Who Rules? Part Three—The Forum


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(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


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(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.

How to Make This Editor Happy



During the submissions period for Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, my current anthology project, I received around a hundred submissions. Some were of beginner quality, which is not a bad thing per se, since it means that the authors can improve their work through feedback. Other works were of higher quality, but didn’t mesh well with my own particular aesthetic preferences; other editors may well accept such work, even if I didn’t. Unfortunately, between the sheer number of submissions and my own time constraints, I did not give individualized feedback to the submitters—which is not fair of me, since they did put in the work.

I think it’s worthwhile, therefore, to write up a post discussing some of the common patterns among work that was not accepted for the anthology. That way, authors considering submitting their work to me in the future will know more about my preferences, and whether their story fits with them.

(I should emphasize that not all stories that were turned down fall under one of these categories. If you submitted work, do check if anything in this discussion resonates with your experience; but there’s no need to jam your story into a category just because it’s here.)

With that, in no particular order:

Unpracticed Writing

Mark Twain once said words to the effect of, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Some of the submitted stories had prose which lacked fluency and smoothness, or had frequent errors of meaning or grammar. This does not necessarily disqualify a story—in my previous anthology I accepted more than one story that needed extensive editing, because the plot and characters were strong enough to justify the work needed to fix them. But it took a lot of work on my part to fix these stories, and I’ll only accept a rough story if it has great merit otherwise. Often, inexperienced prose was accompanied with some of the plotting flaws discussed below, which is not surprising.

The solution here is simply to write, and write, and write, and study what good writing looks like so that you can improve your prose over time. As you develop your technical ability and prose style and it becomes instinctive, you will be able to transcend the need to labor on your prose as much—so you can spend more effort on plot, characterization, and so on.


Common in stories that were trying to introduce an entire elaborate setting or magical system, an infodump (also called “expository lump”) is an explanation or exposition that is not smoothly integrated into the scene action, “as if a page from an encyclopedia accidentally got shuffled in.” For example, a story might spend several paragraphs on the precise details of how to enchant magical rings, most details of which do not actually affect the present story.

Figuring out how to provide vivid detail or to introduce the rules of your setting to the reader without bringing the plot to a screeching halt is a difficult element of the craft; a good rule of thumb is to give background information one or two sentences at a time, interspersed with plot action or dialogue. This is not a hard and fast rule, of course. Another rough guideline is to introduce setting details only if they actually affect the plot (though some authors create powerful literary effects through their intricate ornamental details). In any event, the more sensitive you get to the flow and pacing of your scenes, the better you will become at this.

The “And” Plot

In this story, something happens, and something else happens, and something else happens… but each event seems disconnected. There is no progression from one episode to the next. A character might face several challenges, but they lack a connecting thread or any lasting consequences. (In D&D terms, it’s a series of wandering-monster encounters, rather than a coherent adventure.) Common examples were stories in which the proprietor interacted with several customers one after another, but without learning anything from each or being otherwise affected by them, and without each customer contributing to the plot progression. If you could shuffle the customers and rewrite in a different order without the story changing much, it’s an indication that you have an “And” plot.

Especially in a short story where you have very little space to work with, every word must build toward the conclusion. Every element of the story should build dramatic tension, should contribute to the theme, should drive us toward the climax. There are a few different techniques for how to do this; you might compare Deborah Chester’s “elemental story design” with the method of Holly Lisle to see which fits your style better.

No Conflict

The story has characters, and description, and a narrative—but there’s no drama. People have no goals, or else they accomplish their goals without real opposition. This showed up several times in stories that tried to introduce a larger setting; so much effort was spent discussing the setting that there was little actual plot drama.

One symptom of not having a real conflict is characters being nasty to each other for no reason, and with no consequences or story importance. This is a strong tell that the author realizes that the story isn’t dynamic enough and so tries to inject “conflict” without understanding the role that conflict is supposed to play in the story. Conflict is more than characters snapping at each other for no reason. It is about characters with fundamentally opposing goals, or interests, or desires. It is about one character striving to achieve something and another character trying to block him, or kill her, or get there first.

Conflict is what makes the story interesting, and not only because it creates story tension. Characters need conflict, need obstacles and opposition, in order to reveal what they are really made of—to give us someone to admire.

