Sunday, 13 August 2017

Time for Strategic Dragon Reduction Talks?

We're in a arms race now. Last week's The Spoils Of War put a stick in Daenerys's spokes. Or rather, a scorpion bolt in her dragon. Sure, the fire-breather survived Bronn's surface-to-air spear-to-the-ribs but for the first time in all the seasons, the assumed invulnerability of The Unburnt's Weapons of Mass Destruction has been called into question.

Dany had been hoping for a decisive and unanswered show of strength against the Lannister army facing its own Dunkirk on the banks of the Blackwater Rush. It was a proper take-no-prisoners strategy (in contrast to the Nazis in France, as it happens, who saw PoWs as valuable leverage over occupied civilian populations). However, Cersei and her allies have probably worked out by now, as Jon Snow did, that Dany does not want to be 'Queen of the ashes' and go full Enola Gay with her children. So with Khaleesi's options bounded by morality and ambition, Westeros is entering a period of rational deterrenceIts maintenance or destruction depends on four factors.

First, a military balance. Dany reckoned without Maester Qyburn's very own Strategic Defence Initiative in the form of the prototype ballista. Now proven, its development and mass production could well be where a lot of that new Iron Bank of Braavos money on offer goes. Of course, such power would not only be possibly effective against a dragon or three. It could almost certainly take out several unarmoured Dothraki at a time, too. Combined with whatever's left of the King's Landing wildfire, who has the true WMDs now?

Second, signalling and bargaining. We can expect to see the diplomatic machinations of Varys, Tyrion, Qyburn, Jaime, Littlefinger and others increase.

Third, 'reputations for resolve'. That is, credible demonstrations by the attacker or the threatened that they will be prepared to use their power. Limited proxy battles and the use of the dragons against third-party populations will ensue. A Guernica Beyond The Wall, perhaps.

Fourth, interests at stake. Essentially, the deterrence will break down when one side has already lost too much or has nothing left to lose. What could Cersei and Dany take from each other to make the other feel that way? Money? A lover? Territory? A limb or two?

Or perhaps all four and more. It's going to be a busy couple of weeks, common people.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Types of sovereignty: who should rule the Seven Kingdoms?

After six seasons, several kagillion deaths, and thousands of air miles (well, horse, ship and dragon miles), the competition to decide who should rule the Seven Kingdoms is finally down to the semi-final stages. From the teasers and trailers for Game of Thrones 7, confrontation now seems set between Jon, Cersei and Danaerys over who will securely plant their well-toned, and by now familiar, arse on the Iron Throne.

We no doubt have several rounds of murder, battle, doinking and intrigue to go but who, from a purely political point of view, has the most legitimate right to claim sovereignty over Westeros?

Cersei is the de facto sovereign at the moment. Her claim may not be the strongest in law (de jure) but she has consolidated and maintained power since killing or otherwise dealing with her immediate challengers. Her will has prevailed and is obeyed. For now. However, she is not quite absolute in her control. She cannot claim, Louis XIV-style, that she is the realm, for the realm remains too divided. Could she achieve total power? That appears to be the aim but even absolute monarchies have to be bounded by a social contract: individuals will give up some freedoms if their remaining rights are protected. Perhaps ex-Maester Qyburn will be Cersei's Thomas Hobbes, setting out a vision for imposing rules that leave the populus secure and just free enough.

Danaerys and Tyrion strike me as John Locke fans, though, seeking more legitimate forms of rule based on consent. Throughout her proto-nation-building across the plains and cities of Esteros, the Mother of Dragons has certainly behaved dictatorially but with a constant awareness of the need to promote the public good. Her version of the social contract has been less imposed from above and more won from below (for example, by the freeing of slaves). She will need a little more to establish her legitimacy amongst the more sophisticated populations of Westeros, though. So expect to see the diminutive Hand of the Queen spinning her de jure claim to the throne as the heir to the usurped Targaryen dynasty, as well.

