Oct 242012
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Popular symbols may signal serious economic, environmental problems.

by Penney Kome

With Halloween approaching, I’ve been mulling over the modern infatuation with zombies and vampires. Halloween is supposedly the time when the walls between dimensions thin, and monsters can slip into our world. But I'm wondering why these new monsters are on the ascendant. Okay, adolescents have often pondered death. Goths have a certain slightly menacing charm. Still, today’s youth seem to have a genuine affection for zombies. “If you were a zombie, I’d let you eat my brains,” said one Facebook post. What does this signify?

Cartoonist Gahan Wilson once explained on Peter Gzowski’s short-lived TV talk show that the monsters he drew (in comic situations) resonated with audiences because “everyone feels like a monster sometimes.”  And there may be times that any one of us feels like the original Haitian zombies, summoned from our rest to perform unpleasant duties for our masters.

The new Gen X and GenY zombies are an entirely new kind of monster that we can date precisely. They were invented for George Romero’s 1968 movie, Night of the Living Dead, and its many sequels.  According to the Zombie Research Blog, “The modern zombie is a relentlessly aggressive, reanimated human corpse driven by a biological infection.”

Another generation difference is that, bizarrely, modern zombies are sexy. Sexy, and dead, with fake blood smeared all over them. Female zombies seem to wear scanty French maids’ uniforms, although the ones I saw at the local Zombie Crawl that crossed paths with the Occupy march were shivering in Calgary’s cold.

A strong case can be made that the North American economy survives by preying on young people.

Modern horror memes also bring modern conundrums. The nicely groomed and carefully co-ordinated young woman next to me at the bank, a skull-strewn scarf casually around her neck — is she Goth? Her make-up isn’t. Or is she part of something larger?

Gory images seem to be everywhere these days. Vodka comes in skull-shaped bottles. Forensic autopsies dominate TV. Walking Dead shamble through TV series and every kind of B movie sound stage. Teenage girls swoon, not over Prince Charming, but over vampires and werewolves.  One household I visited sometimes had horror movies on constantly. They lived their whole lives to the soundtrack of people screaming. What the heck is going on?

Analyzing social trends can be tricky.  Let’s suppose there is a collective subconscious and that symbols are spilling up out of it. In an age of anxiety, there are realistic reasons to think that anyone you meet could become infected (that is, desperate) and turn on you.

One candidate for Walking Dead might be the world economy, which lumbers on somehow even though it's been weak for years and crashed and flatlined in 2008.  Governments have made few real changes to correct the conditions which caused the disaster.  While Canada has been spared the housing devastation that affects so much of the US, all around the world, liquidity is frozen, interest rates stagnant, and unemployment high.  

Our rulers have ploughed untold billions of dollars into the global economy to keep it afloat, leaving us with lumbering, unstable and dangerous “zombie capitalism.”

Jonny Jones’ Socialist Review report on the book Zombie Capitalism explains the book’s title thusly, “Like the wild-eyed Dr Frankenstein channelling electricity through his creation to give it life, our rulers have ploughed untold billions of dollars into the global economy to keep it afloat, leaving us with lumbering, unstable and dangerous ‘zombie capitalism’, threatening not only crises and war but the environmental destruction of the planet.”

Indeed, a strong case can be made that the North American economy survives by preying on young people — robbing them of their hours in precarious, underpaid, inconsequential work, and  eating their brains, by requiring expensive university degrees that turn out not to be job tickets to anything better.

They can be seen as the “living labour” of whom Jonny Jones wrote: “…capital, itself the accumulation of labour performed in the past, becomes reified as a system of domination that, in Marx's words, ‘vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’". Paradoxically, when this happens, good jobs become scarce.

With industries collapsing and most sectors downsizing, young people look askance at the older people who are still holding the jobs they covet.  At this point, many Gen Xers have been waiting 20 years or more for the ever-evolving jobs market to open up to them. They’ve trained and re-trained. They’ve moved and changed fields and juggled part-time precarious work and branded themselves and social networked until they are drained, and they are still sellers in a buyer’s market.  

The job shortage has exacerbated the usual intergenerational friction. “Boomers!” said the April 2009 issue of This Magazine.  “Just die, already!”

