Category: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

rousseau’s general will and the zombie apocalypse

As I referenced in my previous “the reanimated dead take on dead philosophers” post, The Walking Dead‘s core community–Rick, his family, Shane, and their various affiliates–resembles a rudimentary social hierarchy: as the group coalesces during the show’s first season, following the Atlanta exodus, power structure becomes clear, and, with the exception of a simmering, internecine struggle, political decision-making centers on Rick, his survival savvy, and his nearly uncontested authority over firearms. It’s difficult to characterize the group’s survival-oriented community as a state, per se, given the non-distinction between decision-making institutions (the state bureaucracy, which is comprised of Rick, Shane, and a couple of thorn-in-your side external actors) and the general polity. The group’s increasingly violent processes of social breakdown, ostracization, and consolidation, however, are evidently intended to mimic the nascent process of political creation, in the midst of a destructive world. The technical bureaucracy of authority gradually expands throughout the course of the show’s first two seasons; individual firearms become caches, “walker”-targeting capacity expands from a small constituency to a large hoard, and the group’s access to transportation and public health balloons. The group’s size remains relatively constant, due to the “mortality” rate, but the human consequences of the group’s decisions seem more substantial.

In the course of the Walking Dead community’s collective decision-making process, the group’s conduct–in particular, Rick’s, due to his assertion that the counter-zombie corps is “not a democracy anymore–raises some valuable concerns for the existence of democratic processes within a political society. For all intents and purposes, the Walking Dead group’s decision-making was not, at its core, democratic: voting procedures determined only the most significant of political, social, and economic decisions, and Rick’s consolidation of power seemed, insofar as is narratively possible, nearly inevitable. The “general will,” which Rousseau describes as the legitimacy-granting origin of a sovereign state, plays very little role in the group’s decision-making. Rousseau’s “general will” is, to a certain extent, an ambiguous entity: its process is neither deliberative nor sectarian, but its positive attributes are, at best, opaque. The concept coincides with a “collective good” framework, and the sovereign entity within a political society should–not the normative, rather than positive classification–determine the exercise of social welfare on the basis of the general will’s public outlook.

In the world of the Walking Dead, as in the complex politics of contemporary society, the “general will” is a Platonic idea, hardly representative of a tangible reality. Rousseau, for one, assumes a degree of information transparency that, given the bureaucratization of public politics, cannot occur in a real-world political society. Where a sovereign exists, as one does in Rousseau’s Social Contract, various characteristics of governance are inaccessible for the general public. Nowhere is the informational hierarchy clearer than the Walking Dead‘s dramatic, second-season conclusion, during which Rick reveals the existence of a ubiquitous “walker” disease, as opposed to the confined, only-communicable-through-brainzzzzz disease the group had previously imagined. Rick had known of the “walker” infection since the CDC explosion, but had withheld informational access until, during Shane’s death and undeath, the reality of the group’s infection became readily apparent. The group’s decision-making surely would have changed, as it did on the highway road, but the informational hierarchies prevented the emergence of a democratic discourse, thus establishing Rick’s authoritarian leadership as an inextricable characteristic of survival in a zombie-fied world.