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.
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.
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 classicMutual 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).
But wealth accumulation through alienation and exploitation is not 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:
Overproduction is when capitalists produce too much compared to the demand for things or services. Suddenly capitalists build up stocks of things they cannot sell, they have factories with too much capacity compared to demand and they have too many workers than they need. So they close down plant, slash the workforce and even just liquidate the whole business. That is a capitalist crisis.
When overproduction occurs, it must be addressed. There are multiple ways to do this. Marx addressed three options: “On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.” Another is through the destruction of excess capital and commodities. Whichever measure is taken, it is paramount that the economy must emerge from a starting point that is different from the ending point where the crisis began. This is accomplished through creating scarcity, whether in regards to labor, production capacity, or commodities and basic needs.
Maintaining scarcity is also necessary for wealth enhancement. It is not enough that accumulation flows to a very small section of the population, but more so that a considerable portion of the population is faced with the inherent struggles related to inaccessibility. For example, if millions of people are unable to access basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare, the commodification of those needs becomes all the more effective. On the flip side, the mere presence of accessibility – or wealth – which is enjoyed by the elite becomes all the more valuable because it is highly sought after.
In this sense, it is not the accumulation of personal wealth that creates advantageous positions on the socioeconomic ladder; it’s the impoverishment of the majority. Allowing human beings access to basic necessities would essentially destroy the allure (and thus, power) of wealth and the coercive nature of forced participation. This effect is maintained through artificial scarcity – the coordinated withholding of basic needs from the majority. These measures also seek to create a predatory landscape – something akin to a post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled world where manufactured scarcity pits poor against poor and worker against worker, all the while pulling attention away from the zombie threat.
Control through Commodification
A crucial part of this process is commodification – the “transformation of goods and services, as well as ideas or other entities that normally may not be considered goods, into commodities” that can be bought, sold, used and discarded. The most important transformation is that of the working-class majority who, without the means to sustain on their own, are left with a choice between (1) laboring to create wealth for a small minority and accepting whatever “wages” are provided, or (2) starving.
In The Socioeconomic Guardians of Scarcity, Philip Richlin tells us that:
“When society deprives any community or individual of the necessities of life, there is a form of violence happening. When society commodifies the bare necessities of life, they are commodifying human beings, whose labor can be bought and sold. Underneath the pseudo-philosophical rationalizations for capitalism is a defense of wage slavery. For, if your labor is for sale, then you are for sale.”
We are for sale, and we sell ourselves everyday – in the hopes of acquiring a wage that allows us to eat, sleep, and feed our families. In the United States, the 46 million people living in poverty haven’t been so lucky. The 2.5 million who have defaulted on their student loans have been discarded. The 49 million who suffer from food insecurity have lost hope. The 3.5 million homeless are mocked by 18.6 million vacant homes. And the 22 million who are unemployed or underemployed have been deemed “unfit commodities” and relegated to the reserve army of labor.
The control aspect of the commodification of labor comes in its dehumanizing effect – an effect that was commonly recognized among 18th and 19th century thinkers. One of those thinkers, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, when referring to the role of a wage laborer, explained “as whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness, suggesting that “we may admire what he (the laborer) does, but we despise what he is,” because he is essentially not human.
The worker, in her or his role in the capital-labor relationship, exists in a position of constant degeneration. This is especially true with the onset of mass production lines and the division of labor – both of which are inevitable elements within this system. “As the division of labor increases, labor is simplified,” Marx tells us. “The special skill of the worker becomes worthless. He becomes transformed into a simple, monotonous productive force that does not have to use intense bodily or intellectual faculties. His labor becomes a labor that anyone can perform.” As automation and technology progress, such specialized task-mastering even seeps into what was once considered “skilled” labor, thus broadening its reach.
In this role, workers are firmly placed into positions of control within a highly authoritative and hierarchical system.
A World beyond Profit
Dystopian narratives are no longer fiction. From birth, we are corralled into a system that scoffs at free will, stymies our creative and productive capacities, and leaves us little room to carve our own paths. The constructs directed from above are designed to strip us of our inclination to care and cooperate, and make us accept the need to step over one another to get ahead. This is not our nature. Whether we’re talking about Kropotkin’s studies in “the wild” or Tomasello’s experience with children, observable evidence tells us we’ve been duped.
Another world is not just possible; it is inevitable if we are to exist in the long-term. In Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Murray Bookchin offers a glimpse into this world not constructed on labor, profit, and artificial scarcity:
“It is easy to foresee a time, by no means remote, when a rationally organized economy could automatically manufacture small “packaged” factories without human labor; parts could be produced with so little effort that most maintenance tasks would be reduced to the simple act of removing a defective unit from a machine and replacing it by another-a job no more difficult than pulling out and putting in a tray. Machines would make and repair most of the machines required to maintain such a highly industrialized economy. Such a technology, oriented entirely toward human needs and freed from all consideration of profit and loss, would eliminate the pain of want and toil-the penalty, inflicted in the form of denial, suffering and inhumanity, exacted by a society based on scarcity and labor.”
The barren landscape for which we’ve been placed has a future beyond Hershel’s overrun farm, the confines of a prison, the Governor’s creepy town of Woodbury, and the trap known as Terminus. It has a future beyond the artificial constructs of capitalism and hierarchy. Human nature is talking to us… and we’re starting to listen.