One of the more curious cultural movements in recent years has been the increasing interest in zombies, and in particular the dystopian visions of a world following the zombie apocalypse.
Part of the fascination has to do, I think, with the value of thought experiments in speculation about such futures, however improbable. There may be something to be learned from gazing into a sort of fun house mirror, the distorted image of humanity as seen in zombies.
But zombies have not only captured the popular imagination. They have also become the object of academic (or at least ‘intellectual’) discourse.
Peter Paik, for instance, has a working paper at SSRN on “The Walking Dead” as an exploration of attempts to escape the “state of nature,” characterized by pessimism regarding “a better future and the fear of moving beyond an economic system that permits unlimited acquisition.” Neoliberalism is for Paik the defining feature of the run-up to the zombie apocalypse, which might say more about the captivity of academic discourse to dominant modes of cultural interpretation than anything of value about real-world political economy: “The mindless, undead ghoul that consumes the flesh of human beings lends itself almost too easily as a metaphor about our current economic predicament.”
One of the takeaways from the surprisingly (at least to me) interesting World War Z has to do with a central insight into post-apocalyptic political economy, and is a word of caution pace Paik concerning the relative valuation of a “neoliberal” order. At one point, Gerry Lane’s wife Karin appeals to Gerry (Brad Pitt) to talk to his friend, Thierry, an official with the UN. Gerry response: “Thierry isn’t in charge of anything anymore.”
Indeed, in the zombie apocalypse the guys with the guns are in charge, and as the Lane family certainly finds out, those without guns or something valuable to offer are left entirely at the mercy of such dictators, benevolent or otherwise.
Another way of getting at the political economy of the zombie apocalypse is to explore just how thin the bonds of civilization really are. In the midst of crisis, the relationships and desires that truly matter to people quickly crowd out things that are less esteemed. Things quickly return to, as Paik (and Hobbes before him) puts it, a “state of nature,” in which human beings band together based on bonds of familial loyalty or obedience to strength.
Lester DeKoster invites an exploration of an apocalyptic vision of a world without the civilizing bonds of work:
Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the store shelves, gas pumps dry up, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end and utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in tents, and clothed in rags.
Sounds pretty much like the depictions of the zombie apocalypse to me. “The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work,” concludes DeKoster.
The zombie apocalypse is a world without the dignity of free labor, a world of barbarism, and the result is what Acemoglu and Johnson would call an “extractive” political economy, where the guys with the guns run things.