Down the the Dictator, but not the extensive bureaucracy that maintains civilization

| Wednesday, July 25, 2012
"There must always be a Lich King."  Lame, right?  Or is it?

The other day I watched Equilibrium, which is basically what would happen if you wanted to make the Matrix but couldn't legally do that, and replaced machine-driven illusion with drugs to block emotion.  For various reasons it irritated me, but one in particular stood out: the downside of ending the regime was never discussed.  The film of V for Vendetta had this same problem.

It might be because I'm a Stalinist*, but I'm not a fan of the pattern of "dictator falls, everyone lives happily ever after."  That's not actually how things happen.  Ever.  I can sense the objection rising up inside you, so I have these two things to note.

*according to my critics

First off, I don't think the downside to the fall of the dictator must necessarily be shown, at least not right away, but there should be at least some notion that something went wrong.  Take Star Wars for example.  After A New Hope we're all happy that the Death Star was destroyed.  Then the Empire strikes back in the appropriately-named The Empire Strikes Back in which the Rebels are stuck on a planet made entirely out of ice and wampas.  In the extended universe we learn about how just because the Emperor eventually died doesn't mean everything is great.  Instead, people go out to celebrate and are gunned down by the millions and a whole new form of civil war breaks out, which as best as I can tell, never ends no matter how many times they kill clones of the Emperor.

Compare this with real life where we celebrate the fall of a dictator, and then all go "so... now what?"  That's when every single suppressed grievance explodes and suddenly people start missing running water and streets paved with something other than unexploded ordinance.

Despite that, there is my Second thing to note: just because there is a downside does not mean it is bad that the evil regime has fallen.  Of course it's bad when the basic infrastructure is wrecked and rule of law breaks down, but that's something to consider when taking down the dictator.  This doesn't mean "oh well, things would be worse without them", but instead "let's have a plan for what happens when the Elite Guard of the Evil Government are all out of work."

The admission of a downside is part of what can make the story complex and interesting.  It makes the enemies, the villains, a little more understandable.  Sure the dictator is bad, but perhaps his supporters are just people who see stability as worth the occasional murder and rampant corruption.  Maybe they think it will be even worse without him.  This makes them people with different philosophical leanings and social predictions, rather than evil people.  That's what the world is filled with: people with different perspectives, who we may still find ourselves in conflict with, but who are not evil faceless goons.  After the rebellion they may even join the winning side, not because they are traitors or flip-floppers, but because they see it as the best way to protect what they value and to continue to do their jobs.

They are the bureaucrats.  They are the police and the army.  The judges and administrators.  Are they on the wrong side?  Perhaps.  But that doesn't mean they cannot be on the right side.  Nor does it mean that they are necessarily evil.

I remember an argument in a Star Wars novel in which the hero is arguing with his future father-in-law about smuggling.  The father was a smuggler, running Imperial blockades and bypassing their customs.  It paid well and seemed to be righteous work, sticking it to The Man.  But the hero points out that while the Empire was evil, those import taxes were what paid for roads and schools and healthcare for children.  So even as it is a blow to the Evil Empire, it is also a blow to those who are subjects of the empire and who have no choice in the matter.

Perhaps the best book I ever read that showed the downside, the cost of victory, the burden of maintaining civilization, was called The Star Conquerors.  It's an old science fiction novel in which humans are gradually getting crushed by an alien empire.  It is approximately a gagillion times bigger, which is not helped by a human population which isn't very interested in paying for the war effort that keeps them from being crushed in a week.  The hero does the sensible thing: rounds up what ships he can and goes flying off to kick some ass, which after a mix of luck and brilliance, results in him capturing the core planets.  The aliens hand over control of the entire empire, about a third of the galaxy.  Cool, right?  USA USA USA!  Er.. TERRAN EMPIRE TERRAN EMPIRE TERRAN EMPIRE!  Except for one problem: Before they leave the aliens explain that now we're responsible for administering it all, of managing the flow of trade, of preventing starvation, of keeping everyone in line so it doesn't all collapse into a giant civil war among the various species.

Should we have just given up and lost?  No.  But knowing that there is something after victory, some burden of leadership, of survival against entropy rather than war, makes the story that much more complete and interesting.

And so, when we hear that there must always be a Lich King, maybe let's go ahead and say that in the literal sense, that sounds ridiculous.  But let's not forget that there are still the Vrykul up there, who are going to wonder what happened to their Death God, who are going to need to be either crushed, assimilated, or some mix of the two, and better hope we don't get that wrong.  There are still Scourge agents, dedicated to various agendas of evil, power, and insanity.  In fact, we run into one in the Eastern Plaguelands, a spider who thinks he's going to start his own Scourge.  A joke, for now.  We should wonder, without the leadership of the Lich King, what will the mindless ones do?  What about the sentient and free agents?  What happens to the Plague?  The diseased and corrupted land?

Perhaps we should even be glad that Deathwing showed up.  Imagine the chaos, the destruction, if the greedy, amoral adventurers with incredible magical and combat powers backed with even greater magical artifacts and armor, found themselves bored.  Perhaps that's what was meant by the Scourge going on an even greater rampage of destruction.  With the Lich King, we had a target and that target was something everyone could agree on.  Without him, then what?  Perhaps he did not actually need to convert or corrupt us, merely step aside and let us do what we do: mass slaughter of anything which might be remotely profitable.

Maybe those daily quest givers aren't so bad after all.  I shudder to think what we'd do otherwise.


Syl said...

