I wrote my undergraduate thesis in 2003 about dystopias of the past. The classics: Orwell and Huxley, of course (I’m so going to name a couple of cats “Orwell” and “Huxley” some day). And new classics, too: Blade Runner and A Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve been fascinated with these twisted, satirical visions of a disastrous future since a young age, and I think it’s really only natural. I was born into an apocalypse of sorts, and I think we’re only now realizing to what extent this apocalypse is total, ubiquitous, and ongoing in its destruction.
I recently read this piece by Michael Moore on dKos, which gives the date of death of the American Middle Class as August 5, 1981- exactly one week before I was born. The blog’s rationale is that Reagan’s firing of PATCO Union Leaders was the New GOP’s killing blow to the American working class. What followed was a march toward financial serfdom for those who used to feed their families by using their hands to assemble, repair, inspect or package the things America used to make. As the author puts it:
America, from now on, would be run this way:
* The super-rich will make more, much much more, and the rest of you will scramble for the crumbs that are left.
* Everyone must work! Mom, Dad, the teenagers in the house! Dad, you work a second job! Kids, here’s your latch-key! Your parents might be home in time to put you to bed.
* 50 million of you must go without health insurance! And health insurance companies: you go ahead and decide who you want to help — or not.
* Unions are evil! You will not belong to a union! You do not need an advocate! Shut up and get back to work! No, you can’t leave now, we’re not done. Your kids can make their own dinner.
* You want to go to college? No problem — just sign here and be in hock to a bank for the next 20 years!
* What’s “a raise”? Get back to work and shut up!
But where Moore sees a sudden and final death, I see the beginning of a slow, bleeding apocalypse. I see the beginning of a way of life beset on all sides by boundaries: financial, educational, geographical and political that have kept us (“us” being those who were born around the time of this pivotal Reagan move) from ever understanding the comfortable, stable lives of our parents as anything more than a far-off, nostalgic dream of American prosperity.
Is it any wonder we are a generation obsessed with the end of the world? Is it any wonder we watch TV shows where the dead bodies of generations past rise up to devour us, haunt us, shamble around and destroy the makeshift structures we’ve built for survival? Is it any wonder that we watch elaborate survival shows, in which people are stripped of the trappings of a promised modern life and forced to make do with what they can scrounge, gather and kluge? I think it’s interesting that zombie imagery so often includes the undead wearing business suits, nurse’s outfits, farmer’s overalls or mechanic’s coveralls, as though the survivors are literally fighting the ghosts of the Old Economy as they try to make a life in their post-apocalyptic world.
And the turn toward the handmade, the artisanal, the practical arts… what else would come from a generation made to feel useless, unproductive, technologically-dependent and trapped in a service economy that buys everything in? What else would be expected from people who work so hard and make so little, all the while failing to see student loan balances drop? Why wouldn’t we want to take wood or yarn or metal and turn it into something we can hold in our hands, something we can truly call our own?
In the world of our apocalypse, there is a sense of resignation. We are willing to take less, buy less, live with less. On one hand it’s a seen strength we’re to be lauded for. The excesses of the 80s and 90s are in our childhoods, not in our futures, and America’s appetite for more, better, uglier ways to consume should be tempered as we consider the consequences of decades of sprawl, SUVs, damaging agricultural practices and fossil fuel consumption. But there’s a moment when less becomes too little. Among us are those who are struggling to pay student loans, but there are also those who are struggling just to keep their families housed. But like characters in a zombie film, we seem to look at one another without hope for anything better than what we can scavenge from the rubble of the previous generation’s mess. To be honest, I don’t know where the hope will come from at this point. I don’t know how this gets any better, as the needs and opinions of most people are being so flamboyantly ignored at all levels of elected leadership. I don’t know how this movie ends.