David McNally on Zombies

The Marxist renaissance man David McNally–who is already a shit hot political economist and commentator on the Marx/Hegel relationship and philosopher of language–also proves himself to be an astute cultural theorist:

The problem with prevailing images of apocalyptic zombie capitalism, however, is that they have lost sight of its most subversive underside: the zombie laborer.

The zombie laborer emerged in Haiti, at one time the world’s largest slave colony, assuming its quintessential form during the period of American occupation (1915-34), when U.S. marines, wielding violence and terror, deployed forced labor to build roads and other infrastructure.

As I document in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, it was in modern Haiti that zombies acquired their unique meaning as the animated dead, mere flesh and bones, bereft of memory and identity, toiling on behalf of others. 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.

But the idea of the zombie as a living-dead laborer was displaced in American cultural production in the late 1960s by that of the ghoulish consumer. While this cultural shift can be bitingly satirical, as in George E. Romero’s 1978 zombie-film, Dawn of the Dead, the bulk of which takes place in a shopping mall to which the creatures are obsessively drawn, it replaces the zombie laborer with the manic consumer (of human flesh).

While images of insatiable flesh-eating can cleverly lampoon a late capitalism choking on its own excesses, these satires too readily lose sight of what the Haitian image of the undead grasped: that all this manic consumption is impossible without the millions of workers who feed the machinery of profit with their labor.

Read the rest over at Jacobin.

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11 Responses to David McNally on Zombies

  1. Robert says:

    You might be interested in this (not very positive) review of McNally, if you haven’t seen it already:


    Also, this looks interesting, to say the least:


    • HR says:

      Thanks Robert Ive not ready his book on the crisis. However, from the talks and interviews i’ve heard I actually thought he gave one of the best analyses of the conference.

      As for the Platypus thing Im curious to hear what Mattick and Goldner have to say. I also wonder how Platpyus will frame the talk.

      • Ross Wolfe says:

        Thanks for publicizing this event. I’m very excited to see how the event will unfold. The main thing Platypus is interested in learning is whether or not rival socioeconomic interpretations of the present crisis entail substantially different political programs.

        The tagline we chose for the event may be a bit glib, but basically accurate:

        “What does it mean to interpret the world without being able to change it?”

        We’re doing different versions of this event in other chapters, as well, featuring different perspectives on the Left. In London, the panel will include David Graeber (a neo-anarchist), Saul Newman (a post-anarchist), Hillel Ticktin (a Mandelite Trotskyist), and James Woudhuysen (I don’t know how to characterize him except maybe as a left-liberal futurist). We might also be getting Anthony Iles (a communization theorist) from Mute magazine.

        There’ll be one in Chicago quite soon as well.

  2. IMHO I think David McNally’s book is the best one in English — no, the best one I’ve read, period — on the crisis.

    That Insurgent Notes review is disingenuous crap. Of course McNally deals with Marx’s concept of exploitation. But of course, the reviewer doesn’t actually mean “exploitation”. What he means is, “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”, which is the pet theory of every tinfoil-fat catastrophist.

  3. err, tinfoil-hat, not tinfoil-fat.

  4. Robert says:

    I am not exactly sure where I am on the TRPF, to be quite honest.  I know that Heinrich doesn’t accept it as a crucial feature (granting he accepts it as operative at all – if I recall correctly his position may be that it is no longer in any way tenable), and I certainly rank his treatment of Marx near the top at the moment.  It is interesting that three of the four speakers on the Platypus flyer emphasize it as being of primary importance, while I don’t think that Harvey does.  Robert Brenner has attempted to provide an empirical basis for a decline in averages for industrial profitability throughout the 20th century, specifically.  The “Monthly Review School” (Foster, McChesney, Magdoff), as well as Panitch and Gindin (very convincingly in their latest book) all seem to claim, in line with Capital Vol. 3, that it is a tendency which must be treated as balanced, or even “paralyzed,” by the counter-tendency of overaccumulation (for Panitch and Gindin, the latter has more than compensated for any apparent drop in industrial profitability), while Fred Moseley argues that an increase of unproductive labor relative to productive labor has been the key factor in declining rates of profit, precluding the need for a “law” which would be necessary for explaining it.  Of course, Marx is never entirely clear as to the distinction between productive and unproductive labor.  Michael Lebowitz treats it as an inherent barrier, “constantly surpassed in the course of production.” In spite of all of this, Kliman, Mattick, Goldner, Guglielmo Carchedi, (the late) Robert Kurz and Michael Roberts, among others, treat the TRPF with overwhelming emphasis and at times something approaching exclusivity.  For them it is not only secular, it is utterly insurmountable and the ur-catalyst of repeated crises, and perhaps(?) inevitable collapse.

