Zombies in the communism of the mall

2012-05-24Asia Times

BEIJING - At the time when death was very real, when humanity lingered every day on the verge of extinction because of war, famine, epidemics and just poor sanitary conditions, we dreamed of eternal life.

Where once it was the case that whole peoples were wiped out and the total number of humans did not grow significantly for thousands of years, now we are 7 billion and can reasonably expect to live actively over 80 - double of the average humanity ever lived in its history. We in the West have nightmares about zombies: living dead transforming everybody in their own image. Is it really the end of life on Earth? Or is it the end of life just for the West?

The total world population probably never exceeded 15 million inhabitants before the invention of agriculture [1], around 10,000 BC. About 10 millennia later, the world population had increased immensely. In the Eastern and Roman Empire alone there were about 60 million people (AD 300-400). [2]

The plague outbreak that began during the reign of Emperor Justinian caused the population of Europe and the Mediterranean to drop by around 50% between 541 and the 8th century. This killed the hope of a return of the rule of the Roman Empire and opened for a massive Arab invasion and the birth of Islam in an area, the Mediterranean Asia and North Africa, formerly cradle of the Byzantine authority. The consequences of that plague are still present with us now.

The population of Europe was more than 70 million in 1340, when Northern Italy had taken the lead in shaking the clout of the old Holy Roman German Empire by creating groups of cities self ruled and dominated by a new class of merchants without the aristocratic lineage of the old feudal society.

Then an epidemic killed millions and at the end it gave virtual birth to the Renaissance (literally: rebirth) and modernity. The Black Death of 14th century, described in Boccaccio's Decameron, reduced the world's population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400.

It took roughly 200 years for Europe's numbers to regain its 1340 level. China experienced a population decline from an estimated 123 million around 1200 to about 65 million in 1393, possibly because of a combination of Mongol invasion and the plague. We are directly children of that plague.

During the Industrial Revolution, children's life expectancy increased dramatically. Between 1700 and 1900, Europe's population increased from about 100 million to over 400 million. The areas of European settlement comprised 36% of the world's population in 1900.

Now the situation is just the opposite: wars are not for extermination but for vague political purposes, famines are an oddity to be kept on a reservation in Africa, and epidemics are the stuff of films, seeming to be far from endangering humanity.

Our biggest risk appears to be overpopulation, being suffocated by our own people as we incessantly spawn and by our ever increasing and unstoppably improving living conditions. We - the West, America, Europe, and Japan - now dream of the living dead. This is the clear, apparent, and yet overlooked truth Spengler reveals to us in his latest essay. (See Zombies remind us that death is social ( Asia Times Online, May 15, 2012.)

The living dead are our own people, giving birth to and raising seven healthy children when thousands of years of history tell us that only one or two should survive. They are the immigrants and people in the BRICS countries, spewing new wealth and new young people, and thus challenging our ancestral conception that only a few will live, and only a few will have good living conditions.

On the contrary, the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - are bringing us closer to the inconceivable dream of a "communism of wealth, where from Vladivostok to Vancouver, via Asia, everybody can be middle class, can access and ransack a shopping mall."

The zombies are the about 400 million unborn Chinese (the reduction in Chinese population growth from strict family planning) sacrificed on the altar of economic development by means of the one-child policy since 1980.

All these facts, we know in the memory of our genes, are unnatural: we should die at 40, as our DNA is programmed, and as our ancestors did until 100 years ago; we should have 11 children, only three of whom survive infancy or birth, as happened to our grandparents.

We, in our world, are the unnatural monsters waking up from death and deciding everyday, without God's help, who should live and who should die with an abortion or a pill. In this world, where life is stretched beyond its natural limits into a morbid yet real fantasy of ever prolonging the possibility of staving off death, we are obsessed with living death, as if it were our real condition.

Up to 100 years ago, when daily life was precarious, tough, and uncertain, people dreamed of eternal life. Now, when death seems defeated at every moment by the ever-growing mass of healthy people and our ever lengthening and more comfortable life, we have nightmares of death. Eternal life seems in our control, and yet we know it is an illusion: we are going to die, but life is booming all around us. What is this personal death with so much life around us, something that humanity never before experienced? We are the zombies, we have turned into zombies, and we accept the zombie life as long as we can still have a semblance of life.

