18 April 2012

All your flesh are belong to us

After meeting up with some friends last night at the launch of Cultivate's Climate. Culture. Change. film festival (showcasing the effects of climate change on human society through a program of documentaries and short films) the conversation worked its way around to The Walking Dead (The TV series, not the comic on which it is based). The consensus seemed to be that the show focused too much on the interpersonal drama between the surviving humans and missed an opportunity for some serious brain-munching OmNomNoms, or as another friend once put it, "Too much soap opera human interest crap, not enough zombies".

Zombies are an interesting trope, at the height of the Cold War they (like the pod-popping body snatchers) stood as a shambling substitute for the Red Menace, communist infiltrators that would slowly take over your sleepy midwestern town with their evil hate-filled ideology of workers' rights, social equality and the like, infecting the minds of all around with their poisonous whispers until at last you stand alone, surrounded by the monstrous horde of those who once were your loved ones all clamouring to make you one of their own. Thank the lord for the Second Amendment, the only thing standing between you and those godless heathen communists, I mean socialists, I mean census workers, um, zombies. Definitely the zombies.

As the Cold War transitioned into its post-Vietnam phase and with the Oil Crisis of the early seventies becoming a distant memory, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead recast the zombie as a reflection of humanity's increasing consumerism and obsession with material goods, then they passed through a brief phase in the late nineties and early noughties where they harnessed our concerns of AIDS or Avian Flu pandemic, and now with the collapse of the US housing bubble and the onset of global recession, there has been a new zombie renaissance in which they have been reborn anew as a metaphor for the crippling and inescapable debt burden that has been placed on the shoulders of humanity by the gambling actions of a handful of economic elites. No matter what you do to try and keep your head above water, the zombie horde of personal and socialised debt will surround you and consume you in the end.

Or at least that's one theory, but surprisingly it is not as recent a notion as you might think.

In his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years David Graeber discusses the notion of the "Flesh-Debt", a notion common at one time amongst the Tiv of Central Nigeria. The Tiv believed that a person with "a strong heart", a charismatic entrepreneur with a winning way in business transactions, is successful because their heart is actually coated with a substance called tsav that lends them an almost magical ability to succeed in their endeavours. If you were not lucky enough to be born with ample tsav, there was another more sinister way to acquire it, by consuming the flesh of someone who does possess it. Greaber stresses that there is no real evidence that anyone actually did practice canibalism, but he says that the suspicion would always be there amongst the wider populace that politicians and economic elites had gained their power through this most nefarious of means.

One way in which these elites, called the mbatsav or "society of witches", supposedly gained more power over their people was by tricking them into eating the flesh of a recently murdered relative, and once someone did so they were trapped in an almost inescapable "flesh-debt" to those elites, a debt that could only be eased by handing over the lives of one's own family to these elites, one by one to be consumed for tsav and allow the wealth, power and success of the elites to increase at an exponential rate.
"The flesh debt goes on and on. The creditor keeps coming. Unless the debtor has men behind him who are very strong in tsav, he cannot be free himself from the flesh debt until he has given up all his people, and his family is finished. Then he goes himself and lies down on the ground to be slaughtered, and so his debt is finally discharged."

- Akiga Sai, Akiga's story; the Tiv tribe as seen by one of its members. Translated and annotated by Rupert East, as quoted in David Graeber Debt: the First 5,000 Years, p148
This tale of flesh-debt was recorded in 1939, but seems such a perfect metaphor for the mechanism by which economic and political elites rise on the backs of the citizenry that it is hard not to view it as a tale written for anarchists to warn their children of the evils of neo-liberalism. It is also impossible not to view the actions of the last Fianna Fail/Green regime as the work of our own mbatsav, tricking the citizenry into consuming the flesh of their relatives in the form of the government-fuelled property bubble, and once locked into the spiral of crippling mortgages and negative equity they are forced to sacrifice more and more of their family's well-being, and that of future generations sold into permanent austerity, to feed the insatiable tsav-hunger of our bankers, developers and those whose strings their money pulls.

That the Greens contributed to the creation of this national flesh-debt, both implicitly by entering and remaining in government with Fianna Fail and explicitly through the overwhelming support of the Party and its members for the creation of NAMA, shows a lack of basic understanding of ecological politics that even my nine year-old cousin could explain after a few rounds of Plants vs Zombies on her iPod, the environment and the mechanics of debt capitalism don't play well together.

Ireland has become a nation of zombie banks, zombie hotels and zombie golf courses, because apparently even the undead need a little bit of leisure time. All the while our mbatsav soak up the sun from Malta to the Bahamas while their agents at home harvest the tsav one household charge at a time.

While I certainly don't subscribe to the "We all partied" theory of our economic catastrophe, what struck me last night during the panel discussion that accompanied the Climate. Culture. Change launch was that when during most mainstream conversations about peak oil or dwindling resources the spectre of China is raised and what happens when every Chinese citizen decides that they want the same standard of living as their American counterpart, the conversation focuses on either what needs to be done to try and meet that demand, or what needs to be done to keep the Chinese happy with a lesser standard of living. At no stage do most Western commentators entertain the possibility of the US (and ourselves) reducing their own consumption, for our entire economic model is based on the notion of perpetual growth. Those who do raise the issue are branded as radical or heterodox and shunned by their colleagues.

Jim Kitchen, formerly the Northern Ireland Director of the UK Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), was one of the panelists and he spoke briefly of the 2009 Prosperity Without Growth report that the SDC produced, which advocated a change in the definition of prosperity to reflect the unsustainability of the current neo-liberal economic model in the face of finite and dwindling resources, and to focus more on human well-being as an indicator of governmental success rather than material gain. On the 31st of March 2011, almost two years exactly to the day of the report's publication, David Cameron's Tory-lead UK government abolished the SDC. Jim Kitchen left the audience to draw their own conclusions about the link between the two.

While it is true that Fianna Fail and the Greens did everything in their power while in office to fuel the property bubble and to deny that it could ever collapse, there is no escaping the fact that as a country we willingly bought into the story that they were weaving, believing that in the space of a decade we had gone from an isolated backwater on the periphery of Europe to the centre of a global economic boom that justified the highest property prices and commercial rents in Europe, and some of the highest paid politicians in the world, that this was all our due reward for the centuries of hardship we had endured. While we are not the architects of our own misfortune, we signed off on their plans pretty readily.

When our mbatsav approached us with a plate of mystery meat, we chomped down hungrily and happily, never once asking for the farm of origin.

We offered no resistance, we ate every tainted meal they offered us. We became what we are.

In The Walking Dead, the ongoing comic series on which the TV show is based, author Robert Kirkman set out "to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events change them", the soap-opera human interest crap is its raison d'etre. The Celtic Tiger was our first extreme situation, and I think sadly we as a nation were found wanting. The subsequent economic collapse gives us a whole new extreme environment to prove ourselves in.

Only time will tell if we can redeem ourselves for all our past excesses.
"We became what we are. We're surrounded by the DEAD. We're among them -- and when we finally give up we become them! We're living on borrowed time here. Every minute of our life is a minute we steal from them! You see them out there. You KNOW that when we die -- we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead?

Don't you get it? We ARE the walking dead! WE are the walking dead.”

- As spoken by Rick Grimes in Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead Vol 5
Image: Zombie Banker, by ADW. Francis Street, Dublin 29th February

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