Zombie and Demos | Alex Taek-Gwang Lee

by Critical Asia

by Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, June 2021】

The Korean zombie craze suddenly starts to attract global attention. Train to Busan (2016) was its beginning point, and this trend culminated due to the extreme fascination with the Netflix series Kingdom (2019). The zombie genre is not popular in Asian countries, even to this day, whereas ghost stories have still dominated the mainstream cultural market. Contrary to ghost fantasy, which is rather based on the romantic imagination, the logic of the zombie genre is more inclined to science fiction. There are always scientific reasons for the genesis of zombies, such as radioactive repercussions, viral pandemics, chemical pollution, etc. Scientific knowledge is usually applied to link zombies and their conditions in these fictional narratives.

Another reason for the Asian indifference to the Hollywood genre would be its political rhetoric, which is not yet adaptable to the “Asiatic mode of production.” Since George A. Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead (1968), a zombie has served as a popular allegory for the critique of so-called “late capitalism.” The genre as such waned for a while but was widely revived in the 1990s, growing in popularity after the rise of video games such as Resident Evil and The House of the Dead. Zombies, the colonial otherness of the non-Europe, then turned the monstrous figure of consumerism and its unstoppable greed. In Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero’s sequel to Night of the Living Dead, a shopping mall is described as the hell of cannibalistic capitalism, in which the living dead walks around without agency. A zombie is not the only horrific figure to remind us of the cruel reality of capitalism.

Meanwhile, Karl Marx was glad to use the metaphor of a vampire to portray the capitalist exploitation of the working class. He said that “capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”[1] Marx’s metaphor of the vampire also indicated the imperialist expansion of the European bourgeoisie to the other territories and the reproduction of their mirror images all over the non-Europeans. This lifeforce-draining lust for self-cloning is the essence of the vampire-like capitalists, which Bram Stoker described well in his novel Dracula. After being captured by the immortal creature, Mina became like Count Dracula in the story. Vampires transfuse their blood into a victim by sucking their blood. The purpose of their survival is the spread of their species. In a similar manner, the self-replication of a bourgeoisie like a vampire is the secret of capitalism.

Both a vampire and a zombie are the common rhetorical adaptation for criticizing capitalism, but there is an undeniable difference between them. What separates a vampire from a zombie is its aristocratic nature. A vampire is bourgeois — the colonizer — while a zombie is the working class — the colonized. That is to say, a vampire is Robinson Crusoe, yet on the other hand, a zombie is Friday. The story of a vampire is stemmed from the romantic figure of eighteen-century individualism, but the legend of a zombie was imported from the colonized Haiti. A zombie has no self and no dignity like a high-class vampire. A zombie does not exist alone but instead is described as a mob. Unlike a zombie, a vampire is ascribed to its mythological origin.  

I would say that a vampire is an economic metaphor, whereas a zombie is a political allegory, the incarnation of baroque melancholia in Walter Benjamin’s sense. The allegory of a zombie can be grasped as Trauerspiel, the mourning play of “baroque capitalism.” What is baroque capitalism? There has been some discussion today, which resonates with accelerationism, regarding the high capitalist style as the social progress to leverage the capitalist mode of production and then transcend the limit of the current economic accumulation. According to a critic like Toby Shorin, “the accelerationist movement and baroque capitalism mirror one another.” [2] The style of baroque capitalism goes beyond the modernist restrictions on form and praises the growth of capital. Its stylish realization comes to a climax in the flamboyant decorations of architecture like the Trump building. In this sense, baroque capitalism is “the aesthetic which allows the unchallenged domination of capital to best express itself, presenting itself at its highest level of accumulation, as pure generative and expressive force, freed from all constraints and constrictions.”[3]

Of course, this observation of baroque capitalism would prove the partial truth of today’s “pure capitalism,” but its accelerationist point of view is problematic; the accelerationist approach to the economic accumulation is nothing else than the aestheticization of capitalism as such. It would make sense if such a notion is taken for describing the crucial feature of baroque capitalism as extreme aestheticism. However, the aesthetic exercise is always paired with the practice of political economy. The aesthetic aspect of baroque capitalism is the ideological apparatus to control labor power. Capitalist accumulation is impossible if there is no living labor. This living labor is an actual worker alive in time. Therefore, the blood for the voracious appetite of the capitalist vampire is “surplus labor-time,” and only then can the metaphor of a vampire be an adequate trope for explaining the capitalist exploitation of labor. On the contrary to the accelerationist presupposition, capitalism cannot express itself fully without a worker’s blood, i.e., surplus labor-time.