No Conclusion

After a great deal of plot, the story ends with a thud. It might be someone ruminating on life and fate and belly buttons; it might be two people talking; it might be an exciting battle of some kind. But the ending does not actually resolve the conflict established earlier in the story.

A story begins by asking a sort of question. In its simplest form, the question could be: will the protagonists achieve their goals? In more ambitious works, the question could be: do the protagonists understand themselves better, and understand why they chose that goal to begin with? Other questions exist, of course. Whatever it is, the question is elaborated and complicated over the course of the story, and finally answered by the end. If the ending is not connected to the fundamental question of the story, it means that the author does not yet know what question the story is raising.


So far, so good. But most editors want capable prose and well-structured stories. What about my own idiosyncratic dislikes?

Undeserved Endings

A protagonist ends the story in total defeat, despite doing everything right. Or she has victory handed to her on a silver platter, via deus ex machina or a sudden change of heart by the antagonist or intervention by a bystander. In short, the resolution of the story had nothing to do with the efforts of the protagonist (and therefore was not the culmination of the story’s theme, but that’s a more advanced point).

I like stories in which the protagonist succeeds because of her efforts, or fails because of her mistakes. Meaningless suffering leaves me annoyed, unless it is handled very skillfully indeed.

(Note that intervention by a third party can be justified if the intervention is inspired by the protagonist’s utmost attempts. For example, suppose Sir Haldric the Hapless attempts to vindicate an innocent man through trial by combat, and he suffers horribly at the hands of Sir Robard the Ruthless in the arena. Yet every time he takes a wound, he gets back up; his honor and commitment to the accused man require no less. Finally, when Haldric’s death is at hand, the magistrate suddenly rises from his seat and stops the combat. Though Haldric was the lesser fighter, he says, he is surely the greater knight. The innocent man is freed.

I would not consider this ending to be undeserved; Haldric earned his ending by his self-sacrifice and courage. Admittedly, the ending would have to be carefully set up or it would be implausible; but that’s a different issue.)

Unsympathetic Protagonists

We need a reason to want the protagonist to win. Evil protagonists are not always unsympathetic (though that depends strongly on who the alternative is, in my view), but merely being the viewpoint character isn’t enough to justify them.

When I read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, despite all of the deft prose and imaginative prefigurings of the Internet, I was left cold by the protagonist. We are told early on that at his lowest point, he murdered innocent people for their pocket change; to me, that takes a hell of a lot of redemption for me to care about what you are doing—unless the stakes are high enough, like end-of-the-world high. In Neuromancer, they were not. So to me the whole book fell flat.


Good stories mean something, and they mean something worth the effort. To me, the world and its suffering has meaning. We can disagree on what that meaning is; but I dislike stories that assert the futility of struggle, of growth, of virtue. Other publishers like them better, and if such stories are your metier then submit to those other publishers.


So there you have it. This doesn’t cover everything—for one thing, I have my own unconscious biases, as does everyone—but if you want to submit a story to one of my future efforts, this list is a good place to start in deciding whether your piece will attract my attention.

Who Rules? Part Two—The Nobility


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(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 first “polity” (or regime type), the Palace Polity. Now, let us discuss the second “pure” polity—the Nobility—as well as our first hybrid polity, the Palace/Nobility.

What makes the Nobility unique is not that they are powerful or influential. In any polity there will be influential figures, even in the Palace. But for a group of powerful people to be considered a Nobility in the sense Finer means, they must first have autonomy from the central government, and from each other. Aristocrats attached to the Palace, and deriving their power from it, may be noble in the class system of their society; but Finer would not consider them “Nobility,” merely courtiers (typically the rivals of the autonomous Nobility). Nobility are able to resist the central government, because they control their own power resources—land most frequently, but also the people on that land.

(One might consider a vast fortune to count as a power resource as well, though historical nobles usually had land as the source of their power; but money by itself does not yield power if the rich are vulnerable to state coercion. Furthermore, a state with enough money to make large fortunes possible is unlikely to have autonomous nobles; the central government is usually strong enough to force some sort of dependent relationship, often in the form of a corporatist system. Bill Gates cannot simply decide to stop paying his taxes. It was the historical lack of coin, and thus the need to pay retainers in land grants, that typically led to the emergence of nobility in the first place. Still, one can imagine other potential sources of autonomous power.)

