by Keith Morrison
©2008 Keith Morrison

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“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

   Tolstoy may have been generalizing, but the basic principle behind this, perhaps his most famous line, is fairly sound. Putting it in another context, humans are all alike, generally speaking, because the number of ways to be human is vastly outnumbered by the number of ways not to be human. We have with each other more in common than we do with any other living thing on the planet. You may think that’s blatantly obvious, but the same principle applies to more than phylogenetic relationships and family units. In particular, it also applies to governments. Successful governments are all alike; unsuccessful ones are unsuccessful in their own ways.
   This might first seem to be absurd. It’s easy to raise an eyebrow at the concept—monarchies, dictatorships, democracies, all alike!?—but bear with me. First, I should define what I mean by ‘government’. One definition that Mirriam-Webster provides is:

   the organization, machinery, or agency through which a political unit exercises authority and performs functions and which is usually classified according to the distribution of power within it …the complex of political institutions, laws, and customs through which the function of governing is carried out…

   Now, I like that particular definition because of what it implies: Not simply the local boss and his favourite cronies making decisions on whatever they decide to do at the moment, but a large, complex organization that’s responsible for governing a society. So that’s the definition of government I’ll be using; the way a large political entity manages itself.
   Given that, how can I defend the principle that successful governments are alike? Well, what’s the definition of a successful government? One that people could reasonably agree on is that a successful government is one that is stable.
   Perhaps the single biggest determinant of how stable a government is over time, is how well (or poorly) it deals with the change of power. All successful governments, be they absolute monarchies, democracies or any other variation of leadership, have a clearly defined process in which power changes hands. Primogeniture is a simple, straightforward method of determining whose next in line, and most of the successful monarchies have rules that even go beyond that—you know who is second, third, fourth and twentieth in line for the throne, and in the constitutional monarchies (which are most of them remaining), there are processes for determining who is next in line if for some reason the normal rules don’t apply. Similarly, in democracies there’s a method of replacing the person currently in charge and usually a list of who’s in charge if something happens to the boss.
   When you don’t have rules in place to cover that sort of thing, you’re asking for it. One of the greatest weaknesses of dictatorships is that the dictator often doesn’t think that far ahead, or simply chooses not to in order to prevent the next-in-line from trying to accelerate the process. The classic example is Hitler’s Germany. If Hitler had kicked the bucket suddenly in, say, 1942, there would have been utter chaos. The succession would have likely been a full-on brawl between his favourites (i.e., Goering), rising stars (i.e., Heydrich), entrenched Nazis (i.e., Himmler), and non-Nazi general officers who might have taken the opportunity to cut their rivals in the SS and Nazi party off at the knees. This chaotic situation was, in fact, apparently encouraged by Hitler, on the theory that potential usurpers would be too busy worrying about their rivals to think about taking him out.
   There is one notable case where the dictator did think ahead: Franco, in Spain, selected and groomed the young Prince Juan Carlos to be a good little fascist and his successor, tying the Falangist movement into a restored monarchy when the general eventually assumed room temperature. Unfortunately for all his careful planning, the moment the old goat became worm food, King Juan Carlos revealed himself to be a thoroughly decent man and one of the greatest leaders of the modern world. He rejected absolute power, restored democracy, and put down an attempted coup against that restored democracy by pure moral authority. You probably could have powered a generator by means of Franco’s corpse spinning in the grave.
   On the other hand, Kim Il-sung had obviously done some thinking ahead, selecting Kim Jong-il as his successor and making sure younger brother Kim Pyong-il was on diplomatic missions abroad (where he still is, as ambassador to Poland) to prevent a power struggle. North Korea has, therefore, gone the traditional route of the dictator being the founding member of a royal family. Of course, given that the current ‘king’ is a complete whackjob, one wonders about the stability thing again. Dictatorships tend to have a very shallow bench when it comes to dealing with instability at the very top.
   In some fictional contexts—specifically, those in which immortality is a viable option—there’s no particular reason for the dictator to plan ahead. Sauron had no need to groom an heir to take over Moldor, and depending on what you accept in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Palpatine intended to live forever by moving his consciousness to new clone bodies. But if the world you’re writing doesn’t have such an out for the guy in charge, then “What happens when the Old Man dies?” is going to be something that lurks in the minds of the rest of the hierarchy and may seriously influence their actions.
   Stability also means providing some care for the citizenry. While what qualifies as ‘caring’ has obviously varied over time and place, the basic principle stays the same: A reasonably content populace isn’t going to want to rock the boat. If you ever read the Evil Overlord List, especially in the sections about dealing with the populace (and subordinates), one realizes rather quickly that the Evil Overlord who is effectively managing things to secure his or her rule has a lot in common with the Good and Noble Ruler. Mind you, the motives of the two rulers may be different, but the end results can look pretty much the same. While the Evil Overlord ensures their subjects remain content so as to remove a threat to their personal power, the Good and Noble Ruler does it so that the people are happy.
   If you’re one of the populace, you might not notice the difference.
   If you have the opportunity, try to read Tanya Huff’s A Woman’s Work, the story of an unnamed Queen who is the consummate evil overlord. And she is evil, make no mistake: She’s quite willing to let her son appear with her in public wearing flashy clothes while she dresses plainly (makes him a better target for assassins), she’s out to conquer the world, she marries her son off to a young princess after her own heart who she fully expects to kill the prince as soon as there’s an heir, she slaughters the royal family (except for the young princess previously mentioned) of a conquered nation…
   …and she provides her people with a free education and universal health care (even the ones she recently conquered); she’s constantly building public facilities; there’s programs for job training and basically full employment; she treats her subordinates with respect; and she’s polite to her soldiers. Basically, everyone who isn’t an enemy at least respects her, and more often is totally devoted to her.
   Of course, stability also requires the defense of the nation from enemies foreign and domestic. That one is obvious.
   So that’s what I mean by successful governments being alike; they all follow three basic rules. A stable government…