    Please correct me if I am mistaken in my understanding in any of the above, and I apologize for the pedantic tone of such cataloging, but I do think this dispute has important ramifications.  If, for example, I am a schoolteacher, I might never have imagined myself as applying my labor power in generating surplus value.  However, Marx does use the example of the schoolmaster working as “a horse to enrich the school proprietor” in Volume I.  What if I am teaching in a public school?  While I might be part of Department I (producing means of production), my wage depends entirely upon revenue generated by taxation on profits, income and rents, therefore lumping me into Moseley’s definition of unproductive labor, and the right wing’s category of “moochers” and “takers” employed in the public sector (combining with those who derive income from social benefits to number, infamously, approximately 47% of the total working-age population).  Which is it?  

    It’s instructive that one of Goldner’s comrades wrote an assessment of the CTU strike for the latest issue of Insurgent Notes that ranged from skepticism to outright disdain regarding the struggles and accomplishments of one of the most large-scale strike actions to occur in the U.S. in over a decade.  The author, John Garvey, begins by distinguishing himself from what he calls the “ordinary left” (which, to my knowledge, must include every known category and faction of leftist orientation to the sole exclusion of himself).  While the analyses of the “ordinary left” have generally been supportive of the teachers’ strike, Garvey is not convinced, and seems to think that any supposed gains were made to the exclusive benefit of teachers, and at the expense of the well-being of low-income students.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is.  Likewise, it is no accident that those who claim intrinsic, endogenous, inevitable systemic failure occasionally produce programmatic conclusions in proximity to the right, lambasting anyone who doesn’t accept the TRPF as “Keynesian.”  Again, I hesitate to dismiss this position as tinfoil-hat catastrophism, and Mattick’s latest book, in particular,  is powerfully argued.  But I can’t help but think that it will tend to produce a pithy dismissal of worker’s struggles as never enough, always assuming that one Monday morning commodity production will have devoured itself without our ever having noticed it, and we’ll all just sleep in.  

  5. Ross Wolfe,

    ” The main thing Platypus is interested in learning is whether or not rival socioeconomic interpretations of the present crisis entail substantially different political programs.”

    I thought the main thing you guys were interested in was trying to creative a discursive space for German and Austrian Neo-Conservatism within the Anglo-American left.

    Please tell us again how people’s humane concerns about a regime of military occupation of a civilian population by a nuclear power is evidence of “reactionary anti-capitalism.”

    P.S. In case I haven’t been clear: fuck you.

    • HR says:

      There are some good points on Playtpus’s position in this http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/932/not-part-of-the-left. Do you know of any other good stuff in english on the bizarre fuckin phenomena that the anti-germans seem to be?

      • Yeah, I thought that Weekly Worker article was OK in terms of its overall political intent, but I think it paints a misleading portrait of the actual situation.

        As I’ve stated before, in the year 2012, the Anti-Germans are basically irrelevant and nearly forgotten phenomenon here. Between around 2002-2005 there was a process of leave-taking between “the left” and Anti-Germans. But the Weekly Worker article makes it seem like Anti-Germans are still somehow important, because it confuses Anti-Germans as a political tendency with apologetics for Israel, which is moderately widespread in the left in Germany (at least compared to most other countries).

