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Be Not Afraid—Even of Zombies

John C. Médaille

POSTED: 4/27/12

( The price of gold has surpassed $1,600/oz. Now, gold is not like any other commodity; in fact, it is not really a commodity at all, in the sense that its price does not reflect demand for some product for which it must be used. Gold really has only two markets: jewelry and fear. Jewelry is doing alright, since the rich are doing better than ever, but the real growth market is fear. The last time this happened was in 1971 when Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard for international trade. Many were convinced that the world trading system would collapse, and gold bubbled up to $666.75 in September of 1980 (equivalent to $1,846 in today's money) before itself collapsing to trade in the $350-$450 range for the next 20 years, before again beginning a steep rise in the early part of this century.

What this history illustrates is that neither demand nor inflation drive the gold market, but fear. Many people believe that when money is worth nothing, gold will be worth something. Whether or not one agrees with this theory, one cannot deny the level of fear which drives it, and the fear right now is of a general economic and social collapse.

Are these fears justified? I believe they are. Indeed, I do not believe that constitutional government, or such of it that remains to us, will survive to the end of the decade, and that the Union, and the world with it, will not fracture into many pieces. And if that is the case, then the great question for the readers of this journal is, “What's a Remnant to do?”

What I wish to do here is to examine the causes of the coming collapse and the shape it might take, and then to examine the resources the remnant can bring to the world. And most especially, I want to examine the one factor that makes this collapse unique in all of history, and that is the presence of the zombies, and I want to answer the question posed by popular culture, namely, “Will there be any zombies?”

Let me start by noting the whole problem of the collapse of complex societies. Certainly, we live in an extremely complex world, one which we have difficulty understanding. Now, social complexity itself begins as a way to make systems more robust, and to incorporate as many elements of society as possible into a coherent system. But as time goes on, parts of the system that were designed for one purpose get used for another, and usually inappropriate, purpose. Each little part of the system acquires its defenders who will not let it change, or will change it in complex and inappropriate ways. When this happens, systems become extremely brittle, and by “brittle,” I mean that a failure in a small part of the system will cause massive failures in large parts or even of the whole system.

We just saw a perfect example of this in the financial markets. There, a failure in one small part of the system, the sub-prime mortgage market, caused a failure of the whole financial system. The sub-prime market was, at its height, worth about $1.4 trillion. Most analysts understood that the market was failing, but they were not particularly worried about it, since the market was so small in the overall scheme of things. What they failed to understand was that a comparatively few mortgages had been magnified by the miracle of financial hedging to make the whole system brittle. The sub-prime market reached default rates of 16%, and the whole structure fell apart, and achieved the positive miracle of causing $30T in losses in a $1.4T market. But beyond these losses of nominal wealth, there was the recession in which people who had no involvement in this elaborate structure lost their jobs, their homes, their positions in their communities, and perhaps even their marriages and self-respect.

Here we see how complexity works, or fails to work, in its brittle stage: a small failure in a small market causes massive failure throughout the system. Nor can such systems be easily repaired, as we are discovering. Despite all the pundits and politicians, brimming over with good advice and simple fixes, it turns out that the system can only be “fixed” in one place by breaking it in another; every patch weakens the whole, and every “solution” is its own recipe for disaster.

When we go through the catalog of our economic, political, and social structures, we find a network of the same brittle systems, all of them ripe for failure, and any of them sufficient to cause the failure of the whole. Our systems of trade, defense, education, entertainment, agriculture, housing, transportation—you name it—turn out to be fragile, dysfunctional, and beyond repair. They are all systems of inter-locking fragility, such that the whole system is brittle and on the verge of collapse.

Take energy, for example. Our entire industrial civilization for the last two or three centuries has been predicated on cheap energy, first coal and then flow-able oil. But oil prices have quadrupled in the last 10 years, and supplies of cheap oil are diminishing. But so many other systems are dependent on this cheap, flow-able oil. For example, when the price of oil was driven by speculation to $140/bbl, the price of shipping a container from Shanghai to Los Angeles went from $2,000 to $6,000, which wiped out any wage or regulatory advantages that the Chinese had, and companies made plans to bring their production back to our shores, which would have devastated the export-dependent economies of China, India, and others. The crisis passed, but the lesson was clear: at somewhere between $120-$130/bbl, the world trading system breaks apart, and we are not far from that.

