Sunday, December 11, 2016

'The Walking Dead' and Machiavelli

For a while I've been meaning to post about the political economy of one of my favorite shows, The Walking Dead.

Anybody who has been paying attention should understand the zombie apocalypse was just the catalyst for the breakdown of society. It could have been a plague, a nuclear war.... Over these 7 seasons, zombies have increasingly become background; the real drama is human. It is the drama of the survivors after civilized society has shattered.  (And I hope everybody realizes that the "walking dead" refers not only to the zombies, but also the survivors who are still walking. As Louis C.K. put it, we'll all spend way, way more time dead than alive.)

I'm a political science major.  So the last few seasons of The Walking Dead for me have been the best. I know a lot of fans miss the first few seasons, when survivors were frantically scavenging and trying to survive the hordes of zombies.  Then they figured out how to do that, and pretty well I might add. What they still haven't figured out how to do is survive other survivors.

My thesis is that The Walking Dead is a meditation on the nature of human civilization.  What the survivors are trying to do is basically run through the last few millennia of human civilization in just a few years in order to survive, an erstwhile civilization that developed on outwardly growing circles of human association, like tree rings: first family, then clan, tribe, groups of tribes, nation, nation-state, country, and global citizenship.

In the real world, our human civilization is located somewhere between country and global citizenship. I've posted before about Jeremy Rifkin's empathy thesis and what it will take for us to become a global citizenry....

In TWD, all of that development has been deleted.  We're back to the start. But even worse this time, most families have been destroyed, so the first and most basic human connection has been severed. The protagonists in TWD make do by making their closest fellow survivors a kind of surrogate family.  Rick's family has started over the first few seasons to extend into a clan or tribe... And that's about as far as civilization has progressed from the ashes.

So enter Negan.  What would Machiavelli say about Negan?  What would he advise Negan to do? Probably, "Be yourself."  There is really no viable alternative in the TWD world.

Where I predict the story arc goes -- and I haven't read the TWD comics, so I may be way off -- is that the threat of Negan is the catalyst to unite the disunited tribes in the vicinity, who will ultimately rise up against him in victory.  But without Negan, those tribes would have warred, traded suspiciously, or avoided one another for a very long time.  In a way, Negan is both an inevitability and a blessing to accelerate the rebirth of human civilization. If there were no Negan, another Negan would have arisen in his place.

But imagine Negan will be victorious in his parochial neck of the American woods.  We still have Fear the Walking Dead on the west coast. Surely we have other Negans or Ricks in the U.S. south, midwest, northeast, etc.  Eventually these groups -- call them tribes or more likely nations -- would develop, expand and encounter one another and be forced to adopt a policy of fight, trade and cooperate, or live and let live.  This takes us back to a period of human history before Christ.

Violence, conquest, slavery and exploitation were integral parts of human pre-history described vividly in the Old Testament.  TWD is about reliving all of those stages of human history in fast-forward speed.  I find it fascinating and can't wait to see how it all turns out.  In TWD, humans are the stars of civilization in rebirth, even as the survivors are surrounded by the (much less deadly) walking dead in the background.

So, for fans who miss the first few seasons, please understand that it couldn't have turned out any other way.  Negan had to happen.  And -- without moral judgment -- Negan is not necessarily a bad guy, considering all of the Negans in human history who united disunited, warring peoples and gave them some kind of security, and allowed some measure of human society to flourish -- including science, the arts, literature, and so on.

We aren't the heirs of just Socrates, Plato, Locke and the Founding Fathers, we're also the heirs of Alexander the Great, Julius Ceaser, Genghis Khan and Napoleon.  Don't knock Negan: the post-apocalyptic world needs him for now.

One may point out that the development of human civilization today isn't congruent. In some parts of the world, like the Amazon or even Afghanistan, clan or tribe is still the dominant phase of human development. Thanks to globalization and the developed world's competition for resource dominance, those societies have come into increasing contact with the globalized, neoliberal, Western world. This incongruence inevitably leads to conflict. Yet this isn't a clash of civilizations; it is a clash of different levels of development.

Let's not confuse this clash with the clash created by refugee migrations caused by civil war, conventional war, or drug wars, as in Central and South America.  Iraq and Syria were, until recently, fairly developed countries economically with stable political systems, albeit undemocratic.  There war and the collapse of civil order pushed civilization back to association by tribe (based on religious sect); but sectarian or tribal conflict was a result, not a cause, of those conflicts and refugee crises. Just look at Aleppo today, where thousands of Syrians want to stay in their homes rather than become refugees despite merciless war crimes comritted against them.  They are being forced of their homes at the point of a gun.

In no way am I endorsing or even justifying the xenophobia of the Geert Wilders or Donald Trumps of the world.  Indeed, those populist demagogues are not only attacking "the other" in places like Syria but also peaceful citizens and residents of their own respective countries, most of whom have been living peacefully and productively in those countries for decades.  They are being scapegoated.