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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

Up to now, we have spent a lot of time discussing the constraints that any political regime has to deal with—the problem of legitimacy, taxation and legibility, power projection, and so forth. There are still more areas to discuss, such as the strategic problem of having a standing army (which can pose a threat to its own political leadership, and often does); but for now, let’s switch gears and discuss the differences between regimes, starting with a fundamental question: which elites rule?

Rather than exhaustively catalogue the relatively minor differences between presidential democracies and parliamentary democracies, or sultanist dictatorships and technocratic dictatorships, here we will follow the work of the eminent political scientist Samuel Finer. In his model, there are four possible groups of political elites who could claim the right to rule a regime (or polity, as he terms it): the Palace, the Nobility, the Church, and the Forum. Pure types exist, or you can have hybrids such as Palace/Nobility or Palace/Church; but per Finer, these four contenders for power are it. (This is convenient for worldbuilders, because we can figure out the broad type of our regime without being excessively constrained in the details that we love to invent and tinker with.)

Before examining each, we have to ask: what about the military, or the bureaucracy? Both of these group can hold tremendous power in a regime, and indeed become the de facto rulers. Yet to Finer, neither of these groups is capable of ruling legitimately, because the justification for their power derives from one of the four groups: a military junta may claim to rule on behalf of the people, or a labyrinthine bureaucracy can claim to represent the Emperor. The military and bureaucracy in themselves lack a legitimating ideology, which is what the four main elite groups sometimes possess. Additionally, as Peter Feaver notes, if a general overthrows the dictator, he ceases to be a mere general because he is now responsible for the entire regime, not just the interests of the military, and the problem of civil-military relations begins anew (even if his fellow officers may trust him more, initially). In effect, he himself becomes a Palace autarch.

(I wonder, however, if we are not in our lifetime seeing the rise of an ideology justifying the rule of expert bureaucrats, on the grounds that the people are too stupid to rule. At the moment, though, this ideology has little purchase in the broad society—which is why the rulers of the European Union, for example, pay lip service to democratic ideals even as they cheerfully ignore the will of the people as a matter of course.)

With that, let us begin by looking at our first pure type, the Palace polity:

In the Palace there is only a single controlling will—that of the ruler, the center of the Palace, the nexus from which all decisions flow. The ruler could be called king, emperor, dictator, president, or any number of possible titles. He may preside over a nobility or other sorts of important people, but what distinguishes the pure Palace polity from the Nobility polity (to be discussed soon) is that nobles are totally dependent on the ruler—they do not have autonomous power, and their privileges depend entirely on carrying out his will. Within the state, the ruler has ultimate, arbitrary power, without procedural constraints of the sort we expect in a liberal democracy. The power of all others depends entirely on their proximity to, privileges from, and influence over the ruler.

In the Palace polity, Finer notes, legitimacy always derives from some form of charisma or tradition. Charisma could be “routinized” and shade into tradition, as when the hereditary ruler claims to be a god or otherwise supernatural. Rulers could also claim the divine right of kings, or the Mandate of Heaven, or some other transcendent blessing justifying his rule. But whatever the exact form of legitimacy, the ruler is ultimately responsible only to the power or beliefs grounding his rule: the gods, or God, or the harmony of the universe. This might require that the ruler spend much of his time in rituals and ceremonies befitting his cosmic role, especially if he is seen as the intermediary between Earth and Heaven. (The Chinese emperors were so perceived, for example, as were many rulers of the Ancient Near East.)

But the ruler is not required to justify himself to anyone else—especially not the people. Finer states that all of the types of legitimacy claimed by a [pure] Palace polity are, “without exception, authoritarian. There is no question of popular sovereignty. The monarch’s authority descends on him from a Higher Power and sets him above the people.” This is definitionally true; if the ruler does claim to represent the people, or actually is elected by them, he would no longer rule a pure Palace polity. Instead, this would be a Palace/Forum polity, a tremendously important type which we will discuss later.

Again, within the broad category of “Palace” the details of two different regimes could vary considerably; the Han Empire’s regime is quite different from ancient Persia, for example. But as you craft your setting, Finer’s typology can keep you grounded in the essential features of your regime.


(And don’t forget, I’m accepting submissions to a fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Check out the announcement and start writing!

Plus, the associated Kickstarter project is now live! We’ve got a fancy video and everything…)