Crawl Out Through the Fallout: Post-Apocalyptic Neoliberalism

Image via the Gamer

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Amazon Prime Video’s newest show, “Fallout,” has received critical acclaim with a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Based on an ongoing video game series started in 1997, its main draw is its post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland and retro-futuristic 50s-era aesthetics. “Fallout” takes place in an alternate history, where the world was unable to culturally progress past the 1950s, cold war hysteria, and unwavering neoliberalism. Then, a global nuclear war destroyed civilization and most life on the planet. 

The world of “Fallout” and its political commentary offers useful insights into our world—possibly more than it ever has previously. Tensions between states are increasing as Israel carries out the most blatant example of genocide in the 21st century, with the possibility of increased armed conflict only seeming to be rising. At the time of writing this, Israel has just carried out a missile strike on Iran. The former UN Assistant Secretary General for human rights has said that we are witnessing “probably the highest kill rate of any military…since the Rwandan genocide of 1994.” It is difficult to be optimistic at this time, especially when Israel may be condemned by the majority of the world—including institutions such as the UN—but faces zero consequences. The U.S. and its vassal states depend on having strategic footholds all over the world. Israel is a crucial foothold and serves as a destabilizing force in the region, an intelligence outpost, and a very profitable trading partner, especially when it comes to weapons of war. At times, it can be easier to imagine the end of the world than imagining a time where historians can soberly assess the crimes we are witnessing. 

Rather than analyzing the real world and its bleak state, we are going to analyze the world of “Fallout” and the neoliberal politics within it. To do this, let’s define neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a political approach that is characterized by its devotion to the free market, rampant deregulation, and the privatization of (and therefore destruction of) social services. This unfettered capitalism remains the dominant ideology in both “Fallout” and the real world. Under neoliberalism, focus is put on individual responsibility and achievement, while irresponsible corporations are bailed out by the government the second they need it. Neoliberalism and capitalism have been very successful in presenting themselves as the natural default state of the world. The term capitalist realism was coined by Mark Fisher; it refers to the concept that the end of the world is now easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. Fisher also explains that an ideology cannot be naturalized until it is thought of as a fact and not a value. One of the ways neoliberalism has sought to do this is by instilling the idea that everything should be run like a business, including healthcare or education. And so, we have reached the end of history. 

The “Fallout” series presents a world where capitalism ends the world, and yet capitalism still lives on. “Fallout” is unlike many post-apocalyptic settings that gloss over how the world ended and rather focuses on the people and events after the end of the world. In fact, its old and new world are fundamentally tied together. The various factions fighting for power within the wasteland simply replicate the political ideologies of the old world, which are clearly satirical representations of real world politics. To discuss the politics within “Fallout,” we need to briefly explore the events that led up to the nuclear apocalypse. Before this nuclear war, the world faced a resource crisis as the major global powers used nearly all fossil fuels on the planet because of consumerism and the military industrial complex. A war then broke out in the Middle East over the remaining oil reserves. Sound familiar? The U.S. then found an untapped source of crude oil in Alaska, which quickly resulted in war with China. This ultimately leads to nuclear apocalypse. The answer of who launched the first nuclear missiles is kept relatively ambiguous, but the question of who orchestrated it is more important. “Vault-Tec” is a powerful megacorporation closely connected to the U.S. government. Vault-Tec commodified the end of the world by selling spots in vaults that would protect its inhabitants from the nuclear apocalypse. The games imply, through various computer log entries, that Vault-Tec knew exactly when the end of the world was going to happen and was likely involved in instigating the apocalypse. The neoliberal order allowed for one massive and unchecked corporation to (likely) usher in the end of the world in the pursuit of profit. 

As for the actual world after the nuclear apocalypse, we are able to see the political attitudes that ended the world. One faction called “The Brotherhood of Steel” gives us a glimpse into the mentality of the U.S. military before the war. They are aggressive, xenophobic, jingoistic, and extremely anti-communist. “Fallout” constantly satirizes the better dead than red views of Cold War America. The series is also known for its fans who enhance this satire by identifying with these anti-communist attitudes, as if the message isn’t that these are the very views from a world that destroyed itself. While this is overt political commentary, more commentary on capitalism and neoliberalism is embedded in the irradiated wastes. Political questions and ideas have not moved on in the 200 years since the bombs dropped. There are still militaristic conservative groups who are obsessed with restoring an image of an ideal America that never actually existed, and making it great again. There are still neoliberal mouthpieces that drone on about individual liberty and rights, whilst also utilizing state violence to control their citizens. The wasteland still has people with immense wealth and connections who manipulate political events to suit their own interests. The survivors in the wastes still buy and sell goods for profit with bottle caps, a physically worthless yet valuable currency. The wasteland is no different than pre-war America, besides a couple mutated monsters and cannibal raiders. Materially, nothing has changed. This is most felt as you explore the world in these games. The player is the personification of individualism, as you are free to explore the open world and do whatever you want. Despite all of this freedom, you are unable to interact with society in a meaningful way. Most of the gameplay is spent completing tasks and quests that do not affect the world, leaving it identical to how you found it. The only real moment that you are given actual agency is at the end. You have to side with a faction and its corresponding ideology to gain control of whatever insignificant part of the wasteland the respective game is set in. Even then, the only thing that changed is who is in charge of certain locations; there is no real systemic change. Capitalism continues to dominate the wasteland. No one in the wasteland, including your player character, questions this reality. Struggles for control of areas are solely in pursuit of power, and these factions cannot conceive of using their influence to build something better than what existed in the old world. All they can imagine is the world they know and nothing outside of it. The world has already ended once, so it’s now nearly impossible to imagine a world outside of capitalism. The dystopia doesn’t arise from the nuclear wasteland; rather, it stems from how a nuclear apocalypse could not even end the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism and its stranglehold on the collective imagination of its subjects. 

The irony is likely not lost on the game developers either. Bethesda has released multiple entries on a series where an unchecked corporation caused the downfall of civilization. The economic model that caused this is also the reason for their $3 billion net worth. With every new entry I, and many others, give Bethesda our $60. Neoliberalism aims to present itself as apolitical; a fact, and not a value. It commodifies other political ideologies, displaying them as a novelty that will never be seriously considered. For example, I imagine Che Guevara rolls in his grave every time a shirt adorning his face is made in a sweatshop overseas and sold. If there is a market for something, capitalists will sell it to you. Anticapitalism is no exception. We can’t even escape the all encompassing influence of neoliberal capitalism in our fiction. While you explore the wastes, fight raiders, and explore derelict structures from the old world, there is still an unspoken understanding that neoliberalism remains the default. Just as the factions in the “Fallout” universe endlessly repeat the inconsequential political feuds surrounding neoliberalism, we do too. As long as neoliberalism remains to be the perceived default state of humanity instead of an ideology, we will remain intellectually and culturally stagnant. We are unable to solve any problems throughout the world, because we cannot imagine solutions beyond the individual level. We will be trapped in time, endlessly repeating the same political battles. Just like the skeletons in “Fallout,” we will be forced to repeat our final acts for nothing. 

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This article was edited by Delbar Nonahal.