Opinion

Felix Salmon

Barack Obama vs zombies

Felix Salmon
Oct 16, 2013 15:50 UTC

There’s a strain of triumphalism coursing through the blogosphere today, on the grounds that the bonkers wing of the Republican party is going to have achieved exactly none of its own goals, while inflicting upon itself a massive black eye. The markets are feeling vindicated too: over the past week of DC craziness, the stock market has risen, pretty steadily, a total of about 2.5%. As a trading strategy, “tune out all news from inside the Beltway” seems to have worked very well — it’s a complete vindication of the Nassim Taleb idea that investors shouldn’t read the newspaper. On top of that, the potential debt default was by its nature almost impossible to trade: outside a few obscure instruments like US CDS, it’s very difficult to make money from a trade betting that tails are going to get fatter, for a short while.

But as a feeling of relief courses through Washington and the markets, let’s not get carried away. Yes, as Jonathan Chait says, it’s very good news that the House Republicans’ plan collapsed. But the can hasn’t been kicked very far down the road: we’re going to hit the debt ceiling again in just a few short months. And at that point, one of two things will happen. Either the Republicans, licking their self-inflicted wounds from the current fiasco, will quietly and efficiently pass a bill while getting nothing in return. Or, in the spirit of “if at first you don’t succeed”, they will try, try again.

Joe Weisenthal, like Chait, is hopefully eyeing the first possibility.

And Chait himself goes even further:

We can’t be certain Republicans will never hold the debt ceiling hostage again; but Obama has now held firm twice in a row, and if he hasn’t completely crushed the Republican expectation that they can extract a ransom, he has badly damaged it. Threatening to breach the debt ceiling and failing to win a prize is costly behavior for Congress — you anger business and lose face with your supporters when you capitulate. As soon as Republicans come to believe they can’t win, they’ll stop playing.

The problem is that, pace Weisenthal, you can’t just kill someone’s revolutionary nihilism. The Ted Cruz “filibuster” is a great example: it served no actual legislative purpose, and at the end of his idiotically long speech, Cruz ended up voting yes on the very bill he was trying to kill. That’s zombie politics, and the problem with zombies is that — being dead already — they’re incredibly hard to kill.

The point here is that the zombie army, a/k/a the Tea Party, is a movement, not a person — and it’s an aggressively anti-logical movement, at that. You can’t negotiate with a zombie — and neither can you wheel out some kind of clever syllogism which will convince a group of revolutionary nihilists that it’s a bad idea to get into a fight if you’re reasonably convinced that you’re going to lose it. Spoiler alert: it turns out that Ed Norton was beating up himself, all along. When you’re Really Angry, sometimes losing a big fight against The Man is exactly what you feel like doing.

This is why Michael Casey is right: the US should be downgraded. Zombies have taken over a large chunk of the Capitol, and there’s no particular reason to believe that they’re going away any time soon. We will have more sequesters, and more shutdowns, and more debt-ceiling fights, and eventually, in a statistical inevitability, we will fail to find some kind of way through the mess. Besides, as Casey says, even if we do, somehow, manage to muddle through, that doesn’t change the basic underlying fact: “triple-A credits do not behave like this.”

Remember that the sequester was initially put into place as a way to force the hand of any self-interested, logical group of politicians. They had to either come to an agreement — or face an outcome which was specifically designed to be as unpalatable to as many different interest groups as possible. And yet, despite the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, the politicians squabbled until it fell. The bigger sword, the debt ceiling, has not fallen yet — but I for one have no particular faith in the ability of Congress to always prevent it from doing so.

Yes, the President has won an important battle against the zombies. But while it’s possible to win a zombie battle, it’s never possible to win a zombie war. No matter how many individual zombies you dispatch, there will always be ten more where they came from. The Tea Party doesn’t take legislative defeat as a signal that it’s doing something wrong: it takes it as a signal that nothing has really changed in Washington and that they therefore need to redouble their nihilistic efforts. Take it from me: come February, or March, or whenever we end up having to have this idiotic debt-ceiling fight all over again, the Tea Party will still be there, and will still be as crazy as ever. A bruised zombie, ultimately, is just a scarier zombie.

Update: Many thanks to Dan Drezner, who has helpfully supplied the soundtrack to this post:

COMMENT

Career politicians, not zombies, have taken over all of our government and the news media. What’s your position on Gerrymandering, Felix?

Posted by JohnOfArc | Report as abusive

The zombie apocalypse has arrived

Felix Salmon
Oct 1, 2013 13:39 UTC

Have you been involuntarily furloughed today? Are you looking for a good way to spend some of your newly freed-up time? And do you want to understand what’s really going on in Washington? In that case, I can highly recommend that you read John Powers’s brilliant article, The Political Economy of Zombies, over at The Airship.

