Hobbes’ Walking Dead.


“In such condition, there is no place for industry… no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea… no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
– Thomas Hobbes, on the state of nature.

The Sopranos and The West Wing aside, I’m rarely susceptible to find myself immersed in a TV series. Though, Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing is surely testing that. I’m not great with fantasy shows either. My partner and I gave Game of Thrones a go, but it didn’t captivate me at all. Which is why giving The Walking Dead a try seemed like it’d end up with me dropping it from my weekly schedule within a few episodes. Six seasons later, and I’m addicted.

Season 7 of The Walking Dead started this weekend, with one of the most brutal and psychologically testing openings to a TV show in history, and it split the reviewing media and Twitter’s Walking Dead fans right down the middle. Tim Winter of the Parent’s Television Council said:

“It’s not enough to ‘change the channel,’ as some people like to advocate, because cable subscribers — regardless of whether they want AMC or watch its programming — are still forced to subsidize violent content.

“This brutally explicit show is a powerful demonstration of why families should have greater control over the TV networks they purchase from their cable and satellite providers.”

– An odd criticism. It’s the equivalent of not liking a couple pages in a book you’ve brought, and so demanding control over the entire thing. The PTC go on to suggest TV producers should ‘imply’ the violent content, rather than actually show it. Thank god we adults, watching an adult’s show, have the PTC to protect our vulnerable minds.

And whilst its critics seem to be under the impression that the brutality of the opening of the season was ‘lazy’ and ‘just for ratings’, done simply for ‘shock value’ I’m convinced it was a spectacular opening based on the very philosophical underpinning of the show, with much of the criticisms ironically heaped in lazy understanding of the point of the show.

Indeed, I’ve found those who insist they’re boycotting the show because it has become too brutal and lazy, to be somewhat unnerving. It implies they didn’t consider dead people with flesh hanging off eating live people to be too brutal, nor a sect of cannibals too brutal, nor a beheading too brutal, nor a mother giving birth, dying, and being show by her son before turning into a face eating zombie too brutal, but a favoured character is killed off and it’s suddenly too much. If brutal is your starting point, it is perhaps best to start at flesh eating dead people.

Allow me to explain why I like The Walking Dead, and why it gets me thinking.

The premise of the show isn’t zombies, or surviving a zombie take over. If that was it, I’d be bored quickly. Zombies, vampires, elves, or the like, are something I find little interest in reading or watching. The premise of the show is essentially Hobbes’ state of nature and attempts to break out of it into a civilised community.

This is excellently highlighted when we look at the main protagonist – Rick. Rick embodies the old World; has property, has a family, a respected member of a community, is a member of law enforcement – the very structure that when dissolved, has catastrophic consequences. And yet, in the new wilderness, he’s a killer, forced to make ethical choices that would be beyond even a nightmare back in the civilised World. And so it is, that the show highlights humans at their rawest, when government, legal systems, protections for liberty, social contracts, property rights, no longer exist, and all that exists are individuals and small groups fighting for resources.

When a state of nature leaves everyone open to the mercy of others, and necessitates banding together and a leader emerging, how humans cope with the brutality of a society-less society. How do we balance personal freedom, with group security? How do we trade when there is no moderator to enforce contracts and security? After experiencing strangers trying to kill you, when you finally find refuge and new strangers appear, knowing that resources are like gold dust, how do you respond? What is the ethical approach? When currency has no value, because supplies and resources are free to the one who kills, how do you plan? Whether or not the shows producers have Hobbes, or Locke, or any other social contract theorist in mind when writing the show, is irrelevant, because it enshrines that in its very premise. Establishing communities in a hostile, lawless state of nature underpins the show.

“The condition of man, is the condition of war…. of everyone, against everyone”

– Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes is clear that in such a World, where trade isn’t regulated, contracts are meaningless, law is individual, no government exists, currency and property are taken with force, threat of violence and brutality is all there is, nothing else exists. This was exemplified in Negan’s merciless and appalling murders, but of course these weren’t ‘murders’ because ‘murder’ is a legal term. In the state of nature, killing becomes necessary. Hobbes says:

“Government is necessary not because man is naturally bad, but because he is naturally more individualistic than social.”

– A threat is perceived – such as the threat of Rick’s group to ‘the saviours’s – and so the threat is squashed immediately, and violently, due to the lack of legal protections that would normally bind communities & prevent violence. I suspect episodes that follow, will include brutality from Negan aimed at his own community, to keep them in line. Negan, is a more violent, more brutal, more dictatorial version of Rick, but Hobbes’ logic remains the same:

“During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.”

– And so humans band together, appointing a leader solely for protection. Survival is it, by any means necessary in such a state. Law within those communities is created and enforced by the leader, for the advancement of the group, or so it is presumed. What we’re finding out on the show, is that a state of nature doesn’t suddenly end the moment individuals band together for protection. Protection is fleeting and a largely a mirage. We now have small groups fighting over resources and often brutally. In the real World, nations, religions, tribes showcase the same base instincts.

The Walking Dead has me thinking how easy it is for once civilised people from bustling lives, with tea and crumpets before work, with flowers growing in the garden, suddenly descend into our base instincts when the precarious foundations of institutional constructs collapse, and how survival may turn us to the brutal hunter gatherers that we are. Far from ‘dehumanising’ us, I think it humanises us in our rawest form, in a state of nature, a state the PTC and others seek to protect us all from, and that is what terrifies us.

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One Response to Hobbes’ Walking Dead.

  1. tildeb says:

    What a terrific post!

    You lead with Hobbes and I’ll counter with Locke! And I think we see this existential battle played out all the time in the show. The indifference by reality these characters have to face face forces them to properly understand the necessary role of brutality and violence in response to threats. Some of the most insidious threats to everyone’s survival come not from zombies but from those whose individual motivation and action and philosophy and morality fail to properly account for the effect on the group’s long term well being.

    I think the same is played out in real life when the automatic rejection of brutality and violence is assumed to be more important and of a higher moral quality than understanding its necessity and then controlling it appropriately. What is sometimes lost is the insidious effect rejecting violence causes for the long term well being of the society.

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