Zombie Capitalism and the Post-Obama Left
“In the old days, a zombie was a figure whose life and work had been captured by magical means. Old zombies were expected to work around the clock with no relief. The new zombie cannot expect work of any kind—the new zombie just waits around to die.”
– Junot Diaz
On July 4, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., mounted the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia to say, “My dream has often turned into a nightmare.” Into the streets of America, King found, the forsaken walked pitilessly in search of non-existent jobs and impossible dignity. They see life, he said, “as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs.” Behind King lay a series of monumental victories, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and around him, ready for action, stood a movement germinated by the vast stirrings of human freedom. The Civil Rights Movements’ masses did not rest on the laurels of their victories. Around King, they pivoted: one task had been attained, but others lay before them. It was time to build on their civil victories toward economic justice.
Anyone who threatens the foundations of Property faces the wrath of Order. King was killed in 1968 for his transgressions.
What was born instead of the economic justice mass movement was the ideology of multiculturalism. Order recognized that old apartheid was anachronistic. It was now going to be necessary to incorporate the most talented amongst the populations of color into the hallways of money and power. Those who would be anointed might then stand in for their fellows, left out in the cold night of despair. The few inside the chamber would be a surrogate for the rest, and would indeed be both a reason for celebration (one of us has made it) or for chastisement (I have not made it).
When Obama ascended the podium at Grant Park in Chicago on November 4, 2008 to declare himself the victor in the presidential election, multiculturalism’s promise was fulfilled. For decades, people of color had moved to the highest reaches of corporate and military life, of the State and of society. The only post unoccupied till November 4 was the presidency. No wonder that even Jesse Jackson, Sr., wept when Obama accepted victory. That night,multiculturalism ended. It is now anachronistic.
Obama has completed his historical mission, to slay the bugbear of social distinction: in the higher offices, all colors can come. [Obama’s minor mission, also completed, was to provide the hard-core racists with a daily dose of acid reflux when he appears on television]
What did not end of course was racism. That remains. When the economy tanked in 2007-08, the victims of the harshest asset stripping were African Americans and Latinos. They lost more than half their assets, whichamounts to loss of a generation’s savings. It was silly to speak of apost-racist movement. Even Obama knew that. Before he won the presidential election Obama told journalist Gwen Ifill for her 2009 book The Breakthrough, “Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that the African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history. We have never fully come to grips with that history.” What was meant in the jubilation was that we are in a post-multicultural era. Racism is alive and well.
Which is why it is now time to pivot, as King did in 1965.
One of the great elements of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest is that it was formed by the myriad currents that make up the American Left. Our strength comes in our diversity, in our realization that no single issue discounts any other issue. The interconnected web of injuries draws us into our anti-systemic politics. Some see the sheer diversity of our movement as a failing, asking that we concentrate on one or two issues, on the main issue, which more often then not strips bare life into a cartoonish abstraction (is the “economy” really absent race and gender?). To such frivolous objections, here are at least two reactions. First, it is precisely that the American Left is constituted by this vastness that makes it imperative to recognize the right of the many to castigate all wrongs. More people should be welcome into the American Left,certainly into OWS, bringing with them their many complaints and dreams. Our movement must promise more to each of us than what is available in the present. Second, no one claim to human freedom is essentially more important than another. In time, there will be a serious debate in our movement over how to frame our core issues, and how to move one part of the agenda before another. That is inevitable. But that does not mean that at the start we should already be closing our doors to these or those issues.
The Declaration from the OWS of September 29 comes with a disclaimer: “These grievances are not all-inclusive.” Nor should they be.
Early into the OWS, a few people challenged one of thesentences in a draft, namely that the people in protest were of “one race, the human race, formerly divided by race, class.” So, Hena Ashraf, Sonny Singh, Manissa McCleave Maharawal and others contested the assertion that the divides in our humanity are now superseded. It is such contentiousness that builds our movement; it does not divide it. Capitalism, built on the inequality of property and of social formations that it inherited, is one of the primary engines of social division. The force of goodwill cannot annul or supersede its divisions by fiat. They have to be struggled against, even inside our new movements. That there is now a “People of Color Working Group” in the OWS (http://pococcupywallstreet.tumblr.com/) and a website dedicated to a much deeper commitment to anti-racism in OWS (http://disoccupy.wordpress.com/) is a sign of hope, not despair.
Multiculturalism has ended, but social and economic inequality is alive and well. The new politics must move beyond multiculturalism, beyond the defense of Obama, and toward a much more profound challenge to the current, unsustainable order. It must breathe in the many currents of dissatisfaction, and breathe out a new radical imagination.
Out of OWS will germinate a series of demands, and over time these will get more and more concrete, closer to being intelligible to Order and Power. Some of these demands will be familiar: taxes on financial transaction (some version of the Tobin Tax), an end to war spending, strengthen campaign finance laws, end the revolving door between government and corporations, pass the Return to Prudent Banking Act (essentially the 1933 Glass Steagall Act, repealed in 1999), and so on. These are all careful reforms, along the grain of a robust liberalism. They are being debated and will be voted upon.
But the radical imagination requires more. It demands a few sharp victories, some that are simply symbolic, others that propose immediate reforms and yet others that are for the longer term.
(1) Symbolic victories. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner Must Resign! He is far too closely connected to the world of finance capital, eager for its benediction and unable to be a party to a new order where finance is constrained.
(2) Immediate reforms. The Progressive Caucus of the U. S. Congress must push for a people’s stimulus that puts a basement beneath all those who are in danger of losingtheir homes, who have no health insurance and who have no income support. Money must go immediately to handle the crisis in the lives of the people. This is not a stimulus for the banks and for the big conglomerates. This is not a tax refund gimmick. This is purely targeted expenditure: for example, the government will use its powers of eminent domain to set a low price to buy out odious mortgages from predatory lenders, and convert the residents of the homes into renters at sustainable rates. Meanwhile, the Progressive Caucus shouldfollow the lead of Springfield, MA, and pass a bill that fines banks that try to foreclose on residents who have been tricked into odious mortgages. Much the same kind of immediate reform could be engineered for health care and for income support.
(3) Long-term demands. Our movement needs to put pressure on the State to turn a larger part of the surplus toward an enhanced social wage. No more hesitation about asking for universal health care, for cheap and effective public transportation, for free education from the first months of birth to college, and onward. Corporate tax-breaks and military spending need to be frontally challenged, and the social wealth has to be diverted to social needs. One of the reasons why the U. S. worker is no longer competitive with workers elsewhere is that we have been made responsible for so many aspects of our lives (healthcare, education, insurance, transportation). If we move these expensive costs to the social bill, we would be able to earn less (but make more) and be able to make affordable goods for our own market.
Zombie Capitalism has made the heartland of the United States silent, reliant upon goods from elsewhere and credit from elsewhere to buy those goods. This is unsustainable madness. It is unrealistic to live within the confines of Zombie Capitalism. Another system is necessary. OWS is the first step.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org