Don’t shop? Then you must be undead

by | 17 Jun 2011

We record for posterity the views of Stephen Roach, non-executive chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and faculty member of Yale University. According to Mr. Roach (paywall):

The global economy is being hobbled by a new generation of zombies – the economic walking dead. American consumers are in the early stages of an unprecedented retrenchment.

Seemingly echoing the worldview of a Republican congressman recently that “reality has a leftwing bias”, Mr. Roach warns us that consumers are refusing to play ball, and, afflicted by “festering” debt, they are roaming aimlessly around Main Street refusing to purchase anything. We are told:

Like Japan’s zombies, there is no quick end in sight to the chronic weakness of American consumers. I suspect it will take a minimum of another three to five years before debt loads and saving rates have been restored to more sustainable levels. With consumption still about 70 per cent of gross domestic product, that points to sharply reduced growth in the US economy – unless America is quick to uncover a new and vibrant source of growth.

And to conclude:

Sadly, America’s zombie consumers could be more problematic for the US than the zombie corporates were for the Japanese economy. At 70 per cent of GDP, US personal consumption is 3.5 times the peak share of Japan’s bubble-distorted business capital spending sector in the early 1990s. A failure to learn the lessons of Japan – especially that of post-bubble zombie congestion – leaves the US and the global economy in a very tough place for years to come. Growth-hungry financial markets could be very disappointed.

There is a certain combination of subtexts here, from the decision that bad consumers are no longer alive but nevertheless occupying the attention of the forces of order, to the darker conclusion that US consumers are chronically weak. One is immediately reminded of the doctrines of the Italian futurismo movement, where for example Marinetti derided the Italic ‘race’ as weakened due to an over-consumption of wheat products rather than meat. Is Mr. Roach expressing the ultimate value-determination of the General Equivalence within consumerist capitalism?

Are we to conclude that the measure of a human’s virtue is their exhibited power of consumption, and that the essential criterion for membership of the human race is participation in consumer culture? It is a distribution of right which can only take place insofar as its two extremes (living or dead/undead) are produced by a prior power, which then stands in front of the two end points and unifies them. In other words, we must all be potentially undead if some are to be selected by the power to perform the role of being allowed to live and die. Perhaps Deleuze was wrong when he said, following Blanchot, that every death was double. Rather it is triple: there is the experience of another’s death, the dying, and further the non-recognition that any death ever occurred. Power after all selects what is an individual, but it also actively deselects according to the affinity of the modal relations that express it.

Do the words of Stephen Roach herald a coming into their own of a language of zombie capitalism which has been in play at least since Japan’s lost decade? Has de-humanisation found a new discourse into which will seep its pent up frustration at the indignant who refuse to play? Or does this reversion to the language of myth illustrate an economist’s abandonment of rational theology in favour of mysticism, even as we scale Mont Ventoux a second time?

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