Second, a Noble is distinguished by his absolute control over those in his domain. No higher authority, no central government, may interfere with a Noble’s lands or vassals. Not even other Nobles, which is helps to explain why nobles were constantly occupied with feuds and intrigues against each other. On the other hand, Nobility could often arrange themselves hierarchically or even fractally, so that many petty lords could be vassals of a more powerful lord, who in turn would be one of the several vassals of an even more powerful lord, all the way until you reach a handful of great nobles who dominate their politics. Finer gives the example of Bakufu-era Japan, with its samurai class aligned under the daimyos, in ever-shifting coalitions and factions.

A pure Nobility polity is extremely rare and not very stable. To qualify, it would have to lack a strong central government entirely. But the nobles would still have to be bound together in some form, or else it would not be a single polity but a patchwork of smaller principalities. The only example that Finer locates is that of 16th-17th century Poland, where the great nobles sat in a council together, under the nominal rulership of a king who nevertheless was nearly always controlled by the noble council. Such polities would tend to either coalesce into a stronger central regime over time, or else fragment entirely.

More commonly, strong nobles coexisted uneasily with a central Palace regime, leading to the Palace/Nobility polity (naturally). This was the situation during the Feudal era of Europe, in which a nascent centralized government had to deal with lesser nobles who could stand apart from the Crown, and on occasion present a real threat to its power.

If the independent nobility is relatively weak and more easily controlled by the Palace, then while Nobles have their ancient privileges, those privileges might be closely circumscribed. Palace administrative structures may be imperfect, so local control depends on the cooperation of the nobles, but the nobles themselves would have small armed forces if any; they pose little threat to the Palace in the long run. And unless there is a dramatic change in the balance of power, the Nobles’ position will erode over time. Perhaps the independent nobles are being challenged by other “court nobles,” whose prestige depends on the largesse of the Palace alone.

If the central monarch faces a powerful set of nobles with strong militaries of their own, he or she must scramble to keep on top of them via careful alliances and shrewd politicking or risk losing power, or being made nearly irrelevant. Think of the early French kings, or of King John of England (who was forced to sign the Magna Carta by an alliance of barons). The king remains powerful in his own right; otherwise, if the king were a mere figurehead or first among equals, we would be left with a pure Nobility polity as in the case of Poland. But the nobles are strong enough collectively to restrain the king’s power or even to bring him down, if they ever manage to put aside their own rivalries and oppose him as one.

This circumstance can have several long-term outcomes. In the case of England, the rights that the nobility extracted from the king (the Magna Carta) laid the groundwork for the later English experiment in broad political rights, the forerunner of the more explicit American political rights that created the modern liberal-democratic society. That did not happen in France, where the nobles focused not on rights but on privileges—chiefly, the privilege of taxing the populace. As a result, even when the French monarchy grew in strength, it still had to depend on tax-farming for revenue; the resulting abuses of the people were a key factor leading to the French Revolution.

For a weak ruler to strengthen his position is a long, perhaps generational, project. It took the Capetian kings of France hundreds of years to slowly, patiently, methodically chip away at the power of the nobility, and they were never assured of ultimate success. The same could be said of the English kings, who suffered periodic overthrow and wars of succession. A strong nobility can defend its own position quite effectively; still, the king has the advantages of a central political position and the ability to divide and conquer, given the opportunity.

A final possibility is that a weak Palace can strengthen to the point that the polity becomes evenly balanced. Or, a previously powerful Palace can have its position diminished so that the nobles reach parity. In either event, such a Palace/Nobility polity features an unstable, delicate balance between each side, so that the future trajectory of the system could go in either direction.

For authors, opportunities for conflict abound. Independent nobles can scheme against each other or even make open war, the king can intrigue with one faction against another, or they could intrigue against the king or rebel; country aristocracy could come into conflict with dependent courtiers, each side resenting the privileges of the other. Feuds between nobles and a weakened king could risk fracturing the polity altogether, leaving it open to outside invasion; or the threat of such invasion could be exploited by the Palace to augment its own power and force the nobles in line. If court politics is your thing, then the possibilities should make you downright giddy!

Last Day to Submit to Ye Olde Magick Shoppe!


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Today is the published deadline for submissions to Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, my second anthology. If you have already submitted and haven’t heard back, it’s because I’m being blizzarded by submissions, thankfully!

