A lot of people have been talking about Charli Carpenter’s entertaining exposition on Game of Thrones and IR theory, and with other efforts out there such as Dan Drezner’s opus on zombies and international relations, academics love to apply IR theory to all sorts of fantasy situations. It got me thinking though that you rarely see similar attempts to apply the basic concepts of comparative politics to popular culture. True, IR theory is a lot more parsimonious and less wide-ranging (or perhaps less rambling would be a more accurate description), but CP deals with the fundamental core of how politics are organized and how outcomes are affected by institutions, and Game of Throne is a perfect vehicle for looking at this aspect of political science as well. After all, comparative politics seeks to explain everything about the state, which is the central actor in politics, and while Game of Thrones is in some ways about the struggle between different entities (Starks vs. Lannisters, the North vs. the South), in other ways it is about basic state formation. What can the world of Westeros tell us about where states comes from, how they are sustained, and whether state-building is a natural activity?
There are two competing theories about how states are formed, which we can dub bottom up and top down. The bottom up theory is a nationalist model which says that before you have a state you must have a group of people with a common national or ethnic identity. This identity naturally develops when different small groups of people realize that they have shared common threads that together coalesce to make them a sum much larger than its parts. These shared characteristics might be language, history, culture, or religion, all of which point to the conclusion that these disparate groups of people are not unique or alone in the world. This in turn leads to group consciousness where these people who share these common attributes realize that they are part of a larger group, in effect expanding what they see as the lowest common denominator linking themselves to other people. Whereas before they may have viewed themselves primarily as members of a village, now they imagine a larger political community to which they belong. Leaders of the group then encourage its members to form its own polity (or revolt against the current rulers who do not come from the group), a struggle for independence ensues, and eventually a state is born.
In contrast, the top down theory does not begin with an assumption of nationalism. Rather than being initiated by some form of group consciousness and a desire of that group to have its own state, in this model – popularized by Charles Tilly in his work on European state creation – states come into being as a result of external threats, which create an incentive for an ambitious actor to become a protector. In order to counter the threat, the protector has to raise an army, which requires extracting resources through measures such as conscription and taxation. In order to do this effectively, the protectors needs to create what we think of as the modern bureaucratic state – a tax office, a defense ministry, etc. Once this machinery is in place, the protector then uses it to neutralize internal rivals and protect his position of power, and thus you get a cycle in which war makes the state and the state makes war.
The first season of Game of Thrones unmistakably follows the top down model of state creation. Viewers are thrust into a world in which Aegon Targaryen conquered the seven distinct kingdoms of Westeros and made them into one state though force and brutality, and then created the institutions necessary to rule. By the time Robert Baratheon rebels against the Targaryens and becomes king 300 years later, all of the hallmarks of the bureaucratic state are in place. The small council controls the king’s treasury, sets policy large and small, and is tasked with running the day to day affairs of the state. There does not seem to be an ideology or a sense of shared identity holding Westeros together, as alluded to when Cersei sardonically observes that the only thing holding the kingdom together is her marriage to Robert. Despite the existence of a common tongue, there does not appear to be much else that unites the various people of Westeros. The histories of each kingdom are disparate enough from each other that there developed over time different noble houses with their own sayings, philosophies, sigils, and cultures. Certainly there does not appear to be a common culture uniting the north and the south, which manifests itself in everything from Sansa’s new “southern” hairstyle that she adopts upon arriving at King’s Landing to Ned’s insistence on executing Sansa’s direwolf himself according to northern custom. There is not even one shared religion, as some Westerosis have kept the old gods while others now pray to the Seven, and even the oath taken by new Night’s Watch members is accommodated to account for this difference.
Cersei is not, however, entirely correct. There is one uniting force that holds the state together outside of her union with Robert, and that is the fear of common enemies. All of Westeros is united in seeking to keep the wildlings and any supernatural forces that might exist out of Westeros and on the other side of the Wall. In this way, the king in his support of the contingent of Black Brothers is the protector who is acting against external threats, and his mechanisms for doing so create and sustain the state. Robert was also concerned with putting down local rebellions such as the one carried out by the Greyjoys, and in actively preventing threats from materializing abroad, whether they be a Dothraki army or a return of the Targaryens. The gearing up for a Dothraki invasion and the constant vigilance surrounding the Targaryen exiles is a good example of the state making war in order to sustain itself. We thus have a state that was created not out of a shared identity or group consciousness but through sheer force, and that is sustained through the need for a protector.
While we are only now one episode into the second season – and I have not read any of the books save for the first one so I do not know what is coming down the road – it appears that the bottom up model might begin to have greater relevance. Certainly Robb’s crowning as King of the North results not so much from the need for a protector and the emergence of a state bureaucracy, but because the northerners feel that their region of Westeros and their northern culture is so distinct from the South that they should have their own state. Unlike the increasingly futile quest to hold the seven kingdoms together under one iron throne, one gets the sense that Robb Stark will have little trouble keeping the North together as one cohesive unit, even if there is grumbling from lords who resent having to pay for their own castle maintenance. Game of Thrones demonstrates that there is more than way to create a state, but that one path might be more sustainable in the long run than the other.