Means, Ends, and the Critique of Pure Superheroes
J. Robert Loftis
So Rorschach and Nite Owl meet Ozymandias in his Antarctic fortress, and Ozymandias starts explaining his insane plan, which will kill millions but perhaps save the world. While the smartest man in the world is offering up the last crucial bit of plot exposition, Rorschach looks for a weapon. He can only find a fork, but he tries to stab Veidt with it anyway. Ozymandias blocks the blow and sends Rorschach to the floor, all the while continuing his monologue. After he gets up, Rorschach tries to make another move on Ozymandias, but is blocked by Bubastis, the genetically engineered super-cat. Ozymandias doesn’t even need to turn to face Rorschach, let alone miss a beat of his exposition. Not sure what else to do, Rorschach tries talking: “Veidt, get rid of the cat.” “No I don’t think so,” Ozymandias replies magnanimously, “After all her presence saves you the humiliation of another beating” (Ch. 12 p.9). For Ozymandias, on the other hand, talking isn’t a last resort. It’s generally one of the first things he tries, and something he is always open to. He’s good at it, too. He gives extended orations, while Rorschach seems to have lost his ability to use definite articles or start sentences with a subject. And when Veidt is finally confronted by someone more powerful than he—Dr. Manhattan, the comic’s only true superhero—Veidt keeps talking and quickly turns to the one option Rorschach would never consider: compromise. If the others stay silent, they can enjoy the benefit of Veidt’s new world. Everyone takes it—after all, they can’t undo the attack on New York—except Rorschach, even though it means his certain death.
The last fight between Ozymandias and Rorschach gives a little bit of humor to an otherwise terrifying revelation. It also highlights how much the characters are foils for each other, not just in their politics and personalities, but their underlying ethical worldviews. The cosmopolitan, liberal Ozymandias is what philosophers call a consequentialist: he believes that all actions should be judged by their consequences, so that the ends will sometimes justify the means. This is a feature of his personality that is separate from his political stances, his vast worldly experience, and his overwhelming ego. He is the kind of guy who, when he has to make a decision carefully, lists the pros and cons and goes with the option that has the most pros on balance, even if it defies basic humanity and common sense. Thus we get the bizarre, murderous scheme revealed in the Antarctic fight.
Rorschach, on the other hand, isn’t just a right-wing loon. He is what philosophers call a deontologist. Rorschach’s deontology is separate from his politics, his misogyny, and his sexual hang-ups. It is even separate from his fixation on revenge as the most important sort of “right thing to do.” The deontologist says that we should not think of morality in terms of ends and means at all; instead we should only act in ways that express moral rules. Thus we see him stabbing away at Veidt, using anything he can find, even though he knows he can’t succeed. The outcome doesn’t matter; what matters is doing the right thing. Further, the fact that some things are “the right thing to do” is completely unrelated to whether those things actually help anyone. Thus, later we see Rorschach trying to reveal Veidt’s secret, not only knowing he can’t succeed, but knowing if he did succeed, it would only make the world worse, by destroying the good Ozymandias did without undoing the harm.
Watchmen is an intensely philosophical comic. Big ideas like consequentialism and deontology were clearly on Moore’s and Gibbons’s minds as they made this. I hope to show that the attitude toward both consequentialism and deontology is profoundly negative. But these are really only stepping stones to the real point of the comic. The ultimate target of the comic’s critique is authoritarianism: the idea that anyone should set themselves up as a guardian of society, an idea captured by the image of the superhero. The critiques of consequentialism and deontology, and indeed of liberalism and conservatism, support this antiauthoritarianism, which is a more central theme throughout Moore’s work, if not Gibbons’s.
This chapter will highlight the critiques of consequentialism and deontology in the comic, focusing on the parallels to the classical philosophical arguments from people like Mill and Kant. The main focus of the chapter, however, will be seeing these themes as steps toward the broader critique of authoritarianism in this book and in other works by Alan Moore.
“‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian, nothing ever ends.”
When Ozymandias is being chased by Dr. Manhattan, he lures Manhattan into an intrinsic field gizmo (like the one that first created the big blue man to begin with) and activates it, seeming to zap Manhattan into vapor, and disintegrating his beloved cat Bubastis in the process. Afterward, he says offhandedly “Hm, you know, I wasn’t really sure that would work.” (Actually, it didn’t.) (ch.12, p.14) This is a great Veidt moment in a couple ways. First, it demonstrates, again, his willingness to sacrifice things he values for higher ends, second it shows his willingness to gamble on probabilities. He doesn’t deal with a world of black and white, of evil and good, like Rorschach. Everything is gray, but some gray areas are darker than others. To do the right thing, Ozymandias simply looks for the lightest shade of gray, and chooses it.
In the history of philosophy, this sort of weighing, calculating consequentialism is most associated with the doctrine of utilitarianism. Although the basic idea behind utilitarianism has been around forever, the doctrine didn’t really begin to flourish until the work of the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). The core idea is simple: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Utilitarianism begins with consequentialism: actions are judged by the amount of good consequences they produce. It adds to this two other important ideas. The first is a kind of hedonism: the good that one is trying to maximize in the world is happiness. The utilitarian is not worried, like Rorschach, about being sure that every criminal is punished. In fact, punishment is bad in a way, because it makes the punished person unhappy. It only becomes good if a larger good comes from it, like deterring future crime. This larger good, too, must be something that makes people happy. Simply seeing that justice is done is not a good enough consequence for the utilitarian. There must be some people out there who are happier now than they would have been if a crime had been committed against them. The other important feature utilitarianism adds to consequentialism is a belief in equality. Everybody’s happiness is weighed equally. Thus, if an action will make five people happy, and one person unhappy, you should do it, even if the one unhappy person is your mom. Or your favorite genetically engineered cat.
Ozymandias might be a full-blown utilitarian, and not just a consequentialist. An emphasis on equality can be seen in his self-help program. Anyone can be a superhero if they believe in themselves, study, and discipline the mind and the body. “There’s a notion I’d like to see buried: the ordinary person,” Veidt tells Nova Express, “Ridiculous, there is no ordinary person” (ch. 11, supp.). Veidt’s philosophy of self-actualization may not seem compatible with the hedonistic part of utilitarianism, but it actually fits quite well with Mill’s more sophisticated understanding of the doctrine. Mill very famously differed from Bentham because he thought that some pleasures were better than others. Thus the goal of utilitarianism wasn’t just to maximize pleasure for all, but to maximize the higher pleasures. One thing that is less often appreciated is that for Mill the higher pleasures come from self-development and self-growth. It is the capacity for self-improvement that largely distinguishes us from the animals, and the joy of self-improvement that largely distinguishes higher from lower pleasures. “He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. ...Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself.”
Utilitarianism has had many critics, and it looks like Moore and Gibbons are among those critics. We can see this first of all in the structure of the story. According to comic book formula, Rorschach is the hero of the story and Ozymandias is the villain. Rorschach is the first person we see, and the plot is structured around his investigation of some killings. The audience uncovers the truth behind the killings as Rorschach does. Ozymandias, on the other hand, is the one who is revealed to be behind the killings, and when he is found out, he reveals his elaborate plot involving the death of millions and a plan to take over the world.
A lot of the comic falls into place if you see Rorschach as the hero and Ozymandias as the villain. The book is about the corruption of the self-appointed guardians of society. Utilitarianism can be seen as the doctrine that enables that corruption. Once one starts in sacrificing one thing for another, it gets easy to make the sacrifices that will serve one’s own interest. Ozymandias obviously falls into this trap. He may say that the purpose of his plan is to “usher in an age of illumination so dazzling that humanity will reject the darkness in its heart” (Chapter XII, page 17). But we know the first thing he thinks about when he sees his crazy scheme succeed was his own glory: “I did it!” he shouts, fists in the air. And he immediately begins planning his own grand role in this utopia.
