Why Do Tyrants Sometimes Have Political Parties?


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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

In democracies, we are used to politics being largely carried out via political parties. Parties are used to mobilize voters before an election, and to discuss policy platforms and figure out which policies might work best and have the most support. But not only democracies have parties. The Nazi and Communist Parties, for example, functioned long after democratic contestation ended in their countries. But what did they do? How were they useful to the regime? (And how can we use those concepts in worldbuilding?)

The most “natural” use for a political party, even in a tyranny, is to incorporate the people into political life. (This is the main function of parties in a democracy—mobilizing potential supporters so they will vote for you.) In a regime without contested elections, mobilizing the people may still be important; we noted previously that some regimes want the people to be politically active in a way that augments the regime’s power. In early Communist China, for example, the relatively stunted state had few institutional structures that reached down to the village level. Political control needed to be exercised by Party cadres in the villages, who took direction from the leadership and then carried it out in their local settings without formal oversight.

But what about regimes that demobilize the people, and in fact want the people to butt out of politics altogether? Why have a political party then?

For one thing, a party is useful to a dictator who is taking over an existing government, and has to deal with existing bureaucracies or security forces that might resist his orders. By organizing a political party, you can sidestep notional hierarchies and systems by imposing your own parallel system, responsive to control from the top, through which you can direct the government’s behavior outside of “official channels.” Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, wrote extensively about how the Nazi and Communist Parties subverted the existing state institutions in Germany and the former Russian Empire.

Another real-world reason, even if absurd, is “dictator envy.” All the cool dictators had political parties, says the local tinpot dictator, so I want one too! For example, Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator of Congo/Zaire, created the Popular Movement of the Revolution in 1967, ostensibly to represent the “national revolution” which legitimized him. In practice, its ideology was incoherent, being “neither left, nor right, nor even center” and calling for a repudiation of “both capitalism and communism.” Essentially, Mobutu’s party was another way of formalizing his absolute control over the country.

A more intellectually interesting reason was pointed out by Beatriz Magaloni. She noted that an absolute ruler faces an unexpected problem when dealing with subordinates: because the ruler can do whatever she wants at any time, even her most essential subordinates cannot trust her. History is replete with rulers who decided to execute their advisors on a whim.

Some rulers enjoy creating this kind of uncertainty; but it comes with problems as well. A subordinate who is constantly keeping an eye on Plan B is not going to be as efficient a functionary for the ruler as one who trusts the ruler to keep her bargains, and is thus motivated to serve the ruler well. An even bigger problem is that if the subordinates cannot trust the ruler, then the ruler cannot trust the subordinates either; she can never dare to give up her hold on power, or she will soon find herself before a hastily-formed firing squad, or swinging from a lamppost.

This is particularly true if the ruler is faced with strong opponents, and wants to co-opt them into her government. Any offer of power that the ruler makes would have to be better than the power than an opponent already has, which is dicey since the whole point of co-opting an opponent is to remove him as a threat.

In this reading, a single-party system can actually serve as a commitment device for both sides. The party provides an institutional structure and a career path for young subordinates to follow, with some assurances that one’s position wouldn’t be summarily stripped from him whenever the ruler feels like it. By the same token, the party provides relatively predictable mechanisms for the dictator to transfer power to a trusted successor, and gratefully head off into a safe and long retirement.

Magaloni found that single-party regimes tended to last longer than pure military dictatorships; moreover, after the end of the Cold War, most autocratic regimes were actually hegemonic-party regimes, that had the ruler’s political party in control but had also legalized opposition parties. Magaloni argued that allowing other parties strengthened the usefulness of the ruling party as a commitment device; if party members were dissatisfied, they could credibly threaten to jump ship to the opposition.

This is a brutally short treatment of Magaloni’s argument, and I recommend reading the whole article if you can. In any case, few works of speculative fiction really make use of the possibilities of a tyrannical regime’s official political party. The machinations of party politics offer another avenue to really spice up your story.

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty


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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

So you’ve got an Evil Overlord ruling over the peasants. The Evil Overlord raises taxes. What do the peasants do?

