Ye Olde Magick Shoppe—Free Today Only!


, , , , , , , , , , ,

I’m proud to announce that my anthology of fantasy short stories, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, is now available for Amazon Kindle!

Even better, until the end of today—Sunday the 23rd—it is totally free for download. Check it out, and please review if you like what you read!


New Anthologies!


, , , , , ,

The next month or two is shaping up to be incredibly exciting. My first anthology, The Odds Were Against Us, is due to be published by Liberty Island Media; and my second, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, is fully edited and is going to be self-published as soon as we get everything else whipped into shape. Which means that I’ll be spamming this blog with lots of crass self-promotion before too long…

In all seriousness, the last couple of years have been a tremendous learning process. It’s humbling when other people trust you with their writing, and thrilling when an edit can take an already solid piece and add that extra sparkle. I’m also grateful for good software, particularly Scrivener, which is making the whole publishing process much less painful than it used to be back in the bad old days.

In the meantime, what comes next? MOAR anthologies!

I’m opening up calls for submissions to two themed anthologies, one fantasy, one science fiction. The science-fiction one has the theme of “Asteroids”; and the fantasy one has the name of “Family”. Neither of these is a final title; I wanted people to get the chance to start writing quickly, before I took the time to come up with something clever.

Check out the full descriptions, and if either of the themes grabs you, the deadlines are March 1st of next year.

Good luck!

The Joy of Editing


As I’m eagerly waiting for my first anthology to be published (the publisher assures me that it will be Real Soon Now™), I’ve nearly finished editing the secondYe Olde Magick Shoppe. This one was a challenge because the authors went in so many directions with the theme; but the whole collection is going to be a treat, I’m happy to say.

I wonder though if my editing method is similar to how it usually works. Basically I go through a draft, “track changes” in Word and then ruthlessly change things I feel like and add notes where I want clarification, and hand it back to the authors and ask for their reactions; a few rounds of this and we usually come to a consensus, though at times it involves some bruised feelings. It’s a bit authoritarian and there might be a gentler method that would work better, and I’d like to know of one if so.

Still, I do have confidence in my own “reader’s ear.” I want the short stories to be the best they can be, and I hope my authors understand.

Can’t wait for our babies to be launched!

Control, Capital, and Political Bargains


, , , , ,

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

We’ve talked before about how states need to control their people, and so structure their very environments to make that easier (making them legible, for one thing). We’ve also talked about how states need to do the same thing with production and wealth, in order to collect taxes. When states are less able to extract taxes directly, they may have to rely on indirect means such as tax farming, which are less efficient and may cause other problems.

In a way, these are two examples of the same problem: states need to control resources, and different types of resources are easier or harder to control. Farmland is easy to tax: it can’t be hidden, and its production is fairly easy to monitor. An international merchant is much harder to tax: his goods may be anywhere in the world, or hidden in a bank vault somewhere, or converted into precious gems and sewn into his clothing. Factories are easy to tax, or even to confiscate entirely: they represent a massive upfront investment that is hard to move, and their production is easy to monitor. People can be easy or hard to tax (or conscript, or otherwise control), depending on how easily they can move from place to place, or hide from the local taxman.

To take a more fantastical example, magic might be easy or hard to control, depending on how magical power is accumulated and used. For example, some Polynesian societies believed that the brightly-colored feathers of certain birds conveyed magical power, or mana, and chiefs would have their subjects scour the islands to find such feathers. Individual feathers gave little power, and it was not worth the ire of your chief to withhold a handful of them; but the chiefs, sitting at the top of their societies, could accumulate thousands or tens of thousands of such feathers, which would be made into beautiful ceremonial mantles or coats.

If a state is lucky, it will control rich resources that are easy to tax, such as travel on a busy overland trade route, or oil wells or gold mines, or a large population of unarmed people in a confined area. With such a bounty, the state will have less need to worry about gaining the cooperation of its (other) people, and can be fairly hands-off. However, what if the available wealth is hard to tax? What if there are few people and lots of land for them to escape to, as in the African plains or the Russian steppes? What if your economy is built on ship-based trade and banking, as with the Dutch?

