This article contains some spoilers.
HBO’s latest hit series The Last of Us, based on the 2013 video game of the same name, depicts a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Cordyceps – one type of which, Ophiocordyceps, is known to infect insects like carpenter ants and control their behavior – evolves to be able to infect humans. It is suggested that this is caused, in part, by global warming. A rapid spread of the virus worldwide paired with a futile government response (deja vu!) results in total societal collapse.
For the first five episodes of the season, the main characters, Joel and Ellie, fight tooth and nail as they travel west from a “Quarantine Zone” in Boston to Jackson, Wyoming in search of Joel’s brother, Tommy.
When they find him in episode six, they’re surprised to find a thriving community in Jackson. After seeing the repressive authoritarianism of FEDRA – the “official” authority of what remains of the U.S. military that imposes backbreaking labor on a permanently-impoverished underclass in the Quarantine Zones – and the senselessly violent “post-revolutionary” terror of the gang in control of Kansas City, Jackson is a welcome relief.
A Utopian Commune Amid Dystopian Wreckage
As Joel and Ellie walk through Jackson, decked out with Christmas decorations, schools, and even movie theaters, Tommy’s partner, Maria, explains how their community operates. “Everything you see in our town, greenhouses, livestock, all shared. Collective ownership.” They make impressive use of hydropower for renewable energy. Work is shared. Government positions are appointed democratically and regularly rotated to create the widest possible participation in the administration of society. “So, communism,” Joel teases, which Tommy denies. Maria corrects him: “This is a commune. We’re communists.”
Is this actually communism as Marxists would describe it? Not really. But many experiences in the history of the communist movement, whose lessons live on today, bear resemblance to Jackson. Attempts at creating cooperative villages were undertaken by philanthropic capitalist Robert Owen in the early 17th century. Later in 1871, the Paris Commune saw the armed working class driving off the French state to establish a workers’ state which survived for a short period. The Paris Commune left a lasting mark on consciousness with its example of what a communist society could accomplish, as the workers of Paris rapidly implemented progressive reforms like separation of church and state, equal pay for women, and the requirement that state officials take only the average workers’ wage.
A genuine communist society, which would take shape through a period of socialism and transitioning away from capitalism – would need to be truly global. While the people of Jackson make the best of what they have, they don’t have enough. The democratic organization of production would need to be coordinated locally, regionally, and globally to ensure everyone has what they truly need, from the best medicine to technology and production techniques. Furthermore, they’re under constant threat from the outside: the people of Jackson nearly killed Joel and Ellie when they first arrived, aware that hostile forces could come in and destroy everything they’ve built. There can be no “socialism in one country” – or in one town, city, or parish for that matter – that won’t immediately suffer hostility and sabotage from the rest of the capitalist world hell-bent on eliminating any threats to their system.
A Better World is Possible
And the good news is, it won’t take an apocalypse that turns the population into zombie-like monsters to achieve. On the other hand, we won’t be able to rely on a freak accident of nature to wipe the billionaire class off the planet and render useless their wealth and the institutions that defend it.
While we can’t say episode six of The Last of Us was genuine socialism or communism, many young people watching the show, the majority of whom prefer socialism to capitalism, were no doubt pleasantly surprised to see a positive depiction of a non-capitalist, collectivist society. But for this type of society to be won, to survive in the long term, and to truly flourish, it will take a fight. This fight won’t look like the Fireflies’ tactics of underground networks and terrorism, but a broad movement of working people and the oppressed united in solidarity to overthrow the regime of capitalism, seize the wealth and means of production from the ruling class, and build from the ground up a society of our own.
The Last of Us, starring Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal (who is related on his mothers’ side to Chilean socialist leader Salvador Allende) as Joel, is an exciting watch. While the story of The Last of Us, in the show and the game, ultimately puts forward nihilistic theses on violence and human nature, the post-apocalyptic setting provides for interesting depictions of how society might be organized without the fetter of capitalism. With Season 1 wrapped up, HBO watchers can now look forward to the dysfunctional antics of the wealthy megalomaniac Roy family in the final season of Succession!