New Worlds: Forms of Government

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

Governments have taken a dizzying array of shapes over the millennia since we first invented them, all around the world. We have lots of terms for discussing those shapes, but those terms overlap with each other in a variety of ways, which makes this a complicated topic to unravel. If I had majored in political science I would probably have a more robust framework for organizing it; as it stands, we shall just have to muddle through!

Leaving aside anarchy — the absence of a political hierarchy — you can put governments on a spectrum from democracy (rule of the people) to oligarchy (rule of a few) to autocracy (rule of one). I refer to this as a spectrum rather than a set of distinct categories because “a few” isn’t really a concept that lends itself to strict measuring, and you could certainly argue that democracies which restrict the right to vote to a sharply limited category of the populace amount to a broad oligarchy.

Each of these, of course, breaks down into multiple sub-categories. We’ll loop back around to this topic to unpack those in greater detail during some future month, but for now broad descriptions will suffice. With democracy, is it a direct democracy (where the citizens = the government and decide on issues), or a representative democracy (where the citizens elect a government which decides on issues)? Also, who has suffrage, aka political franchise, aka the right to vote?

Autocracy, on the other hand, can mean things ranging from traditional monarchy — another way of saying “rule of one” — to the somewhat old-fashioned term “despot” to the more modern phenomenon of dictatorship, whether based on a military foundation or some other source of power. But not all monarchs are truly autocratic; in many cases their authority is constrained, diluted, or opposed by power held in other hands, as with a constitutional monarchy. Only absolute monarchs officially gather all power to themselves.

With an oligarchy, what criteria distinguish the ruling elite from the non-ruling masses? Historically this has often been a hereditary aristocracy, but it can also be wealth, land ownership, military power, religious influence, education, or various other factors. And that brings us around to the second way of breaking down types of government, which is the slew of terms describing who gets to be in charge.

Of these, aristocracy is one of the most widely-known. Technically it means “rule of the excellent,” but in practice we use it to mean hereditary government, via the theory that excellence runs in families. Aristocrats form a distinct social class within their respective societies, and generally control not just the government but land, industries or trading rights, and other forms of economic, military, religious, or other power.

This slides very easily into timocracy, which sounds like it should mean “rule of fear” but in fact means “rule of price/worth,” i.e. a setup where one must be a property owner to hold government office. (I mentioned limited democracies above: for a long time in England, only landholders could vote in Parliamentary elections.) A slightly different flavor of this same concept is plutocracy, or “rule of the wealthy.” But while someone will proudly boast of being an aristocrat, “plutocrat” has usually been used as a negative term, and explicitly allowing money to buy power is rarely championed as a good thing. The same goes for kraterocracy — a fancy (and very recent) term for the “might makes right” principle we discussed before.

The latter is similar to, but not quite the same thing as, stratocracy, aka “rule of the army;” that term describes a society where the state and the military aren’t separate entities, and civil leaders are simultaneously military officers. Rework that same idea in a religious vein, and you get a theocracy or ecclesiocracy, where civil leaders are simultaneously priests or other kinds of religious leaders. Kritarchy, “rule of judges,” is a less common variant, and not always distinct from those other types. In fantasy, the term “magocracy” sometimes appears to describe rule by those with magical talent, though I’m not enough of a Greek linguist to say whether that’s the best term for it or not.

One thing to note is that these forms interrelate with a concept from earlier this month, which is achieved status vs. ascribed status. Military rank or religious position can be ascribed positions, but they may also be earned, depending on the situation. Gerontocracy is borderline in that regard: is making it to elder status an active achievement, or something that happens by default as long as you don’t kick the bucket? Meritocracy requires achievement, though theoretically meritocratic systems like the Chinese imperial examinations often imposed roadblocks that complicate the picture. Technocracy is a twentieth-century term for a similar concept, taking the Greek root in its sense of “skill” rather than meaning modern technology, but also implying the use of science and the scientific method to solve problems.

We could keep going. Some of these words aren’t so much accepted terms for formal types of government as derogatory ways of discussing other types: for example, kleptocracy (rule of thieves), describing a society where leaders exploit their power for personal gain, or kakistocracy (rule of the worst), describing . . . well, quite a few things nowadays, as various commentators have been reviving an old-fashioned term for modern trends. Conversely, people will coin words for theoretical forms of government never really practiced on a large scale (or at all), like noocracy (“rule of the wise,” aka Plato’s philosopher kings), ergatocracy (“rule of the workers,” aka a hypothetical form of communism), or geniocracy (“rule of genius,” advocating for compassion and intelligent problem-solving).

