February 8, 2009

Zombie Economy

I was at Chapters on Friday to pick up some zombie-related literature, when what should I see on display at the cash register but the new issue of The Economist. It was the cover that caught my eye.

The Economist (Feb 7th, 2009 print edition)
Cover Illustration by Jon Berkeley

If you ever needed any proof that zombies are now a palpable part of the cultural imagination, look no further. The article represented by the cover illustration, "The return of economic nationalism," argues that economic nationalism (the urge to keep jobs and capital at home) is starting to claw its way out of the dirt of America's Depression-era history, and the writers of the article advocate for its re-burial to save not only America's economy but that of the whole world.

EDIT: While writing about the cover for The Economist, I came across an article from across the pond which also invokes the symbol of the zombie to talk about economics.

The Market Oracle
website has published an article called "Is Zombie Economicus Coming" by Vladimer Papava. It describes how the global recession is prompting governments to increase their support of failing financial institutions through funding and bailouts. According to Papava, this could turn the economy into a zombie economy:
Obviously, [a recession] makes governments feel politically uncomfortable and so they tend to provide financial assistance to such companies so that they could survive and avoid lay-offs. . . . This is exactly how dead companies and banks come back to life. In other words, it is the creation of zombie companies and zombie banks which, in their turn, make up a whole system of a zombie economy
In turn, the writer argues that dead firms and companies must remain dead because, in a zombie economy, dead institutions will infect all "healthy" people and systems that rely upon it. The people and the taxpayers become what the writer calls Zombie Economicus:

A Zombie Economicus has no motivation to raise profits. His only goal is to survive and maintain his existence.

A Zombie Economicus working in a zombie firm knows that he has a permanent credit line in a zombie bank where other Zombie Economicus like him work and that this zombie counterpart will give him credits without any hesitation.

A Zombie Economicus working in a zombie bank, in turn, knows that the other zombies working in the government will assure his deposits and that financial support from the national budget will be unconditionally guaranteed.

Since Papava's article comes from a very pro-profit, pro-capitalist perspective, it is an interesting twist on the invocation of zombies for economic criticism that we don't usually see in zombie discourse and entertainment.

More about Papava's article after the jump

Unlike Papava's article, zombie-themed media, such as the Romero dead series, the video game Dead Rising, and the recent Dead Set miniseries in the UK, tends to invoke the zombie to criticize the functions of capitalism as a social system turning its people into empty shells for unproductive, joyless consumption. For example, in CAPCOM's Dead Rising, zombies are created by a genetically engineered parasite originally manipulated to increase meat production in South America for North American human consumption; therefore, the creation of zombies is a direct result of a capitalist system's search for profits. It is the people who pay the price and are turned into corpses so that the system can live and grow. The hunger of the zombie is meant to mirror the hunger of capitalism.

Although John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is not a zombie novel (but there's an idea: zombies during the Great Deperssion -- The Zombies of Wrath!), Steinbeck's novel reminds me of zombie films in the way it describes capitalism as a beast that has enslaved the banks and companies to fulfill its hunger for profits:
The Bank --or the company--needs--wants--insists--must have--as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These [employees] would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. . . . A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that . . . . But--you see, a bank or company can't do that, because those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat" (Steinbeck 43)
Papava, however, is not horrified or disturbed by the economy that must digest profits. Instead, his nightmare is the economy that has starved and died from lack of profits but still exists as an undead institution. The prospect of an economy that is NOT profit driven -- the zombie economy -- worries him in a way that the consumptive society of the 1970s must have worried George A. Romero while writing Dawn of the Dead. For Romero, the man or woman with no motivation other than consumption to maintain his or her own existence is a zombie, whereas Papava suggests a man or woman with motivation to raise profits is disturbing.

Not surprisingly, Papava's ideas are touched by his experience living in the Soviet Union and witnessing the collapse of its economy, which he analyzes in the book Necroeconomics (iUniverse: 2005).

What I find more interesting, however, is how times of economic hardship (the great depression or the current recession) bring to light differing views of the economy as monster. For some, if the drive for profits is too strong, the economy is a monster. For others, if its drive for profits are not strong enough, the economy is a monster.


Steinbeck, John.
The Grapes of Wrath (1939). New York: Viking Press, 1962.