Dead Among the Living

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, gutted cities and trashed businesses.

—Henry Giroux, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), p. 32.

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.

—Ibid., p. 33.

The storms have been gathering for a few now, and in one tidal wave centuries-old institutions, traditions, and values are being leveled out of existence, washed over by the roaring seas of neoliberalism. Yet no one attendant to the decades-long warning signs can claim shock; but that this wave should sweep through so thoroughly, and in the first term of the first Black president, who many deludedly believed either a “liberal” or “Marxist”—this, it seems, came unawares for most.

Across the country, millions are gripped with panic, watching their once-secure lives turned over so suddenly and sold to an insidious system which could be best described as inverted authoritarianism—a creeping culture in which individuals, institutions, and identities are subject to one infallible authority: corporations. And across the country, dozens of governors now find themselves at the right place at the right time to “change the course of history,” to plunge the final stake into democracy’s heart, effectively doing away with all petty talk of government for the people by the people. But this scheme would never sell well unless Emergency Time was declared, and the masses stripped of all ability (and right) to think clearly, which helps make the idiotic ramblings of the governors look logical.

And one consensus has towered above all: public workers are to blame; from podiums where the high and mighty bay in strong but familiar tongues, they are counseled toward austerity measures because, apparently, their society is in the red, and only by taking pay cuts, pink slips, and less hours can they do their share to sustain it. In times of surplus and stability, however, no mention of the common good or public benefit passed the lips of these elected oligarchs, all conceived from the union of Reagan and Thatcher, the latter who brayed in ’87: “[T]here is no such thing as ‘society.’ There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.” Two decades later, a simpleton from Kentucky elected to the Senate confided into a news camera that “we’re all interconnected. There are no rich. There are no middle class. There are no poor. We all are interconnected in the economy.”

Florida’s CEO governor seems keen on the idea, seeking to, as The New York Times reported recently, create a “business-friendly environment” in which financial and environmental regulations are dealt fatal blows, and corporations walk off brimming with nearly $2 billion in tax cuts, and the fangs of privatization dig deeper into Medicaid and the prison industrial complex; in addition, the elimination of 8,500 state jobs, a $1.75 billion cut in the public school budget, and new mandates requiring 600,000 government workers to pinch 5% toward their retirement.

The school board of Providence, Rhode Island, had a better idea—ship pink slips to all of its nearly 2,000 teachers, forewarning possible termination at school year’s end. This would help in the arena of budget cuts, officials said, especially since next year’s $308 million school budget is expected to fall short $40 million.

Over in Indiana, Republican state representatives were shoving through a bill to bar unions and companies from negotiating better agreements, to strip out collective bargaining rights. They had been inspired by the inept county executive elected governor in Wisconsin who dreamt one night that he was Reagan’s illegitimate heir, and history was standing still on his behalf. So to plug his state’s $137 million budget deficit, Scott Walker decided to hit hard against public-sector unions and public schools and public universities, all the while swearing no nefarious motives.

Perhaps he felt a certain security having seen the alleged socialist president strut his stuff earlier in February, slicing in half a home-heating aid program for poor people, potentially impacting 3 million families nationwide. And as if to snicker in the faces of the Professional Left, the proposal called for an end to the Bush-era tax cuts, two months after his administration had bullied Democrat legislators into extending it.

Ohio Republicans knew, too, their time had come, and in due time a bill was rammed through the state House and Senate to stop binding arbitration and strip the collective bargaining rights of 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other public workers. But by now this simple scheme had grown stale, so to send bells tolling, the bill also included a ban on strikes — punishable by hanging? “Unionized workers could negotiate wages, hours and certain work conditions but not health care, sick time or pension benefits,” reported The Associated Press. “The measure would do away with automatic pay raises and base future wage increases on merit.”

Michigan’s Tea Party governor dared to dream bigger. His bill would grant him power to declare towns in financial emergency, at which point an Emergency Financial Manager would be endowed with infallible authority to “reject, modify, or terminate” contracts, suspend or dismiss elected officials, delete union rights, and hand power over to corporations. The sky is falling, he’s been bleating lately, though ever alert against mentioning the $1.7 billion in tax breaks extorted from the poor and elderly and swiftly transferred to big corporations as $1.8 billion in tax cuts.

Like his comrade in Pennsylvania, who hopes to anoint an anti-regulation energy company executive with “supreme” authority over environmental regulations, and his other comrade in Wisconsin, who plots to hand over state public utilities to titans like Koch Industries, Rick Snyder of Michigan is forging toward a more perfect tomorrow—where budgets are balanced, public workers know their place, poor school kids drop out of existence, the elderly rejoin a shrinking workforce, and corporations own cities, even states, leading to the privatization of entire societies, entire cultures. And with Romney or Santorum shepherded into office come November 2012, perhaps this would become the world’s first truly, and proud, privatized nation.

