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Vendetta vs. Just War

Alan K. Henderson has some seasonal musing to share on this day, the fifth of November. Warning… contains critique and therefore spoilers for ‘V for Vendetta’

This graphic novel V for Vendetta was first published as a comic book series which began in 1982. Many readers will laugh at author Alan Moore’s second-guessing of future history. In the story, the Thatcher government’s loss in the 1993 elections sets up a Labour government whose unilateral disarmament measures somehow keep Britain on the sidelines during a US-USSR nuclear confrontation. The war is triggered by an un-detailed situation analogous to the Cuban Missile Crisis – and there’s even a Kennedy in the White House (which Kennedy we are not told). Why a non-nuclear Africa gets wasted and a non-nuclear Britain survives is not explained.

The likelihood of the next major event – the rise of the Norsefire party into power – is debatable. Post-holocaust Britain would still have a strong domestic military presence. It would have to be weakened significantly for an insurrection to succeed. The story mentions that there were several insurgent factions; perhaps Norsefire sat back while these multiple rebellions sapped the military of its strength. It is also possible that some of these insurgents drew their membership in part from the military.

The story does accurately portray the function of a Fascist state. The church is nationalized but powerless, serving a mere ceremonial function. Surveillance cameras are everywhere (hey wait a minute, some social democracies are like that…) The government also conducts audio in addition to video espionage against its citizens. Separation of powers between executive, legislators, and judiciary is vastly diminished or non-existent. The economy is planned. Propaganda is pervasive. Citizens are forcibly resettled, and some like Evey are forcibly sent to work in certain industries. Undesirables are deported or incarcerated (and sometimes experimented upon). Policemen are granted latitude to allow certain criminals to ‘disappear’, as in Evey’s case. To formally prosecute her for prostitution makes it a matter of public record that the State is not meeting her economic needs as government propaganda promises.

Enter V… His identity unknown, he is one of the last four survivors of the Larkhill Resettlement Camp, where he was subjected to medical experiments involving hormone injections. having escaped, he now dons a Guy Fawkes costume and is orchestrating a vendetta against the Fascist government.

While Alan Moore himself allows the reader to determine whether or not V’s actions are warranted, many have described V as a morally ambiguous character. Such people are wrong; the direction of his moral compass is crystal clear. ‘Just War theory’ removes all appearance of shades of grey from V’s actions. Its components include a just cause, attacks against combatants and military targets only, damage from attacks not exceeding damage threatened by combatants, and resolution to the crisis. V is fully in compliance with the first principle, his causes being his overall campaign against the fascist state, and the immediate threat of assault and murder posed toward Evey in the opening pages.

But he steps outside of the bounds of the other constraints. Many of his bombings violate the second principle. His early attacks seem to serve as PR stunts more than anything else. (For an historic parallel, look no further than the Boston Tea Party. Mind you that an American is writing this.) Ethically, such attacks should be limited to actual seats of police and political power.

His revenge on the three surviving Larkhill officials is misguided. In different ways Lewis Prothero and Bishop Anthony Lilliman serve roles as state propagandists. The former is the man behind the Voice of Fate, the entity that communicates the will of the State to the people. Lilliman is head of the puppet church. Additionally, he regularly molests under-age girls, brought to him through semi-official channels. Both are legitimate targets, but V’s means of warfare are excessive. As horrible as molestation is, it is not a capital crime, and the intentional infliction of permanent insanity on Prothero through psychoactive drugs and psychological manipulation is hardly an ethical means of combat (one could justify kidnapping them both and keeping them from their propagandist duties).

Delia Surridge was the chief physician at Larkhill – and the last living and cognizant person who can identify V. She had no role in the government after Larkhill, having gone into hiding. She certainly deserves to stand trial for crimes against humanity, but she is no obstacle to the revolution (and strikes me as someone who might side with an insurgency, quite frankly) and thus is not a legitimate target.

The final principle points to V’s ultimate failing. He destroyed a government without ensuring the quality of its replacement. His negligence rests in a serious philosophical flaw: V is an anarchist.

