Game of Thrones and Our Scheming Elites

I’m so out of touch with popular culture that it’s only a lucky happenstance for someone to mention a mainstream phenomenon that I’m familiar with (a funny example was when I had drinks with Moe Tkacik maybe three years ago and she mentioned Lady Gaga as a role model for young women, and I had no idea what she was talking about).

Despite my general out-of-it-ness, I have not only heard of Game of Thrones, I’m actually working my way through the novels, a big reason being I can read them a bit at a time on the treadmill. I’ve not paid much attention to the brouhaha over the launch of the third season of the HBO series, but I was struck by a Big Think piece by David Berreby using the books as an anchor to bring up the sci-fi v. fantasy divide:

When I was a teen-age consumer of cheap paperbacks about worlds more interesting than this one, I noticed a clear and sharp split between readers who loved SF (spaceships, time travel, robots) and those who loved fantasy (lanteen-sailed boats, mystic quests, elves)…

The Game of Thrones universe is a world without science….To we who prefer the robots and spaceships, this world feels sad and suffocated. What is there to talk about, that hasn’t been said before? Which noble house has the throne, which dynast is truly nuts. Same things they talked about 500 years ago, with, now and then, a bit of dragon overflight to make this decade a little different from the preceding hundred and fifty.

I’m aware in reading Game of Thrones that it’s not my genre, yet I find it sufficiently well done for what it is (an ambitious pop novel) to hold my interest despite that. And as sci fi fan myself, there’s always a nostalgia for the favorites of your youth. But as much as I enjoyed a lot of the “hard” technology oriented sci fi, I was much more interested in writers who used technology or alternative worlds to explore human behavior in conditions or social structures that didn’t exist in our history.

But I’d also hazard that what Berreby really hankers for is the optimism about the future that suffused sci fi, at least that of the 1960s and 1970s. What is striking about Game of Thrones is how restrictive a feudal, meaning highly class/role stratified society is, and how scheming his characters are. The conniving is expert level, a perverse type of artistry.

The fact that his series has become so wildly popular isn’t just a function of his storytelling (it took years for Lord of the Rings to win recognition and popularity), it’s how it reflects contemporary anxieties and preoccupations. It isn’t just that no one is good in the usual action/sci fi/fantasy novel good versus evil frame; even the more likable figures are put in situations where they have lousy choices and are caught between conflicting obligations, like family versus honor. Some of Martin’s most carefully crafted characters are the most scheming and immoral, and even the well-intentioned one find it hard to map courses of action that result in good outcomes. But the picture emerges loud and clear that doing right for the subjects of the various kingdoms, or even their immediate circle, is a tertiary concern at best, well behind improving or securing your position and gratifying personal appetites.

The perspective in Martin’s books is a medieval reflection of the world envisioned by neoclassical economics, of isolated individuals working for their own self interest. There’s no real community in war-torn Westros, but even before the struggle broke out, the court was a hotbed of plots, spying, and ambition. Given the way, say, the Ptolemys plotted against each other, this isn’t necessarily that far removed from the dynamics of some pre-modern courts. But this is the through line of the series, the juice that carries readers forward. And sadly, this seems to be the juice that drives the world we live in now.

Before you get cynical and say, that’s just the way it is, that’s simply not accurate. The current level of corruption and cynicism is hardly inevitable; it’s a social construct. Look at Linux, where developers collaborated to produce code, for no money, out of pride in craft. Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, therapist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, would often start out by asking patients, “Why haven’t you killed yourself?” His experience was the things that people lived for were either people they loved or creative work (Lambert’s “Do what only you can do”). Similarly, psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has made a study of happiness, has concluded it comes through a state he calls flow, where one is deeply engrossed in an activity (for instance, the famed “zone” in sports).

But we can always remember the wisdom of Harry Lime:

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

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  1. FrankZappasGuitar

    Love this post Yves. Kill your TV, it’s nothing but rotten trash that portrays a world that you won’t relate to if you ever walk the Appalachian trail, dive 40m under the sea, fall in love, climb the Rockies, work with your hands, or pursue your passion with no concern for financial or sexual rewards. It is deranged bullshit where actors PRETEND to talk/murder/screw each other…over and over and over (every series is the same — death, murder, disharmony, no matter the quality — maybe THE WIRE is the only exception, IMHO). Also, Switzerland did give us Voltaire.

    1. Charles LeSeau

      “Also, Switzerland did give us Voltaire.”

      How so? Was he not French? I know he was in Geneva for a time. (Franz Liszt went to Geneva too, and some of the most beautiful and forward-looking pieces in the Années de pèlerinage are the Swiss ones.)

    2. banger

      Yes but that deranged bullshit is what people want–that’s where they want to live. To me, the writings of Ortega y Gasset come back to haunt me–he was, I believe now (not when I first read him) that he was right.

    3. diptherio

      Agree: teevee is a waste of money…buy the DVDs of the good HBO series when they come out (or torrent ’em, if you’re an evil, evil, thief) and watch anything else you just can’t bear to miss on Hulu. Why does anyone pay for cable anymore?

      1. McKillop

        I agree with much of what you’ve written. It’s hard work to make exciting stories out of alpine mountains, milk chocolate and cheese, Swiss precision and general welfare. Who remembers “Heidi”? Who actually read it?
        “Herry Lime. Wasn’t he the character played by Orson Welles in “The Third Man”? I vaguely remember the movie as a study of black marketeering in Vienna and Harry as a ‘pragmatist’who comforted his disillusioned friend with this cynical reply.

        It’s hard to buy it, isn’t it, as it sets all human behaviour and motive on par.
        Mussolini made the trains run on time – or was it Hitler? Or was it clocks? And Hitler, autobahns?
        Even now we have fans yearning for the return of monsters ’cause . . . .
        Did Einstein not come from those parts?

        To me, this argument and alignment of genius with monster is similar to the claim that people who devote time, who sacrifice their energies towards the benefit of others -say, build a school, somewhere, or struggle against corruption- can be compared and found the equal of people who work to the detriment of others. After all, even the ‘unselfish’ are acting for their own benefit, striving to satisfy their desires. Just like those greedy crooks: no different! If it weren’t for financiers doing gog’s work our civilization would NOT exist.
        Christians used to claim that evil the work of Satan led to the fulfillment of the divine,I think ‘Turdblossom’ turned common sense on its head and accussed opponents of doing what he and his gang advocated and performed.
        Harry Lime. Another inspiration for those doing gog’s work.

    4. neo-realist

      Throwing the TV out with the bath water are we? Some TV shows, specifically ones on cable where they’re not subject to the language and subject matter limitations of the FCC, are equivalents to good independent and foreign film. You can still climb mountains, climb people that you like, or have them climb you:), and read good literature as well, it’s not an either or deal.

      Besides, I find depictions of deranged characters rather entertaining:).

    5. Foppe

      neither here nor there, but Switzerland only gave us Rousseau and Calvin; Voltaire was a parisien.

      1. Larry Barber

        Calvin was French as well. We might all know him has John Calvin, but to his mother he was Jehan Cauvin.

  2. jake chase

    Interesting observations. It cannot be easy today for a population raised on cultural fantasies and easy credit to make peace with a reality in which emperors have no clothes, institutions are mired in corruption and self help nostrums do not work.

    If there is a future here in America it will have to be founded in cooperation as opposed to competition. I cannot imagine how this will be worked out, except in small groups of exceptional individuals, which suggests that the process will be quite prolonged and painful for most.

    1. banger

      Those small groups will be feudal in nature neither communal nor communitarian. Democracy in America has failed because “the people” crave escape and deliberate ignorance. Critical thinking is appears to be something that the vast majority of Americans are incapable of. What institution do American’s value above all others? The military, by far. What does that tell you?

      1. diptherio

        I don’t agree. The media is doing cartwheels trying to keep people from thinking…but it’s only been a partial success. Plenty of people know that there’s more to the story than they’re being told. Where do you think Occupy came from?

        I recall reading an article before the election in which the author recounted having watched a group of “red state” folks watching Fox News in a hotel lobby. First Barack Obama’s face came on, which received heckles from the viewers, but then Romney’s face popped up and…the heckled him too. Even the “God and Guns” contingent know that nobody in Washington is looking out for them, regardless of the letter behind their name.

        Also, Medicare and Social Security seem to be more highly valued than the military, by most people. Feels good to feel superior though, doesn’t it?

        1. banger

          Well we seen things differently perhaps because I live in the South. But you bring up Occupy–so I ask, why do you suppose Occupy ended up failing (I’m sorry it has failed massively)? Because the American people largely rejected that movement because of cultural reasons. Americans prefer the police to the bohos, to put it bluntly. The result: Wall Street criminals are even more powerful now.

          Since the progressive era the oligarchs have been, mainly, successful by dividing Americans along cultural and racial grounds–when they wanted to it has mainly succeeded.

          1. traveler

            What is this ‘failure’ you speak of. Occupy has a string of ‘accomplishments’ and they aren’t done yet. Occupy was a consciousness raiser for the whole country and much of the world and served to unite people who’d put up with quite a bit too much. The MCM gave distorted accounts of Occupy, smeared them, and then ignored them. What did you expect.

          2. banger

            The failure of Occupy was that it was not able to organize a coherent political movement with sharp teeth–the only one that counts. Comparing Occupy with the Civil Rights or Anti-Vietnam War movement is ludicrous. Nothing came out of Occupy other that the term 99% and that’s really pretty meaningless and isn’t even used that much.

          3. Larry Barber

            Occupy didn’t create the political movement you are looking for because that would be totally ineffective and so a huge waste of time. You don’t change The Man’s game by playing by The Man’s rules.

          4. jrs

            I think basically the media was having fun with it for awhile and then the powers that be realized they had a *real* movement on their hands, that wasn’t just about slogans, but a real protest and criticique of the system (I mean intellegent agencies were watching it from the start, but I think it finally hit them: this is so real).