The answer depends on a whole host of factors, depending on your setting. But a nice, simple model for thinking about it was developed in 1970 by economist Albert O. Hirschman. He was initially thinking about how consumers respond when a product they use (a brand of car, for example) gets worse, but quickly realized that the same basic model applies in a multitude of settings—politics included. The model (and Hirshman’s book describing it) is called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

Back to our Evil Overlord. The peasants obey partly out of rational calculation (they don’t want the Brute Squad sent after them), but partly out of loyalty: a non-rational sense that the peasants want to, or ought to, obey the Overlord. Loyalty might reflect a long history of good experiences, and the expectation that good experiences will return in the future even with the momentary troubles. It might reflect irrational beliefs, such as official ideology or superstition. But in any event, loyalty gives the Evil Overlord a buffer so that the peasants continue to obey even after they “rationally” would decide not to.

Loyalty is incredibly valuable, and not just to the Overlord. If his regime is essentially “good enough” for the most part, and the current bout of tax-raising is to meet an immediate crisis, the peasants’ loyalty is what keeps them from demolishing the system right away. It gives the Overlord the chance to improve things, if he wants to. And if he does, then everyone benefits without the need for a destructive rebellion. Loyal obedience, in this case, was the right move.

But even the most loyal peasant will eventually lose patience. Things are bad, they’re not getting better, and something must be done. Hirschman writes that our peasant has two choices: exit, and voice.

Exit is straightforward: the peasants stop cooperating. That could either mean literally fleeing the country, or it could mean hiding your money and entering the black market, or it could mean launching a rebellion. The details will differ based on your setting; but fundamentally, if you choose Exit, you believe that there is nothing you can gain by acting within the system. All you can do is escape.

Voice, on the other hand, is action within the system. If the Overlord is doing poorly, the peasant using Voice literally speaks up to tell him what is wrong. In other settings, using Voice could mean answering customer surveys, or voting in an election, or submitting bug reports to a software developer. Voice becomes attractive if you are loyal, if you believe that the system can be improved, that those in charge will listen to what you say and act on it, that you yourself won’t be harmed for using Voice.

If you are the Overlord, or a corporation, or the leader of a nonprofit, you want to make it attractive for your “peasants” to use Voice, for two reasons. First, obviously, it makes it less likely for them to Exit, costing you money or power. Second, you gain more information about what is going wrong and how to fix it. But if your peasants don’t feel safe using Voice, they will simply Exit instead and the Overlord has a bigger problem.

As I said, this is only a starting point. But it’s a tremendously flexible one, and can clarify your thinking about many different issues. When writing your story, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty reminds you that your peasants have choices; it gets you thinking about which choice is most attractive, and why.

Dimensions of Tyranny


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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

If you’ve read Beyond Kings and Princesses, you would know that I appreciate the power of a good simplifying model for worldbuilding. When we authors create a new setting, we are faced with infinite possibilities for how to structure things—but as a result, we often become paralyzed with indecision, or we simply default to some standard trope. On the other hand, having a simple model, presenting clear choices between paths, can sometimes help us narrow in on the truly bold choices we want to make in our writing.

For example, let’s say you wanted to have a tyrannical regime in your story. Excellent; but tyrannical in what way? Hitler was different from Pinochet was different from Hugo Chavez. Should your country be a military dictatorship? Should it have an official Party? Should it be prone to massive societal upheavals like the Cultural Revolution? The answer will depend on what story you want to tell; but already the range of possibilities seems overwhelming. Is there any way to simplify the problem?

What we could use is a nice juicy typology of tyrannies. Happily, political scientists have come up with a few good ones, and my personal favorite comes from Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, by Juan Linz. It has a few moving parts, but we can focus in on two main variables: pluralism/centralization, and mobilization/demobilization.

Pluralism/centralization refers to the state’s relations with civil society. It describes the degree to which the regime has to negotiate with other powerful actors in society, such as unions, business federations, religious organizations, or universities; or, conversely, the degree to which all actors in society have been forced under the control of the state. Not all regimes aspire to totalitarian control of their societies; many are content to let sleeping dogs lie, allowing other powerful actors like the Catholic Church or trade unions to have certain privileges as long as they behave themselves. Totalitarian regimes such as Nazism or Communism, on the other hand, deliberately destroyed existing social institutions and replaced them with state-controlled caricatures.