Generally, the state (or anyone, really) can respond in two ways: with overwhelming coercion, or with some kind of political bargain—sharing power or granting civil rights in exchange for cooperation. Russia imposed serfdom on most of its populace, tying them to specific wealthy landowners; in much of Africa, likewise, rulers used sophisticated strategies of control and coercion, including slavery, to keep their subject peoples under control. Colonial powers often imposed a head-tax on native peoples, extracting taxes without needing to worry if the poor individuals could actually afford them.

The Dutch, on the other hand, incorporated their merchant class into the government; Italian city-states often structured their taxes as a kind of forced loan, paying interest on their “debts” and turning taxpayers into investors. Famously, the American colonists declared “No taxation without representation!” And the link between these two things is quite strong: the earliest parliaments had power against their monarchs because (and only because) they had direct control over taxation.

Athens and Sparta combined both approaches: a large population of slaves or helots, over which was a broad ruling class with a say in government, whether through actual democratic voting or other means. The difference was that citizens were armed; they were both necessary for civil defense (or conquest), and very hard to tyrannize.

Rulers faced with difficult problems of resource control can either choose to use coercion in response, or to strike a bargain and share power or create political rights. Though some social scientists claim that granting rights is more likely, the truth is that it is merely more effective; short-sighted rulers often use coercion even when it fails, as we see today in places like Venezuela.

This is good news for authors, as we can present political problems to our invented societies and have them respond in the most convenient manner for the plot. Other useful questions: what resources are most difficult for the rulers to control? Are they dangerous in the wrong hands? Could a new kind of power or wealth or magic, or a new population of people, upset the existing calculus of control? What are the costs to the rulers for relying on indirect strategies like tax farming or delegating power to local lords? Might a farsighted politico realize that a different form of control, or a new political bargain, would yield better results?

Rebellion, Part Two


, , , ,

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

In our earlier discussion of different kinds of rebellions (and why worldbuilders may benefit from expanding their mental models of rebellions beyond Robin Hood and Parisian riots), we arbitrarily defined four types: violent contention, secession, coups, and revolutions. We then briefly discussed the first two. Now, let’s finish our list by talking about coups and revolutions.

Neither violent contention nor secession intends to totally overthrow the existing government (necessarily); the rebels want to better their own condition or to break away, but to leave the rest of the society more or less as it was. In coups and revolutions, on the other hand, the point is indeed to overthrow the ruler. The difference between them lies in who is doing the overthrowing, and whether they mean simply to take control of the regime or to demolish it and put some other regime in its place.

We’ve discussed before the selectorate model of regimes, in which a subset of the populace is the selectorate, meaning that they could possibly be part of the ruling coalition. In a coup, members of the selectorate decide to replace the current ruler with another one better to their liking, usually so that they themselves have more power within the new ruling coalition. However, they typically do not want to destroy the structures of the government in their coup; rather, coups typically happen swiftly, aiming to paralyze the ruler’s supporters long enough for the plotters to seize the ruler’s person, and then declare their victory a fait accompli. (This is why in most modern coups, the coup plotters will try to capture the country’s media stations—both to present the impression of overwhelming control, and to prevent regime loyalists from coordinating a response.) Then, after a bit of reshuffling and the odd loyalty purge, the bureaucracy and the army are meant to fall in line, and life will go on.

For a coup to work, the ruler and perhaps large parts of his ruling coalition would have to have weak legitimacy and little loyalty among the military; that way, few will object too much if they are replaced. However, the selectorate itself should either still have prestige in society or at the very least enough raw power to stay on top. So for example, if King Gunther the Mad were quietly removed to an asylum by a cabal of noblemen, and replaced by his infant son Rudolph the Tiny (with Chancellor Grise acting as regent, of course!), the plotters might settle scores with a few of Gunther’s supporters; but fundamentally, they do not challenge the idea that noblemen should rule society. Why would they? They are noblemen themselves!

In a coup, the government might change, but the regime persists—the system of elites and state institutions that sustains the power of the government. This is not the case in a revolution. Here, the regime itself has decayed so badly that a broad popular uprising is able to sweep it away entirely. Old elites are dispossessed or killed, old justifications for state power become obsolete; a new group of elites arises at the head of the revolutionary mass, claiming power. 

In a revolution, the old selectorate is replaced by a new selectorate, justified by a new principle of legitimacy (the new selectorate might nevertheless include some of the same people as the old one, but not always). All the old relations between classes and social groups are upended, and new relations form. This is the distinguishing mark of a revolution in the comparative-politics sense. (Which is part of why I prefer to think of the American Revolution as more of a secession; yes, the idea of breaking free of the king was fairly novel, but within American society it was the existing elites who took over.)

