The dangerous 'zombie identities' of those left behind by global capitalism

As capital moves around the globe it leaves behind a trail of 'zombie identities' seeking to recover their former status and meaning. 

Kristian Thorup
4 December 2016

Motor City Industrial Park. Alaina Buzas/Flickr. Some rights reserved.In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election it was clear that Donald Trump's victory relied heavily on the white working class vote. It's well-known that his rhetoric and ideology resonates especially well with this class as he speaks effectively to the feelings and experiences of the victims of a more and more globalised economy and the subsequent decline of the American manufacturing industry.

As the frustrations among these working class voters emanate from the pitfalls of globalisation, it should be clear that the basis for Trump's victory tells us a story much larger than that of the 2016 election. The frustrations among Trump's voters tell us about the fundamental mechanisms of today's more and more globalised capitalism.

Today, capital moves around the globe effortlessly. It easily crosses national borders, finding the most cost effective place to produce its commodities. Free market preachers are excited by the mere thought of how the market with fluid elegance lets itself equilibrate by balancing supply and demand. From their strictly economic standpoint this kind of development only entails advantages from cheaper goods, more efficient production, and allegedly higher economic growth.

But the economic structures do not only produce the material goods of society. They also produce a lot of society's meaning and identities. People's identities to a large extent emanate from their place in the production system. They work as distinguished lawyers, proud and strong coal miners or caring doctors. People tend to find their social value and dignity through their professions.

The question is what happens to people's identities when companies move their production to other countries and thereby remove the economic 'base' of these identities. What happens to the proud worker of a car plant when most of the car plants move to the other side of the globe where labor is cheaper? What happens when a factory worker doesn't have any factory work any more?

A naïve form of Marxist materialism might suspect these working class identities to wither away as their economic base is removed from underneath them. The American election shows us, however, that this is far from the case. As parts of a proud American working class are robbed of their economic foundation, as factories and plants are outsourced to other countries, their associated identities don't just disappear into thin air. If anything, they seem to get stronger.

As factories and plants are outsourced to other countries, their associated identities don't just disappear into thin air. If anything, they seem to get stronger.

Trump's angry working class voters are an example of how capital, as it moves, leaves behind a trail of what we might call zombie identities. These are for instance former factory workers who used to find their dignity and meaning through their profession but are now deprived of that meaning. As they lose their jobs they don't just lose their income. They are also challenged in their ability to regard themselves as valuable members of society. The zombie identities are characterized by their refusal to accept this loss of dignity and meaning: the will to sustain the identity as a valuable working man endures even when there is no longer any work. Although these identities are economically speaking dead, they nonetheless live on. Rather than withering away, the working class identities become stronger as they fiercely try to recover their former dignity.

Cities like Detroit and other de-industrialised towns are among the greatest examples in our time of how capital can flow into a city, create buildings and institutions, only to pull out again and leave an empty shell behind. What remains is a ghost town with vacant buildings still standing as a thinly drawn sketch of a bygone metropolis in its former glory. The abandoned factories are precise metaphors for how meaning and identities are left behind. 

The identity crisis doesn’t always have to emanate from a complete loss of work. For many workers it can be the result of transferring from a blue collar job to an often low-paying and less ‘meaningful’ job in the service industry. This transference can entail a feeling of being emasculated for male workers.

Zombie identities try to recover their former glory in two ways. Firstly, they attempt to find probable reasons for their social decline. Well-known solutions to this include blaming immigrants or China for the loss of jobs. Secondly, they try to restore their social value by establishing an alternative hierarchy. The racist and xenophobic ideologies contribute to this by establishing an ethnic hierarchy where the white worker by definition is more valuable than the entire population of immigrants and ethnic minorities. By establishing these alternative hierarchies, they allow themselves to claim a higher social value than the one they hold to be at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. In this way, the zombie identities are characterised by getting stronger rather than weaker at the loss of their economic base. As they lose their material foundation they violently try to recover their former social value. 

As they lose their material foundation they violently try to recover their former social value.

Racist and xenophobic ideologies thus serve a whole range of purposes for people left with zombie identities. They both serve to recover their dignity and to explain how they lost it in the first place. Furthermore, they serve as an outlet for the extreme amount of anger and anxiety which comes from being the victim of global market forces. With no alternative leftist narrative to effectively criticise and analyse global capitalism, the anger needs another outlet. This outlet is offered in the form of criticising immigrants and other minorities.

The greatest problem with falling victim to global market forces is that these forces are almost completely faceless and anonymous. Nobody is really responsible for the decline of American manufacturing industry as it automatically adjusts to differences in the supply and demand of labor. The closest we come to responsible parties are the long gone politicians and lobbyists behind old trade agreements.

These invisible forces are therefore hard to identify and criticise. What populist movements like Trump’s offer is the opportunity to put a face on these frightening developments. By blaming immigrants, populists make the faceless structures of global capitalism into a substantial 'enemy', making it possible to offer far-fetched solutions such as deporting all illegal immigrants.

One of the biggest paradoxes of right-wing populism is that working class voters often end up supporting it as a direct result of the very failures of the unconstrained free trade policies that the right wing advocated in the first place. In this way the globalist free trade right-wing and the nationalist right-wing enforce each other in such a way that the right wing seems to strengthen its support the more its former policies effectively fail. The globalist free trade right-wing and the nationalist right-wing enforce each other in such a way that the right wing seems to strengthen its support the more its former policies effectively fail.

The increasing mobility of globalised capital, even though it might entail cheaper consumer goods, certainly isn't free. It creates enormous social and political tensions emanating from lost meaning and damaged identities. The price comes among other things in the form of zombie identities ruthlessly trying to recover their former position often through extreme political ideologies on the right. If their search for meaning appears violent in both a symbolic and physical sense, we ought to understand this as an exact reflection of the violent act of global marked forces pulling the rug from underneath ordinary working people.

The sad thing is that when these working class people try to make their frustrations heard, we often don't get the message because it's distorted by racism, sexism and bigotry.

This piece was originally published here on Krytyka Polityczna.

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