            So first public opinion and the media turned against it. And nothing can convince me this wasn’t orchestrated, you don’t turn against a movement and start with every “critic” mouthing the exact same slogans against it (“dirty hippies” etc.) without orchistration. And then the police state crack down happened, maybe slightly after, maybe the same time? And that was an orchistrated national crackdown on Occupy by the police in all cities (and very little can convince me that wasn’t orchistrated either).

            So the propaganda assault, the police state, they worked. Then scary new laws like NDAA and so on (laws banning protest etc.) went into effect just to scare anyone who might still think any funny ideas about protest in their heads. Still the spins-offs from occupy are some of the best stuff going on out there. I dont’ think everyone is a right winger.

          5. Nathanael

            Occupy was like the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. (Not a typo.)

            It was a harbinger. Note that major progress would not be made for another decade.

          6. traveler

            Media first, then public opinion. Of course the response was very carefully orchestrated. That orchestration presents no difficulty these days, locally, nationwide, and globally.

          7. Richard Kline

            So Nathanael, almost back far enough in the analogy, but a tick ahead of yourself in my view. Occupy equates more to the renewed activity of CORE in the late 1940s.

            Yes, the activism of Occuy has been a harbinger. Yes, it is an emergent phenomena rather than one yet fully coherent. Yes, it drew on prior work, in the anti-globalization campaings, just as CORE drewon prior work just before WW II. Occupy and its successors aren’t even yet at the level of the 1950s sit-downs and marches in the Civil Rights movement. We don’t really know yet who the figures even are who will be central to this trajectory of change. The conversation regarding inequality and the relationship of the have-nots to the state has changed. Some committed to activism have taken what they learned offstage and will bring back onstage the programs they derive from that experience. Those who think ‘it failed’ because it ‘didn’t win now’ are infants who know nothing about how social change actually happens, and think it’s all over because they didn’t get their personal pacifier just yet. You lose; you lose; you draw; you lose; the opponent gives up because they’re tired of fighting you. That is how you win.

          8. Furzy Mouse

            I was very active in the DC area in the late ’60’s, marching on the Pentagon, Selective Service (where I barely escaped being arrested, as I have a big mouth, esp. with a mike! ah, yes, the good old days) but want to add to this discussion several instances where I saw first hand that more recent anti-war demonstrations have been squashed, by the cops, and ignored, by the press.

            In Feb ’03, fellow New Yorkers might remember that the churches and the black alliance organized a protest against invading Iraq (we invaded in Mar of ’03) Myself and some girlfriends joined the march and protest, and the staging area for Bishop Desmond Tutu, Harry Belafonte and others was on 1st Ave, north of the UN, where the march had been banned from assembling.

            When we tried to get over to 1st Ave on that sunny Sunday, copious cops on horseback blocked our way, and channeled the crowd, at least a million by some counts, north up Lexington Ave. and all the way into Harlem!!

            Not to be deterred, I hopped over the barricades, and noticed many plainclothes photographers up on the rooftops…men in black, at least some of them. I weaseled my way to the staging area, and there was the lame stream media taping what looked like a failed event…very few people made it over to the stage….and here’s a great footnote, my employer at the time, a very orthodox Jewish fellow, KNEW the next day that I had participated in the protest – made some pointed remarks to me….

            a later protest, I believe in ’05, that I and my son and friends joined, was in San Francisco…maybe 100,000 marchers….was completely ignored by the press, even the Bay area ones…we all went home and scratched our heads while watching the news…as if it didn’t happen…

            So I maintain that the gov has done a great job quashing dissent, by making it nearly invisible, along with their compadres, major media…and look what the cops did to the brave Occupy Wall St. protesters!! A cross country coordinated shut down with arrests…and a serious effort to demonize…”if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it…” etc.

          9. gepay

            The difference these days is that the emergent leaders will be killed by programmed assassins before they become effective. Do you think John Lennon would have things to say about how things are going? A nexus that a movement could coalesce around?
            Every burgeoning movement will have infitrators, agitators, sleeper elements. Look at how the Congressional investigation in the 70s of the assassinations of the effective reformers of the 60s was sabotaged.
            And the Congress we have now – can you imagine it passing the Clean Water Act? It won’t even fix the administrative actions that Cheney brokered so fracting can go on and wreak havoc on water aquifers.
            The system is broken. Figure out what works and what is worth saving after the coming collapse.

          10. Nathanael

            Richard Kline wrote:

            “So Nathanael, almost back far enough in the analogy, but a tick ahead of yourself in my view. Occupy equates more to the renewed activity of CORE in the late 1940s. ”

            You are likely to be correct.

            Timelines are *notoriously* hard to predict. A huge number of people in pre-revolutionary France could see that the current system was not sustainable, but predicting when it would change? Nobody managed that.

          11. Nathanael

            Furzy Mouse:

            The Tsars were excellent at “quashing dissent” in this manner prior to 1918, and the ancien regime was excellent at “quashing dissent” in this manner prior to 1789.

            All it does is make the inevitable overthrow of the existing system more violent. This type of brutality is actually a very stupid move. Unfortunately.

      2. Nathanael

        Within a feudal society, co-operatives actually often did pretty well. The universities and monasteries were frequently organized along such lines. Merchants carved out their own corner, as well.

    2. nonclassical


      try Naomi Klein’s, “The Shock Doctrine” for some alternative “lifestyles”-socio-economic models…

  3. CultureFan

    to your point “I was much more interested in writers who used technology or alternative worlds to explore human behavior in conditions or social structures that didn’t exist in our history.”

    Iain M Banks ‘Culture’ books are very much that – he was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, but if you are enjoying GRRM I think you will enjoy the Culture stories.

    1. James O'Keefe

      I’ll second that. Bank’s Culture novels are a great read while also presenting a society that, for all its problems is still a liberating one for its citizens. Recommend starting with href=””>The Player of Games or Consider Phlebas. For Non-Culture sf novels, The_Algebraist is particularly hopeful without pulling punches. Of course all of the Iain M. Banks novels are good, though I haven’t read Feersum Endjinn. On the list.

      1. vlade

        Never could read it, as half of the book is phonetic (just as the title is) so I was reading at pace about 1/10th of my normal and that irritated me too much…

    2. vlade

      seconded. If you haven’t read it, I’d definitely say you should. I’d probably start with The Player of Games or Use of Weapons… but that’s a personal preference.

      Neal Stevenson is not bad either, say Snow Crash or Diamond Age

    3. They didn't leave me a choice

      Outisde the strict constraints of literature, there’s a very curious piece I found recently, pen&paper type role playing game called eclipse phase. It presents some rather interesting alternative social systems. And yes, it’s scifi. It basically mixes and matches a whole bunch of ideas from all around and runs off with it to some rather interesting conclusions.

      CC licensed too, so you can get the pdf’s off piratebay legally if you want to check it out.

  4. banger

    The trend towards asserting feudal values has been going on for some time–isn’t Star Wars a feudal story? The ambiguity of modernism, the information glut, the easy access to addictive substances and pastimes has created a weak citizenry that actually hankers after a firm and aggressive leadership elite.

    Americans are bored with democracy. I believe large segments of the population left and right simply do not want to address the major issues we face. The right wants neofeudalism as quickly as possible. They want clear authority and morals to be enforced brutally if necessary. The left is dispirited, confused, and seemingly without the sort of moral purpose it once had.

    Americans are always enthusiastic about going to war because everything becomes clear, good guys against bad guys. The ghoulish bloodthirstiness of Americans after 9/11 (questions as to what actually happened cannot be talked about in the mainstream media or polite conversations) was palpable. Everyone now felt bound together like the crowds at Nuremberg with common purpose flying flags and cheering the destruction of others.

    We already have separate justice systems at least de facto. One for the very rich, one for the middle and one for the poor and no one seems to mind. Large segments of the working class blame rival ethnicities for our economic problems or the “lazy” poor, unemployed, disabled and so on. Republican leaning voters are happy to save a couple of bucks by imposing suffering on the poor but are loath to penalize the rich even small amounts. In contrast the “left” is obsessed with gay marriage, gun reform (really peripheral issues) and not very interested in either social justice issues or the outstanding problem of the age, climate change.

    I think, collectively, we do want to live in a neofeudal society. Have a personal relationship to a Lord or Lady much in the way Vito Corleone operated. You do him a favor and he’ll do you a solid in exchange–the essence of feudalism which is always the default system for human culture. If you visit the Middle East or traditional areas of Greece and southern Italy you see this way of doing things is still there and has operated for millenia. Then when everything is arranged by the nobility, we know our place and our function. We are given values to uphold and ambiguity and the angst of modernism fades. And we can all watch and follow the adventures of the nobility as they vie for glory and power with each other–the ultimate reality TV I would think.

    1. Charles LeSeau

      I don’t know that I’ll ever want feudalism, but if I had my choice, my lords and masters wouldn’t be the nouveau riche cheap trash of America’s corporate world, where “old money” means just a few generations back. Their idea of public aesthetics apparently is something like a strip mall, and for my tastes America just might be the most hideous country in the world in terms of its architecture and public spaces – certainly the ugliest I’ve ever seen anyway. Where else would a place like Las Vegas exist, and somehow be considered glamorous? Bah. At any rate, I think I’d need to stake my lot with people who had a culture more than 300 years old.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Part of the difference is American noveau riche had blank canvasses and advanced building material, and local stones look nice in the local environment because it has a bit of a natural flair. Brick is nice in the American South were the dirt is almost red. In New England or the upper Midwest, the same brick is ugly. The Texas oil man has had more opportunity to be a tacky jerk than older families. At least that’s my aesthetic opinion. Some of those Newport, RI homes are not pretty from the outside. They look better in comparison to the mansion of celebrity X or investor Y, but they had someone to outdo.

      2. issacread

        Glad to see someone else say that. I can’t stop myself from exclaiming repeatedly what a physically ugly place the USA is. The allure of feudal times for me has always been to imagine the presence of Nature that existed then…even just the wildflowers in the woods. The air.

        1. Blunt

          The beauties of nature are rather different when one’s wrenching skin and bone to wrest bounty from the earth 16 hours per day. The natural appeal of beauty likely declines precipitiously when one’s main concern is subsistence.

