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Surviving Brexit: the ‘zombie’ story

Toby Venables photo
Toby VenablesEngland
Surviving Brexit: the ‘zombie’ story
A Brexit horrorshow* Halloween special

Society is collapsing. Neighbours are turning on each other with horrifying ferocity.

Some say it’s the result of a virus. Others dismiss the idea as crackpot conspiracy theory – but something is happening. Something that is not being properly acknowledged. Many blame the government – but communication has become confused, and it is now impossible to tell truth from rumour, fact from fiction.

Supply lines break down. People clash over scarce resources. Random acts of violence break out as some take advantage of the chaos. The government declares a state of emergency, putting armed soldiers on the streets – but it already seems unable to contain the situation some say they themselves created.

Networks go down. Power fails. And there, in the dark – alone and with only what is immediately to hand to aid you – you plan your next move.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the zombie apocalypse scenario, and you’re living in it.

We all know this scenario. We’ve seen it, played it, read about it, imagined it a thousand times. We all know it could not become reality. And yet, part of us also knows – has always known – that it will. As Brexit draws closer, that inner conviction appears all the more relevant.

Whilst the zombie apocalypse scenario as we now know it has been around since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), it wasn’t until the turn of this millennium that it really took hold in the western imagination. We became obsessed not only by zombie movies, but zombie culture. It’s now everywhere, in every medium, from video games to greetings cards – there are even zombie walks, for which people dress as the undead and shamble en masse through city streets. We fear zombies, sure. But on some level, we also want to be them.

This fact – and the fact that so many millions of people pay good money to watch civilisation fall apart over and over again – suggest that our relationship with this particular genre is...complicated. But given that it rarely ends well for humanity, why do we enjoy it at all?

Some will say it’s just about good old fashioned scares, and the challenge of thinking ‘How would I survive?’ – but this alone doesn’t seem nearly enough to carry us through the grim carnage. Considering the utter bleakness of this genre, we’re led to one rather odd – even shocking – conclusion: part of us craves apocalypse.

In some way, we want it all to come crashing down.

I’m a novelist and screenwriter. I like zombie movies and I’ve written one zombie novel so far – The Viking Dead. I’m also active in academia and have contributed a chapter to an academic tome dedicated to zombie culture. It’s fair to say, then, that I’ve given this subject a fair bit of thought. Some of those thoughts are captured here, in a recent conversation with YouTuber Richard Jackson on his film review channel Val Verde Broadcasting.

At a time when the real horrors taking place out in the world seem to be increasing in intensity – the US mail bombs and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting happening barely a week apart – some may consider it trite to be comparing our current or future circumstances to a story form many regard as mindless entertainment. But it isn’t – especially not when things like this are happening:

For the uninitiated, 'Lucille' is the name of a barbed wire covered baseball bat used by the character Negan in the TV series The Walking Dead – but this real-life version was found in the boot of a car in Essex. The car was abandoned, having previously failed to stop for police. You can read the story here.

So, yes, I am deadly serious. You should be too. This comparison is not just about the mechanics of getting through a chaotic period, either – important though those may be. It’s about the sometimes questionable ways we have programmed ourselves to respond to crisis, and are driven by desires that can lead us straight towards disaster – even when we know full well that it is disaster. Think of this in relation to some attitudes towards Brexit. It may already seem familiar.

So... Brexit is so damned disastrous now that it’s going to cause the dead to rise up and eat us?

Well, no. That’s the one part of the scenario we know to be fiction; the part we focus on to reassure ourselves that this narrative is not – cannot be – real. But zombie movies were never really about that, except in their most literal interpretation. Like all horror, they’re about the real-world fears that lurk beneath the surface – things that disturb us so deeply we can only work through them when they’re in disguise, as in a dream. Horror movies are waking nightmares. Ask instead whether some ugly aspects of our past, things we thought safely dead and buried, could rise up and claim us – could come and consume us, break us apart, bring chaos and render our individuality meaningless. I’d say that’s happening right now.

And the virus? Yes, the virus is real.

