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The Problem with Prepping
What happens when the zombies don't come?
Follow me on Twitter: @FromKulak
My mother is a prepper, she adores prepping.
She cans her own preserves, stocks her pantry extraordinarily well, follows various sites, keeps at least one winter’s firewood on hand (like a full winter of the fire going non-stop… 8-10 cords), she’s got her little garden in the back yard, and she generally keeps just about every survival or outdoors piece of kit you could want…
And she reads extensively specifically on the matter of prepping. Her house is stocked with books on 19th-century home-craft, survival in the woods, “SAS” survival manuals, books on guns, books on bows, books on edible plants, books about plucky teenagers surviving plane crashes and having to last with just a buck knife and their wits, the Little House on the Prairie books… and of course various explicit Doomsday prepper books, covering all manner of plausible and implausible ways the world could end… Figuratively and literally.
I have no idea how likely a solar flare is, but my mother has proudly told me on multiple occasions to rest assured, whatever redundant analog obscurity she’s recently bought will work during one… this is of course little assurance given my career and income is on here, and requires my laptop to not be fried (Should look into backup emp proof options (microfiche?)).
My mother is not alone in this…
Countless reality shows, books, films, blogs, youtube channels, products, etc. All promise to let the prepared survive and thrive in a world where civilization has collapsed and mankind has returned to the primal realities of existence…
The problem is it’s mostly bullshit.
Of Zombies and Post-Apocalyptic Pastoralism
The modern prepper world, whether any particular prepper influencer wants to admit it or not, is intimately tied to the fantasy of the Zombie Apocalypse. Indeed perhaps the largest sub-genre of specific apocalypse prepper material ( as opposed to general, or country-specific material (why the US specifically will collapse)) is the “Zombie Survival” subgenre…after 15+ years of the Zombie craze this is sorta dying down, but the rampant success of the zombie genre in film, book, TV, Video Games, etc. Has cast a shadow that defines the genre and the entire conversation.
Now many preppers will counter:
The zombie apocalypse is a good event to prep for! Not because it’s going to happen, but because it’s the worst thing that could happen. You’re imagining the loss of power, water, safety, governance, emergency services, international supply chains…Forever! Everywhere!
And having to sustain yourself with all the challenges of survival whilst under threat from a highly infectious virus and hordes of dangerous enemies. That’s the harshest conditions you could prepare for!
Well, when you put it like that it’d almost seem the zombie apocalypse was perfectly conceived as a prepper thought experiment, perfectly designed to imagine a scenario in which all of your bases need to be covered and only a maximum of alertness and readiness can get you out alive…
Except it wasn’t and it isn’t.
Zombie apocalypse fiction dates back to 1968 and George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead, centering around a night when the dead return to life and attack a group of people all forced together to shelter in a farmhouse.
The film has often been praised as a racial commentary, with the character who takes on the leadership role being a black man played by Duane Jones… whose wits and responsibility allow him to survive the zombies and protect the others in spite of the tension amongst them, even as the survivors are whittled down.
The ending of the film is iconic. Jones is the last survivor, everyone else having been picked off by some combination of stupidity, trauma, and just bad luck… he awakes to the dawn as civilization reasserts itself and local militias and vigilantes gun down the zombies… he shambles wounded but alive out of the gutted farmhouse… only to be gunned down by the white militiamen, mistaken for a zombie himself.
It is exceptionally done, and subtle, 50+ years of dumb racial commentary might have you rolling your eyes, but it is well done in a way fawning liberal film critics since have almost certainly diminished with their sycophancy.
Indeed it handles race vastly better than movies written by supposed racial experts.
But here’s the trick, it is so effective precisely because it is almost entirely unintentional as far as the writing is concerned.
George Romero and John Russo did not write the role for a black man, they just wrote it for a man. In the casting Romero just felt Jones had the best presence for the role, then in the filming, they consciously resisted rewriting any lines in light of the racial component… a writing/directing trick Ridley Scott would copy 11 years later with regards to sex with the character of Ripley in Alien.