Grand Maesters Hobbes and Locke
As a possible, alternative heir of the Targaryens, Jon has the potential to create a sovereignty which is truly popular. Popular sovereignty goes beyond the Lockian consensual delegation of rights from individuals to their rulers and into the positive selection of whom those rulers should be. Jon has already won an election once (to become the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch). And while it was hardly democratic by modern standards, his confirmation as the King of the North by the other northern Houses, after the Battle of the Bastards, had the air of a parliamentary gathering and of collective decision making. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have approved.

Can this popularity be spread to the other kingdoms? Well, leading a victory in a great war against an enemy posing an existential threat would do just that. Just so happens that Lord Snow has a bit of previous there.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Lies, damn lies and Braavosi plays. Propaganda in Game of Thrones S6/E8.

When we first met the actors of Izembaro's theatre troupe a couple of weeks back, I thought they would be an amusing, one episode sideshow. Three episodes on and they have proven to be fundamental to at least two plot lines: Arya's completion of her training with Jaqen H'ghar and the Lannister's scheming from the Red Keep.

The second may not be obvious but consider the nature of the tragedy they have been acting out. Covering the events that we know as season four, their play tells the story of Joffrey's and Tywin's murders solely from the point of view of Cersei: all a vile plot by an unprovoked and spiteful Tyrion. The crowds eagerly to buy in to it. So who is paying for this version of history?

In our digital world, dodgy regimes seeking to impose their worldview have satellite TV stations like Russia Today, Press TV and Al Jazeera. But the use of propaganda to distract from or conceal the truth is of course as old as politics itself. The plays of ancient Greece could be used to glorify or denigrate heroes or battles. Shakespeare's history plays served a similar purpose. Richard III was "based on the Tudor propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting the last of the Plantagenets".

"Undermine The Imp? No problem. But in this Donald Trump wig?"
The Greeks, and the Romans after them, also understood the powers of great oratory and rhetoric in shaping public opinion. Demosthenes's speeches played a role in war, diplomacy and the eventual unification of the city states of ancient Greece. Cicero is still cited as a source of campaign advice in the modern age. It was when great words were blended with religious conviction that propaganda became a common part of life in Europe. Indeed, that's where we get the word from. The Vatican's College of Propaganda, first formalised under Pope Urban VIII in the 1630s was set up to train priests to propagate the faith.

In Meereen, the preachers in the market spreading the word of the Lord of the Light - as part of the deal that Tyrion struck with the Red Priestess Kinvara - are also enthusing their audiences with loyalty to Danaerys Sixteen Jobs.

This mixing of religion, propaganda and politics is set for a bloody conclusion in King's Landing as Cersei and Maester Qyburn plan their final move against the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant. The younger Lannister might have more success in controlling the ideas he's unleashed in Essos. But will he overcome the slander promoted against him on the stages of the Free Cities? 

Friday, 27 May 2016

Tyrion the Whig vs Varys the Tory in Game of Thrones S6/E5.

Well that was all a bit meta wasn’t it? Kevin Eldon playing an actor playing a comedy northerner. Richard E Grant as a rep luvvie. Brienne channelling the Jon-Snow-Comes-To-Dinner sketch and contemplating the Promised Prince’s brooding nature. And Bran’s slip in the warg-time continuum leaving the riddle of whether Hodor’s name or the hold-the-door mini-battle came first in GRRM’s imagination.

Anyway, on with the politics, which is reducing to its most basic form: might is right.

The growing Stark entourage are off to rally potential allies and their hosts to the cause of taking back The North. Intelligence from the scheming Petyr Baelish is directing them first to Riverrun, supposedly retaken by Jon and Sansa’s Tully cousins. Surely anything from Littlefinger’s mouth should be graded at a minimum of ‘E4’, though.

Over in the Iron Islands, the new king, Euron Greyjoy has been anointed via the traditional method of taking in a lungful or two of Ironman’s Bay. In future, claimers of the Salt Throne might find a seawater colonic irrigation more cleansing and less threatening to life. With the Driftwood Crown jauntily perched on his head, he wasted no time in calling for his escaped niblings (and pretenders to the throne) to be murdered, before demanding the sort of naval expansion that would have put the Vinson-Walsh Act to shame. His plan is to ‘seduce’ Danaerys with his ships by proposing to unite them with her Dothraki horsepower. Which makes you wonder just who was responsible for burning her original fleet in Meereen.

