As we saw previously, the “zombie apocalypse” (Valantin, Invasion Z: zombie wars or resource wars?, 2014) chronicled through various novels, movies, TV and Internet series, video games, comic books, is taken quite seriously by major national security organizations, as the US Strategic Command, or the US Centers for Disease control (CDC), which use the zombie culture as training and warning tools for new kinds of emergency and contingency situations.
If these organizations use the contemporary zombie culture as a training tool or a support to advocate a new political position, things may be more profound and important than it would seem at first glance. This comes from the fact that zombie stories are very interesting thought experiments about the coming resource wars (Ibid.) and the present difficulty to define the new, very complex, systemic emerging threats, without any precedent in human history, which we call here the “singularity threat” (Valantin, Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale, 2007).
In other words, the written and filmed “zombies chronicles” tell us about the current emergence of a new strategic paradigm, and about the way many political, military, security and media authorities react, knowing that these reactions are shaping the way the “winners and losers” of the real “new global order” will be distributed.
The Zombie spirit of the future past?
Zombies are a deeply paradoxical figure, because, while being “walking dead” and roaming cities and fields, they seem to “incarnate” the invasion of the present by what should be definitely past. Furthermore, they are a quasi-overwhelming vector of mass destruction, each zombie being potentially able to infect and “turn” as many humans as it can bite, turning into zombie each and any of its victims, thus swelling the ranks of the “army of the dead”, while thinning the ranks of the human survivors (Max Brooks, World War Z, 2005).
So, they turn something both impossible and unthinkable into a “real” new branch of the human history (Theodore Adorno, Max Horkeimer, La Dialectique de la Raison, 1944), for which no state, no government, no military, no political authority whatsoever has ever prepared, and that is spreading social and political dislocation at the very speed of human contact.
This triple feature of “unthinkability/ impossibility/ exponentiality” (Al Bartlett, Arithmetic, population and energy, 2004) reveals itself as being extremely aggressive for the cognitive capabilities of political authorities. As shown by numerous actual crises and theoretical works in political science, as well as by zombie movies and books, the levels of violence and the scale of the crises trigger, at least for a time, some strong forms of denial or of psychological and cognitive state of shock (Lavoix, “Looking out for future shocks“, 2010 ) and even regressive reactions (Michel Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques, 1987).
These reactions can occur at middle level of management, and are going to slow the flow of information toward the decision centre, which will block the decision-making process. For example, in 28 days later (Danny Boyle, 2002) the infestation of Great Britain by a genetically modified plague of rage turns 90% of the population into “running zombies” in a few weeks.
This pandemic was made possible because the authorities were too slow and too mild in their reaction, instead of being swifter and more extreme than the “rage plague”. An example what should be done can be found during the eighteenth century Plague, in Marseille, France, in 1720, with the actions of the municipal and central political authorities. Then, the extremely rigorous measures of containment, social control and prophylaxis adopted against this plague surge made it the last one in France, after the surge of Black death in Europe in 1348, which killed at least 50% of the population (William H. MacNeill, Plagues and people, 1976 ).
This inability to think the threat in its “innovative” dimension, even its “newness”, is well described by Max Brooks in its instant classic World War Z. In the novel, a Chinese survivor explains that the “patient zero” was found in a remote village close to the Three Gorges dam reservoir. In response, the Chinese Republic authorities impose a very strong censorship on any information about the zombie epidemic, while triggering a “fake” war with Taiwan, in order to distract the attention from its sanitary domestic situation. Even if Max Brooks chooses China as the epicenter of the outbreak, linking it explicitly to the social and environmental dislocation induced by the giant dam, he also shows that very few political and security authority are able to understand, admit, and react to the cognitive zombie challenge.
The author thus shows quite convincingly how the way political authorities think what is normality and reality could react to a new kind of threat. They would use a way that would be adapted to a “normal” crisis, but not to a kind of crisis that would be radically “new” in regard to its experience and its cognitive tools (Dobry, Ibid.).
The discrepancy between an “obsolete” political and strategic way of thinking and the emergence of a historical singularity reveals itself as a recipe not only for disaster, but also for total collapse (Jared Diamond, Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, 2005). In effect, zombie stories tell us how entire populations and societies can, very quickly, dislocate, as in The Walking dead comic book by Robert Kirkman and TV series by AMC, and die. It is important to remember that this phenomenon has been experienced through whole continents.