But whereas the implication of the post-identity casting has a relatively clear meaning in Alien and Scifi in general ie. the writers/creators consciously making a statement about how the politics of identity have changed in their imagined future… it is inherently mysterious when it comes to zombie films:
This was a film made and seemingly set in 1968 America, race riots and racial strife were THE issue of the day. Indeed if you were to ask “What does “the living dead” represent?” Perhaps the most obvious immediate answer would be desegregation and the violence of urban black youths, even then disproportionately criminal and drug-addled, descending upon white schools and neighborhoods. The “Escape the City” plots of so many zombie films are seemingly an ancestral memory of white flight.
To this day you can watch videos on youtube of influencers touring the poor skidrows in cities across America, observing all the dazed druggies and homeless, and saying “It’s the zombie apocalypse out here”.
And yet in spite of the racial commentary Americans and critics are keen and ready to read into the genre… it remains stupendously Apolitical. With every zombie story inevitably being a tale of a multi-ethnic gender mixed ragtag group of survivors banding together, getting over each other’s sensitivities, and surviving against the external enemy of zombies and the real monsters… Humans who aren’t as sensitive, multi-ethnic, and gender-mixed as the protagonists.
Oh give me a home where the flesh-eaters roam, and the jobs are not corporate and gay
The zombie genre is the ultimate modern fantasy: that of being externally relieved of all the problems of the political and complex society, whilst getting to keep all the material wealth associated with it.
With the added bonus of a guilt-free setting to act out all the violent impulses that modern man has repressed.
George Romero’s second foray into the genre, the iconic Dawn of the Dead, dives headfirst into this fantasy of material opulence: Its ragtag survivors make their fortified shelter in an American Mega-mall. Free to enjoy the endless bounty of American capitalist civilization… whilst being delightfully freed of Americans, capitalism, or civilization.
There’s a reason the zombie-infested malls are such a favorite of the video game genre. From Dead Rising to Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead (Free Game) the mall inevitably serves as an almost too-good-to-be-believed cornucopia of loot, equipment, and memeable outfits.
This carries over into almost all Zombie fiction, from Shawn of the Dead and it’s comedic quest to ride out the zombie apocalypse as an endless night at the pub, to Zombieland and Woody Harelson’s comedic quest to find Twinkies and American celebrity home… to any number of pastoralist quests to find an isolated farm or boat to an Island…
The fantasy of the Zombie Apocalypse is not of facing the failing of Western civilization but being free of said failing. It’s not a fantasy of things being stripped away and man being thrown back on the more primal nature of political relations… it’s one of being artificially freed of the question of the political at all.
This is why prepper culture is so consistently laser-focused on natural disasters, solar flares, and other acts of god that might deliver them from suffering the living hell of being in the same polity as their fellow citizen.
Like my mother preppers will scour for pastoralist tales of survival, some unlikely soul who survived a month on a cliff’s edge with nothing but a sardine tin and its built-in can opener. They’ll buy up fiction speculating on the coming SHTF (shit hit the fan) scenario or TEOTWAWKI (The end of the world as we know it).
But the one thing they consistently won’t engage with is any of what happened to billions of people over the past 120 years.
When it comes to violent early death, starvation, loss of standard of living, everything preppers are nominally concerned about, the things that kill people by the millions, the big five are:
Civil War/regime change
failed domestic outward invasion,
crippling economic sanctions/blockade.
THE MAJORITY of countries have experienced at least one of these since 1900, and a shocking number have 5 or more instances of one or another.
The distinctive thing about all of these, every single one, is that social-political order, from the perspective of the person on the ground, STAYS INTACT throughout all but the narrowly dramatic moment… and maybe not even then.
“What will you do during the end of the world?”
I’m sorry to have to tell you this: But in 99% of all scenarios, You’ll still be going to work and paying your taxes, right up until the death squad rolls through or the press gangs drag you away.
The peasants on the eastern front were still working their farms and worried about making quota when the Whermacht went through.
This is the problem with prepper logic. It’s completely passive. The dream of zombie movies is that the living dead will give you a clear-cut moment when the old political moral order is gone and it’s now socially/ethically acceptable to loot what you need from the already dead and shoot the man who’s drooling and chanting “Brians”.
