New Worlds: Autocrats, Dictators, and Tyrants

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

Because fantasy and science fiction often focus on grand conflicts — problems on a societal scale, affecting many people beyond the central characters — there’s a rather high occurrence of bad governments in the genre. And because there’s also a high occurrence of monarchies, that means we see a lot of terrible kings and queens.

Our terminology for such people is less than precise, in part because we like to sling those terms around as insults, and when we do that, we stop caring very much about strict definitions. “Autocrat” has already come up; that means someone who exercises sole power. “Tyrant” generally refers to someone who exerts absolute rule without answering to the law. “Despot” comes from the Greek for “master,” and it’s particularly associated with Western Asiatic states (to the point where “oriental despotism” is a thing you’ll see in discussions of political history, though I suspect the use of that phrase has declined in recent decades). If you hop over to Latin instead of Greek, you find “dictator,” which is by far the most common term in use today, though more for people backed by military juntas than hereditary monarchs.

The interesting thing is, these weren’t always seen as bad things. Even tyrants, who soon got quite a bad rap in Greek political thought, were originally somewhat neutral: if you usurped the rule of a place (or inherited from one who did), then you were a tyrant, even if you ruled well. The Russian Emperor called himself “Autocrat of all the Russias,” and the heirs apparent to the Byzantine throne sometimes bore the title “Despot;” that latter term lingers today on in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, as a way to address the priest. And Roman dictatorship was an official institution in times of crisis, where a magistrate would be given sole power for a limited duration — a recognition that when the shit hits the fan, you can’t always afford the delays imposed by the structures of republican government.

That latter point is worth stopping to look at. Part of the reason monarchy in general has been a successful form of government is that investing a single person with power means decisions can get made much more rapidly. No need for arguments in committee or the sort of political blackmail where someone withholds their vote until they get a concession on some other front; someone says “do it” and it happens. Military command is largely dictatorial for this reason, though of course it contains many layers of authority, and in the end it’s answerable to a civilian government. (When it isn’t, that’s how you wind up with a military dictatorship.)

Because of this, it’s been said that the best possible form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. If someone exercises supreme power, but does so for the greater good, they can maintain beneficial institutions that might be undermined if power was more dispersed, and they can also push through necessary changes whose expense or unpopularity might stymie them in a more democratic society.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, various so-called “enlightened despots” embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment and used their power to enact a wide variety of reforms, promoting science, modernizing agriculture, encouraging trade, and more. While many of these reforms not coincidentally increased the power of the state, they also increased the overall prosperity and standard of living in those realms. In the twentieth century, several dictators are remembered fondly in their home countries for the improvements they made, especially when those improvements included freeing their nations from colonial control. And the efficiency of this approach is nothing to sneeze at: an initiative by Fidel Castro took Cuba from about 75% literacy to nearly 100% in less than a year. When you look at an issue like climate change, where industry lobbyists resist anything that would cut into their profits and large swathes of the populace deny there’s any problem at all, you can see the appeal of having a leader who could ignore all that and just do what needs to be done.

But that’s the shiny side of the coin. Not all such reforms produce good results. Sometimes the underlying “science” is flawed or outright warped by ideology; the Great Leap Forward in China and similar efforts by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed millions because reality didn’t conform to their notion of how things ought to work. Even reforms that are beneficial in the long run often involve a lot of disruption and suffering along the way, as ordinary people get uprooted from their homes, or traditional institutions (especially religious ones) get broken in favor of new structures. As for Castro’s literacy program, it doubled as political indoctrination, educating the countryside in the principles he wanted them to learn.

See, the problem with that idea of “benevolent dictatorship” is the “benevolent” part. As they say, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; anyone who assumes this kind of control is extremely prone to using that control to ensure their own supremacy continues. For every Atatürk who expands the right to vote, you get dozens of leaders who imprison the opposition, silence their critics, and turn elections into rigged formalities. For every Enlightenment-era king who invests in the infrastructure of his realm to prevent famines, you get dozens who use that money to enhance their own grandeur instead. And if someone holds absolute power — whether they seized it by force or you gave it to them by choice — taking it out of their hands again can be very difficult.

