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As has been pointed out in nearly every commentary on AMC’s The Walking Dead, the series is best when it focuses less on the horrors of shambling zombies than on those committed by survivors against each other.
Through the first two seasons, most of these came from hot-blooded emotions such as fear and desperation; ordinary people making bad — even evil — decisions under duress, rather than out of malice. That changed in the third episode of the third season with introduction of Philip Blake, aka the Governor.
A former nobody, Blake rose to be the leader of the biggest and most successful survivor camp in the region. Under his leadership, the town of Woodbury remains safe, open, and well-fortified; if you looked past the barricades and the piles of undead that are stacked around them, the place almost looks cute.
The key to Blake’s success is variously teased to be his personal leadership and the town’s willingness to take in strangers. By the end of the episode, however, his true nature is revealed: unlike other survivors — who are generally happy to stay away from each other — the Governor actively seeks out, attacks, and massacres other bands to take their supplies to bring back to Woodbury. In the most literal sense, he’s the region’s apex predator.
It’s easy to see why his methods were initially successful, as well as how they might — and eventually did — lead to his downfall (remarkably, not once, but twice). More interesting to me, however, was Blake’s failure to see how the people he attacked might have been better used to serve his own purposes if he’d allowed them to keep their camps and live in peace.
Though there are other interpretations, capitalism is the realization that strangers are more useful to you alive and free than they are dead or enslaved. Let me explain.
Capitalism — and through it, civilization — is possible only with a proliferation of specialized skills. These skills not only give people something to trade with each other, but also allow them to direct their talents towards activities they are particularly good at. One man might be a good hunter, while another is better at making tools, while another is better at making clothes, etc.
This happens naturally among humans in small groups: among the main characters on The Walking Dead, Rick is the leader, Glenn the rover, Daryl the hunter, Hershel the healer, etc. But the specialization is restricted within the group, while all outsiders are seen as too untrustworthy to be anything but potential rivals, slaves, or enemies.
The catch with intra-group trading is that it limits the number and quality of skills that can be useful. Even if one had the knowledge and materials necessary to do something very useful (like smelt metal ore), it’d probably be a terrible idea to do so if you’re only going to trade with your family and immediate neighbors. The costs to the group of feeding and protecting you while you dig your ore, build your furnace, hone your technique, and fashion your metal — all without actually producing anything useful — would likely be prohibitively high if you only have a handful of people among whom to spread the extra work.
As Matt Ridley explains in The Rational Optimist:
Imagine if you had to be completely self-sufficient (not just pretending, like Thoreau). Every day you must get up in the morning and supply yourself entirely from your own resources. How would you spend your day? The top four priorities would be food, fuel, clothing and shelter… By definition, you are at subsistence level and frankly, though at first you mutter, Thoreau-like, ‘how marvelous to get away from all the appalling hustle and bustle,’ after a few days the routine is pretty grim. If you wish to have even the most minimal improvement in your life – say metal tools, toothpaste or lighting – you are going to have to get some of your chores done by somebody else, because there just is not time to do them yourself.
Even if you succeeded, it probably wouldn’t have been worth it on such a small scale. A metal ax might be 10 times better than a stone one, but it likely wouldn’t be worth the effort if it takes 120 times as much time and energy (especially if there were only a handful of potential customers who could use your product at a given time). You’d probably have been much better off making due with an inferior but more accessible stone ax.
That changes when you have more people: it’s easier to spread the costs of protecting and feeding you, you’re likely to become more efficient with economies of scale, and you’ve got enough of a client base to actually make your efforts worthwhile. You might even be able to have an assistant, which could further increase your efficiency. If someone else figured out how to run a smithy, the two of you would end up competing with each other. Before long, you might have a rudimentary economy and the beginnings of a civilization.
If any of the characters on The Walking Dead are aware of this, they haven’t shown it. Even at their best and most thoughtful, the show’s characters aspire to make a safer and better home for their own band. And while individuals are permitted and even encouraged to join their group, they are not welcome to form their own tribes in the neighboring areas; joining or going far away are the only options. Even Terminus — the mysterious camp that posts signs around the region promising safe haven to all who arrive — presents itself as following that rubric.
Given how dangerous the world has shown itself to be — and how precarious everyone’s survival is — that’s probably the most anyone can hope for (and, as almost everyone suspected, Terminus turned out to be less than advertised). But if the survivors are ever going to find peace or semblance of prosperity, they’re going to have to figure it out.