Last week I had some words about what we can take away George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series concerning political power.
That’s what these books are really about after all. It occurred to me that in the first two books (and most of the 3rd and 4th) King’s Landing is the only city where we see anything happen. Old Town, White Harbor, Lannisport etc. aren’t featured in any kind of meaningful way because that’s not where the important people are.
And they are all important people. While not all the POV characters are lords, they are all powerful or in the presence of powerful people because Martin is concerned with power.
Anywho, last week I was talking myself into a nihilistic corner where legitimate power is derived from force alone. That’s not necessarily the wrong conclusion, but is that all there is to it? Is that the lesson we can apply to modern governance?
From where does the United States derive its sovereign authority? Eye roll. That’s actually a really complicated question, so instead I should ask, “from when did the United States begin to derive sovereign authority?”
Many would say somewhere between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. And almost all would say it was only possible because a stalwart cast of founding fathers and mothers took up arms against the British crown and declared themselves free.
It was possible because of force. Like George R. R. Martin’s series, history is concerned with the success of violence. Truly, the winners write history and laws, draw lines on maps, and decide who gets what.
Successful force has, historically, been the backbone upon which power is created. That power, converted into governance, is often legitimized through religion or culture, but in the end force has determined where that power starts and stops.
Awesome. We knocked that out in 300 words. So is that it? Everything we need to know about politics and power can be summed up as might makes right?
Not so much. Westeros is a feudal society were power flows from the top down. The king names those he wishes to be lords to enforce his peace and to mete out his justice.
But in the modern era that is not the only source of power. Over the last several centuries folks have been rediscovering a source of power that’s been pretty successful in its own right.
The power of consensus.
At the end of the American Revolution George Washington stood victorious with an army at his back and decided NOT to be King In The North… err I mean King of America. For whatever reason he thought it would be better to set down his sword (figuratively and literally) and let the people get to work building a different kind of power.
It could have gone this way.
Here in lies the real difference between any exchange in ASOIF and modern polity. In Westeros, fealty is owed as a matter of tradition when any kind of decision is being made and, ultimately, one lord or king has the power to decide. A power based on force, legitimized by tradition/faith, and employed in a context in which there are few equals.
By contrast we have a democracy that demands equal protection under the laws. No man is a king. No woman a queen. And only the state has the right to employ violence against anyone. So long as enough people consent to those ideas, a society where violence does not determine power, at least the power to govern, will remain.
In a democracy having power and being powerful mean having something other people want. Building the power of consensus through money, talent, and even access to other people.
Consider the case of Tyrion Lannister. For those that haven’t read the books, Tyrion is a dwarf son to a noble house. His stature made him a constant pariah, even in his own family. His twisted legs and misaligned features assured that no one considered him beautiful or dangerous. Yet Tyrion proved himself one of the most dangerous characters in A Clash Of Kings by saving the capital city and keeping a king alive.
And then just as quickly Tyrion lost power when his father came to the city.
Where did that power come from and where did it go? Tyrion was just as rich as any time before his rise or fall. Similarly he was just as reviled by the court and just as bad at martial combat. But Tyrion used the gold he did have and pertinent information to make others do what he wanted. Blackmail. Bribary. Kidnapping his own nephew. Nothing was out of bounds for Tyrion, and all to keep the city safe.
Here it may be that ASOIF is closer to political reality. As a rule, feudal societies can operate by consensus as well, but the threat of force is always a legitimate option by most parties. In a Democracy things like money, information, and reputation play a larger role in building consensus and establishing power. Personal power can turn into a “legitimate” right to rule. If you doubt me, just consider the presidential election.
Personal connections, wealth, knowledge, and reputation make a president. These tools help a man or woman (but really a man) navigate the treacherous road to legitimate power. I’d cite some examples, but I’m at 900 words. Read Machiavelli or something. The point is that the power of governance rests upon the power of violence, but a democracy it constrains that violence. So the roads to that power run through personal resources and talents.
Which is in line with ASOIF. Many characters came from seemingly humble beginnings (Bronn, Little Finger, Varys, John Snow, and on and on) to become crucial political components of Westeros. That’s the real lesson we should take away.