A second dependency is agriculture, which is largely oil-based. Now, Americans have largely given up on eating food, or at least anything our grandparents and great-grandparents would have recognized as food. Increasingly, our diets consist of highly processed and manufactured food-like substances, composed mainly of corn syrup, starches, fats, salt, and the chemical compounds necessary to keep the whole thing from instantly rotting. And the farms themselves have become extensions of the factory food system, where the soil is no longer used to grow food. Rather, the soil, or what remains of it, is merely used to hold the plants in the ground, while a variety of petrochemical substances are applied to stimulate growth, fight disease, and ward off pests.

The crops are planted and harvested with a large array of capital and energy-intensive equipment, to produce standardized products, most of which were unknown to man or God a generation or two ago. As the price of oil goes up, the price of food must follow. Nor can most farmers return to pre-petrochemical days, as they have destroyed their own soil, and it will take years to get it back. We do not have machinery for making soil; that comes in God's own time with man's own care. And if we don't care, it won't happen.

I could go on with this analysis through system after system, but I think you get the idea, and I would like to turn our attention to another and more serious problem, namely the problem of culture and religion. It is here, I believe, that we confront a situation for which there is no precedent in human history. Here my thesis is very simple: culture has been subordinated to the needs of commerce, a commerce that has exhibited some rather peculiar and even demonic needs. Now, at many times in the past, the merchant has moved culture, and this was not always a bad arrangement. Commerce sought to ennoble itself with culture, and the merchant, through his patronage of the arts and the Church, sought to lift up his fellow citizens, ennoble his city, and obtain honor for himself.

But what is happening today is something quite different. Although something of the old spirit of patronage remains, in the main the vast engines of culture have been turned from uplifting the citizen to degrading him. Indeed, the whole point of the exercise is to turn each of us from being a citizen into being a pure consumer; that is, from being a person who takes responsibility for himself, his family, and his community, into being a person whose self-respect is invested only in what he buys, and who is directed only by unregulated and easily manipulated passions.

Marketing has displaced philosophy to become the preeminent integrative science of the modern age. At one time, we relied on the philosophers to put together all the knowledge that was, and to advise princes, merchants, and soldiers on the proper way of the world. But today, the philosophers have become second-class citizens—even within the academy—and it is advertisers who put together all the knowledge of the world for their own ends. That is, advertisers hire the best psychologists, sociologists, mathematicians, musicians, composers, writers, actors, and artists, and their work directs the engineer and the scientist to push the limits of product and surveillance technology. But this patronage of the arts and sciences has a quite different end from, say, the merchant dukes of Venice or Florence; marketing patronage seeks to destroy the intelligence and play on the vices. That is to say, it seeks to create zombies, people whose lives and brains have been destroyed, and whose only object is consumption.

The young have recognized that the marketeers have succeeded; this is why the image of the zombie, so silly on its face, resonates so much in popular culture. The young know, at some intuitive level, that we are already in the midst of the apocalypse, that the world wishes to strip them of their minds and their hearts and make them pure consumers, mindlessly but relentlessly pursuing one product—The advertiser's dream! They know, in their heart of hearts, that the world is out to get them, and means them no good. They have seen a deeper truth than anyone cares to admit.

 In the past, the whole point of literature and the arts was to educate the young; to inculcate in them the values of their place and culture; now, its sole object is to destroy them in the name of a monetary gain. No civilization has ever committed such crimes against its own children. Or perhaps there is a precedent. The Carthaginians, under siege from the Romans in 146 BC, thought they could revive their fortunes by sacrificing their children; 300 children were thrown into a furnace to the god Moloch, but the city fell anyway, the inhabitants sold into slavery, and the ground sowed with salt so that nothing would grow there, so deep was the Roman revulsion with the city. Carthago delenda est, and no city more deserved its fate.

But what of our fate? Have we not, in a way, committed the same crime to be condemned to the same fate? Have we not condemned our children to be sacrificed to the fires of a commercial Moloch, and must we not suffer a fate much worse than Carthage? Well, after all of this, I have a rather odd message: be of good cheer. We can get through this; we can do this, and perhaps it is only us, only a remnant, who can do it. I believe that if we keep our wits and our faith about us, we can show our neighbors how to live—once we relearn the art ourselves.

