Apocalypse and Democracy

by mouseonthemoon

The new NBC series Revolution imagines an apocalyptic fantasy wherein electricity simply stops working, all at once, without scientific explanation. Physics has gone haywire, and no one seems to know why. The opening scene of the first episode stages this event with no shortage of dramatic flourish. Rachel Matheson talks to her mother on the phone while checking email. Her children, meanwhile, are engrossed in screens, watching cartoons and playing on tablet computers. When Rachel holds the phone to her daughter’s ear to talk to grandma, the child can’t be bothered to disengage from her distractions. At this point, Ben Matheson rushes home and tells his wife to fill up the bathtubs. He finishes uploading data onto a flash drive just before Chicago goes dark in increasing scale: home, block, city, countries, continents. Planes drop out of the sky. The headlights of cars stopped on the freeway click off in quick succession.


The narrative picks up 15 years after the event. Humans have reverted to a pre-industrial economy and landmarks of the capitalist era linger on as anachronisms. Wrigley Field, along with Chicago’s skyline, has been swallowed by vegetation. Meanwhile, the Matheson’s suburban cul-de-sac has turned into a thriving communitarian enclave: people are herding sheep, teaching school children outdoors, and tending to gardens (one of them planted in a now useless Toyota Prius). Charlie, the daughter who once languished in front of screens, now springs through the forest, hunting with bow and arrow. However, in Revolution, the loss of electronic technology invites both fantasies of utopia and dystopia, existing side by side. It’s not long before a militia shows up, demanding to take away Ben, leading to a skirmish and Ben’s death (this we can presume has something to do with the flash drive that Ben uploaded data onto right before the blackout).

While a local economy putters on in small MacIntyrean communities, the vacuum of national political power has resulted in a fractured nation run by several despotic militias (in one episode we see a map in which the United States is divided into five independent territories). The “Monroe” militia, under which our protagonists live, does not allow those residing within its borders to own firearms, and in one scene a man caught killing a deer with a rifle is executed. People live in fear of the militia and soon our protagonists find themselves allied with an underground resistance, who are determined to resurrect the constitution of the good ol’ United States of America. Much like CBS’s Jericho, and TNT’s Falling Skies, apocalypse brings the opportunity to appreciate the value of democracy. In all of these shows, an event has caused the loss of both the wealth of industrial capitalism and national democratic cohesion. Faced with the loss of the American Dream, the protagonists must restage the American Revolution to recuperate that loss.

What I want to think about regarding Revolution is the knot it ties between the anxieties surrounding our dependence on technology to reproduce wealth (which might also be read as the symbolic displacement of our dependence on a world-wide proletariat), the effects of technology on our capacity to remain human (our daily preference for screens over people, etc.), and the attachment to democracy as that which guarantees a wealth above and beyond any material concerns, something like freedom or justice.

Democracy in this show, however, is understood in a rather narrow sense: as a government that protects private property, that protects the right to bear arms, and that holds elections. The democracy that our protagonists fight for is a Jeffersonian fantasy, one that steels itself against tyranny and oppression from without, but that, of course, does not concern itself with oppression from within (i.e. the effects of the modernity that capitalism enacts). What’s remarkable about Revolution, and this genre in general, is the way in which the post-apocalyptic world is already suited to match this fantasy. It isn’t necessary to bother with class conflict here, because it simply no longer exists. The reproduction of wealth (food, clothing, etc.) is now located in the immediacy of a local community. The industrial/capitalist structures that served to maintain a ‘normal’ level of wealth prior to the blackout, and the class antagonisms inherent to them, can no longer be construed as the fault line of a societal weakness. This provides the series unfettered access to a fantasy in which our political problems might actually be solved by providing small self-sustaining communities with protection from easily visible tyranny. The fantasy is then concretized by an abundance of tattered flags, muskets, and other Revolutionary War paraphernalia.

When a hallowed version of democracy no longer seems to apply to the world, fiction steps in to provide the world instead, leaving the fantasy unchanged. In this way, the show “contains” (in Jamesonian parlance) the structural by transforming it into the moral. I don’t know where the show is going, but if it’s anything like Jericho (a show about an American nuclear holocaust, which is later discovered to be perpetrated by a Blackwater-type organization), and it seems to be heading in that direction, the blackout is not the result of the contingent natural world, or an environmental or economic catastrophe caused by capitalism, but rather some kind of government or corporate conspiracy, whose pursuits are often the banal desire for power as such (there is a post I should write about ‘bad guys’ in various genres, and the necessary deferral of a banal desire that retroactively becomes the cause of an event). The loss then is imagined to be democratic in the narrow sense, as the loss of some form of government transparency in which either a government is accountable or in which a true democratic government holds others accountable (but of course, only for being crony-capitalists, not simply capitalists).

However, the loss of all the wealth that capitalism provides has a dual purpose. For one, this loss provides a world in which a reinstantiation of a Jeffersonain democracy is somehow adequate to fight injustice, unlike in our world, in which it’s not. But it also provides the opportunity to negotiate our anxieties as consumers, as humans who are afraid that we’ve lost something human as a result of our proliferating non-human attachments. Much is made of how characters cope with and understand a world in which it is no longer possible to access to a wealth that is not the product of one’s own labor. The problem does not reside in, of course, the social structures necessary for its production and for its uneven distribution, but rather, the way in which it distracts us from what ‘really matters.’ The show never questions the assumption that we should have and that we deserve all of this wealth (if only we had antibiotics!, what I wouldn’t give for a Twinkie and a hot shower!), it’s just afraid that wealth and technology have turned humanism into an atavism. We’ve lost, for one, an obligation to the Jeffersonian fantasy of democracy, and two, an obligation to human and natural relationships.

The logic is that an excess of one kind of wealth, like absorbing screen technology, distracts us from our commitments to another kind of wealth, the enlightenment ideals of freedom and justice, the love of friends and family, the pleasures of a non-digitally-mediated childhood, etc. So, you know, let’s not let go of these things that make life worth living while we drool over keyboards and internet pornography. In one scene a female character carries around an old and now useless iPhone. When another character confronts her about it, she explains, with great sentiment, that the only pictures that she has of her children are somewhere inside of it, and that she spends hours staring at it, vainly hoping that it will turn on. This is less a ludic plea for analog technology than a reminder of all that we have to lose when we forget the democratic and humanistic ideals that we (wrongly) imagine hold modernity together, now more fragile than ever. The show plays with the anxiety that technology is crowding out family, that we’ve placed our children in the hands of a precarious way of life, but it’s precarious not for any unsustainability built into the logic of its mode of production (economic or environmental) but because we’ve let our human obligations founder amongst the bright shiny toys of modernity. In other words, the negative effects of the wealth that capitalism provides are also moral and not structural.

This working-through of our anxieties regarding the effects of wealth and technology are clear: the consequences of this loss at a local scale are liberating (finally we recovered the values that wealth obscured) while on a national scale they are disastrous (an American democracy compromised by a world inadequate to its Jeffersonian ideals regresses to a pre-modern despotism). But, of course, the stage is then set for a pointless repetition of an American revolution, and both ideals are recovered. For Revolution, The solution to modernity is a return to the authentic values and habits of a pre-modern or early-modern world, but only so that we never have to lose the modern world, in order to keep it afloat, as though we can have it both ways. We can’t.

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