They’re not kidding. Writer RM Vaughan explained the angst:  “I can’t think of one person from my generation who has not spent at least half of his or her adult life gainfully underemployed — typically by boomers with a third, or less, of our education and credentials.”

Or again, responding to predictions that Boomers won’t retire at 65, Vaughan bursts out, “Working ‘well beyond age 65'?? Swell. That’s great news for the economy, transnational trade, all levels of government, the civil service, the CBC, academia, the arts (I could go on here, but it’s too depressing). Seasons 30 to 40 of The Vinyl Café ought to be a riot.”

Does this wail not sound like the walking dead, starving for meaningful soul nourishment? Of course, as a Boomer I have to suggest that Vaughan’s analysis leaves a lot to be desired, especially in blaming fellow workers for decisions made much higher up the food chain. Stephen Harper's Conservatives decided Canadians should have to wait until they're 67 to claim OAS.

Boomers are angry about the job market too. We were promised jetpacks, three-day workweeks, and robots to do the housework.

And there’s the rub. Not only does the Zombie Capitalism infection start from the top, but it’s about the only thing that really does trickle down — the blinding goosestepping belief that the market needs to be free, that ultimately it’s self-correcting, even if it does occasionally turn predatory.

Many Boomers are angry about the job market too. We were promised jetpacks, three-day workweeks, and robots to do the housework. Instead, we’re working in a post-industrial age where employers have learned that the fastest way to profit from a business is to cannibalize it, downsizing the workforce until people start to break, taking out huge loans against assets, and then selling the hollowed-out shell for an increased price because it appears more profitable. For the individual worker, merit has no meaning when vulture capitalists move in for the kill.

Cannibalizing healthy companies for obscene profits: Robert Reich
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Again — the buyers learn too late that the stripped and flipped company is a Dead Company Walking.

Other horror symbols in current pop culture have older pedigrees, such as the heartthrob vampires in Twilight and True Blood. Though they ooze sexuality, these vampires are surprisingly chaste, compared to Anne Rice’s vampires or even the original Dracula.

Perhaps the modern vampires’ minds are on weightier matters, such as gold. In an age when even the Economist refers to the giant banks as “banksters”,  we have to squint only a little to see banks in the role of caped bloodsuckers, with their seductive credit cards and hidden fangs of interest rates and ever-changing fees.

I asked our son, a pop culture enthusiast and an Anthropology major,  if he sees a connection between zombies and economics. In his best scholarly tone, he pointed to the second zombie movie ever made, Dawn of the Dead, (also by George Romero), which is mainly set in a shopping mall and which is widely regarded as a spoof on rampant consumerism, eating up people’s lives.

Rampant consumerism is of course the lifeblood of capitalism. Lately, though, consumers have made strenuous efforts to take back control of transactions, through farmers’ markets, Kijiji and Craigslist, and other social changes. Practicality is one reason —  fewer people have the resources to indulge — but so is fear, as more and more people see unrestrained consumption as environmental suicide. Has any other generation lived through the extinction of so many species as the Boomers have?

Polls show high levels of environmental concern among young people. Again, it’s not much of a stretch to perceive the entire human race as zombies, motivated by mindless hunger, heedless of consequences. The monsters at the top suck the value out of all nature as well as all labour, and throw living species into their discard piles when they’re in the way.

Retailers say that Halloween is the second most popular holiday after Christmas, measured in dollars spent on decorations and supplies. The Druids would be pleased to see their New Year still observed. Even today, Pagan groups celebrate Samhein with harvest feasts.

Witches, devils, goblins, black cats, pumpkins and other Halloween images no longer scare us the way they once did.  In the merriment of Halloween, we’d be wise to take just a moment and consider the new monsters we’ve created and what they mean for us.

About Penney Kome

Penney Kome is an award-winning author and journalist who has published six books with major publishers. She is also the Editor of Straight Goods. She is co-editor with Patrick Crean of Peace: A Dream Unfolding (1986, Sierra Club Books). She started marching against the atomic bomb when the placards were taller than she was, and she emigrated from the US to Canada in protest against the war in Vietnam.

© Copyright 2012 Penney Kome, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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