  1. …has a method for the peaceful transfer of power.
  2. …provides for its people.
  3. …can defend itself and its people.

   The details may be different, and might change over time, but if you look at successful governments throughout history, those three things are what they have in common.
   What’s interesting is that the government that follow those three rules are more likely to survive periods when the rules aren’t being followed than those that don’t follow the rules to begin with. One family violently usurping the kingdom from another (breaking rule 1) is a common theme through history, but in nations we’d consider long-lived, such events tend to be the exception rather than the rule. While there’s no end to the political maneuverings that go on, actual armed violence tends to be limited. Looking through English history from the traditional start of Egbert in 829 to Elizabeth II today, for instance, the number of times the crown was decided through force of arms is a short list: From the time of the rise of the House of Tudor in 1485 to the current day, it’s only been twice. One, the execution of Charles I in 1649 at the end of the English Civil War, and two, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 when Parliament invited William and Mary to invade the country and depose James II.
   Stability returned after periods of instability because the system was mostly stable to begin with. People recognized the instability as a bad thing because they had something to compare it with, and the wish to go back to what things were like when the system wasn’t breaking down. In unstable systems, the people don’t have that personal connection to what’s better, which leads to two general results: Continued instability and/or the opportunity for the rise of demagogues who promise stability (but see above for ‘dictatorship and problems thereof’).
   Stable nations, in other words, have more inherent flexibility built into the system: They can bend a ways, but they come back because stability has become an inherent part of the culture and its people. China, perhaps, is a classic example. Unstable nations (including those which have an aura of stability thanks to dictatorship) don’t have that flexibility; under sociopolitical stress, they don’t bend—they break. Russia has been in that boat through much of its history, leading to the Summary History of Russia: ‘Somehow, it got worse.’ North Korea is certainly in that situation right now.
   So what does that mean for the writer?
   Well, stable governments are, by their nature, stable. Overturning them requires not a small amount of effort. A fictional example, again, is Star Wars. The Old Republic was, despite its corruption and general appearance of haplessness, stable. Overturning it required a great deal of effort on the part of Palpatine to make it unstable, a multi-decade effort operating in secret and conning rival powers into doing his dirty work. The small band of rebels simply aren’t going to have much of an effect if most people are content with the existing power structure. In fact, their efforts can have the absolute opposite of what they intend.
   This is a common failing of ‘popular revolutionary movements’. A strategy that was in vogue for a while was to start a campaign that would force the government to crack down on essential liberties. As the rationale goes, that sort of thing causes widespread anger at the government, which leads to more citizens joining the glorious revolution, and so on to victory, comrades! Argentina is an example of where this was attempted, with predictable results: The majority of the populace placed the blame for the problems where it belonged—on the rebels—and supported the government’s actions and more autocratic methods. The right wing junta that eventually emerged was the exact opposite of what had been intended.
   So if your brave band of rebels is going up against an established government where the majority of people accept the status quo? In that case, you, as a writer, better come up with a damn good reason why they have any hope for success.
   On the other hand, let’s say your plucky band of rebels is going up against a vicious, tyrannical, mean-spirited and outright eee-vil dictatorship. With this scenario, you’d better have a good reason why the security service isn’t used to dealing with plucky bands of rebels, given that they should be seeing them on a regular basis, or why the place isn’t on the verge of collapse without their brave efforts to begin with.
   If you know what kind of story you want to write, pick the right government for the setting.

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