        2. Charles LeSeau

          Ya, I freakishly idolize western aesthetics from roughly the late Renaissance all the way to the 1910s, so I’m not too atavistic comparatively, but can relate! Intertwined in all of that of course is Europe’s on-and-off obsession with classical aesthetics during those times, so part of my idolatry is 2000+ years old. I need bicycles in my aesthetic world though, I think. I definitely need more craft, in any case. Somehow the world got really prefab and PoMo and glitzy and concrete and plastic and weird, with future bew bew laser graphics and bright giant signs, and it all has a negative effect on my disposition surely.

          I don’t know what goes on in the mind of someone who thinks it’s a good idea to pepper the nation with the exact same gigantic glowing signs and box buildings for some chain or other, but I’m far from worshiping them for all the great things they do.

          Just moved to the country myself though, and can agree with your desire for more natural existence perfectly. Going to bicycle camp/tour a lot this summer.

    2. diptherio

      You must be a real bummer to have at parties…

      Way to go, neatly dividing everyone into “left” and “right,” way to go also, lumping all American’s together as war-mongers. That would explain all the anti-war protests, eh? ‘Cause all Americans just love war so much…(love it so much they had to be lied to to justify it)

      You confuse the populace with the political leaders and libel our entire population, yourself included. Nice one, bra…

      I think YOU secretly want to live in a feudal society, because deep-down you believe that only a very few intelligent people (like yourself) are actually fit for self-determination. That’s my armchair psychologist take on it.

      1. banger

        That’s a little harsh. No I don’t really care in what sort of society I live in–I’m a pragmatist politically. As for “left” and “right” I’m making generalization of course, how else are we going to talk about these issues?

        No all Americans are not war-mongers but most Americans love violence, as can be seen from popular entertainments and generally support war when they are given a good bit of propaganda just look at our history. The notion that the elites just force Americans to go to war just doesn’t wash. I submit to you that Americans are passive–when encouraged to go to war they’ll go, when the truth begins to be reported about war then they don’t like it.

        As for parties, I don’t usually talk about these sorts of things because, if I know anything, the last thing 95% of people want to think about is something “negative” people are depressed enough.

        As for feudalism–modernism is confusing and people don’t like being confused–most people like clear lines, clear rules and a coherent mythological framework. The current chaotic system of too much information won’t cut it. Most people (not everyone)are voting with their feet to enter fantasies and various forms of addictive and escapist activities–do you deny that?

        For me the final proof for my scenario of the unwillingness of people across the ideological spectrum to deal with reality is the lack of focus and interest in climate-change. This is the central problem of our time by far and nothing is being done and there is no coherent and viable movement that is pushing for change.

        1. diptherio

          “This is the central problem of our time by far and nothing is being done and there is no coherent and viable movement that is pushing for change.”

          Really??? I know a lot of activists who would disagree with you. Seems like there is a huge movement pushing for change. The Corps and their government lackeys sure as hell aren’t, but again, you confuse those who have gained control of the political system with the populace-at-large. Look at the polls: our leaders are not doing what most Americans say they want.

          If you’re so convinced that everyone is so cattle-like, why the hell do you even bother to engage?

          Yeah, I’m being harsh, but I’ve gotten sick and tired of hearing about how hopeless everything is and how ‘most people’ are just mewling adult-children who just want daddy to tell them what to do. It is extremely unhelpful to have people like you hanging around chanting “it’s hopeless, we’re all screwed and we deserve it ’cause most people are sheep!” If that’s really how you feel, go someplace where people aren’t trying to create a more just society, cause those of us who are really don’t need your negativity (we’ve got plenty of our own, thank you very much).

          1. banger

            Look, accepting reality and the actual state of how people think is important and actually helps relieve not increase stress. Once we generally understand that we live in a culture were we like to live in fantasy worlds we can understand that the proper area of “battle” is to achieve clarity which, in itself, will be the springboard of all action. I’m sorry, but there are numerous surveys and solid social science that prove that not only are people ignorant but that they deliberately seek misinformation to avoid cognitive dissonance. I don’t see this as a “bad” thing necessarily because the contemporary world is far too confusing.

            We are challenged, in my view, to seriously alter our concept of reality and we in this country are on the cutting edge of this.

            As it stands there is little militant political movement by people who favor action on climate-change. What is required is militant communities who will put not just their lives on the line but be willing to hurt enemies and help friends. Politics is not a matter of competing sermons but the application of power and force.

          2. lambert strether

            I agree with “put their lives on the line.” That is why maintaining TINA is of such critical importance to the powers that be (as Graeber’s recent perceptive article in The Baffler points out).

          3. Valissa

            @Banger, you make lots of sense to me as my views are very similar. But realism tends to be unpopular here at NC where many seem to equate it with defeatism or uncaring. Many are caught up in a dualist frame and think if you’re not a fellow idealist passionately against the system (“good”) that means you don’t care at all, or are apathetic (have given up), or worse actively support it (“bad”). Pretty limiting way to perceive the world, but it sure is easy on the brain and emotions.

          4. Richard Kline

            So banger:

            Being aware of the actual state of how [some] people think [some of the time] is important. . . [W]e live in a culture were [some people, some of the time,] like to live in fantasy worlds . . . [T]here are numerous surveys and solid social science that prove that not only are [many] people ignorant [to varying degrees] but that [a few of them] deliberately seek misinformation to avoid cognitive dissonance.

            Whereas a few, like say YOU, metonymically extend the defeat and stupor of some to everyone all the time by your remarks. And that is the problem, in every comment you make here you state the occasional mindset of some as the default mindset of all. The is rhetorically deceptive, and wrong, if you intend it, and even worse if you don’t intend it because, as critiqued above, the effect of your remarks is to directly undercut any impetus to action. I can buy that you’re a fool or a plant, but I think I’ll just ignore your remarks until their structure changes going forward.

        2. rps

          “..most Americans love violence, as can be seen from popular entertainments”

          Or is Violence spoon-fed to Americans? The media/infotainment industry determines the genre rather than what they have you believe.

          “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Joseph Goebbels

          “The notion that the elites just force Americans to go to war just doesn’t wash.”

          Guess you missed the public protests and deadly clashes about the Draft for the Vietnam War. Check out the Kent state murders of four college students by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970 as an example. In fact, I guess you skipped over that part of history

          1. banger

            I was in the anti-Vietnam movement. My wife and I organized a protest against Iraq and participated in many of them in DC. With Vietnam we had an effect with Iraq we had no effect. What changed? The community of protest has, in recent years, no strong militant spirit.

            The oligarchs certainly can manipulate public opinion but the facts are all readily available–Americans, frankly, are willing to pull the wool over their own eyes. I have some concrete reasons for why I feel this way but it would take too long to express.

          2. Blunt

            It seems to me that as both a student in/of the Vietnam War protests and an attempted organizer of Iraqi (not Afghan?) War protests that the key you’d have hit upon is that when those of us who knew so much more than the mechanic or GS-6 fathers who sent us to college rejected the great unwashed factory and mill workers as being insufficiently radical and knowledgable of life to effectively participate in the intellectual left that we undercut both the left and the likelihood that said unwashed would do anything other than to react to insult and rejection by insulting and rejecting the left.

            The same situation is likely at work with the climate crisis. Folks don’t like much being told that they’re stupid and that their major input should be reserved for providing bodies on the ground for protest. As long as the MSM remain the tools of the feudal elites then climate-change science, social science or anything else that sounds in the least intellectual will be seen as something to reject.

            You may live in the South; but you seem to not have a very deep grasp of those folks without as much education who live around you.

          3. Ed S.


            Two critical differences between Iraq and Vietnam:

            1) No draft for Iraq (so middle and up has no skin in the game)
            2) No media opposition (“embedded” media)

            For someone who demands that we “face reality”, I’d suggest that you do. Want to end Iraq or Afghanistan military action? Reinstate the draft. No exemptions.

            And with respect to climate change — what exactly is the plan to fix the problem?

          4. Ed S.


            Apology in advance – my comment, “For someone who demands that we “face reality”, I’d suggest that you do” was uncalled for. Can’t edit these posts, or I’d take it out.

          5. banger

            Just to wrap up, if anyone is following this, we need a debate on these issues. I feel that, on the left, we have tended not to question our assumptions. I know I’m not 100% right and I don’t care to be–true political action can only come from community and community, for the left, means dialectic and interaction–that’s where fertility comes from. There are no real forums for this that I know of and I’ve been searching and/or proposing various ways to reach some consensus online perhaps using the wiki format.

    3. Garrett Pace

      “Americans are always enthusiastic about going to war because everything becomes clear, good guys against bad guys.”

      Americans also haven’t faced the horrors of war in their homes for 150 years. War is an abstraction for most of us, a mysterious process by which tax dollars are turned into 3rd world rubble, and aimless young men turned into haunted killers.

      1. AbyNormal

        Liberty,” boomed Wednesday, as they walked to the car, “is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses.
        ~American Gods / Gaiman

        1. Richard Kline

          Yeah, well . . . Syria is banging out babies in that regard. Not pretty to watch, and jack-nasty to live through. And then there’s the ones that you lose . . .

          I’d change the word ‘must’ to ‘is usually’ in Gaiman’s phrase. That’s a literary dud but more accurate historically.

        2. J Sterling

          Although Gaiman’s Mr. Wednesday was translating a quote from the French Revolution, “La liberté est une garce…”, attributed to the comte de Mirabeau, correspondent to Franklin and Jefferson.

          You might like to know American Gods is also coming soon on TV.

          1. Richard Kline

            Sounds more like Mirabeau, but St. Just would certainly have read him if so, and had the temperament to repeat it. St. Just, btw, was the kind to pile up those corpses for the cause; got the knife himself to join the log pile.

    4. Nathanael

      I don’t think it’s *desire* to live in a feudal society.

      I think feudal society is the default mode of operation for humanity. When other things fall apart and nobody has provided an engaging alternative, feudalism happens naturally.

      Feudalism arose in Europe during the long, slow collapse of the Roman Empire, during which nobody provided a viable alternative (for hundreds of years on end, mind you). Feudalism then proved stable for a very long time.