Duane Jones plays the main hero in Night of the Living Dead not as a subversion of racial discourse but as an ESCAPE from racial discourse. The hard real life questions of 1968: Would you answer your draft number or resist? Would you defend your neighborhood from race riots? How will you get your kids out of integrating and collapsing inner-city schools without bankrupting your family? Would you join one of the extremist revolutionary movements sweeping America? Would you start one of the counter-revolutionary movements? How would you survive in collapsing violent cities like Detroit, New York, or Baltimore if you were an aging pensioner who’d never afford to move?
Zombie fiction and vast segments of the prepper genre emerged exactly as ordinary Americans were faced with the real hard unvelveted fist of political life, and assuaged them that they wouldn’t have to make real tough moral decisions but instead wait for the collapse and coast-by being an upstanding competent person.
I’ve seen “Prepper” discussions where people have suggested “Oh you should get an odd-guage shotgun like a 20 gauge, that way when you’re looting and picking through an abandoned gun store the ammo you need is more likely to be left over from the previous looters”
As if a gun store wouldn’t be stop number one for any random faction with pickup trucks, and they wouldn’t just take everything, because you know they’ve already stolen the pickup trucks… or as if the government, if they saw things declining, wouldn’t just confiscate entire gun stores and their supplies as a “precautionary” (what you think they’d be too busy helping people?) Or as if the gunstore owners seeing the writing on the wall wouldn’t act first before the state can load everything up in their trucks and head into hiding…
The logic of this prepper can ONLY apply in a zombie apocalypse or super-plague scenario where 90+% of people die quickly. This has never happened, no one has ever in the history of the earth, been the 5th guy to pick through an abandoned gun store whilst on foot and unable to take everything… But this happens all the time in Zombie fiction, because zombie fiction is, not just a fantasy, a mass market fantasy, Ie. The number one thing the writer cannot do is depict the characters making charged, ruthless, politically insensitive decisions.
The ONE and only time you’d ever be able to raid a gun store in a survival scenario… Is when it is functioning as a gun store because law and order are still maintained at that level.
Ie. If you wanted to raid a gunstore, you’d have to ROB a gun store. Which thousands of various groups have done in real-life survival/political collapse scenarios: Guerilla, criminal, paramilitary, and even the owners themselves (how do you actually make the guns yours when the regime tracks them all and will hold you accountable for any that don’t show up when they ask?)
But notably this all happened when the mainline authorities and good citizens were still insisting the situation was salvageable, the problem was just a few bad apples and a lack of civic feeling.
The exceptional film City of God depicts such robberies as the Flavellas of Rio De Janeiro descended into their first major all-encompassing gang war.
Notably the survival of these gangs, and many who were not even gangsters originally, but merely looking to survive, depended on their willingness to engage in proactive robbery not only of gun stores, but banks to fund their arms race, and onwards and upwards to major drug trafficking and other serious organized crime
This is what real SHTF looks like, this was a real complete breakdown of law, order, and government control. This is what survival actually entailed for these people… and what the spiral downward looked like.
This pattern replicates everywhere, if you read a concentration camp survivor’s tale or an account of POWs in the Japanese theatre, one of the reoccurring themes is how those who were best at survival were the hustlers, the most criminal, the most proactive, often amongst the most ruthless, but also amongst the best at providing… for friends.
James Clavell’s novel King Rat was based on his experience as a POW at Changi prison in Singapore during ww2 and centers around an American criminal corporal POW who manages to effectively take over and run the prison through his elaborate criminal schemes and corruption of the imprisoned upper-class British officers who he nominally answers to… King Rat would be adapted to a praised though somewhat forgotten film, and Clavell would also write the script for another far more optimistic POW film you might have heard of… The Great Escape.
