Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Zombies, anarchy, and Occupy Wall Street

ANDREW CHUNG/TORONTO STAR

This is going to be a long piece, and it's merely the beginning of something I want to explore, so it doesn't come to any definitive answer but rather asks a multitude of questions. So bear with me, as I'll probably come back to this again and again.

I think we can all agree that post-apocalyptic scenarios have taken a strong hold on mass culture right now. One only has to look to the ubiquity of zombies in order to prove this. The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland (the last two being metacommentary on zombie fiction itself) are all pernicious examples of post-apocalyptic scenarios.

The fantasy of the post-apocalyptic scenario is that society is inherently fragile and that only the strongest of individuals can manage to survive the extinction event and continue to survive using primitive skills and modern knowledge. Sometimes, in the more optimistic fiction, society is rebuilt by a smaller group, with smaller goals but ultimately, without the bureaucracy of a government. If a government is installed in these particular optimistic scenarios, it is usually a benevolent Leviathan. More often than not, the prevailing attitude of this fiction is of cure cynicism and hopelessness. Humanity is inherently brutish and violent; the apocalypse is therefore inevitable.

Part of the attraction of the post-apocalyptic scenario, I believe, is the removal of the social safety net. I don't mean the economic one per se, but the safety net of a collective organization motivated by altruistic goals. That is to say, that I think the ubiquity of post-apocalyptic scenarios is related to the rigidity and stability of current North American civilization. We are living in the safest possible time in the history of humankind. We are living in the most prosperous time in the history of humankind. Everybody has a cellphone; everybody has access to the Internet in some form or another. We are so privileged as to be considered full of self-entitlement. The reaction to this stability is a fantasy of removing everything, taking away that which makes society function (technology, government, social bonds) for a highly individualistic pursuit of self-reliance. It's also a fantasy of removing the highly bureaucratic and powerful government. Young people tend to express dissatisfaction and distrust of their current government (not really a new thing, though) so the fantasy is a reaction to this. We fantasize a world in which there is no government.

Thus, the post-apocalyptic scenario is a fantasy of less government into a system of chiefs, as per the social complex hierarchy, or even less, that is to say, anarchy. The key is that the target demographic for zombie fiction are fantasizing en masse a world in which there is no government.

So why then are young people protesting for more government? The Occupy Wall Street protests, which I think we can take to be the most vocal of all the protests occurring in North American culture, and can probably be taken as representative of young people's opinions (considering the ubiquity of the "occupy" meme), are essentially arguing for more government. From the New York Times, here is a clear enunciation of the Occupy Movement's goals:
They sought to have banking-industry regulations tightened, high-frequency trading banned, all the “financial fraudsters” responsible for the 2008 crash arrested, and a Presidential commission formed to investigate corruption in politics
None of these things are anarchy. In fact, they are the opposite. In the article I linked to above, the author claims that many of the initial protesters identified themselves as "anarchists". No doubt, this is true. However, as the Occupy Movement gathered steam, and its nebulous goals seems to finally come into focus, that which they protested for didn't look anything like anarchy. It looked like more government. It looked like socialism and other left-leaning ideologies that argue for more Leviathan.

Thus, the two fantasies are incompatible: zombies/anarchy and Occupy/increased government.

Before I continue, I should qualify my statements regarding the Occupy Movement. First of all, it's a mistake to think that any one individual speaks for such a wide-ranging and politically diverse group, spread across vast geographical distances and without any clear leadership. Secondly, it's imprudent to consider the Occupy Movement as being representative of an entire culture. It's more prudent to consider them more vocal than other dissenting opinions.

However, let me qualify my qualifications. I think we can all agree than young people tend to vote more radically than older people. That is to say, that as people age, they become more conservative and tend to vote for more socially conservative values rather than economic values. I believe it's fair to say it's axiomatic that young people are more left-leaning as a collective group than right-leaning. On the impossibly complex political spectrum (which has four axes, not two), younger people tend to vote more authoritarian on the social scale and left on the economic scale.

Let me put this another way. Young people believe that the government should help those that cannot help themselves and they generally do not support wars for purely economic reasons. They also believe that their tax money should go to help themselves and not serve to help corporations. When I write this blog post as an academic paper, I'll be sure to do the research to back this claim up, but I'm fairly confident in my assertion (ipse dixit etc).

We return to the biggest question:  a fantasy of anarchy is incompatible with the way young people vote.

How are we holding two mutually exclusive conditions in our head? Cognitive dissonance aside, it might serve to examine the economic reasons why and perhaps even the gender roles encapsulated by post-apocalyptic scenarios. It's far more complex than simply "no more government".

In a previous post on this blog, I pointed to economic reasons for the prevalence of hook-up culture. In summary, it has become increasingly attractive to pursue relationships of minimum economic drain, with marriage being the relationship with the maximum amount of drain. Of course, I tend to view things dispassionately and without "morals" so my conclusion was that this was neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but simply a thing.

I believe the logic of this conclusion (minimum economic drain) can be mapped onto post-apocalyptic scenarios with a bit of shifting. Perhaps instead of a fantasy of no government, it's in fact a fantasy of no economy.... No market, no capitalism, no advertising, no credit cards, no bills, no coins, and most importantly to my proposition, no debt. Perhaps the mass appeal of the zombie holocaust is that it is the great equalizer. The student loan crisis is quickly approaching in the United States. Let me quote from a report on the impending student loan bubble:
Based on CPI data, the cost of tuition and fees has more than doubled since 2000, outstripping the inflation rate across all goods, as well as the growth rates of energy, housing and healthcare costs. Despite all of the attention that house prices receive, it is noteworthy that even during the housing bubble, real estate appreciation was far exceeded by the growth rate in tuition. Fears of a bubble in educational spending are not without merit.
This comes from this report.