      It was finally destroyed by centralizing monarchies, who were themselves destroyed by the flaws to which centralizing monarchies are prone, in quite quick order.

      1. Nathanael

        But the current elites should watch out. They do not have what it takes to be feudal lords — namely the loyalty of followers.

        Sergei Brin and Larry Page, on the other hand, do have what it takes to be feudal lords.

  5. Richard Kline

    As a first thought, the distinction between sci-tech and magickal fiction has always been overblown. Yes, there were the ‘better machined tomorrows’ groups primarily in the US coming out of the fanboys become writers of the pulps, nurtured by Gernsback and Campbell. Mostly, they shunned fantasy, and had a high modernist love affair with shiny new inventions. There were, by contrast, very few outright fantasy novels as the format has since developed; plenty of horror, and gothic material, drawing upon traditions from the prior century, but pure fantasty was for young adult pulps. What stood out for me at the time I read such works in the 60s and 70s was that the better writers ignored a putative litmus test and simply lumped in everything that appealed to them in a given scenario. Edgar Pangborn, John Middleton Murry aka John Crowley, George Herbert, especially Roger Zelazny, the later Heinlein books, Gene Wolfe, subsequently John Varley and Joan D. Vinge, and always some of Urusla LeGuin’s works (though she writes straightforward fantasy also and exceedingly well). What distinguished these authors was simply that they wrote to _alternate realities_ which weren’t necessarily pinned down to the physical constraints and developmental matrix present in our place and time. Or ANY place and time. Tech, psi, magic, and imagined organic realities were braided together at the authors’ invention. Real works of the imagination, in other words, though yes having sociological biases embedded, both deliberate and heedlessly implicit.

    It’s difficult for me to comment on _Game of Thrones_, although I’ve bumped up against Martin’s work on occasion and heard of this particular series for some time. I don’t own a TV, and read very little popular fiction, and most of that old works I never had time for previously. What has bothered me about this series, however, is the aristocratic monarchism essential to its skeleton of meaning. This is not a criticism of Martin per se, because the use of that sociological context is extremely pervasive as a crutch in popular fiction: the context sells. True, many societies have had all or some of monarchy, aristocracy, and feudalism. Most of Europe had forms of this as the local political order for the last two millennia, as did most of East Asia. One can’t say the bias to use this kind of narrative scaffolding is blind, there is historical context.

    —But that said, human history has had many other contexts. Urban, non-aristocratic socities have existed at times in many locales. Most nomadic populations have been overtly _anti-monarchial_. That’s even before considering non-agricultural, largely tribal cultures, which are far more descriptive of the great length of the human genus, and within which our social behaviors as a species have been heavily adapted over time. The point I come back to again and again is how exceptional in human history, and moreover how DISTORTED socially have been the aristocratic and monarchical-feudal existences. We aren’t meant to live like that. Monarchies were nearly always imposed by force. Most peoples’ lives were arguably worse under them then without them. The were exceedingly _unequal_ societies. . . . Yet here we have hundreds of millions of young adults and the ‘somewhat’ adults they grow into buying books, packing theaters, and kneeling breathless before television transceivers babbling ” . . . The King, the King . . .” King’s are bad for us—but everybody would like to be one, wouldn’t they. It’s _great_ wish fulfillment. Being a leader, being a master, being a fighter, being a creator: all that’s damned hard work. Much better to project oneself into a scenario as ” . . . The King, the King” perceived to have some _right_ (granted by whom? relative to what other rights, if any?) to decide everything for everybody right down to who lives and who dies.

    Yes, it’s all attractive. But it’s all sick. Millions labored arduously, often at cost of their lives, through the 1700s and 1800s to get our societies out from under the control of ifjit, selfish, rentier, abusive, kings—and here we have whole generations wallowing in treacley nostalgia for ” . . . the King, the King!” The historical amnesia involved borders on dementia. We don’t need kings, and they did a crappy job of governance on their best day when we had them. I’d never write a book about ‘the King’ or those scheming to be one when there are so many other, humanly richer societies to envision. Writing books about complex _non-aristocratic_ societies is more what serves, and there have been good ones at times. But the servile strata of the public just wants more god-annonted, magic wielding, right’s-on-my-side kings. Or even scheming bastardly kings, oh why not. Because societies without, y’know, elites who _decide_ things for everybody else are too confusing for them.

    Humanity makes mistakes. Slavery was a mistake. Monarchism was a mistake. Monotheism is a terrible mistake. Corporate capitalism is almost certainly a mistake. There are often good and even functional reasons why societies tolerate or even cling to collective mistakes, but the largest reason is that it’s harder to undo a social order which has sunk in than to hunker down and kiss its warts. It took 6000 years for humanity to outgrow slavery (and yes, I know that functional slavery is still practiced quietly on the nether margins of the poorest societies). It’s taken something like 5000 years to get past monarchy. At 3000 years montheism has still, regrettably, got legs. And corporate capitalism . . . don’t get me started. All of these social practices could re-emerge too in devolutionary social conditions. And are all the more likely to be available for reversion if we keep going around kissing the warts of kings in our fantasies.

    There are so much more interesting social contexts to consider setting plots down in than monarchical feudalisms. We have seen some interesting texts on this over the last century. Too often, though, authorial and audience imagination remains stunted in the conditions of political infancy of the recent past. Yes, it’s hard to change _actual_ societies. And slow; consider the multi-millennial timeframes to which I just referred. The more we imagine socities of different orders, _many of which have actually existed at places and times in humanities not so distant past_, the easier we will find it to shape our times and those to follow to a different order. Oh, mistakes will be made. But hey, we know how the _old_ mistakes played out. Monarchical feudalism was a mistake. And as a literary scaffolding, it’s really played out from the standpoint of a better society. Somebody’s gonna keep writing scenarios to that to take the money and run; yeah . . . philhistines. But it’s time for those of some imagination to imagine a separate reality . . . .

    1. diptherio

      Watch the show before you critique it, please. Game of Thrones could well be sub-titled “The Problem with Rulers.”

      The monarchical system of the series (I haven’t read the books) is in no way presented as a “good” or a “natural” thing. The problems and irrationalities of such a system are continually brought to the forefront. The Wildlings present a non-hierarchical alternative society, whose values are placed in direct opposition to the values of the monarchical societies to the South. When the Wildling woman confronts John Snow about the contradictions and injustices of the his (feudal) society, the audience cannot but side with the Wildlings.

      There is no propagandizing for how great feudalism is. In fact, one of the main points of the series seems to be quite the opposite. I think the reason that we are drawn to these sorts of stories is that we subconsciously know that things haven’t changed that much: many of us may as well be living in a feudal society…and yes, we do enjoy seeing a nobleman’s head on a pike once in a while.

      1. Richard Kline

        So diphterio, I haven’t assumed that the TV series endorses either monarchy or feudalism. You’ve misread me if that was your conclusion. Without having seen the series or read the texts, I’m nonetheless familiar with a synopsis of the scenario and context, and within that aware that the aristocracy of the scenario is hardly positive in function or presentation. And furthermore, my points are not necessarily directly connected to the series at all, but to the larger situation within fantasy and speculative fiction. OTOH my points are broad enough that I don’t know that all of them are clearly framed.

        Consider this point, though: Describing a society which is _predominantly feudal, aristocratic, and monarchical_ privileges those structural conditions. It doesn’t really matter if the monarchy is presented as dysfunctional, or if the aristocracy is presented as parasitic. They and their relations ARE ‘how [that] world works.’ And THAT message is what is absorbed, subliminally. The Wildings may exist as a critique within the subtext, but do they seriously threaten the existing order or present a viable alternative? No, not as given. And that only re-enforces the underlying message that ‘resistance is futile.’ If one writes a scenario where the power structure IS monarchical and feudal, that bias to reality is what is communicated. That is my larger point.

        The undesirability of the situation is functionally irrelevant if there is no other way presented for the bulk of the population to live. Those who choose or are able to escape to live a different way are a tiny outcast minority, which only reinforces the conceptual inevitability of . . . elite, monarchical, feudalism. A society different _in kind_ is the REAL critique. From the first page.

        1. Foppe

          While you are right that this is a danger of sorts when it comes to societies more like our own, I’m just not sure it holds for GRRM’s world. My main reason for thinking so is that it’s never made clear why living under this feudal system has any advantages for normal members of the population at all; at best, the feeling you might be left with by watching the show/reading the books is a vague sense that you are at their whim, since they are always able to apply enough force locally to reinforce/reassert their dominance over members of the population. (And if you feel this is pernicious/worrisome, I wonder what you think of Kafka’s works..) It seems rather a stretch, therefore, to suggest that readers/viewers will come away with the feeling that such systems of rule are necessary, as opposed to historically pretty much impossible to avoid.
          I hate to say it, but you seem to lack faith in people’s abilities of discernment.

          1. Richard Kline

            So Foppe, I spoke to this in my comment immediately below. I do believe that individuals have discernment, although I’m less confidant in that than I was twenty years ago. Readers _don’t_ confuse fantasy with reality per se. It is the subtle bias of opinion which sinks in however, far more than the over roles framed in a narrative. If every young adult of this time has done nothing but gobble up LOTR, Harry Potter, and GoT, it’s going to be hard to resist thinking ‘Gee, it would be need to be a king.’ So when elites in our own time act like petty kings, it’s that much harder to resist their putative _entitlement and prerogative_ to do so if, for the moment, they can get away with it. One doesn’t start from a position of ‘that’s just wrong’ but from a position of’ ‘we need better kings.’ And THAT is the problem.

            The putative elite has no right to rule, no popular sanction to steal and pull strings, but too many sit passively and give them a pass—or worse, vote meekly for the Good King to ride in on his horse . . . which is how we got the ass by the name of Obama in our faces now. People who are subtly biased to look to ‘good kings’ make bad moves in the larger political economy. That is my fundamental point.

      2. Richard Kline

        To simplify, there is overt propaganda for a social order. There is also, however, covert biasing in favor of a social order. Covert privileging is harder to resist, more common, far more embedded psychologically, and also far harder to critique. If all of a worldview takes place within one frame of reference, _that is the reality_ even if a dysfunctional one.