For a revolution to succeed, the entire elite stratum has to be losing its grip. In pre-revolutionary France, for example, the French monarchy was deeply in debt and had ceded much of its authority to tax farmers, who harshly oppressed the populace. Worse, the nobility had largely retreated into decadence instead of paying attention to the society around them, where dangerous new ideas about democracy and enlightenment (not to mention the execrable Rousseau, whose philosophy set the stage for modern totalitarianism) were taking hold among the growing middle class, inspired by the example of the United States. A few nobles even became important revolutionaries, such as the lamented “Philippe Égalité,” otherwise known as Louis Philippe II, Due d’Orleans. (This is a common pattern in revolutions: their leaders are often part of the old elite, usually embittered with the old regime and upholding new ideals, or marginalized and seeking more power or personal meaning as part of a revolutionary vanguard.)

Importantly, because the regime is falling apart, several different types of revolutionaries usually spring up to fill the void—and they may not like each other much. In the 1979 Iranian Revolution, not only Khomeinist Islamists rose up but also communists, trade unions, liberals, and business groups. Indeed, Khomeini’s faction seemed to be among the weaker ones, and few expected that they would end up taking power. However, if all of the state’s institutions crumble, power ends up in the hands of whoever is most ruthless. The initial hopes of a new age of Persian freedom were dashed by the rise of Khomeini, who quickly massacred the non-Islamist revolutionaries and imposed a brutal theocracy.

Similarly, the initial group of humanists and liberals who led the French Revolution were quickly displaced by vicious absolutists like Robespierre, driven by fantastic visions of a perfect society and willing to spill rivers of blood to get there. Before long, the overthrow of the monarchy, the nobility, and the Church (the old elites) became only the first stage of a ruthless war by the new French state against its own citizens, where today’s ruling clique became tomorrow’s victims of the guillotine. (You can read a fascinating account of one dimension of the revolutionary madness in the free book Fiat Money Inflation in France—which is also interesting in its own right because of when it was written, when it was republished, by whom, and in what context. But I digress.)

Revolutions usually end badly, because the idealists who begin them are usually replaced by ruthless murderers who smell the chance for power and take it. A similar process, although slower, can happen in the course of some longer revolts such as secessions or violent contention; the history of the Autodefensa movement in Mexico is a good example. (In the famous phrase of Eric Hoffer, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”) To me, it seems that the only way to reliably defend against the ascension of the vicious is for the rebels to build strong institutions of governance early, and to sustain them over the course of the revolt. This, I think, is the main reason that the American Revolution was so successful in the long run: because the colonial legislatures had a long heritage and political tradition that could resist the rise of extremism. Gestures toward a true revolution such as Shays’ Rebellion never got past the stage of violent contention, and were quickly put down.


Authors can consider questions such as: What is the goal of the rebels? Is the regime stable enough to defend itself? Are things likely to snowball out of control and become much larger? Who among the rebels is most ruthless, and would they impose themselves on the others? Is this revolt a contest between different groups of elites, or between the elites and groups out of power? Do any of the elites join the rebels anyway? Do the rebels have a competing political principle to justify their rule instead of the existing regime, or several conflicting principles?

Before the State: Egalitarian Bands


, , ,

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

The very earliest groups of people in prehistory, as far as we can surmise, were small bands of nomadic foragers. Such bands have continued to exist down to the present day, though they are becoming increasingly hemmed in by powerful states who prefer people to be stationary, formally employed, and taxable. Still, many of our social intuitions were formed in an ancestral environment of such nomadic bands, so we should discuss them first and foremost.

Assuming that a band does not possess livestock, its members can only own what they can carry. As a result, the social structure is relatively flat; there are no wide class distinctions as are typical in “civilization.” (Civilization does have its advantages, of course, but that is not our present topic.) That is not to say that people are equal; all primates are acutely sensitive to status distinctions, humans included, and any social group will have its pecking order. More successful hunters or warriors will accumulate trophies, jewelry, or marks of prestige, and probably higher-status mates as well. Still, compared to more complex societies, we can still describe such bands as broadly egalitarian.