Don’t let that dissuade you, though; my goal is to see all quality stories published, either in this anthology or in some other venue. Good luck, and I look forward to your submissions!

How Not to be Overthrown by Your Army


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

Being a ruler can be hazardous to your health. The safety of your country depends on you having a strong enough army to repel invaders, and the safety of your regime depends on that same army being able to deter rebellion. But an army strong enough to do that is also strong enough to overthrow you by itself; history is full of ambitious generals who did just that. So what is a ruler to do?

There are many strategies that can be employed, such as keeping your soldiers fat and happy with tax revenue, or using ideological indoctrination to secure their loyalty. Here, I want to focus on army composition, and how it can be used to secure the regime.

By “army composition,” I don’t mean how much infantry you have versus cavalry, or battle mages versus dragons, or whatever—though that is clearly important. And if you do want to think about that kind of thing, questions of unit type can easily fit into the model we are about to discuss. But as Samuel Finer discusses, a ruler fundamentally must build his military from among three kinds of armies: popular militias, a professional national army, and foreign mercenaries.

The popular militia is the cheapest and easiest option, if your objective is to defend against invasion (or, sometimes, to do a spot of invading yourself). Responsible for their own training and equipment, the populace does not represent a drain on the treasury as other types of soldiers do, and they can be raised quickly when needed. However, they tend to be relatively poorly trained and armed, and are therefore less effective in battle than a standing army. More importantly, to the ruler, is that the popular militia is loyal to their families foremost, their nation second, and the regime a distant third—if at all! Especially if you plan on being a squeeze-the-peasants sort of ruler, allowing the people to organize into armed units would be the last thing on your mind.

A standing army remedies many of the defects of the militia. Soldiers are better equipped and better trained, dependent on the regime for their pay, and also more easily indoctrinated politically (if that kind of thing is a feature of your regime). However, professionalized armies take a long time to train up, and are fantastically expensive; Finer estimates that the vast majority of state spending throughout history was on maintaining armies. Moreover, while soldiers in a standing army may be more loyal to the regime than your average peasant is, they will still care more about the nation as a whole—and might decide that the ruler needs to go for the public good. Alternatively, one of your commanders may decide that he wants your job, and convince his men to back him. A standing army thus represents a permanent threat to the regime, more urgently than the populace as a whole does.

Finally, we have mercenaries—they come pre-trained, only care about getting their pay, and have no sentimental attachments to the populace. Indeed, the populace may view them with resentment or hatred, deepening the mercenaries’ dependence on the ruler who signs their paychecks. On the other hand, mercenaries are notorious for their lack of fight-to-the-death commitment, are prone to switching sides, and even are known to overthrow the regime and take over—as Machiavelli notes in great detail when discussing the Italian Condottieri.

One classic way that tyrants would mitigate these risks is for the ruler to have a small number of mercenaries as his personal guards. They would not be strong enough to credibly challenge his rule, and would be at risk of massacre by the locals if the ruler ever died; but they can still keep him safe from the standing army, and indeed their own welfare depended on it.

Likewise, most regimes would maintain a relatively small standing army as the core of the military, along with a much larger popular militia to be called up during wartime. The standing army would serve as shock troops in battle, improving the effectiveness of the military as a whole, and would also defend the capital city from any restiveness in the outer provinces—all for a relatively low cost, compared to an entirely professionalized force.

Of course, a wealthy enough regime that was not loathed by its people could have the luxury of a powerful full-time army; the United States is one example today. But even the U.S. still maintains a distinction between the Army and the National Guard, which could be seen as a rough parallel to the “popular militias” discussed above. A better example would be the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein; the bulk of the military was poorly equipped and paid, while the smaller Republican Guard—recruited exclusively from Hussein’s own clan—was a relatively elite force whose performance, and loyalty, were more assured. Meanwhile, several small African or Pacific Islander states relied in recent years on mercenary groups such as Executive Outcomes or Sandline, because they were viewed as more reliable than the regime’s own military. With good reason; these regimes tended to have a long history of military coups.

