Empires versus Nation-States


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What’s the difference between a country and an empire?

It depends. Annoyingly, “empire” is one of those terms that picks up several different meanings, and gets used in different contexts. So first we have to decide, “Why do we want to know?”

In this blog, we focus on worldbuilding for fiction writers. So to me, “empire” is useful as a concept when it helps you think about complex ideas in a straightforward way, and make cooler invented worlds. Let’s talk, therefore, about three lenses through which we can think about an “empire” compared to a “state”: indirect versus direct control; multi-national populations versus a single nation; or rule for the benefit of the imperial class/caste at the expense of the subject peoples, versus rule for the (nominal) benefit of all subjects.


One way you can think about an empire is that it controls a bunch of smaller cities or even states, but not directly. Instead of levying taxes on individuals, an empire might levy tribute on an entire town, or even a whole region or state. How the tribute is collected, and how its burdens are allocated between people or social classes, is not the empire’s concern; these decisions are usually made by local authorities from the native population. Similarly, law and order might still be run by the natives, subject to the dictates of the empire; if matters are getting out of hand, an imperial legion might sweep through to put some heads on spikes, pour encourager les autres, and perhaps replace the local leadership with more cooperative local personnel. But usually, the empire doesn’t want to be bothered, beyond a necessary minimum.

By contrast, a state (in this lens) has direct control over its populace, applying taxes and laws on a more granular basis. Where an empire wants most of the benefits of dominating people without having to worry about controlling them, and having a large staff of functionaries, the state exerts more control, with a more developed staff of bureaucrats and enforcers to do the controlling.

This is just one way to think about empires. But if this is the distinction you are looking for, you now have terminology to express what you mean.


Another way to think about an empire is in contrast to the nation-state: where the state is inhabited predominantly by people who are part of a single nation, with a shared history and culture and often a shared language. The state is seen as the agent of the nation; the role of the government is to see to the nation’s welfare. The state of Japan is made up of the Japanese nation, for example; people from other nations might be allowed to live in Japan (if they behave themselves), but can’t really become Japanese. And the role of the state is to defend the Japanese people and further its goals. Nearly the same could be said about Finland, or Nepal, or many other states.

An empire, by contrast (in this lens), is multi-national. Think of the Hapsburg Empire (AKA Austro-Hungary), a royal dynasty ruling over several different nations (which typically despised each other). The Roman Empire, too, ruled over many different peoples, using the carrot of Roman citizenship and the stick of the Legions to keep the whole thing together. If an empire of this type is to justify itself, it cannot be with reference to nations; perhaps the empire will claim some sort of functional value, or a unifying mission like the Pax Romana, or (like the Hapsburgs) it might simply claim to exist from the privileges of the ruling family at its head.


In the third lens, what makes an empire is that it dominates other peoples for the benefit of the original people who formed the empire, whether or not the other peoples benefit as well. If taxes, slaves, and commerce are drained toward the imperial homeland, while the welfare of the conquered peoples is neglected or seen as an afterthought, we have an empire in this sense.

A clear example is the Congo Free State. Massive amounts of natural resources (primarily rubber) were shipped from the Congo back to Europe, and rivers of native blood were shed in the process, often with very little purpose. (The Belgian Parliament concluded in its investigation that the native population had been cut in half during the Free State period.) The Force Publique did build roads and other infrastructure, but only where it was necessary to improve resource extraction. They largely did not train native officials or improve native health or education.

By contrast, a state (at least ostensibly) cares about the welfare of all its citizens. This may not hold in practice—favored ethnic groups or social classes, or particular provinces or cities, might get the lion’s share of state largesse—but this would be seen as a deficiency in the state, a failure to carry out its duties to the citizenry. A Nazi official would laugh if you suggested that he ought to care about conquered French or Poles or Ukrainians as much as he cares about Germans; but even during the darkest days of Jim Crow in the United States, segregation was justified as being ultimately for the benefit of the oppressed black community (however absurd an argument this was). Supporters of segregation could not baldly state that they wanted to keep blacks as an underclass, at least not in public, because the United States is formally based on the equality of citizens.

An empire dispenses with such hypocrisy, at least to some degree. The conquered peoples are seen as livestock to be farmed by the empire, and little more. The British Empire at least had pretensions to benefit the locals, a bit; the Spanish Empire scarcely bothered.


You’ll notice that these lenses need not all be true at the same time. Many empires did not levy tribute on cities or provinces, but collected taxes from individuals; similarly, even some states would levy taxes on a whole city or village. Many states are not nation-states, like the United States or Canada, and some combine several distinct nations, like Switzerland or Belgium. And some empires act on behalf of a single nation, such as the German Reich. And whether a state acts for the benefit of all its citizens is always a fraught question.

