The televisual series Game of Thrones is striking for none other than its main character’s quest east of Westeros to end the ancient slave system and enlist the free slaves in a war to reconquer Westeros and return power to the people.
The idea is striking because Daenerys weaponises suppressed class warfare in slave cities to expand her interstate war to cross the narrow sea and return to the iron throne, the historic seat of her family the Targaryens. The war seems to be the cause of the class conflict, but this is not the case. The class conflict is what makes the war possible. Daenerys relies on the anger of slaves to wage her war. Were people not enslaved in the first place, she would have been in need of an army. To be newly freed from slavery is an experience that is transformative. Daenerys sees this clearly and uses it to transform the world of slavery, and ultimately rid it of the chains of exploitation. Or so that is the hope.
The war to end slavery relies, crucially, on ressentiment. For Nietzsche, who like Marx emphasises Hegel’s dialectical philosophy of master and slave through history, resentment is cloaked by religion. In Westeros, the old golds are under pressure from upstart Zoroastrianism which preaches a war between good and evil. Daenerys seeks to cut through the confusion and cut to the chase: all superstition arises from a desperation that springs from exploitation. To end exploitation, to make everyone free citizens with equal rights and property, is to create a community of realists, not a hierarchy of moralists.
In Bernard Williams’ In the Beginning Was the Deed, the ‘first political question’ is how to secure citizens’ survival. But for this question to be posed one must class as a citizen. And for what I call the ‘second political question’ to be answered, something else must be satisfied. After survival is secured, other needs must be appeased.
Plato refers to these other needs as the ‘silver’ need for status, the ‘bronze’ need for pleasure, and the ‘gold’ need for knowledge. All these needs, however, have their basis in the biological needs of the human body, as emphasised by Hobbes’ account of staying alive as the first, and to some extent only, political need of any just state and its citizenry. Plato sometimes referred to ‘bronze and iron’ desires without differentiating the two. After reading the Republic I identified a fourth of Plato’s ‘metals’ as equivalent to Hobbes’ first political need: staying alive — the ‘iron’ desire.
In Game of Thrones, all of Westeros seek the iron throne — at least, all who can. In the medieval setting, noble blood is the qualification — the closer blood relative you are to the presiding monarch, the more likely it is you have a claim to the throne if the monarch bears no children. The further qualifications are age and gender. Patriarchy and aristocracy jointly rule Westeros, just as the masters of slaves rule the eastern plains.
‘Wild’ chieftains also roam north and east of Westeros, but these lack the political centralisation needed to rule over a wide land mass. They might turn into one, as occurred when nomadic tribes in the Eurasian step conquered Russia and China in the middle ages. But such steppe incursions are few and far between today, in the modern world of nation-states, with less-than-porous borders and technologically-enhanced militaries.
Game of Thrones therefore seems more similar to ancient and medieval political realms than the modern system. But there are lessons from the TV series and Song of Ice and Fire books by George R. R. Martin which go beyond general theory and the political traditions of Plato and Hobbes.
Crucially, to answer the ‘first political question’ acceptably, Daenerys insists on coupling survival with freedom from slavery. Ironically, this simply carries the meaning that all are free citizens in her bourgeoning empire, but this means that they might be free to at least answer questions, if not ask them, too. For slavery is a condition in which no question can be posed or refused. It is the first political crime. Death is inevitable. Slavery is not. End it. Even if it takes a war.
We may not have aristocracy today, but we have something worse as masters: oligarchy. Aristotle, a defender of slavery in the ancient world, saw rule by the few (oligoi) as inferior to rule by the best (ariston). So if even Aristotle, yet alone Plato (who condemned slavery, while paradoxically favouring a form of aristocracy), would condemn a system in which the rich and powerful dictate what the rest of us should do with our time, what does that make us? For gradations of slavery have widened, and the masters have seen fit to give some more and some less, even universalising citizenship and expanding property. But so long as there are masters, there are slaves. So long as there is oligarchy, there is slavery. All political questions boil down to one inexorable answer: no more.
Written before Daenerys landed on Westeros.