So the militia/standing army/mercenaries model is broadly applicable. In your worldbuilding, consider the strategic problems that a regime faces from its own military. They are sure to generate some gripping stories, if you want to write them. Key points to consider: the cost of an army, its loyalty, the loyalty of its commanders, the need for more loyal units to deter mutiny by the more marginal ones… and trading off all of the above against military effectiveness. Remember too that some rulers can more easily survive defeat in war than they can a military coup—and will therefore treat their own military as their greatest threat.


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

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

Who Rules? Part One—The Palace


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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…)

Power and Legitimacy


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

Why do people follow kings? Or presidents, or dictators?

The ruler of a state is a single man (or occasionally, a single woman). He is surrounded by people with guns, any one of whom could easily shoot him. But instead, they follow his orders and shoot other people, or sometimes don’t need to shoot anyone at all—because everyone else is following the ruler’s orders too. But why?

Remember from our discussion of selectorate theory that the ruler needs to have a support coalition on which to anchor his rule. The simplest way to maintain your coalition is by providing benefits to its members—either explicit payments, or privileges, or public goods such as peace and commerce. Perhaps, then, your coalition will follow you instead of another ruler because they believe that you are better at providing benefits than others would be, or that the disruption involved in overthrowing you is not worth the potential gain.

This can be enough, if you have particular administrative or political skill. But it is a relatively fragile basis for your rule; at any time, a competitor might arise who promises to rule more effectively. More seriously, each official has opportunities to ignore your commands if it would benefit him—by receiving bribes, for example. If his only reason for following you is the benefits you provide, he will be much more likely to take bribes or exploit his position in other ways when the opportunity arises. Over time, this kind of venality can totally undermine your rule.

Another common method is to rule by fear—provide benefits to your military enforcers, and use them to cow the rest. This reduces the likelihood of venality, because the official must weigh the potential benefit against the danger of being caught. And realistically, most regimes use a combination of benefits and fear, as they are more effective in combination. (Even in “nice” societies, we rely on the police to deter official corruption—which raises a problem when it is the police who are corrupt. But I digress…) Still, relying on fear is also a fragile strategy—if you ever grow weaker and lose your ability to punish defectors, your entire regime may crumble overnight.

Both providing benefits and threatening punishment lead to a mindset of constant calculation of one’s odds. Better for the regime if it could appeal to a reason why obeying it is the right thing to do, even aside from personal benefit. Such a sense that you ought to obey and that the ruler is entitled to rule is called legitimacy.

Max Weber, that towering genius of sociology, identified three kinds of legitimacy (there are more, but he was focused on the contrast between ancient religious societies and the modern state, his personal enthusiasm): charismatic legitimacy, traditional legitimacy, and rational-legal legitimacy. All three can coexist, and often do, but as pure types they look like this:

Traditional legitimacy is where we follow a given regime because that is what we have always done. The prince succeeds the dying king because no one imagines doing anything different; the peasants pay the tax-collectors (as little as possible) because that’s what their fathers did, and their grandfathers, and everyone they can remember. This does not necessarily imply unthinking obedience; routine behavior can often become its own justification, because changing behaviors can introduce disruption, uncertainty, even chaos and suffering. But traditional legitimacy appeals to history, and one’s obedience to historical norms, as the main justification for continued cooperation with the regime.

All this is thrown into upheaval by the charismatic leader, who appeals not to history, but to his or her own remarkable personal qualities. Often, the charismatic leader claims to be a prophet, either of a god or gods, or of inevitable historical forces, or of a radical new ideology. The charismatic leader challenges the way things have always been done, and gathers followers by force of personality and the momentum of his achievements. Examples would include Martin Luther King, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Julius Caesar, Benito Mussolini, or Adolph Hitler. Clearly, charisma can be used for good or ill.

Ironically, however, a successful charismatic leader cannot sustain a regime by charisma alone. Taxes need to be collected, laws enforced, and supporters rewarded; charisma is a poor means of doing that over long periods, and even if it were, what happens when the charismatic leader dies? The wise charismatic leader will take steps to institutionalize his rule, by building a bureaucracy or a durable support coalition. And certainly once the original leader dies, his successors will tend to justify their rule by appealing to his memory. Thus, Weber notes, the initial charismatic revolution becomes transformed into a traditional regime of its own—or, in more modern times, a rational-legal one.

