Bellum Omnia Contra Zombies: The Walking Dead and The Social Contract

Bellum Omnia Contra Zombies: The Walking Dead and The Social Contract

To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent …

In the absence of law, custom, institutions or history, human beings exist in the state of nature. It’s anarchy, but not necessarily the enlightened anarchy of philosophy or the chaotic anarchy of our fears. It represents the Age of Reason’s presumption that law is a human invention, not the result of divine stone tablets. And like all human inventions, there must have been a time prior to law.

With the growth of anthropology as a science, we have more certainty of how human beings lived prior to the formation of law. We know that the Code of Hammurabi did not invent laws out of whole cloth, but instead codified existing customs of behavior. In spite of that, the idea of the state of nature still has a lot of resonance.

(I thought this was about zombies, Perich! Patience – keep reading)

The state of nature ends as soon as the inhabitants form a social contract. A social contract – sorry, high school debate students – is not a literal piece of paper. Rather, it’s a common understanding of the ways people should behave. This includes, but isn’t limited to, laws enforced at gunpoint. It also includes customs, popular memes and the status games inherent to any social scene.

For example: when you’re watching a movie or a football game in a crowded living room, and you get up to go to the bathroom or kitchen, what happens to your seat? If you’re an adult, you can expect that the seat will still be available when you return. Or, if someone unknowingly took your seat, they’ll apologize and vacate it. Conversely, if you’re a teenage boy, you know that you have to declare “Fives” on your seat as you stand up, meaning that you intend to return within five minutes. If you don’t make that declaration, your seat is up for grabs.

The rules on seat availability differ with age, gender and geography. They are nowhere written, and you don’t learn them on the first day of school. But after you see someone steal a free seat because its owner didn’t call “Fives,” you know what the game is. You’ve seen another aspect of the social contract.

All right, bro! Emergent order! WHOO!

Social contracts also have understood enforcement mechanisms and penalties for scofflaws. This holds true for custom as well as law. If you call “Fives” and someone steals your seat anyway, you have a variety of responses depending on your social circle (call the guy a “douchebag,” slap him in the top of the head, stop inviting him to watch football at your house, etc). But it’s understood that you can’t stab him.

Similarly, if someone breaks into your car and steals your stereo, you also have a variety of responses. In middle-class neighborhoods, the response is usually to call the cops. In upper-class neighborhoods, in addition to calling the cops, one might install additional security around one’s home. In lower-class neighborhoods, going to the police is just one option: you might also call your big cousins, especially the one who used to box Golden Gloves and has a detached retina, and go visit that guy two blocks over who’s known to move hot stereos.

It only takes a little while in a strata to understand what’s an acceptable response to transgression. That’s the social contract. Social contract theory is that branch of philosophy which examines how and why people form social contracts. Why have customs or rules? Why not just make every decision ad hoc? And what’s wrong with the state of nature, anyway?

There are lots of answers to those questions, but two names get cited more than any others: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. I’ll explain a little about each of these philosophers and their theories in the context of (FI-nally) The Walking Dead.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.

John Locke’s theory of the social contract, and the state of nature, is embodied by Shane. Shane believes that social order can be rebuilt out of a mutual recognition of the values of teamwork. Shane wants the survivor camp to come together willingly. He doesn’t yell and he doesn’t wave his gun around. But he doesn’t back down from enforcing the rules.

Shane: Hey, Ed? You wanna rethink that log?
Ed: It’s cold, man.
Shane: Cold don’t change the rules, now does it? Keep our fires low, just embers, so we can’t be seen from a distance, right?
Ed: I said, it’s cold. Whyn’t you mind your own business for once?
Shane: Ed? You sure you want to have this conversation, man?

– S1E3, “Tell It To The Frogs”

Locke’s social contract, and Shane’s, hinges on reason. People emerge from the state of nature because, as rational creatures, they see a value to it. An established tradition of how to trade, how to handle differences and when to fight makes life easier for everyone. Locke presumes that a society emerges from the state of nature once enough people recognize those benefits.

