(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.