Zombie Capitalism and the Building of a New Left

Interview with the Turkish Left newspaper, “Ozgur Gundem” (June 2015)

David McNally

1-) You describe the economic crisis which started in 2007 as the fourth biggest economic crisis in the history of capitalism. For a broader picture, could you explain the main characters of this crisis? What can we expect in the near future?

This crisis has exhibited all the features of a classic capitalist slump. A twenty-five year period of investment and accumulation from 1982 to 2007 produced an over-accumulation of capital – more factories, mines, shopping malls, producing and marketing goods, and more apartment buildings and houses appearing on the market than could profitably be sold. Related to this, rates of return on new investment (the profit rate) had declined. In addition, the long period of expansion had seen a financial explosion and a proliferation of new kinds of esoteric financial instruments, such as mortgage-backed securities. So, when the economy began to slow, the most over-extended banks and lenders found themselves in a severe crisis.

While the banking crisis was largely resolved in 2009—by the injection of of trillions of dollars in public funds into private banks—the underlying economic problems have largely persisted. That is why, seven years after the global slump began, we still have not seen a boom in investment and growth. The likelihood is that stagnation and low growth will continue for some time, with a number of economies falling back into recession. There is no new trajectory for sustained growth on the horizon.

 

2-) In your works you compare this crisis with 1930’s crisis and point out that for example unemployment rates. But we haven’t witnessed a massive militant working class reaction yet like in the 1930’s or 1960’s. Struggles are mostly short-lasting and quite defensive when we compare them with the struggles of last decades. What are the main reasons of this difference?

It is important to remember that the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s were a terrible time for working class movements and the Left. Fascism was on the rise and workers’ organizations were suffering large defeats. The real upsurge in working class struggle came after many years of crisis, beginning around 1936-37 with big upheavals in Spain, France and the United States in particular. Of course, not all these struggles were victorious. But they did signify a new capacity for mass resistance and self-organization.

The first seven years of this crisis have seen a similar pattern. So far, there have been few significant victories for the Left. But one big difference today from the 1930s is that the militant organizations of the working class—communist, socialist and anarchist—were considerably stronger in the 1930s than they are now, and this reflected a stronger radical culture within the working class. Today, we are confronted with a compelling need both to build real movements of resistance to austerity and neoliberalism and to rebuild a political culture of working class opposition to capitalism.

 

3-) You point out that neoliberal offensive on labor and social rights but you also highlight the ideological and cultural transformation of neoliberal offensiveness. In your last book you explain this late-capitalist aggression with interesting metaphors like zombie capitalism, monsters and vampires. Could you tell us about this?

One of the victories of neoliberalism is the way it has dampened peoples’ sense of what is possible in their lives. It has created the expectation that we can be little more than mindless labourers for giant corporations and banks. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find images of zombies everywhere in mass culture. For, neoliberal capitalism effectively tells us that we are all the walking dead, to take the name of a major US television show. It tells us that we will live a life of “dead time,” working in demoralizing jobs while we struggle to pay our bills. At the same time, subversive images of zombie uprisings are a reminder that we also secretly hope to escape these dull, dreary lives and turn the tables on the vampires who control our lives. In other words, the zombie is both a figure of our domination by capitalism—and an expression of our desires to turn the world upside down and live as real human beings.

 

4-) Your another metaphor is about Frankenstein. When I first heard the real story of Frankenstein from you I am quite impressed. Could you explain us the roots of this book and importance on your work?

The Frankenstein story, as it was originally told by Mary Shelley in 1818, is an incredibly interesting analysis of capitalism. Shelley asks us to imagine a gigantic creature, assembled from the body parts of humans and animals. Then she tells us that this creature is brought to life by means of electricity, which was emerging as a driving force in industrial production. So, we have a powerful new being, like the modern proletariat, created from the bodies of poor people and animals—one that the elite find threatening. And Shelley warns the British ruling class that, if they are not careful, this potentially dangerous creature might rebel against them and seek revenge. Of course, this is exactly what happens in her story. The brilliance of Frankenstein as a novel is that it sees the creation of the modern working class as a sort of horror story, not only for the workers but also, if the creature should revolt, for the ruling class that brought it into being.

Shelley also gives us a revolutionary image of the creature’s education in literacy and politics. He learns to read by listening to an Arab feminist read one of the greatest anti-slavery tracts of the age, C. F. Volney’s The Ruins. In this way, Shelley also informs Britain’s rulers that the adversary they have awakened is a proletariat committed to internationalism, women’s right and the struggle against slavery. It is an image of anti-racist and feminist working class politics that can still inspire the Left today.

 

5-) Inequality, rising of fascism from Europe to India, the intensive militarization of police, barbaric organisations like ISIL, global warming, food crisis etc… Is this going to be the background of zombie capitalism?