Mobilization/demobilization, on the other hand, refers to the state’s relations with the citizens. Essentially, it asks whether the regime wants citizens to be active participants in the political system—in ways that amplify state power, but do not truly threaten state control—or to be passive observers. Party-based systems such as Nazism or Communism relied on the active involvement of the populace; the Party was the true locus of power, and often displaced official state organizations. Persian-Gulf despots or military juntas, meanwhile, often get itchy when the people become politically active; they would rather the people mind their own business and stay out of politics, so they buy off the populace with lavish subsidies on the one hand, and threaten them with violence on the other.

So, a two-by-two matrix with four possibilities: pluralist-mobilized, pluralist-demobilized (a common pattern), centralized-mobilized (often found in Party systems), and centralized-demobilized. These provide a powerful starting point when you are developing your own tyrannical setting.

War as Negotiation


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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second and third books in this series; the subject matter of this post fits into the third book, working title War for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

Suppose that Country A and Country B are having some sort of crisis, and Country A threatens to invade unless it gets its way. (A common occurrence, sadly.) But wars are costly, even if you win. Mobilizing your army diverts resources away from other critical activities, such as harvesting crops for the year. Battle casualties represent huge losses of human talent and labor. And every time you fight a war, you run the risk of losing. That all being the case, why would anyone decide to fight a war? And when?

That is, we have to explain four things: the choice of Country A to threaten war, the choice of Country B not to submit, the choice of either country to actually start the war, and the choice of the other country not to simply surrender and save itself the trouble of fighting.

There are many ways of explaining this sequence. But one powerful model to use, because it is so flexible and easily covers a whole range of situations, is the bargaining model of war developed by James Fearon and others in that vein.

The key variables of this model are:

  • The cost of fighting, for each side;
  • The total potential benefits of winning; and
  • The likelihood of each side winning.

Essentially, if you know for a fact that you are likely to win, and that the benefits of winning exceed the cost of fighting, you are very likely to fight—and the other side is very likely to back down.

For example, suppose that you lead a company of 100 mercenaries, and you have the chance to attack a gold mine held by 30 opposing mercenaries. If you do, you expect to lose 15 of your troops, but you would gain the lucrative gold mine and you would very likely be able to keep it. Given that, chances are you’re going to attack the gold mine, even at the cost of some of your troops. And knowing this, the 30 mercenaries are likely to retreat or surrender before you attack, because it is pointless to fight and die when they know they would lose.

On the other hand, the losing mercenaries know that they could kill 15 of your troops if they do fight, and they know that you know it too. So they could negotiate with you for a settlement where they are allowed to take some amount of gold with them as they go—say, the equivalent of 10 mercenaries. So even though they would lose, the weaker side has an incentive to push for some share of the loot before they capitulate.

War thus becomes a bargaining process, where the two sides are essentially negotiating over how to split up the stakes of a war.

If so, why do people fight wars at all? Why not tally up opposing forces, figure out who would win and how much the net profit would be, negotiate some sort of settlement where the stronger party gets the same or greater profit and the weaker party is left with something, and avoid all the messy killing and burning and looting?

The most common reason is uncertainty. In the real world, it is often difficult to know who would win a war. It is also difficult to know how costly a war would be, and even what the benefits would be of winning. As a result, says the theory, any factor that increases uncertainty would tend to make war more likely, because each side hopes that it will end up being worth it to fight. And even if one side knows it would lose, the other side might be so overconfident that it asks for far too much of the “loot”; the weaker party may then decide to fight anyway, in hopes of keeping at least some of what it has.

And any factor that increases certainty would tend to discourage war. If the costs and benefits of war are better known, both parties will recognize when a war would be wasteful—or when the benefits of fighting are so obvious that the winning side cannot be deterred. And of course, if it is obvious who would win a war, the weaker side is likely to capitulate to save itself greater loss; the stronger side, too, is unlikely to demand too much, since it knows the point at which the other side would fight regardless. So, many conflicts would be avoided because the game is not worth the candle, and many others would end with the sides negotiating some sort of settlement, without fighting.

