Monday, February 24, 2014

More from the Archdruid and his readers on zombies, part 1

Apparently, I’m not done with The Archdruid and his readers on zombies, which is appropriate on another night when “The Walking Dead” is on.  In Fascism and the Future, Part One: Up From Newspeak, which I linked to in The Archdruid on Fascism, part 1, Greer linked back to his previous essay on the subject, Fascism, Feudalism, and the Future.  That entry from 2007 opened with the classic image of collapse that lends itself to the Zombie Apocalypse.
One of the things that I can’t help noticing, as someone who listens for narratives in the ways people talk about the future, is the way that certain motifs reappear over and over again in discussions surrounding peak oil and the future of industrial society. These are distinct from the great mythic stories that shape so many accounts of the future – the myth of salvation through technological progress, for example, or its usual debating partner, the myth of redemption from an evil society through apocalypse. The motifs I’m speaking of here are more self-contained and more flexible, and pop up in most visions of the future in circulation these days.

One classic example is the image of mindless, marauding hordes spilling out of the dying cities and ravaging everything in their path. This one has been a recurring cultural nightmare in the western world for a couple of centuries now, since the cities of the industrial world disconnected themselves socially from their agricultural hinterlands and began filling up with immigrant populations. Read such classic fictional treatments of the theme as Newton Thornburg’s Valhalla (1980) and it’s clear that on this side of the Atlantic, at least, it roots into the enduring emotional legacy of American racism, the terror of the dark Other on which the shadow of white America’s unacknowledged desires has long been projected.

You can look through history books in vain for examples of urban populations invading the countryside en masse in the twilight years of civilizations, but the motif remains stuck firmly in place. The inhabitants of Willits, one of the few American towns that have taken the imminence of peak oil seriously, have apparently laid plans to blow up highway bridges leading into town from the south, to keep those imaginary mobs at bay. Willits is in liberal northern California, but it’s embraced the same fantasy that leads survivalists on the opposite end of the political spectrum to indulge in wet dreams about automatic weapons blazing away at marauding hordes.
The very first comment noted the connection to our culture’s current interest in zombies.
Erik said...
mindless, marauding hordes spilling out of the dying cities and ravaging everything in their path.

And the late resurgence of pop-culture interest in all things zombie-related is surely not a coincidence...
With that, Greer’s readers were off to the races.  Follow over the jump for more.

Greer showed that he hadn’t yet noticed the rise in the popularity of zombies in his response.
Erik, I hadn't even thought of that. I don't spend a lot of time following pop culture. Of course you're right; I suspect the insistence of figures such as the late Carl Sagan that modern scientific civilization is about to be overrun by the forces of barbaric superstition draws on the same imagery.
Even as Greer responded to Erik, J Rob chimed in.
I think the "hole up in your cabin and take pot shots" mentality comes from a deeper, reptilian function in the brain. It all sort of ties in with the "marauding hordes" meme, and the desire to pull up the drawbridge and withdraw. That's what makes the story so seductive, and why a conscious effort is required to overcome it.
yooper took two shots at the marauding hordes idea.
It's precisely this line of thinking why I don't hang around such sites that entertain thoughts of conspiracy, fascism or feudalism theories, period. These mindless authors, are like the marauding hordes spilling out of the cities, you talk about. I'm not about to argue whether or not this is true, however, I will argue whether this will really matter at the end of the day?
As for marauding hordes spilling out to the countryside... I think, there's ample evidence most people usually stay put, even to the bitter end, "going down with the ship", is what I call it.
Work kept piling up, as more readers tackled the meme.  Joel said.
"Willits is in liberal northern California..."

    Uh, John? Have you been making too-liberal use of that good Northern California herb?

    It's about 5,000 people, with a median household income just a shade over $25k per year. I have lived in two such Northern California towns before, and they were not, not, not liberal. They wanted to keep their drugs, but also their guns and their racial purity.

    Rural Californians are, by and large, either grumbling about how illegal aliens took their jobs, or they own farms or other businesses and feel that they've been forced to use migrant labor in order to stay alive financially.

    It is no surprise to me that residents of Willits would plan to dynamite a bridge to keep out marauding hordes and gu'mmint agents.
I think Joel has this one right.  I’m originally from California, and rural California, even rural northern California, is pretty conservative.

Jean-Michel took a more sanguine view of the topic.
About marauding hordes: it is maybe a myth, an unnecessary scare, but I see them with my own eyes already!

    They are nice human beings, like you and me, but they have the bad habit of travelling in large groups without a credit card, a suitcase and a passport. And they like to make surprise arrivals. And you know, they are very hungry because they do not have a car (therefore they burn calories) and they sleep outside.

    It is true that they travel from country-side or city to city. It is not their intention to stay too long in-between, but still they are there. It is disturbing, to say the least. "A glimpse of things to come?"

    When they come in very large numbers, the best bet, is to take our losses, recognize the extent of our mistakes and unpreparation and get ready for sharing the content of our fridge. Those who fire the first shot will bear a huge responsability. And anyway, "marauding hordes" will win.

    Maybe there is a deep connection/duality between marauding hordes and fascism/feudalism whatever they mean.

    In the future, the former may not exist without the latter.

    The two faces of the same coin, the same nightmare scenario: limited ressources for too many people.

    And therefore, the unavoidable fate unless something happens...
In other words, he turned it into an immigration metaphor, not a zombie one.

Greer had his hands full answering his readers.
J Rob, thank you! Yes, the marauding hordes motif ties into some very deep bits of hardwired psychology. Most of the motifs that dominate discussion of the future these days do that.

