Our Zombies, Ourselves

A new book considers the international policy implications of a siege by the cannibalistic undead. Scott McLemee aims for the head.

February 9, 2011

In October, the cable network AMC launched a new series called "The Walking Dead," which -- as a long-time zombie-apocalypse aficionado -- I watched throughout its six-episode opening season, even after it became became obvious that the best-developed characters were the reanimated corpses. Their lines consisted of gurgling noises. This was surely preferable to the dialogue of the living, who tended to explain their motivations and back stories in exchanges that were at once histrionic and wooden. Someone playing a zombie must work within the expressive limits of shuffling and moaning; this precludes chewing up the scenery. The actor doesn’t need to work up a deep sense of motivation. The biting involves very little background, so they just get on with it.

Four weeks into the series, there was an opening scene in which two (living) sisters sat in a boat with their fishing poles, explaining to each other that they were sisters and that their father had enjoyed fishing -- a wistful yet laborious recollection, it seemed. Two questions came to mind at almost the same time, “Why am I still watching this?” and “Can zombies swim?” (The latter thought was more hopeful than anxious.) I still don't have an answer. But one of the sisters did end up a zombie, meaning they don't talk anymore, which improved the series considerably.

As my morbid fascinations go, this one is evidently not that idiosyncratic. In the opening pages of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, just published by Princeton University Press, Daniel W. Drezner presents a couple of graphs showing the long-term growth of popular and academic interest in zombies in the years since George Romero and his friends in Pittsburgh made their low-budget masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968). The number of movie releases and scholarly publications appearing each year remains modest until the early 1990s. At that point, the curves spike upward and continue to grow rapidly, year by year. The output in cultural commodities about the living dead underwent surges again around 2005.

Nor was it slowed by the economic downturn. On the contrary. Today, the danger that cannibalistic ghouls might swarm the planet, laying waste to the routines of everyday life, is, if not exactly plausible, at any rate part of the standard repertoire of worst-case scenarios.

This hardly means the genre has a great future ahead of it. Clearly the rot is setting in. But the mythology is now so well-established that, for example, the University of Florida posted an emergency-preparedness contingency plan for zombie apocalypse on its homepage in 2009 (available here in PDF) and received praise in a local newspaper: "Simple actions such as this sharing of information and planning ahead will be what stays our species from annihilation."

Whatever else it may be, an attack by bloodthirsty ghouls offers a teachable moment. And Drezner, who is a professor of international politics at Tufts University, does not waste it. Besides offering a condensed and accessible survey of how various schools of international-relations theory would respond, he reviews the implications of a zombie crisis for a nation's internal politics and its psychosocial impact. He also considers the role of standard bureaucratic dynamics on managing the effects of relentless insurgency by the living dead. While a quick and entertaining read, Theories of International Politics and Zombies is a useful introductory textbook on public policy -- as well as a definitive monograph for the field of zombie studies. (The author is a member of the Zombie Research Society, which should give him a plaque or something.)

By Drezner’s account, no single approach to international politics -- whether realist or liberal, neoconservative or constructivist -- would provide the “magic bullet” for solving the crisis. For one thing, they are not designed for it. The sudden reanimation of corpses driven by an insatiable appetite for human flesh would involve a considerable departure from more familiar problems of governance.

But if I read him correctly, the author does seem to think that the realist paradigm in international relations theory has a special relationship with the zombie-apocalypse scenario. It rests on the intertwined principles that “anarchy is the overarching constraint of world politics” (that is, there is no “centralized, legitimate authority” able to enforce a particular order among nation-states) and that “the actors that count are those with the greatest ability to use force,” namely “states with sizable armed forces.” While nation-states possessing an advanced military-industrial complex would have a definite advantage in human-zombie combat, the balance of terror is not one-sided. The tendency of zombies to swarm is a staple of movies and fiction; it turns them into something like an army. The logic of the realist paradigm is to treat states as driven by “an innate lust for power.” Likewise, the undead “have an innate lust for human flesh.” Power and flesh alike count as scarce resources. One has an interest in preserving them both.

The realist assumes that powerful nations have -- and may expect to continue to enjoy -- the advantage over weaker ones in defining the world order. But the tendency of might to create its own right also benefits the zombies. They are single-minded (if that’s how to put it, since they are dead) and can create more zombies just by biting. This gives them enormous power, and that power is highly renewable. Not all realists are zombies, of course; but all zombies, by default, practice realpolitik.

Challenging the realist emphasis on raw military power, the liberal paradigm would stress the possibility of international cooperation in facing the menace, perhaps through the creation of a World Zombie Organization -- though Drezner also suggests that the effort might be undermined by the emergence of institutions of global civil society, such as Zombies Without Borders or People for the Ethical Treatment of Zombies. By contrast, neoconservatives would be prepared for the United States to “go it alone,” if necessary, by “deploying armed forces in ghoul-infested territory” in order to divert zombies from attacking the homeland. This could be successful in the short term. However, neoconservative anti-zombie policy might tend to militarize US society, leading the authorities to treat living citizens as if they were undead.

Finally, the school of constructivist international relations theory (admittedly less influential than the others in actual policy making circles) would stress the role of narratives and identity-claims in formulating a response to outbreaks of violence by the recently dead. Treating this as an apocalyptic scenario might prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. The complete disintegration of the social order, possibly followed by the consolidation of an authoritarian regime, need not be taken as a given. Instead, constructivists would strive to create “a Kantian ‘pluralistic counter-zombie security community’ in which governments share sovereignty and resources.” This would mitigate the impact of cannibalistic hordes on society; meanwhile, the boundary line between the living and the dead would, over time, be redrawn.

Tongue in cheek? Yes, but with serious intent. In ways that are more entertaining than allegory tends to be, the zombie scenario can express any number of social anxieties -- about terrorism, consumerism, pandemics, and mass culture itself, for example. These problems seem unrelated. But it is perhaps not a total coincidence that the output of zombie films, literature and scholarship began growing rapidly during the 1990s and 2000s.

Thomas Friedman (whose prose often makes me feel that someone is eating my brain) once defined the contemporary world as flat. Zombies started swarming across it in record numbers once the Cold War was over. Ghouls went global. Possessing no memory or long-term plans -- and tending to move in groups, their sheer numbers generating surplus dread -- they are the nightmare side of recent world politics.

Drezner’s assessment of the international implications of an attack by the living dead corresponds fairly closely to Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Three Rivers, 2006) -- a novel that is something like a cross between George Romero and Studs Terkel, and one of the true masterpieces of this genre. Like Theories of International Politics and Zombies, I can't recommend it highly enough. The two books seem destined to share a syllabus together.

“Powerful states would be more likely to withstand an army of flesh-eating ghouls,” Drezner writes. “Weaker and developing countries would be more vulnerable to zombie infestation. Whether due to realist disinterest, waning public support, bureaucratic wrangling, or the fallibility of individual decision-makers, international interventions would likely be ephemeral or imperfect. Complete eradication of the zombie menace would be extremely unlikely. The plague of the undead would join the roster of threats that disproportionately affect the poorest and weakest countries.”

A sobering conclusion. In other words, a zombie apocalypse would be terrible -- but it would not really change things very much.


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