The Ethicist: Zombie as Allegory
I have spent the last two weeks binge watching The Walking Dead, a strangely gripping series set in a decimated United States after the zombie apocalypse. All the things that make life in 21st century North America comfortable and safe are lost: abandoned cars clog highways, making travel difficult for the few living survivors; the cities are dangerous quagmires where zombie hordes lurk around every corner; and all the vestiges of government – the army, the police force, the CDC – have disappeared, leaving the survivors entirely responsible for their own fates.
The show is gripping, in part, because it presents human life at its most precarious: every day might be the characters’ last, and the means of death – the walking dead, with their rapacious, insatiable hunger – are everywhere. Moreover, what happens after death-by-zombie – resurrection as an animated corpse, with appetites but none of the other attributes that make us human – is a truly horrifying fate: those who die in this way become what they themselves most feared. Finally, the series violates one of the unspoken rules that most TV shows follow, namely, that central characters must survive. In The Walking Dead, no one is safe, which means that, as a viewer, your emotions are continually engaged: you fear for the survival of your favorite characters, feel something akin to real grief when they are felled by the zombie bite.
The Walking Dead, of course, participates in a much larger zombie meta-narrative, one that is taken up in other works and told in various formats: novels, graphic novels, films. Because this is the case, and because these zombie stories have an important place in popular culture, we can ask philosophical questions not only about what this particular successful show might reveal about our anxieties, concerns and preoccupations, but what we might learn about ourselves and our society from the mirror that the zombie narrative holds up to us. Just as the fictional characters often become what they most fear, so, too, the zombie narrative itself can be understood as something that reveals to us our (almost unconscious) fears. I will make the case that the larger zombie narrative can be understood in a number of ways, and that two of the most obvious possibilities – as allegory and as thought experiment – have important ethical lessons to teach us as we consider the world that we live in today. I will consider the zombie narrative as an allegory in this column, and as a thought experiment in a future one.
An allegory can be understood as a way of getting at truths about the nature of human existence, and about essential features of human beings, by means of fictional figures who play symbolic roles. In the case of zombies, they are not simply figments of their creator’s imaginations whose activities are designed merely to entertain us, they actually reveal important truths about the our reality; these truths, moreover, are presented in their starkest form, uncluttered by rhetoric, ideological commitments, and the distractions which beset our daily lives. In short, while the zombie narrative is fictional, it nonetheless provides us with a clear access to unpalatable truths about our society, our world and ourselves that we might otherwise not be able to see, or not see as clearly, if, indeed, we are consciously aware of them at all.
NeoliberalismOne of these truths is that we live in a world profoundly shaped by the presuppositions of neoliberalism and by the implementation of neoliberal policies by many governments, including those in the UK, other parts of Europe, the United States, and Canada.
Neoliberalism emerged around 1980, and many of the problems that currently face us – whether they be the huge increase in the number of refugees seeking safe haven, environmental disaster, escalating prices for pharmaceutical drugs, fears about immigration and its perceived link to terrorism, and even the loss of manufacturing jobs in places like Nova Scotia and Ontario — can be directly or indirectly traced to the rise and triumph of neoliberal thinking and to the implementation of neoliberal policies.
In his wonderful little book, Friendship In An Age Of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism, Todd May describes neoliberalism as “an emerging and intersecting set of practices, embedded in a particular economic orientation” which holds that “an unfettered…capitalist market is the best and most efficient way for an economy to be run.”
Neoliberalism rejects the commitments of the welfare state – the idea that governments have an obligation to improve the lives of their citizens through the provision of a strong social safety net, paid for by a progressive taxation system, and by policies of wealth redistribution designed to ensure that all citizens can live a relatively decent life – and claims, instead, that all distribution should be determined by the mechanisms of the capitalist marketplace. In neoliberal societies, it is asserted that it is the responsibility of individuals to provide for themselves, not to look to governments for help, and that taxation on the wealthy in order to provide for the poor is a form of legalized theft.
Whenever you hear a politician say (as an increasing number, even here in Canada, are wont to do) that we can’t afford to spend money on public libraries or public housing, that the CBC should have its funding cut and compete with private broadcasters or that we must give big tax breaks to multinational corporations so that they don’t move their factories to Mexico or China, you can be pretty sure that the speaker has accepted the neoliberal framework. Likewise, when it is presented as self-evidently true that taxes must be lowered (with the biggest tax breaks going to the very wealthy), that economic growth is always good and that environmental regulations should be weakened because they slow economic growth, you can be pretty sure that neoliberalism (metaphorically speaking) has taken over the discussion.
Friedman’s ‘freedom’Neoliberalism, however, is not only an approach to economics, it has a second important dimension; leaving markets unfettered by regulations and allowing individuals to sink or swim depending on their abilities to succeed or fail in the marketplace is considered by proponents of neoliberalism to be a matter of freedom. Milton Friedman, a quintessential neoliberal theorist, states:
Economic arrangements play a dual role in the promotion of a free society. On the one hand, freedom in economic arrangements is an end in itself. In the second place, economic freedom is also an indispensable means towards the achievement of political freedom.
In short, the neoliberal believes that if we value freedom, we must allow people to act in ways that that they choose, not require them to act in ways that are dictated to them by the government. For example, it is wrong (according to this perspective) for governments to levy high taxes on me to support social programs, because I might prefer to spend my money in other ways: why should I be forced to spend my hard-earned money to support those who are too lazy to support themselves?
