Is Judge Dredd a fascist?

Michael Molcher
19 min readNov 2, 2020

Edit: this blog post was written while I was deep into producing my first book, I Am The Law: How Judge Dredd Predicted Our Future. It is out now and some very nice people have said some very nice things about.

“You want us, Hitler, you come and gets us!”

In Letter from a Democrat,¹ the members of ‘The Democratic Tendency’ take over the studios of Mega-City One’s Channel 48 so they can broadcast their demands for power to be handed back to the people. “It is time to remove power from our self-elected overlords and return it where it belongs — in the hands of the people!” says Hester Hyman, one of their members. “The Democratic Tendency have taken this action with great reluctance. We have hurt no one. We are merely trying to stand up for the principles of freedom and democracy.”

As their signal is blocked they are surrounded by Judges and, with no way out, Hyman and her fellow democrats chose martyrdom rather than surrender to the forces of Justice Department now besieging them. Charging towards the Judges while firing their guns into the air the group were cut down, but not before one of them calls Dredd “Hitler”.

The use of this pejorative should not be surprising — Dredd has become a globally-used heuristic for over-bearing hard-line policing. Yet references in the strip to the those most infamous of bullies, the Nazis, are few and far between. Maybe it’s the extreme rhetorical power of words like “Nazi” and “fascist”, or maybe it is assumed that readers will see the comparison themselves in the extreme behaviour of Dredd?

So are Dredd and the system he serves fascist?

You often see fans bridling at this notion — of course Dredd’s not a fascist! Sure, he’s harsh but he’s fair — he’s not marching people into gas chambers! He’s just enforcing the law, he’s not a Nazi!

The follow-up to Letter from a Democrat, Revolution,² is the Judge Dredd strip at its best and Judge Dredd at his very worst. When an alliance of pro-democracy pressure groups calls for a massive march to demand the Judges relinquish control of the city, Dredd is authorised by Chief Judge Silver to use any means necessary to undermine the movement. “Does that include exceeding the law?” asks Dredd. “On this one,” replies Silver, “you write the law.” Dredd proceeds to commit blackmail, torture, beatings, and manipulation to undermine the democrats and their message. One of their leaders is held and deprived of food, water, and sleep. Another is misrepresented as a Sov collaborator. Hestor Hyman’s widower is threatened with having his grieving children taken away and enrolled in the Academy of Law if he does not comply with the Judges’ insistence that he subvert his late wife’s cause. Justice Department agitators then infiltrate the march in order to instigate violence, providing the excuse for the Judges to clear the streets, tighten their grip on the city, and further proscribe democratic activism. The strip does not have to spell out the fascistic nature of this behaviour — the law has been swept aside. Power unbridled, without restraint, does whatever it can to maintain itself.

Revolution marks a major turning point for the strip. Until then, Dredd had maintained an unscrupulous, single-minded adherence to the law. The idea that he would intentionally break that law may seem to contradict his very nature. But, when considering if Justice Department and the Judges are fascistic, it is important to understand that Silver’s instructions are not unlawful.

Although it is not named in either Letter from a Democrat or Revolution, we already knew that the Judges had powers under the ‘Security of the City Act’. This provided a legal framework for the Judges to remove the last President of the United States, Robert Booth, from power in 2071. However, not unlike the ‘Enabling Act’ following the Reichstag Fire in 1933, which turned Hitler’s regime into a legal dictatorship, the Act permits unencumbered power to the state, giving Justice Department the discretion to undertake illegal actions where it believes the “safety” of the city is threatened. The Act underpins the Judges’ rule of Mega-City One and every law they have subsequently passed, eliminating due process, civil liberties, and the balance of powers, and allowing them to rule by decree. Just like the Enabling Act, the lack of specificity included in the Act provides the Judges with total discretion to apply such powers as they see fit. And they do — using it to steal the proceeds of the city’s billion-cred lottery,³ jail political dissidents,⁴ cover up miscarriages of justice,⁵ and suppress medical research.⁶ Dredd is either complicit in or instigates every single one of these deployments of the Act.