In real life, anyway. Science fiction and fantasy can play a different game, the latter especially. What if you did have a way to ensure benevolence? In Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar setting, the sovereign has to be a Herald, and the Heralds are chosen by the horse-like Companions, who are literal agents of the divine in the world. It is the next best thing to impossible to wind up with a truly cruel or selfish monarch in Valdemar, because their deity takes an active hand in the process of selection. Fantasy can take the notion of something like “the mandate of heaven” and make it palpably true, casting down anyone who comes to abuse their power rather than deploying it for the good of the people.

Most of the novels that incorporate this idea do it as a way of forestalling the type of conflict I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. The protagonists’ land is divinely assured to have a good ruler; the problems are therefore at a lower level or external, e.g. war with a foreign land that lacks such a guarantee. But there’s plenty of under-explored narrative in even a benevolent dictatorship, by looking at that tension between individual and greater good. How would you react if someone overturned your entire way of life, and you wholeheartedly believed that your subsequent suffering would ultimately lead to better things? What about if those better things would never be for you, but only for your neighbors, or for generations to come? What would you do if your ruler sincerely believed they were exercising their power for the good of their people . . . and they were wrong?

Or everything is well and good now, the reigning monarch is great — but they won’t live forever. Next week, we’ll finally look at succession!

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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 swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Autocrats, Dictators, and Tyrants — 10 Comments

  1. I’d be interested in seeing more fantasies set in secondary worlds that are democracies, or republics, or communitarian, or anything besides the traditional monarchies and empires.

    • That’s definitely coming up as a future topic! Including the fact that local government can often be more democratic in nature than the national kind — and local government is often a thing that gets neglected in speculative fiction.

    • The thing is that monarchies are also useful to have the government take up as limited a part of the novel as possible.

  2. And autocrats for any sizeable population still need to have a bureaucracy to administer their decrees. Such bureaucracies over time become dictators in their own right and there can be interesting tensions between them and the tyrant that they supposedly serve.
    There were historically also interesting conflicts between the mandarins and the corps of eunuchs that served the Chinese emperors.

    • Even the Emperors themselves sometimes butted heads with the mandarins, I’d been told; from time to time, the Emperor tried to launch a law, only for the mandarins to essentially go “yeah, thats a hard no.”

    • Bureaucracy is also on my list of things to discuss eventually. 🙂 (Eunuchs, too!) Because yeah, there’s a point at which a state is much too large and complex for a single person to run the whole thing.

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Autocrats, Dictators, and Tyrants - Swan Tower

  4. A strong parliamentary prime minister can combine both worlds: the power of one person backed by a legislative majority, but ultimate democratic responsibility (and succession).

    Twelve Kingdoms and the RPG Blue Rose (influenced by both Lackey and 12K) also used “divine choice of king”. In 12K this doesn’t always work out as well as you’d hope.

    Fantasy republics: Tolkien had the Shire and Lake-town, and elven kings seem more chosen rather than ‘grabbed power’. The Liveship Traders books show a town going from merchant oligarchy to democratic revolution. ASoIaF has plutocratic republics in past Valyria and current Volantis; I’ve read that some character snarkily points out the superiority of their annual Triarchs to a system that let Joffrey come to power as a mad minor.

  5. Acton was wrong, but that’s obvious once you consider his first name (“Lord”). Power does not corrupt, and absolute power does not corrupt absolutely… else those Enlightenment rulers would ALL have focused solely upon their own grandeur. It’s not power per se that is a corrupting element — it is the struggle for it. (Acton’s blind spot was that he was born to it during one of the most stable periods of the British monarchy.)

    That aside, there’s one other problem with benevolent dictators: They are only as benevolent as their information is complete (and timely) and their subordinates worthy of trust… because no dictator can actually DO everything. That opening scene in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS — the ruler mortared and laid the keystone of a bridge. But the ruler didn’t build the rest of the bridge, literally or figuratively. “Power” is not “omnipotence.”

    Once one gets more than the size of a small village, there must be an ability to delegate and lead… which is not well correlated with “power.” It’s the old military program of “span of control”.