May notes that the story that neoliberals tell themselves (and us) about the connection between unfettered capitalism and personal freedom can be understood very differently if we step outside the neoliberal paradigm and question its presuppositions. Another way to understand it (and a way which seems truer, more accurate, based on the evidence) is that:
[T]he rhetoric of freedom used to justify neoliberalism is actually a cover for a more insidious project, that of transferring wealth from the middle and lower classes back to the upper class… we can, therefore, interpret neoliberalism as either a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism or as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites.
These possibilities are not mutually exclusive: both accurately capture aspects of what we can call the neoliberal project.
Neoliberalism, May argues (and I agree), not only does damage to the environment (because neoliberals don’t believe that companies should be forced by governments to meet environmental standards) and to the welfare state (since neoliberals believe the poor should take care of themselves), it also does damage to us, and to our relationships with one another. As May puts it:
[N]eoliberalism undercuts solidarity and promotes discord. If workers threaten to organize for better conditions, companies simply have to threaten to move somewhere else, somewhere that has a more compliant workforce.
Neoliberalism also contributes to the rise of xenophobia, a fear of strangers, because workers start to fear that immigrants will “take their jobs.” Neoliberalism, consequently, is hard to resist; since workers know that their jobs are tenuous, they will accept working conditions that are dangerous, poorly paid or exploitative, because they know that if they complain, the jobs can be moved elsewhere. Neoliberalism is hard to resist for another reason as well: because it shapes our political, economic and social discourse, its ideological claims now seem to many to be self-evidently true, and its political project is obscured by the veneer of economic realism.
All of this brings us back to the zombie apocalypse: how might we understand the zombie narrative as an allegory of neoliberalism? In at least three ways.
First, the world created by neoliberalism, like the world of the walking dead and the few living survivors, requires us to think in terms of “us” and “them,” of those who belong and of those who don’t, of those who are fully human (the “living”) and those who are almost human, but not quite – the poor, the immigrants, the refugees, the temporary foreign workers.
Like “the walking dead,” their place in society is unclear, their status tenuous and their presence threatening. Workers in a neoliberal society, as we have seen, must be kept compliant, must not demand too much – and the only way that this can be accomplished is to ensure that the fear that they might lose their jobs to the “other” is ever present. The poor, meanwhile, are what we most fear becoming, just as the zombie is what the survivors in the world after the zombie apocalypse most fear turning into. Consequently, we dislike being confronted by them, would prefer not to think about them at all. Neoliberalism, then, often harnesses the forces of xenophobia, racism and distaste for the poor to further its economic ends: workers must resent and fear the “other,” who might take their jobs, rather than focusing on the real culprit, the multinational corporation that threatens to take their jobs elsewhere, or to give them to someone else.
Second, as noted above, the “other” must be presented as almost – but not quite – human: if we were to see them as fully human, we might feel solidarity with undocumented workers, sympathy for refugees, welcome more immigrants, demand that the government institute a guaranteed annual income so that no one need fear abject poverty. If these people are seen – like the walking dead – to be not quite human, then we can feel justified in ignoring or even fearing them, and what they might do to us if we let them get too close.
Consumers & EntrepreneursFinally, neoliberalism reduces our relationships with one another to a series of economic calculations. In a neoliberal world, May argues, there are really only two options open to us: we can be either consumers or entrepreneurs (and most of us may be both, in alternate moments). The consumer, May asserts, is not simply the “person that buys things.” Rather, “the consumer is the figure for whom buying is a central part of the sense of who one is.”
When we feel that the brand names on our clothes, the make and cost of the car we drive, and the kind of wine we drink tell others not what we like but who we are, we have taken on the role of consumer. The entrepreneur, on the other hand, uses others to advance his own ends, sees others “as means for personal gain.” Entrepreneurs don’t make friends, they “network;” they don’t produce things, but they have investments; and the entrepreneur evaluates all interactions with others in terms of their economic possibilities.
Those who have survived the zombie apocalypse in shows like The Walking Dead – those who remain living human beings surrounded and continually threatened by the living dead – are forced by their circumstances to evaluate everyone else, if not in economic terms (since, of course, in the post-apocalyptic world, the economic system has collapsed), but in terms of their utility: the weak (children, the elderly) become liabilities whose presence may jeopardize the survival of the group. In such a world, genuine human relationships are difficult to maintain and costly to work on: better for those who are strong enough to worry only about themselves. The weak, consequently, must hope that the strong will show them mercy and kindness, but they can have no expectation that this will be the case.
The world of the walking dead, then, can be understood as an allegory of what neoliberalism looks like when it is taken to its logical conclusion: the government has completely collapsed, and so has no place in the lives of the survivors: they are both completely free and completely self-reliant. Those who possess the requisite skills will survive, and those who are weak will not, in just the same way that, in an economy structured along neoliberal lines, those who can succeed will flourish, and those who cannot are seen to deserve their fate. Finally, the “other” is always a ghostly or a real presence lurking just out of sight or chomping at your throat, in just the same way that the immigrant, the foreign worker, or the terrorist masquerading as refugee is always somewhere in the background, justifying punitive immigration policies and closed borders: if we let them in, who knows how they might devour us? The poor, meanwhile, like the zombie, are what we most fear becoming.
Neoliberalism, as we have seen, is hard to resist because its presuppositions are now widely accepted, and because many of its policies now shape our politics and our economics. However, as the zombie narrative, understood as an allegory of unfettered neoliberalism tells us, resist it we must, if we want to preserve the vestiges of the social safety net that remain, and to view other people as friends or colleagues, rather than as people who may or may not be useful to us. A fully-realized neoliberal world, that is to say, is the world that exists after the zombie apocalypse, and it is not a world that any of us would want to live in.
Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.
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