Tearing Up The Social Contract
I’m still riding high on Littlefinger’s episode-closing speech from last night’s Game of Thrones. Not because I agree with his sociological viewpoint, but because it illuminated just how deep his ambition and contempt runs. And because Aidan Gillen is a fantastic actor and gave a wonderful reading to the monologue. Let’s watch it again, shall we:
But even moreso, it touched on the sociology nerd in me. My bachelors is in sociology, and I love to think about what brings people together and how and why we attribute meaning to things.
Littlefinger certainly spoke true when he said that the realm is nothing more than a lie the citizens of Westeros have agreed to, just like our own society is a construct that we created and adhere to because we choose to. Littlefinger sees things in such a way that give him an advantage over most of the other players in the game of thrones. He understands that behind all the social niceties and duties, people are out for themselves. Unencumbered by these lies, he can play the long game like few others can. But this speech makes something else very clear: Littlefinger will never, ever, win the game of thrones. Even if he finally ascends to the throne of Westeros, the path he will take to get there will ensure that the game he knows will end and a whole new one will begin. One with a new set of rules and one that he cannot hope to compete in.
Social Constructs: Their Importance And Their Fragility
Littlefinger is very dismissive of the social constructs that surround him and everyone else in the Seven Kingdoms. To him, because they are fabricated, they are worthless. The only thing that is real - the chaos of the ascent to power - is the only thing that matters. He can’t seem to understand that even though society is fabricated, it has tremendous value. Humans come together to form societies because we are stronger together. People consent to be governed because in exchange for giving up some of our liberty, we are given protection, aid, and order. In a society, we know that we can rely on our community to provide various goods and services, allowing the individual to specialize in what they are best at, rather than having to learn how to fully fend for oneself. There is also the sense of belonging to a common group that diminishes the likelihood of crime. Crime will still exist, but there is no “every man for himself” mentality. In the chaos that Littlefinger seems to relish so much, each person not only must know how to cultivate food, build shelter, and make clothing, they must be on constant guard, worried that every passing person might try to take what is theirs.
But these constructs are fabricated, and they are only as powerful as we make them. For example, compare and contrast the Night’s Watch with the Kingsguard. Both institutions were created to protect something, and both require their members to give up many of the privileges and perks of humanity. Through the constructed notion of oaths, the members swear to take no wives, father no children, remain chaste, and abdicate all lands, titles, and inheritances. Both institutions demand that members wear a single color (black for the Night’s Watch, white for the Kingsguard). At one time, both were seen as very important to the survival of Westeros. But over time, the Night’s Watch, which is supposed to protect the entire realm, lost much of its meaning in the eyes of the citizens and monarchy, and now it is understaffed and filled primarily by unwilling participants (criminals) or people who feel they have no other choice in life (bastards, who won’t inherit lands or titles). On the other hand, being a member of the Kingsguard, which exists to protect one man and his family, is seen as being among the highest honors in Westeros.
The Social Constructs Of Westeros
So how does this apply to Westeros? The people of Westeros have agreed that a monarchy is the best form of government and that the family unit is extremely important. The people have consented to one man’s absolute rule, and have further consented that the right to rule is a birthright. Lands and titles pass through the family line, and maintaining a strong family and producing a male heir is essential to ensure that your descendants retain or increase the family’s current status.
Westeros is also feudalistic, meaning that social hierarchy is institutionalized. The king is at the top, the liege lords are below him, the lower lords next, and then the smallfolk. Each rung on the social ladder swears oaths of allegiance to the person above them. In return, the person above provides protection to the group below. This is supposed to ensure loyalty; people promise to be loyal and serve their lords in exchange for the lord’s protection.
For the most part, people accept that this is the type of society that they have chosen and do not question it, even when it results in terrible circumstances. Just because someone is born into a leadership role, that does not mean they are born to rule. There were a fair share of mad Targaryen kings (centuries of inbreeding will result in a polluted gene pool, and Cersei quoted an old adage stating that “whenever a Targaryen was born, the gods flipped a coin,” as the kings in the Targaryen line were often either great rulers or completely mad), and Joffrey is what happens when you tell a child he can do whatever he pleases. And yet, in 300 years of Targaryen rule, it wasn’t the despicable acts of a mad king that finally overthrew the line. It was a jealous lover who took a (somewhat misguided) stand against what he saw as tyranny. Robert’s Rebellion challenged the idea that royalty is divine right… only to reassert that principle when Robert took the throne, as House Baratheon became the royal family. A few people tried to rationalize Robert’s ascent to the throne through the existing social contract by pointing out that House Baratheon was distantly related to House Targaryen, but Robert created the circumstances that allowed him to take the Iron Throne, and people accepted it. Aerys was a bad king, and the people of Westeros were ready to temporarily renegotiate the social contract to find a new king. They then immediately resorted to the notion that royalty is based on family line, and proclaimed Robert’s heir the next king.