        We need fewer fantasies which privilege elites, and more which structure alternatives. Not all of those alternatives need be ‘good,’ nor have they been. (Totalitarianism: how’d that work out?) If everyone who does anything interesting is an aristocrat, even if all they do is evil, while the very few who ‘think different’ are a handful of outcasts struggling to survive, who do we think most readers/watchers are going to line up with? And even if they line out, a few of them with the outcast, they are already beaten in their own minds by the narrative structures privileged in the scenario. THAT is what bias is really about; not overt taking sides, but covertly groveling to but one amongst many possible structures.

    2. Eric Patton

      Slavery was a mistake. Monarchism was a mistake. Monotheism is a terrible mistake. Corporate capitalism is almost certainly a mistake.

      Come on, Richard. You’re better than this. At least I thought you were.

      These things weren’t mistakes. They were (or are) policies. They were (or are) systems. A few people benefit and use the power they acquire to defend and further enhance the system.

      The system is the only thing elites care about. The left still can’t figure this out.

      1. Foppe

        I concur.. Slavery, capitalism, feudalism, and the institution of rigid hierarchical societal systems are/were not ‘mistakes’, but systems and institutions that evolved because resistance was missing, absent, dissipated, or too weak, while cultural values are (and become) such that acting as though you are better or more important than others is rewarded. (Leaving aside, for now, the fact that even in less hierarchical societies economic concentration generally still occurs.)

      2. Nathanael

        Monotheism is arguably a serious mistake. All of these things have been used as tools of control, but monotheism is one which provides a particularly brittle and unprofitable form of control.

          1. Richard Kline

            So Lambert, it is interesting that you mention agriculture. It is in fact arguable that agriculture _has been_ a societal mistake. Hunter-gatherers had lower populations but much happier lives, and had the mobility to move if environmental constraints became pressing in a particular locale. Physical health has been demonstrated to be better for hunger-gatherers. Subsistence agriculture made for calorie surpluses but tied individuals to a specific locale. Also, those calorie surpluses could be readily controlled by a few while natural resources for gleanage and hunting could not. Populations with all their calories needed to survive locked in a granary were extremely susceptible to tyranny, and highly susceptible to devastating famine. Moreover, slavery only became a paying proposition once subsistence agriculture made calorie surplus production possible.

            Yes, holding populations in close confinement pushed the development of social and physical technologies needed to organize those closely confined individuals. That has entailed pluses and minuses. It’s not hard to argue, though, that pre-agricultural populations had, on the whole, better lives; certainly so relative to ANY group practicing subsistence agriculture.

          2. Nathanael

            I’ve read much the same stuff Richard Kline has on this topic; there were some serious problems which afflicted human society as a direct result of agriculture, and we have not yet solved them.

      3. Richard Kline

        A broad societal structure such as ‘monotheism’ is of much to great a scope to be a ‘policy.’ Yes, some groups and individuals make a policy of promoting a practice and structure of behavior, but the inputs, beliefs, reinforcements, and organizations involved are too diffuse for a single source or trajectory.

        This particular point if too broad to debate here. What I suggest you take away, however, is that _no one person or group_ creates or controls social practices of this scale. It is inaccurate to attribute their inception and propagation to deliberate agency therefore.

    3. Montanamaven

      “Avatar” was about a communal society. Its anti corporate message was punished by not getting the Oscar and instead giving it to the pro military “Hurt Locker”.

  6. Clive

    Fantastic post :-)

    Been having the same thoughts myself. Some things really resonate (especially to see them well portrayed by subtle acting of the cast). Margery Tyrell’s “being nice to the poor people” scene was touching and chilling at the same time. Fellow 0.1%-er Cersei Lannister knows Margery’s working some angle but isn’t sure what it is — and she knows this because the 0.1% don’t act charitably for no reason.

    Yep, truly a story for our times.

      1. Clive

        LOL Montanamaven. She might run on a hope ‘n change grand bargain sword and crossbow control platform. I’ve not read the books and the HBO series hasn’t got that far yet so I’ll have to wait to find out…

        1. Nathanael

          Ah, or she could be cleverer than that. Have any of you read Machiavelli?

          The way to stay in power has been known since ancient times. Make sure the people are happy, and they’ll pretty much beg to do what you tell them to. Taking their bread rations away is simply mean — unnecessary and counterproductive. So you don’t — you increase their bread rations.

          Emperor Augustus bragged about how many people were on welfare — HIS welfare. He knew how this works.

          Our problem right now is that we have extraordinarily nasty and short-sighted elites. I’d be OK with elites who were as enlightened as Augustus or Machiavelli or Bismarck. I wouldn’t say I’d like it, but it would be decent. Instead we have *idiots* who can’t think six months ahead.

          1. Nathanael

            And by the way? This is why I think Obama is not merely evil, but also insane.

            He had an absolutely golden opportunity to become a dictator of the caliber of Emperor Augustus, one acclaimed by the people for his justice and beneficence — and a smart, sane evil man would have TAKEN that opportunity. FDR, in a similar situation, basically did take that opportunity.

            Obama chose not to take that opportunity, and instead to keep trying to butter up the stupid, short-sighted, thieves who run the major corporations, and the insane lunatics who run the Republican Party.

            Of course, these thieves and lunatics still hate him — because they have no respect for people who are loyal to them. (They are very bad people.) And yet he’s *still* trying to butter them up. This is insane behavior, and it’s stupid.

  7. diptherio

    So what has our society of warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed produced? Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga…I’ll take the cuckoo clocks, thank you very much.

    1. craazyman

      Lady Gaga’s not bad. Never heard a Justin Bieber song myself so wouldn’t know.

      Don’t forget Adele. She’s incredible. When I heard “Someone Like You” and “Rolling in the Deep” I thought she must be possessed by a higher power.

      1. diptherio

        I’m being reductive, granted. There’s lots of good music coming out now, and cultural products in general, and sooo much of it now with the interwebs. Still, I don’t think that arguing that cultural productivity makes up for corrupt politics and international war-mongering is a valid argument.

        Also, I think it does a great disservice to the cuckoo clock. I know an old dutch guy who has a thing for old clocks and his trophy piece is a very old cuckoo clock (1700s IIRC) with chains that must be at least five feet long. It’s pretty sweet.

        1. craazyman

          what amazes me about clocks is something I saw on TV, yes TV, of all devices one can puke upon with vomit!

          and I didn’t even know it was on. Just flipping the channels wasting time and there it was. That’s how a sane person uses a TV. Sometimes it was so bad you’d end up watching the Weather Channel just getting drunk and smoking cigarettes. Crushing them on the bare floor while the sky got dark and night came. That was wasting time! You can’t flip channels with a remote, but you can click pointlessly from channel to channel, which is pretty close.

          It was about ocean navigation in the “old days”. They needed some way to figure where they were at sea from the sun and stars and needed to know the time, but couldn’t make a big clock that would last. they kept breaking from the strain of the ocean.

          It took one guy decades of thinking, decades of errors, decades of failures. Most people would have said f*ck it. Finally he got it. You can’t go big. You have to go small.

          so he invented “the watch”. And it actually worked.

          It was pretty incredible. I think I remember it right.

          This is the only solution to all cultural problems. It starts in one small place and it works, and it takes over everybody’s mind. But then new people are born, and they have to start from the beginning.

    2. rur

      Cuckoo clocks for me too, rough beast that I am slouching from Idaho…fail to see the redemptive power of art.

    3. from Mexico

      @ diptherio

      Unfortunately, the high arts in the US don’t operate on any higher plane than the popular arts. It would be difficult to find a more idiotic LaLa Land than that occupied by the economics profession, but I think New York’s hoity-toity art world has them beat.

      As Robert Huges so aptly put it, the New York art industry has become “so trivialized by fashion and blinded by money that it couldn’t tell a scribble from a Leonardo.”

      He cites the example of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat:

      It’s bad to use words like “genius” unless you are talking about the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, the black Chatterton of the 80s who, during a picturesque career as a sex hustler, addict and juvenile art-star, made a superficial mark on the cultural surface by folding the conventions of street graffit inito those of art brut before killing himself with an overdose at the age of twenty-seven.

      Basquiat’s “apotheosis,” continues Huges, occurred four years after his death

      with a large retrospective at the Whitney Museum designed to sanitize his short frantic life and position him as a kind of all-purpose, inflatable martyr-figure, thus restoring the dollar value of his oeuvre in a time of collapsing prices for American contemporary art. In the course of this solemn exercise in Heroic Victimology, all the hyperbole of the artist-as-demiurge was revived. One contributor to the catalogue proclaimed that “Jean remains wrapped in the silent purple toga of Immortality”; another opined that “he is as close to Goya as American painting has ever produced.” A third, not to be outdone, extolled Basquiat’s “punishing regime of self-abuse” (sic) as part of “the disciplines imposed by the principle of inverse asceticism to which he was so resolutely committed.” These disciplines of inverse asceticism, one sees, mean shooting smack until you drop dead. The kid died for your sins. Through addiction, wrote a fourth catalogue essayist, Basquiat “parodied, and sought to heal a disturbed culture.” As if this cultural Newspeak wasn’t enough, one had the opinion of the Whitney’s director, David Ross: “Racial and ethnic division remains a central problem in American life, and lingering racist presumptions seriously cloud the ability of many to understand Basquiat.” You cannot “understand” him, apparently, and still find him trivial; hence, by wetly-breathing implication, if you don’t love Basquiat’s work, its’ because you hate blacks. It is a sign of our times that a major New York museum could resort to such emotional bribery.

      –ROBERT HUGHES, Culture of Complaint

      1. diptherio

        The art world…lala land indeed. If you haven’t seen this documentary yet, it’s worth the view:

        Who the $#@% is Jackson Pollack

        Trailer-dwelling, feisty truck driver woman inadvertently buys a Pollack at a second-hand store. Art critics refuse to believe it’s the real deal, despite conclusive forensic evidence. Buffoons, all of them (the critics I mean, the woman is awesome).

