Writing in the weeks following the The Dark Knight Rises‘ release, Jeff Spross and Zack Beauchamp described Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as a “layered defense of liberal democracy against its authoritarian components.” For Spross and Beauchamp, Nolan’s Bane-, Joker-, and Ra’s Al-Ghul-infused riffs on Gotham’s pervasive inequality, corruption, and moral decadence have their origins in an abiding concern for the interaction between anarchic criminality and an over-reaching state. As the authors observe, Nolan’s Batman is neither conservative nor liberal, but rather liberal-democratic: prompted by his butler and mentor Alfred, both Bruce Wayne and Batman find an equilibrium in Gotham’s civil institutions–in participation in “communal life and shared institutions,” and in the amorphous institution of public trust, which sustains Gotham amidst Bane and Ra’s Al-Ghul’s unwavering attempts at civilizational overthrow, as well as the Joker’s anarchic tests of spectacular violence.
Bruce Wayne and Batman’s stirring commitment to civic institutions transcends the film trilogy, and manifests itself in the original, comic-book representations of the Dark Knight, his millionaire-playboy personality, and his sidekick, Robin. After all, Robin’s origin story–the “real one,” rather than Nolan’s “Dick-Grayson-as-junior-cop” version–has its foundations in the demise of a Gotham civic association. Dick Grayson’s parents were trapeze artists in the Gotham circus; after his parents fall victim to a mob assassination, Grayson transforms, channeling his rage into Robin’s superhero-dom. Bruce Wayne’s Batman story is similar; his father, a business tycoon, maintained an extensive philanthropic enterprise, until he, too, fell victim to Gotham’s criminal violence. More than any other comic-book superhero, Batman’s history has relied on his robust relationship with his urban landscape; not just the physical structures, but the civic institutions, as well. Nolan’s spectacular, high-tech Batman makes it easy to forget that, at his core, Batman is a detective, reliant on common society’s resilience against organized crime to drive his heroism.
Batman’s multi-decade treatment of “civil society,” as a conceptual framework, undergirds a core distinction in philosophical treatments of civic association. I’ll address Locke and Tocqueville here, not because of their particular conceptual strength–indeed, “civil society” is one of the best-tread subjects in contemporary political theory and scientific inquiry–but because, due to my philosophy class, they’re at the forefront of my present thinking. John Locke, the English philosopher, frames civil society as a functional extension of political consolidation: fearing the descent from the state of nature into one of war, and subsequent infringements on personal life, property, and happiness, individuals establish institutions of governance, hierarchical power, and justice, which Locke describes as a “political society.” Political society is an institution, comprised of legal systems, jurisprudence, and common security assurances; civil society, on the other hand, is a state of being, determined by social interactions between individuals and communities within a political society. Civil society participation is a fundamental characteristic of membership in the political commonwealth, whereby the individual citizen forfeits his/her natural right to a vigilante defense of private affairs, in order to secure a state of persistent security. Locke’s civil society relies on the absence of authoritarian governance, within which justice and dispute resolutions are necessarily arbitrary.
But, as Batman’s Gotham demonstrates, Locke’s civil society, under the auspices of liberal governance, is insufficient. In the seven years between Harvey Dent’s death and Bane’s return, Gotham establishes a “liberal peace,” largely as a result of the civil-liberties-infringing Dent Act. It’s easy enough for the Gotham government to mete out justice, to restrict crime, and to ensure collective security, but Gotham’s security institutions, legislative reforms, and political leadership aren’t what restore Gotham’s sanity amidst widespread social fear. Batman defeats the villains, but the public trust he inspires–and the social cohesion of Gotham’s run-of-the-mill civil society–sustains Gotham while the city’s police clear the rubble. This, I suspect, is what Tocqueville means when he refers to the United States’ civic associations as an engine of democratic prosperity: Batman perceives Gotham as “worth saving” because, as the Dark Knight says to a beleaguered Joker, “it’s full of people ready to believe in good.” In a society where the government–and Batman, for that matter–is perfectly content to extend its authority, to infringe on the very natural rights that Locke prioritizes, Gotham’s social institutions, and not just its civil society, matter most.
Philosophical zombie scholarship has understandably focused its intellectual energies on the role of natural rights, societies, and social contracts in the post-apocalyptic context. To a certain extent, this concern for the zombie-tinged social contract makes sense: almost all zombie invasions/contagions/humanitarian emergencies comprise the emergence, persistence, and incomplete resolution of civil conflict, a case study in Hobbesian contract breakdown. For political philosophers, the zombie apocalypse represents a near-perfect incubator for the state of nature, through which social roles, political societies, and internal economies are constantly in flux, due to the emotional and psychological pressures of constant flight, fratricide, and institutional collapse. As Jason Walker suggests in his treatment of The Walking Dead‘s varied embrace of Hobbesian and Lockean social contract theory, post-apocalyptic communities often resemble Hobbes’ basic expectations of human nature, as well as Locke’s concern for the corrosive impact of vigilante justice.
