Game of Thrones and the end of history

May 12, 2019 (1357 words) :: More thoughts on Daenerys' downward spiral and the comparisons one could make to today's ruling class.
Tags: game-of-thrones, underdogs

This post is day 132 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Apologies to non-GoT fans for how GoT-centric my blog and newsletter have become. This post will hopefully be the last one.

Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis (meant a paean to liberal democracy, which he saw as the last man standing in the arena of ideological battles) has been pilloried enough by the left that I almost feel guilty bringing it up. It’s like beating a dead horse, especially given that Fukuyama himself now insists that he was misinterpreted and he actually knew that liberal democracy was under threat all long.

Still, just because his thesis was unfounded doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Even if it doesn’t explain the actual course of history, it may help us understand how people are inclined to perceive the world around them. It might not be the end of history, but it sure as hell feels that way if it’s what you’re used to. And anyway, you kind of have to believe it, if only on a subconscious level, because otherwise how are you going to live? You want to believe that the backdrop of the world is mostly static, so that you can breathe a sigh of relief and concentrate on the shifting complexities of building your own life.

Any system that reaches a certain level of stability starts to generate its own logic: this is humanity’s final destination; this is capital-P Progress; this is the ideal way of organising our socioeconomic system. It’s never easy to contest this logic, because those who are not served by the system also lack the political legitimacy to challenge it, and those who are in a position to change things tend to want things to stay the same.

Consider Daenerys’ claim to legitimacy. As I wrote about last week, her entire life so far has been centred around her planned ascension to the throne. And in the early days of her journey, it was even possible that she would have been a decent ruler: she had a good backstory, and her commitment to what she saw as justice seemed miles better than most other rulers.

But no one can commit to justice in the abstract, justice in its Platonic form. Your understanding of justice is always mediated by the world you live in. Daenerys’ own idea of justice has been warped over the seasons as she gains more and more power, and it’s starting to sound a lot less like “bringing freedom to oppressed people” and more like “burning alive anyone who refuses to bow down to me”.

You could argue that she’s right to act this way, because it’s the only way to maintain her grasp of power. Faced with a Hobson’s choice between a twisted, dark, and corrupt form of power, or no power at all, of course she’s going to choose power; who would choose differently? But what’s right for her - the most rational course of action she could take - isn’t necessarily what’s good for everyone else. She may be better than some other rulers, but does that mean her exercise of brute power should be unchallenged, simply because she has a good backstory? Should her reign be the end of history?

Every potential ruler is capable of convincing themselves that their rule will be a good one, by coming up with justifications for why they should be in power. For Daenerys, it’s a heady combination of intangibles - “destiny”, birthright, how hard she’s worked to get here - and physical violence (in line with House Targaryen’s words: “Fire and Blood”). She has to get the throne, because it’s the one thing she’s pursued her whole life. If she somehow let it slip through her fingers, it would make everything she’s done feel meaningless. She’s already lost so much by this point (most of her army, her advisors, two of her dragons) that she has to keep going; it’s up or out.

Now, Daenerys is clearly unfit to be queen. That much is obvious to us, the viewers (or at least those of us who didn’t name our child “Khaleesi” and now feel obliged to defend her every action). Her idea of justice now has a decidedly self-serving tinge, and it’s hard to imagine that she could ever change back to the person she used to be - the person whose pursuit of power seemed worth supporting. Most importantly, she does not see the world the same way as her remaining advisers, who have a very different notion of justice, and who are appalled at the way she took King’s Landing.

In a way, this isn’t really fair for Daenerys: the closer she gets to the throne, the more that people judge her to be unworthy of it. But as I said in my previous fragment on this, just because she started the show as an underdog doesn’t mean she’s guaranteed to remain that way. Not everyone deserves the outcome they want, especially if that outcome involves power over others. Power always corrupts, whether it’s legitimated through monarchical traditions like birthright and physical violence, or more contemporary arrangements involving ownership of capital. Without a counterpower to keep it in check, it’ll degenerate to the point where it loses whatever moral legitimacy it may have once had.

So what does this mean for Daenerys? I think the best we can hope for is that Daenerys somehow clears the path for a better ruler - someone who isn’t self-delusional with ideas of destiny. Ideally, of course, we’d want Westeros to abolish feudalism and instead transition to a more democratic system, but that’s a much longer project. In the meantime, I suspect we’ll see her rule violently cut short, and her place on the throne taken by Jon Snow.

Sure, that sucks for her, but it’s probably a better outcome for everyone else. The very nature of sovereign power means that whatever the sovereign says, or does, or believes, becomes legitimate, and takes on a force of its own. Once Daenerys is in charge, her way of seeing the world becomes the right way of seeing the world, in the sense that her subjects will act as if it is: they will execute her orders, or punish people, or behave in a way that accords with her wishes.

And what if she turns out to be the Mad Queen after all? What if what she wants isn’t really as good for everyone else as she likes to think?

One lesson that’s constantly reinforced throughout the GoT universe is that there is no invisible hand of justice to set things right. The world is harsh, and brutal, and there isn’t always an ultimate power to turn to for protection or judgment. It’s easy to forget this when you have a somewhat functioning system, with a strong (if imperfect) ruler, as in the 17 years before the start of the show. However, most of the show takes place during the interregnum, after the established order has fractured; in its place have risen multiple competing ideas of justice, with overlapping jurisdictions. Daenerys represents one of these, and the last one, because all of her potential enemies have been vanquished.

As Littlefinger once said: there’s no justice in this world, not unless we make it. If Daenerys turns out to be a bad ruler, she is not going to realise it on her own and step down graciously. The very idea of justice , and power will not challenge itself. Whoever believes in an idea of justice that transcends Daenerys’ own will need to step up and make it a reality. Maybe it’ll be Arya, maybe it’ll be Jon, maybe the people of King’s Landing will construct a massive guillotine for her and Drogon in order to abolish the system that accords so much symbolic power to a metal chair. And maybe whoever takes power after her will itself need to be deposed down the line. All you can really hope for is that it’s better than what came before it: constant renewal, constant change, inching towards a horizon you can see but can never seem to reach.

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