Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Governance in the Post-Apocalypse

Warning: The following contains light spoilers for The Walking Dead

This past Sunday was the fifth season finale of the immensely popular The Walking Dead. Because I am a big political nerd I cannot help but notice that many of the seasons following season one are wrestling with questions of governance. It should be noted that The Walking Dead is no way unique in this. Post-apocalyptic literature, film, and television have often tried to deal with the questions of rebuilding order when everything falls to hell. Part of the explanation for this is the close relationship between the post-apocalyptic and dystopian genres. Very few stories simply deal with the aftermath of the collapse of the 'old world', but instead include the  tendencies of our fellow man in dark and twisted new societies.

If there's people, someone must be in charge.
Most of the time in post-apocalyptic fiction the narrative focuses on a small group of survivors, usually fewer than twenty. Is that really government? Government is a complicated word and imbued with a lot of what we think of as the state. Governing per se is nothing more than providing management and direction. The lesson of most fiction indicates that lone wolves who exist outside of a community or group are usually not long for this world. Any time two people interact there are structures and patterns in place to 'govern' behaviour, but as a group grows in size these patterns must be strictly outlined and made formal. So, while a group of survivalists picking through the ruins of our civilization may not seem the same as what happens in the House of Commons (or maybe too similar...) there is a common thread there.

First let's take a look at the arc of The Walking Dead. Season one of the series was much more focused on the question of what has happened and how to survive. Rick Grimes, a former sheriff, and close associate of several among a group of survivors instantly becomes the de facto leader. However tensions exist within the group, particularly with his best friend and former colleague Shane. Season two and onwards much more tackles the question of governance. In many ways the failures of the group can be tied to factionalism and rival leadership camps. Famously at the close of the second season Grimes says after challenging the group about his decisions, "If you're staying, this isn't a democracy anymore." How to govern the group is often at the heart of conflict in the series.

Since that point, despite the fact that Rick's power in the group has waxed and waned and waxed again the fundamental element has remained in place that once Rick has made a decision the group keeps to it. Instead of infighting the group has produced a number of trusted advisors who counsel Rick (Herschel, Glenn, Michione, Carol, to name a few), but ultimately stick with his policies, even when they disagree. In brief, season three saw the consequences of Rick's unchecked powers and approach. When the group was established inside the prison in season four we see Rick relieved of leadership and a "Council" take charge of running day-to-day affairs until things reach a crisis point. Season five saw the return of Rick's advisor-assisted leadership. The central conflict in the most recent season was the tension between two different governing structures: Rick's group with a centralized, pragmatic and harsh leadership style versus the more traditional, theoretically democratic and lenient style of the Alexandrians. Remember, governing is not just about making decisions and giving orders; how to carry out justice and relationships with outsiders is also part and parcel of the responsibilities of leadership.

The Walking Dead is hardly unique in this depiction. Within the zombie genre Max Brooks' World War Z rarely shows a vibrant democracy, but a much harsher, more centralized, more militant, less democratic governance all around the world. The 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later films depict military-based governance, as does the video game TheLast of Us and TV series Falling Skies. In all three cases the military is depicted as a means of providing security (the most precious commodity in instability) but also oppression or containment of the people they are protecting.

Communities tend to find creative places to call home after the end.
Interesting enough is that even democratic governments that survive in many pieces of fiction immediately take on extra-legal powers to control the chaos. In the novel One Second After or the TV series Jericho) the elected municipal governments begin acting like city-states to try to survive in the absence of the state and national governments.

Another common trope in the post-apocalyptic genre is the theocracy. In times of crisis people often turn to religion as it is a powerful unifier that provides social cohesion in a way a single leader often cannot. Margaret Atwood's A Handmaiden's Tale blends the military rule and religion quite nicely, but the results are the same. James Kuntsler's series of post-collapse novels prominently features a strange religious group with a prophet-like figurehead and a charismatic leader in the ruins of Upstate New York.

The theme repeated over, and over again in hundreds of books is remarkably similar. The new leadership class tends to come from ex-military (Mike Havel in Dies the Fire), police (Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead), former/current politicians (Johnston Green or Senator Tomarchio in Jericho or the Warden in Children of Men) or a charismatic, capable person (Carnegie in The Book of Eli or Caesar in Fallout: New Vegas). Ultimately the "Strong Man" governance all likely stems from the inverse sentiment of the Benjamin Franklin statement, "Those who would sacrifice liberty in the name of security deserves neither." As wise as Benjamin Franklin was there exists many instances when centralized control is badly needed in emergencies. Post-apocalyptic fiction trades on the fact that scared people will surrender a great deal of authority to those who can protect them, provide for them and keep them safe. To be sure this is not a new phenomena. Think back to the Republic of Rome who would surrender its semi-democracy to a dictator in times of profound crisis. In the modern United States there are any number of provisions to institute martial law to keep order

In my opinion writers in this medium and consumers of it are attracted to authoritative or authoritarian for some very simple reasons. While the leadership model provides a structure for traditional hero narratives it also harkens to our own thinking of how to deal with issues. In addition we admire, just as the other characters within the narrative, competent and capable leaders. It also helps from the perspective of elevating characters and creating drama. Believe it or not, but The Walking Dead and other post-apocalyptic fiction are deeply political. They are not only critiquing social issues but providing a framework to work out fundamental philosophical questions at the heart of governance and ethics that have been debated since before Ancient Greece. I know a lot of people have had the conversation/debate over what their "Zombie Survival Plan" is, but have you ever thought what your plan to rebuild and get along with your fellow survivors might be? Ultimately that's what might keep you alive longer than any machete or canned food.


claudiusthefool said...

Great essay. I know part of the draw of post-apocalyptic novels for me has always been the different ways that communities decide to handle their situation. It also makes me think about what I would do. I could never be a leader like Rick Grimes or Mike Havel, but if there's something else that these books have shown us is how so-called "normal" people find a skill they didn't know they had (Carol from Walking Dead in the show/Andrea in the books) that helps them cope.

Clark from Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) really stands out as someone who I really identified with and look to as my best-case scenario in surviving the apocalypse.

I've always wanted to read the World Made by Hand series, but never committed. I will search my shelves for the first volume since you mentioned them here.

SJL said...

Thanks for the feedback. Those are definitely some of the best parts of the genre. It's a deeply evocative set of fiction where you can imagine yourself in the setting.

I just started re-reading World Made by Hand coincidentally. While more accurately a post-collapse series I really enjoy it.