Will There be Zombies? Part 2

I could go on with this analysis [see Part 1] through system after system, but I think you get the idea, and I would like to turn our attention to another and more serious problem, namely the problem of culture and religion. It is here, I believe, that we confront a situation for which there is no precedent in human history. Here my thesis is very simple: culture has been subordinated to the needs of commerce, a commerce that has exhibited some rather peculiar and even demonic needs. Now, at many times in the past, the merchant has moved culture, and this was not always a bad arrangement. Commerce sought to ennoble itself with culture, an arrangement that was often to their mutual benefit, as many of the monuments of Italy give testimony. The merchant, through his patronage of the arts and the Church, sought to lift up his fellow citizens, ennoble his city, and obtain honor for himself.

But what is happening today is something quite different. Although something of the old spirit of patronage remains, in the main the vast engines of culture have been turned from uplifting the citizen to degrading him. Indeed, the whole point of the exercise is to turn each of us from being a citizen into being a pure consumer; that is, from being a person who takes responsibility for himself, his family, and his community, into being a person whose self-respect is invested only in what he buys, and who is directed only by unregulated and easily manipulated passions.

We are told that the economy is regulated by “self-interest,” but this is a lie. Indeed, it cannot be so, since self-interest is never something known in advance, but rather something discovered by experience. Who among us has not had the experience of getting exactly what we wanted only to find that it wasn’t what we wanted at all? And who has not feared the worst, only to find that it was all for the best? No, self-interest is revealed to us, not known in advance. What we can know—and what advertising appeals to—is our desires. Desire can be converted to self-interest only when guided by the intelligence to good ends and disciplined by the virtues to good means. Intelligence and virtue: these are the enemies of any good marketing program. Modern advertising appeals not to our virtues but to our vices. And it has at its beck and call an incredible and bewildering array of technologies capable of intruding into every corner of our lives and our souls.

Marketing has displaced philosophy to become the preeminent integrative science of the modern age. At one time, we relied on the philosophers to put together all the knowledge that was, and to advise princes, merchants, and soldiers on the proper way of the world. But today, the philosophers have become second-class citizens—even within the academy—and it is advertisers who put together all the knowledge of the world for their own ends. That is, advertisers hire the best psychologists, sociologists, mathematicians, musicians, composers, writers, actors, and artists, and their work directs the engineer and the scientist to push the limits of surveillance and product technology. But this patronage of the arts and sciences has a quite different end from, say, the merchant dukes of Venice or Florence; marketing patronage seeks to destroy the intelligence and play on the vices. That is to say, it seeks to create zombies, people whose lives and brains have been destroyed, and whose only object is consumption.

Let me add a word here on popular culture. I first became impressed with the ability of pure pop culture to see things that had escaped others when I started working with computers back in the 1970?s. These were truly impressive machines; the IBM 360/65 that I worked on was eight or nine feet tall and perhaps five feet wide, with rows and rows of blinking lights and banks of switches. The machine had one million bytes of memory—an incredible number for the time—stored in a row of cabinets as long as this room. Never has there been a scientific marvel which approached the power of the computer.

And yet, as soon as the children got to use these marvels of science, did they use them scientifically? No. They played Dungeons and Dragons; they entered a world of knights and wizards, and lost themselves in the simulacrum of a lost age. That is to say, they recognized it instantly not as science but as magic, and—if anything—pre-modern, and they were right to do so. For electronic technology is fundamentally different from the mechanical and electrical technology that preceded it. When I was a boy, the car was the limit of our technological desires, and every young man, or nearly, thought nothing of pulling the manifold, changing a head gasket, or fiddling with the carburetor. Of course, we never knew as much as we pretended to know, but at least in principle we could have known the whole thing, and known it to any desired degree of precision.

But that is not so with computers, for no matter how many doctorates one holds in computer science, at some point the system disappears into a world of magic. Thus the hardware engineer finds operating systems bewildering, while the systems programmer is mystified by telecommunications, and the communications engineer can’t help you with applications. Expertise in one area is matched by ignorance in other areas, so that to each practitioner of the computer arts, at some point the whole thing fades into a world of wizardry. This is why, when you call him for help, and after pressing “1” for English, Sanjay in Mumbai often appears to be bewildered by your problem; he is not always the wizard to help you, but you both know a wizard is required.

And it is often so that popular culture, guided only by its intuitive and communal wisdom, sees what can’t be seen, but is nevertheless real. But having gained some trust in that, I was still confused by the rather odd phenomenon of the zombies. Why did this rather obscure Caribbean cult of people in a drug-induced catatonic state get so easily transformed into such an elaborate metaphor of the post-apocalyptic world? And why did they think that the world after the collapse would be filled with people stripped of their souls, stripped of all feelings, whether of pain or pleasure, anger or joy, who spent their time relentlessly pursuing one product?