The Virus

In his groundbreaking book Alternative War, investigative journalist and former Met police officer James ‘J.J.’ Patrick revealed for the first time how Russia was engaged in a hybrid war against largely oblivious and mostly powerless western nations – most notably, using cyber warfare to penetrate social media on a vast scale, sowing dissent and chaos and disrupting democratic processes, including Brexit and the US presidential election. To achieve these ends, they also worked in collusion with far-right groups, some of which have since been helped to far more prominent positions in western politics (and in mainstream media) than any imagined possible only a few years ago. Social media, allied with weaponised data, has been the primary tool in this endeavour, allowing attacks on a global scale to take place by stealth. While Trump was proudly proclaiming that SM allowed him to speak direct to the people, bypassing the ‘fake news media’, Putin had for years been bypassing western defence mechanisms and military forces, delivering a deadly payload to citizens in their homes, at work, in school, down the pub and on the bus. It was Blitz 2.0 – and no one was even aware it was happening.

Well, almost no one.

James Patrick is a hard-headed realist, and when he started to follow the threads was himself reluctant to believe where they were leading him. When the book was finally published in August 2017, many dismissed it as crackpot conspiracy theory. Now, all the key findings – and his warnings – are mainstream. We see them every day in newspaper headlines and in the latest from the Mueller Report. The core of James’s journalistic work can be found here at Byline, and after a solid year of saying ‘I told you so’ I suspect he’s getting just a little sick of that phrase.

During this period, I started working with him on a feature film based on his factual book. This project was partly born out of James’s frustration at how painfully slowly his findings were being accepted in the mainstream. As we talked, we realised we shared the view that facts alone were sometimes not enough – that, for the most part, narratives were more powerful and persuasive than facts. In the wrong hands, compelling narratives could be used to overthrow truth completely – and indeed had done so throughout the Brexit campaign. £350m a week for the NHS. Claims about sovereignty, unelected bureaucrats and border control that were as mythical as bendy bananas. Stories about immigrants being a drain on the NHS, or asylum seekers being enemy bombers. It didn’t seem to make any difference how often these narratives were countered by evidence; some people simply wanted them, preferred them, and decided to believe them. Occasionally they even staunchly defended their right to do so. Of course, anyone has the right to believe whatever they want. That does not, however, make it true.

While reading through Alternative War, I was struck by this passage, following a description of how thousands – possibly millions – of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts were being used to target individuals and influence their political behaviour:

‘What had become clear to me in a very short space of time was that all of the strands of the hacking web interact to create a whole – a viral organism dependent on each of its elements to work effectively, mutate, and spread. We, people, are little more than the host keeping it alive: like any good infection, it relies on us to continue to exist. This is a natural progression, I suppose. A computer virus for all intents and purposes engineered by a malicious enemy to attack humans rather than machines. The next generation of chemical warfare, if you like, designed to work on dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins and, so far, it has proven highly effective. Big data provides the key to the delivery system and the route to infection, hence the commodity value.’

(Patrick, J.J. Alternative War: Unabridged (Kindle Locations 2242-2248). Cynefin Road. Kindle Edition.)

So there it was. The virus robbing us of our free will. And we let it, because we liked it. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been invoked endlessly in the past 18 months of political commentary, but this was more like Brave New World. We love our phones. We love Facebook and Twitter. We’re addicted to them, their effects, the feeling of connectedness they offer. The sense of importance when people take notice of what we post.

But, as Nietzsche put it: ‘When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you’.

James Patrick is exploring this topic more deeply in a new documentary, Malware for Humans, due for release in February. You can find out more and support it here.

The Fall

These campaigns to subvert democratic processes are established fact. What is also a fact is that their aim is to create chaos. Through Brexit, they seem to have achieved that end. Like a virus, they weaken and isolate the host. While we may disagree about the extent of the chaos that is yet to come as a result of Brexit – and some still cling to the flawed narrative that ‘we were OK before and we’ll be OK now’ – few would now argue that things are going swimmingly. The worst-case scenarios of the immediate and long-term impact of no-deal Brexit are dark indeed, but even the most moderate forecasters foresee serious issues with the import of goods from mainland Europe. These include food and medicines. There could also be problems with fuel supplies (including gas and electricity) and aviation and rail services to mainland Europe will be forced to a standstill if no agreement can be reached.

The government has been waving away the most serious worries, with the hardline Leave camp dismissing all such concerns as ‘Project Fear’ – but the fact that the government has the army on standby and has designated the M26 in Kent as a post-Brexit lorry park has hardly reassured citizens. Lord Lawson, in an attempt to jolly the nation along, claimed that the disruptions will be over ‘within a year’.