As defined by Wikipedia, anarchism involves an “anti-authoritarian society that is based on voluntary association of free individuals in autonomous communities, mutual aid, and self-governance.” Chaos, by contrast, involves the pursuit of self-interest without regard to mutual agreements, having in common with anarchy only the absence of the State. V distinguishes between the two, calling for the former The Land Of Do As You Please and the latter The Land Of Take What You Want. The difference is that between trade and plunder.

V claims that anarchy will arise when chaos has run its course. But his own definition of chaos reveals the error in his logic. What happens when a government falls? In The Land Of Take What You Want, those who covet the might and privileges of government will try to take what they want. Human nature abhors a power vacuum. When authority is removed, in due time a new authority will assert itself. Anarchy cannot persist in the long term. The Land Of Do As You Please requires some level of government, to protect against domestic insurrection and foreign invasion.

The least irrational possibility is that V knows that from time to time a new State will attempt to take form, but V plans to stop this through his costumed successors and thus preserve anarchy. Could such a plan work? Could a sole vigilante consistently put down the formation of entire governments? And can V be secure that none of his successors will veer from his plan, that none could ever fall to the temptation to become an agent of The Land Of Take What You Want?

20 comments to Vendetta vs. Just War

  • But I think V is morally ambiguous character for exactly the reasons you point out… he is fighting an enemy who should be fought but much of what he does is in the pursuit of vengeance, not the defence of virtue. That some of his targets are questionable just adds to the ‘moral ambiguity’.

    All wars and messy and even a ‘just war’ can never be a clear cut clinical matter, either in terms of execution or in the moral choices that get made every time a trigger gets pulled, a bomb set off or a knife thrown.

  • V claims that anarchy will arise when chaos has run its course.

    Sounds like the argument for the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which is effectively that the ends justify the means, people don’t count because it is all for the greater good in the end.

  • James of England

    Part of the reason why V does the wrong thing is because he’s too close to it. This is a big part of the reason why Just War theory also includes a Legitimate Authority clause. It’s like the suggestion that, as a child molester, Lilliman should be jailed or something. There is a good reason why the state would be right to jail him, but a vigilante maintaining a Dutroux-like basement for wrongdoers is wrong.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Anarchy does arise when chaos runs its course, but does so bit by bit and not in the benign form envisioned: but in the form of Warlordism.

    Civil war breaks the government down, and the strong take what they can from the weak, and are in turn robbed by the stronger. People band together in gangs: voluntarily, as the only escape from victimhood; free, at least with respect to members of weaker gangs; autonomous, and generally at odds with neighbours; mutual aid expressed in the absolute demands of gang loyalty; and self-governed, each gang having its own independent hierarchy. Relations between gangs are chaotic, but within gangs they become more anarchic.

    As time passes, crystallisation turns to annealing, and the gangs form alliances, merge together. They form tribes, chiefdoms, feudal baronies and kingdoms. The greater the degree of organisation, the less risk there is for individuals, the more freedom, the greater the degree of prosperity. Anarchists must submit their own interests to those of the community, if it is not to be a land of take what you want. The larger the community, the greater the submission required, until eventually only the community matters; only the community is left. People are finally made safe from the chaos, but at the cost of their freedom.

    It is possible for it to be otherwise – small well-motivated groups who understand the political theory and are prepared to die rather than steal the resources they need to survive from others could do it. But it is like a pencil balancing on its point. Any group who deviates must be dealt with mercilessly by an alliance of the rest. And that alliance must be of common purpose and strategy while still acting autonomously. You cannot fight a war by committee, you must not do it by a hierarchy, can you imagine everyone voting at every turn in the road on which direction to march?

    All systems of collective government are up against Arrow’s Impossibility theorem. If the decision process must deal with any combination of preferences, makes a unanimous vote sovereign, always positively associates individual and community values, and is independent of irrelevant alternatives (and so not vulnerable to agenda rigging) then it must be a hierarchical dictatorship. This is by means of a logical chain of reasoning as inescapable as arithmetic.

    All political decision making processes must be imperfect. Your only choice is in what forms of imperfection you are willing to put up with. Your political system must also be an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). If it is not, it will crumble within a generation or two.

