During the so-called 'Greek crisis' (2009-2018), there were many examples of the usage of the zombie metaphor in the Greek and foreign press to describe the state of the Greek economy and of the Greek state. In my presentation at the 3rd Greek Studies Now Conference at Durham University, I focused on the usage of this metaphor as one that entails emancipatory potentials for people living and working in Greece. My goal with this research is to examine what the zombie metaphor and its connotations mean for Greece, the extent to which this is connected to the colonial and capitalist histories of the zombie in relation to the framing of Greece as a crypto-colony and whether the metaphor can also function as a form of resistance in this context.
Examples of the Usage of the Zombie Metaphor in the Media
In The New York Times in 2015 we read: “Whether Greece will have to go on in this zombie financial condition will also depend on the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, both of which have lent money to Greece”. At around the same time, the CATO Institute also described Greece as a “zombie state”: “With banks so wounded, Greece is destined to become a financial zombie state”. Yet again, in the summer of 2015, Business Insider India mentioned that “[t]his is the starkest example we've seen yet of just why Greece needs massive debt restructuring - the country is effectively an economic zombie existing solely to pay off debts”. During the same period, Bloomberg used the title “The Struggle to Run Greece's Zombie Businesses”. In 2016 and 2017 respectively the zombie metaphor continued to appear in articles, such as “Entrepreneurship by Necessity: Greek Businessmen Lost in ‘Zombie’ Cafes & Souvlaki Grills” by Keep Talking Greece or “Greece's Zombie Debt” by Bulgaria Analytica. The latter argues that “Yet Greek debt didn’t die. Instead it turned zombie. It rouses periodically to terrorize the living”. The examples go on, even after the supposed end of the Greek financial and socio-political crisis in 2018. For example, we read “‘Greece – A Decade On: Is It Still a Zombie Economy and Banking System?’” in an article from 2021.
At a first glance, we might take this occurrence as a straightforward reference to financial terminology to refer to banks, companies or even states that are barely being kept alive due to economic distress: they are only able to continue existing through further loaning processes that comprise their umbilical cord and are therefore unable to repay their debts (see Kenton 2021). However, what I want to argue here is that this zombie metaphor, apart from being an innocent term to better describe the Greek state or economy, is a metaphor charged with connotations from the colonial past, particularly of the West, and it is also through this past that it is connected to the late capitalist reality that we are experiencing.
Zombies in the 'Greek Crisis': Capitalist and Colonial Connotations
The usage of the zombie metaphor in the print and online press is introducing a widely known figure from popular culture, something that makes the articles click-able, appealing and interesting. At the same time, these are sensationalist titles associating the Greek crisis with the notion of catastrophe and proposing a post-apocalyptic reality.
If Greece is a “Zombie state” then its inhabitants are also zombified. Of course, there are variations within the examples of the articles I have given, some of which hold a more sympathetic view on the Greek financial state. The zombie metaphor can mean a lot of different things. It may refer to an economy that is dying, to the unpayable debt and the unliveable conditions in the country. It could also signify the emptiness of formerly busy spaces such as cafes. I argue that in the case of Greece the zombie metaphor has been quite nuanced and that it reflected both the capitalist and crypto-colonial status of the country (Herzfeld 2002).
Regarding the latter, the crypto-colonial status of the country became exemplified throughout the crisis due to the high degree of control that the West had over Greek politics and Greece's dependence on the loaning processes from Europe. Thinking about the zombie metaphor in those terms, we could say that the West impersonates the role of the Bokor, the person who, in the Vodou belief system, has the power to heal, turn people into zombies and exercise control over them (see Accilien 2022, 34 and Kerasovitis 2022, 141). This happens not only through processes of financial and political control, but also through the ideological construction of the modern Greek nation-state. In Greek national imagination, the Greek state has its origins in the supposed superior ancient Greek culture that has also been utilised in western narratives as the base of Europeanness. Kerasovitis thus proposes to read the dominant national narrative in Greece as the Bokor (Kerasovitis 2022, 152). Following Kerasovitis' argument, we can speak of “cultural zombies”: Greeks are zombified because their Greekness is being denied historical specificity; it is a concept imported by the West that glorifies antiquity and is bound to reproduce contemporary Greek culture as a re-awakening of the dead (Kerasovitis 2022, 151-152). Just like the zombies - who in many cases have lost their sense of identity - nationalist versions of the modern Greek identity put some of those identifying as Greeks under the spell of historical continuity and cultural superiority based on selected fragments from the past.
At the same time, framing contemporary Greeks as zombies brings to mind other characterisations that dominated during the crisis, e.g. the stereotype of “lazy” and “undisciplined” Greeks. All such characterisations share with the zombie metaphor the element of presenting Greeks in the media as the monstrous Other. In the case of appropriating the zombie figure from Haiti by the West – especially during the time of the US invasion to this region at the beginning of the twentieth century – scholars such as Sara Molpeceres have argued that the threat of the zombies reflected colonial anxieties of the West in relation to uprisings in the colonies and fears of reverse colonialism (Molpeceres 2017, 155). I therefore suggest that in the context of the Greek crypto-colony just like supposedly lazy Greeks are imagined as a threat to the economies of other European countries, inhabitants of Greece seen as zombies reflect western anxieties of the end of their financial domination, should Greece and other countries stop complying to the rules of global capitalism.