Yooper, unfortunately you're quite right -- a very large number of people, especially in the industrial world, are likely to refuse to make the changes that could save their lives and their societies. It's to the others that these posts are addressed.

Joel, since I don't own or drive a car I haven't been able to visit Willits myself, but the websites make it look a good deal more liberal than not. As for street gangs, yes, they're in many ways the nascent form of a feudal society; their interface with the international drug trade is a function of the fact that they exist in a global economy. As we tip down the far side of Hubbert's peak, the boards of directors will go away but the gangs will not.
Jean-Michel, most interesting. Here on the rural west coast our local migrants, mostly from Mexico, are additions to a well-established community and have a major role in local agriculture; there's an entire Hispanic economy locally, with stores and the like that might as well have teleported there one night from some neighborhood in Guadalajara. My guess is that what the future holds in an age of volkerwanderung is a steady increase in the Hispanic population all over the American west, until the entire region becomes a set of Spanish-speaking countries with mostly Mexican culture. What remains to be seen is whether the current Anglo-American population will remain as an English-speaking ethnic minority in isolated areas, like the Celts in post-Roman Britain, or whether they'll simply vanish into the majority culture.
All of those are interesting insights.  That last one is something that scares a lot of people out west, but it doesn’t bother me much.  After all, most of the current U.S. west of the Mississippi was owned by Spain at one time.  Maybe it’s fitting it returns to a state that reflects that history.

One last reader left a comment that showed that he took the image of masses of people roaming the countryside literally and added a historic dimension to it.  Unfortunately, it also showed that he didn’t really understand the point of the metaphor.
Seán Harnett said...

    Great post, Jon, but I don't think that the image of mindless, marauding hordes is as mythic as you claim (where 'mythic' is read as meaning metaphorically but not ontologically true).

    In books such as The Pursuit of the Millennium, for example, the historian Norman Cohn describes the millennial cults that sprang up in medieval Europe in times of social/economic crisis or at the approach of apocalyptically significant dates; sometimes, these cults emerged when both sets of circumstances converged, leading to particularly strong manifestations of the phenomenon.

    He further relates how such movements were perceived by medieval commentators, who, almost without exception, likened them to ... mindless hordes. At best, such 'hordes' are described as wantonly undermining political, economic, religious, and social order before their momentum faded and they dissolved. At their worst, however, such movements--usually led by a strongly charismatic leader--are described as plunging entire regions into a mass hysteria than often culminated in the slaughter of Jews or other scapegoats.

    Cohn argues that these contemporary accounts come close to capturing the historical truth of such movements; I'm not entirely convinced this is so. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the existence of these millennial cults is well-attested in the historical record, which leads me to conclude that our current obsession with the imagery of mindless, marauding bands of sub-human ravagers does has some basis in historical experience.
Greer was not impressed.
Sean, I'm specifically talking about the modern survivalist fantasy of urban hordes streaming out of the cities in the wake of collapse. Of course there have been hordes, of various kinds, in the past; it's the specific fantasy I'm discussing that needs challenge.
That was probably the first time zombies made an appearance on Greer’s blog, but it wasn’t the last. There have been at least two more entries that I haven’t yet examined, The Preponderance of the Small and Garlic, Chainsaws, and Victory Gardens in which he mentions the zombie apocalypse.  Stay tuned for future installments on Sunday night.


  1. Second and certainly Third Generation Latinos tends to be almost purely English speakers. The Hologram is *very* powerful.

    1. As an expatriate Angelino, I'm quite aware of that. However, Greer assumes that The Hologram will disappear in a century as part of The Long Descent. In addition, this is an entry from seven years ago. He might have learned something since then.

  2. Since you just linked to it over at the Druids, I am just reading this now.

    The Druid is a pretty smart guy, but have you ever seen him admit he is flat out wrong? He may hedge a little, but that is about it for what I have seen.

    There is one problem with the whole discussion:

    As someone who has read a lot of apocalyptic fiction (or as I have called it at times apocalypse-in progress), the genesis of the rampaging hordes is obvious. It comes from the fear of nuclear/chemical weapons being dropped on cities. The fear of being blown to pieces, or the cities becoming poisoned for the survivors, forces the exit. An immediate (non-rampaging) precursor to this is the British sending children to live in the countryside during the Blitz. What is amusing is that when the nuke threat lessened, and things like economic collapse started to become popular, the assumption of the rush from the cities was too deeply embedded to be questioned much.

    On an historical note, I might also add that there have been cases of rampaging hordes leaving cities. This occurred frequently during times of plague/pandemic. Today with better knowledge of what is happening, I suspect more people would just hole up in their homes. But those with summer homes, etc. probably would head there.

    Oddly enough, the reverse, rampaging hordes from the countryside into town was also common. This happened during severe famines. In medieval times, only the cities/towns had much in the way of extended grain storage, so you do have quite a few cases of cities (recorded in Italy in particular) trying to figure out what to do with the starving folks coming in from the countryside. In one case I read, they collected them outside the city gates, gave them a silver coin and a loaf of bread and told them to move along.

    1. "The Druid is a pretty smart guy, but have you ever seen him admit he is flat out wrong? He may hedge a little, but that is about it for what I have seen."

      No, I haven't. I caught him in a serious misunderstanding of the Demographic Transition last week but I didn't call him on it because I realized that I'd better have all my ducks in a row before I did. I never got around to finding the sources to support my reply before it came time for a new essay. The start of a new semester the next day will do that.

      Also, thanks for the historical perspective on the "rampaging masses." Those are good points worth recycling.