Tyrion is still trying to keep a lid on the chaos developing in that city and has become most whiggish in his approach. The Whigs were forerunners to modern day ‘big-L’ Liberals and, in British political history, emerged during the English Civil War and were founded on principles of constitutional monarchism. (There was also an American Whig Party which was one of the predecessors to the Republicans and whose traditions are still reflected!). Whiggism emphasised the importance, even the inevitability, of personal freedoms, democratic values, human knowledge and scientific progress. Tyrion’s deal with the Masters in E4, to allow Meereen to be free of slaves while slavery is phased out in the rest of the Free Cities, is a typically whiggish compromise. It was the Whig Party that abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833, except for territories controlled by the East India Company. Those exceptions were removed ten years later.
East India Company territories (Slavers Bay not shown).

In E5, Tyrion is once again trying to rally the people of Essos towards a freer, richer future. Varys is sceptical of this approach and openly presents a more Tory position. Although now a synonym for Conservatives in British politics, Tories also originated during the English Civil War as Royalist supporters of King Charles I. As they developed into a political project, now often referred to as High Toryism, they emphasised tradition and hierarchy as the source of guidance for any change, which they preferred to be incremental. They were suspicious of commercial and individual interests undermining community and order.

Tyrion wants to consolidate Danaerys's power by spreading the story of her bringing peace and security, and the idea that history is with her. He seeks the advocacy of the the Red Priestess Kinvara, a leader of the Lord of Light faith. Although startled by her somewhat genocidal rhetoric (well you can't make an omelette without breaking a few dragon eggs), he accepts her offer to promote the Khaleesi as the leader "against the darkness, in this war, and in the great wars still to come".

Varys objects on the basis that Stannis Baratheon's support from another Red Priestess (Melisandre) led only to his defeat in his attempt to claim the Iron Throne. He openly doubts the wisdom of this new religion and its representative.

By the end of the 18th Century in Britain, the Tories represented established interests such as land owners, merchants and government administrators; while the Whigs stood for religious dissenters, industrialists, and social and political reformers. In Game of Thrones, the nouveau riche Lannister and the paternalistic Spymaster still share the same goal of reuniting the Seven Kingdoms. But differences are emerging in how they want to get there.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Message control. The Lannister Party seeks renewal in Opposition in Game of Thrones S6/E3.

The signs were there in episode two. Outside a Fleabottom hostelry, a previously loyal subject of the former Queen Cersei was bragging about just how explicitly he had disrespected her during season five’s penitent Walk Of Shame. Unfortunately for this bantzmonger, the new enforcer from the Red Keep, the reanimated Mountain, was on hand nearby to enforce a bit of terminal message discipline via the medium of a brick wall. 

Still more violent than The Mountain
In this week’s episode, Cersei revealed the Lannister’s strategic communications plan in full:

"If someone is laughing at the Queen who walked naked through the streets covered in shit, I want to hear. I want to know who they are. I want to know where they are."

Jaime and Cersei also know that the family has to start looking like a ruling party again. So the Kingslayer has asserted his right to sit on the Small Council as Lord Commander of the King's Guard. Sure, Uncle Kevan currently heads it up as the Hand of The King, but he is rather Lannister-lite, after refusing to visit Cersei in her cell, and is the father of Lancel (who has abandoned the family for life as one of the most zealous of the High Sparrow’s faithful).

The initial opposition to Jaime’s joining was squashed under the weight of precedence. Maester Pycelle was forced to admit the Ser Gerold Hightower, Jaime's predecessor, had sat. This is a very common law approach to constitutional matters with no civil law codified in either support or prohibition of Jaime’s appointment. What other precedents will the Lannister’s uncover as they claw back power? The rest of the Small Council is refusing to sit in protest, essentially 'empty chair'-ing the Lannisters. A most Gaullist approach.

