Surviving the Zombie apocalypse: What the Victorians can teach us

Zombies From 'Night Of The Living Dead', directed by George Romero, 1968. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)


Every semester I like to ask my students a simple question: “Where would you go during a Zombie apocalypse?”

What might seem like a desperate attempt to curry favour with the younger generation through pop culture references is in fact a serious question. Imagine a world where all institutions that maintain civilised social life are dissolving: The police, military, courts, and – ultimately – the state itself. What would you do?

Most students say they would go home to their families, because there they are most likely to find people whom they can trust not to throw them under the bus or stab them in the back if food and water runs low and the undead are closing in on them. Another answer is going to their church, mosque, or synagogue; the one place many identify as being the second-best option if one’s immediate family should be out of reach. 

We have grown so accustomed to a thick web of public institutions maintaining social order that we tend to forget how rare and fragile such a system truly is, and that there is an inherent danger in over-relying on it.

In the 1920s a British judge named John Fletcher Moulton published an essay in The Atlantic talking about Law and Manners. In Moulton’s view, human societies oscillate between two poles, one of (positive) law, where the state can force us into obedience, and one of absolute freedom, where only my own individual choices matter. Real life, however, takes place between those two extremes and is characterized by what Moulton calls manners, or, in a beautiful turn of phrase: “The domain of Obedience to the Unenforceable.”

The idea of relying on state laws to organize all social relations is inherently totalitarian, but the idea of making individual choice the sole standard would be anarchic and to the detriment of civilized society.

I do not think that Lord Moulton was particularly familiar with the Zombie genre, but what he describes strikes at the core of my question: A society that is bound together by manners more than obedience to a powerful state or pure selfishness would be much better prepared for the Zombie apocalypse than most alternatives. A commitment to shared values creates trust, and trust is probably the most valuable currency in a society. Families and religions have historically been quite effective in enabling trust, and I think one of the best measures of good governance is whether policies lead to an expansion or a contraction of people trusting each other.

The modern states in the West it seems are increasingly trying to throw out manners – since they would inhibit individual choice – and reaffirm pure individualism through raw state power. We are rapidly approaching a society where, on the one hand, we are more individualistic and autonomous in our decision making than ever before but at the same time have increased our dependence on state institutions.

In many ways this resembles an attempt to replace reliance on the trustworthiness of the people around me with the state. I no longer need family or religious communities that often demand certain behavior (or manners), when I can always call on state authorities to protect me and provide the means to live a fully autonomous life. 

It has become somewhat fashionable to mock the idea of manners as an outdated, stiff idea of times past, but I think we need to revisit the historical record to do it justice. It might be unlikely that we face a Zombie outbreak anytime soon, but massive social and economic upheaval have happened before, and the degree to which societies were capable of handling it tells us something about the domain of manners.

Rise always starts at the bottom, while decline begins at the top, so it is easy for the 21st century mind to scoff at the values of an earlier time while overlooking that our contemporary liberties are a direct result of the uphill battles previous generations fought before us. 

The 19th century was an astounding time, with massive population growth, industrialization, mass literacy, the birth of social media (in limited form via the telegraph), urbanisation, secularisation, and the birth of modern individualism.

Yet, despite all these massive changes that transformed entire societies from the bottom up and led to the emergence of an entirely new class – the working class – the political systems of the day showed surprising resilience. To be clear, there were political assassinations, attempted revolutions, and often massive and violent crackdowns on nascent workers movements. 

None of this, however, stopped the beginning of many positive developments as well. Most Western nations in the 19th century experienced what the historian Niall Ferguson called a “golden age of associational life”. And this life was not just characterised by capitalist exploitation as described by Marx, but also by examples of compassion and social responsibility.

The fact that in 1911 the gross annual receipts of registered charities in Great Britain exceeded national public expenditure on the Poor Law is as remarkable as the fact that the absolute number of cases of hardship reviewed by charities between 1871 and 1945 remained almost constant. In the United States, the Alexis de Tocqueville described with great enthusiasm the “art of association” as a main virtue of the young American Republic.

Associations in Germany were formed that actively tried to bridge differences, for example between German Jews and gentiles. This was accompanied by a culturally awakening working class that, despite the remaining class antagonisms, tried to live up to Victorian manners. When the Prussian army leadership in the late 1890s made it a goal to educate the uncouth and unkempt recruits of working class background, they were time and again surprised by the high levels of literacy and pride the workers took in being familiar, for example, with the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Nobody forced these men and women to do this, but it was seen as important, or to put it differently, an obedience to the unenforceable. We see mandatory schooling as a key to the West’s development, but despite education being pushed by state authorities, it remains highly unlikely that such policies would have been successful without the accompanying change in culture.

I do not intend to gloss over the many problems of the 19th century, including colonialism, racism, and, until the 1860s, slavery in the United States. We must recognise, however, that the very idea of criticizing these ills was born during those times. Modern liberalism in many ways stands on the shoulders of its 200 year old predecessor, often without recognising it and nowadays actively undermining its beginnings. 

A recent study published in Nature demonstrated the positive social effects of friendships across class boundaries, and how communities as a whole can profit from thick ties of close social relations. It is good that contemporary social sciences are catching up again to something that was obvious to any serious historian of the 18th and 19th century. 

Governments cannot force friendships, but they can help create the social conditions for enabling them. Equally, our cultural elites that have such tremendous influence on contemporary manners could use their power to promote the value of community as an alternative to shallow self-fulfillment.

Ironically, many of the world’s most successful people live quite traditional lifestyles, and while “modern family” might be a hit on TV, “traditional family” seems to be a hit in real life. 

Maybe it is old-fashioned, but I do find it problematic that every faculty member at a university can find an Only Fans profile of some of their students, that men are increasingly committing suicide out of despair and that young people are struggling with more and more mental problems while society – as the General Social Survey shows – as a whole is getting unhappier.

None of this is new and was always a side effect of modernity, as Emile Durkheim pointed out in his 1897 study on suicide. 

Instead of constantly emphasizing the need for more individual liberty, we need to support institutions that cross boundaries of class, race, sex, gender, and political orientation. But this is only possible in a society that agrees on a basic level of manners, of how we interact in a civilised fashion and an understanding that different views are not tantamount to being mortal enemies.

The social and economic problems of the 21st century are not insurmountable under the right societal conditions, and they are not resembling a Zombie invasion or even the industrial revolution of the 19th century – unless, of course, everyone of us has to face them alone or tries to rely solely on an ever more intrusive state.