Zombology

Zombology:  Zombies and the Decline of the West (and Guns), Brian Anse Patrick, 2014

The late Patrick, whose areas of expertise were the technique of propaganda and American gun culture, decided to explore the subject of zombies.  Zombies have infiltrated the gun culture in a big way–there are guns and ammunitions marketed especially for shooting zombies, and Patrick kicks off with a number of observations about weapon made and marketed for a fictional target, which is very strange, because as we all know, zombies aren’t real.

But are they?  Patrick suggests that the zombie phenomenon–not a fad, because it has entered into our collective subconscious in America–is a manifestation of something else in our collective subconscious:  the decline of the West and our various anxieties about it.

Yes, this is another decline book.  Patrick is rather modest in his goals:  he looks at the form of the manifestation of the anxiety in our subconscious (the zombies) and how they are dealt with (guns and ammo, lots and lots of ammo).  And he accomplishes his goals well, I think, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable survey of the landscape. While Patrick takes a short stab at explaining decline, he mainly makes observations about it.  Thus, Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies is a much better treatment, technically, but the enjoyment Patrick brings is that it’s all about pop culture here.

A fascinating point Patrick makes is that the West has two concurrent obsessions that look completely opposite:  Progress and Decline.  They wrap around and around like a double helix far back into the past, unique to the West.  They seem to need each other, making two sides of the same coin.  (The “two sides of the same coin” theme crops up often in the West, and would make a good thesis to explore; another example:  Capitalism and Communism.)

Back to zombies:  what are they, beyond just another form of undead that are hard to kill?  They could be any of many things:

  • “mass man”, unthinking, brain-dead, only consuming (zombies need to eat brains of the healthy living); masses of such people shambling through malls;
  • Blacks erupting from their urban enclaves;
  • An increasingly enfeebled population: geriatrics, those dependent on medications, social work clients, the diseased (particularly with STDs), and general overpopulation;
  • Failed institutions, corporations, schools, military. Also, bureaucracy run amok;
  • Brain thrill seeking (zombies need brains); people are increasingly needy of constant lurid media stimulation and distraction (that is, we all are the zombies);
  • And more!

The useful thing about zombies is that they are a “blank slate” onto which we can (and do) project our anxiety of the moment, especially the “politically incorrect” ones.  Also, zombies are an acceptable target.  Whatever the zombies represent, it is necessary, even desirable, to kill them.  It’s a visceral approach to what seems like irreversible decline.  There is no solution but to eliminate the problem.

Patrick also discusses the gun culture, and how it has embraced zombology.  Many people, who share the anxieties about our decline, have joined the gun culture, swelling its ranks.  Liberals are on the wrong side of the coin from all this, and naturally are feeling their own anxieties about it all.

He wraps up with a short chapter on “How Not to Become a Zombie”.  It’s as practical for the individual as anything else I’ve read on decline:

  • Don’t get bitten; stay out of places where zombies are;
  • MOAR GUNS AND AMMO; and learn to use them well;
  • Turn off the TV, which makes you mindless;
  • Participate in civil society (millennials: BE SOCIAL IN REAL LIFE);
  • Create something, anything; be a doer, not a passive lump;
  • Fight, assert, organize, resist against social forces of evil and stupidity;
  • Adopt a code;
  • Stand up straight and walk tall;
  • Don’t run with fools;
  • Find something to do that you love.

See you all on the other side of the Zombie Apocalypse!

The Collapse of Complex Societies (Book Review)

“The world is changed, I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air; much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.”  So begins Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

Collapse is in the air, I can feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air.  It’s not a recent notion.  There has been a proliferation of works over the last century, and today we see a proliferation of post-apocalyptic writings and films.  Three great works of collapse appeared during and soon after World War I and its aftermath, the Great Depression:

  • Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, 1918
  • Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, four volumes, 1937-1941
  • Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 12 volumes (!), spanning 1934-61.

There are a number of takes on the matter, among which are James Burnham’s Suicide of the West, Julius Evola’s Men Among the Ruins,  René Guénon’s The Crisis of the Modern World, Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World.  Lord Kenneth Clark’s BBC television series Civilisation explores the history of the West through art and ends with a grim outlook.  I also will at another time look at John Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture, another art-based look at the West.  All say essentially the same thing:  collapse is in the air.