A second reason for war is if the “loot” cannot be split up between the sides. For example, in a war of extermination, there is simply no option of a settlement; you win, or you die. Less drastically, if two countries are fighting over control of a strategic mountain pass, there is no way to share the pass; one side is going to end up in control, and the other side will be shut out. So the stakes are higher, and there is less opportunity to negotiate a settlement.

Finally, what if you should be able to negotiate a settlement, but you don’t trust the other side to keep it? Or you can’t convince the other side that you can be trusted? Then it becomes much harder to negotiate an end to the crisis, and much easier (so to speak) to go to war instead. For example, rebel forces negotiating with a government have a very hard time coming to an agreement. Each side fears that any concessions will simply make the other side stronger; and often, the rebel forces are being supported by a rival country, which will sometimes pressure the rebels to keep fighting even when they want to stop (or vice versa).

That’s the basic model. It can be elaborated on in many ways, such as adding concerns about reputation or honor in a repeated game. (If you surrender once, maybe countries can bully you into submission over and over again in the future. So the long-term costs of surrender may end up being much higher that the immediate costs of fighting, all things considered, even if you know you will lose.)

So in your fiction, if you want to set up the conditions for a jolly old war, these are the key points to adjust: the cost of fighting, the prize for winning and whether it can be shared, the relative strength of the sides, the ability of each side to commit to a settlement, and the uncertainty of each side about any of the foregoing. A relatively simple model, and quite powerful—my favorite kind of writing tool!

War in Fantasy Fiction


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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second and third books in this series; the subject matter of this post fits into the third book, working title War for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

The stories we write reflect our own beliefs of the world. If our beliefs change, that has the effect of changing the stories we write. This is particularly noticeable when thinking about how our stories handle war.

Nowadays, most fantasy or sci-fi stories feature only a few different types of wars:

  • The no-alternative war against some life-destroying calamity (such as Shai’tan in the Wheel of Time series, Ruin in the Mistborn series, or the Flood in Halo).
  • The defensive war against a ruthless invading empire, that has no reason for its invasion other than sheer lust for conquest.
  • The rebellion against an Evil Overlord who murders peasants for the lulz.
  • The seemingly noble war that was actually orchestrated by selfish interests, such as weapons dealers or oil companies (or their fantastical equivalents).

All four of these are based on the understanding that most wars are wrong and undesirable. To be heroic, it seems, a fictional war needs to be the last resort; where it is not, the protagonists are typically manipulated into war by the true villain, and the revelation of this perfidy sets off the true struggle, often featuring former enemies allying against their common foe. (This last category seems a particular favorite in American media, especially in the wake of Vietnam and Iraq.)

But the core understanding that these stories imply—that most war is wrong—would have baffled people living in earlier ages. Not very long ago, it was considered perfectly reasonable for Louis XIV to invade his neighbors for the sole purpose of magnifying his own glory, or for Napoleon to invade multiple continents for the same reason. In an earlier age, Aristotle assumed that wars were usually unjust when fought between fellow Greeks, but were always just when fighting against outsiders, for any reason.

In many tribal societies, fighting neighbors was the traditional way to gain respect or take plunder; often, such fighting had elements of a sports contest, with ceremonial weapons and rules that rewarded personal bravery rather than sheer killing efficiency. (In the Iliad, Paris was seen as effeminate and dishonorable because he used a bow, rather than fighting enemies face-to-face with spear and sword. Many American Indian societies would honor warriors who “counted coup” on their enemies—touching them in battle without killing them.)

Our modern dislike of war is obviously preferable to the older glorification of it, in the real world. But for fantasy or sci-fi writers, it is worth thinking about how people in your worlds might view war differently. Otherwise, you might unthinkingly base your story on a view of war that doesn’t really fit with the rest of your worldbuilding, and would seem anachronistic.