King Tommen is also on a constitutional collision course, with the Faith Militant. The Faith and the Crown have been mutually dependent until now. The teaser for episode four hinted at Cersei’s public shaming being visited next upon Margaery, who still resides at the High Sparrow’s pleasure. The now Queen Mother may welcome as justice the equalising humiliation of her rival. But just as sleaze in our own body politic erodes trust in all parties no matter who is the subject, more Shame might further turn the populus of King’s Landing against dynastic rule altogether. Additionally, as Tommen's Queen, Margaery's distress might be the inspiration for disestablishment of the Faith of the Seven. Violently, if necessary; probably inevitably.

Meanwhile, in Essos, Dany, despite being the Mother of three grown dragons, is being held against her will by the Dothraki equivalent of the Women's Institute.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

"F**k prophecy. F**k faith." The old institutions and the new in Game of Thrones S6/E1.

Series Five of Game of Thrones ended with the the old institutions and the new asserting themselves across the Seven Kingdoms . The Faith Militant prevailed in King's Landing, the Night's Watch violently rejected the liberal interventionist leadership of Jon Snow, House Bolton took control of The North, and in Dorne, Prince Doran re-established stability after the anti-Lannister shenanigans of Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes.

In the final scenes of S5, however, were the seeds of the key political theme of the first episode of S6: the challenge to these institutions from insurgent forces (which are also novel in some cases and familiar in others).

Ellaria's poisoning of Myrcella Baratheon-Lannister, a direct betrayal of Doran's son's betrothal to her, escalated quickly into a full-on coup d'├ętat with her assassination of the Dornish ruler. It is the first time we have seen such a regime change in Thrones: brisk and by a small group, rather than a civil war, rebellion or conquest.

Dorne was the last of the Seven Kingdoms to fall under the control of the Iron Throne and remained loyal to the Targaryens during the War of the Usurper. Is it set to be an alternative powerbase again to whoever rules in King's Landing? There are allies to be made now, perhaps most obviously in Sansa Stark. 

Her escape from Winterfell with Theon Greyjoy when we last saw them, has thrown a flaying knife in the works of Roose Bolton. "I rebelled against the Crown to arrange your marriage to Sansa Stark," he tells his nominal heir, Ramsay. "We need the entire North. They won't back us without Sansa Stark. We no longer have Sansa Stark. You played your games with her. You played your games with the heir to the Iron Islands. And now they are both gone".

The Starks have regained a daughter just as the Lannisters have lost one but with Jaime back by Cersei's side and the Starks still dispersed, the immediate advantage lies with the incestuous twins and their son King Tommen. But the other Houses can wait it seems. With his declaration to "fuck prophecy, fuck faith" it is clear that The Kingslayer regards the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant as the most immediate threat.

Will there finally be a counterbalance from a reunited House Stark, as Sansa heads north to Jon Snow - whose corpse Ser Davos seems determined to keep intact for Melisandre's restorative powers, in defiance of the new old guard of the Watch - and perhaps onwards to Bran?

Dany finally got her new business cards back from the printers.

Meanwhile, in Essos, Daenerys, despite now having the longest job title in history, still can't effectively project the might of her dragons and has left a power vacuum in Meereen that threatens anarchy. Keeping order will require all of Tyrion's intelligence and Varys's, erm, intelligence.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Introducing A Certain Ripening: the politics of Game of Thrones.

Season six of Game of Thrones comes marauding over The Wall on 24 (US) and 25 (UK) April and its depiction of troubled nations, exotic threats and flawed leaders couldn't come at a more appropriate time.

Much has been written about the 'real' history of GoT and the ways in which George R R Martin has drawn inspiration from the kings and battles of medieval and early modern Britain. Ed West's The Realm and Den Of Geek's series do especially fine jobs in this regard.

This website aims to take up themes which are more political than historical within the Game of Thrones canon, both literary and televisual.

There are four areas of political science that stand out in the plots of GoT:

how political order comes about and is maintained
political economy
the interaction of law, justice and politics
international relations

Politics, wrote Howard Lasswell in 1936, is about who gets what, when and how. Nearly 70 years before, Otto Von Bismarck had put it more starkly (geddit?) as "the art of the possible, the attainable; the art of the next best". This realpolitik view dominates the plots of GoT but ideology and normative judgements also drive the stories and characters.

All these tensions, and others, will be explored by A Certain Ripening