And let us not forget the most successful survivor of all time… who survived, depending on how you count, 4-5 revolutions, multiple civil wars, 2 world wars, and the paranoid hall of mirrors backstabbing extravaganza that was the earliest Soviet state… and survived so well that by the time of his death, in bed, of natural causes, he had personally, in an allegedly perfectly equal society, amassed enough power, wealth, and empire to dwarf that of Alexander…
I refer of course to Joseph Stalin, the greatest doomsday survivalist in human history, and a man whose greatest claim to fame prior to the Russian Revolution was organizing a prominent bank robbery, in violation of even the radical Bolshevik’s wishes.
This has already gone long, so my expansive list of good REAL prepper advice that everyone should be following is going to have to wait for my next post…
But if there’s a structure that good prepper advice must follow, that would actually allow someone to survive and thrive in the scenarios that the vast majority of nations have experienced since 1900 and perhaps even a majority of people over 60 have experienced in their life… its this:
Real prepper advice, practice, and philosophy must be oriented to succeed in a scenario where law and order have NOT broken down completely. Where society has NOT fallen apart. Where it is accepted wisdom that you should NOT be preparing, and that you might actively be undermining the revolution, war effort, chances of peace, civil society, or civilization itself by preparing and looking after your own.
The most important prepper advice is advice that at the actual moment of crisis might be actively treasonous to give, and you or certainly people you know might not wonder if you’re actively evil for contemplating it.
Where the order has not fallen but it has merely grown twisted and looks like it could stumble… that’s probably the most important moment to jump, break social bonds, convention, and the law, and risk, perhaps execution, then and there, instead of allowing yourself to cross a threshold where you’re locked into a slow bleed you can’t escape.
Lots of German mothers wish they had engaged in defeatism and tried to flee the country in the fall of ‘44, rather than let 12-to-15-year-olds be drafted and die trying to hold Berlin in ‘45.
Real preparedness should not be an escape from the political but a sobering and hair-raising stare into that abyss.
Real preparedness is something that if put in a movie would be denounced as an endorsement of criminality or insurrection… because Criminality and, what a crumbling state will inevitably call Treason, is what really surviving and thriving at the moment of crisis entails… it entails Proactivity. The best defense is a good offense.
Lots of people have stocked their pantries and squirreled away all the kit they needed to survive… only to have it found, stollen, and their entire family shot for hiding it, these things happened in Ukraine in ‘33 and they happened in Warsaw a decade later. These scenarios have played out from Cambodia to Nicaragua and back to Vietnam.
If you want to actually be prepared you shouldn’t be studying wilderness survivalists, but the Mexican Cartels and IRA. They’ve actually survived the most advanced states in the world trying to crush them for decades, and their members have raised families whilst doing it. If your plan is to flee into the woods and then hideout til the crisis passes… what are you going to do when 30 years from now you realize you were a Ukrainian in 1915, nothing ever really got better, and you didn’t marry or reproduce because you were hiding, and now your family line is dead and you might as well have just gone to be shot fighting against the Kaiser for all your “survival” skills saved you.
Zombie and apocalypse fiction sells a fantasy of a relatively quick and clean break, usually glossed over. A chaotic, dangerous, and actiony main event lasting weeks to months, and then the post-apocalyptic wonderland of getting to rebuild society with most of the pre-collapse wealth, and none of the people you hate or political systems you despise.
The Prepper industry sells the idea that with the right knowledge, and purchases, you can basically skip the awkward middle bit and wait til your despised fellow citizens have finished each other off for you.
This, obviously, has not happened anywhere. Whilst post-population collapse peace, wealth, and income dividends exist, in some cases —black death, 30 years war, etc. The idea of this quick collapse and clean political cut is non-existent… the 30 years war lasted 30 YEARS!
Believe it or not, surviving is something everyone wants to do, so if hundreds of thousands or millions of people are failing, probably something very difficult is happening… and you’re going to have to make the tough calls your TV doesn’t want to train you to make, at the difficult moments it’ll be screaming at you not to make them.
That might mean forming an illegal paramilitary faction, that might mean committing high-level crimes (if only to fund your escape from the country), that might mean a lot of more unpleasant grey and black market activity people often do to survive.
Stay tuned for the next entry:
Follow me on Twitter: @FromKulak
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Follow me on Twitter: @FromKulak