For example, in what was not yet South America, the meeting between the immense, very sophisticated and powerful South American civilizations and the first European conquistadores triggered a total collapse (Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, 1982). In less than a century, 90% of the indigenous population had died because of various pandemics of European origins, while the military, political, religious, and social order of the conquerors had profoundly dislocating effects (Nathan Wachtel, La Vision des vaincus, 1971). The same pattern followed in Northern America and led to the collapse and extermination of the indigenous people during the Conquest of the West.
In other terms, a handful of conquistadores, adventurers and sailors destroyed entire empires by their very presence (Jared Diamond, Guns, germs and steel: the fates of human societies, 1997), as the Aztecs, and other indigenous powers, could neither fully understand nor completely admit this presence, which destroyed them through a systemic, continent-wide, sanitary, political and military chain reaction. Being unable to comprehend this new and singular threat, they could therefore not adapt.
The conquistadores led by Fernan Cortes were the new unthinkable, systemic threat: before all, the Aztec political authorities found themselves unable to understand the meaning of the “first contact”, and, to keep on using our metaphor, were destroyed and “zombified”, while the “impossible invaders” became the “dominant new normal”.
Thinking about the unthinkable
The famous nuclear strategist Herman Khan, is the one who, in 1962, in order to describe the consequences that a thermonuclear war could have on the United States, devised the necessity of “thinking the unthinkable”. The very existence of this concept depends on the emergence of the main twenty-first century singularity threat: the possibility of using the power of the atom in a war that could destroy the very fabric of life on Earth (Carl Sagan, Paul Erhlich, Donald Kennedy, Warren Orr Roberts, The Cold and the Dark: The World after nuclear war, 1984).
This forcing of the strategic mind obliged political and military leaders to think about this totally new kind of weapon through a new frame of mind, necessitating to absorb the fact that a nuclear war would mean the end of everybody, including those who would decide to wage it.
The very fact that a nuclear war has not (yet?) happened demonstrates that it is possible not to deny a singularity, but that it requires a radical kind of cognitive effort, especially by the political authorities. It also tells us that, if this effort does not take place, governments, armies, and people can be easily overwhelmed, especially if they prepare for and fight the “former war”, thus devising inappropriate, i.e. conservative, or even obsolete, strategies (Luttwak, Strategy: the logic of war and peace, rev. 2002).
On the contrary, a good – which means “winning” – strategy must be based upon the reality of cold, hard facts and the way they relate with each other, however unpalatable this can be. A very good way to devise a bad – meaning “losing” – strategy is to ground it in a view of the world that is truncated or that belongs to the past. There are numerous examples of the kind, such as the French army preparing itself during the thirties to wage a war of position against Germany, while the German military was preparing a full industrially-based war of movement. The French “zombie strategy” led to the catastrophic defeat of the French army in 1940 (Marc Bloch, L’Etrange défaite, 1940).
Again, Max Brooks and its World War Z shows how the strategic adaptation to the singularity threat can project the whole world into a political singularity. According to the story, Cuba having been able to use its geographic and political situation to contain the zombie invasion, while welcoming US refugees, went through a political and economic revolution and so became the main power of the whole American continent.
Meanwhile, Israel was able to survive while welcoming any immigrant Jew and the Palestinian population, while turning the country into a fortress, because the security leaders forced themselves to “think the unthinkable threat”. Russia, through implacable and perfectly adapted strategies, became dominant in Europe and Asia. In the novel, the rest of the world struggles through the considerable and exhausting environmental, social, economic, and psychological consequences of the zombie invasion. And so emerges the real “multipolar world”, in its harsh reality.
This shows us first, that, today, political leadership means being able to think the emerging strategic and political singularities into which the international system has entered, while the planetary environment is deeply affected.
Then, this underlines that globalization is being transformed by the relative ascent of new powers, often allied with “new old powers”, while the “old powers” of the second half of the twentieth century struggle not to adapt themselves and to refuse to admit this new reality, while others work to shape it to their advantage and are moving forward.
Those who refuse to understand this new reality, and the “reality of what is new”, will, very soon, be “zombie powers”, while the others will be the winning powers of the twenty-first century.
Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.