But now you have a rich series of concepts you can apply in your worldbuilding. You can pick and choose to express what you want your setting to look like, how you want your empires and states to act, and where you want the conflicts to be.


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

Unity, Division, and State Formation


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One of the tricky things about recognizing a country that is becoming dysfunctional or tyrannical is that many tyrannical practices are the same as the normal practices one would find in a “healthy” country, but amplified to unhealthy levels.

A key example is patriotism/nationalism on one hand, and conflict between groups on the other.

For a community to work, its members need to feel a sense of shared fate. A selfish attitude of “I got mine, you can go to Hell” must be seen not only as immoral, but actually against your interests—because if members of the community are harmed, the community as a whole is harmed as well, and therefore the community is less able to advance the interests of any of its members.

A state, trying to create a sense of political community among many, many people who have never even met, does this by fostering patriotism. That is, the welfare of other Americans (for example) would be important to me because they are Americans, even if they are richer than me or poorer than me or a different skin color or a different religion. To create a sense of patriotism usually requires creating a national myth (loosely based on the truth) about our shared mission on the planet, our creed, the heroic circumstances of our founding. Citizens must be proud of the nation before they can be proud of the state, which (ideally) is an expression of the political values of that nation.

But a national myth fostering patriotism can very easily shade into a state ideology justifying compliance, and finally become sheer propaganda justifying whatever acts of tyranny the state chooses to carry out.

One waypoint in this direction is when political disagreement with the ruling ideology is condemned as disloyalty to the nation. This might not be tyrannical, depending on the nature of the disagreement (anyone agitating for blacks to be returned to slavery, for example, gets little sympathy from me if the cops break down his door), but it should perk up one’s ears at the very least. Political opponents can be reasoned with, bargained with, compromised with. Traitors are hanged.

For a nation to avoid tyranny, it must preserve the ability of its members to disagree about political things, without jeopardizing the larger sense of shared fate that unites them. This is tricky, since we have a tendency for policy disputes to become partisan chasms. Seymour Lipset argued that for a democracy to work well, it must feature cross-cutting cleavages: the same people who disagree with each other on Issue A might be allies on Issue B, and so continue to see each other as people and potential comrades. By contrast, for every dispute to map itself along an existing party cleavage was extremely dangerous, as political disputes harden into cultural enmities. (Obvious analogies to the present situation omitted.) (See a fairly abstract discussion here.)

On the other hand, if political disputes rage without end or without moderating tendencies, to the point that the sense of shared fate is lost or never existed, this can also lead to a form of tyranny that has become proverbial: divide and conquer. In short, if a state rules over a collection of groups in endless conflict with each other (policy conflict, ethnic conflict, etc.), then it can credibly claim that only the power of the state can protect each group from the others. Thus, the people must acquiesce to whatever injustices the state chooses to perpetrate, because facing the wrath of their neighbors without the state’s protection would be worse. Yugoslavia, before its catastrophic breakup, would be a good example of this.

More diabolical would be for the state to deliberately encourage conflicts between its communities, to encourage dependency on itself and make a broad alliance of oppressed peoples unlikely. In then-Zaire, for example, Mobutu put in place policies designed to foment conflict within each province between its “autochthons” (so-called indigenous peoples) and those other communities arbitrarily decided to be foreign intruders. Those policies allowed Mobutu to maintain his grip on power, but after his eventual overthrow they culminated in horrible civil wars.

(Relatedly, a political leader might foment conflict between two communities even if he only leads one of them, in order to make cooperation impossible or even to drive the other community away and thus ensure that no one can challenge his power.)

Worst of all, perhaps, would be a state that manages to do both: enforce a suffocating official ideology, while at the same time turning all of its people against each other. The Soviet Union is probably the most terrible example we have of this so far; children were turned against parents, neighbors gleefully betrayed each other for a better apartment, and preserving one’s ethnic and religious identities was made tantamount to treason.

A tyrant might demand conformity and compliance. But the tyrant might also turn neighbors into enemies, cynically using social conflict as a lever to maintain power. Or both. As citizens and authors both, we should keep this in mind. Political conflict needs a way to be concluded, and for opponents to reconcile, or the social fabric will fray.


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

Turning People into Power Resources


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Any state regime needs resources to function. At the most basic level, the state needs manpower; in ancient times, it was common for states to literally draft the populace for occasional terms to work on public projects such as city walls or irrigation channels (this was called corvée labor). Many states still do this for their militaries. In modern times, the state typically raises money instead through taxation or some sort of state industry, and then spends money on salaries and such. Law, too, is a resource for getting people to do what you want (provided that enough people obey the law).

