New Worlds: Foundations of Power

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Every government and every leader has some basis on which it claims the right to power. This is true whether the leader in question rules over a tiny village of a hundred people, or an empire that spans continents.

The principles discussed here aren’t mutually exclusive. Societies can and do draw on several of them at once, blending and overlapping the ideas. And these concepts are often left implicit, too — they don’t have to be overtly stated to exert their influence. But being aware of the various rationales can help a writer to determine what the government of their invented setting should feel like . . . and what effect that will have on the story.

Might Makes Right

This is probably the simplest form of authority. Do what I say, or I’ll hurt you. Early English kings were warlords; they spent quite a lot of time at war, because they had to constantly exert their power in order to keep it. Otherwise their underlings got uppity and thought they could be kings, too. But this model hasn’t gone away: military dictatorships rely on the same principle. And even in a democratic society, armies and police and such still play a role.

The might in question isn’t always open violence, though. Secret police are another kind of force, and simply the fear of being taken away can keep people in line. Wealth can also be a coercive force, buying people’s businesses out or ruining them financially if they get out of control. Anything that lets you threaten some kind of harm to the disobedient falls under this header.

Force-based rule is inherently precarious. If someone stronger comes along, or your own strength falters — whether physically or in terms of your control over the army — your rule can be over in the blink of an eye. And while sometimes you can tell where the challenger will come from, that isn’t always true . . . which means that a society where this type of rule prevails doesn’t have a lot of continuity or stability.

That’s the practical downside. The moral downside is that this encourages a lot of brutish behavior, and certain kinds of people — often women, children, the elderly, the infirm, ethnic outsiders, and other minorities — usually take the brunt of it. If the main source of respect is the ability to crush your enemies, the result will rarely be benevolent.


This principle is interesting because it requires the conceptual leap of power and position being a kind of property, and therefore the natural possession of one’s heirs. There are may different kinds of inheritance — those will get their own essay someday — but the general notion that rule passes down through a bloodline is the core of it.

A major benefit of heritable rule is that you can plan for the future. Barring situations where the leader either has no heir or refuses to select one, people know who will be in charge when the current ruler abdicates or dies. Coups are possible, yes . . . but the evidence of history says the overall stability of this model is pretty high, with some dynasties ruling for centuries or (in the case of Japan) over a millennium.

Of course, the downside is that leadership skill isn’t passed on genetically. An excellent ruler may have a cruel or idiotic heir. Sometimes you can get around this via legal means, disowning the usual heir and naming someone else in their place. Sometimes the answer is to build governmental structures around the heritable position that can help to mitigate the shortcomings of the actual ruler. (This is probably why the Japanese imperial house has endured for so long: for most of that time, real power rested in the hands of the shoguns, who went through all the usual changes of dynasty seen in other countries.)

And returning to the moral side, this model naturally elevates some people above others just by virtue of their birth. Last week I mentioned achieved versus ascribed status; inheritance relies on the latter to justify its existence. This can become a straitjacket, preventing society from gaining the benefits of a skilled person in charge simply because that person was born to the wrong family.

The Will of the People

This is both an ancient idea and a fairly new one. The largely egalitarian social structure of many hunter-gatherer groups falls under this header: someone achieves status through their skills, wisdom, or deeds, and people follow that person out of respect. If the leader loses their respect, they may drift away, and pretty soon he’ll be leading nobody at all.

It’s also the key concept behind democracy. We’ll do a deep dive into that form of government at some future point, but for now it will suffice to say that our modern ideas of democracy trace back to ancient Greece, and it’s spread through quite a bit of the world in the last two hundred and fifty years.

One thing to note about this model is that, in the absence of good communication — either via easy travel or communication technologies — this one doesn’t scale up very well. Try to imagine a country the size of the current United States electing its leader without the benefit of TV, radio, the internet, cars, airplanes, railroads, or even newspapers and telegraphs. It would take months to get the election results from California to Washington D.C. The Romans managed because the majority of their citizens with voting rights lived in or near Rome itself; if every random Marcus in the hinterlands could vote, I doubt that would have worked.

Especially on a large scale, rule by popular consent is also very dependent upon people agreeing to play by the same set of rules. Many modern attempts at democracies have foundered when someone refused to relinquish power and reverted to “might makes right” tactics. This approach also does not guarantee freedom, though we like to think that it does: a lot depends on whose consent is required to rule. When only a subset of the populace gets to have their voices heard, everybody else tends to get the short end of the stick.

And one more . . .