Marx says that “wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the worker, free or unfree, must add to the labor-time necessary for his own maintenance an extra quantity of labor-time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owner of the means of production.”[4] There is no capitalist who is willing to make up for the surplus labor-time. Marx’s analysis of the working day reveals how even baroque capitalism controls the workplace and then profits from the individual workers. For this reason, the acceleration of its productive force cannot get over the limit of capitalist accumulation. The edge of capitalism lies in the proletariat, not the bourgeoisie, in this sense. All variations of the early capitalist mode of production, such as cognitive capitalism and surveillance capitalism, emerge from the strategic modification of the surplus labor-time exploitation. Once leaving the workplace, a worker turns to be a consumer, and two modes of existence constitute the ambiguity of baroque capitalism.

Here, I would like to take the term “baroque” to recall the original meaning of Catholic dispositif, the implosion of its logic from within. Benjamin’s concept of Trauerspiel could be grasped as the ruined form of the religious propaganda. In the melancholic drama, there is no God, but only the undead, i.e., the spectre of father and the haunted son, as in the case of Hamlet. Baroque capitalism is the aestheticization of its vampire-like accumulation, which transforms a worker into a zombie. A zombie is the embodiment of melancholia and the theatricalization of the capitalist ontology.

The theme of a zombie is the return of the medieval macabre, the eschatological symbol of death, yet a melancholic character because it cannot die. What is absent in the modern macabre is ironically the death itself. This deathlessness of the undead is what Slavoj Žižek calls the death drive. However, the existence of the zombies as allegory gains political implication beyond its symbolic logic. Unlike the metaphor of a vampire, which romanticizes bourgeois individualism, the allegory of a zombie designates the hatred of the fallen working class and the monstrosity of pure capitalism.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari correctly point out that “the myth of the zombie, of the living dead, is a work myth and not a war myth.”[5] The war machine settled in the capitalist State — i.e., the police and the military — endlessly produce the zombies, and the zombie-like mode of existence is “a necessary condition of the State apparatus and the organization of work.”[6] More interestingly, the recent Korean zombie genre, such as Train to Busan and Kingdom, describes the State as the venue where the constant civil war mutilates people and renders them crippled. Far from the Hobbesian presupposition, this allegorical intervention into realpolitik reveals that the State is not guaranteed by the secured social contract but sustained by the dramatization of the zombie myth, i.e., the politics of fear. In my view, the representation of the Korean zombies emphasizes the site of high capitalism where the baroque allegory plays. Zombies are the dismembered demos, the juridically policed capacity, who has no part in the State. The traditional goal of capitalism was to reproduce a bourgeois vampire, but today’s capitalism does not breed the bloodsucker. The aestheticization of the current capitalist accumulation is designed to suppress the eruption of demos by continuously invoking the hideous zombies as the fear of the civil war. However, the unstoppable hunger of the ruined working class cannot be fulfilled by this propaganda because of its primal scene, the repression of the death drive, unless the baroque allegory turns to be realized as an event.

Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, Kyung Hee University, South Korea


[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1., trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 343.

[2] Toby Shorin, “Haute Baroque Capitalism,” Subpixel Space, April 11, 2017. https://subpixel.space/entries/haute-baroque-capitalism/

[3] Flavio Pintarelli, “Louis Vuitton, Baroque Capitalism and the End of the World.” Domus. July 04, 2019. https://www.domusweb.it/en/opinion/2019/07/03/louis-vuitton-baroque-capitalism-and-the-end-of-the-world.html

[4] Marx, Capital, vol.1., p. 344.

[5] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia II, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 447.

[6] Ibid.

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