So, considering the clear parallels the strip draws between fascistic regimes and the Judges, is Judge Dredd a fascist?

Powerfully loaded and yet often painfully empty. Easily applied, easy to dismiss, Historian Roger Griffin wrote that the word ‘fascism’ has a “seemingly inexhaustible polemical force” while in How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them philosopher Jason Stanley said that accurately identifying fascist acts is complicated by the very word’s extreme qualities. This heuristic for the worst of all things, you can’t seriously use that, surely? No ‘reasonable’ person could possibly accept that.

It is a powerful word and, conversely, a threadbare one. Even setting aside the distortion of Mike Godwin’s famous law of online interaction, in his famous 1995 essay Ur-Fascism Umburto Eco warned that when “fascist” is too casually used “by American radicals… to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits”, it can drain it of its potency. In his 1979 essay ‘What fascism is not’, Gilbert Allardyce attempted to halt the ‘concept creep’ that he felt had built up around the term since the fall of the Nazis. It was being applied too easily and too disparately, he feared, dislocating it from the historical reality. “I have heard it applied,” wrote George Orwell in 1944, “to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”

It is a Schrödinger word. Both coal-mine canary and crying canis lupus at the same time.

In contrast to modern Britain’s constitutional separation of powers, the distance between Mega-City One’s executive, legislature, judiciary, and police has been completely flattened. The Judges are both the state and its agents. They are, to all intents and purposes, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan — the all-powerful sovereign who rules a population that grants its subjection in exchange for a guarantee of peace and security. Similarly, the roles of police officer, judge, jury, and executioner have been compressed into a single figure — that of the Judge. This officer can, with impunity, enforce extreme punishments on individuals who break one of the city’s many, often Kafkaesque, laws. These can range from punitive fines to long gaol terms to summary execution. The only oversight is embedded within the system itself: the Special Judicial Squad, an elite unit that routinely abuses individual Judges to check for signs of corruption or “weakness”. Many features of fascist regimes simply do not seem to apply to Mega-City One — there is no elevated and all-powerful leader figure, while there is plenty of flag-waving jingoism the city is not exceptionally nationalistic nor expansionist, the people are not unified by a national political religion, and the law in MC1 is paramount whereas fascists usually demonstrate a populist contempt for the rule of law. This police state is authoritarian by its very nature — not all authoritarian regimes are fascist, but all fascist regimes are authoritarian.

But does this make Mega-City One a fascist state?

The strip’s iconography urself-consciously draws the comparison. Dredd’s co-creator, artist Carlos Ezquerra, drew directly on the iconography of the regime that, until 1975, had controlled his homeland of Spain — that of Generallisimo Francisco Franco. The eagle that surmounts Dredd’s right shoulder is taken directly from the design on Francoist coins, the bird’s darting beak like a haughty, defiant, jutting chin; a symbol of authority and power, from the ancient Achaemenids and Romans, to the Third Reich and the Great Seal of the United States of America. The increasingly chunky pads on his elbows, knees and shoulders are modelled on those of American Football, but the ribbing of the pad on his left shoulder seems to evoke the bundled rods of the fasces, an icon of Roman solidarity, the American state, and the National Fascist Party in Italy. And in the badge on his breast the two symbols amalgamate, the eagle and its crest surmounted by the diagonal strip bearing Dredd’s name, representing the red leather strip binding the fasces together. Whether he fully appreciated it or not, with his use of such iconography Ezquerra was drawing a connective line between Judge Dredd’s America and the European fascist regimes of Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, and — by extension — Adolf Hitler. In addition, the uniforms of the SJS are usually adorned with skulls, evoking the Totenkopf, the ‘Death’s Head’ motif of Nazi Germany’s Schutzstaffel (SS) and SS-Totenkopfverbände (literally”Death’s Head Units”).

To look at Dredd, at that uniform, at its symbols, it may seem obvious that Dredd represents a fascist regime.