Thucydides, the famous chronicler of the Second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, writes that while some wars are justified on noble grounds, such as enforcing justice against enemies who break oaths or otherwise violate norms, most wars are ultimately motivated by three things: fear, honor, and interest.

Fear is fairly easy to understand. You fear that your enemy will harm you now or in the future; so you either defend against an immediate attack, or you begin a preventative war on your own terms while your enemy has not reached its full strength. The tricky bit here is that fear is based on your perceptions; among the reasons that preventative war is frowned on today is that sometimes, countries assume that a neighbor poses a threat when the neighbor actually had no intention of harming them.

Interest too is not difficult to see. Many countries seek to build empires, to plunder their neighbors and enrich themselves. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in order to seize its rich oilfields; Japan invaded Indonesia, in part, to secure its oilfields since Japan had little domestic oil production. Individuals too have interests, as we know.

Honor, on the other hand, is perhaps the hardest concept for us moderns to understand, or appreciate why people would fight and die for it. Yet most wars in history probably were motivated by honor more than concrete interests.

Why did Alexander the Great feel driven to conquer the world? And why would his army follow him? Because they sought glory that would last throughout the centuries (and it worked, since we still remember them today!). But remember that glory was important for the Greeks; their version of the afterlife, Hades, was a place of pale shades with little reward and punishment for moral behavior (as most of us today are used to). The Greeks believed that enduring glory, kleos, was perhaps the most worthwhile thing to strive for in life, since that was all that would last once you were dead. Glory was worth dying for, and more importantly was worth killing for.

More concretely, honor can have practical importance. In dangerous settings, a nation that does not fight to defend its honor will soon be bullied into subservience by its neighbors. Displaying your willingness to fight even over trivial offenses can sometimes prevent wars, because it signals to hungry neighbors that you will not be cowed.

For authors, remembering that people have many reasons to fight wars, depending on the moral and political calculations of the setting, can open up space for fresh and interesting stories. If you don’t want to write stories featuring amoral war, there’s nothing forcing you to do so; but people have all sorts of motives for everything they do, war is no exception, and the stories that can emerge from that can be fun.

What is the Function of a State?


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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

When doing their worldbuilding, many authors or game designers assume as a matter of course that most of the peoples in their world will be part of an organized state (roughly meaning a defined territory ruled by a centralized government, in the sense of Louis XIV’s “L’etat, c’est moi”). Any “barbarian” lands lacking organized states might be dominated by roving nomadic bandits, or some other uncultured society; and in any event these would be rare curiosities, and most of the land mass would be controlled by one state or another.

That assumption is understandable, given that almost all people alive today live in consolidated states (indeed, any regions lacking a state are today declared “failed states,” rather than simply stateless). But it should not be the default for authors. In fact, for most of human history, the majority of people lived outside of states. Organized states only tended to control cities and their immediate surroundings, with most people living in tribal or clan-based societies in lands outside of the city’s reach. And for most of human history, one’s average life expectancy was actually lower as the subject of a state than otherwise.

Even as organized governments in general gained power, the modern “Westphalian” state (one that claimed unchallenged rule over a defined territory extending well beyond city walls) was not the only way to run things. The city-state was a perfectly reasonable way to organize political life, and persisted well into the 19th century in Italy. Similarly, the Hanseatic League was a loose collection of city-states allied with each other for mutual protection and benefit, but otherwise largely self-governing.

Why then have states at all? What advantages did they have, if any? For whom? What allowed the Westphalian state to eventually take over the globe? And how can we use these concepts in our fiction?

Generally, the state is built from three things: military force, bureaucracy (or some other way to enforce laws and collect taxes), and a source of legitimacy (an ideological framework justifying the demand of the state that its subjects serve loyally—religion, or patriotism, or similar). But these need not all emerge in the same order, and the initial character of the regime may vary as a result.

What happens if the military comes first? Then you have the state as a “stationary bandit,” essentially where some thug with an army gathers a group of people under his rule, and provides some of the trappings of civilized life in exchange for squeezing them for all the taxes he can get. This might not be all bad; a smart bandit can sometimes provide a better quality of life for people under her rule than what they had before, for the selfish purpose of generating more economic growth and therefore taxable wealth. But when push comes to shove, the entire purpose of the bandit state is to aggrandize and enrich the ruler, not to benefit the ruled. Slavery is frequent, taxation is heavy, the army is frequently used to squeeze the people even harder, and the desires of the people are only an annoying consideration to be managed.