The purely negative meaning attached to 'dictator' is understandable, since history has known some particularly ruthless and cruel examples - however dictatorship in itself isn't inherently bad. it's actually one way to organize and manage a social body (just like democracy is one model). as you rightly pointed out, dictatorships aren't therefore all 'evil'; they can potentially bring stability for example and not every dictatorship revolves around one absolute tyrant, either. think of Marocco - that country is doing pretty well with a dictator. if we consider social bodies in a wider sense, we have a lot of dictatorships (caretaker-ships?) in society and also in nature (I would dare say a family or pack can be a small example). not every dictator is Saddam Hussein.

If you go and tear down a dictatorship because it's destructive and oppressive, you better have an alternative in mind, a backup plan; if you don't, you potentially toss an entire country into a dark abyss of chaos and civil war. as you said too, this doesn't mean the dictatorship was better, but one must always respect the fact that even the worst dictatorships created a form of stability and order some countries rely on. remove that without closely supporting and educating people and you might find yourself in the situation where you are more hated than loved for your freedom act.

the side-effects are also quite intriguing...I think human history has shown that a common enemy out there can do wonders for inner stability and purpose, not that I need to tell you that. ;) so maybe as scary as it sounds, those who claim humanity needs wars and tyrants have a point - although I'd still like to think if every last person on earth reached a certain stage of errr...'enlightenment', we could overcome such primitive notions. but that is ofc utopia. movies like Equilibrium don't show that next stage because we clearly have no concrete idea or example of how that looks like.

Feliz said...

The need and the downside of leaving the bureaucracy in place can be studied by looking at post war Germany. Many Nazis were asked by the allies to remain in place in their mid level administrative positions. Many were ousted in the years following, especially if they had committed crimes. Others remained in place until retirement age. I am born a good time after the war, but sometimes a visit of government offices left me wondering if a particular official was still a follower of the Nazi's ways.

Move forward 40 years after the Berlin Wall came down and you'll get an idea what happens the other way around. Many of the socialist bureaucrats were ousted and replaced by West Germans taking over the East German administration. They were able to import a functioning government, but were taken for a ride when it came to things specific to the East.

CATS said...

Great article.

If you haven´t read it yet (and since you haven´t mentioned it in this post I guess you haven´t) I suggest that you should read the Mistborn trilogy, you will love it.

*vlad* said...

"dictator falls, everyone lives happily ever after." Sounds like US foreign policy.

Made me laugh in Avatar when Colonel Quaritch and his 'evil' forces were overthrown, and that was the end of the bad guys. DREAM ON!!! They would have come back with an army 10 times bigger and wiped out the natives, you can be sure of that. Profits before morals, every time.

Tesh said...

Hrm... that "smuggler" sounds like Booster Terrik, or something spelled vaguely like that, probably arguing with Corran Horn. I love that they dug into the whole smuggling side of the Star Wars universe in the early EU novels. It dug a bit into the whole "does the Empire do good somewhere" angle, and that's fascinating stuff.

I have a series of novels planned, and while taking down a corrupt empire is in the mix, the bulk of what happens is all about what happens when that power structure collapses. I do find it fascinating, digging into implications of in-the-moment heroism. Specifically, I'm looking at what someone does when he's really thinking through not just the defeat of the empire, but what comes next.

It's far more interesting than rehashing the JRPG-flavored "plucky band of emo teens save the world and ignore the fallout".

Hyperian said...

Good use of the Star Wars Extended Universe. The Empire still ruled from Coruscant for 10 years after the Fall of the Emperor (until he comes back in clones) and it took thousands of lives, dozens of battles and again 10 years to force the Empire into a retreat. Defiantly no/ easy happy task. Good example of their is no happy ending in war.... most end with explosions and lots and lots of blood

Klepsacovic said...

@Syl: I think dictator has a negative meaning attached because absolute power is so dangerous. Even a well-intentioned dictator can screw up, and with no counter-balance, screw up really big.

@Feliz: It helped that we somehow managed to separate the concepts of "Nazi believer" and "Nazi Party member", since as we also saw in Iraq, the party of the dictator tends to run everything, so simply removing them destroys all institutions, even the necessary ones.

@CATS: I'll check that out. Thanks for the recommendation.

@vlad: It's worth considering that the mercenaries probably got their foodhold with little interference. Getting in a second time around would be more difficult. Stockholders might also have some objections to the sudden increase in cost, both for a second invasion and now knowing how much more native resistance there will be. Who knows, they might even insist on a less violent approach, focusing on the smaller deposits that can be gotten peacefully.

@Tesh: Bingo. :)

I got some of the idea from playing the TIE Fighter games years back, where you play as an Imperiel pilot, but rather than committing war crimes, you're tasked with rooting out pirates, terrorists, and traitors.

I suspect the hero who thinks of the aftermath will do a lot more bribing than blasting. Buy off who you can, kill the true believers and loyalists, avoid all conflict with the guys who are just doing their jobs.

@Hyperian: You've reminded me of how the Empire even planned to give the capitol to the Republic, because with the disease they'd released the management of it would bankrupt them or even cause a counter-revolution.

Anonymous said...

@Vlad: My thoughts exactly.

@Syl: I was going to respond to you with some of what Vlad has already said. We have a modern example of what happens when you just "remove the evil" from a country and have no valid plan to support it (America in Iraq).

But more interesting is how this real world example ties directly back to what you've discussed here in the problem with good fiction. Our unwillingness to discuss it in the fiction speaks to our unwillingness to discuss it in the real world. "FREEDOM! DEMOCRACY! YEAH!" one knows more the price of that than those who suffer through it, and even they may have believed that "removal of evil" would bring about sunshine, chocolate covered rainbows, and gum drop meadows.

Very good article. Also I haven't heard of Mistborn trilogy, @Cats. I'll look around for it sometime. I haven't read a good fiction book in quite a long time now.

Post a Comment

Comments in posts older than 21 days will be moderated to prevent spam. Comments in posts younger than 21 days will be checked for ID.

Powered by Blogger.