Zombie Capitalism and the Grinning Void

by | 9 Mar 2017

Please would you tell me,’ said Alice … ‘why your cat grins like that?’

‘It’s a Cheshire-Cat,’ said the Duchess, and that’s why. Pig!’

She said the last word with such sudden violence that Alice quite jumped…

‘I didn’t know that Cheshire-Cats always grinned; in fact, I didn’t know that cats could grin.’

‘They all can,’ said the Duchess; ‘and most of ‘em do’.

‘I don’t know of any that do,’ Alice said very politely…

‘You don’t know much’, said the Duchess; ‘and that’s a fact. (Carroll 2005, 82-3)

Dorian Lynskey’s recent description of Milo Yiannoupoulos as a ‘smirking void’ (2017, np) recalled a scene from Wonderland, set in the Duchess’ pepper-polluted kitchen, which gripped me as a child with its outright sadism:

I speak severely to my boy,

I beat him when he sneezes;

For he can thoroughly enjoy

The pepper when he pleases! (ibid. 85)

The scene is now bizarrely (and what other word can we really use when metaphor fails?) reminiscent of the language and mood of the Trump administration. Good manners are pointless, and will be rudely answered; established expectations regarding courtesy and other such outdated ‘liberal’ concepts are abruptly overturned. Chaos and violent outbursts are normal and tolerated, as the cook inexplicably flings implements at her owner. In Wonderland, there is no point in pretending that reason is going to prevail, that superior knowledge and factual accuracy will ultimately win the day, or that established classificatory systems are of any practical use. We will not be able to use established (and admittedly flawed) definitions of health or normality to delegitimise Trump.

Living in the Real might be like this: a dense smog punctuated with grotesques, mirages, shouting and flying objects, as a baby inconsolably screams. And a cat sits on the hearth, grinning.

Like the Real, this Wonderland was never not there; it was waiting for us, down the rabbit-hole. At the trial of David Irving in 2000, journalist Jonathan Freedland experienced ‘the queasy sensation the ground was falling away’ as Irving dismissed decades of evidence (Freedland, 2016, np). Blatant dishonesty is hardly new, or even particular to the new American Right, and yet, there is general agreement that some more terrible mutation of lies has arisen. The glee with which conspiracy theories and ludicrous slurs are circulated via a seething social media, combined with lack of trust in mainstream news outlets, have led us to this point: the Twitter-troll president, yelling ‘don’t be rude!’ at the assembled press and warning darkly of imaginary atrocities in Sweden.

His erstwhile hearthside pet, Milo Yiannopoulos, is a person the mind cringes from analysing, since analysis seems to legitimate him; but we are in Wonderland now, and so I have been analysing nasty, pointless things a lot lately. Lynskey’s dismissal should by rights eliminate him: ‘Like Trump, he is the logical outcome of a grotesque convergence of politics, entertainment and the internet in which an empty vessel can thrive unchecked by turning hate speech into showbusiness’ (2017, np). Nonetheless, inescapably and unbearably, Milo matters. The self-labelled ‘dangerous faggot’ lent edge and glamour to the ‘alternative’ right- ‘a loosely organized far-right movement that shares a contempt for both liberal multiculturalism and mainstream conservatism… a strong internet presence and embrace of specific elements of online culture; and a self-presentation as being new, hip, and irreverent’ (Lyons 2017, np) The ‘alt-right’’s closest thing to a leader, Steve Bannon, former editor in chief of Breitbart News, now sits on the National Security Council of the USA. Milo is politically incoherent, declaring himself both a conservative (on Fox News), and a ‘libertarian’ on liberal talk show ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’. On Maher’s show, he pouted and camped it up for the cameras, before faking righteous concern for ‘women and girls’ supposedly threatened by the transgender bathroom menace.

A nasty faux-familiarity has attached itself to Milo’s first-name-only brand, a habit I have inexorably fallen into – as with that other jokey, lying populist, ‘Boris’. Whether tactically ignored or directly attacked, he appeared unassailable until his own employers knocked him off his pedestal. The liberal left can only clap nervously on the sidelines of this internal fight; no one sacked Milo for revealing the personal details of trans people onstage, or saying that women couldn’t add up. Milo battened on liberal outrage (one thinks of the vast Facebook servers humming away in Adam Curtis’ documentary Hypernormalisation, as the electron-bubbles of outrage and denial grow and pop). He personified all the inescapable ghastliness of the online world: the bullies who transfer to Twitter for after-school abuse; the YouTube commentators spewing out gruesome threats which just might be acted out in reality; the pathetically vengeful exes who plaster intimate photos, names and addresses online. Milo originally rose to fame when he covered the Gamergate scandal, in which female videogame developers were personally targeted by an online mob. In what must be one of the most blatant instances of projection ever recorded, Milo described these women as ‘lying, bullying and manipulating their way around the internet for profit and attention’ (quoted in Brown 2015, np).