We start by asking what happens in a collapse. The first thing is that the center cannot hold. That is, the central government—and centralized production companies—can no longer provide services to the periphery. At some point, the periphery simply refuses to obey orders or to remit funds. States like California, which remit to the federal government far more than they receive in benefits, will simply stop remitting funds, and use the money to solve their own problems.

If it seems strange to say that large entities will stop paying taxes, consider the fact that large corporations have already done so, albeit by a series of legal and quasi-legal means. Despite the stated tax rates, the actual rates paid are minimal. At some point, ordinary citizens will simply “forget” to pay their federal taxes, and there is not much a bankrupt federal government will be able to do about it, since all laws depend on a high level of voluntary compliance; when that is gone, so is the law.

But the large corporations will be having their own problems, and their failure to support the state financially is the commercial equivalent of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Corporate power depends on government power, and both will go down together; they are part and parcel of each other. Without a powerful federal government to enforce patents, people will use the knowledge they have to make the things they need. Without subsidized roads, the Wal-Mart distribution model will be shown to be expensive and inefficient. Without a big government to pick up externalized costs or provide large subsidies, corporate collectives will go the way of all collectives, whose very size condemns them to inefficiency.

But what shall we do, when there is no longer a remote government to care for us and a large corporation to feed us? How shall people get their daily bread when they discover that bread doesn't grow on grocery-store shelves? Modern life, after all, is dependent on complex networks for electricity, water, sewer, transportation, gas, education, security, banking, food supplies, medical care, and so forth. Almost all of these are allocated by an exchange for money in market or quasi-market systems. Money, however, will be the first thing to go. Money is a social product, and never any stronger than the society which issues it. There will either be (and you can pick your favorite theory on this one) hyper-inflation or hyper-deflation; that is, money will either be too plentiful to have value or too scarce to be useful.

Our problem will be to restore each of these services on a community-by-community basis, and to find a variety of ways to distribute them, ways that will range from a circulation of gifts to barter, to local and ad hoc currencies. But will there be anything to exchange, either as gift, as barter, or for money? The first problem, of course, is food. If the mega-farms fail, can large populations be fed on the “three acres and a cow” approach the distributists are said to favor? Check out this short film about growing 1 million pounds of food, 10,000 fish, and 500 yards of compost on three acres. ( It is a simple system, using aquaponics, where water from tanks of tilapia is distributed over gravel beds where vegetables are grown. With greenhouses, the system runs 12 months/year, and the only heat source necessary is the compost bins. The system is “low-tech,” requiring only one pump and gravity to run the whole thing. That's what you can do on three acres, and you don't even need the cow. In fact, you don't even need the three acres, since the same system would work on the roof of an apartment building in the midst of the city.

But some crops, such as wheat, do indeed require larger scale farming to be practical, and at present, such farms require capital-intensive machinery. And most of the requirements of modern life are, or are connected with, manufactured things, and we assume the factories in which these things are made are large and expensive. Does a collapse mean that we must return to a pre-modern and more primitive standard of living? Look at this film from Marcin Jakubowski of Factor E Farms, who  developed his own low-cost and highly robust alternative, a tractor that could be built in six days from widely available materials, and for $4,000 ( But it is more than a farm tractor, because he also built a detachable  scoop, which makes it a front-loader, and a hoe that makes it a back-hoe. It has power take-offs to power other machinery, such as a brick press capable of 5,000 bricks per day, enough to build a house. Indeed, the same farms are developing plans for the 50 of the most important machines for industrial civilization, plans that allow these machines to be built from a variety of materials, and built to be long-lived with low maintenance costs.

But the key terms are not machinery and technology, but “families” and “neighborhoods”; the mechanical stuff our culture can handle, on scales large and small. The problematic areas are the ones involving human relationships. Indeed, the family today is often a temporary arrangement, enduring only until we can get the kids out of the house, and we often get them very far out of the house indeed, across the country or around the world. Even with all of our “social” technology, we often find it difficult to retain close relations even with our closest relations.  And neighborhoods are often nothing more than collections of habitats characterized more by their anonymity than by anything that could be called neighborliness. It is this neighborliness, more than any technical or physical quantity, that will be the scarce commodity in any effort to rebuild.