Shane wants people to recognize those benefits, too. When Jim snaps and begins digging mass graves, Shane spends a long time trying to talk him down. He doesn’t get violent until Jim provokes him, swinging the shovel like a weapon. He’s the man with the gun, and (until Rick shows up) the only man with a badge. But he doesn’t bark orders.


When all the world is overcharged with inhabitants, then the last remedy of all is war, which provideth for every man, by victory or death.

Thomas Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature is embodied by Rick. Hobbes paints a much bleaker picture of the state of nature than Locke does. It’s from him that we get the classic phrase of bellum omnia contra omnes: the war of all against all. We also get the vivid image of life in the state of nature being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

That phrase might also describe Merle, one of the first survivors Rick meets. Hyped up on drugs, Merle takes potshots at walkers from a rooftop, overpowers the other survivors with brute force and decides to take what he wants. It’s only when Rick ambushes him and claps a gun to his head that he’s subdued. In this conflict between survivors, violence wins the day. Thankfully it’s violence in the hands of a good man (Rick) instead of a bad one (Merle).

Merle isn’t literally the first survivor Rick meets, of course – that’s Morgan and his son, Duane, squatting in Rick’s old neighborhood. But Rick’s first encounter with them is equally violent. Duane smacks Rick in the head with a shovel, then Morgan ties Rick up until he’s sure that Rick isn’t infected. Again, violence rules the day here: an alert man and his well-trained son get the drop on a dehydrated police officer. It’s fortunate that it’s good men employing that violence instead of bad.

How do we make sure that it’s only good men who employ violence? What’s required (says Hobbes) is a recognition among people in the state of nature that the war of all against all must stop. The only way to permanently stop it is to form a commonwealth and appoint a sovereign, surrendering all decision-making power to him. Here Hobbes’s theory differs from (and predates) Locke’s. In Locke’s state of nature, people use their reason to form a social contract. In Hobbes’s, people are ruled by passion, and the strong sovereign is the only cure. “That miserable condition of war […] is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown,” Hobbes writes in Leviathan, “to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe.”

Rick’s style of leadership derives from that: keep people in awe, rather than appeal to their reason. He may lay out reasons for what he does, but that’s to keep the commonwealth in line, not to persuade them. When he decides to return to Atlanta to save Merle, he makes the decision first, then starts making arguments (they owe it to him; there’s a bag of guns in town; etc). But it’s clear he’s already made the decision.

Shane: Douchebag’s what I meant. Merle Dixon – that one wouldn’t give you a glass of water if you were dying of thirst.
Rick: What he would or wouldn’t do doesn’t interest me. I can’t let a man die of thirst. Me. Thirst and exposure. We left him like an animal caught in a trap. That’s no way for anything to die, let alone a human being.

– S1E3, “Tell It To The Frogs”

15 Comments on “Bellum Omnia Contra Zombies: The Walking Dead and The Social Contract”

  1. Qwil man #

    A minor nitpick, but the idea of the Zombie Apocalypse as a utopia was the primary theme of the movie Zombieland. Survival was nearly a non-issue, since all our leads began the movie well armed (in fact, weak nerd archetype Michael Cera-lite opens the film by dispatching a zombie ambush without a scratch). In fact, the driving need of the movie is never one of seeking safety, and nearly every motivation of the story is one of vanity as the characters go from a gift shop of unpractical trinkets to a glorious hollywood mansion to a theme park that they have all to themselves (zombies notwithstanding).

    Not that I can call this anything aproaching libertarianism, but the utopia of the apocolypse certainly isn’t absent in the american mediascape.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Not a minor nitpick at all – an excellent insight!


    • dewfish #

      I don’t think Zombieland was an example of “apocalypse as utopia”, but merely people (young people) dealing with a bad situation the best way they know how. The thing to consider about Zombieland is that the characters were still in the early stage of the apocalypse, and some still had hope that there was somewhere they could go where everything would be okay. They show us the fun stuff up front, but the depressing reality of it all is always there in the background. One thing to notice is the disconnect between Woody Harrelson’s character and the rest. They are younger, and the younger the character is, the more idealistic they are. Woddy’s character is pretty much convinced that there is no “safe place”, and the college guy is slowly coming to that relization as well. In fact, to some extent, I think all of the characters realize the futility of it all. The “fun” you see them having in the movie are basically coping mechanisms. All of them trying to feel some semblance of “normal” life. Woody does it through twinkies. The two college-aged kids do it through their relationship. The youngest does it through her desire to visit an amusement park. The older girl obliges with this plan because she wants this kid to fell some semblance of joy in such a bad situation. I’m sure those two have already seen more death and destruction to last a lifetime, so the amusement park is a small way to ease the stress. If there was a sequel to Zombieland, it would probably be more serious. The fact that they were never really worried about food and that they could still find fresh food in crashed vehicles beside the road means that everything is still in the early stages, and the gravity of the situation hasn’t fully set in yet.


      • Jesse #

        I think you’re totally right about how, the older the character is, the more they are disillusioned with the theory of the “safe place”.

        That being said, Zombieland is probably the first zombie movie I’ve ever seen that I wasn’t legitimately concerned for the characters lives and, through the entire movie, you always know deep down that they all will survive.

        I loved Zombieland because I felt it was kind of cathartic in the sense that you could just relax and enjoy it and know everything was going to be alright (in a relative sense, of course). I’ve never felt that way with a zombie movie and I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much.


        • dewfish #

          The reason why you weren’t as concerned was because the movie is a comedy. It has to be light-hearted to an extent, and having all the characters die gruesome deaths dosen’t equate to “funny”. Like I said before, the sequel would almost have to be more serious, because food begins to run out, and you start to enter “walking dead” territory. a zombie apocalypse is still an apocalypse, and those tend to not end well.


  2. Kater #

    Along the lines of Qwil man’s point about Zombieland (well said at that!), I think the reason we don’t see many zombie-apocalypse-leads-to-utopia stories is that most focus on the immediate fallout of the zombie horde’s arrival. In that period, with any realism at play, it’s impossible to go straight to a utopia setting. There is necessary destruction and chaos that has to happen first.

    Now as for stories that begin after that initial fallout–that’s when things like Zombieland can happen, because we’re already at the point where the survivors are the ones left and they’ve got a handle on things, more or less. They can start looking beyond the immediate needs of surviving and living and towards things like society and personal hopes and wishes once again.


  3. Adrian #

    So basically, in the State of Nature the strong defeat the weak. While a Lockean social contract says No, we can do better than that, a Hobbesian social contract says Correct! That’s why we need the Leviathan on our side! We can only get through this by being stronger than the opposition. Unfortunately, a planetfull of zombies will always be stronger.

    That would seem to be the core of the difference between Locke and Hobbes, yes? (Help me out, I didn’t pay attention much in PHIL101…) One seeks to change the strong-devouring-the-weak paradigm, the other sees no way to circumvent it, and so embraces it, merely making sure that WE are the strong.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      At the risk of glossing over some key distinctions between the two:

      Locke believed that humans are inherently reasonable social creatures who want to live in peace. A social contract evolves in order to deal with the few exceptions that humanity’s natural tendencies toward peace cannot resolve.

      Hobbes believed that humans are inherently nasty creatures who want to eke out every advantage over their neighbors that they can. A social contract has to evolve – a certain reading of Hobbes would say must have evolved – in order to keep the race from murdering itself.

      With this in mind, it’s clear why zombie movies tend to be Hobbesian.


  4. Gab #

    Just speculation, but perhaps the Hobbesian outlook prevails in zombie stories because the Hobbesian state of nature is one of war, and the state of nature created by a zombiepocalypse is itself a state of war, too. You pretty much say this, actually, but I think you’re suggesting the war is between people. I’d argue it’s not- it’s humans v. zombies, and the leviathan is needed to protect the former from the latter. The in-fighting between individuals happens, yes, but the leader/leviathan’s ultimate job is to lead the rest of the survivors against the zombies.

    I really need to watch this show. Dangit.


  5. rtpoe #

    While reading this essay, I couldn’t help but think of a friend of mine, who happens to be an “aggressive atheist”. He refuses to even consider the possibility that there is a Big Guy Upstairs who doles out blessings and punishments, preferring the arguments of Reason instead. His politics are Libertarian; one could call him a Lockean in light of your discussion.

    Be that as it may, I offer for your consideration the supposition that most Organized Religions (at least early in their development) take a Hobbesian approach to society. God, in this hypothesis, is the Ultimate Rick. Clerics use the concept of a Hobbesian God to both keep their flock in line, and comfort them when some person like Rick comes along and makes their life miserable. The “Rick” may be big and bad, but there’s someone even bigger and badder who will smite him a good one in the end…

    And another thing…. Zombie Apocalypse movies always seem to ignore that human beings are needed just to keep things from falling apart…


  6. Jesse M #

    Hate to be guy-who-always-cites-the-comic, but I’d definitely suggest reading the Walking Dead graphic novels for a slightly different take on Rick as a leader. In the comic, Rick is invested with the leadership role in the camp, but it’s not simply because he seems awesome. It’s more because the others quickly realize he’s someone they can trust to mediate all their difference and make decisions with all of them in mind. They often individually speak to him and talk to him about how they’re impressed with his ability to make rational decisions with the best interests of the group in mind. There’s a moment in the second graphic novel (we’re not there yet in the series) where a chunk of the group breaks away from Rick, and they go with his blessing. He frequently reserves judgments, or avoids making decisions, because he doesn’t have the support of the rest of the group.

    In the source comic, it actually feels like we’re following the only functional Lockean enclave in a world of desperation and survival.

    Of course, in the graphic novels, there’s always the question of external politics… i.e. between the core group and the other groups out in the world. This gets much more complicated, because each group is primarily concerned with preserving its own members. There’s a sense that the enclave, with Rick as its leader, is always adrift in a state of global conflict, and that whenever the group encounters another group, a war for resources and territory is the most likely outcome. This eventually becomes the scary and cynical aspect of the graphic novel — the constant threat of attack and annihilation by the other wandering groups of desperate humans.


  7. Peter Tupper #

    Good essay. This clarified my problems with “Walking Dead” and why I didn’t find it as engaging as I thought I would.

    A lot of it has to do with Rick’s character. Rick’s cowboy hat suggests just how much he has internalized the Western movie “arrival of warrior-king-lawgiver” myth. Shane’s group was actually holding it together pretty well (considering the circumstances), and Rick’s arrival creates problems instead of solving them. At first I thought he was principled in going back for Merle, but in hindsight it seems more like an ego move.

    Maybe the problem is that the story is structured with Rick as the lead character, but he’s the one who has adapted least to the changed post-zombie world.

    The Rick-Shane dyad is a lot like “Lost’s” Jack-Sawyer dyad, and both setups gloss over the question of why these particular guys are jockeying for alpha male status in these ad hoc communities, and why there has to be an alpha male at all. Both shows have somewhat retrograde gender dynamics (in “Walking Dead”, the guys go into the city while the girls do laundry, while in “Lost”, women with technical or combat skills keep getting killed).

    Is this a limitation of the writers, that they are trying to impose a “High Noon” solution onto a “Dawn of the Dead” problem?


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      a “High Noon” solution onto a “Dawn of the Dead” problem?


      To actually answer: I would hope that, as the seasons progress, The Walking Dead deconstructs and critiques these tropes in greater detail. A zombie apocalypse is the perfect time to show the limitations of the Alpha Male / Lone Ranger / Aragorn model of leadership. I don’t know that we’ll get that, though.


  8. JP #

    One small quibble: The Latin should read “Bellum Omnium Contra Zombies,” not “Bellum Omnia Contra Zombies.” Since this is a war OF all against the zombies, you need to slap the genitive case ending on there.


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