The zombie apocalypse has arrived

By Felix Salmon
October 1, 2013

Have you been involuntarily furloughed today? Are you looking for a good way to spend some of your newly freed-up time? And do you want to understand what’s really going on in Washington? In that case, I can highly recommend that you read John Powers’s brilliant article, The Political Economy of Zombies, over at The Airship.

In Powers’s view, the zombie apocalypse is less horrific than it is utopian: it’s a way to cleanse the world of its otherwise ineradicable neoliberal capitalism, and to pave the way for a much more equal post-capitalist (and post-Zombie) society. “The zombie apocalypse,” he writes, “is as close as we have come in the past 30-odd years to producing a convincing utopian vision for the future that grows out of our present circumstances.”

It was easy to see a lot of people dressed up as zombies during the Occupy protests, and Powers explains what was going on: “Zombies were not being equated with corporate capitalism – they had become the revolution itself. Zombies had become the alternative to the system with no alternative.” Powers quotes anarchist economist David Graeber as saying that neoliberalism has “succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism – and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semi-feudal capitalism we happen to have right now – is the only viable economic system.”

And he also quotes (of course) Slavoj Zizek:

Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world – an asteroid destroying all of life and so on – but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.

And then he explains why zombies have become such a common theme in popular culture:

For movie audiences, the mainstream, the 99%, catastrophes aren’t something to dread; they are something to look forward to. They are a catharsis, a conceptual clearing of the deck. They are the implosion of the banking towers at the end of Fight Club, they are the destruction of the White House in Independence Day, they are the wholesale destruction of the entire global map in 2012.

Powers dates the era of utopian zombiedom to the release of 28 Days Later in 2002, a film which opens after the zombie apocalypse, with a scene of Cillian Murphy exploring the now-empty streets of what was formerly the capital of capitalism:

I remember seeing Boyle’s film when it came out in theaters. I went to see it, not because it was a zombie movie, but despite that. Everyone I knew was buzzing about the opening scene in London. It was that image that got me and a lot of other “not into zombies” guys and gals to go see 28 Days Later. It was that same image that got people excited to see I am Legend: It was Manhattan emptied. It was the end of buying and selling. For the majority of us who live within the capitalist system but aren’t of the neoliberal breed of capitalist, catastrophe means no more mortgage payments, no cell phone surveillance, never again having to bicker over what is or isn’t a preexisting condition. Catastrophe voids all obligation, makes the world anew.

Go read Powers’s essay for the, er, fleshed-out version of this argument: it’s well worth it. Or, just watch what Powers calls “the finest moment of all ecstatic wealth destruction in the zombie movie canon”, from Zombieland. My point is that Ted Cruz, and the Tea Party generally, are basically doing their best to play out this exact fantasy. By shutting down the government, they are destroying not a desert gift shop, but rather billions of dollars of real-world economic activity.

In doing so, the Tea Party is proving that it, truly, is the party of the 99% — of the masses who thrill to zombie movies, who fantasize about living in a post-zombie utopia, who understand that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. We live in a country where the best way to ensure blockbuster status for your summer movie is to blow up as much stuff as possible — a building, a city, the entire world. Highbrow film critics might find such wanton destruction horrific, but the typical moviegoer just finds it thrilling. And when you look at the grass roots of today’s Republican party, it’s easy to see a bunch of heavily-armed zombie hunters: today’s downtrodden masses, perfectly positioned to become tomorrow’s post-apocalyptic elite.

The Tea Party’s “tear it all down” mentality — the worldview which has shut down the government today and which could conceivably even end in debt default, if the debt ceiling isn’t raised — is not, then, the result of any particular political philosophy. I doubt that Ted Cruz spends overmuch time reading Graeber or Zizek. But it’s real, all the same. And if you think that a government shutdown somehow decreases the probability of a debt-ceiling catastrophe, it might be worth thinking again. I fear that instead it might just whet the Republicans’ appetite for more.


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You give the Tea Party far too much credit. They are incapable of thinking as deeply as you suggest; they are delusional and simplistic. They are in denial, disconnected from reality. They are anti-government while being wholly dependent on government. They have no idea how things work (“get your government hands off my medicare” is not just an anecdote, but a typical example of their level of understanding).

The Tea Party is not the party of the 99%; the TP wants no government, while the 99% wants a government that works for them, not just the 1%. The TP should be part of the 99%, but they view the Occupy movement as their enemy, and ridicule them.

You also give Cruz far too much credit. He’s just a political opportunist, not a populist revolutionary. But he, and the TP, are not the problem. They represent a small percentage of the population, and a small fraction of the Republican party. The problem is not that they are delusional and simplistic, but rather that the Republican leadership is the biggest group of cowards to ever get elected to Congress. They are unwilling to stand up to the TP, for fear of a primary challenge, so they refuse to bring a solution that could easily pass to a vote. That’s it, John Boehner is afraid of losing his job, so he won’t just let the whole house vote on a bill that the full house will pass and end this nonsense.

However, Boehner’s fears will come true. He will lose now, it’s almost guaranteed. He will get a primary challenge, probably both from the tea party and from a moderate Republican who is embarrassed for his party. But the damage will be done.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

KenG_CA, you’ve either got some very secret inside information that the rest of us are unaware of, or you’re hopelessly naive if you think there are *ANY* moderate Republicans in Ohio’s 8th Congressional District that will challenge John Boehner.

I think you’re right about the threat of primary challenges from the right motivating the average G.O.P member of The House, however.

Posted by Strych09 | Report as abusive

Strych09, thanks for the laugh. I used the word “moderate” loosely, it’s all relative you know.

