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The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.4 (2002) 779-805

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Zombies, Immigrants, and Millennial Capitalism

Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff

Productive labor—or even production in general—no longer appears as the pillar that defines and sustains capitalist social organization. Production is given an objective quality, as if the capitalist system were a machine that marched forward of its own accord, without labor, a capitalist automaton.

—Michael Hardt, "The Withering of Civil Society"

Automaton, n. Thing imbued with spontaneous motion; living being viewed materially; piece of machinery with concealed motive power; living being whose actions are involuntary or without active intelligence.

Oxford English Dictionary


What might zombies have to do with the implosion of neoliberal capitalism at the end of the twentieth century? What might they have to do with postcolonial, postrevolutionary nationalism? With labor history? With the "crisis" of the modernist nation-state? Why are these spectral, floating signifiers making an appearance in epic, epidemic proportions in several parts of Africa just now? And why have immigrants—those wanderers in pursuit of work, whose proper place [End Page 779] is always elsewhere—become pariah citizens of a global order in which, paradoxically, old borders are said everywhere to be dissolving? What, if anything, do they have to do with the living dead? What, indeed, do any of these things, which bear the distinct taint of exoticism, tell us about the hard-edged material, cultural, epistemic realities of our times? Indeed, why pose such apparently perverse questions at all when our social world abounds with practical problems of immediate, unremitting gravitas?

So much for the questions. We shall cycle slowly back toward their answers. Let us move, first, from the interrogative to the indicative, from the conundrums with which we shall be concerned to the circumstances whence they arise.

Spectral Capital, Capitalist Speculation:
From Production to Consumption

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries consumption was the hallmark illness of the First Coming of Capitalism; of the industrial age in which the ecological conditions of production, its consuming passions, ate up the bodies of producers. 1 By the end of the twentieth, semantically transposed into another key, it had become, in the words of Wim van Binsbergen and Peter Geschiere, the "hallmark of modernity." 2 Of its wealth, health, and vitality. Too vast a generalization? Maybe. But the claim captures popular imaginings, and their mass-media representation, from across the planet. It also resonates with the growing Eurocultural truism that the (post)modern person is a subject made by means of objects. Nor is this surprising. Consumption, in its ideological guise—as consumerism—refers to a material sensibility actively cultivated, ostensibly for the common good, by Western states and commercial interests, particularly since World War II. 3 In social theory, as well, it has become a prime mover, the force that determines definitions of value, the construction of identities, even the shape of the global ecumene. 4 As such, tellingly, it is the invisible hand that animates the political and material imperatives, and the social forms, of the Second Coming of Capitalism; of capitalism in its neoliberal, global manifestation. Note the image: the invisible hand. It recalls a moving spirit of older vintage, a numinous force that dates back to the Time of Adam. Adam Smith, that is. Gone is the deus ex machina, a figure too mechanistic, too industrial for the post-Fordist era.

As consumption has become the moving spirit of the late twentieth century, so there has been a concomitant eclipse of production; an eclipse, at [End Page 780] least, of its perceived salience for the wealth of nations. With this has come a widespread shift, across the world, in ordinary understandings of the nature of capitalism. The workplace and honest labor, especially work-and-place securely rooted in local community, are no longer prime sites for the creation of value. On the contrary, the factory and the workshop, far from secure centers of fabrication and family income, are increasingly experienced by virtue of their closure: either by their removal to somewhere...


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