The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

For stranger maps

Earth has many states. Most of these have different systems of government. Some of them have different social systems. Earth is in this respect almost unique. Everywhere else the default is one government, and one social system, per planet - if not, indeed, per galaxy. At least, that's the rule in SF.

When we look at the ancient and mediaeval worlds, we see if anything a greater diversity of forms of rule than we see today. In fantasy, where we might expect a wide play of fancy, we see nothing of the kind. There are good monarchies, legitimised by prophecy or ancient artifact. There are evil empires, usually in the east. There are barbarian tribes. Here and there, if we're lucky, there are city states ruled by merchant princes. There are plenty of exceptions - Pratchett, Gentle, Pinto, Mieville - but that's the rule.

We can do better than that!

Let's start with SF. There, it's easy. All we have to do is junk the rule of one government per world. If you have a one-world government for a reason, that's fine. But let's stop making it the default. Even if a human settlement is derived from one colony ship (and why assume that, by the way?), there's no reason to assume that it'll stay united. In fact, there's every reason why it shouldn't, as the population expands and moves into new territories. The European settlements in North America existed for centuries as separate colonies before they became, with much upheaval, the United States.

If it's an alien planet, of course, there's even more scope for differentiation, yet here the one-government-per-world rule is more rigorously kept. All the more kudos to you if you break it.

If the social system or government isn't just background but central to the plot - to illustrate your pet political theory, say - there's a different rule to junk. That rule is that all foregrounded political systems work the way they're supposed to. This is true even if the way they're supposed to work is to not work (crush the human spirit etc etc). Just for a change, I'd like to see a libertarian writer depict a laissez-faire society with persistent social problems. I'd like to see a left-wing writer show a socialist society that isn't a utopia, but has real, nigh-intractable difficulties and internal contradictions (and not just, say, radio-borne viruses beamed at it by malevolent posthumans). I'd like to see the converse of these, as well, from the opposite (and other) authorial preferences.

With fantasy it's a little more complicated. So many plots, after all, turn on claiming rightful thrones or toppling dark lords that kingdoms and dominions can't be easily dispensed with. But there's no reason why these have to be simple. When your hidden princess at last ascends to her rightful throne, can she get away with relying on one or a few wise advisers? Mightn't she have to persuade a fractious parliament to come up with the money for the Defeat of the Dark Lord (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill? What if this parliament, like the real-world Polish Sejm, requires unanimous consent? Could her kingdom, like Poland, be in permanent peril of just vanishing from the map?

Could there be a whole school of thought that holds that mere possession of the Blue-Sapphired Sceptre of Snazziness is not, in fact, the basis of legitimacy? That instead, a pilgrimage to the Convent of Extraneous Plot-Device must precede an acclamation by the knights of the Realm? Can the Dark Lord, meanwhile, run his vast domain with a handful of henchmen, terrified minions and lickspittle courtiers? Doesn't he need, at the very least, some plodding but reliable bureaucrats? To say nothing of an arms industry and scientific - or magic - research, all of which will need some genuine enthusiasts. And all of this complication doesn't just add depth and colour to the background - it opens up plot possibilities. Does the Dark Lord's armourer never think of expanding his export markets? Might he not stoop to taking money even from the Forces of Good?

If you compare the map at the front of the standard fantasy trilogy with the maps in The Penguin Atlas of World History (for the Middle Ages, say) the contrast is striking. The almost fractal depth of mediaeval geographic complexity makes most fantasy maps look decidedly thin and unimaginative. A glance at the diagrams of state and social structures (for the various stages of the Roman Empire, for instance, or the mercantilist system) is likewise an eye-opener.

And with that opened eye, take a look down the Atlas's right-hand pages, which give the chronology and the exposition. If that doesn't get your imagination working, nothing will. There are lots of cool names, too.

[Note: This originally appeared in the BSFA magazine Focus, some time ago.]

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Great post!