Yet one of the defining characteristics of fascism is how hard it has been for scholars to properly identify its true nature. It has never been a single ideology in the same way as, say, Communism. It has no unifying texts. No single foundation. As George Orwell pointed out in 1944, multiple fascist regimes existed at the same time, not only different in form but even antagonistic or dismissive towards one another. For example, while Francoist Spain adopted many trappings of fascism, was despotic and authoritarian, and was supported by Hitler’s Germany during the Spanish Civil War, few historians would credibly consider it a ‘true’ fascist state.

Historian Robert Paxton warned that one can easily become lost in academic pursuit of the “fascist minimum”, and attempts to create a concise, neat definition can cut it off from the social and political circumstances that gave rise to it, like “observing Madame Tussaud’s waxworks instead of living people”. “Fascism in power,” he wrote, “is a compound, a powerful amalgam of different but marriageable conservative, national-socialist and radical Right ingredients, bonded together by common enemies and common passions for a regenerated, energised, and purified nation at whatever cost to free institutions and the rule of law. The precise proportions of the mixture are the result of processes: choices, alliances, compromises, rivalries. Fascism in action looks much more like a network of relationships than a fixed essence.” This was echoed in Ur-Fascism, when Eco said fascism “contained no quintessence, and not even a single essence. It was a fuzzy form of totalitarianism. It was not a monolithic ideology, but rather a collage of diverse political and philosophical ideas, a tangle of contradictions”.

Eco listed fourteen key features but warned that ‘fascism’ fits everything because it is possible to eliminate one or more aspects from a Fascist regime and it will always be recognisably Fascist: “Remove the imperialist dimension from Fascism, and you get Franco or Salazar; remove the colonialist dimension, and you get Balkan Fascism. Add to Italian Fascism a dash of radical anti-Capitalism and you get Ezra Pound.” In How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them philosopher Jason Stanley boiled these down even further, citing three fascist characteristics — belief in a mythic past, the sowing of division, and attacking the truth. However, he too counselled that they should not use these like a check-list that must be fully completed before the word ‘fascism’ can be deployed. By the time every box is ticked, it is already too late.

Fascism comes in many forms. It is a hybrid. It adapts. Above all else it is, as Paxton wrote in The Anatomy of Fascism, a “process”. Fascism does not, as poet Michael Rosen points out, arrive in “fancy dress”. It has to begin somewhere.

(When looking at Judge Dredd it is important to remember that he is the product of British comic book creators borrowing the iconography and media output of America to comment on attitudes and events in contemporary Britain. The system he serves was not planned and while many elements from early stories remain to this day, many more were dropped as quickly as they appeared. Pat Mills and John Wagner did not begin by creating a codified ideology for the rule of the Judges, instead they began with Dredd and created a world in which he makes some kind of sense. The latter was built around the former, only in hindsight does the justification for his existence work. He and the city have evolved together. They too have been a process.)

The 20th Century showed that tyranny comes in many forms. Fascism can be demagogic, it can be bureaucratic, it can be lawless and it can be lawful. As legal commentator David Allen Green points out, a fascist system is not unlawful — it creates a framework to make the use of fascist power lawful. Fascists do not adhere to the ‘rule of law’ and neither do the Judges; this may seem counterintuitive when Dredd does nothing to enforce The Law but the ‘rule of law’ refers to a system where checks and balances exist, where liberty is ensured through respect for individual autonomy and an adherence to due process. The Judges do not adhere to the ‘rule of law’, they are the ‘Rule of The Law’. Liberal institutions and due process have gone and there is only authority, without balance.

Meanwhile, the city’s Chief Judge has ultimate control over Justice Department and are usually portrayed as being ‘chief bureaucrat’ — yet the system is inherently open to abuse. Within the matter of thirty years there was the tyrannical, and truly fascistic, rule of Mad Chief Judge Cal, the unlawful actions of Chief Judge Silver in suppressing the pro-democracy movement, or the erratic despotism of Chief Judge MacGruder, who dismissed her advisory council and acted arbitrarily. This is not the rule of law, this is rule.

