In an article originally published on his own blog, Alex Hort-Francis examines the politics of The Walking Dead, and considers why, even in a post-apocalyptic society, we find it so hard to imagine a world without capitalism…
A recent episode of The Walking Dead, ‘Slabtown’, contains an interesting social structure within a group based in an abandoned hospital. The group functions on the premise of ‘pay what you owe’; when Beth (a member of the main cast) is rescued by the group she is informed that by using up the group’s time and medical supplies in the process of her rescue, Beth now ‘owes’ the group. In order to repay this debt, she must work, doing menial tasks that contribute to the upkeep of the group and their environment, like mopping floors or tending to the sick. Food must also be paid for through working, but, as the leader of the group explains, if Beth chooses not to eat to minimise the amount she owes the group, she will soon become to weak to work, requiring more help from the group to survive. The tv show has effectively created a capitalist microcosm, which demonstrates economic conscription and class exploitation. The most recent group members are compelled to work indefinitely, with the promise of eventual freedom if they work hard enough. It’s a promise that is ultimately a lie, as the system is constructed in such a way that it is impossible to pay off what you ‘owe’ while still needing to eat, use medical supplies, etc.
The hospital group comprises several police officers, a doctor, and the other survivors who must work for their bread. The show portrays the officers in immaculately maintained black uniforms, notable among the brown, stained clothing the rest of the characters in the series wear over a year after the total collapse of American society. The symbolic association to police as instruments of oppressive states throughout history is clear. In comparison, the other survivors in the group are forced to wear medical scrubs, devaluing their sense of identity and sense of worth compared to the uniform appearance of the officers. The whole thing is reminiscent of the Stanford Prison experiment, which shows how people can be compelled into specific social roles, no matter what sort of person they are individually.
The one doctor in the group is portrayed unsympathetically as supporting the exploitative system through inaction. He is the ‘petit-bourgeois’ of the piece: he benefits from his status through improved living conditions, and although claims to be sympathetic to the plight of Beth and the other workers, he ultimately kills another survivor to keep his position secure. By being passive in the face of exploitation and literal rape, the doctor is similarly culpable and an agent of the violence the officers inflict on the other survivors.
An exchange between Beth and the leader of the group at the hospital, Dawn, shows how Dawn is relying on the belief that the survivors will eventually be rescued to justify her actions. It’s not a million miles away from the belief in saviour by ‘the Americans’ that several characters in The Day of the Triffids rely on, one that the protagonists – and by association, John Wyndham himself – point out as absurd. As ultimately responsible for the authoritarian, abusive and exploitative system the hospital group live by, Dawn is behaving in the exact same manner as the ‘agent of communism’ Zizek refers to in The Pervert’s Guide To Idealogy. Dawn relies in a belief in the big Other to justify everything she does, including allowing other officers to rape and claim ownership of survivors below them in the group’s make-shift class system. The fate of the individual is irrelevant, as long as the ‘many’ survive – not for the sake of their lives, but rather so the ideology Dawn has been defending her whole career can continue.
What makes the whole situation so believable is the way it is internalised by the victimised ‘working class’ of the group. Beth is told that she ‘owes’ it to the rest of the group to fulfill her role and not interfere with the balance of power, even though it is obviously unjust. Dawn and the other officers ‘gaslight’ her, telling her falsehoods to make the situation seem more reasonable. Beth is told that she was rescued from certain death by the officers, when in fact she was knocked unconscious and kidnapped by them. Dawn punishes other lower members of the group harshly and physically, believing such punishment will deter others from similar mistakes or purposefully subversive actions. Dawn does not see herself as a tyrant or a terrible person, but as an unwilling agent of the big Other who has a difficult, but essential, role to play.
‘Slabtown’ is particularly satirical, considering the nature of the American healthcare system. It must not be a rare event that someone finds themselves waking up in hospital recovering from an injury, only to be informed that they now owe the hospital rather a lot of money for being rescued and healed.
The Walking Dead – in comic, television and game form – is a good example of apocalyptic fiction that examines various societal structures. The Governor’s group from earlier in the tv adaptation and comic series explores nationalism and xenophobia. The protagonists’ group and the Governor’s society at Woodbury are destroy each other in a series of escalating conflicts, built upon the assumption that the other is dangerous and impossible to reason with. The Governor at one point even refers to the protagonists as ‘terrorists’ to convince members of his group they need to be attacked.
For more from Alex Hort-Francis on zombies, and a strangely eloquent conclusion, check out Jack Brindelli’s film “Dawn of the Red”.