Response to 'Zombie Apocalypse and How Not to End Capitalism'
originally an essay by Paresh Chandra
You can find the original essay in this link - https://radicalnotes.org/2016/05/18/zombie-apocalypse-and-how-not-to-end-capitalism/
‘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.’
In representing this new return to a beginning ushered in by the destruction of capitalism, perhaps caused by capitalism (but presumably being carried out by a resistance to it led by workers or survivors) Paresh arrives again at the coordinates which every Marxian movement has had to grapple with at some point - those of class struggle. However in citing such an example, he posits the struggle with nature as a separate level, in some ways below - if we were to think of it in terms of primitive accumulation, or beyond class struggle, as it is mobilized by nations in cases of war. At such a juncture, it seems circumspect to inquire as to whether he does not see, in class struggle itself, a struggle with nature - a circumstance which every farmer and fisherman would immediately identify with - having to be wary of factors such as the seasons, rains, produce, and livestock etc. In other words, in my reading, class struggle is the struggle between nature and human production.
As a sympathetic reader however, I am inclined to follow the kind of argument which Paresh presents here, and come across the invocation of the circumstances in which capital responds to the workers movement via the incorporation of technology, which apparently leads to a devaluation of life by capital in its pursuit of the production of surplus value, or as is misnamed by bourgeois economists - profit. The reason offered for this, as is understood by orthodox marxism, is that as the productive capacities of a factory or workshop are augmented its dependence on labour power as a component decreases.
This is a quote he offers, from Marx’s Grundrisse substantiating the point of view - “[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)”
I would like to clarify here however that Marx is referring explicitly to production from the point of view of a capitalist - i.e. the production of surplus value, which still, necessarily employs living labour as a component, in however subordinated a form to the general intellect or general scientific labour, however it is described.
Any proletarian movement, whether a guerrilla force, a workers strike, or a liberation army, would very much require to utilize the very same, if not more advanced productive practices, be it organizational or technological, were it to have any hope of reaching its ends.
There is also, in Paresh’s argument, an implicit critique which carries forth this ludic tendency, as seen in a veiled critique on the introduction of Taylorist factories in Russia - i.e. the leveraging of an economy of scale, for the extraction of quantitatively greater margins and standardizations. While this is factually correct, the ex-serfs themselves would perhaps testify to it as an improvement over the conditions of indentured labor prevalent in Imperial Russia.
In synthesizing these perspectives, the question that needs to be presented for furthering our inquiry is whether the development of the forces of production, in itself, is to be resisted by the workers movement. This, forms the unconscious background that gives Paresh’s arguments their validity and force.
At the price of speaking anecdotally, I would like the reader to know that before meeting with Paresh I was fortunate enough to have had a conversation along similar lines with the leader of Krantikari Yuva Sanghatan, Alok - who was organizing students under that banner which successfully unionized those in the School of Open learning, perhaps the most neglected faculty of the University Of Delhi. As will be apparent, irrespective of its source, while a Taylorist factory, workshop, or even floorspace, does indeed, enable the increasing specialization of the functions of the worker, removing him further away from any organic relation with his product, and hence furthering conditions of alienation, it also places these workers side by side, perhaps for the first time, in a place which allows them to witness their collective working conditions. This possibility, in itself, carries more potential for the development of class consciousness, as has historically been proved, than any peasants movement seeking concessions of a landowner, short of, of course, demanding a redistribution of land.
If one were to seek to understand the narrative of such a tendency, however it is classified, it is possible to see how this may yet be read as a resistance to subsumption - the resistance of life to subsumption, yet the point at which this resistance takes place, cuts short the possibility of any further generalization, and, ultimately does not produce a new social totality, which is capable of incorporating the masses, and the demands which such accumulated labour power requires. With each of their individual needs satisfied, the worker who has successfully resisted the modification or introduction of new technical or organizational relations, which any factory, workshop, or indeed - class has to incorporate merely to remain above water, has merely found a way to reproduce their present station in life, with perhaps the demands of increased wages. In common parlance, the worker has been gentrified and is now petty bourgeois at best.
It is here, that something indeed ought to be said about Paresh’s choice of subject matter however, the zombie apocalypse, and this is not in any way underplayed by the fact that as I write this, we still live in a world that is reeling from the effects of the coronavirus, as healthcare facilities are taxed to the breaking-point. For in a state where all forms of centralized governance breaks down, primitive accumulation indeed remains the only ‘mode’ (if a term used to describe economic models can still pertain) that represents what ultimately remains an ethnographic experience, i.e. a story of survival.