That doesn’t guarantee that they will stay that way. Commonly, such bands will have a leader or big man (as the anthropologists would call him—and barring magic or some other equalizer of the sexes, he will almost certainly be a man), who has the respect of the others even without having formal authority or privileges. Over time, a canny big man can formalize his position and even pass it on to his sons, becoming a true chief. Initially, the chief or big man would be expected to use his power to redistribute possessions among the band, rather than enriching himself; but with enough political skill, a chief can build a cadre of supporters who will back him as he does in fact become more wealthy (as will they!). Thus does an egalitarian band develop political structures and social classes.

Those bands that remain egalitarian usually manage the feat because of an explicit aversion to hierarchy. To prevent hierarchies from emerging, or to constrain nascent hierarchies as they form, egalitarian bands often discourage inequality with several strategies. The first is an overwhelming social environment of envy. Anyone becoming conspicuous by gaining social power or wealth could expect to be the subject of malicious gossip, petty acts of uncooperation (in James C. Scott’s term, “weapons of the weak”), and later, public disapproval, political opposition, and even magical curses or physical violence. Attempting to dominate an egalitarian band is a risky business.

Second is expecting those with many possessions to be generous with them. This could be through public feasting, or socially required gifts to others, or sacrifices to the gods. (The anthropologist David Graeber has a long and amusing discussion of such mandatory gift-giving.)

This expectation persists even in a hierarchical setting. In most societies, the wealthy and powerful are expected to foster patron-client relationships, in which the powerful patron is served by the weaker clients, and in return the client can expect the patron’s support and protection. You can think of feudalism as a formalized patron-client relationship; the vassals owe taxes and service to their lords, but the lords are expected to defend the rights of the vassals in return. Another example would be large landowners in places like precolonial Southeast Asia; the landowners often took very high percentages of the crop from their sharecropper farmers, but if times were bad, the farmers would expect the landowners to give them food from their storehouses (or risk getting lynched!).

Third, if conditions within a band became intolerable for some of its members, they would simply leave. The band could split, with the dissidents moving somewhere else and leaving any would-be strongman with a vastly diminished pool of manpower. (In the literature, this is called fission.) Obviously, this would be traumatic to the people involved, and would only be a last resort; but the threat of fission does much to keep ambitious leaders in check.

It is no accident that developed states often arose in cramped geographic areas that made it hard to escape, or else at a time when the society was facing outside invasion, which would likewise make it difficult (practically as well as morally) to simply leave. Mobility gives choices; choices constrain political domination. The lack of choice means that band members have little recourse when their chief decides to cement his power. (This concept is applicable even within developed states; the American West played the role of an escape valve for the urban centers of the Northeast, threatening a population drain in response to the more obnoxious schemes of politicians. See James C. Scott for more examples, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.)

The concepts here offer much to authors. Here are a few thought-provoking questions, in building your setting: What social expectations does your society place on the wealthy? How far are they tolerated, before risking violence from those with less? If the society is egalitarian, how does it stay that way? What role do gossip, threats of violence, or malicious charms and curses play in keeping powerful figures in check? Do political leaders risk driving off their populace if their policies are too harsh, or foolish? Did your protagonists come from somewhere else, and if so, why did they leave? What attitudes or personality traits does that convey, or were taught to them by their experience?

Who Rules? Part Four—The Clergy


, ,

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

So far, we have discussed three of the four potential ruling groups in a Polity (regime), according to the model of Samuel Finer: the Palace, the Nobility, and the Forum—as well as a few of the possible hybrid Polities such as Palace/Nobility. Now, let’s discuss the fourth potential ruling group: the Clergy (or as Finer designates it, the Church).

A pure Clergy polity is vanishingly rare—Finer identifies only the Vatican and the historical Tibetan theocracy as pure Clergy polities. Far more often, a Clergy is joined with another ruler type and gives it legitimacy; the most common of these is Palace/Clergy. This is perhaps because the Clergy’s own legitimacy depends solely on religious justifications, and usually excludes a justification based on political or military power. (Indeed, a Clergy that actually justifies itself based on its coercive power is probably in the middle of a collapse of its authority.) Instead, endorsement by the Clergy turns obedience to the Palace into a religious virtue.