By collapse I, and all these authors, don’t mean where you look out the window and one day everything is in ruins, such as would be after an earthquake.  I believe World War I was the beginning of the end, a catastrophe which began a long decline, which we are now 100 years into.  It’s not a matter of “someday it’s going to collapse”, it’s “we are 100 years into collapse; how much more, what is next?”

This review deals with Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press; first published in 1988 but in its 24th printing as of 2013), an academic study which is a little bit different.  Tainter, an anthropologist and historian, defines collapse as “a sudden, pronounced loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.”  He reviews a number of civilizations which have collapsed and disappeared, and summarizes the reasons for collapse offered by so many:

  • Resource depletion
  • New resources
  • Catastrophes
  • Insufficient response to circumstances
  • Other complex societies
  • Intruders
  • Conflict/contradictions/mismanagement
  • Social dysfunction
  • Mystical factors
  • Chance concatenation of events
  • Economic explanations

His survey is useful in that most of us have embraced one as our favorite.  Tainter points out that each challenge has been successfully met by many societies, so each one by itself is not a “civilization killer.”

The difference in Tainter’s approach is that he offers a theory that accounts for any and all such challenges to a complex society.  He begins with the idea that, as a society faces a challenge (from the above list or something new), it meets that challenge or fails.  When it meets the challenge, the solution adds complexity to the society.  Complexity doesn’t just happen, it is a problem-solving strategy.  That complexity, however, yields benefits beyond the cost of that complexity.  There is a marginal return.

A complex society will start collapsing when, faced with challenges, the implemented solutions stop yielding benefits  beyond the cost of the solution; in sum, when a society’s solutions hit the point of diminishing returns.  It’s a basic economic concept applied to a society, not in terms of money, but in general terms of inputs and outputs.

A good example is the cost-benefit of a university education.  Once it was a great benefit to educate some people at the university level; can anyone truly say it’s a benefit today to send everyone to university so they can work at Starbuck’s?  It’s a staggering increase in cost for less and less return.  Thus we find ourselves in a situation where we are well past the point of diminishing returns.

A society does not have infinite resources to pour into infinite solutions; at some point the only solution is to unwind to a less complex state where the return is about the same, or just fall apart to due extreme pressure.  But a complex society usually won’t do that voluntarily, it is usually imposed by external circumstances.  Things will be unwound or brought to ruin, one way or another.

Tainter explores his theory in three case studies:  the Western Roman Empire, the Mayans, and the Chacoans.   The Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire show a long, slow process of unwinding and ruin.

Tainter summarizes by saying:

“A complex society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, simpler, less stratified, and less socially differentiated.  Specialization decreases and there is less centralized control.  The flow of information drops, people trade and interact less, and there is overall lower coordination among individuals and groups.  Economic activity drops to a commensurate level, while the arts and literature experience such a quantitative decline that a dark age often ensues.  Population levels tend to drop, and for those who are left the known world shrinks.”

and closes with,

“However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse.  If civilization collapses again, it will be from failure to take advantage of the current reprieve [the power vacuum caused by the collapse of the USSR], a reprieve paradoxically both detrimental and essential to our anticipated future.”

I see us as locked into slow collapse.  We are beset by problems without clear solutions, and where there are clear solutions, there is no political will and ability to make them happen.  We are in a situation where natural constraints will force the unwinding or ruin.  It’s an opportunity, to be sure; there is much that is decadent and destructive that will be jettisoned.  Much about our current ways will be discredited as failure.  That is not all bad.  Much good will be lost.  Much good was preserved in the Dark Ages.

The thing I really liked about the book is that now I can see the evolution of complexity in all areas of life, and I wonder about the good it’s going to do.  Is it worth it?  Are we going to get anything out of this?  Are we going to maintain the complexity for its own sake (see:  bureaucracy)?  Is there a way to unwind and get equal output?  Remember:  complexity is a problem-solving strategy.  Apply complexity wisely.

While it’s an academic book, it’s not that long (200 pages), it’s readable, and the subject is fascinating.

 

The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?