Can old religions, the only link to the ancient world and a world beyond our own, provide answers for this new mindset, which blows apart the feeling of what we know we should be? We should be mortal bodies in a mortal body of people dithering on the brink of extinction. Or, it is like a new pact with the devil: we have traded our immortal souls for immortal bodies that-we know it-will die anyway. It is a new version of the legend of Faust, trading his eternal soul for a slightly prolonged life - 100 years, something that in the view of eternity is incommensurably small, but for humans wobbling on uncertainly every day, looks close to immortality.

Yet the incredible boost of vitality, which in 100 years brought humanity from one billion to seven billion people, is perhaps about to grind to a halt. In many countries, the reproductive rate is moving below replacement levels. UN statistics see a drastic population contraction in the Arab world in the next decades. Spengler argues [3] that once Muslim populations learn to read and write, they drift away from traditional faith and thus have fewer children.

Nor is America, the country with global cultural hegemony, faring much better. Spengler [4] says that always in countries liberated by the US, the population will halve in half a century. The West, explains Spengler, confuses individual survival and freedom with cultural survival. "The possibility that a people (a majority of a people) might cling to a backward or even barbaric culture, because that culture offers them a bulwark against mortality, does not occur to Enlightenment political philosophy," [5] which has shaped and is shaping modernity.

In fact, it is death, the end, the ultimate goal, that gives meaning to life, but this has lost and is losing its cultural value, through the pursuit of some kind of eternal youth obtained through drugs and concoctions. If transplants and supplements can put off death almost indefinitely (doctors blame our diseases on our bad habits such as drinking and eating, as if without them we could live forever), new recipes promise us eternal black hair and eternal sexual strength - the hallmarks of eternal youth. Not only is individual death waning, but so is old age. No need for prudence or wisdom, it is the time of eternal youth and recklessness.

This goes against the grain of what we know deep in our souls: old age is taking its toll every single day. We can strive to stay alive, and refuse to recognize that we are bound to naturally die sooner or later, and in doing so, sacrifice the renovation of life in its most natural form, with sexual intercourse, which has become a pleasure like drinking, without any serious consequence.

Surely, the sense of death, and thus of life, has changed over the millennia. The Egyptians were possibly the first to come up with the idea of reincarnation: the soul migrating from one body to another body in an eternal cycle of life. We find the same idea in another early agricultural society, India, and from this idea it developed in Buddhism. This possibly had to do with the idea of the agricultural cycle in which grain will grow to be reaped and sown again in an everlasting sequence of life, where life must respect life. Do not sow too much, and let the soil rest. Otherwise there will be no life, you will reincarnate as an ant, or there will be famine.

There is the idea of warriors' afterlife - the Vikings' Valhalla or the Romans' Hades - when after death there is eternal reunion with the souls of the ancestors. Life can end with maturity, like fruit or grain; besieged by pain and agony (the aches before death), where death is deliverance from mortal suffering; or early like a warrior, who goes to war and embraces death like a lover and his spurt of blood from a wound is like an orgasm. In either case, death is pleasing. Or there can be eternal life as some kind of parallel of earthly life, where deeds in this life will be rewarded or punished in the afterlife, in an increasingly sophisticated understanding of death in paradise, purgatory, or hell. All this may exist in one form or another, or it may not exist, according to one's faith, but definitely gives sense to life.

If death disappears, in fact so does life. Love becomes just sex, arid intercourse aimed at sucking away energy from the other person, like a vampire does - a myth that has grown powerful with the emergence of modernity and the increase in population.

As if we were vampires, we feel in our bones that eternal life is really eternal death, and to get life again, in this new environment, we need a new, deep cultural framework, a new sense of death. This can't work if it is not embedded in our most traditional religions, the ones that connect us with our most ancient origins and the birth of humankind. New religions, although they are at first an easy answer in a new cultural environment, tend to lack the depth necessary in these times. But old religions have to bear new answers.

In another bizarre turn, the obsession with zombies does not exist in emerging Asia - not even in China, where ghosts of a hundred years of civil war, political power struggles, famines, and extermination of children, should have crowded the place with restless souls or soulless bodies. It is our civilization that is dying then, not every civilization is doing so.