There’s another incredibly common model I haven’t touched on yet, because it’s got enough subsections within itself that it’s going to get its own essay. So tune in next week, when we’ll discuss sacred bloodlines, bonds with the land, the Mandate of Heaven, and other forms of divine right.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Foundations of Power — 13 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Foundations of Power - Swan Tower

  2. Inheritance also has the advantage of aligning the interests of the ruler and the country as a whole. Non-hereditary rulers have been known to plunder the country for their heirs, or the benefit of their hereditary lands.

    • To be fair, hereditary lines have also been known to plunder the country for their own benefit — the later Bourbon kings of France are probably Exhibit A in that regard. The money may have stayed within France, but it wasn’t exactly doing much for the interests of the general populace.

      • Did more than it would have had it been an elective monarch siphoning it off to not circulate at all in France.

  3. Transitions between rationales are also extremely interesting; they’re often called “revolutions,” but sometimes they’re much more subtle. Renaissance Italy has a number of fascinating examples; “the Duke of Milan” appears offstage in Shakespeare in several places for a reason! (And not just that one of them was the patron who commissioned “The Last Supper.”) And, of course, the history of Istanbul (Not Constantinople) is even crazier.

    Sometimes, too, rationales evolve over time without any acknowledged change in form; again, both Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire are an excellent example, as is the Seljuk era.

    • I’m curious how you feel the history of Constantinople (as it was called under the Eastern Romans and the Ottomans) was crazy, as it appears to be simply over a thousand years of empire (with bouts of being a minor kingdom)…..perhaps you mean how The Will Of The People often changed just how many people were excluded from rights and protections? (ie, Byzantine Jews)

      But one thing Constantinople does show, is that inheritance isn’t always from parent to child, or even from elder to young’in. 🙂

      • I’m not quite sure what you mean there — the Ottoman dynasty was definitely hereditary, and lasted about six hundred years. Which is an impressive run (better than many dynasties manage!), but still behind the Japanese imperial house. Before that, the Byzantine Empire went through a number of different dynasties. I don’t know the history well enough to know whether any of them were democratically elected or popularly acclaimed, but the most likely scenario is a combination of “might makes right” (to take power) followed by “inheritance” (even if it didn’t pass down from parent to child; there are lots of succession models, of which that’s only one).

        • Precisely. Thats why I was puzzled why it was called crazy. Sometimes court politics (of Ottomans and I presume Byzantines too) would put a cloistered uncle on the throne instead of the late emperor’s son, but that hardly qualifies as madness (nor when the royal guard pick the next emperor – not dissimilar to what the praetorians would do during the first Roman Empire)

  4. As you know, the boundaries aren’t clear, and most forms of power are a mixture, but I think that you have missed a very important aspect: charisma and populism. It’s different from the will of the people, in that the people are not appointing the leader, but the leader is hypnotising the people.

    • That’s still “the will of the people,” though — it boils down to “I’m in charge because people want me to be.” There are different ways that can play out in practice, but they’re all the same general principle . . . especially since I’m not sure the people ever appoint a leader without any attempt on the part of the leader to appeal to them. Those choices don’t happen in a vacuum.

  5. “Try to imagine a country the size of the current United States electing its leader without the benefit of TV, radio, the internet, cars, airplanes, railroads, or even newspapers and telegraphs.”

    The 1820 elections encompassed Maine to Georgia, and the Atlantic to Illinois and Kentucky. That’s around 800×1000 miles, four times the area of France. No railroad, no telegraph, no pony express. I think not even pigeons. Yet somehow we managed to elect not just a parliament of local representatives but to have national elections for President. (Though 1828 seems a better example of a contested election with mass (white male) suffrage. Still low-tech, and adds Missouri.)

    And of course with a parliament, in theory you can just elect your local representative and let them hash it out in the capital. I suspect representative democracy is one of those ideas that could have usefully arisen much earlier than it did, like using buttons as fasteners.

    • Illinois and Kentucky are one thing; California is quite another, especially since the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada are much less friendly mountains to traverse than the Appalachians. The land area you’re describing is roughly a fifth of what the U.S. encompasses now — which admittedly also includes Alaska, and that’s kind of a special case, but even still. I’m not saying that representative democracy couldn’t have existed sooner; just that keeping it functioning on that scale without any technology to speed up communications and/or travel would be extremely difficult. When you get that kind of lag, it’s very easy for outlying provinces to decide that you know, they really don’t need to wait for answers from the capital, and can handle matters on their own.

    • Getting your state/province/etc to elect a representative to represent them in the far-off DC, is one thing. Enforcing what that representative decides among all the representatives, is another.

      eh, democracy arises from time to time to one extent or another (Vikings’ althinga, Swiss, Athens and Rome, etc)…the trick is both to get it to stick, and to more than just a city-state or two.