Weber’s description of rational-legal legitimacy was highly colored by the Germany of his day (the early 1900s), in which the ideal of a disinterested bureaucratic technocracy was supplanting the rule of the old German aristocrats. Thus, he describes a rational-legal regime as based on a bureaucratic class that operated according to laws and regulations, without a hint of self-interest, justifying their activity with the sacred power of the law. The law becomes self-justifying, as an expression of the will of the state. The self-interested rule of traditional aristocrats and the disruptive power of charisma become replaced by the impersonal wisdom of statecraft, executed by a professionalized bureaucracy.

In truth, as I mentioned, most regimes have elements of all three forms of legitimacy (and really, I am tempted to include ideology as a fourth type, since it has its own unique characteristics and doesn’t fit neatly into Weber’s schema). Any dictator worth his salt will try to create a cult of personality; hence, Kim Jong Il claiming to be a champion archer and athlete. Similarly, in the United States, much of the populace reveres the Founders as a sort of secular pantheon. And bureaucracy was known as far back as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, though it was not professionalized as Weber would like.

More importantly, any form of legitimacy imposes constraints. The ruler must act, at least in public and at least most of the time, in ways that are consistent with the claimed basis of the regime’s legitimacy. Otherwise, the manifest hypocrisy will erode the feeling of obligation among the citizens that legitimacy is meant to create. The fall of the Soviet Union is perhaps the most spectacular example of recent times, coming as it did after the people had grown cynical of a ruling class that mouthed the platitudes of Communism without providing social equality or development.

Speaking of which, even well-entrenched legitimacy will only take you so far. If a legitimate king puts his support coalition at risk with reckless policies or defeat in war, they will only stick with him for so long before inventing a pretext to replace him, crown or no crown. Similarly, if the laws are not being enforced and no one fears the regime, it will be only a matter of time before petty opportunism snowballs into something more serious.

Still, legitimacy is supremely important. It is the glue that holds societies together. It allows regimes to rule effectively without imposing a costly police state, as most of the people will respond with quasi-voluntary compliance, in the phrase of Margaret Levi.

For writers, legitimacy can be a powerful theme. Does the regime have the support of the people? On what basis does it claim the right to rule? Do your protagonists live under a legitimate but feckless ruler, such that they must choose between respecting their traditions and physical survival? How might a regime seek to generate more legitimacy? Does a ruler behave as he should in public, but violate his claimed principles in private? How might an external enemy, or a rebel group, or a treacherous nobleman, attack a regime’s legitimacy?


(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…)

Ye Olde Magick Shoppe is Live on Kickstarter!


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You may have noticed that I’m accepting submissions for a new fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Well, I’m pleased to announce that the associated Kickstarter project is now live!

The more backing we receive, the more short stories I can accept and the more that authors will be paid. So if you like reading fantasy stories about when magic is for sale, definitely check us out; and if you like writing such stories, do check out the submission rules and submit your work before the deadline.


Identity, Boundaries, and Conflict


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

Identity is a thorny topic, especially as it relates to political behavior. One’s identity can have many parts: I am at once a son, a husband, a father, a writer, a blogger, a gamer, a political scientist, and a whole host of other things. Some of these identities take precedence at some times, only to be pushed into the background at other times.

Then there is ethnic or national identity, a common source of political conflict. But even then, one’s identity has many layers to it, each of which can be more relevant at some times than others. For example, one can call himself American, Latino-American, Guatemalan-American at different times; and sometimes the identity of “Guatemalan” will be more important than the larger category of “Latino”—usually when you are in conflict with other Latinos.

Political theorists are split on the topic of identity. The “primordialist” view is that some identities, like ethnic identity or national identity, are basically set in stone: they derive from “real” sources like genetic heritage and group history. An ethnic Berber, for example, will be sharply distinguished from neighboring black-skinned Africans, first of all by physical appearance, but then by fundamental attitudes deriving from Berber history and culture. No matter how much our Berber immerses himself in another people’s culture and adopts their customs, he will never stop being Berber.

The opposing view is “social-constructivism”; this view holds that all identities are socially constructed, built on the cumulative decisions and interpretations of individuals as such, and as interacting participants in a shared social setting. The social-constructivist view of identity focuses on the ways in which identities are malleable; the American category “white,” for example, used to exclude Mediterranean peoples such as Italians and Greeks, whereas today it encompasses them. The constructivist view of identity will emphasize both the changing content of a given identity, and the shifting boundaries between in-group and out-group. In particular, many cultural practices have the explicit purpose of dividing “us” from “them,” and these practices take on more importance in times of danger—when knowing who is a “fellow” becomes crucial.

