I am not the first person to point out the Gothic nature of capitalism, nor is it a particularly recent observation. The full extent of just how gothic it is dawned on me during my time at Shades City Centre Project offering advice and support services to young homeless people in Manchester in the early 90s. Like its welfare providing sister agencies, Shades struggled to survive during the Thatcher years. Then, just as now, the UK Conservative Government was using tight monetarist policy and state authority to legitimise pro-market reforms, rolling back the welfare state and unleashing a series of punitive cuts. Then, just as now, these reforms were played out like a Victorian morality tale, seeking to vilify any and all forms of welfare.
Back in the 90s the offices of Shades were located amongst back-street pet shops, porn shops and joke shops in a crumbling building which also housed the barrows of market traders. The shop front was likened to a ‘workhouse wall’ by our young homeless visitors. Outside, rotting fruit and vegetables added their foulness to the damp Mancunian air. Inside, resources were tight and burnout was high. Amateur crisis management provided the choice of two metaphorical working practices, the headless chicken or the backside on fire. A lot of running around was a feature of both. The effect of the 1988 Social Security Act, (which raised the age of entitlement to income support from 16 to 18), meant that young people were seen begging on the streets of virtually every major city in Britain. Journalists frequently used Shades to source suitable homeless subjects to add ‘human interest’ value to their pieces. Prize specimens were young, suffering and preferably on the game. Those brokered were often quizzed insensitively about why they were homeless and whose fault it was. A yellowing page from the Daily Mirror decried the Junk Generation. Pinned to the wall of the drop-in room in an act of defiance (it did not speak to our experiences of working with these young people), the Christmas editorial shouted:
It breeds violence without cause. It kicks society as well as the old and innocent…
It is a generation difficult to sympathise with and impossible to understand.
It drifts. Into crime. Into prostitution…
In the season of the child born in the manger we should face the problems of the children born for the scrap heap. They are the junk generation.
Articles like this served as an example of the (lack of) journalistic standards. The parading of “difficult to sympathise with” characters did little to aid my understanding of, “how they descended to where they are today,” other than to suspect that this type of journalism played some part in dehumanising this group, and recasting welfare as an entitlement rather than a right. When not fielding calls from journalists, I spent much of my time in the office making crisis loan claims to the new Social Fund. Where once there had been grants, claimants now had to compete for funds, finding ways to pitch stories of being more hard done by than anyone else.
Media images evoking sympathy rapidly gave way to tabloid accusations of an emerging ‘underclass’. This was echoed by government. I spent a lot of time persuading young people that they didn’t have to be defined by difficult circumstances. I began to feel that whatever my intentions I was oiling the ideological machine: telling its stories; brokering the subjects; sorting the deserving characters from the underserving and the ‘genuine’ from the ‘fake’. More than anything I was turning young people into ciphers for work ethic fuelled morality tales with either messages about the terrible oppressors or warnings that but for the grace of god that might be ‘us.’
It is in this context that the gothic nature of capitalism began to resonate with me. Gothic is fanciful and seems opposed to truth-filled realism of the social sciences. Yet they are both highly stylised forms depicting landscapes of fear and employing a language of high contrast opposites centred around Good versus Evil. The ‘historical’ setting of traditional Gothic fiction resonated with Thatcherite heritage-history and its resurrection of ‘Victorian domestic values’.
While at Shades I enjoyed the crude structuralism of They Live, a John Carpenter film released in 1988. It is shot from the perspective of homeless Americans who discover, via the use of magic sunglasses, that the Reagan revolution is run by Zombie-like alien creatures from another planet. They are bombarding us with subliminal messages, such as ‘Honour Apathy’, ‘Submit’, ‘Stay Asleep’, ‘Obey’, and ‘Watch TV’, while the alien/Zombies asset-strip the planet with the help of high ranking human capitalists.
Fast forward to the financial crash of 2008 and there was no need for magic sunglasses. The Zombie metaphor has re-emerged with a vengeance to describe the persistence of neoliberal policies launched by Reagan and Thatcher. Ever since the 1980 Housing Act had granted local authority residents the ‘right to buy’, public housing stock had became been diminishing as we learned from Margaret Thatcher that, ‘public = bad, private= good’ in what was called the greatest of all privatisations:
I offer the certainty of liberty, and the chance of property ownership… What earthly use is it that families should have a millionth share of some nationalised industry? How much more important to have something they can own and that can be passed on to their children. Never mind about public ownership- in practice that gives nobody anything. What I’m offering is personal ownership…property brings with it security and independence.
Under this new rationality there was no space for collective provision. Any idea of a centralised means of distribution was seen as an attack on liberty and free competition. Maddeningly, the perversion of the idea of liberty meant “the chance of property ownership” had so much cultural valence that protected tenancies and fair rents were removed as obstacles to economic progress. Negative equity, eviction, repossession, and exclusions from the property ladder were accepted as part of the natural competitive order of things.
The “security and independence” Thatcher offered through personal ownership was shattered for many when the housing bubble burst, but rather than being killed off by the 2008 crash, neoliberalism entered a new “dead but dominant”, fully Zombie phase: “anti-socially pursuing many of the same warm-blooded targets, but largely dead from the neck up, as a programme of intellectual and moral leadership”. Henry Giroux laments the Zombie politics of ‘casino capitalism’ which he sees as, “a machinery of social and civil death”.
So where are we now? Provision of public housing is at an all time low, private rents are at an all time high, and the monstering of the poor is nightly entertainment. Further neoliberalisation is being promoted as the solution to the problems it helped to cause: freeing the market from regulation, tax cuts and the privatization of public services. Evidence against faith in unregulated free markets seems only to re-convince devotees of its ultimate truth. In the spirit of ‘never letting a serious crisis goes to waste’, austerity, the governing post-crash neoliberal Zombie is wreaking tremendous damage. Its destruction of social security distracts from the cause of the crash while re-naturalising and de-politicising inequality and fulfilling long term political ambitions articulated by the ‘No Turning Back’ group of Conservative MPs during my time at Shades:
We must complete the process of withdrawing the State from the provision of services better provided by the private sector…Finally, we must intensify the assault on the very concept of individual dependence on State provision of health care, education and social security. We are confident that however much our ideas are perceived today as radical, they will be taken for granted tomorrow and be accepted as so commonsensical as to be non-contentious.
The virulent life-sapping viral Zombie is a modern gothic metaphor for a capitalism relentlessly engaged in destroying the welfare state, its sights now set on the NHS. Exasperated metaphors will only take us so far in the battle against the Zombies.
About the author: Mary Madden has a background in welfare rights and community work, sociology, English literature and critical theory. in the 80s and 90s she worked full time for Shades, offering advice and support services for young people and housing. Her ‘Feminist Gothic’ PhD explored representations of homelessness and experiences of complicity in neoliberalism. She currently works as a medical sociologist in the Skin and Wounds Group at the School of Healthcare, University of Leeds. She is also on twitter @feministgothic.