That said, the potential power of a Clergy should not be underestimated. There were times in Medieval Europe when the Pope was able to raise up kings and cast them down, and when the Catholic Church had the most powerful bureaucracy and intelligence systems around. (Largely because few Christians outside of the Church could read.) But while at times the Church could call on military forces of its own, typically its power depended on its moral authority—the widespread belief that the Church’s dictates ought to be followed, even among the nobility or monarchs. Maintaining that moral authority usually requires that the Clergy act and make sacrifices in accordance with its religious teachings, and demand such sacrifices from the populace and other rulers—at least in public!

A Nobility/Clergy polity would be unusual, since a fragmented nobility would coexist uneasily with a centralized Clergy; but Finer does note one example, the Teutonic Order during its bloody rule of East Prussia and the Baltic, starting in the 1200s: ”The Order consisted of three classes of brethren: the priests, the serjeants, and the knights. These knights had to be both noble and of German blood. There is no mistaking the religious nature of the Order; no brother might hold private property or marry, and all had to follow a very harsh discipline and rule.”

For Clergy to rule along with the Forum would be difficult, since rule by God often exists in tension with rule by the people. Finer suggests one exception: Congregationalism, when the people choose their own religious/political leaders, almost always in small communities where people know their neighbors face to face. I would add another possibility: when the Clergy sees its role as maintaining a religious rule that underpins effective rule by the people, such as a taboo against monarchs or military dictatorship.


As authors, here are some key questions to keep in mind: what religious/spiritual beliefs does the Clergy base itself on? What personal sacrifices does it make to distinguish itself from “normal” pious nobles? How does it secure compliance from the rulers, even without an army? What would make the Clergy lose its moral authority and threaten its influence? Does the populace take the Clergy seriously? Do the elites? How can a member of the Clergy exploit its moral authority for personal gain, and how many members actually do so? Does the Clergy have any tangible basis for power, like land holdings or a military force? What happens if someone (Clergy or otherwise) has a crisis of faith? What would happen in a religious schism?

The Importance of Theme in “The Incredibles”


, ,

I recently saw The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2 back to back. The Incredibles is a brilliant film: a master-class in storytelling and a lot of fun. The Incredibles 2 is a good film: enjoyable with exciting action sequences and several hilarious bits about parenting. However, in my judgment it does not approach the brilliance of its predecessor. And a big part of the difference, I think, is in the two films’ treatment of theme.

[Spoilers ahead!]

The Incredibles was built from the ground up on the interplay between two strong themes: excellence vs. conformity-enforcing authority, and “going alone” vs. one’s responsibilities to others. Every incident in the movie plays into these themes. For the “excellence vs. authority/conformity” theme, consider the lawsuits forcing Supers to retire; Mr. Incredible’s new job in a soul-crushing insurance company, with a sociopathic control-freak of a boss who wants his employees to be gears in a machine; the children having to suppress part of their identities, with Dash acting out from frustration and Violet using her powers to fade into the background; and the recurring arc-words “When everyone is special, no one is.”

But at the same time, the other theme is constantly present. Mr. Incredible embodies the “going it alone” impulse; he refuses to take “Incrediboy” seriously, despite the latter’s obvious talent and need for a mentor, setting up the main conflict of the movie. He retreats from his family and spends his days trying to relive past glories, making him an easy mark for Mirage. (The initial sequence when he is late for his own wedding turns out to foreshadow this very conflict, between his drive to excel personally and his commitments to others.)

Elastigirl, meanwhile, represents both the “conformity” side and the “responsibility to others” side. While she is introduced with a gurrl-power persona in the beginning, she quickly subordinates herself to her new mundane role as a normal person, with a family to take care of. She takes this too far, forcing Dash to conform even when it clearly does not suit him, and giving up all of her agency in the face of Mr. Incredible’s apparent betrayal (before some well-timed smacks upside the head from fabulous suit-designer Edna Mode). Both sides need to realize their weaknesses and embrace what is best about the other, until finally the whole family becomes a true Super-team.

The villain as well is the perfect foil to these themes. Learning from Mr. Incredible not to rely on anyone else, he uses people instead of forming true relationships (which comes back to haunt him). His revenge on Supers is to use his inventions to make everyone special, and thus no one. (Aside from all the murder and such.) But his own drive to excel is actually a drive for approval, first from Mr. Incredible, then from the entire world. This too leads to his downfall, in the form of a flamboyant costume complete with (gasp!) a cape.

There is more, but you can see how all the parts work together and strengthen each other. This is not the case in The Incredibles 2.

