Zombie Apocalypse: What Tome Did I Crawl Out From Under?

“Not actually cannibalism… ” Romero’s character clarifies, “cannibalism in the true sense of the word implies an intra-specie activity.  These creatures cannot be considered human; they prey on humans, they do not prey on each other.”  Who is this consumer of all things?  To condemn the rational actor homo-economicus is to give him short shrift and belies the fundamental attribution error; that is, that we attribute to the individual all of the maladies the environment imposes on even the best of us.  If not the individual, then his context must be to blame, and it is capitalist cultures which create consumers.  This paper attempts to explore the utility of the zombie metaphor with a tabula rasa that any such work had ever been done before[1].

The basic strength of this metaphor is based on the idea that when individuals commoditize themselves as labor they present themselves as a market good which is inextricably connected to their rights and liberties (See Okun).  While only their services are remunerated, the mind is essentially partly hostage to the body (See for example Pateman’s 1988 discussion of prostitution).  Marx’s critique of capitalism found in Das Kapital is similar in that we essentially sell our humanity.  Of the mind and body split, our mind is husked leaving behind the means to the mode.  It is exactly this thing, our “Rational Soul,” that led Descartes to consider automata as a meaningful philosophical tool (1909).  Romero confirms that his zombies are automata; “these creatures are nothing but pure, motorized instinct” and to varying degrees zombies generally qualify (1978).  One would argue that any system designed to consume labor, even an educated clerical labor force; much prefers that labor have the lowest possible quality.  This allows it to exchange laborers for the lowest prices; in South Africa and Haiti, zombies work nearly for free.

The word zombie[2] may have derived from the “Kongo word nzambi – meaning ‘spirit of a dead person’” (Davis 1997, 12 and Niehaus 2005, 207).  Zombies also have a historical connection with capitalism, particularly with white oppression and the slave trade.  Dating back to the early 1900’s, South African workers were said to board witches’ trains as zombies, mostly never to return (Niehaus).  These workers were thought to be spiritually dead, obedient, tongues removed and homogeneous, they however ate and worked solely for maize porridge (198).  The resurrected zombie is more consistent with the Haitian variety (Simpson 1940, 503).  The Voodoo mythology surrounding Haitian zombies is said to involve poisoning an individual in two ways.  First the neurotoxins from toads and puffer fish[3] induce a comatose state and then a separate daily drug induced listlessness using the nightshade Datura (Wood 1987).  This was done as a form of social punishment as well as slave labor.

A zombie plague is not likely survivable unless faced quickly, in a large part due to the fact that “the dead can come back to life” (Munz et al 2009, 146).  Plagues themselves also have a rich history as a metaphor for capitalism as far back as The Alchemist from 1610 (Boluk & Lenz 2010, 128).  Real world examples of living dead are much older; in 1126, lepers were given their religious last rights, pronounced dead and covered in a ceremonial shovelful of earth before being ostracized from the community (Thacker 2005).  Alzheimer’s disease is another more recognizable form of living death; however dementia itself is nothing new.  Its Latin root, “demens” means “out of one’s mind” (Aquilina and Hughes 2006, 143).   Boluk and Lens report a “close kinship between plague and textuality,” which includes a consistent narrative for plague texts across time[4] (2010, 128).  Gellner would not be surprised to hear this news, or could even consider it to be spurious to the process of industrialization itself.

Staggering into Stage Right (House and Political Left) 

The Romero zombie hobbles slowly into view advancing commentaries on racism, consumerism and immigration each in turn (Thacker).  The slow zombie and its mental torpor challenge us to face our anti-hero survivor’s assumptions that have landed them into their predicament.  Hemming and hawing, slow zombies are a little bit ambivalent, for example, as to which end to take hold of a gun.  They look like they could be shopping!  The mindless mob becomes a personal indictment, particularly in Night of the Living Dead where the “lynch” mobs tended to be more closely packed.

We are “forced to be free” and we can be happiest in those pursuits which we have already been habituated (Rousseau 1762, 14).  The transformation of strength into righteousness and obedience into duty (2) has a compelling narrative in capitalism.  Work is noble, even when it is not.   To paraphrase Rousseau; “[the zombie’s] first law is to provide for his own preservation,” (3) and then it dispenses with any other laws.  In his chapter on “Civic Religion” Rousseau states that “it matters very much to the community that each citizen should have a religion that makes him love his duty” (77).  Rousseau argues that our civic dogmas and theological religions are essentially the same things.  We create our own suffering, in prisons of our own design.  In perfect Orwellian prose; “slavery is freedom.”  Our free will is a function of predetermined possibility.  This epistemological paradox is a variation of the argument that of a benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient creator is inconsistent with individual liberty.  Government is far from divine, but it does establish other parameters of determinism.  Rather than an infinite regression, it is shrouded behind man forming of a community which forms man; the two are looped in feedback.  Schumpeter’s creative destruction lights on the private sector’s analogue of this institutional phenomenon; “business strategy acquires its true significance only against the background of that process and within the situation created by it” (1942, 82).