      2. Garrett Pace


        What a magnificent phrase. You just made my day. Reminds me of another bit of brilliance, via Homer Simpson:

        “You can’t spell ‘dishonorable’ without ‘honorable’.”

    4. neo-realist

      I’d say that they also produced Jimi Hendrix and Iggy and the Stooges, and would gladly take them over Cookoo Clocks.

      But I’d say that Gaga and Beiber have been produced more by the Entertainment Corporate Complex.

  8. The Dork of Cork.

    You need to take a break from the world for 2 weeks at least .

    Reading while jogging !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    The best leftish Sci fi book of the early 90s

    Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.

    1. Richard Kline

      I’ve meant to read Robinson’s Mars trilogy for years. It doesn’t help that I’ve read others before who wrote as well or better. Still, maybe this year. And yes, the ‘envisioned society’ in these texts is a thinking person’s alternative.

      1. The Dork of Cork.

        Red Mars was great
        Green & Blue Mars was a bit of a disappointment.

        I like him because he had a backpackers view of Mars – no jogging on machines (how absurd) but it was really Sierra Nevada in his little head.

  9. Garrett Pace

    Surprised nobody’s mentioned Frank Herbert yet. Turns scheming into an intellectual exercise, almost, conducted for the joy of it.

    “The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.”

    That line has informed much about my attitude towards politics and society.

    1. Richard Kline

      Herbert took real historical contexts for the direct templet of his society. The entire Dune context is leveraged off the Byzantine-Persian conflict. So the scheming involved is ported entire from those contexts which were, in historical fact, extremely scheme-ridden, plot thick, endemically war-full, and so on. Herbert’s literary imagination wasn’t limited to that; the real resonance in his work in many ways comes from the flourishes at the margins invented for his societies, and his ability to invent memorable characters who ‘fit their times and places.’ But the power-mad scheming of the works has direct historical references.

      1. Wat Tyler

        Frank Herbert could write outside the other world “Dune” style genre as well. May I recommend “The White Plague” – a story of massive revenge during the “Troubles” in Ireland.


    2. Yves Smith Post author

      An order of magnitude more scheming in Game of Thrones. And no clear good guys v. bad guys. The Lannisters are horrible, but then you have Tyrion who tries to be a good leader and has, gasp, compassion. And you have the Starks getting in their own way a lot and Daenrys who will gamble and sacrifice what it takes (starting with the Dothraki husband she came to love, I assume we’ll see more of this sort of thing) to claim her birthright. So far, Cersei is probably the closest to a purely evil character, and even she is made sympathetic by being told she has to marry again and breed (it’s basically put in those terms).

      1. dan h

        You never felt for poor Cersei until then?! I imagine having ones new husband whisper a dead girl’s name in your ear mid coetus would be devastating…

  10. Paul Tioxon

    I posted in the LINKS section what should have gone in here. But here is an excerpt. Hope it does’nt confuse too many people too much of the time.


    But it is clear to many people, who do watch movies and TV, even unselectively so, that the halls of power are not ours to walk freely or come cheaply if at all. From the Summer of 1968 when I watched the Chicago Police beat Americans not much older than me during a Democratic PARTY national political convention, even as an 11 year old, I felt that there was something terribly wrong with my country. And as more pictures emerged, of women being beaten and dragged bleeding on the ground, that those cops were not acting the way a real man acts by hitting a woman. I probably had my consciousness raised more by television than personal encounters or extensive reading of turgid academic tomes piled high and deep. Or as Bruce Springsteen said: “We learned more from a 3 minute record than we ever learned from books.”

    1. Susan the other

      I was also thinking of the 1968 Democratic convention as instructive. Abbie Hoffman’s greatest quote about it, “Everything’s up for grabs.” Those were horrendous times and now these are. David Graeber made the point here a few days ago that everything is attitude. Whether disguised as fact or fiction there really is only one material reality and that is attitude. Once it changes, society changes. I’m a dull old girl. I haven’t fiction, except for current events, for decades. But hey, you can’t make this stuff up. I’m easily entertained.

      1. neo-realist

        The only problem is that people with attitude plus money always defeat the people with attitude and less or no money even if the people with little or no money outnumber the ones with money. the attitudes may change some facets of society, but the money dynamics keep the political power with the people with the money.

  11. vlade

    And if you want your reading to be on a little light side (but still thoughtfull and thought provoking), I’d recommend Terry Pratchet. Making Money could be an appopriate start ;), although I’d say Interesting Times or Small Gods is something I’d usually recommend for a more thoughtfull reader. Or, given your liking of Oz, maybe Lost Continent.

    1. J Sterling

      One great thing about Pratchett’s fantasy universe is that it changes, the way real history does. The real Middle Ages was a series of ever-changing societies that we now lump together into one story-book eternity. I admire Martin as a writer (particularly the science fiction he wrote before hitting the jackpot with the current series of novels), but I think he does himself no favors by making his world one which has had the same old iron swords for a thousand years. Real history moves faster than that.

      1. Lambert Strether

        Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay:

        Royalty was like dandelions. No matter how many heads you chopped off, the roots were still there underground, waiting to spring up again.

        It seemed to be a chronic disease. It was as if even the most intelligent person had this little blank spot in their heads where someone had written: “Kings. What a good idea.” Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees.

  12. Bam_Man

    “I’m so out of touch with popular culture…”

    You say that like it’s a bad thing…

  13. sherparick

    First, a few months ago you ran a series of interviews with “a Libertarian” and he openly stated that it was very clear that in his vision of the world it would be a neo-feudal world, with the elite of John and Jane Galts acting herocially for their selfish interests, while most people would be place themselves in bondage to the non-sovereigns to whom had the legal authority to act with violence (which is one of the essences of feudalism). Corey Robbins discusses this well in this blog entry:

    An aside on Game of Thrones: the inspiration of Martin’s world is in many ways the history and struggles of the Plantagenet and Capetian-Valois dynasties and their various Cadet branches (Lancaster, York, & Burgundian), along with their great nobles in British Isles, France, and the Low Countries during the 14th and 15th centuries, with an anachroistic dose of the late Viking Age of Canute, William the Conqueror, and Edward the Confessor. Reading Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror,” Thomas Costain’s popular histories, and J. Huizinga’s “The Autumn of the Middle Ages” and one finds where Martin finds his characters and their mindsets.

    1. Charles LeSeau

      +1 for mentioning one of my favorite books, A Distant Mirror. Barbara Tuchman was a superb writer and historian. Maybe I’ll have to look into this show sometime. Now intrigued.

      Wondering if anything on TV can approach the 1977 BBC rendering of Graves’s I, Claudius, though, for imperial depravity at its finest.

        1. Charles LeSeau

          Books, you mean. It was both ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Claudius the God.’ :D

          I agree in any case, but that BBC production was amazing.

    2. Richard Kline

      While my knowledge of Martin’s universe here is limited, it seems clear that the Heptarchy of Anglo-Saxon England Britain was the templet, with that structure updated to late Plantagenet trappings. There are some other historical references. It’s not bad as such. But again, “all kings, all the time—just bad ones.”

    3. Susan the other

      Agree about Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (about the Crusades). I was also glued to I Claudius. Much harder to read Robert Graves, for some reason he was best in small doses.

  14. NotTimothyGeithner

    Game of Thrones isn’t a work of great literature (if you read any popular fiction author, its worth your time), but I see Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and even Downtown Abbey with the same theme, decayed societies where most people are stuck and the main characters have agency or at least the appearance of agency. The characters do whatever the hell they want, but they don’t change the world around them. The fascination with zombies and vampires who don’t seem to have the curse Stoker’s dracula but all of his advantages are part of this.

    I think people feel trapped in dead communities, so they descend into this escapist fantasy. Take the most recent Star Trek movie. Kirk, McCoy, and Spock didn’t join Starfleet to better themselves and all of humanity. They joined Starfleet to run away from their problems or prove someone wrong out of spite. Then they fight scary monsters. The creators of that particular nonsense claimed they loved the optimistic vision of the future, but their optimistic vision seemed to be that the future had many bright colors and lens flares.

    1. Richard Kline

      Yeah, the condition of ‘constricted agency’ in these scenarios does seem shared, suggestive of present conditions—and morbidly depressing. . . . I don’t do litcrit as a whole in approaching literary works and especially fiction, but that said structural and cognitive biases in society have long interested me. And people _do_ use works of fiction to both image and re-imagine the world in which they live. So from that perspective, ‘constricted libertarian agency’ to be more precise here is a horrible emergence from the present communicated imagination. Communitarian approaches? Look where that got them in the Walking Dead. Altruism? Idealism? Mutual aid?? Not the visions which are getting published in our time, that’s for sure, and not obviously the ones even imagined.

      1. Capo Regime

        If you think thats depressing, read JG Ballard–no agency just caught in events and powerless to do nothing save a brief entertainment or distraction. Personal agency is the bit of optimism that gives a positive twist to make the work sellable. Walt in breaking bad is for his family, there are decent journalists uncovering the evil in House of Cards. But perhaps the Ballard world of no heroes or agency is more accurate and may explain why he is not much read in the U.S.

    2. Capo Regime

      Yes, add “House of Cards” in the genre of decay. Yes the way some carry on you would think that “Game of Thrones” is up there with Brothers Karamazov or with the work of Vassily Grossman. Its pop fiction and not genius–americans use praise generously. JG Ballard is much better and more subtle. But you are correct, the key thing is that popular entertainment has taken a more realistic and accurate portrayal of current conditions in the U.S. Is that remarkable? Probably not, given how propoagandized and the power of positive thinking inculcated to create optimism bias telling things as they are is an interesting development and perhaps even positive.

  15. Casteelk

    Great post. When reading Game of Thrones, I often think how close it really is to our current situation of government. I told a friend the other day, once they are finished stealing all they can from the poor and middle class, it won’t be long before they turn on each other. Its their sociopathic nature. They just keep looking around and wanting ALL the power and money. The thing I love about Game of Thrones, is there is no hero, no villian. Just people with self motivations, making terrible mistakes. Pretty much like the real world.