But what of Dredd personally? The strip has been scrupulous in attaching to him an aura of moral authority — “harsh but fair” is the usual moniker. Even if you leave aside his use of arbitrary and discretionary powers, his deployment of torture and deception, and his own questioning of his use of summary execution, it is a simple fact that if someone serves a system that we may identify as fascist then they are, by definition, a fascist. You cannot be a good person in the service of a bad government. Not even the equal application of that service excuses the nature of it.

Yet rather than go digging around for evidence that Dredd meets the requirements for the “fascist minimum”, we should ask what he means as a character and what he asks us to see in the world around us. In his 1944 piece for the Tribune newspaper, Orwell admits the word ‘fascist’ can be loose, it can mean many things, but as Griffin points out it does carry a “seemingly inexhaustible polemical force”. The importance of the word is not to be found in an academic checklist. As a term it has remarkable power. It is a profoundly emotional word. It is more than a description, it is a statement. “Roughly speaking,” wrote Orwell, when someone uses the word ‘fascist’ they mean “something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”

Bully.

In Letter from a Democrat, Hester Hyman said her resistance was inspired by the Judges’ use of fear, a system designed to terrify children and make them “good for taking orders, doing what they’re told”. In their 1975 film Juvenile Liaison 1, filmmakers Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill’s followed the work of Sergeant George Ray, a juvenile liaison officer in Blackburn, Lancashire, who was brought in when children committed minor offences, in order to keep them away from formal proceedings in police stations and juvenile courts. Ray is a terrifying figure, dressed in a long leather trench coat with a pointed collar, his greying hair slicked back, towering over, cajoling, threatening children accused of almost bewilderingly minor offences. “Speechless with terror” wrote Broomfield, “the wee lad is frog-marched into a dark cell where the ogre eyeballs him. “I know you. I know all about you.” His crime? Taking another child’s cowboy suit. Another vicious young criminal, Rashida, stands accused of stealing a felt-tip pen and is also a suspect in a missing apple scandal.” Ray is shown holding a sobbing boy by the hair while demanding he look him in the eye, while he drags another child out of bed by their scalp. The fault, he explains, lies with their families, who have “given up” on parenting and “can’t cope”, so his direct intervention is required. “At least if we’re successful with one or two,” he adds with the hint of a smile, “that means perhaps [in the] future there’s one or two less criminals for the chaps to deal with later on.” To Ray, and the other adults from whom he enlists help, petty misdemeanours show that these children are criminals in the making. Ray’s job, which he clearly relishes, is to deliver a Damascene moment of shock and awe that will put them on the righteous path.

So shocking was the film that it provoked a scandal and its withdrawal by the British Film Institute, the organisation that had bankrolled the production, led to some of its members resigning. The police in Lancashire were said to be “outraged” by its contents and families of the children featured in the film later claimed they were pressured to withdraw filming consent from Broomfield and Churchill. Ray resigned shortly after the film debuted, later refusing to appear in Broomfield’s follow-up — Juvenile Liaison 2 — but claiming in a phone call that the film selectively showed his use of the stick but not the corresponding carrot.

The film is unequivocal — Ray is a bully. Worse, he is a bully toward children. But one of the reasons why he is so terrifying is not just that he is a bully, but what that makes him reminiscent of. English policing, historian Clive Emsley wrote, is haunted by “the spectre of continental police systems and particularly those of the recently defeated fascist dictatorships”. The introduction of police to England was controversial and police actions against the working class Chartist movement in the 1840s reinforced ideas that they were merely agents of state repression, rather than the caring, impartial arbitrators of popular imagination. What developed was a model of policing designed to allay these fears, one resting on a carefully managed balance with the public, a system that was not only local but non-political and ostensibly accountable and grounded in the use of “soft power”, using negotiation and conciliation rather than threatening and applying violence.

