Last year I was approached by a Radio 4 producer to contribute some thoughts to a piece he was putting together on the rise of zombie motifs in contemporary popular culture. Could deeper socioeconomic trends explain this phenomenon, he asked?
I imagined it was a spoof, that I was being set up as part of some kind of satire on earnest commentators. But a quick Google search revealed (inevitably, perhaps) a rich sub-genre of cultural studies dedicated to deconstructing (decomposing?) zombies. Some of this was the usual cod-Freudian stuff – ‘Zombies are a symbol of our deep fear of death’ – while other pieces yoked the zombie motif to a Marcusian-style critique of consumer culture – endless gorging by the living dead – and the empty narcissism of youth-obsessed celebrity (or, for that matter, of celebrity-0bsessed youth).
My own favourite was the argument that the zombie speaks to the stagnation of contemporary capitalism; that is, that they stand as symbols of the failure of contemporary market economies to fulfil their basic promise of enabling individuals to pursue meaningful goals in life. Vast swathes of humanity, the analysis goes, are reduced to zombies status within economies that are suffering mass unemployment, falling social mobility and stagnant living standards. Some commentators go further: after the blow-out of finance capital’s debt bubbles, western capitalism itself has become a zombie, kept standing only by injections of state support. (Indeed, there is a recent Trotskyist tract entitled Zombie Capitalism, but I imagine Austro-libertarians would also have some sympathy with the argument.)
I was reminded of this radio programme this morning when reading about the two big reports that have been published today on the economy: Michael Heseltine’s growth review, and the final report of the Resolution Foundation’s Commission on Living Standards. Both are substantial pieces of work which will influence politics in the rest of this parliament. In their different but complementary ways they speak to the challenge of zombie capitalism: how do we generate sustainable growth, the fruits of which are widely and fairly shared?
Heseltine’s review is a blast from the past, a reminder of the Macmillan liberal-conservative tradition and its core belief that the state can play an active, strategic role in shaping the structure of an economy and promoting regionally balanced growth. Its recommendations primarily concern the architecture of the English state and how it relates to employers in particular. It contains a heavy dose of localism, in the shape of significant devolution of power and funding to city-regional bodies (preferably with metro-mayors in place in the large conurbations), combined with an attempt to create German-style local employer bodies out of our relatively weak chambers of commerce and a rather idiosyncratic (and ultimately contradictory) commitment to challenge funding. It will be anathema to Thatcherite Conservatives, who view Heseltine’s corporatism with disdain, and it will confirm their view that David Cameron is the Ted Heath of their generation, lacking conviction and nerve. They thought they had killed off this wing of the post-war Conservative party but, like the undead, it refuses to lie quietly.
That opens up a space for Labour and the social democrat wing of the Liberal Democrats to embrace Heseltine’s prescriptions and deepen the political shift these entail away from the UK’s post-Thatcherite political economy. And this is where the Resolution Foundation’s report comes in. Gaining from growth refuses to accept the argument that stagnant living standards for the broad mass of the population and rising inequality are inevitable feature of contemporary global capitalism, and instead spells out clear choices for policymakers if they want to advance into the terrain of boosting wages, lifting the employment rate and sharing the proceeds of growth more fairly, without recourse to rising public spending. To be sure, its analysis is more radical than its prescriptions, but that is inevitable when a commission of people from different backgrounds comes together to agree a way forward. Its political importance lies in the fact that it places the policy questions of labour’s share of growth (and inequalities within the labour share) back at the heart of policy, where they were when Michael Heseltine first left his small business behind to become a minister in Heath’s government.
Of course, mapping the terrain is one thing; advancing on it is another. These reports betoken a broader shift in our political-economic discourse that has a long way yet to go.
But it would be fitting, on this Halloween, if Michael Heseltine and the Resolution Foundation have laid a few post-Thatcherite policy zombies to rest.