First, we should point out that the filmmakers put themselves in a trap with the character of Jack-Jack. Simply put, he is far too powerful. At the end of The Incredibles we see that he can change his makeup, turning into a lump of lead, then a demon, then living flame. This itself is impressive, but would at least obey some limits which a screenwriter can work with. But in the short film Jack-Jack Attack!, he becomes story-breaking. Laser eyes, teleportation, walking through walls? Suddenly, Jack-Jack can do anything. At this point, any sequel is forced to either keep him as a baby (thus uncontrolled and unpredictable), or somehow depower him. For him to even be 4 or 5 years old with all of his powers would make him basically omnipotent, and remove any real plot jeopardy (unless he became the villain, which would lead to a fan revolt).

But back to theme. Seemingly, the core of the movie attempts to be the role-reversal between Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, who finally gets her time to shine as her husband is relegated to full-time parent. This could have been interesting, but is used merely for comic relief, didn’t actually go anywhere, and didn’t come to any conclusion. Violet’s conflict was unrelated to the theme other than giving Mr. Incredible a mess to deal with (and Dash didn’t even get a conflict!). Jack-Jack too remains comic relief, by necessity, but regardless manages to bring the whole movie to a screeching halt and upstage everything (though given the other flaws of the movie, he is still the best part—at least for parents).

Meanwhile, much of the movie revolves around efforts to legalize Supers once again, but unconvincingly. The end of the last movie is implied to have dealt with this issue, which necessitates a clumsy restigmatizing in the beginning of Incredibles 2. And again, this theme is not fully developed, becomes a mere pretext for the last set-piece battle, and doesn’t tie into the other themes jumbled through the movie.

Worst of all, the villain’s themes are completely disconnected from the role-reversal, and even from each other. Ostensibly, Screenslaver is protesting the increasing vicariousness of modern life, an interesting topic which could have been explored more deeply. Instead, Screenslaver is given a minutes-long monologue in the middle, and then the theme is dropped entirely and never comes up again. Later, we find out that the villain actually has a personal grudge against Supers, because her father relied on a Super to save him instead of… hiding out in a safe-room? This is the big conflict between relying on others and taking personal responsibility? (Plus, why not have his hotlines connect to the safe-room?)

If it were me, I would have made Jack-Jack Attack! non-canon (or not have made it at all), allowing for more flexibility. The family would not suddenly be ripped apart just when they had achieved harmony, and Mr. Incredible wouldn’t be removed from the field entirely—but he would still have to deal with Elastigirl taking center-stage. Then, the core of the conflict could have been the effort at Super-legalization versus a more natural villain: someone, perhaps in government, who would be threatened by the reemergence of Supers. This allows the themes from the first movie to be reprised, while allowing Elastigirl’s arc to have more resonance. And the details would be crafted with an eye toward making all the themes and sub-themes strengthen each other.

Theme is not simply something to be bolted onto a plot; theme actually gives the plot direction, focus, and most of all meaning. And that is a big part of what makes great art.

Who Rules? Part Three—The Forum


, , , , , ,

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

Some time ago, we mentioned the four potential ruling groups laid out by Samuel Finer, and discussed the Palace Polity; in the second post in this set, we discussed the Nobility and our first hybrid polity, Palace/Nobility. Now, let’s add the Forum into the mix, along with the Palace/Forum.

While in the Palace it is the autocrat who rules, and in the Nobility autonomous aristocrats hold power and scheme jealously against each other, in the Forum, power is vested in the people. In earlier posts, we have briefly noted egalitarian societies in which no true state exists, in which the people of the society share a voice in the major decisions of that society. In the Forum, the rule of the people is explicit and formalized. State institutions exist to carry out the needs of society, but they are subject to the people and depend on it for their orders. Formal mechanisms such as voting, written law and public law courts, and public debate translate the opinions of individuals into a collective imperative, that is sovereign over the government administrators.

Forums can take several forms, of which democracy is only one—and they need not include everyone in the population. In Greek democracy, for example, the vote was restricted to free males who were heads of their households, and often who met certain criteria of wealth. Most of the time, fewer than 10% of the residents of ancient Athens were eligible to vote. But for Finer, that is sufficient, because the franchise was broad enough to go beyond a narrow aristocracy or oligarchy, broad enough to include significant parts of the people itself in its self-rule.