Add Steven Erikson's "Malazan" series to the list of fantasy worlds with complex and realistic governments.

When you think about how complex government is in the real world, it's a wonder that anything gets done at all. Still, the good thing about being Sauron in a fantasy world--you can say make it so, and the underlings either do it right then without arguing, or they die horribly and someone who will obey without question steps in.

I've always loved Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia" for this very reason.

One area in SF where I've seen some good experimentation in politics is RPGs. Transhuman Space had a nice range of politics, going from random democracies supported by political AIs to dictatorships with forced augmented reality (brrr).

Eclipse Phase, a new RPG that's available free online, splits the Solar System into three economies, traditional, transitioning and new economies, based on the societal availability of assemblers, and then breaks each economy into a number of different political groups.

Does anyone else have some favorite standouts?


David Anthony Durham's 'Acacia' seems to do this very well (I'm an anthropologist, so the more complex the society and politics, the better).

Even the Wheel of Time books at least manage to create a complex structure as their starting point, although they don't think through the power structures' impact on society and everyday life the way Durham does. And the whole thing is obviously going to be resolved by turning the world into one-nation-under-unstable-visionary-of-the-week...

This is something that frustrates me whenever I read SF. In non-genre fiction you already know that there's a war going on in country X which is not essential to the plot. You might see a tiny reference to it, you might not, but there is no pressing need to fill in the background. I think SF writers aren't generally guilty of just writing cookie-cutter societies, they just don't want to churn out something that looks like Tolkein.

So what brought this on? Did you read something that finally broke the camel's back?

As an example of something in SF that I think worked pretty well, I'd go with Adam Roberts' Salt, which deliberately pitches a bunch of different religions and an interloper on an alien world. I kind of get the impression he started writing just to see what they'd all do.

How about Kim Stanley Robinson? He seems like a good all around fit.

"The Years of Rice and Salt" is fantasy in a weird way. It is an alternate history, but it has fantasy elements. He re-imagines the cycle of birth and rebirth, but focuses on the progress of science, technology and medicine.

And of course Robinson is also a lefty. His Hard SciFi Mars trilogy imagined Leftist political life as highly imperfect.

Yes, KSR is good at this. I especially liked the awful, interminable mass discussions in Red Mars.

Moopet - nothing recent brought this on, I just came across the article in a folder and thought it might as well get an airing.

Wanted to add Le Guin and KSR to the discussion, but I see that it is already done.

So another could example for both problems could be the Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross.

Argh. /s/could/good

Ken, those long discussions contained an all too brief section in which the death penalty got adopted. I know from the BSFA forum that this angerd many participants, myself included. Perhaps KSR intended to show that even the best-intended planners can easily set up quite imperfect elements in a utopia.

Joe Haldeman's Buying Time has an anarchocapitalist society in the asteroids where the commercial law enforcement firms are realistically willing to look the other way for somebody with enough money (much like law enforcement agencies in the real world). Does that have some of the flavor you're looking for?

As to fantasy, and the dominance of monarchic and feudal societies in it, it does seem hard to find examples of other sorts in history. As a libertarian, I've looked for historical cases of democracies, republics, and anarchies and not found a big sample.

On the other hand, as Peter Leeson points out in The Invisible Hook (a book on the economics and constitutional law of pirate ships), pirates operated under republican and egalitarian institutions. I noticed this a few years back (in fact, I put it into GURPS Fantasy), so I read Leeson with great interest. Some of the larger nonmonarchic societies of the past . . . Israel under the judges, the Roman Republic, Viking Age Iceland . . . have foundational myths that suggest an origin as bands of brigands or pirates, too. Perhaps there are reasons for this to be found in public choice theory.

Wait a minute - I thought there WAS just one world government. As Stuart McKenzie put it so aptly in 'So I Married an Ax Murderer': "it's a well known fact, Sonny Jim, that there's a secret society of the five wealthiest people in the world, known as The Pentavirate, who run everything in the world, including the newspapers, and meet tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado, known as The Meadows...The Queen, The Vatican, The Gettys, The Rothschilds, *and* Colonel Sanders before he went tits up." Say No More.

The Pentavirate? They're just a front. Everyone knows that. If you want to know about the real secret masters you gotta read Illuminatus!, man.

William - Buying Time sounds exactly like the sort of thing I had in mind on that point.

What I meant was thanks for the recommendation, William.

a couple of other books on pirates - which I haven't read but are widely raved about - are this and this.

Colour /me smug: "Worlds with a single planetary government aren't meant to be peaceful and open and into civil rights! When I see a planet with just one government I look for the mass graves. It's some kind of natural law or something, world governments grow out of the barrel of a gun." (From Iron Sunrise, pub. 2004.)

But really, I though everyone knew the real ruling conspiracy was the P7?

(The Pale Patriarchal Plutocratic Protestant Penis-People of Power.)

You might be right Mr Stross, but I have two rather speculative reservations. First, a natural law --perhaps even a social one-- might be an EARTHLY natural law, one whose domain of validity is our planet or perhaps this galaxy. Second, we are told these days that our entire universe might be one of a possibly infinite plurality of universes, the Multiverse. On one such view our so-called natural laws are provincial; different universes in the Macroverse can have different laws. Now I'll really stick my neck out and extend this to society. I will then say that there is no a priori reason why a world with one government must yield mass graves or other horrors. Indeed, I hope that our world can and will EVOLVE into one such planet or colonised planetary group, or group of peacefully existing and/or coexisting xenocivilisations. I'm an optimist today.

Markets and parliaments come from our biologically inbuilt forms of behaviour. Governmental forms adopted by alien species are as likely to be biologically driven as socially. I once asked a question on Samizdata about how libertarians would cope with a species that was biologically socialist but no one even admitted to understanding the question, let alone accepting the possibility.

Thanks Ian, I was being serious but a bit playfully speculative as well. I take it that I understand your question and have already accepted the possibility you mention.

Nice one Charlie. Still, I think the mass graves could be well in the past in some cases. India and China between them already have about the same population as a c.1920 World State would have had.

To stick up for JRRT, what exactly is The Shire? They nominally have a king who a) has not been seen for hundreds of years; b) may no longer exist and c) is not of their species. They have Thanes, Masters and Mayors who interact in some complex way never clearly defined in the books.

Also, we are told that Gondor's Stewards will never be kings, but we are also told that the people of Gondor told Aragorn's branch of the family to cram it hundreds of years ago because they had already screwed up one Numenorean settlement royally. Theroretically, they are waiting for their own last King or his descendants to waltz back from whatever side trip he took on his way to Minas Morgul.

Galadriel's husband is so eager to meet his ruling Queen's gods in the West that he, his grandsons and most of his people say, "Hey we'll catch the next boat, whatever century it happens to arrive; meanwhile we will live free in the woods."

The Ents for all we know are an anarchsyndicalist commune with a sort of rotating presidency with...


Ian, I thought a bit about the question you posed to Libertarians and can think of one reason for their frequent incomprehension. Mind you, what I know about this is 2nd hand at best. I knew a libertarian follower of von Mises whose Bible was the latter's "Human Action." Now in that book von M argues that certain principles of human behaviour can be deduced from first principles. My friend spoke of "a priori" proofs. If these rule out Socialistic group behaviour then my friend could reject Socialism by claiming that it is conceptually in violation of first principles (he said just that). So perhaps you encountered a bunch of von
Mises True Believers.

Markets and parliaments come from our biologically inbuilt forms of behaviour.

Okay, see, now this is a promising premise for a science fiction story. Imagine an almost-parallel Earth where this was historically accurate. For example, an explicitly parliamentary variant of the Indus Valley civilization might be the default, rather than an outlier. To make it topical, you could even have the merchant class and the Harrappazdata clay tablet blog pooh-pooh'ing signs of the climate change that might have been partially responsible for their real world analogue's decline.

And if fantasy is more your thing, simply add dragons. Mutualist dragons.

I feel a tad embarrassed now, because Arkady's contribution to the looooong discussions in Red Mars sparked an equally long obsession with urban theory that's led me to all sorts of cool stuff...

...but then I've never met anyone who could stand reading Walter Benjamin either, so [insert own conclusions here].

Richard---Perhaps you should take a look at my old friend Arthur K. Bierman's book, "The Philosophy of Urban Existence." I don't remember who published it. It deals with the sorts of interpersonal relations involved in groups that live together in cities. It is a fine book but was overshadowed by Bertil Ohman's (Olman?) "Alienation," whose themes and solutions are similar.

Ken: alas, I'm not convinced the mass graves have exited the picture in respect of either India or China. (Although they seem to be somewhat smaller these days.)

PrivateIron: Given your take on the Shire, you might like to have a look at my Mythcon paper "Law and Institutions in the Shire," now available at, which offers a rather similar perspective, interpreting the Shire as influenced both by Tolkien's knowledge of ancient Iceland (for example, the Shire's divisions, or "Farthings," have the same name as Iceland's political divisions) and by the "distributivism" of Belloc and Chesterton. I see the Shire as actually having a dual government: the old system of Shire-Moot and Shire-Muster, mostly latent until the Sharkey takeover, and the civil government of the Mayor. (It's interesting to read LotR as the story of the ascension of Sam Gamgee from a hired servant to chief magistrate of an autonomous republic of several hundred thousand inhabitants.)

"Can the Dark Lord, meanwhile, run his vast domain with a handful of henchmen, terrified minions and lickspittle courtiers? Doesn't he need, at the very least, some plodding but reliable bureaucrats?"

Not really, unless you define his close connections who incidentally happen to carry out such functions as bureaucrats rather than connections. For instance, the Ottoman Empire was put on a sound basis when Sultan Orkhan I and his brother Aladdin got together to arrange a system; Aladdin became Grand Vizier, but the system mainly arranged places for subject and associated peoples, with autonomy enough for the subjects that they could organise their own co-operation - a Vichy approach. They needed bureaucrats, but the sultan didn't; he could always replace the autonomy with direct control, selling them as slaves, etc. Of course, accretions led to a slave bureaucracy in time, but that wasn't an inherent and necessary part of the system, as seen by its lack for generations.

"To say nothing of an arms industry and scientific - or magic - research, all of which will need some genuine enthusiasts. And all of this complication doesn't just add depth and colour to the background - it opens up plot possibilities. Does the Dark Lord's armourer never think of expanding his export markets? Might he not stoop to taking money even from the Forces of Good?"

Still on the Ottomans, it was the other way about. They bought in expertise that the Christians had, e.g. hiring Urban the Hungarian (a Christian) to make the great guns used in the final siege of Byzantine Constantinople. He did offer his services to the Byzantines first, but they could neither afford him nor provide him with the necessary resources.

PrivateIron, William H Stoddard, what struck me as missing from Tolkien's treatment of the Shire was enough discussion of the economics to show how upper-middle class types like the Bagginses, Tooks and Sackville-Bagginses et al could flourish with no visible means of support (before acquiring chests of gold abroad, obviously). My guess would be, there had been a mild form of absentee landlordism by the kings and their nobles, maybe in the form of quit rents, and that that had devolved to the municipal officers, with the wealthy buying municipal bonds or renting out urban property, inns, etc.

Some European settlements in North America became Canada and Mexico, unless you're adhering to the "one government per continent" rule.

Brilliant post, Ken. I was especially taken with the notion of the notion of how such an artefact as the Blue-Sapphired Sceptre of Snazziness would affect a parliementary process. Taking it further, you kinda wonder...if our party leaders were secretly in possession of magical artefacts, what would they be? Gordie might have the Souldrinking Bludgeon Of Unsubtlety, Cameron could be concealing the Black Cauldron Of Monetarism, and Clegg...possibly a pair of +3 Slippers Of Fence-Sitting. Who knows, eh?

And let's not even think about what Alex Salmond has in his safe ...

Peter - I like the name 'Urban the Hungarian'. It would fit a very clever and, ah, urbane hero. I've long wanted to have a character who could say: 'Under the veneer of barbarism, I'm a decadent sophisticate.'

You mean, like James Bond? It's been done.

I thought you might pick up on Urban's guns, which were of the same family as Mons Meg, only larger (think of the joke with the punch line, "much like a..., only smaller").

Captain Clegg? I can't think of any other Clegg.

Also - what about sovereignty as it really is, always constrained, partial, and interwoven? Institutions like the Holy Roman Empire, the EU, ICANN, NATO, etc...

P. M.: I think the largest single gun, at least before the Industrial Revolution, may have been the Tsar Pushka in Moscow. But Mehmet has the distinction of having had multiple BFG's made for him, not just one.

'von Mises' "Human Action."' Now you see the deck is stacked here. 'Action' is, if you poke around philosophy and stuff, something pretty well analyzed and defined as done by an 'individual.' so if you build 'action' into your premises, of course you get to individualist conclusions.
The counterpart is 'activity,' which assumes that what people to they do collectively.
Like talking. You can't have language bases on individuals. And if lanaguage has to be collective, then just about everything people do has to be too.

Chuckie K

Anon. That's as good an analysis of two philosophical approaches to behaviour as I have ever seen (I'm a retired academic philosopher). As you say, the theory of action has been studied intensively, and the individualist approach just didn't work. It bored me and seemed unreal. But recently there has been a lot of work done --not only by philosophers--on group action and the emergence of group characteristics. I know nothing about this at 1st hand. You are also right to stress communicative language as one basis of a successful theory of nonindividualistic human action. Good that you mentioned all of this.

Chuckie, George: That's certainly a valid point about language. But if you read Hayek's "The Result of Human Actions, but Not of Human Design," you will find a theoretical account of how organized activity emerges at the social level out of things people do at the individual level without people consciously planning for their society to have those particular features . . . one that is clearly informed by Hayek's long association with Mises and in particular by Mises' account of how money emerges spontaneously out of a moneyless barter economy. Really, it's not much more surprising than that human consciousness and cognition are achieved by the collective activity of a bunch of neurons that individually are about as smart as a paramecium.

Unless of course, organization as an objective outcome resulted from the interaction of multiple activities.

Doesn't matter what level of theoretical construction you locate it on, 'action' is flawed

Tempts me to say Hayek sounds like he theorizes his own sense of self-importance.

Let me retract that last remark. I was dashing by on the way from one file to another and got a little hasty.

The real point is language. I don't see how we can conceive of society without language. A theory of society cannot avoid the fundamental role of language. I would maintain that the form, meaning and function of language can only be adequately interpreted as an activity, inherently inter-subjective. So social theory at its base has to accommodate the evolutionary fact about the human species. Apparently Hayek does not. He would in other words treat language as an epiphenomenal outcome of a mass of solipsistic actions. I just don't see how that can fly.

Chuckie K

But there are societies without language: chimpanzees have them, and bonobos, and gorillas, and baboons. One of the current popular anthropological hypotheses correlates brain size with social group size, and explains language as a bonding mechanism for a social group too big to all groom each other.

At some point in evolution, language emerged for the first time. The first speakers did not have language and did not have a linguistically based society; therefore their invention of language must have emerged from some nonlinguistic base. Once it was created, subsequent speakers were all exposed to language and influenced by it . . . very much as, in the Mises money regression, the demand for gold today is based partly on the expectation that it can be used as a medium of exchange today as it was yesterday, and yesterday's demand on day before yesterday, and so back to a pure barter economy.

As to "intersubjective," that supposes that individualism = subjectivism, which I don't think is true. Private language argument. If my words refer to my subjective experiences, and your words refer to your subjective experiences, and we cannot point to any objective common reality, then we have no basis for establishing translations between our two sets of words, and thus cannot communicate via language. The whole idealist model of consciousness as a private interior reality has problems.

The point about the Shire is that the system of government is bound to look weird to us, because we're humans and the Shirelings aren't. Hobbits aren't psychologically human. They don't have the same greed: think about how Bilbo lived after he came back from the Mountain with untold wealth. He didn't move into a giant McMansion, he stayed in his hole. He didn't hire hundreds of servants, he hired a gardener. Hobbits seem to have inbuilt limits to their desires (which is why, of course, the Ring has little power over them).

what struck me as missing from Tolkien's treatment of the Shire was enough discussion of the economics to show how upper-middle class types like the Bagginses, Tooks and Sackville-Bagginses et al could flourish with no visible means of support

I always assumed that they were landlords. A single hobbit could live quite nicely on the rent from a few properties in the Smials.

ajay: Quite. But in fact, I think that Bilbo, as head of the Baggins lineage, was not "upper middle class": he was one of the twelve great hereditary chieftains of the Shire, along with the Master of Buckland and the Took and their ilk. The Shire's old aristocracy had faded in importance, but not so much in wealth.

On the other hand, the S-Bs seem to have been commodity traders, a quintessentially upper middle class occupation. That's how they got drawn into supplying the invasion of Rohan.

(A few years ago, talking with a friend who writes LotR fanfic, I suggested that she write a story about a hobbit private investigator looking into evidence of Lotho's corrupt business practices and improper influence on the Mayoralty.)

Sorry for the delay replying.

In my book, those factors about the place of the Bagginses et al in the precursor culture do not make them upper class in Shire terms, since that was a synthesis of the tribal origins and what was transmitted from the kings. That is, the Shire did not have a true upper class at all, but an empty place for one that was occupied by the (human) absentees.

Also, that did not address the point that puzzled me, just how the Bagginses et al obtained their income. That is, the specific manner of it. It is not enough for them to be tribal leaders; somewhere along the line there had to have been an institutional change, to get an income stream out of that. It's not a matter of how things would have been if they were only Bonnet Lairds; tribal systems as such simply didn't generate much chiefly cash revenue even for powerful chiefs. As Nassau Senior remarks in the third part of his classic work on wages, "In the early stages of society, the rank and even the safety of the landed proprietor is principally determined by the number of his dependents. The best mode of increasing that number is to allow the land, which he does not occupy as his own demesne, to be subdivided into small tenements, each cultivated by one family, and just sufficient for their support. Such tenants can of course pay little rent, but they arc [sic - probably a scanning error] enabled by their abundant leisure, and forced by their absolute dependence, to swell the retinue, and aid the political influence, of their landlord in peace, and to follow his banner in public and private war. Cameron of Lochiel, whose rental did not exceed 500 l. a year, carried with him into the rebellion of 1745, eight hundred men raised from his own tenantry. But in the progress of civilization, as wealth becomes the principal means of distinction and influence, landowners prefer rent to dependents..."

So it is not an answer to point out the chiefly positions of these Hobbits. They certainly had those, either at the relevant time or in earlier periods. The question is how that was translated into a source of wealth, a revenue stream, in the later cash economy. No doubt there were property rentals, or some system of quit rents, possibly even mediated by the towns so that the rentiers were more hands off; but that mechanism and how it developed are not spelled out.

The author's presenting things not working out as even she thinks they would is one of the few antidotes to axe-grinding I can conceive. That is, when an author presents things' working out exactly as she believes, the universe so described presents all the realism of any masturbatory fantasy.

Beside, in good writing one set of solutions becomes another set of problems, or births them...this is especially useful if you want a trilogy or more....

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