Weber on Westeros

I don’t really like Game of Thrones: it is basically a soap opera with no clear narrative arc and too much gratuitous despair for my taste. I read the first book in George R. R. Martin‘s series and watched the show until the infamous “Red Wedding”. By that point I had decided there were way too many characters whose names or motives I did not know, too many factions whose background I ignored, and no clear pattern of relationships. But – like everything else in pop culture – I can still use Game of Thrones to demonstrate how my favorite social scientist was a genius. Hence this guide to Westeros through the lens of Weberian theory.

Weber is coming…

Max Weber was a smart guy who developed much of the foundation of modern social science. But he is best known for a couple of key contributions, like his definition of the state as a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and his three ideal types of authority or legitimate domination: law, tradition, and charisma. These three types are a toolkit for understanding politics, and they are equally valid on Earth as they are on Westeros.


Tradition: The Westeros noble houses

Patrimonialism: Difference is not allowed

Despite what George R.R. Martin wants you to believe, the Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Tyrell, Baelish or Arryn families are equally bad for Westeros, because they invoke the same principle to legitimate their power: tradition, and more specifically patrimonialism. Patrimonialism entails control of the public space as if it was a family, with the leader at the apex, ruling like a head of household and privileging submission and loyalty above all. It can a predictable and comforting system of government – “things as they always have been” – but it is also prone to instability and it can suffocate those who do not want to live under tradition. Consider both Tyrion and Jaime Lannister, doomed to fulfill roles imposed on them by their father. Or that fickle coalition of shouty men that is The North, utterly incapable of getting their act together due to their self-defeating reliance on family obligations: that’s no way to organize a proper army! It is the Westeros brand of patrimonialism that subjects everyone to a positively sociopathic child king only because he happens to have the right last name.

Charisma: The Mother of Dragons

White hair is a sign of high charisma

Against the dull and stale backdrop of Westeros nobility stand out the exceptional politics of Daenerys Targaryen. In contrast to herlineage-obsessed brother, throughout book/series 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire Daenerys becomes a powerful leader not really through her claim to the Iron Throne – which seems a bit distant and cold from the continent – but through sheer force of personality. Daenerys is an iconoclast who constantly clashes with traditional social structures. The chief determinant of her rise to prominence is charisma, a form of domination in which followers pledge their allegiance to a single individual due to her extraordinary qualities and magnetism. Of course, Daenerys has her dragons, but for most of the story so far they have been pretty useless as weapons, and in fact are more relevant as a tangible signifier of her personal identity. But charisma, Weber tells us, is also a weak foundation for political authority in the long run: without strong rules and obligations Daenery’s followers don’t quite know what to expect, which is for instance why the Dothraki have abandoned her over time. This form of domination is so concentrated on a single person that it is in fact incredibly easy to weaken simply by taking her out, which is why she becomes time and again the target of various assassination plots.

Law: The Night’s Watch (and a little bird)

Faceless Weberian bureaucrats

Domination through law and rational organization is Weber’s third ideal type, and also the most effective means of large scale public administration. Law’s chief instrument is bureaucracy: a hierarchical organization of experts who execute precise rules and regulations in an impersonal manner; public service, and not private benefit, is the guiding ideology of bureaucrats. In Westeros there are only two groups working for the public good and not personal or familial benefit. The first of them is the Night’s Watch, an obvious Weberian bureaucracy: by “taking the black” brothers are supposed to leave their personal background behind, and going through an expertise-based system of promotion which equalizes noble and commoner in an organization devoted to a single public task. Defending the Wall is a clear public good for which benefits all the petty houses, even if they often neglect or despise the Night’s Watch, starving it of the funds that they so desperately need to fulfill their public duty. The nobles’ neglect or despise for the brothers is not different from how modern societies dismiss government bureaucrats as “grey men” or “boring”.

This is what public ethos looks like

To my knowledge, there is only other actor who exhibits public spirit, impersonal action, and a desire to protect the state above all: Varys the spymaster and his little birds. In many ways Varys is the ultimate Weberian bureaucrat: servant to whoever controls the Kingdom, but unable – and perhaps unwilling – to take it for himself, as he is the only member of the Small Council who cannot aspire to the Iron Throne due to his lack of patrimonial legitimacy. Instead Varys commands an impersonal bureaucracy employing faceless experts: his “little birds”. And as he tells Ned Stark at a critical moment, his allegiance is to the Kingdom and not to the delusions of grandeur of any of the houses.

From a Weberian perspective, the charisma of Daenerys and the bureaucracies of the Night’s Watch and Varys are the only hope for institutional change in Westeros: all other actors inhabit and are bound to replicate a corrupt, oppressive, and unstable system of patrimonialism. Of the challengers, Daenerys is certainly the most appealing option, but also the least predictable: there is no telling how long she can keep her followers, or what rules she intends to establish once she attains power. In contrast, the abnegation and forward-thinking attitude of the Westeros bureaucrats are the only guarantee for a better kingdom. Political evolution requires bureaucratization, and that is why the Kingdom would be better served by an alliance between the Night’s Watch and Varys.

That’s a Game of Thrones plot that I would gladly follow. But I suspect what will happen instead is that everyone will die.