A year.

Bear in mind that this is among the most optimistic of predictions – and the fact that Lord Lawson lives in France.

Clearly, this is a situation for which all sensible people should prepare. But can zombie narratives help us do that?

The zombie apocalypse narrative is truly catastrophic. It describes just about the worst fate we can imagine: the end of us as thinking individuals; the end of us as families, communities, as a civilisation; the end of everything. It’s terrifying not only because it features monsters who are neither entirely living nor entirely dead (read Freud’s essay on The Uncanny for the reasons why such things disturb us). In fact, I’d go further to suggest this is far from being the most unsettling aspect of these films. One might even propose – as I have earlier in this piece – that it is the most reassuring aspect of them, since it is the element that marks the narrative as fictional, and therefore safe.

But it is not safe.

The danger inherent in the zombie apocalypse narrative is to do with that other part of the story – the collapse of order – and what constant repetition of zombie narratives does to our expectations in the real world. It is also dangerous because the wholesale collapse of the modern world is not just a fear, but also a desire. How this affects our thinking and our actions in Brexit Britain could prove decisive. Perhaps it already has.

The fact that our current obsession with zombies coincided with the explosion of mobile digital culture is, I think, no coincidence. Whilst the zombie renaissance is often characterised as being simply to do with ‘millennial angst’, I believe there is a more specific anxiety at work here – one related directly to the contradictions and complications that smartphones and social media introduce into our lives.

They connect us to everything, everywhere, making us more aware of what is going on across the globe than ever before. And yet, in doing so, they also serve to reinforce our feelings of impotence. Before these devices – before even news or media – most people knew only what was going on immediately around them. And while they were far from being in total control of their circumstances, they were at least in touch – literally – with most of the things that mattered to them. They would make, mend, grow, cook and shape their immediate (and only) environment, and their social circle consisted solely of the people they met face to face.

While I have no desire to idealise this life, nor to demonise modernity and technology, the change most humans have undergone in the past 100 years – and especially the last 20 – is vast, and while there are gains, there is also a cost. Digital technology puts the world at our fingertips – but, paradoxically, also removes it from our grasp. Every day we concern ourselves with people we will not meet, places we cannot go and situations whose outcomes we cannot affect. Lives get increasingly complex, the forces that govern them harder to understand, and while there are devices that deliver ever greater levels of convenience and luxury, our relationship to them is one-sided. They break, and we are powerless to fix them. They get lost, and our ability to function normally falls apart. Financial transactions are no longer about what we have in our pocket, but are entirely dependent on systems we don’t understand and people we never see.

The power to shape our environment – this newly created, virtual environment – is no longer in our hands, but those of distant, anonymous suppliers of devices and services.

When things become ungraspable, our grasp of life – our sense of control over it – diminishes. This is the very definition of stress. Perhaps we also sense that we are allowing such technology to have power over us in ways that are bad for our health not only as individuals, but as a society – poisoned chalices kept topped up by hostile states. It’s hardly surprising, then, that part of us yearns to return to a simpler, more tactile way of living and to see all these complications and frustrations swept away. Catastrophic though the circumstances may be, no longer being beholden to the corporations that control these aspects of our lives – and the sinister forces that exploit them – represents a very real kind of freedom.

And yet, at the same time, our ability to shape our immediate physical environment has also diminished. Most of us do not make, or build, or grow food, or raise animals. Many of us would not know how. I recently asked a room full of capable, intelligent, educated people who among them was capable of lighting a fire without matches or a lighter. No one raised a hand.

On some level, we know this is true, and that it is not good. It’s not just about obvious practical advantages, either. Working with one’s hands can be satisfying in ways that working on a laptop can never be. Getting tired out from physical work is good for sound sleep, while the nervous exhaustion from too many hours in front of a computer screen is a recipe for insomnia. Zombie narratives not only sweep away the causes of our everyday stress, they also put the emphasis on very basic needs – food, drink, shelter, safety. They urge us to leave the city and start again – to leave behind the consumer goods in the mall, to break our dependence upon items of mass production and complex infrastructure and to learn to draw on our own inner resources once again. This, after all, is what all heroes in all stories are expected to do – to find the strength within themselves. In a story, a hero must be tested, and much of the enjoyment of zombie narratives is derived from thinking what we would do, how we would survive – whilst never quite allowing ourselves to entertain the idea of it as a real possibility.