        Also, Grigat is not a “soft” anything. He’s part of the hardest of the hardcore, the whole Bahamas milieu of Anti-Germans. “Softcore” Anti-Germans are another non-existent political milieu these days. Most of them have abandoned all the bad Sub-Adorno Poetry in favor of a generalized anti-nationalism inspired partly by the Gegenstandpunkt analysis.

        On sources in English, pretty much everything I’ve seen is crap and/or superficial. Best things available in Geman are Bernhard Schmid’s historical overview and Patrick Hagen’s undergrad thesis. I offered to translate the former for Platypus, until Cutrone openly stated their affinities with the Anti-Germans. Then I realized they aren’t dealing with this stuff in critical good faith, they want it to be a discussable position for leftists.

    • Ross Wolfe says:

      Your belligerence notwithstanding, you’ll notice that we’ve published several polemics against the Antigermans as well: Felix Baum’s “German psycho: A reply to the Initiative Sozialistisches Forum” and Chris Cutrone’s “The ‘anti-fascist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ Left: Some genealogies and prospects.” Also, before we even published Stephan Grigat’s piece on Iran, we’d secured a forthcoming response from Yasmin Mather of Hands Off Iran! and the CPGB in England.

      Our “affinities” with the Antigermans are more or less limited to the common influence of Moishe Postone upon many of our members and some of their criticisms of the wretched anti-imperialist politics of the mainstream mid-2000s Left. Every Antigerman I’ve met, besides the ones we’ve managed to rescue from Antigermanism, has been wary of the fact that we read Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky. Not to mention how outraged the Antigermans were upon our publication of Uli vom Hagen’s “Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy: A reply to Jerzy Sobotta” (upon which, ironically, one Antigerman told me “Political positions like these just should not even be granted a platform”).

      As you suggest, though, I’ve heard from several people now that Bernhard Schmid’s “Deutschlandreise auf die »Bahamas«: Vom Produkt der Linken zur neo-autoritären Sekte” is the best text out there on the subject of the Antigermans, as far as historical critiques go. Insofar as we’d like to advance a critical understanding of these disputes (not necessarily for the benefit of the Western anti-imperialist Left, but also for the benefit of the German Antigerman Left), we’d still be really interested in publishing a translation of Schmid’s text. If you’d still prefer not to translate it, that’s fine, but we’ll still probably seek out a translator.

  6. “you’ll notice that we’ve published several polemics against the Antigermans as well”

    The point is, you even regard them as an object of discussion in the English-speaking left. That is to say, about a full decade after everyone in the German left stopped caring about them, and the Anti-Germans themselves broke with the left, you are trying to artificially drum up a conversation about a marginal political movement so that people will regard positions such as support for wars or racism against Muslims as legitimate topics of debate within the left.

    At the height of their flame-out, circa 2002-2005, any English-language discussion of the Anti-Germans was limited to the travelogues of leftists visiting Germany, noting it as a bizarre curiosity. Ditto for a few articles in the Israeli press, along the lines of “get a load of these cranks.” But it is only Platypus who are making a concerted effort to continue to assert the relevance of a tendency that is long past its sell-by date in its country of origin. Why?

    Yes, I’m skeptical about your motives, especially since your guru Chris Cutrone has publicly proclaimed his affinities with the Anti-Germans. You can’t simply extricate yourself by taking a bogus position of neutrality. Anti-Germanism in its post-2001 manifestations was simply the peculiar idiosyncratic form that Neo-Conservatism took in Germany. It’s no coincidence that a lot of its intellectual forebears had long consummated the move to neo-conservatism (for example, Henryk Broder). The only difference is that for a short period, some of its proponents briefly continued to refer to themselves as “communists”, but they’ve long since stopped doing that too.

    At this point, you’re trying to artificially hold them on discursive life-support because you think their positions have a legitimate place in inner-left discussions. So stop being so disingenuous about that.

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