If Ozymandias is the villain, utilitarianism brought him to that point by allowing him to rationalize his self-serving ends. It also brought him to villainy by giving him a way to ignore the monstrosity of his own acts. One very effective way, rhetorically, to argue that the ends can never justify the means is to simply emphasize the horrific nature of some sacrifices. Moore and Gibbons do this well. For 11 issues of the comic we have been peering into the lives of some ordinary New Yorkers around Bernard’s newsstand. We’ve grown to like them and sympathize with them. Then at the beginning of chapter 12, we get six full page panels of carnage, and among the bodies we can make out all the characters we have been following for the last 11 issues. It’s devastating, especially with Gibbon’s lurid use of greens and yellows.
While these moments make for powerful points in the comic, they do not do very well as philosophical objections to utilitarianism. They have come up, but they don’t get very far. Mill was at pains to emphasize that utilitarianism is the very opposite of a theory that would let you rationalize doing what is in your own interest: “I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned.” Now Mill is well aware that one cannot in advance know which things will really maximize happiness for all. We cannot predict the future, and are easily tempted by all sorts of things. To this end, Mill recommended that we do not simply try to calculate the best possible outcome each time we make a decision. Instead we should rely on the rules and instincts that the human race has developed over time for acting morally. Since Mill’s time the idea that utilitarianism should focus on rules has developed into the doctrine of rule utilitarianism, which says that one should live by the rules that would maximize happiness for everyone if they were followed consistently. Thus Veidt might adopt a rule for himself like “never kill,” not because killing never brings more happiness than unhappiness, but because a person who lives by such a rule would bring more happiness than unhappiness. Certainly Veidt would have never done what he did if he adopted such a rule.
A lot of the time, though, Mill seems less interested in rule utilitarianism and more interested in what gets called virtue utilitarianism: develop for yourself the personal characteristics that are likely to maximize happiness for all if you really made them a part of you. To this end, programs of self-development must instill in people the habit of associating their own happiness with the happiness of others. “Education and opinion...should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the practice of such modes of conduct, negative and positive, as regard for the universal happiness prescribes.” Interestingly, Veidt’s self-help program does seem to do this: “When you are strong and healthy in the mind and body, you will want to react in a healthy way to the world around you, changing it for the better if you are able” (ch. 10, supp)
Thus, if Veidt’s ego has corrupted him, utilitarianism is not to blame. It does everything in its power to prevent such an occurrence. If Veidt’s education program had done what it was supposed to, if Veidt had adopted better rules for himself, none of this would have happened. Any moral system can go awry if used improperly, or, as Mill puts it, “There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it.”
But what about the sheer horror of what Veidt has done? Surely no system that would accept, let alone mandate, such behavior is truly moral. The idea that it is wrong to force people to sacrifice their well-being for the greater good is generally considered to be a part of justice. For philosophers, justice is typically thought to be a matter of fairness. Is it fair that the citizens of New York are forced to sacrifice their lives and sanity to end the Cold War, when no one else is asked to make such a sacrifice? The means for preventing this kind of unfairness is typically the doctrine of human rights. Rights tell us that there are some things the individual cannot be asked to do against her will, even if it is for the greater good. Mill basically accounts for justice and rights using the tools of rule utilitarianism. A society needs to recognize rights, because a society that recognizes rights is more likely to maximize happiness than one that doesn’t. In fact, Mill was a staunch defender of personal liberty, arguing for his famous harm principle: that the only time one can coercively intervene in another person’s life is to prevent that person from harming others. If Veidt had taken the harm principle to heart, he would never have followed through on his scheme, since he was coercively ending the lives of millions of New Yorkers who were not trying to harm anyone else. Again, the fact that he didn’t do this is no fault of utilitarianism. Any moral system will yield bad results when conjoined to an egotistical madman with near superhuman powers.