So, how does this relate to our current reality?

I have written before on the mythologising of Brexit, of narratives that characterise it as a war and thereby legitimise – and perhaps make inevitable in the minds of some – violent conflict. I have also suggested that we reconfigure this narrative, ignore the baying of those urging us to fight and instead approach the challenges ahead as we did the Blitz, inspired by the stoic pragmatism of that period. The zombie apocalypse narrative – so current in our minds – has also, perhaps unavoidably, become attached to Brexit. Often it is done with humour, but what lies behind it is far from funny. As we get closer to B Day with no deal in sight, the stories of shortages, disrupted services, potential disorder and soldiers on the streets – even if only the worst-case scenario – can hardly fail to alarm us. Woven into the zombie narrative, of course, there is also violence. What we need to consider – and strenuously resist – is the notion that characterising Brexit in this way brings with it an expectation of civil unrest and violent confrontation, and that, as a result of our love affair with zombie media, there is within even the most reasonable of us a powerful urge to say ‘Bring it on...’ To actively welcome The Fall. To be tested by the challenges it brings. To cast ourselves as the zombie apocalypse hero and get ready to crack heads.

Life is not a video shoot-em-up. Game over means game over.

Survivors

I have little doubt there will be those, like the owner of the barbed wire baseball bat found in the car in Essex, who will relish the opportunity to indulge their fantasies. For them, any breakdown in in order – however minor – may be the trigger for the zombie shoot-em-up to begin, in which a kind of violent free-for-all will suddenly seem justified. We may see some opportunistic looting as a result of this – possibly, too, ugly scenes of the kind we have already witnessed in the US. Thankfully, we have fewer guns here.

There are two things to say about this. First, as long as the majority of people remain calm, such criminal acts – for that’s what they are, no matter how they get dressed up – will remain isolated and infrequent occurrences. Second, the way forward proposed by zombie narratives is, ultimately, not fighting. Fighting is not enough, and it gets you dead. The real way forward is to prepare, to adapt and to relearn. To work together. And, yes, to be stoic and pragmatic. Because the future after the zombie apocalypse – the part you usually don’t see – is about making, mending, growing and becoming more self sufficient. Those who rise to this challenge are the only true heroes of the zombie scenario.

So, use that as your inspiration. And start now. Today. Make small preparations, such as storing food with a long shelf life to guard against shortages, and, where you can, making your own stockpile of necessary medicines. Talk to your friends and neighbours, and if you can work together, all the better. Talking is good. It doesn’t matter if people think you’re crazy for doing it. They’ll be the ones fighting to get the last loaf off the supermarket shelves come March.

There’s also the question of peace of mind. Everything about Brexit is uncertain and unknown. It is also completely beyond our control. Worrying about it changes nothing – but you can do something about your own situation. So, put your future in your own hands again – literally. Take back control. Learn to make and mend. Doing so won’t just bring practical advantages – certainly it'll save you some cash – it will also make you feel better, because doing something is better than doing nothing. And if those stores of food prove unnecessary – well, so what? No one died from being too prepared.

There are various resources that can help you do this – nothing cranky or outlandish, just good solid advice on making life easier when things get tough. One is a booklet entitled ‘Getting Ready Together’ prepared by James Patrick and inspired by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency publication ‘If Crisis Or War Comes’. You can download it free from here.

You can also follow The Fall Podcast by James Patrick and former army officer Guy Dorrell. Together they provide a unique perspective on dealing with a crisis, with an emphasis on practical solutions.

No matter what anyone says, the challenges ahead are real. The people who get through it will not be those who try to turn it into a battle and add to the chaos. Nor will it be those in denial, depending on a dwindling supply of consumer goods while waiting for someone or something to rescue them. It’ll be those who know how to live under changing circumstances – how to deal with basic needs without losing their humanity.

Above all it will be those who understand that even if things change forever – even if, God forbid, we lose the internet – it’s not the end of the world. It might even be what we need.


* In his dystopian classic A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess created a future-teen slang called nadsat. One of its most frequently used words was ‘horrorshow’ (meaning ‘good’ or ‘great’). Although it seems to come from a simple collision of familiar English words, it’s actually an anglicised version of the Russian word хорошо - khorosho (‘good’). As the character Dr Branom explains in the novel, when describing nadsat: ‘Most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.’

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