The Last of Them, the First of Us: End-Stage Capitalism and the Unimaginable Beyond

To make a long story short: I’ve recently been watching The Last of Us, and now I have some thoughts.

For starters, I am increasingly convinced that we are living through the end stages of capitalism as a mode of production. This isn’t because I’ve been watching The Last of Us, but it’s been running through my mind for a while now. Parts of this thesis have gone into my recent fictional theorizing for For The Tyrants Fear Your Might, although the capitalism in that setting is far more long-lived than the real thing is likely to be. The reason for this is simple: capitalism depends on a perpetual cycle of new and more efficient energy sources to sate its basic hunger for industrial accumulation. Since neither wind, solar, nor nuclear seem capable of delivering the necessary degree of increased profitability, capitalist growth as such must eventually slow to a crawl. This kind of tendency has been in the offing for a while now; I’d argue that its first signs go back to the stagflation of the 1970s. From this point of view, the neoliberal era was just a rear guard maneuver to squeeze some more blood out of the global working class. Austerity in itself is a strategy of desperation, and global capital has been damn lucky that the self-exploitation of post-Maoist China was there to bail them out. But as Chinese growth itself slows down, the end stage is rapidly approaching. I’d argue we’re already in the middle of it.

But what does all of this have to do with The Last of Us? Well, to get at that connection, we need to consider how this end-stage of capitalism is expressed in its culture. Back in the neoliberal era—which I would argue ended back in 2020, if not 2008—the general tendency was one of Capitalist Realism, where the triumphalism of the post-Soviet period would brook no suggestion of any social alternative. In a negative sense, it was ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’, as Fredric Jameson so aptly put it. We saw this tendency represented in such works as Children of Men, where even the sterility of all mankind could not keep capitalism from churning ever onward. And this was one of the more social-critical works!

Now, in the era of end-stage capitalism, this earlier triumphalism has soured into outright desperation. The old adage that ‘there is no alternative’ has taken on a new tone: oh no, there is no alternative! This has made the old staple of post-apocalyptic fiction more attractive than ever: even if the end of the world doesn’t present any new forms of sociality, at least we can retreat into the old forms of pseudo-feudalism or settler-colonialism. It doesn’t surprise me that US-based apocalypses (especially the zombie kind) focus on the establishment of fortified homesteads. The zombie or barbarian is just a veiled analogue for the Indigenous threat to white settlers everywhere.

This brings us to The Last of Us. At first glance, this is just another example of apocalyptic escapism. Look closer, however, and its social critique seems more tightly aimed than usual. This post-zombie world did not go through one big breakdown, but rather experienced a steady erosion of state capacity. That the US government has slid further into fascism to make up for its own precarity is no surprise, and the fact that the show’s apocalypse took place during the Bush era is especially appropriate in this regard. All this makes The Last of Us more like Children of Men than something like The Walking Dead. In a way, this world could be just as interesting without the zombies: personally, I would find it even more profound.

That this apocalypse happens relatively slowly, and that it seems hard to imagine any society beyond a degraded version of the present one, all seems perfectly analogous to our present climate-capitalist impasse. We are slowly approaching the point where we’ll have to choose between our survival and our ideology; so far, our ideology seems to be winning.

But there is hope, even amidst the almost indulgent cynicism of The Last ofUs. In the latest episodes, the main characters make a detour through Jackson, a typically American small town utopia which nevertheless runs on the principle of collective ownership. It is notable that this latter aspect, along with the town’s explicit self-identity as ‘communist’, are both inventions of the show rather than the game. It seems that in the decade since the game was originally published, questions of economic ideology and distribution have grown larger in our collective subconscious. I see this as a most positive sign, especially when taken along with more properly revolutionary shows like Andor. If this trend keeps up, we’ll have unvarnished adaptations of The Dispossessed before long. And hey, wouldn’t you know it, someone is working on exactly that.

I could probably end this piece right here. I’ve said all I wanted to about The Last of Us, at least. Still, in coming to a more total conclusion, I would like to make my own detour through the Half-Life series of video games, focusing specifically on the Combine occupation of Earth which takes up the plot from the second game onwards.