What if administration comes first? You might suppose that a self-governing community, perhaps husbanding a common-pool resource, has to deal with increasingly complex problems of project planning and resource allocation; the community develops an organized bureaucracy in response, with codified laws. Then, as the community is threatened by invaders, the community raises an army for its defense (or maybe they feel like invading their neighbors!). Then it decides that keeping the army is a good idea, and becomes a state. In such a case, most of the state’s activity will initially still be focused on resource allocation and maintenance of social order, rather than sheer coercive extraction. Ancient Egypt might be a good case of this.

What if the community’s framework for legitimacy came first? For example, in the Bible, the Israelites had lived in a stateless society for centuries, but found themselves unable to repel invading powers like the Philistines. So the people approached the prophet Samuel and demanded a king “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” Yet that king was (initially) constrained by the cultural and religious expectations that the people already had. In such a case, one might expect the king to be relatively weaker than the other cases, at least initially, and not to diverge too strongly from communal expectations.

As time passes, any state will develop aspects of all three of the above aspects. The exact mix between them will vary; and in your own fiction project, you can of course emphasize the angle that works best for your story. But states tend to develop more rapidly, and to end up exerting more power over their societies, if the nation is under persistent military threat.

So far so good; but then why the modern Westphalian state? Why bother claiming all the territory in your neighborhood, and claim the power to control the behavior of the people living in it, when it might be too expensive and troublesome to control the “badlands”? Why not exist as a city-state, and simply trade for resources with the stateless peoples living outside your grasp (as was the model for most of history)?

In part, this becomes more of a factor when international diplomacy becomes more important. If other states want to make agreements with your state, they expect you to be able to fulfill your end of the bargain; that will force you to try to control “your” territory in response. If Florin makes a peace treaty with Guilder, it would be highly embarrassing if Florinian bandits start raiding Guilder territory. Florin will have to work harder to impose law and order in “its” territory, or no other state will trust its word.

If a state is less concerned with controlling its entire territory, and only with maximizing its tax revenue, it would tend to default to a city-state model, or perhaps a network of cities dotting a largely ungoverned landscape—cities are far more efficient to control. The same would be true if the state simply lacks the power to dominate the countryside. The countryside, meanwhile, would be largely self-governing by small communities of farmers or foragers, or perhaps dominated by local gentry, crime bosses, or warlords.

In your own stories, remember that the Westphalian state is not the only model you need follow, nor is it always the best one for your story. A world of uncertain political control can be really fun to explore.

How Tyrannies Use Gaslighting


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[Whew! Need to blow some dust off of this here blog!]

(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

“Gaslighting,” for people who have somehow remained blissfully unaware of the Internet’s growing fascination with the concept, is taken from the movie Gaslight. In it, the protagonist is subjected to a fiendish type of psychological torture by her evil husband, who seeks to convince her that she is insane. He does so by repeatedly lying to her, baldly, to her face, about things she knows to be otherwise—such as whether the lights in the house are at full intensity or not.

Political regimes sometimes do something similar. Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslovak dissident against Communism, famously wrote in The Power of the Powerless:

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

…Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;’ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

…Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.

It was hard to select only a few paragraphs out of this brilliant, earthshaking essay. But the main points are that many regimes force their peoples to mouth slogans or profess beliefs that they know to be false. A good example is North Korea, which insisted during the rule of Kim Jong Il that he was an accomplished athlete and archer, and now similarly insists that Kim Jong Eun is similarly multitalented, against all available evidence.

If the regime could actually convince the people that these things are true, so much the better. But it is not necessary. In fact, from a certain point of view, it is better for the people to know that the things they are being made to say are lies; then, when you repeat the official line like a good subject, you are knowingly humiliating and demoralizing yourself. You are demonstrating your willingness to surrender the truth for self-preservation. And you are also making it harder for others in your position to resist, as they hear what seems to be a unanimous voice from their neighbors repeating the official ideology despite its falsity.

