Let me paint a picture: the good and just government of the realm has just been overthrown by a tyrant. Immediately, he begins to implement a vicious programme of violent repression. The formerly free press is shut down forcibly. Marginalised groups are made scapegoats for poverty and civil unrest and are targeted for violence. Dissidents are met with violence, and everywhere, there are troops and police in the tyrant’s uniform, ordered to ensure that his rule goes unchallenged. Yet even so, popular resistance to the tyrant’s rule remains. The newspapers which are officially banned are still printed in basements and hidden workshops. Dissidents still preach opposition to the new regime, both from hiding at home, and in exile abroad. Even the ranks of the security forces which are meant to impose the tyrants rule are full of doubters and objectors, those who have second-thoughts about their orders, and sometimes even disobey them if they cross the line far enough.
Why is that?
Now, let us say it’s a hundred years later. The tyrant’s heirs have been overthrown by a well-meaning force of dissidents, perhaps even the ideological heirs of that good and just government that was overthrown earlier. Now in power, the victorious rebels have every intention of ending the repression. Yet even so, the common people seem to almost want the old tyrant back. They speak nostalgically about the sense of security the tyrant’s guards gave them, of the comfort of not having to deal with strange new ideas and political infighting which the official end of repression has brought. They protest the fact that marginalised groups have rights again, and take matters into their own hands – and even the new recruits for the government’s new armies and police seem to act like the tyrant’s old forces, just in new uniforms. The new rulers are faced with a fight no less difficult than the last: instead of fighting the tyrant, they now have to fight what seems like an entire society which wants the tyrant back.
Why is that?
Both of these examples have manifested themselves throughout history, and while neither pattern fits exactly, it should be said that there are aspects of it every time a major societal change occurs, especially when it’s a case of massive political upheaval. This is where the cliche that revolutions don’t actually change anything comes from; the idea that the new regime will be little different from the old regime, no matter how much blood is spilled to overthrow it.
And there’s a truth to that cliche: while the ideology or the personal character of the leader or leaders of a society might change, that doesn’t elide the fact that ultimately, those leaders are still ruling over a vast society of individuals – the vast majority of whom have been born, raised, and educated in the preceding society, and do not think differently, simply because the flags have changed colour and the leaders use different rhetoric.
This is an important thing to understand, because human beings have no innate sense of right and wrong. Our ideas of morality and ethics, of good things, and bad things, are taught to use from the moment we’re born by the examples and words of those around us, be it consciously though teachers and family, or unconsciously through material culture (advertisements, fashions, architecture) and public discourse. Through these aspects, a person is subjected to what sociologists refer to as “socialisation”; the process of not only understanding the moral codes and behaviours of the society they live in, but seeing those same moral codes and behaviours as good, proper, and “common sense”, to the point where any drastic deviation from those codes are seen as inherently immoral or wrong. This means that the people who exercise the control over that socialisation, be they a religious caste, political elite, or even the mass-consciousness of a majority ethnic or cultural group, effectively control the definition of right and wrong.
This state of affairs is what early 20th century Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci referred to as “Cultural Hegemony”. To massively simplify, Gramsci argued that since the capitalist ruling class held cultural hegemony over the general population, any attempt to overthrow that ruling class without dismantling cultural hegemony would lead to a society which still had the same definitions of right and wrong as the one which came before it. Any ostensibly revolutionary regime would still be subject either directly (through the socialisation of its leaders) or indirectly (through the resistance posed by the socialisation of the broader population) to the same codes of morality and behaviour as the previous government, with the result being that any post-revolutionary society would be little different from pre-revolutionary society.
Of course, this didn’t mean Gramsci believed that all forms of revolution were doomed to failure, he merely argued that a political revolution would result in no meaningful change if the new rulers of society were still socialised with the same biases and beliefs as the old one. Thus, he believed that a revolutionary working class had to build the cultural beliefs and codes of behaviour that would sustain a revolution before the act of revolution itself, and that if it didn’t, the new revolutionary class would quickly fall into the same habits as the old ruling class – something which history seems to have bourne out.