The most trenchant critique of consequentialism in Watchmen does not come from Rorschach or from the effects of Veidt’s scheme. It comes from the perspective and explicit statements of Dr. Manhattan. In one of the most moving sequences in the book, Veidt asks Manhattan, with unexpected plaintiveness and insecurity, if he’s really the good guy he thinks he is: “Jon, before you leave...I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.” In the next panel we see Dr. Manhattan from Veidt’s point of view. The blue man, standing inside a model of the solar system, arms down, palms out, smiles and says “‘In the end?’ Nothing ends, Adrian, nothing ever ends.” Then he leaves the Earth for good. Dr. Manhattan’s warning is borne out four pages later, when we see Seymour, the inept assistant at the New Frontiersman, reaching toward Rorschach’s journal looking for something to fill up space in the next issue. If he grabs it, Veidt’s scheme could be ruined, and all that suffering would be for nothing.
This is a deep objection to consequentialist theories. We are asked to look to the future and calculate, to sum up the consequences of our actions, but the future is infinite, and you can’t crunch the numbers when every one of them turns to infinity. Perhaps in five years something will happen that undoes the good that Veidt did. Then, ten years after that, something good will happen that only could have happened given Veidt’s actions. Then something bad, and so on. The problem here isn’t just that we can’t know the future, but that there is too much of it. Even if we had an infinite mind to encompass the infinite future, what would we see? An infinity of happiness and an infinity of suffering? We can’t do anything to change a ratio of infinity to infinity.
And even if we could, what of it? Utilitarianism gets its motivation from the basic instinct that pain is bad and pleasure is good. Individually, you and I seek pleasure and avoid pain. Utilitarianism tries to remove the selfishness of this by asking us to seek pleasure for everyone. In doing so, it tries to make ethics a little more objective: less about what you want and more about what is good in itself. But if we keep going with this impulse to objectivity, everything loses its meaning. What does it matter if there is more pain or more pleasure in the world? We are now in the perspective of Jon Osterman after his accident: if you take too abstract a perspective, nothing seems valuable at all. The reader doesn’t know if the Shelley poem “Ozymandias” exists in the world of Watchmen, or only as the epitaph to one of its chapters. Either way he has missed its message that all achievements fade over time.
This is a defect in Ozymandias’s worldview. Unlike other characters—Rorschach, or The Comedian—he has never really confronted the question of the meaning of life, or the possibility that life is meaningless. Walter Kovacks, staring “though smoke heavy with human fat” decided that “existence was random” but chose to project on that randomness a meaning, which allowed him to become Rorschach. The Comedian, too, had this kind of moment, and all the other characters assert that it led him to a brutal nihilism. Ozymandias didn’t have an existential moment like this. All of his personal revelations are about the source of suffering in the world, not the possibility of morality. He learns that evil is not just a matter of crime, but comes from geopolitical forces. But he never questions the nature of evil and good itself. He takes a bigger view, but never the biggest view.
“Evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this”
So Ozymandias is the villain, a tragic figure, whose flaw was to think the end can sometimes justify the means, a mistake brought on by his overwhelming ego and failure to appreciate the tragic nature of life. And that means Rorschach is the hero, right? Well, no. Rorschach is a foil for Veidt in every respect: the unkempt, taciturn, right-wing outsider against the slick, eloquent, liberal celebrity. Most importantly for us, Rorschach is the deontologist to Veidt’s consequentialist. But just being a mirror to the villain doesn’t make you the hero.
Rorschach is a deontologist. We see this in his constant mantra “In the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise” (Ch.1, p. 24, ch.12 p.20, etc) The mantra is an echo of the deontologists’ slogan: “Fiat justitia ruat coelum”: “Let justice be done, though heaven should fall.” Deontology goes beyond saying that the ends never justify the means. It actually says you shouldn’t think in terms of ends and means at all. Once you start thinking about means and ends, you’ve actually left the realm of morality altogether. You are only thinking about how to get something you want, either for yourself or someone else. The most famous deontologist in Western philosophy was Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). For Kant, morality begins with the good will. Anything else you might value in life—intelligence, strength, even happiness itself—can be used for evil. Think about the sicko Rorschach confronts in the chapter “Symmetries,” the one who butchered the girl and fed her to her dogs. (You don’t have to think about it too hard.) He took pleasure in what he did, but is his happiness good? Can’t be. Even happiness can be evil. So the only thing good, really, is the will to do good, the mental act that says “I am going to do the right thing.”