Discontentment indicates a problem from Rousseau’s perspective.  In real life, force is not always the most effective measure, particularly when dealing with nonconformist forms of bravery.  There is no shortage of malcontents in popular culture, Tom Petty “Won’t back down,” Peter Finch is “as mad as Hell and …not going to take it anymore.”  Ultimately Rousseau argues that these individuals can be exiled or destroyed (22).  More often, as with these celebrity examples, they become co-opted.  It is not clear that these are really the protagonists of our own human apocalypse as they are still captives.  Most of the protagonists succumb.  It is possible that the zombie metaphor survivors are areas of the world still resistant to capitalism.  This could explain many of the Islamic themes seen in 28 Days Later at the film’s opening.

Running from Stage Left (House and Political Right)

One of the purportedly recent evolutions of the zombie trope is their speed, which is a feature which reshapes them as Hobbesian.  Notably, both “28 Days Later” as well as the 2004 remake of “Dawn” feature faster zombies than most of their predecessors.  The principle threat of slow mobs is their persistence, not decisive action.  Their torpidity was mental and physical.  The new vigor empowers the zombie individual and greatly diminishes the mobocracy metaphor as something to ponder and more to fear.  The effect is more authoritarian, less situational and more personal.  Bearing in mind, that there was never zombie “groupthink,” the speed stresses the “will” of the individual, and this is what makes them Hobbesian.  Fast zombies are just horribly anti-social versions of us.

Provoking caged animals often serves to demonstrate just how well the confines are constructed.  In Skinner Boxes, a similar phenomenon called learned helplessness results in an animal’s total resignation to avoid adversity.  Stereotypies are repetitive patterns of behavior which result from both captivity as well as Alzheimer’s disease and include self-destructive behaviors and neurosis.  Zack de la Rocha the front man of “Rage Against the Machine” gives the most cathartic provocation; “F*** you; I won’t do what you tell me.”

Rage, in “28 Days Later,” is the name of the zombie inducing plague released by leftist animal rights activists into the world.  The caged and institutionally controlled animals are primal and contained only by the authority of the Hobbesian Social Contract.  Once released back into the state of nature, society’s innate aggressions quickly resurface and life without government descends into something “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes 1994, 76).

Schumpeter’s Zombies (Were Really Romero’s)

The zombie archetype has acquired such traction that it has been applied by industry to describe derelict institutions in Japan and China (Plender 2012).  First use of the term can be again traced to Romero’s Dawn in reference to the U.S. Savings and Loan crisis (Kane 1989 1-5 and explicitly 1992, 4).  In Japan, an easy money supply is blamed to have led to bad investments in business infrastructure.  This heavily leveraged real capital stymied the economy for nearly two decades after the boom that produced it.  Empathy is one of humanities more peculiar features in that we actively promote the welfare of the least fit to survive.  Zombie corporations seem to result from too generous of a push on Okun’s balance between equity and efficiency.  Similarly, zombie corporations greatly increase the costs of competition and choke Schumpeter’s creative destruction.  For Schumpeter, the entrepreneur is the mind of the economic body and its infrastructure is simply “the shell of industry” (Schumpeter 1912, 531).  The link between the two was severed by the federal deposit insurance[5].  It is not clear if these zombies are fast, slow or vampires.  The method of transmission is more akin to a feeding tube and life support.  The active and willful siphoning of resources by zombie fund managers suggests these are Hobbesian in a state of nature in clear violation of natural rights and the civil rights Rousseau’s version of the social contract would have earned.  However, zombie institutions do not act in a state of nature, instead from within an arguably broken institutional arrangement.

Faigley suggests that a filament of this dysfunction may equally apply to universities as well (Bizzell 2006, 6).  Barber would likely agree with some elements of her argument that “mission creep” of some universities from liberal arts institutions toward professional specialist schools weakens the quality of our democracy.  Kunstler touches on this same undermining irony, “the mall commercialized the public realm” (1993, 119).  As consumers we are automata.

The Borg

If the institutional arrangement is broken between the will and the body in zombie institutions, what can we expect when the feedback is left intact?  Zombies at the individual level are conceived from within fit and functional institutions.  Schumpeter contemplates this when considering the death of the entrepreneurial spirit as a result of the fact that “progress itself may be mechanized” (2003, 131).  In many ways the Borg is the bureaucratic techno-rational result of automata that can advance their own progress.  The Borg cannibalizes the body of its victims for parts and subverts individual will to a collective, but is not really a cannibal so; not a zombie.


It seems natural that zombies, along with the rate of time and the expansion of the universe, should move from slow to fast.  Zombie evolution is an inevitable arms race and as a metaphor should expect eternal vigor.  This paper best serves science as a thought experiment yielding widely reproducible and much replicated results.  It serves political philosophy in the spirit of the “Cambridge” tradition of the history of ephemeral political zombie thoughts.  Even zombies face the full force of our society’s deluge of information.  Would not zombies after returning from the dead, remembering their old habitation and the wisdom of the un-undead, pity us and eat our head?



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[1] The depth of this ignorance could not have been simulated.  I had no idea that the extent of either popular and academic zombie inquiry held any appreciable breadth or depth.  My eyes corrupted; to the cave.

[2] Davis insists “Zombi” is the proper spelling

[3] The puffer fish is more recognizable as the sometimes fatal Japanese delicacy Fugu.

[4] Their study controlled for location by focusing on London; a prime choice for both zombies and plagues.

[5] Technically the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), issues a guarantee not an insurance indemnity product.

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