Practically speaking, both views have merit. In a trivial sense, all identities are socially constructed, in that they depend on the beliefs of the individual and the other members of the family or society. As far as I know, no society or person attaches a lot of importance to whether a person’s earlobes hang free or are attached, for example; so not all differences between people become vested with importance. On the other hand, there are some identities whose basis is effectively primordial. For example, being black in America is likely to remain salient for a long time to come, even for new immigrants from African countries who are not used to thinking of themselves that way; the people around them impose that identity, even if they themselves resist it. In that sense, even though the identity of “blackness” is indeed socially constructed from the point of view of the surrounding society, for the African immigrant it becomes effectively primordial—since it cannot be opted out of.

Still, what the identity of “blackness” means will vary, depending on how people think of it, and also how they draw the boundaries between “black” and “not-black.” Additionally, the priority one places on blackness, compared to other identities such as “parent” or “American” or “Methodist,” will vary as well. These areas of variability are where politics enters into the equation.

We mentioned that people carry many different identities, and which one is most important will vary. But why, and when? Generally speaking, an identity will come to the fore when it is being threatened, or when there is a social or political benefit to emphasizing it. As an old Bedouin saying puts it, “I against my brother, I and my brother against a cousin, I and my cousin against the stranger.” At each stage, different facets of one’s kinship identity are emphasized, depending on degrees of closeness and trust.

However, identities can also be manipulated politically. A tragic example is what happened in post-invasion Iraq, circa 2004 or 2005. The small community of Iraqi expatriate leaders, who had agitated for the war from their perch in the United States, now returned triumphantly to Iraq in order to claim the political positions in the new democracy to which they felt entitled. But they found that in their years abroad, they had lost all their connections to local communities; they thus had no base of electoral support. The less scrupulous among them responded by whipping up sectarian tensions; “Vote for me, because I am a proud Shia and I will defend my fellow Shia against the Sunni threat, and help us Shia get our revenge against those Sunni in the process.”

This process—convincing people that a certain identity needs to take precedence over other concurrent identities—is called boundary activation (the boundary between “us” and “them”), and it is one of the most powerful and often most dangerous forces in politics. In the case of Iraq, the expatriate politicians were often able to gin up electoral support based on ethnic or sectarian chauvinism, but they also set the groundwork for years of bloody inter-communal violence that strengthened the Iraqi insurgency, contributed to ISIS’s rise, and has caused an endless spiral of death squads and massacres.

More benign examples are convincing Americans that their identity of “worker” takes precedence over “consumer” (in support of protective tariffs) or the reverse, or that one’s identity as “American” takes precedence over “white” or “black” or “Latino”, or the reverse.

But there are always political figures who calculate that they can gain power by emphasizing a different set of identities, usually ethnic identities; and for them, it may be better if violence results, since that makes it harder to go back to the way things were—once different ethic groups are at war, it becomes actually dangerous to deemphasize your ethnic identity. That, in a nutshell, is what happened in the former Yugoslavia: Serb politicians were the first to deliberately incite ethnic war for their own gain, but politicians on all sides soon followed. (This is why appeals to ethnic identity-politics are so incredibly dangerous, whether at a Klan rally or in a social-justice seminar.)

The same happens in reverse as well. Many new states will violently impose a common nationalist identity over the separate ethnic identities of their many internal communities. From their perspective it is necessary to ensure the unity of the new nation, but for the persecuted minorities, this typically means the violent suppression of their culture and heritage, the forced indoctrination of their young, and the loss of their language and history. Latin American states’ treatment of their indigenous peoples are a good example.

For authors, political conflicts over identity are a gold mine of story drama. They hit both the external aspect of plot jeopardy, and internal character conflict of how your characters think of themselves: who they are, who they might be, and who they stand with. Many of our most powerful stories are built around identity conflict, and if you can layer the political aspect on top of that, so much the better. The key concepts to keep in mind are boundary activation (especially by unscrupulous politicians seeking to gain or keep power), identities that are imposed by the surrounding society (as in the case of African immigrants), and how violence can actually make it harder to reverse identity politics.


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