The self-promoting proclamations of the ‘smirking void’ thus emblematise Trump-era ‘post-truth’ (and how are we to name this newest ‘scandalous Thing’? (Haraway 1988, 592)). In the post-austerity dystopia of zombie economics, this pretty, vacant liar has thrived while ‘we’ (the outraged, gutted liberal so-called elite) are out-of-date. Ours is the fusty old consensus which is being torn to pieces in the carnivalesque rampage of right-wing populism. Thus, champion of British libertarianism Brendan O’Neill tells us (with some justification, given the high average age of those who actually remember the 1970s) that Brexit is ‘the most punk thing to have happened in years’ (2016, np). It takes a comedian to summarise the dreadful truth: ‘in these times where every day throws up a sexy new Nazi with a catchphrase, the traditional left seems hopelessly foggy and aloof. The clunky qualifications of inclusive language take the field every day against demotic hate memes and are mown down, using their final bloody breaths to ask whether war metaphors are really appropriate’ (Boyle 2017, np).

Futurism for zombies

The grinning void that is Milo did not come entirely from nowhere. The ‘slow cancellation of the future’ (Fisher 2014, 2) and the replacement of economic and social life by various forms of zombiedom (debtfare (Soederberg 2014), celebrity culture, the ‘bare life’ of refugees or the unemployed, the non-stop inertia (Southwood, 2011) of precarious employment) has faded in over decades, like the Cheshire-Cat – revealing itself fully after the 2007/8 economic collapse. Financial capitalism reached a vanishing-point in its manically self-referential spiral, and took down many of the poorest with it – those who had been promised for a while, through debt, a minor share of its joys (Dean, 2013; Fisher, 2009, 2014; Berardi, 2011; Wyly et al 2011). Into this busy emptiness came the void-with-a-grin who scarcely represented youth (a minority of people under 40 voted for either Trump or Brexit), yet spoke brashly of a ‘fabulous’ revolution. This revolution of nihilism offers precisely no solutions to the living-deadness of social and economic life; and it does not yet have to, since it is enough for many that the ‘liberal consensus’ is being torn down. The so-called nemesis of the ‘global elite’ is a born billionaire, and the debts are spiralling upwards all over again.

So, let us give in for a while and analyse Milo for what he may represent, beyond the taunting, grinning void. What are his historical antecedents, if he has any? Dalliance and nervousness around the use of the terms ‘fascist’ and ‘neo-Nazi’ fail to take account of the inclination of these end-times to multiple simultaneous remembrances, or ‘temporal anomalies’. Describing the bleak final episode of a largely forgotten 70s TV series, Sapphire and Steel, Mark Fisher remarks that this world, our weird post-collapse era, is ‘nowhere, and it’s forever’; a no-place where ‘time just got mixed, jumbled up together, making no sort of sense’ (2014, 2, 5). In this post-future, the extremes of past eras are recast and remixed. This is not the distant hyperreality of Baudrillard; there is something much more grimly corporeal about these flashbacks to crueller times, and we cannot simply be spectators now. Thus Stephanie Polsky (2015) narrates the neo-Dickensian spectres of high-tech crash-era London, and television programmes reflect an obsessional reworking of darker corners of the socioeconomic past. Taboo steeps us in hectically remixed post-colonial melancholia, reliving the horrors of slavery, mass poverty and female disempowerment; The Man in the High Castle and SS-GB imagine an undefeated global Nazi empire and its inevitable complicities.

Jay Griffiths (2017, np) notes ‘a flavour of the decadence of the dying Roman empire’ in ‘the flagrant, public, abusive sexuality that Trump boasts about’. (Trump might be compared to Caligula, but I can only imagine Milo playing Malcolm McDowell’s boyish, sadistic Emperor in a remake.) Griffiths presents the alt-right as successors of the Italian Futurists; but comparisons with the likes of proto-fascist playboy and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio and his followers weirdly flatter this online terror-brigade. The alt-right army of nasty geeks are limited to invective. Like d’Annunzio, Milo has written poetry; but he is most unlikely to be remembered for it. Rose Parfitt (forthcoming) claims that we are already living in the conquered, brutalist world the Futurists imagined; and if this is so, Milo is the d’Annunzio of a zombie Futurism, an already-dead revolution of eternally lowered expectations. And once again we must marvel at this Wonderland, where strands of proto-fascism begin to look accomplished and even tasteful in comparison to the alt-right’s unstoppable march of teenage insults.

