The Zombie Apocalypse and its Relevance for Social Justice Demands

Dead silence on the highway: Empty cars being on and beside the street, one upon another or turned upside down. A lonesome policeman wanders through this metal desert. All of a sudden, he spots a child. The child bends down and grabs a stuffed animal. The policeman attempts to approach the child, as suddenly the child turns around and moves towards him in ghost-like apathetic steps while breathing distortedly. The man hesitates – just for some seconds, then points his weapon at the child and pulls the trigger.All at once, for the viewer at least one thing is clear: Common orders and systems of behavior do not apply anymore.

The TV show The Walking Dead (TWD) takes place in the aftermath of the so-called Zombie apocalypse: A virus has affected mankind and has disabled all genuine human abilities except vegetative body functions. What remains are creatures whose abilities to move are exclusively subjected to the feeding instinct – mankind has become zombies. However, there are small groups of human survivors who spend their days looking for food as well as shelter and are fighting the always present possibility of death – they pursue their most basic human needs. Governments and administrations are a thing of the past. So is any kind of common social order.

How can a zombie TV show be of any relevance for our reality? In times of zombie city runs, we are witnessing a significant popularity not only of zombie movies, but also for the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genre in TV and movies in general.[1] Most of these have a raised level of displayed brutality in common. Some intellectuals and journalists therefore claim a relation between TV and an increased level of brutality. But there is a connection to social reality which is not only more obvious, but might also be able to tell us something about nowadays’ modern societies: the relation between social order and individual behavior. In 2007, it was the global economic crises which deeply affected the world economy and massively shattered the feeling of trust in our social and economic order. Above all, the detrimental effects the crisis had within the EU, especially on Greece, Spain and Ireland were as sudden as unexpected. A normality which was at least believed to be firm and stable suddenly seemed everything else than eternal – the fear of a state beyond any order became at least a possibility of thinking.

Living beyond any order

I have constant fear that something’s always near
Fear of the Dark, Iron Maiden

What distinguishes The Walking Dead among other movies or series within the Zombie genre is its characters’ acceptance of this new world beyond common social orders as the new normality: A possible return to a bygone normality is just once at the beginning of the first season an option. Being fully aware of the absence of any social norm and thus any related norm of behavior, the characters in TWD’s plot are torn between norms of cooperation, solidarity and compassion in their behavior on the one side, and norms exclusively subjected to the pursuit of goods which are necessary for survival on the other. Thomas Hobbes metaphorically describes the two strategies of behavior in the state of nature: “Man is a God to man, and Man is a wolf to Man.“[2] (Hobbes 1998: 3) The feeding instinct-led zombies are the paradigmatic manifestation of the latter strategy, the main group’s strategy is the former, at least in the beginning. And it is this first strategy of cooperation and solidarity which is commonly attributed to a modern state’s society – for our group in TWD: the by-gone normality. Our group’s main character and its leader is the policeman Rick who constantly wears his complete uniform in the first season. The odd feeling of the show’s viewer comes from the non-existence of any reference of this uniform: The social order and its norms of behavior and interaction which the uniform referred to do not exist anymore. Still, the group sticks to these norms. However, after various encounters with other groups also looking for the scarce remnants of food and shelter along the wolf strategy, Rick’s group comes to the conclusion that it has to adapt its strategy to the new situation. That is being symbolized by Rick’s abandonment of his uniform. However, his son Karl starts wearing the police uniform’s hat like a sort of cynic caricature. From then on, both strategies are relevant for the group.

Referring to Thomas Hobbes, we can learn something relevant from The Walking Dead’s Zombie apocalypse for our present state of society. Hobbes’ state of nature is characterized by the absence of any sort of authority. Thus, the individuals are not bound by any type of restraint in their daily pursuit of goods. Consequently, as soon as there are less goods than desired by the entire group, interests will collide. Then, man is doomed to choose either the wolf or the cooperation strategy. For Hobbes, the wolf strategy is more likely to be successful as there is uncertainty about the other’s choice: If I long for cooperation when the other is determined to pursue his needs through force, I do not prevail. The uncertainty about the favored strategy leads to a constant fear which again leads to the wish for a certain order to coordinate the distribution of goods.[3] Whereas Hobbes opts for an authoritarian sovereign in order to restrain the individuals’ interactions and eradicate their uncertainty and fear, his argumentation also raises some crucial assumptions which are not being concluded[4]: The demand for the distribution of goods within a community in a way so that all members agree,  does not fade once a sovereign has been instituted. So if a certain group of people within a community are being treated unequally, they will put its order and thus the legitimacy of its sovereign who enacts the order[5] into question, even in autocracies – human need for food and shelter will not fade through repression. And the less authority is considered as such, the more the wolf strategy rises behind the common option of cooperation for pursuing goods of daily survival.

The economic crisis unveils glittering reality – Zombies on Wall Street

Bick black shape with eyes of fire
Telling people their desire
Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling
Watches those flames get higher and higher
Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath

The global economic crises from 2007 onwards heavily questioned economy as an effective means for the acquisition of necessary goods – at least in OECD countries. And what was believed to be impossible within an EU member state actually happened: People from the middle class became poor within months and ended up as homeless on the streets of Madrid and Athens. And in all OECD countries cuts in social spending were initiated in order to stabilize the banking system and the economy. And suddenly pictures of riots and violence from the Paris suburbs in 2005 which had already shocked Europe became more common: Very similar were the riots in England in August 2011 in various towns all over the country. As in Paris, so were the riots in England driven by poor and marginalized citizens, often with a migration background.

The wolf strategy of violence is always an option when the pursuit of goods seems hopeless for individuals in case the distribution mechanisms favor others. The social instability in Athens became so serious that still today some areas are considered as massively dangerous. Hobbes: The „most frequent cause why men want to hurt each other arises when many want the same thing at the same time, without being able to enjoy it in common or to divide it“[6]. It is in times of crisis when the state of nature shines through the glittering surface of a modern state’s society and unveils its fragile foundation: an acceptable distribution of goods of human needs. And it is the Zombie genre which provides us with a prototype to describe our glimpses underneath that veil: The zombie is the greedy stock broker whose strategy is the maximization of profit at all cost beyond morality; the zombie is the selfish politician who cuts spending with those who will not endanger his reelection. And the survivors of the post-Zombie apocalypse are the middle class and those below struggling with the adequate strategy to make their living without abandoning what they consider as crucial: morality or efficiency.

[1] (Post-)Apocalyptic movies: I am Legend (2007), 28 Weeks Later (2007), The Road (2009), Zombieland (2009), Carriers (2009), Cargo (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), Hell (2011), The Hunger Games Trilogy (2012-2014), The Colony (2013), Elysium (2013); TV shows: Falling Skies (2011), Revolution (2012), The 100 (2014); and many more movies and shows.

[2] Hobbes, Thomas (1998) On the Citizen. Edited and Translated by Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3.

[3] Hobbes, Thomas (1991) Leviathan. Edited by Richard Tuck, Cambridge et al.: Cambridge University Press.

[4] However, Thomas Hobbes’ intention was to legitimize the king’s authority. That is why Hobbes led his argumentation towards another direction.

[5] Legitimacy in the definition of Max Weber is simply considered as feeling of legitimacy towards a sovereign by the ruled. Weber, Max (1978) Economy and Society. An Outline of Interpretative Sociology. Volume One, Berkeley et al.: University of California Press.

[6] Hobbes, On the Citizen, 27.

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