    1. Nathanael

      They’re already turning on each other. Actually, they always have. It just goes mostly unnoticed to the rest of us. Read enough FT and Barron’s and so forth and you will see some of it; follow Republican politics (particularly the campaign contributions to primaries) in detail and you’ll see more of it.

  16. The Dork of Cork.

    Somebody somewhere keeps changing “the rules”

    Austerity was a mistake…………,20187082,20187082,flash,232

    When I am not seeing red I just see the US , UK &French based banks changing tack so as to redirect real resources towards their base of operations.
    Now the story is one of deserving little deposits vs not so deserving large deposits.

    Its so obvious now – its almost painful to watch.
    This guy has a very serious agenda……extraction.

    The elite are a pox.

    1. JEHR

      Yes, you are so right. Our last budget (in Canada) stated that the liabilities of the banks could be used for bail-in purposes. The Minister of Finance said all deposits were safe but I, for one, do not believe him. Did he take the bollowing bit out of the budget?

      Page 145 of Canada’s 2013 budget:

      “The [Canadian] Government proposes to implement a “bail-in” regime for systemically important banks. This regime will be designed to ensure that, in the unlikely event that a systemically important bank depletes its capital, the bank can be recapitalized and returned to viability through the very rapid conversion of certain bank liabilities into regulatory capital. This will reduce risks for taxpayers. The Government will consult stakeholders on how best to implement a bail-in regime in Canada.

      Implementation timelines will allow for a smooth transition for affected institutions, investors and other market participants. Systemically important banks will continue to be subject to existing risk management requirements, including enhanced supervision and recovery and resolution plans.

      This risk management framework will limit the unfair advantage that could be gained by Canada’s systemically important banks through the mistaken belief by investors and other market participants that these institutions are ‘too big to fail’.” (from Zero Hedge)

      1. The Dork of Cork.

        The banking pox will never accept the concept of money as a token
        Its always part of their double entry conduit “asset” system.

        The money tokens via deposits is mixed up in their double entry inflation / deflation extraction games.

        In the most extreme Canadian example Goldman turns a utility such as houses into a financial asset……during their deflation period of course it becomes a millstone.

        We are dealing with the blackest force that has ever existed on the planet.
        The scale of their dark ambition is off all known scales.

      2. The Dork of Cork.

        Its time for people to reject the fiction held within Goldsteins book.

        When Winston asks O’Brien if “the book” is true, he replies: “As description, yes. The programme it sets forth . . . is nonsense”.

        The coming war between Oceania & Eurasia is high farce …a desperate attempt at distraction.
        If we don’t believe it may turn hot for sure.

        But the goals are well…………

  17. Mackerelsnappers too

    Anent cockeyed optimism, there’s this great nonfiction potboiler, The Pope’s War, that tells a story of depravity that you’d scoff at in a fantasy novel. Hordes of fanatics in secret cults running around exterminating reformers, whipping themselves into foamy blood blobs, hijcking governments, reaming hapless altarboys in droves, and worshipping kiddy-fingering lunatics. They work for CIA! They offed a frickin pope! And author Matthew Fox, an actual former catholic who got drummed out like Chuck Connors in Branded, is calling for renewal. Don’t laugh. He’s reveling in what he sees as collapse: the spectacle of an institution liquidating assets and purging capable people while intentionally recruiting and promoting dumbshits and blackmailable pervs. Totalitarianism is all part of the agonal throes.

    Best of all, with only slight abstraction, all those pathologies map isomorphically to those of the US government. With good reason. The existential threat to the state after ’68 was not rebellion or red cells, but just that people lost interest in the ritual nonsense: patriotism, the troops, football, the cult of work. The cultural shit. That’s really all an illegitimate authority has got. Without it the state’s a joke, like some nun berating you because you don’t know the apostolic epididymis of christ or some shit.

  18. McMike

    Well, Paul Shepard (Nature & Madness, Coming Home to the Pleistocene) believed that when we disconected ourselves from a nomadic, small group, nature-based existence, we started to “go mad.”

    This idea was more popularly put forward in the book Ishmael, by Quinn. Whose theory on the Juedo-Christian creation myth remains the only plausible explanation I’ve heard yet for why we ended up with a creation story that essentially says: we suck.

    Look around at all the other creation myths and find another one that is built on the premise that they suck. All the other creation myths are built around the idea that this groups is “the people,” and integral yet special group put in place on purpose to play a central role. The J-C myth says we basically screwed up big time, because we are faulty, and got ourselves voted off the Island forever.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      I can’t speak for “Judeo-Christian*” creation myths or the similar expulsion from paradise myths, but isn’t the concept of Original Sin an excuse cooked up by the relatively early Christian church to explain the major problem of Christianity which is Jesus, the Son of God, needing to die for some unexplained reason?

      *I always thought this phrase was just a bit of right wing hocus pocus myself or at least an attempt to pretend Christianity wasn’t liberally borrowing from whatever locals they were trying to oppress.

  19. McWatt

    Yves: You are in good company. The Third Man was also one of Roger Ebert’s

    Top Ten films. And mine.

  20. clarence swinney

    He has a long list. Yet! I do not understand his lack of promotion.
    I am an I and voted Nixon. Ford, Reagan twice because I felt they were the most qualified.
    Since 1990, I have had problem with Republicans. They controlled Congress and gave us three horrid bills that Clinton signed. Repeal of Glass Steagall let wealthy investment houses get a a monopoly on our banking system. Today. 10 “too big to fail” control 80% of all bank deposits.
    Commodities Modernization allowed banks to get into gambling where investors have no stake.
    Free Trade Act with China and during the Bush Administration 3,700,000 of our good jobs went to just China. Of Course. Nafta sent 800,000 to Mexico. The 8 of Bush II increased spending by 90%, Debt by 112%, deficit to 1400B from a surplus, two unneeded wars. And huge tax cut for the rich.
    Obama increased the debt with 800B Stimulus and Payroll Tax Cut.

  21. DeepSouthPopulist

    I’ve read the books. The first 3 are works of near genius IMO.

    George R.R. Martin’s reflections on political power, how it is achieved, how it is used, what it takes to keep it, are deeply penetrating and perfectly capture the spirit of our times.

    The show grossly simplifies many points and can’t capture the nuances of a 1000 page book, but the show does have its moments. This exchange is about the nature of political power, specifically its “appearance” versus “reality” aspects, and is close to the spirit of Martin’s vision in the books.

  22. kevinearick

    You know…if people want to follow their parents into poverty and their grandparents into insanity, because they are focused on the past instead of the future, that is their business. There is nothing you can do about it. Which is more effective, trying to rehabilitate grown adults willfully subjecting themselves to empire ‘de-synchronization,’ anxiety, and addiction, or raising kids to respect themselves, others and nature? Wow, how rocket-sciencey! If you are going to play in the Keynesian casino, bet on the house, and expect it to collapse. The economic slaves are brought in, slaughtered and replaced. The math is not that difficult.

    So, all the corporate morons are over in China again, trading increased access to a shrinking slave labor market in return for their hopelessly impaired digital dollar asset base at home, while the bankers print to the moon, to simulate economic viability. Yes, we are quite capable of injecting the necessary technology to support $30T in debt. Are we? Absolutely not. When you compress the resistors between the inductor and capacitor, what happens?

    The majority sides with capital, every time, like clockwork. In this iteration, the digital fixed costs are sucking the entire global economy into the void between their ears. Getting into the casino is easy. Getting out is another matter all together. Try, try, try again to replace new family formation as the fundamental building block of economics, with eunuch morons in an ivory tower, screaming ever more shrill as their feminist rats jump off the ship. Let’s see, who will Clinton have to sell out? Hmmmm……

    Those young people who have learned to recycle will do quite well. The majority, however, who chose to liquidate their parents’ estate, will not fare so well. You cannot choose your parents and you cannot choose your children, but you can choose your spouse. Borders are designed by legacy family banks, capital, to contain new family formation, labor, to the end of capital. Step out of the way and they implode, due to the positive feedback. Has there ever been a better time to be a banker? The upper middle class can have its cake and eat it too.

    These idiots in ‘frisco are sitting on top of the world, a bomb waiting to go off…funny, when they see me in line with the homeless, their brains start melting. Rome saved itself by becoming the Holy Roman Empire. Keep waiting for Jesus. An empire runs on the rails of currency and technology. What happens when you unfasten the ties?

    Only the middle class looks at national borders like they are real. Japanese monetary expansion is just Fed monetary expansion.

    1. kevinearick

      By the way, did you happen to catch that piece in the WSJ encouraging parents to employ Machiavelli as the model for raising their children?

  23. furzymouse

    Yves, I too am plowing thru book 5 of GOT…and pondered why I loved it so much….as an English major, I have to cite character development!!..and yes, the general messiness and unpredictability of life in general, the dimension of the unexpected that Martin supplies… I liked scifi for a while, but most of the principals were truly one-dimensional, only there to further the machinations of the story line…!

  24. Ptolemy Philopator

    What pre-modern courts? The Ptolemaic model is the one are living with still, sociopathic elites skimming off the real economy. In fact, it is no doubt the same families doing the skimming.

  25. Marianne J.

    Words, words, words, words… you all fail, so many words and the most important point not mentioned //anywhere//….

    …..and Winter is Coming.

  26. JGordon

    “The current level of corruption and cynicism is hardly inevitable; it’s a social construct.”

    Yeah, that’s right, a social construct: as in, we used up all the cheap natural resources that were available and now only the hard stuff is left to plunder–and people refuse to admit that fact.

    So instead of voluntarily reducing our consumption and sacrificing growth (and improving the quality of our live in the process) we are choosing to keep on growing right up until collapse. Oh wait, this was about conniving and corruption… Well as for that, a standard pattern observed often in nature is that when resources become scarcer animal social structure become more and more unequal. And eventually only the top couple of “alpha” animals are left with the remaining resources all to themselves. It’s a species survival strategy you see.

    And I don’t see how it’s not playing out in humans as we speak–but thanks to our clever brains there is a way for humans to escape that trap, though it takes wisdom rather than cunning to do.