Regardless of form, the state still needs to generate resources. Some states are in the happy position of being able to exploit outsiders rather than their own populaces—levying tolls on international trade routes, or selling commodities such as salt, olive oil, or petroleum, or else having regular programs of state piracy or conquest to seize plunder. But for most states, the resources they need are largely generated from the people they rule.

How does this work?

As James C. Scott teaches us, to levy taxes or otherwise extract resources, the state needs to make sure that the resources, and the people who provide them, are accessible. One of the key activities of states, therefore, is to actively change the way people behave to make their resources more easily collectable. For example, in southeast Asian statelets, it was common for rulers to force their peasants at spearpoint to live in the capital city, and work on farms that were adjacent to it, so that the rice grown could be easily assessed by tax collectors. By contrast, growing root vegetables was often forbidden, seen as a means of tax evasion because they were easy to hide.

Banking systems are a frequent tool for resource mobilization, because they literally gather money together so it can be used. Alexander Gerschenkron famously argued that the best way for a state to escape “economic backwardness” was to have a strong state banking system, so that capital could be mobilized for big infrastructure projects. Essentially, people’s savings would be borrowed by the state and used to accomplish state goals.

(Today, we see how states are struggling to respond to the growth of cryptocurrencies, which provide a serious alternative to the banking system for people who want to evade government scrutiny of their money. In the US, some regulators are agitating for stablecoin funds to be regulated like banks—which is a ridiculous idea, but I digress.)

States can also force their citizens to become more productive, in specific ways. This can range from vagrancy laws that force people to work, to mandatory public education or civil service exams, to laws mandating that all farmers must practice archery on Sundays. Head taxes too have this function; if you require people to pay 50 ducats per year each, whether or not they have the money to pay, you force them to spend at least some of their time earning ducats, rather than simply engaging in subsistence gathering or barter (which is harder for the state to benefit from).

States can also encourage or direct their subjects to directly accomplish state goals through nominally private action. For example, if the Duke of Rotherheim offers a bounty of ten gold pieces for each elf ear turned in, bounty hunters will scour the land to wipe out elves without any need for the Duke to hire them formally. In the modern world, “private” financial institutions like banks are subject to a vast range of government rules and reporting requirements, which they must comply with or else lose their licenses. For many purposes, the banks are agents of government policy when it comes to detecting money laundering or other financial crime (to say nothing of economic policy).

Essentially, a crucial part of the art of rule is how to mold the people into cash cows—taking unruly individuals who pass through life in many different ways, and turning them into resources that can serve the state. This is not always bad—having a military draft, for instance, may be inescapable for a country surrounded by enemies. But it shapes people’s lives in fundamental ways that often we don’t even see. And those who resist the system become outcasts, living on the edge of society without documents, or even without homes.

There are stories to be written about all of this. And a good way to start, when considering your fictional kingdom, is to ask: how, exactly, does the regime get its money or other resources?

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

Audiences for War


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When you go to war, what are you trying to do?

You might think the answer is obvious: “Defeat the enemy.” But even setting aside that you can find victory through multiple avenues (battlefield victory, outlasting the enemy in a siege, outproducing the enemy in a war of attrition, diplomatic isolation, et cetera), sometimes warfighters seem to treat victory as a minor consideration. Sometimes they even try to prolong wars, rather than winning them.

Mary Kaldor, writing about the 1990s war in Bosnia, noted that the casualties suffered by civilians dwarfed those suffered by military forces by about 10 to 1. In one sense, the nominal belligerents in the Bosnian War were actually collaborating with each other against their true enemy: the multiethnic, tolerant civilian populace. Serb and Croat nationalists, and to some degree Bosniak jihadis, strove to drive the ethnic populations of the former Yugoslavia apart from each other. By reshaping the populace and creating single-ethnicity communities, who are forced to view each other as enemies, the armed groups justified their own illegitimate power—they presented themselves as “ethnic champions,” so to speak.

Insurgent groups often continue their fight against the state government long after the fight is obviously hopeless. They have failed to gain the support of their home communities, they don’t have the strength to defeat government forces, and continuing the fight achieves no larger political gains and just gets more people killed. Why, then? For one thing, insurgent leaders are often competing with each other for the loyalty of their followers. Taking hard-line positions are often a way to shore up one’s support among the rank and file against competing factions. (I have read one argument that the 9/11 attacks came about because Osama bin Laden was feeling pressure from other factions within the jihadi movement, and needed something spectacular to reinforce his claimed position as the Amir. The attacks were successful in the short term, and may have harmed America in the very long run as well; but in the medium term, they were a strategic disaster for Al Qaida and its allies.)

Second, many insurgent groups are dependent on outside patrons for their support; very often, these patrons are other states, hostile to the insurgent group’s government and seeking proxies to cause it grief. (For example, many armed groups active in the Congo civil wars of the 1990s and 2000s were basically cats-paws for neighboring Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda.) In such a case, your patron may demand that you keep fighting long after true victory is outside your grasp, and will give you money and weapons to keep you in the field. (This is one of the most difficult complications in trying to make peace deals between sides in a civil war.)