Neighborliness, is the exact opposite of self-interest understood as desire, as the pursuit of a private passion. Neighborliness requires a certain degree of sacrifice, of true caritas, that is, a willingness to see our own good in the good of our neighbors. But is this possible in a world of zombies? Would not the zombie see no other good than his own,  recognize no other truth than his own? Here I would like to offer a rather strange suggestion: A world of zombies may prove to be an advantage, if we can use it correctly. Let me offer a case to make this rather surprising point.

The familiar world order collapsed with the first world war, and the world between the wars was full of good men of passionate intensity. Seeing the obvious disorder, the collapse of all that was customary and familiar, they wished to find some universal truth that could save the world. The men who opted for communism, or fascism, or Nazism, or Liberalism were, for the most part, good men who had gotten hold of the worst kind of lie: the half-truth. They committed great crimes in order to save their half-truth from all the other competing half-truths. But there is no danger of this happening with the zombies. The modern world has destroyed the whole notion of truth, even, or especially, the notion of the half-truth. What the zombie knows, and knows with mathematical and moral certainty, is that he has been lied to. He knows this because everything the world has told him—and told him 24/7—is in fact a lie.

Men for the last 200 years or more have filled themselves with empty ideologies; the zombies alone are truly empty and waiting to be filled with truth. But this “truth” they yearn for cannot be just another ideology, another ism. Indeed it cannot even be Catholic-ism, for this too is just an ideology, perhaps the worst. That is to say, it cannot be a Catholicism that is merely the spiritual support of some political ideology, be it the liberalism or constitutionalism of Scalia or Woods on one hand, or of the liberation theologians and political liberals on the other.

So what will the zombies do in time of collapse? I don't know, but I suspect the answer will depend very much on what we do. If we show the zombie a truth, rather than just preach one, we may release him—and ourselves—from his prison.  By showing him a truth, I mean showing him a community, a community that functions economically, socially, and, I think it important to add, liturgically. Communities are by themselves tools of evangelization. For example, the California missions were not just churches where one could preach to the Indians, but communities where a Christian way of life could be demonstrated, could be made visible and concrete to the Indians, something they could compare with their own lives.

The technical problems of rebuilding the world, the problems that seem insurmountable, will turn out to be trivial: there is enough knowledge and resources to accomplish that task. But whether we are able to do it is another thing. The modern world begins by discovering—or rather inventing—the autonomous individual; the self-made made man who has no connections save contractual ones freely chosen and broken at will, for indeed there can be nothing higher than the individual will. Such a man is already half-way to being a zombie. And we must admit to ourselves, that we are all zombies, to some degree we are influenced by the technologies of persuasion and “need-creation.” We are all people who feel a need to work to buy what we don't need, and then to discover new needs, which we must work even harder to fill. The modernist project ends with post-modernism, and with the true zombie, that is, with the creation of emptiness.

On a practical level, we need to first prepare ourselves. We must know what we really want and buy—or make—only what we really need. Growing a tomato is an act of resistance; fixing a car rather than buying a new one throws a wrench into the system. And making your own music defeats the entertainment industry, while entertaining your children and your neighbors defeats the whole wicked world. Educating one's children defeats both government and industry. And all of these provide the seeds from which a new economy, and a new civilization, a liturgical civilization, can be built, one that will fill the zombies and make them human again, and us as well.

We need to be looking around our neighborhoods and areas for resources to solve all the problems when the professional problem-solvers no longer can. If we look closely, we are likely to find more than we suspect. But mostly, we need to be looking at our neighborhoods to find our neighbors; all too often our neighborhoods are not at all neighborly, but rather anonymous and temporary housing, not real places but only real estate. By finding real neighbors, we will find real solutions.

To conclude, I say again, let us be of good cheer. To be sure, we must be realistic about the dangers we face and the hardships we will, no doubt, endure. There will be a certain madness abroad in the world, and this is unavoidable in times like these. People, deprived of comfort and customs, and anxious over the next meal or a place to sleep, will at least be mad, and likely prone to madness. But they are unlikely to fall victim to mere ideology, and we may have it in our power to calm their anxiety. And I suspect that we will discover that the things we will have to give up are not things that we really wanted anyway, and that what we stand to gain is what we were always looking for. And what we gain, we may give, and give to our fellow-zombies, who in their true emptiness of heart want only to be filled with the truth. This, I suspect, is our vocation, our calling, and this is our moment.

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