Here, again, it is important to take up, as in any study of narrative, the constitution of the plot, and particularly its presentation - which in post-apocalyptic narratives, seem always to be in the first person. The future is uncertain, and the only collective memory of the past is the event that led to its outbreak (be it a zombifying virus, a nuclear holocaust, machines taking over, etc.) This is the historicity, in drawing from Zizek’s terms, the shared hermeneutic horizon common to apocalyptic narratives where the event that found the subject of the story has already occurred.
In the spirit of friendly critique, I would like to add, that apart from the examples cited in the essay which I am responding to, films, video games and serials about the zombie apocalypse, Cloud Atlas - seems to me, to be a far truer representation of the possibility of human connection. Here, through world changing experiences, the products of labour still have a place and are put forth as a means of expressing the conditions and circumstances of a life, however briefly or ephemerally such as its sublimation into a piece of music.
In terms of the insightfulness of Paresh’s piece, I must cite his observation, drawn analogically from the film World War Z. As in the movie’s characters, capitalism may sicken itself to survive, and what is commonly referred to as crony capitalism and the practices it indicate, ranging from insider trading to fixing vacancies, etc. all do attest to this. They seem to be remarkable, particularly as it forms such a stable metaphor with how survival in that film takes place. Its structure however, is not novel and is similar to how any vaccine functions, (even if we take the analogy of a virus and a mode of production as a structural analogy). More worryingly however, the model of sickening oneself to survive, with its analogy of the human body to the relations of production, reeks of organicist myths regarding the relation of the subject to society. The fetishism involved with the king’s body for instance, the elaborate burial procedures of the pharaohs, and indeed, closer home, the myth of the origin of the varna system, of castes arising from the head, arms, and feet of Bramha (the Hindu creator god) - a zombieque origin story if there ever was one.
Yet, in depicting what is a zombie Paresh takes up the question which seems pointedly theological, and which is perhaps the one constituent which a zombie does not have, which separates them from the human - the soul, which here, to strip it of its religious connotations, I will use synonymously with self-consciousness. This predicament of the zombie, is described citing material from the history of American cinema (Romero etc.) and is read as a metaphor, or analogy of the situation of the subject under the conditions of ‘semiocapitalism’ a term used by Berardi, seeming to signify the mode in which the cognitariat experiences and engages with the world around them. Fascinating linguistic innovations to be sure, which as terms are used to describe the kind of white collar occupations which proliferate in industrialized societies today. All linguistic innovations serve the possibility of forming alliances or at least possibilities of correspondence between classes, these conditions do strongly resemble what have been covered in perhaps more classically Althusserian terms under the rubric of subsumption and overdetermination. Quoting Paresh - “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?).”
What is really at stake here, from a philosophical point of view is the question of agency and in what form it appears and can be exercised by a subject under the conditions of capitalism, - surely the beginning of any conception of revolutionary subjectivity.
Here, for doctrinal reasons, I find it important to posit a distance from Berardi who seems to offer a fatalistic position which forsakes any possibility of the imagining, if not the conception of a totality beyond capitalism. Here is a quote from the essay which draws from Berardi’s position - “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).”
However, is not representations of the zombie apocalypse itself, often drawing from science fiction, furthermore, representations of any apocalypse, which tend to draw from occurrences where there is a malfunction in the system of representations which we use to organize the world around us, the technologies of power, detection, etc - do they not correspond to our attempt at precisely imagining such an ‘inconceivable’ horizon? Here, and perhaps even in the poem which looks back in memory, the sonnet which calls to a future - and other such things, we find instances of utopian longing, which is perhaps the deepest root of our cultural constructions (if not language itself). Perhaps in such circumstances, a reader would be well served to take up Lukacs' study of the historical novel and its attempt at putting together the idea of a totality in the way the myth did for an earlier age, yet, to my mind - and perhaps in consonance with Paresh - this is not a matter of scale.