Littlefinger knows this. This renegotiation is how he plans to ascend. He was born with no lands, no titles, and no wealth. Through his political maneuverings, he has acquired all of these things. He has won the favor of powerful people and has been rewarded with titles and lands acquired as the spoils of war. But to get to the throne, he’ll have to push aside the person at the top and hope that the people are willing to accept him as ruler. Because if they don’t, his reign will be short-lived.
As the War of Five Kings continues to ravage the Seven Kingdoms, some people are beginning to once again show the desire to renegotiate the social contract. The fact that people are willing to follow Robb or Renly shows that some in Westeros wish to choose their leader. Although the Stark family once ruled The North as kings, they gave that up centuries ago. But the brutal slaying of the beloved Ned Stark caused The North to declare independence, believing that they had no reason to swear allegiance to a monster like Joffrey. And many more people are beginning to share that thought. As for Renly, Highgarden’s support of him was based on nothing more than a desire to see him as king. Most people believed that Joffrey was next in line to be king. But if, as the rumors suggest, he and his brother Tommen were not the true heirs of Robert, the next person in line would be Stannis. Problem is, Stannis is not well-liked. So some people decided that they should choose who their king should be if they were dissatisfied with who was supposed to be king. Then consider the Brotherhood Without Banners. Their very name is a repudiation of the current Westerosi society. They are trying to save the people, and they don’t serve any lord. (Except R’Hllor, the Lord of Light.) They are not without their problems - they steal from people they see as their enemies and they sell out Gendry, who would serve them willingly, in the name of R’Hllor - but they truly do seem to want to serve the people generally, even if that means doing a disservice to a few individuals.
Renegotiating vs. Repudiating
But here’s the thing: these groups are renegotiating the social contract. They are becoming dissatisfied with how things are, so they are revisiting how they choose to let themselves be governed. But they still choose to let themselves be governed. The Northmen still want a king, they just don’t want their king to be Joffrey. The Brotherhood Without Banners aren’t seeking anarchy, they are seeking fairness for the people, possibly even self-governance. (Or possibly a theocracy.)
Littlefinger wants to create chaos, because he thinks that chaos will allow him to take the throne. But Littlefinger hasn’t thought this through. If the world is nothing but chaos, everyone else will have the same goal as him: accumulate as much power as possible and ensure self-preservation. Littlefinger may be clever, and his cleverness may serve him well at court (an integral part of the socially constructed government), but once all social institutions are set aside, his cleverness will be meaningless. Without the system of lords, titles, property ownership, etc., the only thing that will matter will be strength.
Littlefinger also discounts something else. There is another truth aside from the chaos: human connection. Loyalty to a lord or to one’s family are social constructs. The bonds we forge with our fellow humans are not. Look at the unlikely pairings in last night’s episode: Jon and Ygritte and Jaime and Brienne started as enemies, and now both sets are growing close because of the time they’re spending together. Even Theon, who tried to so hard to honor his family and his origin, couldn’t quite shake the bonds he developed with the Starks, who were his captors. He recognized (too late) that the Starks were his true family and that he screwed that relationship up when he tried to honor his awful father. Even in the chaos, these bonds will survive. But Littlefinger is a sociopath who cares only about himself. If the chaos ever comes, he will have no one on his side, no one to stand beside him.
Littlefinger is courting chaos. He thinks that because he understands the “truth,” he is uniquely suited to exploit it. But chaos serves no one. If he brings about the chaos, the game he has been playing his entire life, which has rules that depend upon the very illusions he’s trying to tear down, will end. In its place will be a much harsher game, one in which intelligence and cleverness will have no place. One that will depend on physical strength and loyalty that exists only between people who actively choose to be loyal to each other, rather than loyalty based upon a sense of duty. This is a game Littlefinger can never hope to win.