The importance of the good will is enough to establish deontology for Kant. If you are doing something for an end, you are not doing it because it is the right thing to do. This applies both to ends that we think of as moral and those we think of as immoral or selfish. Think about another cruel and selfish act (Watchmen is full of them), like The Comedian shooting his pregnant Vietnamese girlfriend at the end of the war. A consequentialist would think this is wrong because of harm to the woman: the pain of betrayal, the life cut short. For Kant, the wrong comes with The Comedian’s motivation. He is not trying to do what is right, he is merely trying to accomplish an end that is convenient for him, getting rid of a person as if she were extra baggage. But this impure will can be present for altruistic actions as well as selfish ones. Think about the redemptive moment at Bernard’s newsstand when so many passersby intervene to break up the fight between Joey and her girlfriend Aline. If one of them were jumping in for the sake of helping Aline, that would be acting for an end, and would really be no different than acting for the sake of helping yourself. Interestingly, the people who intervene do not explain what they are doing by appealing to pity for Aline. They all give more deontological explanations: “I’m still me,” “it’s all that means anything.” (ch 11, pp.20, 23) The people who jump in are saying that given who they are, as moral people, and what the world is, a dark place that can be lit only by the good will, they have to act. They are doing the right thing because it is the right thing. Kant would be proud.
For all this, Rorschach is not the hero, and deontology is not the hero’s ideology. I wish I could show this simply by pointing out that Rorschach is a psychotic killer. For some people, being a psycho-killer might be enough to rule someone out as a hero, but in comics, as in Hollywood, crazy vigilantes have a certain cachet. Watchmen came out at about the same time as Frank Miller’s hugely successful Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which depicted the superhero’s obsession with violent revenge as the only human response to a decaying, decadent, crime-riddled society, in need of what Billy Bragg called “a strong dose of law and order, and a touch of the short, sharp, shock.” The fascist overtones and the parallels to Rorschach’s worldview are unmistakable: a society in decline can only be redeemed by violence and exaggerated masculinity. Not surprisingly, Rorschach had a lot of fans when the book came out and still does today.
Still, there is something dangerously naive about these fans. Rorschach is a hypocrite and his ideology is far from Alan Moore’s, if not Dave Gibbons’s. Despite his “never compromise” mantra, Rorschach easily makes exceptions, for himself and for powerful people he admires. Although he delivered the announcement that he would retire under the Keane Act on the body of a dead serial rapist, he repeatedly confesses to admiring another serial rapist, The Comedian, even apologizing for The Comedian’s lapses (Ch.6, p.15). After trashing Moloch’s apartment, he says “sorry about the mess, can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” a classic bit of consequentialist reasoning (ch. 5, p. 6). He also professes admiration for President Truman, both as an adult (ch. 1, p. 1), and as an adolescent at the Charlton Home for Problem Children. As a boy, at least, he professed to admiring Truman precisely because Truman was willing to sacrifice the lives of millions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to avoid even bigger losses in the war—basically the same trade-off Ozymandias makes (ch. 6 p. 31). Significantly, in all these cases, Rorschach lapses into consequentialist reasoning so that someone can play the tough guy, the strong father figure he never had. For Rorschach, commitment to deontology takes a back seat to the need to project strength in the face of moral decline. In general, Rorschach’s simplified vision of justice—with two categories, right and wrong, and one penalty, death—makes hypocrisy inevitable. If you tried to follow that code to the letter, you would have to kill everyone. If you rule out compromise, the only alternative is hypocrisy.