In fact, in China, closeness to physical death (from famine or incomprehensible political persecution) and to the threat of cultural death (through the invasion of totally foreign ideas) is giving free rein to an indomitable vitality, a new sense of life that seems unable to be suppressed by extraordinary events: tanks used against young people like in Tiananmen in 1989; police fighting against elderly people, like with the Falungong in 1999; or rabid pestilence, as with SARS in 2003. Any of these events could have killed a people, the Chinese people, but in China, they were simply brushed off and digested in a few weeks or months. In fact, as we have said, [6] modern China is very different from the old one, but it is still rooted in it [7] and feels the necessity of its roots.

In comparison, the West needs new ideas to survive, to give sense to the new limits of life. It needs a new sense of death that is in harmony and not in contrast with its old religions.

Although the crisis is deep in the West, there we can still find vitality. This, as Spengler has argued on many occasions, is missing in the Muslim world, which is unable to reconcile its beliefs with the modern world or to reconcile the contrast in its old ways (princes or dictators fashionably living in Bedouin tents, as if a thousand years went by in vain) with totally new Western lifestyles (the same prince abandoning his ways when living in London or New York). There is no harmony in this life, where old and new are in constant struggle.

Naturally life altogether becomes not of this world, and the way of living is to volunteer for suicide missions. The fact that many people do not see the inherent horror of suicide bombers and justify them in one way or another seems to indicate how the value of life has already stopped being a real cultural currency there. Many believe death, blowing themselves apart, is the only way of living. Is there a way in which the Muslim world can deeply reconcile itself with modernity?

This is to some extent the same problem the West is facing when confronting the cultural challenge of China, which is digesting the West and still is keeping its own identity. This already occurred in different forms and fashions in other parts of the Chinese civilization, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.

Then, the question is: can we, the West, survive? And how? One way, in a few words, would be, as the Chinese world has reconciled with the West, so the West has to find a way to reconcile itself with the Chinese world. Moreover, we have to fully grasp our past in order to embrace the future. This means we have to move away from the dream of the power, in many senses, of youth. And we have to square ourselves with the idea - which was present in our past - that wisdom and innovation come in old age.

Both of the greatest innovators at the end of the past century, Ronald Reagan and Deng Xiaoping, took power when they were in their 70s, an age when most people retire. Old people reconcile us with the idea that age is not a preparation of death, but it is the moment of maturity and wisdom - and death can come when our task is completed.

Reconciliation with the Chinese world also is not unprecedented. For America, keeping the emperor in Japan after World War II turned out to be more than a petty stratagem to hold a country together as the Cold War was unfolding in Asia. It was a way to begin a deep understanding of different senses and sensibilities. This US understanding in turn helped Japan to be more sensitive to Western sensibilities. Might this also in one way or another work for China? Can we find in China our new sense of death, and thus of life? In a way, the Hollywood saga of the "Kung-Fu Panda" [8] points in this direction.

This, as China prepares for its 18th Party Congress, which will possibly bring enormous changes, is the real challenge for us all.

These are small events, but can have a massive impact if read though the lenses of the present Western zombie fever, the present population explosion and its dramatic halt expected in a decade - a modern cultural and spiritual pestilence not less dangerous than past epidemics. They could influence life on Earth for centuries, just like the plagues in 6th or 14th century.

The West already knows the answer. In In Gran Torino, a movie by Hollywood's Uebermensch Clint Eastwood, a Korean veteran puts his soul at rest siding once again with a "Chinese", an ethnic Hmong, like the "Chinese" he fought against and with in Korea 60 years before. He dies of old age and bravery, and thus he gives a new life to his Hmong friend and his family. It is the sense of life they, including a priest, all needed and found, around the veteran's dead body. It seems there was never so much true life as around that death.

1. Teller, Luc-Normand. Urban World History: An Economic and Geographical Perspective, p 26.
2. Harl, Kenneth W Population estimates of the Roman Empire.
3. Spengler, It's Not the End of the World, It's Just the End of You, p 281-282.
4. Spengler, How Civilizations Die, p 232-233.
5. Ibidem, p. 234.
6. See my The Big China Change (, La Stampa, June 13, 2008.
7. See, for instance, Ma Ling's Beijing Hutong (
8. See Classic tale delivers the chops ( Asia Times Online, June 2, 2012.  (2012-05-24 Asia Times)


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