This goes beyond a mere “shibboleth,” a style or opinion that you profess in order to signal your affiliation with a given social group, rather than out of conviction. (For example, liking or disliking Tim Tebow.) The official line is a shibboleth of a kind, true, and functions in that way; but the falsity of the official ideology is important for demoralizing dissenters. The regime is gaslighting the populace.

This can obviously vary in intensity. From a certain point of view, any form of national identity is an ideology of this kind, at least in part, but usually relatively harmless. On the other hand, Vaclav Havel’s experience under Communism was a different beast entirely. “Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”

In fantasy especially, many authors trying to depict a tyranny either go with a cruel regime blatantly lording it over the groaning peasants, or a regimented society of brainwashed drones. But we needn’t go to either extreme, and our setting can be more interesting if we do not. A society with an ideology that no one actually believes, but that everyone needs to pretend to believe, can provide a rich vein of conflict and thematic resonance. Sound interesting?

“Governments for Worldbuilders” is Here!

I know I just said that my publishing-focused stuff is shifting to the Lagrange Books site. But for my own book, I’ll make an exception—especially when it’s a book that is at the heart of what this blog is about.

At long last, the book that’s been percolating for over seven years is done! Readers of this blog have followed along as we discussed how authors can use concepts from politics in their work. And now, Book One of the Politics for Worldbuilders series is complete and available for purchase! Check it out!

A Quick Thought on Microaggressions

[A meta-comment first: I’m going to be transitioning a lot of the Lagrange Books stuff over to LB’s dedicated page, and refocusing this site on my own personal work and thoughts. It’s been a while since I’ve felt free to write my own stuff just because!]

I’d always been leery of the term “microaggression.” Not because I think the meaning of the term was silly; I’ve experienced it often enough in my own life to know otherwise. But the term itself, semantically, seemed to argue for too much. “Aggression” involves deliberate harm, whereas microaggressions are often unintentional, and sometimes even unnoticed by the recipient until much later in the day. Worse, “aggression” is something that justifies a violent response (something I’ve spent much of my scholarly life studying). Does a microaggression justify a micro-violent response? What does that even mean?

And what does “microaggression” add to perfectly good existing concepts like thoughtlessness, rudeness, misspeaking, or the like?

Recently, however, I had a personal experience that gave me more insight into what “microaggression” could mean, and what it could justify. Typically when I experience one of these, I tend to shrug it off; the speaker is not meaning to offend, and getting into a whole discussion would derail the conversation. However, the most recent event was actually in the middle of a professional class on microaggressions! I thought the context justified correcting the misspeaking.

The experience of doing so was illuminating. Speaking up felt like it violated strong social norms against putting people on the spot and creating conflict where no apparent conflict existed. And yet I felt I was justified in speaking up. This, it seemed to me, helped explain what calling something a “microaggression” accomplishes.

Putting it into just-war terms, correcting a microaggression is a justified response to the microaggression, even though it tends to overstep our usual social boundaries—but as with war, a proper response needs to be proportional. The offense was unintentional and almost harmless; the mere fact of a microaggression did not permit me to be actually rude in my response, or hurtful, or to do harm. The response had to be tactful, to acknowledge the lack of malice in the microaggression.

I still do not like the term “microaggression” because of the semantics around its use. In particular, I find abhorrent the way in which a motivated few have used the act of pointing out  microaggressions as a social weapon, calling for shame and ostracism of the offender. But I can at least justify the term, and use it carefully until I find a better one.

In a nutshell, receiving a microaggression entitles you to respond with a single “well ackshually“!


New Sci-Fi Anthology Coming Soon… — Lagrange Books

Long ago, Lagrange did a call for submissions for science-fiction short stories, with a theme of “asteroids.” Some fantastic authors responded with stories that were fun, provocative, insightful, or gloriously cheesy. An accumulation of other projects pushed this one to the back burner for a while, but the time has finally come for these stories […]

via New Sci-Fi Anthology Coming Soon… — Lagrange Books