    Warlordism is an ESS, at least in the short term. In the longer term States are more stable. Whatever you propose as the alternative to this path must be better, and it must be an ESS, and because of Arrow’s theorem must necessarily be imperfect.
    What will we propose? And how many people of their own free will, (and bearing in mind how politically blind many of them are), will follow it?

  • V did set something up to help the creation of Anarchy from the Chaos that he wrought, Evey. That is the reason for all the conditioning that he put her through, to be able to put on his mask as a creator as opposed to his destroyer. Once V the destroyer had finished his work by toppling the government and their ideology he knew that he would be unsuitable for the work that was to follow, hence his setting up his death and setting up Evey to carry on after he was gone.

  • I broadly agree with Pa Annoyed… I am a minarchist so I to feel stateless solutions are not stable… I just want a great deal less state, not no state at all.

  • ArtD0dger

    How can you call this an accurate portrayal of fascism? Terrorists cannot run around like that in a totalitarian state, they exist in free states or not-so-free states where the control is incomplete.

    I found the entire premise to be frivolous and ahistorical. Of course, I’m basing my opinion of the movie – I have no desire to read the books after seeing it. You should at least warn Samizdata readers how incredibly bad the movie is.

  • Terrorists cannot run around like that in a totalitarian state, they exist in free states or not-so-free states where the control is incomplete.

    And the answer is… control was incomplete. Also read a bit about the early years of the Soviet Union. It did not all go their way without a struggle.

    I quite enjoyed the movie myself.

  • nic

    I imagine that if you Gave the British Home Office access to the Fate computer and the nastiest police powers in the world, it still wouldn’t stop terrorism!

    Also V is a demi-godlike character who has superhuman powers and, clearly, some sort of connection to the government itself with the way he manages to distribute those masks. He isn’t an average terrorist.

  • Midwesterner

    I have not read the book or seen the movie. Could somebody give me a little help on the usage of ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’. The important distinctions in this context are not obvious to me.

  • Chaos means a lack or breakdown of order… Anarchy is order maintained via non-state institutions (i.e. completely stateless order).

    Libertarians (real ones at least) are more or less split between minarchists (which is really just a modern term for small state limited government ‘classical liberals’) and anarcho-libertarians (such as Rothbardian anarchists).

    I am unconvinced pure anarchic systems can be sustainable.

  • The story does accurately portray the function of a Fascist state. The church is nationalized but powerless, serving a mere ceremonial function.

    Hmmm…sounds like the C of E.

  • Midwesterner

    Thank you. There are so many perjorative or conflicting usages out there that some times, without more context, I am not sure what is meant. Even Wikipedia muddles things with statements like

    For example, most forms of anarchism, such as that of anarcho-communism, not only seek rejection of the state, but also other systems which they perceive as authoritarian, which includes capitalism and private property.

    Which sounds to me like they are saying “most” anarchists support pure communism. How else could they eliminate capitalism and prevent private property without collective force, or … chaos.

  • anarcho-communism can be practised in voluntary communes where it certainly can work as a closed-system amongst willing people. As a way of enabling order in a broader, non-closed, and therefore non-voluntary system, it is oxymoronic. It has been tried and it was not pretty.

  • guy herbert


    Don’t worry about the film. A discussion of Chaos v. Anarchy is not germane to the film, where anarchy is downplayed, the crucial scene where V destroys the statue of Justice on the Old Bailey is absent, and the ending is a sort of Orange Revolution: a styled democratic coup, aching for a FedEx product-placement. It was quite brave enough for Hollywood to have a ‘terrorist’ hero, without making him an anarchist as well.

  • FYI, I have not seen the movie, either.

    I don’t guess that V costumes were all that prevalent in the UK last Halloween…

  • Perry E. Metzger

    The entirety of my posting consists of a quotation from David Friedman at the Liberty editors conference:

    Usually the argument on anarchy vs. minarchy consists mostly of people trying to argue that an anarchist system can’t work and other people arguing that it can work. I’d like to take the other side and discuss why limited government is obviously a utopian scheme that cannot possibly work.