In other situations, warring sides may be looking beyond their immediate enemy to some other actor on the sidelines, which constrains the choices they can make. For example, American strategy in Vietnam was hobbled by the threat that China or even the Soviet Union would (overtly) join the war if North Vietnam were seriously threatened. On the flip side, American willingness to continue a war they were apparently losing, even with a senseless and wasteful strategy, was an important signal for nearby countries such as Indonesia who were threatened internally by powerful Communist movements.

Similarly, many NATO member countries contributed forces to the Afghanistan war—not necessarily because they felt threatened by the Taliban, but because they saw it as important to vindicate the Alliance, since in the future they might need the United States to protect them from aggression rather than the reverse.


When setting up your fictional war, there are all kinds of juicy complications you can throw into the mix. Maybe that isn’t the kind of story you want to tell, and that’s fine. But if you do want something more complex than “Bad Guys are attacking Good Guys,” consider asking about the audiences for your warring sides. What are they trying to accomplish with the war? Who are they trying to impress, or frighten, or influence?


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

Manipulating the Perceptions of Elites


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One of the odd features of the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany was that Hitler was made chancellor in an antidemocratic process, by elite leaders of the old regime, just when the Nazi Party was starting to lose popular support. Why? The eminent political scientist Nancy Bermeo argued, in a pattern that recurred in many times and places since, that Germany’s leaders overestimated the true level of support that Hitler enjoyed—because Nazi street violence and protests, taking place in the very narrow range of places frequented by the old elite, conveyed the impression that the Nazis were gaining strength. By contrast, the growing opposition to the Nazis was quieter, and completely escaped the notice of Hindenburg and the others in the old guard.

Similarly, many have noted that modern American journalists are almost all on Twitter, and spend most of their time talking to each other. As a result, more and more news stories are mere lazy stenography of whatever new trend is going viral on Twitter, a domain dominated by a relatively small cohort of young urbanized people that poorly reflects what is going on in the country as a whole. It is easy to convince a handful of cloistered journalists that some new rarified issue is a serious problem, even as the populace at large thinks it ridiculous and a distraction from more crucial concerns. Then the politicians read the news stories, and similarly think that they reflect actual problems, and so on.

If you want to change society, there appears to be the right way and the easy way. The right way is via a true popular grassroots movement. The easy way is by carefully constructing a Potemkin movement to scare existing elites with and make them think that they need to make concessions to you, well before you have the actual support to back up such a perception.

If you are an author trying to come up with a nefarious scheme for your heroes to thwart, Option 2 seems like a good one.

How might it work? The key is to understand how your setting’s elites get their news of the world, and then systematically subvert those channels. Do they work in a particular office building? Hire a handful of unemployed drifters to protest in front of the office every day. Do they read the same newspapers? Influence the journalists and editors to print what you want the elites to read—via persuasion, ideological appeals, manipulation of gullible journalists, or naked bribery. Create crises for politicians to panic over; carefully recruit friendly elites by hook or by crook, who can then work on their colleagues.

Above all, do your best to isolate the targeted elites from the “common people” who disagree with you. Wherever possible, create the appearance of popular support; stigmatize your opponents as out of touch, or actively disloyal to the society. Create time pressure; give the appearance that normal deliberation would take too long in the face of whatever crisis you choose to focus on; don’t give legitimate democratic mechanisms a chance to work against you.

This works in autocratic settings as well, and is easier. If your setting is a monarchy, how do you influence the king? Through his advisors, his queen, his mistresses or harem. Subvert each of them in turn, and you can gain control of the realm without any support at all from the people. The same principle is at work: understand how information flows to the leadership, and target those flows.

How can such a scheme be thwarted? By breaking through with other information flows, that better reflect reality. Perhaps the captain of the guard breaks protocol and speaks directly to the king, charging the corrupt advisors with treason. Perhaps a democratic populace starts holding voter referenda well before the next scheduled election, revealing the plotters’ lack of support. Perhaps a hacker replaces the falsified news reports in the elite newspaper with a hefty dose of the truth.

(That is one of the relative advantages of democracy, compared to autocratic systems. Information wants to be free, and helps the elites better govern. It is harder to convince elites to panic over a crisis, or to choose a harmful response based on falsified information, in a free society. Harder, but hardly impossible.)

This type of scheming can produce really compelling fiction. Give it a try.


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

Why Do Tyrants Sometimes Have Political Parties?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dimensions of Tyranny


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

War as Negotiation


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

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

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

The key variables of this model are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

War in Fantasy Fiction


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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