The state of nature’s gradual growth is, for all intents and purposes, an assumed characteristic of the post-apocalyptic scene. Rights regimes increasingly break-down over the course of The Walking Dead‘s two seasons: property rights do not retain their salience–theft and looting remain rampant among human communities in Georgia’s urban centers, almost entirely as a survival mechanism; in Walking Dead‘s second season, Rick et al.’s arrival at Hershel’s farm quickly encourages a process of normative break-down, whereby Hershel’s “enlightened” understanding of zombie/human symbiosis no longer applies to their social circumstances. This process reaches its symbolic apex during Shane’s murderous assault on Hershel’s zombie-filled barn, which culminates in the death of zombie-fied Sophie, a child and (prior to her death) member of Rick’s cohort.
Lest the post-apocalyptic scene appear as too much of an overlap between Hobbesian and Lockean state-of-nature concerns, Locke’s description bears further investigation. Locke describes the state of nature as one of “perfect freedom” and “equality,” two precepts that emerge from his epistemological understanding of human behavior: that is, knowledge within a civil society, such as it is, emerges from the state of nature’s tabula rasa (“blank state”) of human perception. It’s worth noting that this reading is an integrated understanding of Locke’s epistemology and social contract theory, which assumes conceptual consistency throughout the philosopher’s core values. While the tabula rasa is not an inherent characteristic of Locke’s social contract, one can assume that, insofar as the state of nature represents a natural point of origin for human societies, and the tabula rasa for human knowledge, perception, and experience, the two are intertwined. Like his own epistemological thought, as well as Hobbes’ political theory, Locke describes a sociopolitical teleology, through which the state of nature prompts the intentional, path-dependent consolidation of political societies and, eventually, states. Locke acknowledges a “natural law,” which, in regulating the state of nature, necessitates the gradual emergence of judicial institutions: finding vigilante justice insufficient and destructive, societies will establish magistrates of justice, in order to regulate nascent power hierarchies. Individuals and community units tacitly consent to political, judicial, and social institutions, looking to protect personal life, property, and happiness.
Reason–according to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a factor of life emerging from perceived human experience–undergirds the peaceable operation of natural law in the state of nature. Social breakdown and political violence, which Locke defines as variations on the “state of war,” rely on the corrosion of reason within human society. It’s easy to see how, within the context of our present international sphere, establishing “reason” as warfare’s causal determinant requires, at best, generous assumptions about prevailing cultural and societal norms in conflict-affected communities. Certain, disaggregated components of society may experience a normative breakdown, in line with Locke’s dismantling of reason’s common ties, but “political societies,” as Locke describes them, might well coexist alongside a “state of war.”
The Walking Dead‘s post-apocalyptic scene may provide a more instructive indication of Locke’s challenging dichotomy. Zombie communities, following the United States’ debilitating cerebral epidemic, could hardly be described as “reasoned” creatures, by Locke’s standards: in contrast to human communities, they have little understanding of private property, a natural right to human life, or the experiential perception that Locke associates with the exercise of reason. The zombie state is one of unending conflict, in which life-forms violently compete for perpetual nourishment. Insofar as social hierarchies exist, they are determined by access to flesh and brains, rather than an exercise of social power, regulation, and leadership. In order to avoid zombie transformation, Walking Dead‘s humans place themselves into a political society, determined by rudimentary, confined forms of common resource distribution and security. Towards the end of Walking Dead‘s second season, Rick’s tyranny gradually matures, but it is a “tyrannical rule” that is far removed from the all-encompassing, rights-revoking rule that Locke’s treatise envisions. And, despite the consolidation of authority, the general protection of life, property, and (to the extent that this is possible in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse) happiness, violence persists, in the form of internecine conflict: between Shane and Rick, most prominently, between Shane and Hershel’s son, and between human stragglers and the main society. That is, the existence of the political society, per se, does not prevent the emergence of violence–or, in Locke’s case, war–merely mitigates it.
Locke’s dichotomous characterization of political conflict may have applied well to his experiences in England’s civil war, which encompassed English society, infecting the full realm of social institutions, communities, and networks. But for localized violence, like the type that occurs in post-apocalyptic, human circumstances, the divide between the state of war and the political society strikes the casual zombie-observer as much less salient.