Much like The Last of Us, here is a plot which combines an alien threat with a more familiar destitution of modern society. In this case however, these elements are brought together in the Combine, an extradimensional polity of overwhelming force and enigmatic ends. By doing so, the setting neatly analogizes the history of modern imperialism, much like the original alien invasion of The War of The Worlds did a hundred years ago.

What is most interesting to me is how granular this analogy for imperialism gets; one wonders if it’s a case of convergent narrative evolution, or whether the writers were reading some actual colonial history while making these games. Consider, for instance, the way that the Combine awkwardly repurposes human dwellings and technologies for its own totalitarian ends; this resembles the way that colonizers engage with Indigenous institutions at a distance, learning their details only to the extent that such knowledge benefits their own regime. Then there is the way that actual humans are employed in low-ranking enforcement jobs, with higher tiers demanding an ever greater degree of social and physiological assimilation. In this, we may recognize the formation of a colonialist collaborator class. Finally, there is the way that horrific and dehumanizing weapons such as zombifying ‘headcrabs’ are used against dissident populations; the laws of ‘civilized’ warfare don’t seem to apply in ‘uncivilized’ territory.

Even if it were unintentional, all of this evidence makes for an excellent analogy, and one I wouldn’t mind mining in more detail some other time. For now, though, an important question emerges: why am I talking about this? If the Combine is a stand-in for historical imperialism, then what does all that have to with end-stage capitalism and its fictions? Well, partly, I like to mention this setting whenever I have the slightest opportunity. I just think it’s neat! More to the point, it is worth considering what kind of imperialism the Combine most resembles. Given its distinct focus on the assimilation of Earth and its population into its own model of society, I would argue that the ‘civilizing’ period of 19th and 20th century colonialism is the strongest parallel.

When we look at it this way, however, some peculiar divergences also come to the fore. For all its initial strength at subduing the nations of Earth, the Combine does not seem all that interested in the planet. Even as its drained the seas and spread imported wildlife everywhere, it has also whittled its centers of control down to only a dozen immiserated urban spaces. In short, they are exterminating, but not settling; exploiting, but not capitalizing; civilizing, but not nation-building. Considered in this way, our earlier parallel is not all that accurate.

Personally, and this is why I brought this game up in the first place, I think a case could be made that the Combine is weaker than we would assume at first glance. Sure, their initial offensive might have been incredible, but how is the occupation working out? You topple their reign in just one game! This is why I would draw a connection to the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, something which was at the top of everyone’s minds back when the second game first released in 2004. Suddenly, it turns out that ‘we’ (i.e. the Westerners who are mostly making and playing this game) were the Combine all along! This kind of reading is nothing new, of course, as it goes back to the original work by H.G. Wells. Still, when considered from this vantage point, the miserable fate of the Combine occupation becomes a reflection of US imperial malaise in particular, and of the global capitalist project the US maintains in general. Thus, the question is not whether we can conceive of life under the Combine, this alienating representation of modern civilization; the question is rather whether we can imagine a life without it.

In trying to answer this question once more, I believe that the Half-Life series could offer a more sophisticated answer than The Last of Us, if only because its understanding of our main enemy (colonial civilization) is so much sharper. In the case of almost all zombie fiction, the only viable solution seems to be the extermination of all zombies. If the latter stand in for the colonial Other, this is a disturbing suggestion indeed. By contrast, the Half-Life series points out that our enemy is political, not racialist; the Combine’s own shock troops consist of a dozen different subjugated peoples, some of whom—like the Vortigaunts—humanity is actively allied with in the fight against colonialism. Even the devastated ecology of Earth is slowly turning into a different kind of nature; perhaps we could learn to live with the invasive alien species, instead of simply taking things back to the way they were. In this way, I believe that Half-Life unintentionally points the way forward for a potential post-civilization. The key is to abolish power absolutely, and work to build a new world from whatever pieces remain. To return to some imaginary Past would be to miss the point: history is flux, and we must work with the world we have.

If it were up to me, the long-awaited Half-Life 3 would be a story of ecological adaptation and inter-cultural syncretization. Unfortunately, it will probably be another first-person shooter, maybe in VR this time. Oh well. To make up for it, let us try to make this post-Combine world a reality.

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