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Zombie Apocalypse and the Politics of Artificial Scarcity

By       Message Colin Jenkins       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   16 comments

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Dystopian narratives have long been an alluring and thought-provoking form of entertainment, especially for those who take an interest in studying social and political structures. From classics like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World to the current hit, The Hunger Games, these stories play on our fears while simultaneously serving as warning signs for the future.

Their attractiveness within American society is not surprising. Our lives are driven by fear. Fear leads us to spend and consume; fear leads us to withdraw from our communities; and fear leads us to apathy regarding our own social and political processes. This fear is conditioned as much as it is natural. The ruling-class handbook, Machiavelli's The Prince, made it clear: "Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

The idea of apocalypse is a central tenet of human society. We've been taught about Armageddon, Kali Yuga, Judgement Day, Yawm ad-Dīn, nuclear holocaust, the end times, the four horsemen, and the Sermon of the Seven Suns. Hierarchical societal arrangements leave us feeling powerless. Exploitative systems like capitalism leave us feeling hopeless. And the widespread deployment of fear ultimately keeps us in our place, and out of the business of those who own our worlds.

The last half-century has brought us the zombie apocalypse - a fictional world where the human race has largely been transformed into a brainless, subhuman hoard of flesh-eaters, with only a few random survivors left to carve out any semblance of life they can find in a barren landscape. The emergence and immense popularity of the TV show The Walking Dead is the latest, and perhaps most influential, piece in a long line of narratives centered within themes of survival, human interaction, and scarcity.

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Human Nature and Interaction

Behind all political battles, social critiques, and theoretical inquiries lies the most fundamental question: when left to our own accord, how will we interact with one another? How one answers this question usually goes a long way to how one perceives the world, and how issues are viewed and opinions are formed. To our dismay, potential answers are typically presented in dualities. Are we good or evil? Competitive or cooperative? Generous or greedy? Violent or peaceful?

A common theme among religion has been that human beings are "born into sin" and heavily influenced by "evil forces" to do harmful things. One who embraces this theme will tend to have less faith in humanity than one who does not. For, if we really are engaging in a daily struggle to resist the powers of evil, it is reasonable to assume that evil will take hold of many. How can we trust anyone who, at a moment's notice, could potentially lose the ability to act on their own conscience? The common theme of our dominant economic system - capitalism - is that human beings are inherently competitive and self-centered. When combined, it is easy to see how such ideologies may create intensely authoritative and hierarchical systems. After all, people who are influenced by strong and evil metaphysical forces while also being drawn toward callous, self-interest certainly cannot be trusted with free will.

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This lesson is drilled deep into our psyches with each episode of The Walking Dead, where the potential threat of flesh-eating zombie hoards become an afterthought to the clear and present danger of "evil" humans who are out to get one another. Whether it's a sadistic governor charming an entire town with violent gladiator events, an outlaw gang with the obligatory pedophile, or a pack of hipster cannibals salivating at the thought of eating their next visitor, the intended theme is clear - human beings are not capable of co-existing, even in a world where they rarely interact.

But is this idea accurate? Are we really drawn toward conflict? Must we compete with one another to survive? Is it appropriate to apply Darwin's evolutionary theories in a social sense where the "fit" are meant to gain wealth and power over the "weak"? Or are we, as Peter Kropotkin theorized in his classic Mutual Aid, more inclined to mimic most other species on Earth, which have been observed over the course of centuries to exhibit "Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution?"

There is ample evidence that we are drawn to cooperation. "Caring about others is part of our mammalian heritage, and humans take this ability to a high level," explains neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt. "Helping other people seems to be our default approach, in the sense that we're more likely to do it when we don't have time to think a situation through before acting. After a conflict, we and other primates-including our famously aggressive relatives, the chimpanzees-have many ways to reconcile and repair relationships." Studies have shown that in the first year of life, infants exhibit empathy toward others in distress. Evolutionary Anthropologist Michael Tomasello has put "the concept of cooperation as an evolutionary imperative to the test with very young children, to see if it holds for our nature and not just our nurture. Drop something in front of a two-year-old, he finds, and she is likely to pick it up for you. This is not just learned behavior, he argues. Young children are naturally cooperative."

So, if we are truly inclined to cooperate with one another, why is there so much division and turmoil in the world? The answer to this question may be found by assessing not only the mechanisms of capitalism, but more importantly in the creation of artificial scarcity as a means to maintain hierarchies.

Capitalism and Artificial Scarcity

It is no secret that capitalism thrives off exploitation. It needs a large majority of people to be completely reliant on their labor power. It needs private property to be accessible to only a few, so that they may utilize it as a social relationship where the rented majority can labor and create value. It needs capital to be accessible to only a few, so that they may regenerate and reinvest said capital in a perpetual manner. And it needs a considerable population of the impoverished and unemployed - "a reserve army of labor," as Marx put it - in order to create a "demand" for labor and thus make such exploitative positions "competitive" to those who need to partake in them to merely survive. It needs these things in order to stay intact - something that is desirable to the 85 richest people in the world who own more than half of the world's entire population (3.6 billion people).

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But wealth accumulation through alienation and exploitation is no t enough in itself. The system also needs to create scarcity where it does not already exist. Even Marx admitted that capitalism has given us the productive capacity to provide all that is needed for the global population. In other words, capitalism has proven that scarcity does not exist. And, over the years, technology has confirmed this. But, in order for capitalism to survive, scarcity must exist, even if through artificial means. This is a necessary component on multiple fronts, including the pricing of commodities, the enhancement of wealth, and the need to inject a high degree of competition among people (who are naturally inclined to cooperation).

Since capitalism is based in the buying and selling of commodities, its lifeblood is production. And since production in a capitalist system is not based on need, but rather on demand, it has the tendency to produce more than it can sell. This is called overproduction. Michael Roberts explains:

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Colin Jenkins is founder, editor, and Social Economics department chair at the Hampton Institute: A Working-Class Think Tank.

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Zombie Apocalypse and the Politics of Artificial Scarcity