Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The triumph of Neo-liberalism and why we love "The Walking Dead"

One of the most popular shows on television for the past few years has not been a reality show, game show, or sports series. It hasn’t been produced or broadcast by the Big 3, HBO, or Showtime. This show, which now regularly beats out Sunday Night Football in the ratings, is AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, a zombie-horror-drama now in the midst of its 5th season. Set in rural Georgia, the show follows an ever-dwindling group of survivors in a post-zombie apocalyptic world. Despite its thin back story and tortoise-paced plot, “The Walking Dead” carries an enormous thematic appeal—that of a modern American society that has completely collapsed, relegating its survivors to a pre-industrial way of life. 

While the show is well known for its outstanding makeup, set designs, and zombie special effects, its real appeal comes from something much more profound. In our 2015 world plagued by staggering income inequality, collapsing middle-classes, impending irreversible climate change, and a gridlocked, non-respondent political system, there is an element of gratification that comes from viewing the collapse of society play out on screen, in all its bloody-gory goodness.

Fiction writer and son of famed film director Mel, Max Brooks has written a handful of books on the subject, including "World War Z," which was recently made into a movie. Brooks said when people start to become uncertain about the world around them, apocalyptic fiction tends to thrive.  “I think we instinctively want to explore the apocalypse when we see what we think is the system breaking down… people have a sense that things aren’t working.”

However, Brooks noted that straight-up apocalypse stories aren’t as appealing.  And that’s where zombies come in.  “It’s human nature to look ahead, but it’s also human nature to turn away if it’s a little too real,” Brooks said.  “So, you put a little science fiction on there, you make the catalyst fake … say, zombies … and then you can watch the apocalypse.” As a metaphor, zombies can work on many levels. “I think they’re a Rorschach test for whatever scares us,” Brooks said.  “They’re also a great metaphor for major global catastrophes, which we’ve been battered with for the last decade.”

Photo from last week's meeting of the American Economic Association (c)AMC

There is something deeply satiating about a world where the complexities of modern society have collapsed under the strain of an unknown and unstoppable disease. Now obviously, tapping into a society’s collective fear and hopelessness and reflecting it dramatically on screen is not a new entertainment strategy--how many dozens of nuclear holocaust movies were made in the 50s and 60s? Nevertheless, it’s tempting to fantasize a world where human fear and incompetent national leadership, having already wrought irreparable damage upon the United States, finally leads to its dramatic demise. The Walking Dead’s post-apocalyptic scenario, in which a populace gripped by fear and a weak government were unable to stop a plague that robbed people of their humanity, does not seem all that farfetched when considering what neoliberalism has already done to our real-life America.

On a recent roadtrip to Florida, large swaths of Interstate 95 were clogged with traffic, forcing me to take the back country state routes through South Carolina and Georgia (coincidentally where The Walking Dead is filmed). While driving this route is much slower, it gave me a chance to take in the scenery of the rural south. Mile after mile of abandoned strip malls and dilapidated motels. Vacant lots strewn with garbage and choked with weeds. Downtowns consisting only of a lonely gas station, post office, used car dealership and the occasional payday loan shop. Places where the American middle class was born, lived, and died….but not completely. A spark of life always remains-- not enough to thrive, but just enough to frighten.

And for those (few) of use with a firm grip on the reality of money in the modern world, we can feel a little like Rick Grimes and his wandering band of not-so-happy warriors. What chance does a small group have against an entire planet swarming with bodies and minds captured by an unstoppable plague? How is it that so many of the elite and the experts could be so wrong? How could something so harmful, so destructive to mankind be so impervious to traditional weapons (in our case, basic financial mechanics)? In our world, it is neoliberal ideology that is the zombie virus. Spreading through fear and panic, it undermines our faith in our fellow man and civil government, and robs millions of people of their ability to live up to their full human potential. 

And while The Walking Dead’s producers may not yet have been able to explain exactly how the zombie strain operated and spread so quickly, we know exactly where neoliberalism came from and how it has so rapaciously spread through our modern society. In our zombie world, the wealthy and powerful are the progenitors, the economists and politicians are the willing vectors, and the citizenry is left to stagger through the countryside in a frightened and impulsive daze.

We all know that zombies can only be brought down with a direct blow to the head, and this zombie ideology is no different. It needs to be attacked at the top-- head on. Simply hacking around the edges wont do much good. Thankfully, unlike the zombie strain, the cure for neoliberalism has been with us the whole time. Explain to people how modern money is a flexible tool that can be used to build society in any way we want, and watch neoliberalism collapse like old Soviet communism. Eliminate the notion of financial scarcity and neoliberalism will go along with it. The only thing standing between us and a prosperous society is this space between our ears, so long as we can keep it healthy. Just don’t get bitten.


Bob Salsa said...

The post misses the primary reason for many who like the show: shooting the less fortunate in the head without the slightest need for remorse - a GOP wet dream.

Matt Franko said...

Nice Justin I think all of this dystopia is damaging to our young people....

And ps dont forget about the scariest of them all the "USD Zombie" .... scary!!!!!!

Detroit Dan said...

Nice post! Thanks

Pinku-Sensei said...

I second what Bob wrote; a lot of the appeal of the zombie apocalypse is a desire to be able to shoot one's fellow Americans without retribution. Another is a fear of hordes erupting out of the cities to devour the countryside. I examine both of these themes, first in The Archdruid and his readers on zombies and then in More from the Archdruid and his readers on zombies, part 1. Just the same, I found your use of the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for the current state of the American economy and society original.

Pinku-Sensei said...

If you want more metaphors, I've summarized what Cracked has to say about them in Zombies, gangsters, and sideshows.

The Just Gatekeeper said...

Thanks for sharing! Glad to add something to the growing school of zombie analysis :)