The “Great British Bobby” was no paramilitary French “Gendarme”, nor a Prussian “Schutzmann”, parading around armed to the teeth with pointed soldier’s helmet. The police “have the power of coercion,” wrote Emsley, “but they have generally preferred to act by consent”. The popular image of Dixon of Dock Green, which ran for 21 years on British television, is founded primarily in a middle-class fiction of the paternalistic “Bobby”, though Emsley concedes that the myths is at least partially grounded in reality. Juvenile Liaison 1 was just one of the investigations in the 1970s that shone a light on practices — brutality, corruption, that are likely to have been widespread, but remained hidden from wider public view, undoubtedly because authorities knew they would be generally deemed to be unacceptable. This wasn’t “soft power”. It wasn’t negotiation. Sergeant Ray recalls too easily the very spectre Emsley wrote about — the bullyboy fascist.

Dredd is grounded in the growing rhetoric in the 1970s that saw ‘disorder’ as a fundamental challenge to society. This “law and order agenda”, which arose in opposition to the permissiveness of the 1960s, reinforced working class encounters with the British state and its agents, and stoked deep-seated cultural suspicions of police that had waned, but persisted, since their 19th Century founding. Juvenile Liaison 1 was released a year before Dixon was cancelled and, by the time Dredd debuted in 1977, attitudes towards policing were rapidly changing as Britain underwent a period of major instability. When writing about the 1970s, potted histories tend to focus on the conflict between the governments of Harold Wilson and Ted Heath and the powerful trades unions, the notorious ‘Three Day Week’, widespread power cuts, and shortages on shelves. Yet focusing on industrial conflict does not adequately account for that Eric Hobsbawm called “a world which had lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis”. With the slow collapse of the post-war social consensus and growing economic anxiety, crime rates began to rise from the end of the 1960s and were outpaced only by the fear of crime. In the mid-1970s, the panic over an increase in ‘muggings’ not only consumed acres of newsprint, but led to the creation of dedicated task forces to tackle a problem that Stuart Hall’s 1978 groundbreaking study Policing the Crisis showed to largely be an invention of a ‘moral panic’ that, in turn, led to increasing calls for more policing and harsher punishments as deterrents. Meanwhile, cross-divisional policing units created to deal with disorder, such as Police Support Units and the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group, stoked fears about the use of paramilitary-style policing that had always been confined to British colonies — including and most especially in Northern Ireland⁷ — what was good for the goose, was terrifying for the gander.

The rhetoric also changed. The police, at least publicly, had always maintained a policy of remaining non-political, but the 1970s saw them become “more and more associated with a strident law and order lobby”.⁸ In 1974, one Chief Constable compared London, Birmingham and Liverpool to crime-ridden and disordered New York, Chicago and Tokyo. Others claimed the police were losing the “war on crime”. The watershed of the politicisation of the police came in the run-up to the 1979 General Election, when the Police Federation — the pseudo-union that represents police officers — took out full-page adverts in almost every paper, the contents of which were shockingly similar to the Conservative Party’s election manifesto.⁹ This ‘law and order’ agenda established a connection between the party and the police, who were later dubbed by left-wing critics as “Maggie Thatcher’s private army”,¹⁰ and it remained a key policy pillar throughout the 1980s, allowing the police to broadly avoid the swinging cuts and painful reforms that other public services were forced to endure.

Criminologist Phil Scraton wrote that the conservative “believes in the power of the state as necessary to the state’s authority and will seek to endorse that power in the face of every influence that opposes it”¹¹ and the police are perceived by many as an arm of an authoritarian state that was working to oppress and criminalise those who disagreed with its social and economic policies. These policies increase inequality, dividing people into “haves” and “have nots”, and in the ’70s there emerged what Hall referred to as a “culture of control”.¹² In the 1970s and ’80s the concepts of crime and disorder were linked, and both were painted as a product of the lazy, the feckless, the morally abhorrent. Increasingly, the kind of encounters with the police that British people would both have and witness were not of the “soft power” variety, but of the coercive kind.