When fascism would sail to these shores, many have warned for decades, there would be no marching bands or mass rallies, no mustache trimming, no mass murders—preferably a more sophisticated form, more subtle, more agreeable to the average, burdened worker forced to juggle three jobs and four kids while watching Mexicans trampling across town in their capacity-defying mobiles. Fascism would come with mindless commercials pushing a thousand products per break; it would come with a twitchy maniac on a popular entertainment news network who sees blood written on every wall; it would come with a systematic dumbing down of the multitude, with a perennial circus that invites the public to choose between political Siamese twins who play the part of opponents for nine months. It would come with a slow death that renders millions upon millions dead among the living—eternal zombies roaming the streets, unable to connect their private pains with public policies. Fascism would not feature a megalomaniac villain the world would love to hate; it would feature cheerful corporations openly buying off politicians and setting social agenda, unconcerned with the hurt feelings of the masses whose voices would never reach high enough on cable news media to pierce public consciousness and rally strong against the marauders walking off with their children’s futures.

Henry Giroux’s latest text, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, accounts for a society whose members seem gleefully invested in their own undoing without knowing it. “Rather than being forced to adhere to a particular state ideology,” he writes, “the general public in the United States is largely depoliticized through the influence of corporations over schools, higher education, and other cultural apparatuses.”

Nowadays reading is a bore, so for cheap information, fast food style, most rely on television; incidentally all the major news networks are owned by corporations involved in everything from weapon manufacturing to sweat shops and slave labor, so the news commonly drives dangerously close to a 24-hour commercial marathon, a propaganda model built on product-pushing for whichever agenda rules the day. Viewers are asked to judge between the opinions of two dimwits pitted against each other like pugilists, to choose whose opinion flatters more. And once the segment ends, the baton is passed to the latest pill or pad without which life is not worth living—all in one chorus insisting, as Giroux notes, that the only way “to define ourselves is to shop and consume in an orgy of private pursuits.”

Against the backdrop of escalating homelessness, rampant joblessness, mass poverty, hunger, and hopelessness, the call to consume has only ratcheted, increasingly through the lips of kids too young to understand the values being promulgated. In a recent “Best Buy Buy Back Program” commercial, which touts the glories of ever-new products rendering one-month-old ancestors obsolete, a young girl no more than five runs around a front yard before reproaching her dad, who is dragging in a 3-D plasma TV right when a truck appears outside announcing 4D HDTV coming soon, “You got the wrong TV, silly head!” Toyota had a better idea, employing an 8-year-old Donald Trump to champion its new line, the Highlander, which everyone wants to ride in, the kid says, because “it’s got mad style”; and in a series of commercials featuring “embarrassing” parents wheeling their children around in “the old family hauler,” the kid prescribes to his peers the Highlander, which “comes with a sweet, rear-seat entertainment system.” His final counsel seems reasonable enough: “Just because you’re a parent doesn’t mean you have to be lame.” E*Trade figured out a more haunting strategy: move the lips of diapered toddlers in cribs and call it marketing genius. The series of commercials run from the senseless to the raunchy; toddlers announcing stock tips, extoling E*Trade’s superiorities, and even employing sexual innuendo in their bits. Adults, in these worlds, remain either out of touch, embarrassingly arcane, or entirely irrelevant. Perhaps this explains why a popular weekly show on FOX Television tries to restore some stolen dignity as grown men and women get to pound their chests hard and screech for joy if at the end they best their opponents—5th graders.

Lives are being swallowed alive by greedy pythons who front big insurance firms and corporate banks, but breaking news on CNN must pause the world over to announce Lindsay Lohan has just arrived in court for her latest hearing, or a dad says his boy is floating toward the heavens in a gas balloon. Henry Giroux’s Zombie Politics sees this sort of routine idiocy as a trick to keep a terribly under-educated electorate further narcotized into sizzling stupor while the real rulers hold power forever:

Not only is the issue of the good life and the conditions that make it possible often lost in the babble of the infotainment state, but the market values that produced the economic crisis have so devalued the concept and practice of democracy that Americans find it hard to even define its meaning outside of the sham of money-driven elections and the freedom to shop.

Power is insecure, he also notes. Power must be cuddled by media through which mass audiences can be counseled against their interests, which explains Walker’s thrill over The New York Times’ February 21 article capturing snippets of everyday, blue-collar private employees who scorned their public-sector counterparts for demanding too much. “Power does not work simply through the control and influence of wealth, income, and resources,” Giroux writes. “It also has to legitimate itself, and for that it needs to create a pedagogical culture through which it can promote its ideologies and values.”