And then it struck me: they aren’t looking into the future, they are looking at the present moment; and they aren’t looking at what will be done to others; they are looking at what has already been done to themselves. The image, so silly on its face, resonates with the young because they know, at some intuitive level, that we are already in the midst of the apocalypse, that the world wishes to strip them of their minds and their hearts and make them pure consumers, and relentless consumers of one product, the advertiser’s dream. They know, in their heart of hearts, that the world is out to get them, and means them no good. They have seen a deeper truth than anyone cares to admit.

And what they have seen is something for which there is no parallel in history. Literature and the arts have always had, as their purpose, the transmission to the young of the most important values of a culture; they were the means of initiating the young into their own history, of telling them their own story. But never in history have such vast engines of persuasion and manipulation had, as their sole purpose, the degradation of the young, the stripping them of their minds and spirits; never has any society deliberately dedicated so much energy and wealth to corrupting its own young, to sacrificing its children to the idol of mindless consumption. There have been, to be sure, periods of bad literature and awful art, but even the worst was done with the best of intents; its purpose was never deliberate degradation for mere commercial advantage. Indeed, the Supreme Court of the United States has once again affirmed that the organized corruption of the young is a commercial right, even as it has affirmed in the past that exposing them to prayer in the classroom would be a violation of their rights. No civilization has ever committed such crimes against its own children.

Or perhaps there is a precedent. The Carthaginians, under siege from the Romans in 146 BC thought they could revive their fortunes by sacrificing their children; 300 children were thrown into a furnace to the god Moloch, but the city fell anyway, the inhabitants were sold into slavery, and the ground sowed with salt so that nothing would grow there, so deep was the Roman revulsion with the city. Carthago delenda est, and no city more deserved its fate.

But what of our fate? Have we not, in a way, committed the same crime to be condemned to the same fate? Have we not condemned our children to be sacrificed to the fires of a commercial Moloch, and must we not suffer a fate much worse than Carthage? Well, after all of this, I have a rather odd message: be of good cheer. We can get through this; we can do this, and perhaps it is only us, and people very much like us, who can do it. I believe that if we keep our wits and our faith about us, we can show our neighbors how to live—once we relearn the art ourselves.

We start by asking what happens in a collapse. The first thing is that the center cannot hold. That is, the central government—and centralized production companies—can no longer provide services to the periphery. At some point, the periphery simply refuses to obey orders or to remit funds. It occurred to me several months ago during discussions of California’s budget problems that there was a simple enough solution. California is facing a 20-month deficit of $38 Billion, yet in that same 20 months, it will remit to the federal government $50 billion more than it will receive in benefits, with the excess largely going to the Midwest states for things they neither want nor need, or to foreign adventures, which nobody needs and only a few want. So the great state of California could solve its problems by simply seceding from the Union. It is, after all, the world’s eighth largest economy and could easily stand on its own. And by seceding not only would the state have funds to solve its own problems, but the fiscal problems of all its cities and counties as well. Of course, Jerry Brown is an unlikely successor to Jefferson Davis, and the people of California are likely not ready for such a radical solution, but sooner or later, such a solution will occur to the states, and there is not much a bankrupt federal government will be able to do about it.

Secession then will cease to be an issue because it will have become a fact. The formal union may or may not continue, and there may even be some attempt at military government, but the army is simply too small to hold a country this size, even assuming the troops are willing to fire on their fellow citizens. States and cities, thrown on their own resources will find their own way. People will simply stop paying taxes. Indeed, large corporations have already done so, albeit by legal and quasi-legal means, and at some point the general public will follow; some 40% are already exempt from the income tax, although they still pay the payroll taxes. And if people simply refuse to pay the income tax, there is not much the Federal Government can do about it. Enforcement of any law depends largely on voluntary compliance. As more entities evade the tax—as the large corporations already do—more will be encouraged to follow their example.

But the large corporations will be having their own problems, and their failure to support the state financially is the commercial equivalent of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Corporate power depends on government power, and both will go down together; they are part and parcel of each other. Without a powerful federal government to enforce patents, people will use the knowledge they have to make the things they need. Without subsidized roads, the Wal-Mart distribution model will be shown to be expensive and inefficient. Without a big government to pick up externalized costs or provide large subsidies, corporate collectives will go the way of all collectives, whose very size condemns them to inefficiency.

But what shall we do, when there is no longer a remote government to care for us and a large corporation to feed us? How shall people get their daily bread when they discover that bread doesn’t grow on grocery-store shelves?

John Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He has authored the book The Vocation of Business, edited Economic Liberty: A Profound Romanian Renaissance and just completed Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.

This article courtesy of The Distributist Review.

  • I’ve been wondering for years when the media stopped describing us as “citizens” and began calling us “consumers”. Nobody seems to remember, but perhaps it was during the 1980’s.

    Whatever is going to happen, it’s bound to be interesting.