The Walking Dead: Discussing zombie political theory

Diplomacy? The Governor (David Morrissey), Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) - The Walking Dead - Season 3, Episode 13 - Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC
Diplomacy? The Governor (David Morrissey), Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) - The Walking Dead - Season 3, Episode 13 - Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC /

Is AMC’s The Walking Dead compatible with the theories of Hobbes, Locke and Machiavelli? Unlock the inner political theory nerd inside you and find out.

In a recent article for, John Schulze writes that AMC’s The Walking Dead dabbles in the political theories of Hobbes, Locke and Machiavelli.  These theories include Social Contract theory, Natural Law theory, and a form of moral relativism called “Machiavellianism.”

Schulze defines social contract as “the agreement between citizens in organized society that defines and limits their rights and duties.”  He suggests this phenomenon applies, at least partly, to situations at the prison, Terminus, and Alexandria.

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Speaking personally, I’ve always questioned the merits of this philosophy because, in most ways, citizens never actually receive this contract and can never formally agree to it.  And, of course, the common implication is that if one disagrees with some of the terms, they cannot share in that society.  In other words, it isn’t much of an agreement at all.  In the Walking Dead we see this phenomenon mostly in action with The Governor.  Sorry to say, but his dictatorial take on running things has more in common with the standard social contract than any other semblance of democracy on the show.

Of course, Rick has exhibited Governor-like tendencies at times, too, like his famous declaration that his group is not a democracy.  In fact, that I call his group “his group” clearly suggests the group belongs to him, and that he has some special right to order people about.  In reality, the only thing granting him that power is the people who are unwilling or unable to challenge it.  In this sense, I would say the show certainly highlights this theory, though mostly by exposing its very flawed and basically nonsensical premise.  Perhaps a group can follow Rick (or any other character) as a source of strength and wisdom, but any such decision is possibly human folly.

The law, as commonly defined. (AMC's The Walking Dead)
The law, as commonly defined. (Rick Grimes, from AMC’s The Walking Dead) /

The second theory is Natural Law theory, which holds that “many basic human rights are derived from human nature,” and that “morality within human interactions should be deduced by logic and reason.”  Terminus is offered as an example of this principle being violated, and world conflict in general.  Perhaps the main problem with this theory is that “human nature” can never be totally defined, as human values are constantly in a state of flux, and morality is often a situational thing.  Also, who is to decide what is logical and reasonable?

There is no single answer to even that general hypothetical question, let alone to specific concrete situations wherein people’s cultural values and biases come into play.  As The Walking Dead makes clear, a Daryl Dixon may be quite different from a Merle Dixon.  Certainly, Merle had redeemed himself toward the end of his life by letting Michonne go, but that could have been more of an emotional decision than anything guided by logic and reason.  Emotional states come into play quite often, rather than some broad-minded principles.  This is part of what makes us human, and part of what makes people die before their time.

The Governor and Rick settle their differences through logic and reason. (AMC's The Walking Dead)
The Governor and Rick settle their differences through logic and reason. (AMC’s The Walking Dead) /

Next, Schulze gets into the theory of Thomas Hobbes that, without a social contract and a strong central government , everything is chaos — “all against all.”  I would note something that anyone else can:  Strong central governments have actually added greatly to the chaos of man since the rise of the modern industrial state.  In fact, any cultural value that is imposed on a population — no matter how well-meaning — will no doubt lead to chaotic results, simply by the nature of its being imposed.  If people learn morality is simply what we do when we are being watched, what do we do when our supposed moral guardians aren’t looking?

All of the classic problems I’ve mentioned have almost nothing to do with counter-theory, either.  They are simply common, everyday observations, even based on actual events one can observe.  If we are to look at the Governor’s supposed paradise of Woodbury, we learned the potential dangers of centralized power.  Instead of keeping people safe, his tactics of suspicion and terror inevitably exacerbated threats from the outside, and brought the proverbial stack of cards tumbling down.  So much for Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan.”  Human weakness came into play, as it always will.  To paraphrase Edward Abbey, “Since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.”

If the Walking Dead universe lacks a functioning economy, why does every day look like Black Friday? (AMC's The Walking Dead)
If the Walking Dead universe lacks a functioning economy, why does every day look like Black Friday?(AMC’s The Walking Dead) /

Schulze then mentions John Locke, who believed “the selfishness of man was manifested in the creation of currency” and that unused property was wasteful.  He notes the lack of currency in the Walking Dead, and that the group is not very wasteful.  It’s an interesting theory and is perhaps compatible with a theory of free, non-state communism.

However, it’s debatable to what extent it applies to The Walking Dead, simply because our characters are pretty much always on the run, or on the mend.  They also lack steady trading partners, or the ability to create any new or long-standing system of trade.  The main point is, there is currently no artificially (legally) imposed need for currency on the show, nor much of an economy in any sense.  Private property exists solely to prevent unknown weirdos and zombies from attacking.  It is not really for profit.  In other words, The Walking Dead’s situation is not quite compatible with a standard economic worldview, and possibly never will be.

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Finally Schulze addresses the view of Niccolò Machiavell that “it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”  This view almost says more about the person holding it than it does about the world.