I don’t understand why Boehner just doesn’t hold the vote, and if they do knock him out next year, he can become a lobbyist, like all good country club Republicans aspire to. It would be far easier, and he wouldn’t have to give up working on his tan, and would be able to attend even more cocktail parties (that would be his primary job). Big companies would owe him a favor for ending the stalemate, especially if he repeats it in a few weeks with the debt limit.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

Hey, as long as the government is “shut down”, everyone will have an easy explanation for why some of the new health care exchanges are snarled and not taking applications.

Since they don’t have to actually supply any healthcare benefits until Jan. 1st, let the government be shut down until then.

Personally I’d like to see Social Security and Medicare and the postal service shut down as well. Let’s see just how long these freedom-loving independent gun nuts last if they actually have no access to the government benefits they so despise.

Posted by Eastvillagechic | Report as abusive

This is indeed a very interesting point I had never thought of – that zombies encompass the public’s desire for revolution. However, I believe the interpretation given here is exactly reversed : tea partiers represent the last gasp of the .01% that should be hanging from trees already, as their entire agenda is to ensure the top captures an ever larger share. Fight Club is hardly a story of maximizing corporate revenue.

Posted by brianpforbes | Report as abusive

I think the article is very insightful.
Whether the tea party itself is accurately reflecting the 99%, I think the point is that there is a significant number of tea party supporters who don’t buy the NAFTA espousing, FED sycophants, “market” (the market that says don’t renew food stamps but give trillions to banks to save “capitalism)acolytes that have resulted in 40 years of wage stagnation as well as wage reduction in the last decade. These people see no good reason for things to continue as they have been, and have no interest in saving or having the present state of affairs continue. They are mad as hell, and they are for whoever is the most angry and wants change. I doubt that the tea party really wants to stick it to wall street, but in the choice between tweedle dee democrats and dweedle dumb republicans, as least the tea party republicans act angry (I think they should be angry about inequality, not Obamacare, but most at the bottom are inarticulate about their anger).
When President Obama appointed The Bernanke, Timmy Geithner, and the whole Bob Rubin/Summers Wall street deregulation crowd, he just reaffirmed that Clinton, Bush, and Obama really are all butt boys of wall street, and that rising GDP that goes to the 1% is important, but the decline in median income is not.

Posted by fresnodanhome | Report as abusive

+! to Ken

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

Yes, the Zombie Apocalypse (ZA) can be a useful model of human behaviour. To adapt to what is possible in practice, the political spectrum’s well tested parties have had to shed any previously upheld ideological rigour. An otherwise vacant lot of hopes and dreams can be imagined as the dumping ground for the political spectrum’s ideologically hazardous waste (iHazte). The nihilistic wrecking ball of the ZA consists of that iHazte, which, when put into practice, reduces to rubble anything built according to the specifications drawn from the unprincipled principles of the practically possible. Post-Zombie Apocalypse (P-ZA), however, after the wave of satisfaction amongst the rabble breaks upon the rubble, what’s left to do? What prospects would await those who might build anew amongst the P-ZA rubble? Perhaps the Mayans provide a relevant history to consider in this respect.

When the Mayan civilisation collapsed, the various societies that had been united within it ceased to support the centralised authority that organised the construction and maintenance of the Mayan cities, which the Mayan peoples abandoned for a decentralised system of village life. It’s thought that the human population of the Earth in those days was about 1% of what it is today. When the Mayans left their cities, then, each person on Earth had about 100 times more space available than any one of us today, and due to substantial degradation of the productive capacity of the environment in the meantime, each had substantially more than 100 times the subsistence-enabling resources that would await a Post-Zombie-Apocalypse Pioneer (P-ZA Pi) today. Also, there were no arsenals of thermonuclear devices or other modern WMD to worry about when the Mayans went out for P-ZA. Thus, while the timing of the Mayan P-ZA Pis was well suited for surviving a P-ZA, the ingredients for survival just aren’t abundant for any would-be P-ZA Pi in our time.

The next full moon falls on October 18. It is estimated that, without authorisation to exceed its current debt ceiling, the USA will default on October 17. If the USA is in default on October 18, the accompanying full moon might then be dubbed the Default Moon. If that Moon hits the eyes of some new P-ZA Pis, ’at’s a worry. To use an analogy, once Death-Metal-Punk-Rap is where the musical centre of gravity is found, hasn’t music collapsed into a singularity, beyond the harmonic event horizon of which any melody will strain nevermore? And they’ll be singin’, “bye-bye missed American Pi…”

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

KenG_CA watches waaaayyyy too much MSNBC and CNN. Like other progressives I have the utter mis-fortune of having in my daily life, he is entirely incapable of framing a discussion because HE IS WITHOUT FACTS.

Only blind hatred is in his heart because blind ignorance is his god.

Posted by HamsterHerder | Report as abusive

Hi Felix

You and Powers make an interesting point about the sense of catharsis people get from watching some apocalypse movies – particularly the frisson of excitement when a landmark building representing authority is destroyed.

I remember one of my old English teachers (the wonderful Peter Mackintosh – who looked like Count Dracula in his academic robes) back in 1977 getting us school children to explore similar feelings when we read Day of the Triffids (particularly the section describing shops crumbling into the streets of London) and Lord of the Flies – the sense of dread counterbalanced by a sense of wild release.

Stephen King evokes a similar fascination at the start of his epic horror novel The Stand, when he describes the rapid spread of the plague and equally rapid breakdown in civilised society. Part of us hopes it never happens and part of us takes a guilty pleasure in wondering just how (heroically) we would cope.



Posted by HuwSayer | Report as abusive

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