Ancient Israel, which Finer believes was the very first Forum state in history, was not a democracy; but it was a tribal society in which decisions were made by a consensus of elders, until the rise of the monarchy—and even then, the kings had to be careful not to ignore public opinion or the tribal leadership, as could be seen by Ahab’s hesitance to simply confiscate the land of Naboth, or the secession of the northern tribes from the obnoxious rule of Rehovoam, successor to King Solomon.

In both cases, and in pretty much every durable Forum, the political power of the people rested on a foundation of popular military participation. Usually, a Forum was made up of a nation in arms. One of Finer’s main arguments is that political power tends to correspond to the distribution of military force. In early pre-state societies, all able-bodied men (and occasionally women) were considered warriors. Weapons tended to be simple and were widely available, so that the distribution of power between people was fairly even. This is one of the factors sustaining an egalitarian social structure. (By contrast, one of the key processes involved in the emergence of Danish chiefs, over a society that had previously been egalitarian, was the chiefs’ strategic control over the new technology of iron swords, and their careful distribution of swords to their favored supporters.)

Popular military power was true of the Greek polis, where to be qualified for citizenship you had to be able to serve as a hoplite, a spearman in the famous Greek phalanxes. But it was also true of the tribal confederation of ancient Israel. In its earliest, pre-kingly phase, the Israelites served in the popular militias, largely on foot and without heavy armor. (Thus, in the Biblical account of Deborah’s war against the Canaanite general Sisera, the Canaanites possess heavy chariots which the Israelites could not match. They therefore forced battle in the hill country, where the light infantry of the Israelite militia could negate the Canaanites’ advantage.)

The power of the popular militia restrained the growth of centralized political structures in Israel, for a time. Later, the arrival of heavy armor, chariots, cavalry, and foreign mercenaries provided increased military power to those wealthy enough to afford them, creating the basis for a ruling class; the first monarchy emerged shortly after. (I discuss the social effects of weapons technology in a bit more detail here.) But even during the time of the monarchy, Israel was unique among any polity for over a thousand years in that the Forum remained important. The king was the first limited monarch in history; he was subject to the Divine law, and was not its author or above it in any way.

More recently, the Forum polity of the United States was founded on the colonists’ successful rebellion against the British, made possible by the widespread ownership of firearms; the French Revolution, too, was sustained by the invention of the “citizen’s army,” which resisted the combined invasions of the other major powers of Europe. But wait—the French Revolution was hardly a Forum, you may say. It was a cruel totalitarian regime, soon overthrown by self-styled “Emperor” Napoleon! So why include it here?

The French Revolution may not have been a pure Forum, but it was a classic example of a very important hybrid type: the Palace/Forum. In this regime, though most power resides in the Palace, the legitimating ideology is very different. While a pure Palace draws legitimacy from itself or from the gods, the Palace/Forum claims the right to rule on behalf of the people. In principle, the autocrat is simply a trustee of the people, rather than its master. In practice, this might even be true; the modern United States is effectively a Palace/Forum that, even though imperfect, is far better at actual representation (for now) than are other Palace/Forums such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or any one of a dozen caudillo rulers in South America. But as my examples make clear, even nominally democratic Palace/Forums need not remain so for long, if too much power accretes in the hands of the Palace. As long as the Palace claims legitimacy as a trustee of the Forum, its behavior will be markedly different from a pure Palace. (But not necessarily better.)

(On a related note, popular legislatures today are a poor protector of the rights of the Forum. In the early history of legislatures, the rulers had to pay attention to them because it was the legislatures who collected taxes. Ignore the legislature, and the ruler went broke. But ever since rulers have been able to build their own tax-collection machinery, the “power of the purse” in legislatures has become more and more attenuated.)

Rebellion, Part One


, ,

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

Many fictional stories are built around rebellions against some sort of tyrannical overlord. Such stories provide readymade underdogs to root for and compelling conflict with high stakes; they also mesh well with American culture, and the cultural memory of any society that has ever broken free from external rule (which is most of them, these days).

But as I’ve noted before, these stories often have very little to do with how rebellions actually work. That’s not necessarily a problem, per se; good fiction does not require realism. But it does require a consistent internal logic, and some stories violate their own rules when discussing rebellions, simply because the author had a particular mental model for how rebellions are “supposed” to work that was a poor fit for the story.