In Powers’s view, the zombie apocalypse is less horrific than it is utopian: it’s a way to cleanse the world of its otherwise ineradicable neoliberal capitalism, and to pave the way for a much more equal post-capitalist (and post-Zombie) society. “The zombie apocalypse,” he writes, “is as close as we have come in the past 30-odd years to producing a convincing utopian vision for the future that grows out of our present circumstances.”

It was easy to see a lot of people dressed up as zombies during the Occupy protests, and Powers explains what was going on: “Zombies were not being equated with corporate capitalism – they had become the revolution itself. Zombies had become the alternative to the system with no alternative.” Powers quotes anarchist economist David Graeber as saying that neoliberalism has “succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism – and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semi-feudal capitalism we happen to have right now – is the only viable economic system.”

And he also quotes (of course) Slavoj Zizek:

Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world – an asteroid destroying all of life and so on – but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.

And then he explains why zombies have become such a common theme in popular culture:

For movie audiences, the mainstream, the 99%, catastrophes aren’t something to dread; they are something to look forward to. They are a catharsis, a conceptual clearing of the deck. They are the implosion of the banking towers at the end of Fight Club, they are the destruction of the White House in Independence Day, they are the wholesale destruction of the entire global map in 2012.

Powers dates the era of utopian zombiedom to the release of 28 Days Later in 2002, a film which opens after the zombie apocalypse, with a scene of Cillian Murphy exploring the now-empty streets of what was formerly the capital of capitalism:

I remember seeing Boyle’s film when it came out in theaters. I went to see it, not because it was a zombie movie, but despite that. Everyone I knew was buzzing about the opening scene in London. It was that image that got me and a lot of other “not into zombies” guys and gals to go see 28 Days Later. It was that same image that got people excited to see I am Legend: It was Manhattan emptied. It was the end of buying and selling. For the majority of us who live within the capitalist system but aren’t of the neoliberal breed of capitalist, catastrophe means no more mortgage payments, no cell phone surveillance, never again having to bicker over what is or isn’t a preexisting condition. Catastrophe voids all obligation, makes the world anew.

Go read Powers’s essay for the, er, fleshed-out version of this argument: it’s well worth it. Or, just watch what Powers calls “the finest moment of all ecstatic wealth destruction in the zombie movie canon”, from Zombieland. My point is that Ted Cruz, and the Tea Party generally, are basically doing their best to play out this exact fantasy. By shutting down the government, they are destroying not a desert gift shop, but rather billions of dollars of real-world economic activity.

In doing so, the Tea Party is proving that it, truly, is the party of the 99% — of the masses who thrill to zombie movies, who fantasize about living in a post-zombie utopia, who understand that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. We live in a country where the best way to ensure blockbuster status for your summer movie is to blow up as much stuff as possible — a building, a city, the entire world. Highbrow film critics might find such wanton destruction horrific, but the typical moviegoer just finds it thrilling. And when you look at the grass roots of today’s Republican party, it’s easy to see a bunch of heavily-armed zombie hunters: today’s downtrodden masses, perfectly positioned to become tomorrow’s post-apocalyptic elite.

The Tea Party’s “tear it all down” mentality — the worldview which has shut down the government today and which could conceivably even end in debt default, if the debt ceiling isn’t raised — is not, then, the result of any particular political philosophy. I doubt that Ted Cruz spends overmuch time reading Graeber or Zizek. But it’s real, all the same. And if you think that a government shutdown somehow decreases the probability of a debt-ceiling catastrophe, it might be worth thinking again. I fear that instead it might just whet the Republicans’ appetite for more.

COMMENT

Hi Felix

You and Powers make an interesting point about the sense of catharsis people get from watching some apocalypse movies – particularly the frisson of excitement when a landmark building representing authority is destroyed.

I remember one of my old English teachers (the wonderful Peter Mackintosh – who looked like Count Dracula in his academic robes) back in 1977 getting us school children to explore similar feelings when we read Day of the Triffids (particularly the section describing shops crumbling into the streets of London) and Lord of the Flies – the sense of dread counterbalanced by a sense of wild release.

Stephen King evokes a similar fascination at the start of his epic horror novel The Stand, when he describes the rapid spread of the plague and equally rapid breakdown in civilised society. Part of us hopes it never happens and part of us takes a guilty pleasure in wondering just how (heroically) we would cope.

Cheers

@HuwSayer

Posted by HuwSayer | Report as abusive
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