It is hence not unrelated when I attempt a close reading of the predicament presented before us - “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.” As appreciable as the observations regarding the form and mechanism of a virus as the delivery agent which sparks the plot in such narratives may be, the last line and its invocation of ‘machinery’ is revealing. What is referred to here is the capitalist machinery, the forces of production, and at a contemporary political level, what was once knows as the state apparatus - which seems to carry on, like an automaton driven by a will of its own, independent of the requirements that its constituent populace, which it was designed to serve - a paradox regarding the bureaucracy which Kafka has well depicted.
The secret, or rather the bitter yet open truth is that the machine was always dead. The inertia which keeps the bureaucracy running, the various halts and setbacks in legislation, strikes, and even direct violence - such actions do have their metaphysical correlate, their impetus, their cause - in class interest. This, if nothing else has been the findings and the conviction which has held Marxist theoreticians together over the years.
In such a moment, I would like to state that it is well and good to speak of the autonomy of the worker, yet I would like to cite a question which someone mentioned at the beginning of Paresh’s essay once put forth (Zizek) - ‘free to do what?’ When freedom is invoked as merely the freedom of the market, to buy the commodities that are on for sale, then you know that you are effectively a receptacle, a means of furthering an exchange. The fatalism which the likes of Berardi posit in their representations of life, as well as the implicit luddic tendency I have detected in the essay presented are signs of a superstructural resistance to advancements in the mode of production - this being the mode a reactionary discourse has always employed in ‘seeking to pull the handbrake on history’ as Benjamin once put it, in what was not his finest hour.
What I yet admire in the presentation provided is the fact that we can yet witness, even in drawing on instances as far removed from the travails of everyday discourse, the markers of antagonism that animate the Indian climate, itself a nation among many in the world. That is the alienation between forms of labour - which Paresh’s diagnosis identifies in the duality of the cognitariat and the zombie - one who gives his mind to capitalism, to sustain his body, and the other who is only a body, driven by instincts and drives - tailored to spread a virus, introduce a pathogen, or perhaps market a commodity.
In concluding, however, there appears to be a shift in accent in the essay, where at one point, it appeared to me as it were, to be abandoning any political conception of the totality, a totality yet appears in a duality which is now no longer in terms of the body, but in terms of political discourses - capitalist and anti-capitalist.
“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 (which) is produced, (is) 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?”
As with dualities of this nature, which I deem simplistic, I think an element which has been the focus almost throughout is suddenly left out, jettisoned through the back door as it were - plot and with it, narrative. For I do not think there can be any prescription about the politics of a discourse without taking into account its historicity. Is for instance, a university professor delivering a lecture, in a classroom, with a prescribed curriculum, free? Is he overdetermined? He is paid a wage for the services he renders to an institution, designed to impart ‘education’ - perhaps the most commodified element in our world today, yet does this make him a capitalist?
What of the student? Do the circumstances of her or his being there, the kind of family they come from, whether they receive a scholarship or not, whether their inquiry is in consonance with the department, do these matters effect and are they taken into account in the assessments delivered by faculty? Articulating the positions one speaks from is not the same as taking into account that which is articulated - and the name for that, as known by literary scholars is narrative. It is important not to reify the positions of ‘capitalist’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ to the point where they become mere algebraic signs which can be used to represent any tendential moment - for politics, like historical change, like the formation of a genre, requires consistency, if nothing for it to be recognizable.
Besides, is it not in the human capacity to recognize similarities, in works of art, narrative and images - and form from these, explanations, analogies, indeed - theories of how the future is and has been envisioned? Indeed - how it may yet still be possible to think a future which is not determined by the coordinates of capitalist relations? The representations of the ecological crises cited, are of course, a pressing concern and do spur artistic and political representations of possible interventions - but it is indeed rather sad, as has been observed by Jameson - that questions such as the minimum number of working hours required to provide for our wellbeing, are no longer theoretical questions of interest.
A pragmatist may argue, that perhaps a more pressing concern is the neoliberal assault on our public healthcare system and educational services, and here, I would like to add that it is not difficult to imagine a condition where the ownership of resources reaches such a point, and bureaucracy so cumbersome that hospitals are unable to provide oxygen to patients in their wards due to a lack of supply (as happened not long ago in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). I would end in concurrence that the real danger is indeed in buying into the narrative of a possibility of saving ‘capitalism with a human face’ - whether in the guise of ecological issues, which are indeed pertinent but cannot be thought independently of the mode of production, or in the guise of any religious or historical nostalgia, however evocative such categories may be towards the forming of nostalgias.