its material form. Whereas the vampire and even the intangible ghost retain their mental faculties, and the werewolf may become irrational, bestial only part of time, only the zombie has completely lost its mind, becoming a blank—animate, but wholly devoid of consciousness.” (A Zombie Manifesto, p. 89)

Later on in the essay: “In Haitian folklore, from which all zombies are derived, the word zombie meant not just “a body without a soul” but also “a soul without a body.” (A Zombie Manifesto, p. 97)

(29) Zimbardo, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” 286.

(30) Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

(31) Naomi Klein, quoted in Rob Nixon, “Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything,” The New York Times, accessed on March 5, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/books/review/naomi-klein-this-changes-everything-review.html?_r=0.


  1. While I concur with the conclusion of your article, I really must disagree with your surprising reading of Klein’s ClimatevsCapital,which is certainly not a myopic critique of neoliberal capitalism. I noticed that you have referenced it only through Rob Nixon’s review and wonder if that has been the source of your criticism rather than the actual book? Really, Nixon should be your target here rather than Klein. As John Bellamy Foster & Brett Clark have pointed out liberal environmentalists like Nixon have been diluting the book’s strong critique of capitalism – i think Klein in this book is pretty unambiguous in underscoring capitalism’s intrinsic incompatibility with ecological thought(http://climateandcapitalism.com/2015/02/01/liberal-attack-on-naomi-klein-and-this-changes-everything/). If anything, the focus on climate change by the left though not liberal school of ecocritical thought is far from being a mitigatory discourse, but a strategic moment of critiquing the inherent nature of capitalism, and the historical forms of capitalism, including millennial capitalism. I think you inadvertently imply a consensus when in fact there is a thicket of contestation regarding both motives and approaches to addressing ecological disaster. Debates centred around the very naming of the Anthropocene are pretty reflective of this – consider, for example, the growing support for Jason Moore’s use of the Capitalocene (While I agree with your reading of Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto, but perhaps one must contend with her more updated version of the Chchtlucene). Most of Pablo Mukherjee’s work or Mike Davis’s brilliant Late Victorian Holocausts:El Nino and the Making of the Third World are also great instances of the discourse around ecological disaster not being solely focused on interrogating a contemporary version of green capitalism.

  2. K.S Arsh says:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: