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 …

Season One of The Walking Dead shows us a conflict between two social contract theories – the Lockean theory (Shane) and the Hobbesian theory (Rick). It also gives us a conflict between two interpretations of the state of nature. Starting from there – the state of nature – gives us a little more insight into the show’s philosophy.

And finally, some zombies.

In almost every zombie apocalypse movie ever made – and I’d say every if I knew them better – the return of the dead results in chaos. As soon as the cops and the army are overrun, everything goes to hell. No apocalypse movie ever portrays a post-institutional society as an improvement. This might seem like a “no, duh,” to our audience, but ask a black guy from downtown Cincinnati about a world with no more stop-and-frisk searches. Or a migrant worker from Phoenix about a world with no more la Migra. Or a gay couple from Jackson about a world without the Baptist Church. (More evidence for my theory that zombie stories are primarily nightmares for the comfortable)

I’m not saying that a world without institutions of law and culture would be a libertarian fantasy. But a zombie apocalypse could be used to tell such a story. It hasn’t yet. Why is that?

Zombie apocalypse movies favor Hobbes’s interpretation of the state of nature. Remove the institutions of law and order and you revert to bellum omnia contra omnes. The strong rule over the weak, and you’d better hope the strong are honest people. The only thing that will let us rebuild society is if a strong sovereign takes over, keeping the populace in awe, and everyone surrenders their right to self-governance to him.

Consider Rick’s decision to go back to the CDC in Episode 5, “Wildfire.” “If one of us suggested, based on a hunch that we head toward that city,” Laurie tells Rick, “you’d have no part of it.” But Rick isn’t ‘one of [them].’ He’s the sovereign. He rules through awe. When he makes the decision to go to the CDC, he tells folks they’re free to come with him or not. Most of the party falls in line with him. If nobody went with him, then Rick’s trip back to Atlanta would be a suicide mission. Realizing that might be enough to dissuade him. But once Rick makes his call, the reaction is one of terrified anticipation – picture GIs on the boat to Normandy – not disagreement. None of them like the plan, but (almost) none of them think to walk away.

It would surprise no one to say that most zombie stories are Hobbesian. Where The Walking Dead is unique is that it spent its first season laying out a debate between Hobbesian and Lockean theories. What if the collapse of society led to a civil commune? A survivor camp in the wilderness, where everyone works in a mutually recognized exchange of mutual benefit? It’s a neat idea. And it seems to work for a while.

But as soon as Rick shows up, it’s over.


Within five minutes of meeting the survivors exploring Atlanta, Rick is taking charge, by virtue of having demonstrated his power over the rampaging Merle. Two days later, he’s running the camp, deciding whether to commit resources to rescuing Merle or not. No one has to come with him, but everyone starts trying to dissuade him.

Why not just ignore him? Why not listen to Shane, or listen to their own conscience? Why not just let the crazy guy with the 19th-century conscience go into the Atlanta deathtrap on his own? Because he’s the sovereign.

Esteemed co-blogger Fenzel made the point that there’s nothing about The Walking Dead’s first season that you couldn’t depict with another giant monster. But that’s not entirely true.

When Rick shows up and starts taking charge, we all nod our heads. Here’s a man who’s Making Hard Choices, we say. It may cost him his friendship with Shane and the affection of his wife. But you have to make Hard Choices in the face of the apocalypse.

We accept that trope so readily that we never ask who put Rick in charge. Just because Rick outranked Shane in the pre-apocalyptic hierarchy doesn’t mean Rick rules the camp. Hell, it doesn’t even look like Shane was “ruling” in the first place. Rick is a stranger to most of these people. But as soon as he shows up, his dilemmas (save Merle or stay with the family; risk a trip to the CDC or leave Jim to die) become the camp’s dilemmas. He frames every debate around what he thinks is important.

And no one questions it, least of all the audience. Zombie stories are inherently Hobbesian. They’re so inherently Hobbesian that we look askance when they’re not. If Rick showed up and didn’t take charge of the camp, we wouldn’t know how to take it. Who’s in charge?, we would wonder. We would glare at the show uneasily until it gave us a leader. And then there’d be a continual narrative tension until the show produced the “right” leader.

So zombie stories are a justification of Hobbesian theory? Not exactly.

Zombie stories are the stories of a society forming a Hobbesian social contract. They start in the state of nature, with ragged feuding survivors fending off a horde of equally filthy zombies. Eventually, a leader emerges – a sovereign who encompasses the will of the commonwealth. The subjects surrender their right to self-rule and, in doing so, vest the sovereign with power.

Those who question the sovereign’s will either defect or are exiled from the commonwealth. In zombie stories, this means people who disagree with the leader become zombies. Does this sound familiar? “No, we can’t go back! Leave it! We have to stick together! No, you … (insert victim’s name), look out! Behind you!” Zombification – permanent exile from the society of humankind – is the penalty for dissent.

Eventually, the sovereign has led the commonwealth to temporary safety. And then what?

(skip to about 4:00 in for this one)

Oh. Right.

As esteemed co-blogger Fenzel noted, zombie movies are one of the few genres where a TPK is not only acceptable, but often expected. It’s taken as a depressing statement on the futility of mortal existence. But, in the context of philosophy, it’s also a commentary on Hobbesian social contract theory.

Thomas Hobbes asserted that the only way out of bellum omnia contra omnes was a strong sovereign who embodied the will of the commonwealth. Zombie stories tell us that, no, that’s not going to cut it. In an infectious post-apocalypse – the ultimate war of all against all – no sovereign is strong enough. Dissolution is inevitable. Law collapses. Inhumanity rules the day.

Will such a fate befall our heroes on The Walking Dead? While S1 has been all over the place in terms of narrative, we’ve already seen a loss of faith in the existing sovereign – the American government, represented by the Center for Disease Control. Rick is the accepted replacement: the one who decides when to stay and when to go. Will he lead our survivors into total collapse? Or will he found a new social order where hope and peace can reign?

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.


Add a Comment