Of course Orwell knew language travels ahead to prepare proper ground for action. Or as Toni Morrison reflected in 1993, “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” Language is commodified and sanitized, drained of its deadly implications, refined and dressed up nice; then becomes acceptable to those who should be warring against it. Words like “Austerity” and “Deficit” and “Shortfall” and “Burden” and “Freeloader” and “Ingrate” and “Entitlement” stalk the day, seizing the souls of those who’ve never fallen short of the good life—the pay-your-taxes, go-to-church, vote-Eisenhower life—yet now find themselves the victims of measures by governors who hear Reagan in their heads screaming, The time is now! This is language of a different sort, as Giroux notes: “Zombie language, with its appeal to the living dead, erases the social as it privatizes it and can only imagine freedom through the narrow lens of self-interest, exchange values, and profit margins.”

This is language which often destroys the truth, turning facts into casualties all in the name of making a point. It is now chic for politicians to simply lie about everything—from whom they sleep with, to where their funding comes from, to what perks the funding brings, to who writes their bills, who pays their lunch, who sways their vote. And for the entertainers masquerading as talk show hosts or commentators, lying becomes a necessity, second nature—a quality without which frenzy cannot be whipped up among the die-hard fan base taught to believe everything it’s told.

The smart even know lying draws flies—lying creates controversy, which creates coverage; and for as long as the liar can claim strong commitment to proving the lie true, TV cameras would forever be at the ready, on the edge to nab the first scoop. The idiot ex-governor of Alaska can, for instance, wake up one morning depressed the world has passed her over and climb back to national notoriety with a lie so seismic (thanks to the bots who run cable news) that it does well in sinking mainstream support for the healthcare reform bill in its original form. Another idiot who CNN has fallen in love with can manufacture lies out of a tape recording and set off a national storm against the honor of a woman accused of saying the exact opposite of her recorded remarks.

Meanwhile, large swaths of the public are being abandoned to stable a ship whose captains refuse to throw the real Jonahs off into the deep end—yelping about budget deficits while desperately ignoring the corporations blessed with billions in tax cuts, the multi-millionaire and billionaire CEOs whose average workers can barely scrape together a family meal while working two jobs. “At least 46 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted budget cuts that will affect services for children, the elderly, the disabled, and families, as well as the quality of education and access to higher education,” reported the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities early February this year.

The young of color, especially, don’t count. Through “policies of punishment” and a commercial culture that ranks its members based on those who buy more, many are either drugged up or locked up, “excommunicated from the sphere of human concern,” as Giroux writes. In Detroit public schools, their fate seems sealed. State officials have ordered the emergency financial manager to close half its schools, a plan to feature, come next year, up to 60 students per class. The kids would have to shut up and shoulder the burden of a $327 million district deficit they somehow must have contributed to.

The young, the poor, and the old are excess in this strange world where “we’re all interconnected.” In Arizona, 98 low-income patients approved for organ transplants can be abruptly flung off the list due to state budget cuts. In rural Tennessee, firefighters can stop by a house while it burns to the ground, snickering now and then, refusing to lift a finger on their hoses because the family had failed to pay the annual homeowner protection fee: $75. Three dogs, a cat, and many memories died that day. One day later, a primate trained to talk on the radio told his millions of listeners the deaths were justified: “If you don’t pay your $75, then that hurts the fire department. They can’t use those resources and you would be sponging off of your neighbor.” No wonder the Right-wing shook violently when former Rep. Alan Grayson exposed its wishes that the burdens of society simply “die quickly.”

The excess are to be overlooked and forgotten, shut out of mainstream awareness, left to rot and decompose in “tent cities found under bridges and located in other invisible landscapes—used in the past to get rid of waste products, but now used to dump poor working-class and middle-class families.”

Yet these conditions, however grim, stand amenable, even if the Wisconsin and Ohio uprisings boast no strong validations. Across the landscape, splotches of resistance seem to be spreading, especially among corners long-docile in the face of injustice—as a great wave gathered with enough fervor to turn over traditions seemingly etched into eternity. But if children would inhabit a world where corporations and elected representatives hold separate functions, due action must be taken before entire towns bear the logos of merchants who survey the world through a prism in which only profit matters. Giroux insists it’s time to “fight for the formative culture and modes of thought and agency that are the very foundations of democracy”; time to “mobilize a militant, far-reaching social movement to challenge the false claims that equate democracy and capitalism.” Those willing would have to beat back against the creeping forces of authoritarianism whose values “embrace death rather than life, fear rather than hope, insularity rather than solidarity.”

Turn on FOX News, tune into any of the several dozen radio frequencies broadcasting from Right of the field, and wonder at millions around the country beholden to a bobblehead from Alaska who finds troubling the concept of Africa as a continent, millions more at the feet of a bloated buffoon paid in the hundreds of millions to invalidate the mental superiority of humankind. “It’s time to bury the dead,” Giroux instructs, “and let the living once again inhabit the regions of government, the media, the economy, and other crucial spheres of power.” Amen.

TOLU OLORUNDA is a cultural critic currently living in Michigan. He can be reached at: