'Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder': Game of Thrones and dysfunctional politics

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“Essentially Westeros is a feudal system, with a class of serfs owing loyalty to a local lord. However, in Westeros there appears to be some critical elements of real feudalism missing.”  


As the final, long-awaited, season of Game of Thrones gets underway, there is likely to be a flurry of speculation about who is likely to win. Given the informal motto of the show ‘Valar morghulis’ (‘all men must die’), this is by no means a straightforward exercise. A recent academic paper analysed the narratives of 330 named characters over the life of the show. Of these 330, 186 (56%) had died. All but two were due to injury, burns or poisoning with most dying as a result of assault (63%) and war (24%). Clearly death is a key element of the show, and no character is safe. In fact by the end of the seventh season more than half of the important characters had died, most of them violently.

So why so much violence and what does it tell us about the political institutions that support such a high level of violence? 

The civilisation of Westeros is clearly based on the European Middle Ages, specifically as George martin has stated, the Wars of the Roses in Fifteenth century England. Much of the geography of Westeros is the British Isles, including the wall. The climate is essentially European but varies between extreme cold in the North and a Mediterranean climate in the South and Westeros is subject to epochal winters and summers lasting for years. The current series is set at the onset of such a long winter.

Politically, at this critical moment, Westeros is ruled by Robert Baratheon, who, it is fair to say, has not been the most diligent of Kings. His accidental death on a boar hunt precipitates a catastrophic political and institutional collapse that sets off a bloody competition of the Iron Throne amongst the rapacious, decidedly flawed and borderline insane ruling class of Westeros. Insanity inter-breeding and incest haunts the ruling class of Westeros, which produces calculating manipulators like Margery Tyrell and homicidal maniacs like Joffrey Baratheon. Indeed pretty much anyone who is interested in the power of the throne exhibits increasing insanity. Stannis Baratheon, for example, executes political opponents using dark magic. Even the more positive characters in the struggle like Jon Snow are open to using violence.

Where, one might ask, are the people in all of this?

Apart from those who are casually killed, most people appear in the show as soldiers, angry mobs or just as pawns in the games of the ruling class. Ironically only the intervention of the High Sparrow and a religious extremist movement provides an alternative to birth as a means to attain power, and this is done by being more extreme than anyone else.

The repressed, alienated, forgotten and dispossessed are north of the wall (or were), a magical fortification ironically manned by the Nights Watch, an organisation of those who have been outlawed or rejected by the Crown Lands themselves. Indeed, given the numbers of criminals at the time this is set, the Night Watch is little more than a gang. North of the wall there is a form of anarchy amongst the Free Folk or Wildlings who do not recognise the state and do not live and urban life.

The brooding Northlands are also home to the growing menace that builds up through all of the series alongside the onset of winter. Regarded as legends rather than facts, the White Walkers begin to appear north of the Wall and yet many of the degenerate ruling class of the South refuse to acknowledge the danger. The imminent threat of ‘the other’ is about to result in a catastrophe of an undead swarm sweeping south.

What shape are the institutions of Westeros in?

The institutions that are set to resist this assault of the undead are in no real shape to resist them. The rulers rule by force and they exercise authority through favourites and a form of patrimonial rule. Promotion is reliant on whim rather than on merit so it is by no means clear that any degree of competence is required for pretty much any job and, indeed, judging by some of the decisions made with regard to finance, incompetence may be a better guide to getting a job.

Essentially Westeros is a feudal system, with a class of serfs owing loyalty to a local lord. However, in Westeros there appears to be some critical elements of real feudalism missing. In particular feudalism in the real world was partly propelled and financed by estate property and serfdom, but also by small capital of individual yeoman farmers and by merchants. In Westeros, small capital is missing and merchants seem to be dwindling.

Critically in medieval Europe a class of merchants emerged that formed parliaments, merchants' guilds, autonomous cities, and other institutions that were able to challenge the ruling class politically and to hold them to account through finance. These organisations also critically fuelled scientific advances, education and universities, none of which appear to be happening in Westeros under the rule of the Maesters and their arcane knowledge.

What about Daenerys and can she win?

Daenerys is the one character who others believe in who is seeking to change the political institutions of Westeros. In a well-known episode in Series 5, Daenerys compares the political competition in Westeros to a wheel with each house spinning on it and occasionally rising to the top. She makes a vow that she will not merely turn the wheel until she rises but: "I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel."

Her long experience in Essos as she frees slaves and creates her own kingdoms does not suggest that she has worked out an alternative set of political institutions to her being installed as Queen and doing it better.

In her defence, Daenerys does seem to have a concern for the lot of ordinary people, and is an effective anti-slavery campaigner, which is mirrored by Jon Snow and his treatment of the Wildlings, particularly in treating them as fellow people and with some decency.  Neither, though, seem to have much of a clue about what alternative forms of government will actually look like and we don’t have much idea about the detailed reforms that must be necessary to break the wheel.

It should be said that GoT is unusual in making politics and the possibility of reform (even if it does involve magic) the core element of the show, and perhaps the story of replacing a nasty ruler with a virtuous one is universally appealing.

So as to who may win, I have to say that I have my reservations about the power couple Daenerys and Jon, who appear to not be breaking the wheel yet. Part of me is rooting for the White walkers, the dispossessed and the alienated, although I am conflicted because I also support the Wildlings. 

What price an abdication and the introduction of democracy as the most effective way of breaking the wheel?