Again, the purpose of studying real rebellion is to allow you to tell more stories, broadening your range. If it also dissuades you from writing wildly unrealistic rebellion stories, I’d take that as a win; but that’s because I’m a polisci nerd, so don’t worry about it overmuch.

First, let’s arbitrarily distinguish between four types of rebellions, each with very different goals. These are: violent contention, secession, government overthrow, and revolution.

In violent contention, as I’m using the term, the initial goal is not necessarily to overthrow the government, or to create your own country (although these things could become goals later). Instead, all the rebels want is to improve their own condition. It could be a peasant movement groaning under the tax burden, or agitating for a cancellation of debts, or simply desperate for food which the regime is keeping for itself; it could be a local militia that wants official recognition and a royal salary. It could be the local longshoreman’s union trying to get more sick days.

Such outbreaks of violence could be planned in advance; the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico would be a good example, or any number of large-scale mutinies in the Congo—led by generals who want a government ministry or a promotion. Or, the rebels could coalesce spontaneously, without prior planning or even intent; riots often start this way. The key point is that the initial goal is not to break free of the government or overthrow it, but simply to improve your own condition.

Think of it as a form of bargaining. If the regime or the local moneylenders are oppressing you and refuse to listen to your appeals, you might decide that violence is the only way to get their attention. By taking up arms, you give the regime the choice between meeting your demands, or incurring the costs necessary to put down the rebellion.

Consider the situation in the American Colonies before the Battle of Lexington. Most of the colonists did not want a full-blown war; the very idea was novel. For a colony to break free of its mother country entirely was almost unprecedented in history. (And when Carthage broke free from Tyre, it was because Alexander the Great had wiped Tyre out—not because the Carthaginians had rebelled.) But the colonies had over a hundred years of precedent for small-scale rebellions against the royal governors, launched by people suffering from mistreatment such as dispossessed farmers and slaves. (Few people are taught of these episodes, but you can find a good discussion of them in Murray Rothbard’s “Conceived in Liberty,” starting with Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676.)

So the colonists used violence to make their case. They had very specific grievances they wanted addressed by King George: taxation without representation, arbitrary rule by military officials, restraints on trade, et cetera. Had Britain developed some way to include the Americas in Parliament, it is possible that America would have remained part of the British Empire for centuries to come.

But Britain did not compromise, and instead declared the Colonies to be in rebellion, to be crushed by force. At this point, the rebels faced a decision: either they accept defeat, submit, and try to avoid punishment (the fate of many episodes of violent contention), they continue their relatively low-level campaign of violence and hope that Britain reconsiders, or they broaden their goals into a true rebellion. To take this last option, the rebels typically would need to be strong enough and well enough organized to have hope, however faint, for victory—which the Americans were.

Thus, we come to the second type of rebellion, secession. I call the American Revolution a secession because its goal was not to overthrow King George, or to conquer Britain itself, but merely to break free of it and form a new country. Secession is the kind of full-scale rebellion we see the most of in the real world, probably. And it is the one that best illustrates a key feature of rebellions: they often take the form of competitive state-formation.

What does this mean? In rebellions, each side is trying to project power over a given populace. Both sides want to collect taxes, to control behavior, to deny resources and free movement to the enemy, and to recruit soldiers and inspire loyalty. In short, rebellions feature all the usual problems of wielding political power, but magnified and sharpened because you are competing against an enemy that is trying to do the same thing, to the same populace. Battles and strategies are important, of course, but for a rebellion to even get that far, it must first have managed to build competing state institutions, with all that implies, to raise and support its army. That whole process is what usually gets called “insurgency.”

Secessions usually take place in a peripheral part of the state, where the regime’s control is weak; this gives the insurgents the opportunity to build institutions of their own. And the populace is faced with two would-be rulers, each of which wants to be obeyed; setting aside ideology or ethnic ties, individuals will tend to listen to whichever side offers the more compelling mix of threats and benefits. Assuming of course that the individuals don’t try to play one side off against the other for personal benefit!

Rebellion and Authority by Leites and Wolf is a fantastic, free examination of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, written by scholars at the RAND Corporation during the Vietnam War; they thus had strong incentives to get their analysis right, and the resulting study is fascinating. Authors will find it invaluable for the richness of detail it provides; definitely check it out.

Later, we will discuss government overthrows and revolutions.