Zombies, WWII bombing campaigns, and the secret truth that humans are actually pretty chill
One of the enduring myths of modernity is that history is linear. We used to live in caves, then we built houses, then castles, then skyscrapers and council estates. We were there; primitive, backwards, poor, hungry, unhappy. Now we are here; civilised, enlightened, rich (well, some of us), fed, happy. Or at least happier.
Thomas Hobbes’ claim that, in the pre-modern time before strong political authority (kings, lords, states, bosses), human lives were nasty, brutish, and short. Without the disciplinary oversight of some centralised authority, the theory goes, humans become too unruly, too anarchic (which is a bad thing). Human nature is to be selfish and violent. Without something holding us back, that is what we’ll become.
I’ve been thinking about this idea in the context of zombie fiction. I’m sure you know the trope. It’s not the living dead you need to be afraid of, it’s other humans. We see this across apocalyptic fiction. Ordered society collapses and the true humanity is revealed. You need to watch your back. Keep your wits about you. Protect yourself. Trust no one.
In his book Humankind: A Hopeful History (which I cannot recommend highly enough) Rutger Bregman calls this “veneer theory”. This is the idea that the relative order of our society is a mere veneer. Peel it back and you will see the true violence which sits at the core of the human spirit. This idea has far reaching consequences. It shapes what we think is possible and what we’re willing to accept. It shapes our politics. Yet it falls apart upon closer examination and is, at times, self-contradictory.
For example, Bregman compares the Blitz with the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War. The “Blitz spirit” has come to refer to something unique in the British character which made us unvanquishable in the face of intense bombing. The Germans had tried to break out spirits, spawn anarchy, and encourage us to revolt against our government but we persisted because we were special. Wartime British propaganda held this nation up as unique. God save the Queen, etcetera.
But what about the Germans? Could they withstand such an attack upon civilians? The British government didn’t think so. A few years after the Blitz, the German city of Dresden endured an apocalyptic bombing campaign. The aim was to break the German spirit, to spawn anarchy, and to encourage the German people to revolt against their government.
Did it work? No. The Germans, much like the British, were strengthened in their resolve. Communities banded together and morale remained steady, even in the face of unimaginable horrors.
There are two elements of veneer theory at play here. The first is the assumption that, if you peel away ordered society (by dropping explosives on it) then disorder will emerge and society will collapse. The second is that this only happens to other people. We wouldn’t have that happen to us because we are civilised. But they are uncivilised. They do not have our courage. They will turn into barbarians if you peel away the veneer.
This example is useful for easy comparison but this type of essentialist tendency has been repeated more widely throughout history, in particular in colonial relationships. Everywhere the British state invaded it viewed indigenous cultures as inferior. Alternative customs were not viewed as simply different ways of doing things but proof of backwardness, of primitiveness. They were used as justification for colonial domination. The British Empire wasn’t plundering, it was civilising.
Veneer theory plays out across time as well. Today we see ourselves as more civilised than our ancestors. Our culture and society is more complex, more nuanced, safer, better. We have evolved. Progress is linear. It may stall or temporarily reverse but it will return to its true course eventually. The Dark Ages were bad because we drifted from the light of Roman civilization. We reverted to barbarism, only later to reemerge with the Renaissance. The forms of life which existed during that dark time are assumed to have been nasty, brutish, and short.
This view intersects with perceptions of “less civilised” or indigenous peoples today. They are often, at best, perceived as holdovers from the past. Our living ancestors, perhaps. In the Han Chinese version of this mythology the term “raw” has been used to refer to the so-called uncivilised. The Romans spoke of barbarians. Rudyard Kipling wrote of the “white man’s burden”: the white man’s duty to elevate these unfortunate peoples. They must live lives of squalor and violence. Where are their churches?! Their existence is nasty, brutish, and short and they must be rescued. Nevermind that we built nations on the lands we stole from them. Don’t talk about that, definitely not in schools, for Christ’s sake!
This is all bullshit, of course. Just as the Brits and Germans enduring hellfire did not descend into barbarity, neither have “uncivilised” peoples – ancient or contemporary – usually lived unordered and violent existences. Today there is a wealth of anthropological and archeological evidence which suggests that, absent a Hobbsian leviathan (the state, a king, etc.), people tend to get on just fine.
In fact, if there can be said to be such a thing as human nature then our nature is to cooperate. We are communication machines, built to compromise with one another for the sake of getting along in an orderly manner. For example, consider how difficult it is to lie. If I lie to you I might trip over my words and struggle to word it in a way which will convince you. My heart rate will increase. I will feel embarrassment and shame, whether I want to or not. I may blush. We are one of the only animals to even have the capacity to blush. Think about what this function is achieving. It is an involuntary bodily action which externalises our internal thoughts. We are also one of the only animals with whites around our eyes. This enables another person to see where we are looking. Am I looking at your food in preparation to steal it? My biology makes that harder to do. Our own bodies actively work against selfish impulses. If our true nature was one of violence and selfishness, and our default position, absent a coercive power, was to wallow in this state, then why would our bodies have evolved to make it so difficult?
These are just a narrow set of examples which reveal a simple truth: humans are built to get along. Humans, or animals like humans, have existed for hundreds of thousands, millions of years and they got along just fine without a leviathan telling them what to do. Archeological evidence points towards many “pre-modern” societies being largely egalitarian, at least until the agricultural revolution (crop surpluses facilitate hierarchies). Anthropological evidence highlights cultural mechanisms for maintaining horizontal societies. For example, cultures where it is improper for someone to, say, brag about a large deer they have hunted. Or languages where there is no word for “thank you” because pride is the bedfellow of hierarchy. Cultural evolutions like these cut off pride and excessive ego before it can take root. They undermine hierarchy before it emerges because what is a king if not some asshole who got it into their head that they were better than someone else? Bregman’s book highlights other supporting evidence from a number of fields as diverse as military studies (a perennial issue of combat has been that people don’t want to kill each other and will often, for example, intentionally shoot over the other side’s heads) and psychology (many landmark studies used to argue for human selfishness, such as the Stanford prison experiment, were flawed and/or politicised).
Yet, our myths of veneer theory endure. They abound in apocalyptic fiction. I’m interested in what that fiction looks like if we take humanity’s humanity as our inspiration, instead of Hobbsian pseudoscience. Zombie hordes tear apart lives similar to the bombs over Dresden. But what if the stripping away of society’s veneer revealed a more fundamental human spirit? One of resilience, cooperation, and respect. These exist in a lot of fiction but they are often ascribed to unique individuals, much like the Blitz spirit is reserved for the British. What does a story look like where ordinary people aren’t at each other’s throats at the end of the world? What if, as we see time and time again after natural disasters, for example, people just got on with things and helped each other?
More so, what happens to our societies when we see through the veneer of veneer theory? Which futures will we create then?
Harry Waveney is a writer. Find him on Twitter
You can read Harry’s story, A Hole in the Head, in our second issue.