In the context of the crisis, we cannot overlook the obvious association of the zombie with capitalism. In order to repay the Greek debt, the citizens are forced to work under harsh conditions, getting paid questionably low wages due to the austerity measures, only to have to give their earnings back to the state in the form of increased taxes. Capital is seen as the zombie-maker turning the workers into production machines that cannot enjoy the fruits of their labour (Cain and Montgomerie 2019, 4). The TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) doctrine becomes the “overlord”, leaving no room for escape to the zombified workers, as Cain and Montgomerie have also argued (Cain and Montgomerie 2019, 5). The interconnection between austerity measures and the zombie metaphor lies in its embodiment as a “remorseless zombie seeking to feast on anything it its path” (Cain and Montgomerie 2019, 6). Therefore, the zombie metaphor has a double function: it denotes the trope of the “brainless” workers that have lost touch with themselves in an effort to survive capitalism as well as frames capitalism and austerity as both the zombie master and the zombie itself. The latter becomes evident if we read the zombie as an entity that wants to consume and contaminate everything and everyone until they all become completely assimilated to the capitalist machine.
What these articles fail to do, however, is to represent the crisis in its complexity and multiplicity of perspectives or contribute to imagining alternative futures. If the zombie apocalypse has come in the form of inescapable debt and if workers in Greece live their lives as capitalist zombies, what is there left to do? Do the workers have a choice or are they victims of the crisis without the possibility to resist?
The Zombie as Resistance
I want to highlight that even if the metaphor of the zombie is somewhat problematic when referring to people living and working in Greece, it can also be viewed (or, rather, used) as a form of resistance.
Saldarriaga and Manini have argued that the zombies and the apocalyptic narratives of the end of the world signify the end of the world as we know it (Saldarriaga and Manini 2022, 4). This also entails the end of capitalism, as zombies no longer participate in the means of production and consumption of commodities (Saldarriaga and Manini 2022, 19). For the Greek crisis this post-apocalyptic scenario that entails the end of capitalism as we know it could be related to the proposals for Greece to exit the euro and use its own currency, which could either have a positive or a catastrophic impact in the Greek economy. While this would not necessarily entail the end of a capitalist system in Greece, in my opinion the fears that were portrayed in the media about this scenario certainly reflect the fears of a post-apocalyptic reality.
Saldarriaga and Manini also argue that "[z]ombies have taken over the state's biopower" and "if biopower decides who can be allowed to live and who must die, zombies, by biting noninfected bodies are simultaneously killing them and allowing them to live for eternity" (Saldarriaga and Manini 2022, 23). This statement attributes agency to the zombies and moves beyond their conceptualisation as victims of colonial rule or of capitalist productivity. Here the zombies, perhaps following indeed their instincts for endless consumption, which has been interpreted as a metaphor for capitalist consumers, have also the power to determine who can survive the zombie apocalypse (e.g. Reitz 2022, 103 and 109). Moving beyond the trope of the few, selected survivors fighting for their lives, the zombies unsettle the power structures of the state by offering the gift of eternal life just with one bite. In this case, it is the zombies that survive the apocalypse by establishing a new order of things. In the case of Greece, I propose reading the power of the revolting zombies in connection to the imposed austerity measures. In combination with the promises for the end of capitalism, the gift of eternal life from the zombie could be seen as a gift of exempting people from the reality of austerity measures or the exploitative working conditions.
Of course, when speaking specifically about the bio- and necro-power of the state, other forms of violence come to mind, for instance the crimes committed against those who have been traditionally governed as "lesser Οthers" through a mixture of heteropatriarchal biopolitics and necropolitics. The violent treatment of these lesser Others is far from over as the increased number of femicides in Greece the last few years showcases. In this case, the figure of the zombie as a being queering the binary of life and death can be associated with that of the ghosts in hauntology (Derrida 1994). Similarly to the ghost as “[...] that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive”, the zombies can be interpreted as byproducts of the collective unconscious and the collective remembrance of femicides (Davis 2005, 373, quoted in Maldonado 2019). The patriarchal oppression which is dominant in Greece, among other societies, and which comprises the system that allows for the murders of femininities to happen, is the system that allows monstrous figures, such as the zombies, to haunt our collective imagination, along with the collective guilt of (some of) the people living in Greece for being "implicated subjects" (Rothberg 2019). However, if we see the zombie metaphor as an agent for socio-political change and the zombie as a figure that takes the state's biopower in its hands, we could argue that this type of collective haunting can have a positive impact in our dedication and motivation to take action against certain persistent and prevailing injustices.
Of course, the reinterpretation of this metaphor is not the solution to systemic and structural violence. It is a stepping stone, in my opinion, to change the way we perceive reality beyond the TINA doctrine, which can then encourage us to fight for the kind of futures we want. The TINA doctrine imposes on those of us who are affected by late capitalism in negative ways the emotive responses of hopelessness, despair and the impossibility of claiming better living conditions. However, similarly to the zombies holding the power for emancipation in their bites, we, humans of late capitalism, have the agency to fight against the ghosts of modernity/ coloniality and their interconnection with capitalism, which still haunt us.
To conclude, I believe that using the zombie metaphor in the media during the crisis entails catastrophic connotations for the future of Greece, and puts those living in Greece in a place of Otherness through their association with zombies. At the same time, the potential for resistance lies at the core of the metaphor: similarly to projecting the fears of the West about revolutionary acts in the colonies, the metaphor entails the potentialities for resistance and for imagining different futurities both in the context of contemporary capitalist states and of the 'Greek crisis'.
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Katerina Kallivrousi is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam and works as an editor, researcher and art mediator. Katerina is based between Leiden,The Netherlands and Athens, Greece. Her current research focuses on Greekness in contemporary art through a critical perspective, which examines Greek national identity in relation to antiquity, whiteness, crypto-colonialism and Europeanness. Her research interests lie in the domains of contemporary art, post-/ de-colonial theories and practices, as well as critical gender and race studies. Intersectionality is key to Katerina’s approach as it enables a better understanding of the correlations between art and contemporary socio-political issues. As a young art professional Katerina is very much interested in conscious curatorial practices, institutional critique, and artistic activism.