There is also no escaping the fact that Rorschach overtly embodies the far right politics that Alan Moore, at least publically, disdains. Rorschach was based on the Charlton Comics character The Question, who was used by Charlton artist Steve Ditko as a mouthpiece for right-wing diatribes, particularly ideas stemming from the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. This all comes out for Rorschach right on the first page of the book, where we see him ranting in his journal against liberals, communists, and the decline of society (ch. 1, p. 1). There is also another parallel to Frank Miller’s version of Batman here, since Miller is a professed fan of objectivism. Moore, on the other hand, has described objectivism as “laughable,” and his own politics as “180° away from Steve Ditko’s” There’s simply no way we can call Rorschach the hero of the book.
Rorschach’s hypocrisy and his roots in objectivism are enough to show that he is not the hero. But they don’t count as objections to deontology. Just as Veidt’s personal failings didn’t besmirch utilitarianism, Rorschach’s failings don’t besmirch deontology. Any moral system is going to look bad when attached to a misogynist psychopath. Nevertheless, there is a deep critique of deontology embedded in the comic. You can see this in little moments, like when Rorschach spares his landlady, even though by his deranged moral code, he is supposed to kill her (ch. 10 p. 6). This is a moment of growth for him, but it is entirely motivated by compassion, and not the Kantian will to do the right thing. He sees that the landlady has done something his own mother never did, she has tried to spare her children the knowledge that she is a prostitute. He feels for her, and for her sake, he abandons the right thing. I take it the reader is meant to see this both as admirable and as a violation of Rorschach’s moral code, thus giving us a bit of a counterexample to deontology.
The book has more to say against deontology than this one counterexample, though. To see the real critique, we have to go back to that final moment, where Rorschach refuses to make a deal with Ozymandias. In this case, Rorschach’s deontology is not just futile, it is counterproductive. If he succeeded in breaking Veidt’s secret, he could restart the Cold War, bringing with it the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. It is one thing to say “let justice be done, though heaven may fall” and another to actually cause heaven to fall by doing justice. The latter simply can’t be the right thing to do. This is a powerful counterexample to deontology. If you have an ethic that genuinely ignores all consequences, it would be possible for an action to both be ethically mandatory, and bring about the end of the world. What kind of ethic is that?
“Who watches the watchmen?”
Neither consequentialism nor deontology—or for that matter political liberalism and conservatism—come off well in Watchmen. But critiquing these ideas is not the leading item on the agenda of Moore and Gibbons. Their deepest concern is obviously expressed in the aphorism “Who watches the watchmen?” which gives the comic its name and appears in fragmentary form throughout the book. There is a lot of heavy philosophy and important politics packed into this aphorism, though, so we need to look at it closely.
The full quotation does not appear until the very end of the book, and it does so in a weird way. Moore and Gibbons gives the original source for the line, Juvenal’s Satires, but then mentions that it is quoted as the epigraph of the Tower Commission Report. This is a detail many would pass over, if only because the work of the Tower Commission and the scandal it investigated occurred before many readers of Watchmen were even born. Perhaps this obscure bit of 80s history only appears because Moore and Gibbons were reading the newspapers, rather than Latin poetry. But the poem in which the line originally appears is about the difficulty men have keeping their women in line—a bit of patriarchy that is not a big concern for the comic. The Tower Commission, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of thing the comic is about.
The Tower Commission was established by President Reagan to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. The affair was a strange scheme in which members of the Reagan administration secretly and illegally provided arms and funding to two military groups with totalitarian impulses and appalling human rights records: the theocratic government of Iran and a guerrilla army known as the Contras, which sought to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinista socialist government. The scheme was complicated, and the motivations of the players were sometimes unclear, given that the groups the administration was arming were doing things that were actively opposed to U.S. interests, such as smuggling drugs and taking Americans hostage. The bottom line, though, was that administration officials were trying to circumvent our democracy by running a secret government apparatus that worked against the stated policies of the United States.
