Sam Esmail's Leave the World Behind, a new Netflix movie based on a bestselling novel of the same name and counts the Obamas among its executive producers, is either described as "an apocalyptic thriller" or "[a] dystopian science-fiction movie" or both, "apocalyptic horror and a dystopian thriller." Sure the plot is about the end of the world, which, for a white middle-class family, begins with a vacation in a country house not far from their city, Brooklyn. The mother of this family is Amanda (Julia Roberts); the father is Clay (Ethan Hawke). The comfortable couple has two kids. The country house, however, is owned and rented by a Black family, whose father, George (Mahershala Ali), is a prosperous Wall Street speculator, and whose daughter, Ruth (Myha'la Herrold), is an only child. The mother of the Black family apparently died in a plane crash caused by a cyberattack orchestrated by America's key enemies: China, North Korea, Iran. 

As the white parents are getting ready for bed, the Black father and his daughter appear out of the blue at the front door. Something really bad is happening in Manhattan, if not the whole of the US. They fled the city and want to stay at their own house. Internet is not working, phones are down, and the TV is dead. What's going on? Thanks to a heads-up from a rich client, the Wall Street speculator is not in the dark. He knows that America's enemies have a three-stage plan: shutdown its communication networks and infrastructure, spread misinformation, and then let Americans do the rest. And [SPOILER ALERT] they do. The world as we know it ends in total chaos. Cities burning. Humans killing humans. 

Nothing new here. This is how it always goes down in films of this kind. But why do we always confuse the apocalypse with dystopia? A bright Cornish College student, Jacklynn Yan-Moore, brought my attention to this point in their recent paper, "Problems with Dystopian Apocalypses."


Apocalypse shouldn’t be confused with dystopia. Dystopian stories reflect a world ravaged by the continuation of our status quo. Apocalypse stories should be about living in a world after our present way of life has ended. While both are about change in their own way, many apocalypse stories fail at reimagining the world and fall into dystopia...

Meaning, an apocalypse should not exclusively result in dystopia. The latter, indeed, is completely another kind of story. The world collapses because it has no imagination or alternatives. This indeed is the meaning and end of Margret Thatcher's TINA. In dystopia, capitalism continues. Its order and forms of subjectivity survive, even if zombified. Humans remain selfish rather than social individuals. This is Yan-Moore's insight ("the continuation of the status quo").

In Sam Esmail's Netflix movie, the world ends with a state of nature that's not natural but, instead, is indistinguishable from the culture or (inverted) sociality of capitalism. Competition for money, jobs, homes, and other basics for bene esse becomes as wild as a bear or wolf in the woods. But a true apocalypse, according to Yan-Moore (and on this point they are absolutely correct), opens rather than closes the future: "An ideal apocalyptic story should show how we as a species could adapt and move forward from a sudden [and total] change in our way of life."

And this brings me to the Scottish Enlightenment, a period in European modernity that has preoccupied my fall reading. The key figures of this movement are: Francis Hutcheson (almost unknown), David Hume (very well known by students of philosophy and English literature), and Adam Smith (a superstar, due to his second and final book, The Wealth of Nations—its idea of the "invisible hand" is celebrated by the right and neoclassical economics). This school of enlightenment thinking rejected Hobbes's pessimistic anthropology. 

Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English philosopher, presented in his key work, Leviathan, the human as nothing but a selfish individual. There was no such thing in this animal as altruism. If a person helps another it's only because of self-interest. And if you remove state force or power, society will automatically dissolve into the dystopia we find at the end of Leave the World Behind: the war of all against all. It wasn't lost on many of Hobbes's 20th-century scholars that his conception of humanity was consistent with, to use Norbert Waszek's words, "[a] complex social structure that can be labeled 'bourgeois society.'" Or, in the words of the conservative theorist Leo Strauss: "...the ideals set up in his [Hobbes's] political philosophy are precisely the ideals of the bourgeoisie."

The Scottish Enlightenment, and particularly Francis Hutcheson, a theologian who had exerted a huge influence on Humes and Smith (the latter far more than the former); the human was primarily social by nature. As Waszek points out, this was not only an optimistic assessment of our kind of animal, but one that was closer to, in biological terms, our mode of species being (gattungswesen). There is a good reason why Hobbes is called the first modern philosopher—modernity is synonymous with "commercial society."

The concept of bellum omnium contra omnes was not at all obvious to much of the ancient world, a fact that for us in the 21st century is difficult to appreciate because in film after film, book after book, Hobbes's logic, which is just 400 years old, still rules. But in a state of nature, as understood by the Scottish Enlightenment, it's very likely that humans will revert to (rather than continue to pervert) a sociality that's more natural than cultural. We have yet to see this kind of film. Maybe Jacklynn Yan-Moore, a film student, will direct it.