Zombie Democracy and the Citizen

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once defined the true citizen (civis) as being someone capable of founding a new city (civitas). This definition of authentic citizenship as someone having founding rights highlights creativity and downplays the ostensible virtue of loyalty or obedience, and for parallel reasons distinguishes sharply between a true civitas and a mere urbs.

An urbs is a mere physical and geographical entity — a quantity — while a civitas is a vital, spiritual and even metaphysical one. An urbs is quantifiable and calculable, and can be represented in aggregate terms. As a mere conglomerate (as the social beehive or the anthill), the urbs is enumerable in terms of its population, occupied land area, miles of roads, blocks, neighbourhoods, boundaries, budgets, etc. But none of this makes for a genuine, living civitas — an authentic community. A true and living civitas is formed and discovered through affinities, not definitions.

A mere urbs is an inhuman thing.

What we have presently is not a civitas in that sense. It is not a real living environment. What we have are mere machines in which we have taken up residency. These contemporary servo-mechanisms called “cities” — which I’ve otherwise embraced also in the term “Zombie Democracy” — are now lacking and deficient in the very vital qualities that the Occupy movement seeks to demonstrate by contrast — the quest for the means to transform a mere urbs into a true civitas. The word I’ve elected to describe this desired new civitas is “Convivium“. A Convivium stands in relation to Zombie Democracy as an authentic civitas stands in relation to a mere urbs.

And what are these tent cities of the Occupy movement but, in essence, the attempt to found a new city — a new civitas? (The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones got it quite right when he described it in terms of “festive citizenship“). As such, I can admire the qualities of authentic citizenship being demonstrated. And isn’t that the real “demonstration” here? “Nothing less than a transformed civilisation” is how Charles Eisenstein put it in his insightful essay on the purposes of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration — to found a new civitas by enacting it. But to become a true citizen in this quality of being a founder is to have first suffered a deep feeling of dispossession and deprivation —  not necessarily in merely economic terms either. It is the broader feeling of having been deprived and dispossessed of one’s birthright.

Economists also now speak of “zombie consumerism” to describe the merely mechanical and routine pathways of Late Modern life — the consumer (once called “citizen”) now become a mere servo-mechanism for the economy. In a recently republished essay in The Guardian by David Harvie and Keir Milburn, this zombie-like condition of Late Modernity is described in precise detail,

“Neoliberalism no longer ‘makes sense’, but its logic keeps stumbling on, without conscious direction, like a zombie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. Such is the ‘unlife’ of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. It can only act habitually as it pursues a monomaniacal hunger. Unless there is a dramatic recomposition of society, we face the prospect of decades of drift as the crises we face — economic, social, environmental — remain unresolved. But where will the recomposition come from when we are living in the world of zombie-liberalism”?  (“The zombie of neoliberalism can be beaten — through mass direct action“, The Guardian, orig. 4. August, 2011).

This “recomposition” or reconstitution is what is being attempted in the tent cities of the Occupy movement. It might be better called a “revivification”.

(A word of caution to American readers: “liberalism” in Canada and the UK — possibly Australia too — has a much different meaning than commonly understood in the US. Here “liberalism” is practically synonymous with “free market” capitalism. Originally, the conservatism of the landed gentry and aristocracy was anti-capitalist — anti-bourgeois — in that sense. But this is now called “paleo-conservatism” by “neo-” or “new right” conservatives who have basically embraced classical liberalism and free market ideology as though it were their own invention and discovery, much as they’ve now appropriated women’s and gay rights as if it were their own discovery as well. A mere two decades ago, they were denouncing and demonising such gender and sexual liberation as the work of hippies and “leftists”. Such are the ironies — and even hypocrisies — of contemporary neo-conservatism that it has appropriated and assimilated much of the language of classical liberalism and even the New Left while continuing to denounce it as subversive and decadent. The Norwegian assassin Anders Breivik recognised that, but it didn’t liberate his mind from his reactionary views. He became even more extremist and reactionary in response. Come to think of it, nothing describes the “zombie” better than how Anders Breivik went about preparing himself to conduct his murderous rampage — to make himself inhuman).

A “zombie” is a thing paradoxically neither living nor dead. In older folklore terms, it was called a golem. It is merely animate, but not vital. It is a thing soulless and inhuman, without purpose. It does not feel, it only hungers. It simply “goes through the motions” without consciousness of itself or the meaning of its activity. And it appears to have become something of an icon today for almost everything that is perceived to be desperately wrong about Late Modern life. It is the “Moloch” of Ginsberg’s poem Howl.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that, in the US, the radical right charges that Obama supporters constitute a “zombie army” just as the same charge is hurled back at the radical right tit-for-tat. Everybody everywhere is discovering that everyone is a zombie at “the end of history”.

And everyone may be right. The Occupy movement has no “demands”, no “political programme” because it is simply the attempt to rediscover and demonstrate, in the authentic sense, the living human soul inside the zombie, the golem, that the machinery of Late Modern society has attempted to make of us all.

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3 responses to “Zombie Democracy and the Citizen”

  1. Scott says :

    I just now realised something very pertinent to this post from Jean Keckeis’ introductory essay to Gebser’s Ever Present-Origin. Towards the end of his essay “In Memoriam Jean Gebser”, Keckeis wrote,

    “… Gebser came to speak specifically about ideologies as typical outgrowths of a purpose-oriented, perspectivistic era, and demonstrated how these ideologies linger about in the world as lost causes, outdone only by the search for new or ‘counter’ ideologies. Particularly anachronistic are the effects of Christian sects posturing like ideologies” (p.xxi)

    He’s actually wrong about that last sentence, but right about contemporary ideologies lingering about in the present world as lost causes — the perfect description of a zombie.

  2. whome says :

    can you please explain what an urbs is?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Urbs is Latin for a physical city — urban. Latin has another word word, civitas, from which the word “city” (and citizen) is actually derived, but this has more the meaning of city as a community or commonwealth. If “urbs” is the body, “civitas” is the soul of it, you see. Or, urbs would pertain to the physical site in which the spirit of citizenship is enacted or performed. The city, therefore, is conceived in the image of a Man, having a body and a soul (in Marx, this might be translated as “infrastructure” and “superstructure”).

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