Yes, I think this will be the background—unless or until radical socialist movements create a new direction for humanity. Capitalism today increasingly breeds inequality, war, environmental disasters, and sectarian resistances that mimic imperialist practices. I think this is the “new normal” in an age of austerity and crisis. And that is why building mass movements and organizations of a new left is so urgent and important.

 

6-) We have seen quite strong protests against neoliberalism in recent years like Seattle, Arab Spring, OWS, South America etc. But these movements mostly failed. What do you think about this? What were the main reasons of this failure?

The existence of these movements is important, as they remind us that there is a strong desire for alternatives to the current system. But they have all emerged after nearly forty years of retreats and defeats for working class and socialist movements. As a result, these movements have had a very difficult time sustaining themselves and growing once the first serious challenges and difficulties emerge. One of the political successes of neoliberalism is to have dramatically reduced the core of experienced radical organizers who see the need for long-term movement building to change the world. One of the tasks of the Left in this period is to create political spaces in which a new generation of radical organizers can develop. This means building new institutions of a radical left—enduring organizations and movements, spaces for popular education, assemblies for democratic self-organization, cultural institutions, and so on. Without this network of radical institutions that can nourish a new and growing wave of organizers on the left, it will be very difficult for sustained anti-capitalist organizing to expand and develop.

 

7-) Against neoliberalism you suggest a strong radical democracy program but for you a radical democratic program should based on strong economic roots. Could you explain this a little more?

I believe that radical democracy is essential to any “socialism for the twenty-first century.” We need to develop new forms of grassroots popular power in neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools, based on mass assemblies, all of which are capable of linking together into accountable systems of democratic self-government. But you cannot have real self-government if people do not have control over the economic relations in their society, especially over production, distribution and finance. We can see this problem in Greece at the moment, where the SYRIZA government has a popular mandate to end austerity, but they do not have the economic means, particularly the control over finance, that would make this possible. More than this, a new society must mean that democracy penetrates all important aspects of life, such as our work relations. And this is only possible if people have power over the economic resources and relations of their society.

 

😎 Last of all I would like to get your opinions on organisation. You are a strong advocate of unity on the left and (if I am wrong please correct me) once you even suggested a united organisation for anarchists and marxists. We talk a lot about unity too and Kurdish and Turkish revolutionary forces trying to build a united party as well. But what should be done for a wide but also strong anticapitalist party? Also of course I would like to learn your opinions on SYRIZA and Podemos on this matter.

I certainly favour unity on the Left. I believe we need to find ways of establishing more credible radical left organizations that can begin to play a meaningful role in everyday political life. This means overcoming differences on small and secondary matters. It means trying to establish a basis on which thousands of people on the left, notwithstanding real differences that will need to be clarified over time, can work together against neoliberalism, to build working class resistance, to raise anti-capitalist analysis. Of course, there will be “purists” who refuse to associate with other forces of the left. But we need to determine who is prepared to come together around a basic program of building a mass anti-capitalist working class movement, and to agree upon some basic political and organizational principles that will make this possible.

Will there be sharp debates along the way to creating such organizations, and again after they have been created? Yes, absolutely. But developing a political culture of democratic debate, discussion and self-education is an indispensable part of building a new left. And that is much more challenging and exciting than squabbling among small revolutionary groups.

The Greek project of building SYRIZA is one approach to what I am discussing. I believe that forces on the radical left, many of them grouped today in the Left Platform of SYRIZA, were correct to become part of that project. It allowed them to break out of the world of small-circle politics and test their ideas in a much more important arena, one involving masses of people. That does not magically eliminate difficulties. The recent economic agreements between the SYRIZA government and the “troika” are a huge problem, and there is a danger that the SYRIZA government could end up promoting a “soft” form of austerity. But at least the left in SYRIZA, having developed some credibility within working class circles, might be able to get a real hearing as it tries to push things in a radical direction.

Of course, if you are simply satisfied with having a “correct line,” even if no one listens to you, then you can remain content with “I told you so” politics. Then you can say, “I told you SYRIZA would sell out,” or “I told you we need a revolution.” But that approach will never create a mass socialist left. That is why, after forty years of defeats, we need to gamble on new approaches, new political experiments that have at least a small possibility of reconnecting revolutionary socialism with sections of the working class.

The same attitude should apply, I think, to the emergence of Podemos in Spain. It is much better for radical leftists to try to work inside that movement in order to influence its development, than to stand on the outside. This does not mean that we should not fully and clearly express our concerns about particular developments in such parties. We should be clear and forceful in our anti-capitalism, and in our belief that we will need a real rupture from capitalist social relations if we are build a more democratic and just society.

But wherever the Left has the opportunity today to start emerging from the margins, we must seize those opportunities. We need to learn how to be a part of real mass movements and mass organizations, with all the contradictions that involves. As the global economic slump drags on year after year, along with the suffering it brings, we will need creativity and audacity if the socialist left is to have any chance of influencing political events in the years ahead.