Ultimately, to those on a receiving end of one of the PSU’s batons, the distinction between the black shirt of a fascist thug and the blue tunic of a police officer may well seem academic. Judge Dredd is a changing, evolving satire of a rhetorical landscape that was already fully-formed by 1976, the language of the state, of the bully. In the 150 years since their founding, the British police had transmuted power into authority, and by the 1970s that authority was asking to be let loose. To anyone who had seen the reality of policing on those considered “police property”,¹³ such as the poor children of Blackburn, this request would have been terrifying. Quite rightly, John Wagner, Pat Mills, and Alan Grant saw it as the beginning of the process. When the police lines charged the miners at Orgreave in 1984, it would have been difficult to say their warnings were incorrect.

However, to ask if Dredd is a fascist is not the right question.

The system he serves is made up, it looks whole only in hindsight. It reflects and comments on a process. A process of consolidation and militarisation that was underway in British policing in the 1970s. He is a parody. An exaggeration. A cartoon of overweening power. He is a warning that there are many paths to fascism, that the erosion of liberal institutions, the breaking of democratic norms, leads to tyranny as easily as the rise of demagogic orators. He is a warning from the past that power is not your friend. Power will whisper dark forewarnings of chaos and anxiety, offering to make you safe, to rid you of fear. If you would just let slip its leash.

He warns us to be afraid of power unbridled and that the road to fascism has to begin somewhere.

I Am The Law: How Judge Dredd Predicted Our Future is out now.

Praise for I Am The Law:

“thorough and intelligent” — John Wagner, co-creator of Judge Dredd

“The product of intricate research and clear vision … a serious work for serious times …an essential read for art historians and actual historians alike.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐SFX

“I cannot recall a more timely book … not just a celebration of a future fictional character: it is a thoughtful, and often alarming examination of the state of law enforcement in a liberal, or neo-liberal, society” — Nick Lezard, The Spectator

“With I Am The Law, [Molcher] has achieved a rare thing, and written a book that deals with a complex and often controversial subject in a nuanced and highly readable way” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ — Fortean Times

“the in-depth analysis the strip has long deserved” — Garth Ennis, writer of The Boys, Preacher and Judge Dredd

“Stunning … An absolutely phenomenal piece of comics scholarship” — El Sandifer, author and critic

“Radical, daring, hyper-intelligent and utterly vital” — Ian Dunt, author of How To Be A Liberal

“an absolute ripper of a book, equally deft with Judge Dredd comics, Giorgio Agamben and Dardot & Laval” — Spencer Ackerman, author Reign of Terror

“A terrifying vision of the future as present. Molcher shows us in graphic detail how the politics of “law and order,” rooted in never ending fear and ever increasing police power, is leading us towards the dystopian hellscape that is Mega-City One.” — Alex S. Vitale, author of The End of Policing

“may be one of the most important books about science fiction published this decade” — Hugo Book Club Blog

“Excellent work of pop culture scholarship & sociology as well” — Matt Zoller Seitz, film and television critic

Footnotes:

¹ 2000 AD Prog 460 (1986)
² 2000 AD Progs 531–533 (1987)
³ 2000 AD Prog 952 (1995)
2000 AD Progs 1440–1449 (2005)
2000 AD Progs 1450–1451 (2005)
2000 AD Prog 1225 (2001)
⁷ In the 1970s, representatives of the Metropolitan Police visited Northern Ireland to learn about the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s tactics in its “success” dealing with civil disorder. They also went on fact-finding trips to Hong Kong for the same purpose.
⁸ Clive Emsley, The English Police (1991)
⁹ Michael Brake & Chris Hale, Public Order And Private Lives (1992)
¹⁰ Emsley ibid.
¹¹ Phil Scraton, Law, Order and the Authoritarian State (1987)
¹² Brake & Hale ibid.
¹⁴ Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police (2000)

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