Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Are the Lannisters the real 'goodies' in A Song Of Ice And Fire?

Tonight I did an introduction for the branch meeting of the Socialist Workers Party on the subject of Mark Fishers book Capitalist realism. I had intended to use the talk as the basis for a blog post about extending Mark Fishers analysis of 21st century capitalist ideology, possibly extending the general thrust of the book by looking at the peculiarities of Capitalist Realism in the context of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately I got a bit over enthusiastic and lent my copy of the book out to someone after the meeting forgetting that i had this in mind to do so I no longer have a copy of the book to quote from and without it my loose notes don't make much sense. I will do this when I get the book back so for now I'm going to repost a note I posted to my facebook ages ago which should probably have been a blog entry anyway.

Are the Lannisters the real goodies in A Song Of Ice and Fire?

Yes, that might sound a bit strange. They are incestuous, they kill people and start wars and the fact that one of them is Charles Dance is a bit of a give-away, but hear me out. In the context of Westeros, the Lannisters are on the side of history and progress, which is supposed to be a good thing, isn't it?

According to all available sources and GRRM himself, the events of ASOIAF are the product of the years he spent researching the 'Early Modern' period (historians term meaning roughly 1500s to the late 18th century, late modernism being occasioned by industrialisation, the enlightenment etc.) and the Wars of the Roses in Britain in particular. Speaking as someone who has had the pleasure of studying the economic and social history of Britain at undergraduate level I can say that the research was time well spent. The world of Westeros is well thought out and feels real enough. As a social historian I get the same thrill from the series as a natural scientist must feel when she reads a good bit of well thought out hard sci-fi where the science element is real and no-one contradicts the laws of physics. Looking for a moment at this time period as a historian of the long dureƩ what is it that characterises this period in history of kings, Royal successions and wars just before the reformation and the first wave of European imperialism? It is the crisis of feudalism and the shift to a mercantile capitalist economy.

Essentially, Feudalism was the organising principle of societies across Europe since European civilisation re-emerged from the Dark ages (which weren’t actually that dark tbh, but that’s a discussion for another time). Under Feudalism wealth in society was expressed in terms of land and social status and class largely depended on how much land you had, the resources it could produce and the number of people on it you could compel to fight for you. Lords, Barons, knights, kings etc, these titles were all measures of what level you were at under this system. Co-existing within this system was the nascent form of Capitalism, i.e. wealth expressed as an abstract in terms of gold and coin. This wasn’t the whole of the economy, it started out small but as the years progressed this form of wealth holding would prove more productive and eventually it would draw more power towards the social classes that were associated with it, who at the time were called by some “the middling sort of people” . Eventually this class would come to surpass then absorb and replace the land-holding ruling classes of the previous epoch.

Historical change like this does not happen without a fight. The first stage of this fight was the transformation from early feudalism into Market feudalism. This change wasn’t necessarily a revolutionary change that would bring about an immediate improvement to peoples lives. Anyone who really studies history should know better than to see everything as a unstoppable chain of progress and improvement. What happened in practice was that the cannier lords and kings began to consolidate power into a centralised state with themselves at the top. It is in this period that many of the nation-states that we know today first began to take form, Britain, France and Spain being some of the more prominent examples. With this period of consolidation came political absolutism and repression. But it was also the period of the renaissance, the rise of humanism as an alternative to Christianity and it was a necessary stage that society would have to go through to get to where we are today.

Which brings us to Game of Thrones.

Game of thrones and the Song Of ice and fire series of books it’s based on are, I believe, the imaginative recreation of this historical process against a background of a different biosphere to the one we know. The Baratheon and Stark dynasties represent the early feudal order. They are land owner – War lords whose personal power is built on military prowess and whose moral code is based on the feudal notions of tradition and fealty. The Lannisters in the other hand represent the passage into Feudal Capitalism. They are known for their wealth and their outlook is distinctly more modern. They prefer realpolitik to airy notions of duty and honour. Tyrion Lannister, in his own way, represents the progressive intellectual revolution that was as much a part of that process as the political repression that came with it, this time period in our world gave us the foundations of modern philosophy and the beginnings of the sciences. As such, the Lannisters are the ones on the side of history. They aren’t exactly nice, Joeffry is obviously a little shit and there’s the whole incest thing, but George RR Martin seems to have the historians’ eye for these things. We may personally prefer the Starks or even the Baratheons but they were warriors, paternalistic savages who maybe aren’t the best people to be running Westeros. The point is made in the series and books, Robert was running the kingdom into the ground and the state would fall apart without the Lannisters money holding it together. They put a lot of their own capital into the state coffers, do they not in some sense deserve to run things, or are they not at least more deserving than those who are merely good at beating other people up?

Well, my answer is no. The other plot line in the concerning Dothraki is a mirror to the events that unfolded in our world around the Mongols. These Barbarian societies were the chaotic yin to the yang of civilisation. It’s also here that you get the strongest fantasy element in GOT, the dragons. Yes, there will be Dragons.

That is why I for one welcome our new Dothraki overlords and wish the one true ruler of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen a long and fruitful reign as god-empress.

Unless a John Ball type leader emerges later in the series who decides to agitate for turning the War of 5 Kings into a revolutionary war. I haven’t read the books yet so here’s hoping.

Only two months in and already resorting to filler and reposts. Next time it should be something more interesting.

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