Our culture has a current love affair with the end of the world. The Walking Dead is the highest rated show on cable, and has dominated prime-time TV for the last several seasons, generating its own direct hugely successful spin-off and a larger Hollywood infatuation with all things zombie. However, brain-starved “walkers” are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our cultural jonesing for the end of days.
Alien varieties take up their fair share of cultural space in yarns like SyFy’s belated Battlestar Gallactica, TNT’s Falling Skies, and the popular book-turned-film The 5th Wave, which is opening in US theaters today. Not to mention, of course, The CW’s criminally underrated The 100, which thankfully returned for season 3 last night. Netflix even did a half-hearted, not very good plague version with The Between, as did TNT with The Last Ship, and FX with The Strain, a hybrid Vampire/plague post-apocalyptic scenario. FOX even made it comedic with The Last Man on Earth. And these are just the ones that came to me in my brief brainstorm for this piece. I am sure I’m forgetting a good many others.
Whether it is zombies, plagues and viruses, aliens, environmental catastrophe or the ravages of war, we really enjoy asking ourselves the question – what comes after civilization falls? It might seem a vaguely masochistic kind of cultural fascination, perhaps designed to act as a cautionary tale or a way to make life here on the before-side seem much better to us by comparison. But frankly, I don’t think either of those are the reason why the zeitgeist is so enraptured by civilization’s possible collapse. I think it is because we like the idea of a do-over, of a (nearly) clean slate.
Sure, hot showers have their merits, as does the internet and well-stocked grocery stores. There’s a lot to be said for civilization, make no mistake. But what a post-apocalyptic scenario offers, at its most basic level, is the eradication (or near eradication) of sediment structural power. This I think is the fantasy we are indulging amid the more surface level ‘horror’ of these kinds of stories. As frightening as it might be to lose the comforts and protections of advanced civilization, the amount of power individuals suddenly gain at the end of the world is almost hard to overstate.
When civilization falls, everything is suddenly up for debate, and the forces governing your life quickly become entirely immanent to your very local sphere of existence. Your enemies are no longer primarily the alpha numeric abstractions that exist in computer databases and unfairly weigh down your life-chances from amid the bureaucratic ether: crushing debt, bad credit scores, criminal records, grades and SAT scores, petitions for citizenship. When the end of the world comes, all that goes away, and most of the things coming to get you are things you can literally punch in the face.
All power becomes exceedingly local, and revisable at the drop of a hat. Yes, this is a scary thing to contemplate – the fact that the rules are whatever the people immediately present say they are, and they can change at any time. But as scary as that is, it’s also deeply liberating on some level – the rules are whatever everyone present says they are, and it does not require formal petitions, and mountains of Kafkaesque paperwork, and endless committee meetings, and the approval of 10 different offices, and review of 5 others, not to mention the fees incurred by all these things. There is no bigger system, no governmental or corporate set of structures setting the terms that you have no choice but to agree to if you want to do anything at all. There is just what happens moment to moment, on the ground, in the immediate circumstances that everyone shares with rough equivalence.
See, in most of these scenarios, being a privileged person does not usually insulate you or protect you. The people who survive aren’t usually the richest, or the most powerful and they are not usually the ones with societal privileges like whiteness, or maleness or heterosexuality (or if they are, that’s because the story writers are trying to conform to a commercial norm, not because it makes much actual difference in the context of the scenario). Surviving a post-apocalyptic scenario is usually portrayed as being 95% luck, being in the right place at the right time, or just having a greater willingness to believe the threat is real. It’s a great deal of chance, often a small-to-moderate amount of skill, and also just a hearty dollop of sheer perseverance.
Success in the post-apocalypse is governed by two primary forces – random luck and actual merit. People’s life chances actually are a reflection of good/smart choices and genuine skill much of the time. Modern Western Liberal societies enjoy the myth that they are essentially meritocratic, and that success comes to those who are the smartest, and who work the hardest. But if ever there was a more bald-faced lie, I do not know that I’ve heard it. Being wealthy and privileged in our world can mean making an endless series of bad choices and still be considered “successful” and even presidential. Being poor, and black in our world can often mean being killed by a police officer for merely existing, irrespective of the choices that you make. Meritocracy is a complete fiction in our world; but when the world ends, that’s when meritocracy has a fighting chance.
Sure, it’s not as if all sexism or racism or homophobia would instantly die the moment civilization goes by the wayside. But social justice communities are adamant that most of what makes racism racism, or sexism sexism, or homophobia homophobia is institutional, structural power. When there are no more institutions, when the structures that govern our world go into mass system failure, people can still be biased against each other of course, but the playing field will be a lot more level for those of us who historically were working against a heavily stacked deck. When civilization ends, bias and prejudice and group-based hatred mostly becomes a person-to-person power dynamic.
And the disabled? You ask. Won’t they always automatically fare worse? Won’t their genocide be inevitable? Well, depends greatly on the kind of apocalypse we’re having. If it is a biological contagion, or some kind of virus, maybe those with sickle cell anemia, with diabetes, with AIDS, or cancer, or various other biological variations that we call defects will also be the only ones inhospitable to the plague. They may be the only ones to survive. What if aliens invade and exercise mind-control through sound – the deaf would suddenly become humanities’ only hope. Or what if they make everyone blind, and suddenly, those who have been blind their whole lives instantly become the fittest to survive. And indeed, the fallout from certain kinds of apocalypses might make ALL those who manage to survive disabled in some fashion. Many apocalypses would fundamentally redefine what it means to be disabled, likely making disability infinitely more common, and even an advantage in some cases.
I’ll be the first to concede that no one wants to give up functioning indoor plumbing, emergency services, or midnight drive-thrus. There are a lot of comforts and conveniences that if lost, would definitely feel like losses, were the world to come to an end. But the system is a double-edge sword, providing us many benefits but also creating ever more entrenched and impenetrable bureaucracies and institutions that repeatedly service and uplift those who designed them, typically at the expense of everybody else. The clean slate is dangerous, it will inevitably create certain kinds of deprivation and it would in some ways make life a lot harder, for sure. But it would also in a lot of ways make life a lot fairer, and would give the powerless a lot more real power over their lives once again, by returning every conflict back to its direct, local, tangible context.
Yes, the wrong people might triumph sometimes. But the wrong people often triumph right now, and right now, the system is usually set up to guarantee their triumph. At least when the world ends, justice might prevail more often than not as a matter of pure chance. The coin flip of power within the apocalypse makes for much better odds for the downtrodden in many cases than the force of history does for them within civilization. The more out of control the world is, often the more control individuals have over their immediate lives, and the more power they have to make and remake their world according to their own design, rather than the design of those who, through the contingencies of history, now have the power to chronically exploit them in perpetuity.
I would not exactly say I am in favor of the apocalypse. I can barely handle a week of camping. But from the comfort of my living room couch, I can more than a little see what’s appealing about it, this form of escapism that temporarily takes my mind off my overdue, painfully high student loan bill, and my credit score that won’t recover until after I’m old enough to collect social security. Not that it’ll still be around when that day comes. Granted, the water crisis in Flint Michigan would probably see no recovery ever if the zombie apocalypse were to descend tomorrow. But at least Rick Snyder would probably have his face eaten off, so to the people of Flint — who are currently living in a kind of post-apocalyptic scenario already — what exactly is the downside anymore?