    To begin with, the supporters of institutions that are supposed to give us governments that respect and protect rights regard all of history as experimental error — we have after all done the experiment a couple of times — and they believe that if only this time we got it right, if only we wrote the right constitution, or somehow tweaked the system, we could actually get a government which was given a monopoly of the ability to use force on other people and, of course, only use it to protect people’s rights. Some of them believe you can do this with the right constitution. I was discussing this with my wife on the phone last night and she said, “Yes, the minarchists have a touching faith in constitutions.” And I thought H.L. Mencken put it much better, as he put most things, when he said, “In nothing did the founders of this country so demonstrate their essential naivete than in attempting to constrain government from all of its favorite abuses, and entrusting the enforcement of these protections to judges; that is to say, men who had been lawyers; that is to say, men professionally trained in finding plausible excuses for dishonest and dishonorable acts.”

    I encourage you idealistic dreamers who believe that if only we can invent the right government liberty can be protected to read the whole thing.

  • limited government is obviously a utopian scheme that cannot possibly work.

    Hong Kong?

    that is to say, men who had been lawyers; that is to say, men professionally trained in finding plausible excuses for dishonest and dishonorable acts.”

    …and what is Tony Blair? Does this mean we should say that being a lawyer, barrister or Judge disqualifies one from being in the Executive (conflict of interest with their “brothers” in the legal “union”)? Tempting.

    It is easy to say minarchism is “wrong” or “naive” but how naive are anarchists, socialists, monarchists, communists or even (especially?) Liberals?

    To paraphrase WSC – Minarchism is the worst compromise, except for all the others.

    Minarchism is to me a pragmatic solution to “government=bad” – better to be up to your waist in it, than up to your neck, as it were.

  • Perry E. Metzger

    Hong Kong more or less proves my point I think. While Hong Kong was governed from the outside, it was, for a time, the beneficiary of benign neglect, and the policies of one singular bureaucrat. For a quite brief period — not even a full human lifetime — the territory had reasonable economic freedoms, though not even remotely as much as might be hoped for in the way of individual freedom.

    Even that tenuous golden age is now passing. Government intervention in the economy in Hong Kong has been growing rapidly since turnover. Individual freedom has suffered as well. It is fairly obvious that the trend is not good.

    It is all well and good to say “minarchism is the lesser of the evils”, which is essentially your position, but I don’t see any actual evidence for your position. Pithy sayings do not make an argument. To defend your position, you need to address the arguments laid against said position. You will, in the words of David Friedman, need to explain why most of human history has been “experimental error”.

  • Perry E. Metzger,

    Freedoms? IIRC HK has come very high in that regard on offical surveys. HK has very liberal economic freedoms IMHO. As for personal freedom, strong rule of law, low corruption, safe streets, press freedoms, religious freedoms, banking freedoms, low reguation. It is not just about voting. Now the HK people have a universal suffrage of sorts, but I believe this has been a step back from the old system (which was not perfect, may I say) as it legitimises a chamber of mostly CCP placemen and will do nothing to stop the erosion of freedom.

    A system that “works” must also include “persist” and it could be said that HK only persisted because people knew it would end some day. I am not so sure. I put it down to the combination of solid old school British Law and traditional Chinese culture (as opposed to the sort you find in the PRC).

    HK is changing because of the PRC’s involvement, not because HK is/was minarchist.

    As to the argument against minarchism, I do not believe that we can achieve a perfect system, I am not a slave to the notion of a perfect constitution, nor that we will achieve a level of state involvement that everyone will be happy with. I have a view of Minarchism that I will push towards and at some point stop/slow down/reverse. Others may stop before me or want to push further. Some may want to reverse it even now (e.g. the EU). Minarchism to me is a measure, a star to guide by, not the final destination. Thus, I accept the concept of “experimental error”. There is nothing wrong with errors as long as we do not repeat them and we learn the lessons they can teach us.

    Two things are certain, change is a constant and we are far from knowing everything. What is important is to accept those facts and act accordingly.