The Walking Dead tells the story of a group of survivors in a post-apocalypse world. It’s one of an increasing number of graphic novels that has grown beyond cult fandom into mainstream popularity, having been adapted for a successful TV show about 10 years ago. The apocalypse in question, as it transpires, is a virus that has infected all of humanity. When someone dies in this fictional world, the virus becomes active – taking control of certain brain functions and effectively bringing the dead back to life as zombies. Each instalment focuses on the risks and struggles of trying to stay safe and survive in this new reality.
Back here in the real world many of us are also struggling (and some taking risks) in our new reality. Like in The Walking Dead, our lives have been upended by a virus that to date we still know relatively little about. True, we’re not facing hordes of zombies rampaging through our cities – but the monsters in works of fiction are rarely meant to be interpreted as real life monsters. Rather, they are representations or metaphors for something else. The monster in Frankenstein, written at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, represented anxieties about scientific and technological advancements.
Vampires such as Dracula are metaphors for desires being fulfilled without regard to one’s conscience. The zombies in The Walking Dead represent “collectivism” (according to the creator Robert Kirkman). The survivors’ struggle is therefore to be viewed as an attempt to protect their own individualism against this encroaching collectivism. The Walking Dead is “individualism” vs “collectivism”, with individualism cast as the good guys. So how well does the message and underlying philosophy of The Walking Dead stand up against a real life virus induced catastrophe?
While terms like “collectivism” and “individualism” can be found in many disciplines, we’re thinking about cultural or political differences here. In individualist societies (of which the USA and increasingly the UK are extreme examples) people are expected to be self reliant and are conditioned to be quite selfish. “You’ve gotta take care of no.1 first” – a catch phrase that sums this culture up succinctly. We all know the attitudes – “tax is theft, I pay my own way, welfare is for scroungers, etc etc”. We are being encouraged to believe that the State owes us nothing and we can only rely on ourselves.
While a healthy dose of individual self worth and reliance is nothing to be ashamed of, in the last four decades or so an extreme version of this doctrine has become prevalent in the West.
Thatcher summed up this warped mentality in 1987 with her famous “there is no such thing as society” claim, which was actually part of one of her rants against homeless people (for example) asking for help from the government. Probably the most evil Prime Minister the country ever endured informed us that “there are [only] individual men and women and families” and ordered that “people must look to themselves first”. What she was in effect doing was trying to justify the neo-liberal assault on normal British people.
An assault that continues to this day. She was telling us that problems like homelessness were no longer to be thought of as problems for society – because there is no society. Instead homelessness would now be seen as a problem for homeless people only, and it was their own responsibility to solve that problem. “No government can do anything”, she proclaimed.
In contrast, collectivist cultures consider the well being of the whole society as more important. In these societies people care for others beyond their immediate family, and they expect the government to help solve problems such as homelessness. People in these societies are encouraged to think of themselves as part of a community.
We can see further differences in what the media in these types of societies chooses to focus on, and how it covers it. While in the West, economists, the media and politicians constantly harp on about GDP – in China (for example) they constantly focus on the income levels of the poorest people in the country. GDP doesn’t tell us very much about the day to day lives of ordinary people – it is a concern only of the rich and their individualist desires for more and more wealth.
The income levels of the poorest people do tell us quite a lot however. If the poorest person in the country earns an income above the cost of living, then we know that everyone in the country can afford their living costs. Caring about others isn’t about self sacrifice, it’s about realising that we are better as a country when everyone in the country does better. Sometimes this requires us to help others, via the taxes we pay to the government.
Even if all you care about is the economy, think about it this way – if everyone can afford to take part in their local economy because they have money left over after paying rent and utilities, then that economy is going to be a lot healthier than one that relies on people who are constantly broke or in debt. Again, ensuring that everyone in the society can afford a basic standard of living and some degree of consumerism or social life ensures that the economy is healthier for everyone.
In situations such as this global pandemic, we need a healthy dose of collectivism – Love Thy Neighbour. Americans, who are at the extreme end of individualism, are clearly having a hard time understanding their role in community health measures.
While the Pope gave his blessing to an empty St. Peter’s Square, Disney characters waved to a crowd of thousands from the balconies of Disney World. Thousands of people who, lets be frank, simply can’t grasp the concept of caring about people they don’t know.
This isn’t a surprise when we are talking about a culture that prioritises only individual needs and desires, an approach that leads to viewing other people as a (potential) enemy rather than a neighbour to protect. (Ammunition sales have sky rocketed in the USA during the pandemic) Worryingly, I see these selfish attitudes too often in the UK and also increasingly in Russia (where liberalism has been taking root in the public consciousness).
It is no coincidence that nations that have fostered a healthy collectivist culture have managed better during this crisis. Numbers don’t lie. The most individualist nation on earth, the USA, has been the worst performing in terms of limiting the spread of the virus. The UK is now the worst in Europe in terms of current cases, with the UK government apparently still pursuing herd immunity while making claims to the contrary. Nations with a more collectivist ethos such as South Korea and China (despite initial impressions that they had made a mess of it) have been far superior in containing and defeating the virus.
Among the reasons for this will be the simple fact that the populations of these nations are already predisposed to care about others beyond their immediate family, and are more ready to accept personal inconveniences to ensure that everyone is safe. (Of course many in the UK are as well, my point is just that this attitude is more widespread elsewhere. There are far fewer “Tory” types in South Korea.)
To beat this virus we can’t afford to be selfish. Extreme individualism, lets call it the “American Virus”, having infected too many of our communities is now one of the biggest obstacles to defeating the coronavirus. Extreme individualism is a problem, working collectively is the solution. That is just as true locally as it is internationally. Just like we need to do our bit in our own communities (such as social distancing), so to do national governments need to contribute to the global effort. Which is why Trump’s decision to withdraw funding from WHO is particularly evil.
As a developed nation and for the time being largest economy in the world, the USA needs to accept that the funding it provides for world bodies (such as WHO) represents its duties to the world community. They are not meant to be leverage so it can force these organisations to be its servants. By pulling funding because he is not getting his own way, and in general through his policy of “America First”, Trump is displaying on the international stage the dangers of promoting this extreme brand of individualism.
Ironically, in The Walking Dead the main characters are all better off when part of one of the fictional communities such as The Kingdom or Alexandria. Perhaps this was just an oversight by the individualism promoting creator, but it certainly makes more sense than Rick Grimes and company treating everyone they encounter as another enemy. After all, if Rick has a family that he wants to protect is it really so hard for his character to empathise with others and realise that they also have families they want to protect?
The logical solution to this is to form communities that will look after everyone, which is what eventually happens in the show. Just like these fictional communities are under threat from hordes of the undead, so too are our real life communities under threat from extreme individualism and the neo-liberal economy it promotes.
Someone can’t do everything, but everyone can do something. That is the key not only to a healthy community, but also to overcoming a crisis such as this one. Let’s all do our “something” whatever that is – from our local communities (social distancing), our national communities (real support for the NHS) to our international communities (funding and support for bodies such as WHO).