The ‘liberal left’ down the rabbit-hole

Milo’s current Cheshire-Cat fade from sight is as surreal as his rise to fame. Some comments made from his personal experience, about homosexual relationships between teenagers and older men, were resurrected and bluntly interpreted as condoning paedophilia. The ‘faggot’ had become too dangerous for an administration struggling to balance ‘anti-elitism’ with the traditional moral hypocrisies of the Christian Right. Many on the liberal left (who would in other contexts be critical of the rigidity of statutory rape laws, and acknowledge the ambiguities of sexual choice and development) have expressed delight at his downfall. The endlessly recyclable folk-demon of paedophilia should surely not be so readily deployed. Do we really want to bolster the association of paedophilia with gay men as imagined corrupters (along with the loathed ‘feminazis’) of the right’s fragile masculinity (Wieland, 2014)? Nonetheless, the internal contradictions behind Milo’s ‘downfall’ will come back to haunt the triumphant Right. Republican churchgoers and Holocaust deniers cohabited most uneasily with the ‘dangerous faggot’, who possessed an appeal to the disaffected youth of the cancelled future which their clunky moralising and grim paternalism clearly lacks.

If there is a pathway for the beleaguered left out of the chequered fields of Wonderland, it may be through strategic recognition of resistant clichés about the ‘liberal consensus’ on which the alt-right trades. This requires a turn away from the patronising moral certainties of some sections of the left, the relentless infighting regarding sufferings considered less severe or important. The alt-right is brutally alert to the po-faced enforcement of ‘progressive’ orthodoxies of offence, the inflexible and unfriendly policing of humour and gaffes. The internally fractured Right will unite in laughter when different liberal-left factions pompously denounce their own allies for breaches of various behavioural or linguistic codes. They have managed (for a while) to contain a gay man with a penchant for pearl jewellery alongside the likes of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer; this feat is worth consideration. Nonetheless, Milo’s fall has unleashed social-media bile from the Nazi-sympathising elements of the alt-right, hatred temporarily suspended in the carnivalesque melee of victory.

Neo-Wonderland has been in festival mode for more than a year, but the initial euphoria is over. Now, the new Right need to start delivering the future they have so rashly promised to the dispossessed of the zombie economy. The Red Kings and Queens are soon going to be arguing about whose head should be chopped off first. Let us ensure we do not get stuck down the rabbit-hole, disputing whether cats can really grin.

Ruth Cain is Lec­turer at Kent Law School, Uni­ver­sity of Kent.


—Berardi, Franco. 2011. After the Future. Eds. Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn. Edinburgh, Oakland and Baltimore: AK Press.
Boyle, Frankie. A column I wrote about Brexit. Facebook, 6 March 2017. Available online at https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1429553200419375&id=149786485062726 , accessed 7 March 2017.
—Brown, Kristen. 2015. The ultimate troll: The terrifying allure of Gamergate icon Milo Yiannopoulos. Fusion, 10 October. http://fusion.net/story/220646/the-terrifying-allure-of-gamergate-icon-milo-yiannopoulos/, accessed 27 February 2017.

—Carroll, Lewis. 2005 [1866]. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London, Basingstoke and Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books.
—Dean, Jodi. 2013. Complexity as capture: neoliberalism and the loop of drive. New Formations, 80: 138-154.
—Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist realism: Is there no alternative? Winchester and Washington: Zero.
—Fisher, Mark. 2014. Ghosts of my life: Writings on depression, hauntology and lost futures. Winchester and Washington: Zero.
—Freedland, Jonathan. 2016. Don’t call it post-truth. There’s a simpler word: lies. Guardian, 16 December. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/16/not-post-truth-simpler-words-lies-aleppo-trump-mainstream, accessed 26 February 2017.
—Griffiths, Jay. 2017. Fire, hatred and speed! The glamour, bullying and violence of the libertarian alt-Right has a direct political ancestor, and it’s not Nazi Germany. Aeon, 8 February. Available online at https://aeon.co/essays/the-macho-violent-culture-of-italian-fascism-was-prophetic. Accessed 26 February 2017
—Haraway, Donna. 1988. Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.
—Lyons, Matthew N. 2017. Ctrl-Alt-Delete: the origins and ideology of the Alternative Right. Political Research Associates, January 20, Available online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/01/20/ctrl-alt-delete-report-on-the-alternative-right/#sthash.kNKj7760.c9XCKCvp.dpbs, accessed 26 February 2017.
—O’Neill, Brendan. Brexit is the most punk thing to have happened in years. Spectator, 25 July. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/brexit-punk-thing-happened-years/, accessed 27 February 2017.
—Parfitt, Rose. Forthcoming 2017. The anti-neutral suit: International legal futurists, 1914-2017. London Review of International Law 5(1) (pages tbc).—Polsky, Stephanie. 2015. Ignoble Displacement: Dispossessed capital in neo-Victorian London. Winchester and Washington: Zero.
—Soederberg, Suzanne. 2014. Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry: Money, discipline and the surplus population. New York: Routledge.
—Southwood, Ivor. 2011. Non-Stop Inertia. Winchester and Washington: Zero.
—Wieland, Christina. 2014. The Fascist State of Mind and the Manufacturing of Masculinity: A psychoanalytic approach. New York: Routledge.
—Wyly, Elvin, and C. S. Ponder. 2011. Gender, age, and race in subprime America. Housing Policy Debate 21(4): 529-564.

1 Comment

  1. Citing opinion doesn’t provide academic credence to further opinion.


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