The Iran-Contra affair does not occur in the world of Watchmen. It was also an echo of another affair that does not occur in Watchmen, Watergate. Watergate, like Iran-Contra, was an elaborate scheme to circumvent democracy and centralize power in the president’s office. Indeed, the two scandals, along with the current scandal about faked intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, involve overlapping sets of players. These scandals do not happen in the world of Watchmen because Nixon gets away with Watergate in Watchmen. The book implies that The Comedian assassinated Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal. It also hints that The Comedian, perhaps working with Nixon, assassinated Kennedy in this version of history. Secret dealings like these, combined with the superhero-aided victory in Vietnam, allow Nixon to consolidate extraordinary power, changing the constitution to allow him to serve five terms.
Moore and Gibbon’s alternate history is a warning about how a democracy can collapse into authoritarianism. This is something Moore had done before in V for Vendetta. In that comic, he imaged England sliding into fascism after limited nuclear exchanges in Africa and the European continent followed by environmental and economic collapse. In the introduction to the first DC Comics release of V, Moore laments some of the simplistic mistakes he made in that book
Naiveté can also be detected in my supposition that it would take something as melodramatic as a near-miss nuclear conflict to nudge England toward Fascism...It is 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently about unbroken conservative leadership well into the next century...the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses.Moore was not satisfied with the picture of a decline of a democracy into authoritarianism in V, and Watchmen is in part a correction of this. The reference to the Tower Commission is not accidental, nor is the depiction of the Nixon administration that emphasizes shady characters like G. Gordon Liddy and Al Haig. It
is all part of his picture of an authoritarian takeover.
The pairing of Ozymandias and Rorschach is a crucial part of this picture, and one that keeps it from being a petty rant against some contemporary political figures. We see in these characters that anyone can be corrupted. The real lesson is that no one, no matter what their political orientation, should be entrusted with too much power. Speaking in 2000 about the fascist takeover depicted in V, Moore remarked “As far I’m concerned, the two poles of politics were not Left Wing or Right Wing. In fact they’re just two ways of ordering an industrial society and we’re fast moving beyond the industrial societies of the 19th and 20th centuries. It seemed to me the two more absolute extremes were anarchy and fascism.” For Moore it really doesn’t matter if those who seek to control society are liberals like Ozymandias or reactionaries like Rorschach. They are still basically working the engines of control in an industrialized society. Further elaborations of the ruling ideology—as consequentialist or deontological, cosmopolitan or nationalist—are similarly irrelevant.
Moore calls the two real poles at work in society anarchy and fascism, and he actually describes himself as an anarchist, although he is sure to distance himself from the actions of his anarchist protagonist V. Anarchism literally means belief in living without leaders. As a political ideology it refers to any social system that doesn’t require government to function. Actually an incredibly diverse range of ideologies have gone under the name “anarchism.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was largely a labor movement, which basically sought to replace the workings of government with class solidarity. In the later 20th century, a primitivist version of anarchism, with the incredibly idealistic goal of returning humankind to a hunter-gatherer system where government is unnecessary, has grown in popularity. There are even followers of Ayn Rand who call themselves anarchists, who wish to replace government with the functioning of a free market. However, Moore’s anarchism isn’t so much about utopian schemes as it is a general tendency to reject human relationships that are coercive or manipulative. Moore has commented “It’s funny with fascism or anarchy, yes, they are the two poles of politics but neither of them are actually, strictly speaking, a political system. Fascism is a kind of weird mystical system and anarchy is an attempt to move beyond the need to be politic, the need to manipulate large masses of people.”
This sort of open-ended attempt to move beyond authority is the real bottom line of Watchmen. The superheroes like Ozymandias and Rorschach represent different kinds of authority. They are people who set themselves up as different from the rest, with different costumes and different rules, for the sake of controlling others’ destiny. Moore and Gibbons want us to rid ourselves of such people.