So how do societies change? Well, I’ve discussed a bit of that already: last time, I talked about how societies will be put under pressure to reform themselves when the parts of that society with power are no longer seen to fulfil the needs which they were supposed to justify holding that power in the first place. This results in the sort of widespread discontent and unrest which leads to revolutionary movements. However, just because a whole lot of people agree that the current system is bad and has to be torn down doesn’t mean they have a concrete idea of what kind of society they want to build after – and even if they do, that doesn’t mean the rest of their society is willing to agree to discard so many of the assumptions they grew up in, even if those practises and beliefs were part of the very system that oppressed them. It is difficult to shift someone’s entire worldview, and doing so, even on an individual level, takes place slowly and organically. When post-revolutionary regimes try to force that change through vast campaigns of social engineering, or even through the direct use of force, the results are often disastrous. Eastern European peasants didn’t discard their religion and their old ways of doing things simply because they were now residents of the Soviet Union rather than the Russian Empire, and despite all of their professions of universal proletarian brotherhood, the foreign policy of Lenin and Stalin weren’t all that different from those of the late Romanov Tsars.
Of course, this doesn’t mean change never happens. Even if people still initially behave as if they did during the old order, the demonstrated failure of that old order – the stuff that led to revolution in the first place – will still push people to iterate on new ways of living, on new codes of morality, on new ways of organising society. The idealists hoping to remake society as their masterwork might end up disappointed, but in the end, the new society usually does fit the circumstances of the majority of its members better than the old one. What this does mean is that it is this process which is the real engine of what we in our times call “social progress”, and that violent revolution may result from a broken system, but doesn’t fix it. The expansion of human rights (the closest thing our modern world has to a universal concept of “good”) exists as a long, slow slog, where progress is won one-laboured half-step at a time, in a constant campaign of mobilisation, protest, dissent, and political intrigue. It is not a classically heroic story of good striking down evil and fixing everything with the stroke of a sword. It is a long hard slog, and it never truly ends.
So, what does this mean for worldbuilding – you do remember that this is supposed to be a series on worldbuilding, right?
Ultimately, it means that in worldbuilding and storytelling within a “realistic” setting, the kinds of vast, society-changing transformations which often fill so much of a setting’s background and narratives do not happen overnight. When the “evil empire” rises, it does so slowly, based on the prejudices and motivations which already exist, atop the foundation of a society which already possesses the elements needed to support the tenets of that empire’s rule. When it seizes power and begins to change things for the worse, there will still be those who resist, simply out of the idea that things are not as they were when they grew up. Likewise, a revolution, or a battlefield victory, or a climactic showdown atop a dark tower doesn’t mean the evil is defeated, only in remission. The prejudices and beliefs which that antagonistic force rose upon, and the ones it reinforced in the people it ruled still persist, and it is the process of years, if not decades of concentrated, wide-scale effort to get rid of them – if they are gotten rid of at all.
History generally shows us that even when evil is smashed in the open, it continues to persist in the attitudes of those who grew up seeing its tenets as good and proper and part of who they are. Without a concerted campaign to root those attitudes out, then they will continue to remain widespread, either distorting the good intentions of the “good”, or forcing them to compromise with the same old injustices which they do not have the resources or the energy to combat. In such a sense, the story does not end with the last battle, because the sort of beliefs that hold a state, an empire, or a culture together persist even when its formal government and conventional forms of power-projection are destroyed.
Of course, that’s not what often happens in speculative fiction. Quite often, the evil is vanquished and the vast forces marshalled by it simply disappear, as if by magic – if it didn’t, then I wouldn’t be writing about how unrealistic all of that is in the first place. That is also an example of a culturally hegemonic belief in practise: the idea of great man theory (which I’ve discussed before), so heavily discredited in academic and analytical circles, but still holding on as a common belief in day-to-day life, in the search for heroes to be the protagonists of reality to either solve our problems for us or for us to rally around. It and the phenomenon that underpins it is not just something we should be aware of when it comes to the content of worldbuilding, but the process as well – we too, live in societies with hegemonic beliefs, and it’s all too easy to let those beliefs seep into fiction without really understanding what they are or where they come from.
Understanding those assumptions is also an important part of good worldbuilding. It’s not enough to uncritically accept our own societies’ ideas of right and wrong, proper and improper, especially when we’re building societies entirely removed from our own world. Building a fictional society means considering those biases and how they might change in a different world as well.
Up until now, I’ve talked about societies and how they develop on an individual basis, but no society happens in a vacuum. Next, I’ll cover how societies often develop in opposition to or in partnership with neighbouring ones, and and how those interactions can serve as a rich source of material for building a world that seems interconnected and dynamic.