  27. ScottS

    Some Sci-Fi competes well with real literature. My top four:

    Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
    The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
    Anything by Philip K. Dick.
    Everything by Kurt Vonnegut

    I do find fantasy stodgy and hierarchical, even when I truly enjoy the ride, even by masters like Tolkien and Gaiman. They just don’t stay with you like 1984 or Brave New World. Fantasy doesn’t really tell you anything new about yourself.

    1. Nathanael

      Lathe of Heaven is actually very weak LeGuin. Most of her work is fictional, hypothetical anthropology (unsurprising, considering her background) and is *brilliant*.

      I can recommend everything in the “Hainish” universe. But “Solitude” (short story) is my personal favorite.

        1. Nathanael

          It certainly is. (That’s from _The Left Hand of Darkness_, for those who haven’t read it.)

          The Syndicate of Initiative from _The Dispossessed_ — and the need for it, in what was supposed to be a utopia — has always stuck with me.

          But _Solitude_ was the one which really blew my mind. I can’t describe it; it’s a short story, so just read it. It’s in _The Birthday of the World_ collection as well as various award-winner collections.

      1. Generalfeldmarschall Von Hindenburg

        You like Valis? Whoahhhh…don’t say that too loud *looks around nervously*

      2. Nathanael

        Wow. I found Valis too incoherent, and so did my fiancee.

        Dick basically tried to write the same book four times. The first version is _Valis_, the second is _The Divine Invasion_, the third is _The Transmigration of Timothy Archer_, and the final version (published posthumously) is _Radio Free Albemuth_.

        I wonder if you’ve tried _Radio Free Albemuth_. My fiancee says that it’s very much _Valis_, only it makes sense.

    2. Nathanael

      FWIW, I’m a huge fan of Lois McMaster Bujold; despite the aristocratic / space-opera trappings, a large portion of her works are actually speculations on the socioeconomic implications of biotechnology.

      Start with _Falling Free_ for the clearest example; in a lot of the others, the biotech plots are kind of buried under the aristocratic trappings.

  28. JustAnObserver

    On its own the mass addiction to the fantasy world of Game of Thrones might just be evidence of escapism. However if we couple it to the huge popularity of a (quasi) real life version as depicted in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall I wonder if we’re seeing the beginnings of a resurgence of the collective memory of just how bad things used to be the last time the neo-feudal elites had the rest of us gripped in their brtual choke hold.

    Just a slightly-more-optimistic-than-usual thought …

    Its also interesting how even in this image saturated era simply putting some black squiggly marks on white paper remains an act of potentially enormous power and wide reach. One thing that stands out from Wolf Hall is the sheer fear shown by the Church elites when faced with Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English.

    1. LifelongLib

      My son is a GoT fan so I watched part of it.

      Showing my age here, but “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and “Elizabeth R” are head and shoulders above GoT in intelligence, as well as cruelty and scheming.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        You can have a lot more scheming in print than in TV. I’m working through the books, no HBO.

        1. LifelongLib

          If you’re interested, the shows I mentioned are available on YouTube. Elizabeth R is the better one (although Six Wives provides the back story and is also well done).

  29. Doug Terpstra

    I made it through Storm of Swords (#3) before finding the dark violent world and people in it too sickening and hideous to continue. It has none of the redeeming character of Lord of the Rings. I suppose that’s why it’s so popular in our current neofeudal reality.

  30. John Moore

    George R.R. Martin is a really good writer of both sci-fi and fantasy. I believe though, that Roger Zelazny was better at both and Zelazny’s Amber series, if brought to television, would make Game of Thrones look like a cheaply made and produced soap opera. It’s a shame that Zelazny died young, but his death allowed Martin to thrive.

    I think David Brin’s critique of fantasy is most biting, that fantasy novels reflect medival societies where 90% of the population are poor serfs and that almost all fantasy readers identify with the main characters who are generally of the wealthy ruling elite.

  31. eclecticdog

    Ms. Smith, you should watch some Korean dramas then (the historical ones are consistently good).

  32. YankeeFrank

    The big difference between Game of Thrones and our current neoliberal structure is that the peasants in Game of Thrones accept their lot more or less. The “peasants” in our era certainly are only peasants in the minds of our corrupt ruling class — not in our own minds (with a few miserable exceptions). This is a momentous difference, and one that will lead to a toppling of the current regime once the next collapse occurs.

    1. Nathanael

      It’s worth remembering that the peasents in actual feudal societies only accepted their lot in life *some of the time*.

      And it’s important to understand one aspect of how the world was viewed. When there was insufficient food harvested, the peasants didn’t consider it the peasants’ problem: it was the lord’s problem to feed them, and if he didn’t handle it, they’d kill him or find another lord. They didn’t always have the ability to do so, but they usually gave it a bloody good try, emphasis on bloody.

      1. YankeeFrank

        Yes, you make good points Nathanael. There was much more reciprocity back then. Now our “lords” can pretend they owe nothing to us but an unlivable wage. Of course, without the food stamp, disability and other programs the “lords” want to get rid of, we would be at their throats even now. By transferring responsibility from them to the government, they can pretend there are no ties between us. Its ironic that idiots like Mitt Romney swagger around pretending they don’t owe their “success” to anyone but themselves and demanding that we take out the last legs of support keeping the people from taking off his head. Be careful what you wish for plutocrats.

        1. Generalfeldmarschall Von Hindenburg

          Barbara Tuchman wrote a good popular history of the 14 century back in the 70s or something and went over in great detail the peasant revolts that the nobles lived in terror of. Also Chinas history is replete with vast peasant armies marching across the land. So there’s hope in historical fantasy!

          1. Nathanael

            I can’t remember my exact sources, but whenever I study medieval history, I keep stumbling across stuff about peasant revolts, peasants inviting a neighboring lord in to murder their existing lord, etc…. always associated with food

            In ancient Egypt the link between the King and the duty to provide food is *much* clearer and shows up basically everywhere.

          2. LifelongLib

            In medieval times peasant revolts arose from the perception that the lords were not meeting their obligations under the feudal system, but there was little thought of overturning that system.

            By the 1600s you had people who wanted to get rid of lords altogether. By then things had changed so much that the nobility no longer had a practical function.

            I would say that rich people today (certain individuals aside) also no longer have a practical function. We don’t need massive concentrations of personal wealth as sources of investment. Also the rich for the most part no longer make the important day-to-day decisions connected with running corporations (they do concentrate on making sure they get their cut).

  33. ed

    If you had a friend who lied to you all the time, you would end the friendship permanently. Well, why do you have a TV in your home? It does nothing but lie to you. It lies to you and you don’t even know that it is lying. You can’t tell the lies from the truth anymore. Get that abusive device out of your life now!

  34. reason

    This post could almost be from David Brin. But he would of course be more partisan in this particular fight (Fantasy vs SciFi – althought he would parse it differently – backward looking vs forward looking – or idealism (platoism) versus pragmatism (science).)

    Very well written!

    1. Nathanael

      That’s the “kyriarchy” theory as I understand it. It’s a nice idea…

      …but hierarchy seems to be a hard-wired instinct in us social mammals. You can’t just get rid of it. You have to sublimate the tendency for hierarchy into non-destructive things (such as, for instance, competitions to demonstrate who is the greatest musician, stuff like that).

      1. Nathanael

        _The Dispossessed_ makes a subtle, and I think accurate, comment on the difficulty of maintaining a truly non-hierarchical society.

  35. Paul P

    “isolated individuals working for their own self interest”

    Neoliberal social Darwinists get a lot of help from the rest of us. as this website makes clear each day. They may beat their chests and wrangle for position, but there is no alternative: they live in a world dependent not only on the past, but on the society of the present.

  36. P. M.

    Yves, you wrote “But as much as I enjoyed a lot of the “hard” technology oriented sci fi, I was much more interested in writers who used technology or alternative worlds to explore human behavior in conditions or social structures that didn’t exist in our history.”

    If that’s the case, Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Profession” is a must-read.

    The social implications of the education system he describes in this short story are chilling, but the plot underscores the critical nature of keeping independent thought alive and well in a society. A fantastic read.

  37. Ramona

    Thanks Yves for validating my go to escape. Martin is not a nice man, but he has written a fully realized world with the kind of problems we all seem to be facing, that is impossible and scary and very deadly problems with not a single person who seems stable enough to count on through it all.

    I fantasize the dragons grow up and are controlled enough to kill the real bad guys, both the white walkers and the lannisters.

    How do we find our own set of dragons and direwolves to help us? what seer can envision the path we need to take?

    I’m out of ideas on the cusp of old age. What seemed entirely possible ten years ago now seems asking too much.

    Martin can’t finish his books anymore than we can see the future. But I am on the side of those dragons and direwolves myself.

  38. skippy

    Once, in a cheap science fiction novel, Fat had come across a perfect description of the Black Iron Prison, but set in the far future. So if you superimposed the past (ancient Rome) over the present (California in the twentieth century) and superimposed the far future world of The Android Cried Me a River over that, you got the Empire, as the supra- or trans-temporal constant. Everyone who had ever lived was literally surrounded by the iron walls of the prison; they were all inside it and none of them knew it.

    Skippy… Booobies :D quote ” no son, boobs are not filled with fat, they are filled with men`s dreams and hopes ”


  39. pws

    As a teenager, my favorite fantasy TV series was “I, Claudis.” I’ve found that the grammar taught to me by that show has served me well when describing modern times and modern events.

  40. I've never read this blog before

    Strictly speaking Switzerland did not have any brotherly love. Before they adopted their policy of neutrality after the Sonderbund War (a civil war between Catholics and Protestants around the same time Italy was undergoing unification), they were know for being fantastic soldiers and frequently went to war with not only other countries but with themselves. Their internal politics were hardly idyllic, but it makes an interesting contrast to the “neo-liberal” view of Ye Oldy Europe you’re ascribing to Game of Thrones, since their wars were very much battles between communities rather between scheming self-interested individuals.

    So, more accurately, the Swiss spent hundreds of years making themselves the the most feared fighters in Europe – and what did they produce? A load of dudes in funny costumes who hang out in the Vatican.

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