And of course none of this touches on socio-politico-economic frameworks like capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, etc., nor structures like federations or empires. But it’s a starting point, at least, and when we come back to government at some future point we can begin diving into the specifics in greater detail.

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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: Forms of Government — 14 Comments

  1. Any time you have more than three people voicing their opinions, you need an arbitrator, aka government.

    Rule by consensus is an ideal that only works when people of like interests, goals, and methods gather together (The Quakers, or BVC).

    Humans are diverse. Someone has to keep us in order.

    • Not only do you need shared commonalities, but consensus doesn’t scale up at all well. You can get ten people to go along with a thing, or maybe a hundred, but a thousand? Ten thousand? A million? Yeah right.

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Forms of Government - Swan Tower

  3. There’s also a lot of play between the overt (or espoused) form of government and actual governance. The transitional period of Rome between the purported “Republic” (which was in reality oligarchical) and the “Empire” is fascinating; so, too, is nineteenth-century Prussia/Germany.

    I think the key dimension that is missing from the discussion (and is usually missing from the discussion in political science, too) is the relationship between overt form and succession… and what can cause a succession. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century England is a fabulous example of the latter, in which the overt form of “representational democracy with an aristocratic hereditary head of state” slid rather easily into “factional landowning oligarchy” in practice. But then, when I lived Over There I lived for a while a couple of hundred meters from one of the more-notorious rotten boroughs.

    • Pretty sure 18th century England was meant to be dominated by landowners too. Property qualifications to vote and all.

      Rome is messy because the actual empire — the conquered provinces, were mostly built up under the Republic, and the ‘republic’ only applied to the city government of Rome. Outside Rome it was always an empire; the transition was from being ruled by a fractious plutocratic municipal government to whoever commanded the loyalty and paycheck of the legions. Possibly an improvement for the provinces, if only because your governors might be now appointed for competence, rather than being short-term urban politicians out to loot you to further their careers back in Rome. (I’m guessing; not an expert in provincial conditions.)

      • if Judea was any indication, sometimes a governor would skim some extra taxes off the top both to make it more likely he’d be promoted to serve in Rome…and also in case he had to retire after his posting.

  4. I’m tempted to suggest that “magocracy” is part of a theocracy, since the Magi were priests. πŸ˜€

    Seriously though, I’d heard Classical Athens described as an oligarchy as much as a democracy…but Timocracy sounds just as applicable.

    thanks for all the unfamiliar words – they expand my horizons

    • Timocracy doesn’t work for post-reform Athens unless you’re defining citizenship as property, which doesn’t work well because you can’t buy and sell it. *Every* adult male citizen could vote, and had an equal chance of being selected by lot for the Council of 500, juries, or oversight boards. At some point they even added half-drachma/day salary so poorer citizens could afford to serve.

      It’s hard to classify Athens in modern terms; if you pay attention to the whole population it’s at best a very flawed democracy if one at all, but OTOH power was spread around for more widely and evenly than usual in an aristocracy, and had useful mechanisms we could be inspired by today.

      • um, I’m not sure whether it was pre- or post-reform, though, sorry. I’d always heard (in documentaries and books) that Athens’ democracy was only for landowning male citizens (which was redundant, as all landowners were male citizens)

        >useful mechanisms
        I think the herms would be in even more danger this past century. πŸ™‚

        seriously, though, the Italian city-states of the Middle Ages tried that whole “report people anonomously” and it did not work well…or it didn’t end well. (potato, potatoe) πŸ™‚

        • I’ve got a photo of one of those “write down secrets and put them in here!” boxes, which I’m saving for a later essay. πŸ˜€

    • The classic fantasy magocracy, with ultra-powerful mages, is a kraterocracy: “we rule because we can cast Fireball/Polymorph/Charm Person/Summon Demon Army”.

      Examples: the Black Company, the March North (outside the Commonweal), Girl Genius (where Sparks can build big weapons and often their own servants, reducing the need for people skills).

      • This is true — but it makes me want to see what a different kind of magocracy would look like!

        Depending on the setting, theocracies can also be “might makes right.” The line between a mage and a religious leader who can metaphysically damn you if you don’t toe the line is not always very clear.

  5. Kakistocracy = government by the least suitable or competent citizens of a state; a state or society governed by its least suitable or competent citizens.

    Sound familiar?

    • is that why early US Presidents stood for office rather than running for office?