If we combine the student loan debt with the precarity and rarity of jobs currently available, we can perhaps see the attraction of all debt being erased and all humans put on the same level. No more advantages due to social connections, no more advantages due to familial fortunes. It is the great equalizer.

The post-apocalyptic scenario presents a fantasy in which the debt that you have incurred has been cataclysmically erased, freeing you from a) the responsibility to repay debt (which is culturally inoculated) and b) the obligation to find gainful employment, something also culturally inoculated and economically motivated. Being free from these means being free from society. Of course, if government falls during the selfish pursuit of economic freedom, then that's even more advantageous and we might rebuild society from the ground up.

Notice that I said the selfish pursuit. Certainly the freedom from economic pressures isn't due to altruistic motives such as what the student loan bubble will do to the nation but what it does to the individual. This maps very neatly onto another part of the fantasy of the post-apocalyptic: heteronormative gender roles, specifically concepts of masculinity.

I've been thinking a lot about masculinity ever since my father, while cycling, punched a driver after their car clipped his elbow. I thought about avenues of expression of violence and aggression and that modern males in North America are increasingly without. Edward O Wilson in his book The Social Conquest of Earth writes that many sociobiologists and psychologists have looked to the fandom of professional sports as the true ancestor of tribal warfare and masculine aggression. While that might be true, it's too large for the individual case. Not every male attends sports functions and not every male has the opportunity to express aggression. For my father, a generally "civilized" man who never raised a hand to his only child, to punch a man was the utmost extreme act, something so rare in his life as to be anomalous. Current humanitarian society has us internalize violence and associate any expression of it with guilt. However, that doesn't mean that we aren't straining to express our inner turmoil through "manly" pursuits such as fights, hunting, killing, sports, etc.

Part of the post-apocalyptic fantasy includes a return to tribalism, primitivism and basic hunter-gatherer roles. Which is to say that men get to sharpen sticks and fasten pointy rocks to them. All phallic imagery, of course, but I'm not interested in playing Freud. Post-apocalyptic fiction, from the lowest (C grade zombie flicks) to the highest (McCarthy's prize-winning The Road) tend to linger over the creation of weapons, the manipulation of weapons and the fetishizing of violence. To put it another way, post-apocalyptic scenarios include the fantasy of returning to generally masculine roles.

Perhaps this is a reaction to the success of feminism. Perhaps this is a reaction to equalization of sexes. I'm not sure. This bears examination. But I'm sure that it is related to the attraction of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, both in terms of economic equalization (Project Mayhem's ultimate success) and reaffirmation of masculine activities (aimless fighting). Even though both the book and the movie finish with a rather dim view of outmoded gender stereotypes and the futility of destroying credit companies, fans of the film seem to think that Fight Club is an enjoinder to reject society's strait jacket for a more nihilistic or anarchic worldview.

But again, the biggest fans of Fight Club appear to be middle class young men who generally vote Democrat or Liberal or NDP. Neither of which stand for anarchy.

Where are the anarchists? In the photo above, the symbol for anarchy has been spray painted onto a wall. The image comes from an article that implies four individuals in Montreal were associated with the anarchist movement. They were arrested for inciting panic over bomb threats or something like that. It's not important. These anarchists, if they are truly anarchists, would totally reject the post-apocalyptic scenario. Yes, reject it.

But why? Surely they would argue that any fantasy provided by capitalism is a distraction, and a self-indulgence. It is an attempt to pacify and indoctrinate you, confuse and manipulate you. The cultural logic of late capitalism is typified by the frantic waves of repeated commodities, ones that clumsily tap into the collective fantasies. Particularly, as Jameson points out, ones that exalt the individual with the ability to navigate the geographical and political and economic world.

Again, we return to the idealization of the individual. Typically, in postmodern works (as formulated by Jameson), this individual is male. In post-apocalyptic scenarios, the protagonist is generally a lone male who reluctantly joins a smaller band and ultimately leads them into an uncertain future. Part of their success in survival is the manipulation of weapons (something the average male is unable to do/has little access to and thus becomes part of the fantasy) and the navigation of the geography, which has turned increasingly hostile (zombies, plant life, animals). Henri Lefebvre sort of touches on this, if I remember correctly, in that the urban space has a specific effect on the individual. The urban space can control. The postmodern fantasy is the reverse: mastery of space. Again, we can see economic and gender fantasies at play in the post-apocalyptic scenarios.

So now we come to the end of this long post. Like I said at the beginning, I don't have the answers and this is merely the beginning of something bigger and something more substantial. Maybe even a thesis.... I don't know. Let's summarize the questions, shall we?

1) Why are post-apocalyptic scenarios so popular in culture?
2) Is it a reaction to the structure and stability of the current era?
3) If so, it's a fantasy for less government, not more. Why then has this not transposed to the political arena?
4) That is to say, why are the Occupy Wall Street protests arguing for MORE government (eg socialism, regulation)?
5) Or is the fantasy of post-apocalyptic scenarios more economic? That is to say, a cataclysmic relief from student debt (which is staggering in size in the US)?
6) Would question 5 serve to answer why young men are so attracted to Fight Club's Project Mayhem? Or does it have to do with reaffirmations of masculinity - which would fit into fantasies of zombie scenarios?

I want to examine each of these in fairly specific detail, and I've already written 2200 words about it. I can see this going somewhere. I just don't know where yet.

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