“Power is power”: Labour Relations in Game of Thrones

“And that’s what the Iron Bank is- a temple. We all live in its shadow, and almost none of us know it.” –Tywin Lannister

“Please, your Grace, the young may rejoice in the new world you’ve built for them. But for those of us too old to change there is only fear and squalor.” –Fennesz, former Meereenese slave teacher

On the 18th of May, Mel Corry from Trademark Belfast addressed half a hundred Connolly Youth Movement members. His education session was focused on explaining how, since the Black Death and the Great Famine preceding it, huge changes in the population prompted a shift in how the economy itself operated, how the feudal lords, the slave owners and slave traders accumulated wealth and became the capitalist barons of down to this day.  In Florence, the same families from the 15th century hold the majority of the wealth today. In Britain, it’s the families of people like David Cameron or George Orwell who benefited when Britain freed their slaves. That’s right — they were the ones who received money for the abolition of slavery.  A shameful act, but not uncommon in a capitalist market system. In an ideal world, you’d think slave owners would be punished and the former slaves the ones to get compensated so as to be able to enter the new system, but alas, the closing of a market requires the capitalists who profiteered off it to be paid back.

What does this have to do with Game of Thrones?  If you still haven’t watched it, read ahead at your own risk but spoiler: it’s not too different from real-life history, barring, of course, the existence of fantasy creatures.

“Power resides where men believe it resides”.
The world-building of Westeros and Essos can provide you with an excellent excuse to have an applied conversation about exploitation and justice with your apolitical friends.

In Season 4,5 and 6, Daenerys Targaryen ‘liberates’ several cities that had a slave – slave owner system. As she moves on, however, the slave owners seize them back. When at long last she settles in Meereen, slavery is abolished, and many slave masters, but not all, are killed by their former slaves. An uneasy peace prevails, but it does not last.

Daenerys begins to make concessions because of the pressure the slave masters of the other cities in ‘Slaver’s Bay applied to the internal politics of Meereen. The first of many such gestures is agreeing to marry one of the oldest aristocratic family heads, effectively joining their houses to lend herself legitimacy and strip herself of her erstwhile outsider status while simultaneously empowering Hizdahr zo Loracq by granting him access to her armies. Symbolic power and military prowess are joined in one tense handshake, each side concealing a blade.

The ‘free’ city of Meereen where labour is free, but the workers aren’t is called as such because it used to be a colony of the Ghiscari empire. The world of Game of Thrones does not conceal its bloody origins.

Then, and this is what matters most to our analysis, she reconfigures slavery, at the behest of unemployed former slaves, but also at the behest of the masters. Tyrion Lannister, the Queen of the Hand in the following Season exports this system to the other cities in Slaver’s Bay, understandably renamed the Bay of Dragons. Words, too, hold power.

The system coming about here is the same one that Mel Corry from Trademark talked us through and that came into being in the late 18th century.  Pioneered by Richard Arkwright, it’s the modern day factory, which took workers from whatever previous unsteady agricultural-based employment they had, and thrust them into what Marxists call ‘selling of labour power’ in exchange for wages.

What Daenerys does in Meereen is functionally no different, and is a snapshot of how society developed, albeit one that is often left out of the many history books that we study in school or university.  It is never really explained the violence of how capitalism came into being; in fact, various thinkers would have you believe that capitalism is the natural order of society that we simply naturally progressed towards without a hitch. This is neither true, nor accurate. The Game of Thrones series, while based in a fantasy setting with a realpolitik flavour, actually captures this transformation of society.

“They can live in my new world or they can die in their old one.”
Daenerys Targaryen believes it is her that needs to bring a revolution from above. More than simply a ‘white saviour’ narrative, she is motivated by her own precarious beginnings, first on the run from paid assassins and then sold out to Khal Drogo by her own brother.

At first slavery is abolished off-screen in Westeros, and informs much of the conflict between Jorah Mormont and the old world he leaves behind once Ned Stark banishes him for selling poachers to Tyroshii slaveholders. Although never openly addressed, we are meant, as viewers, to see his progress from desperate and destitute, breaking the law to earn money for the sake of a woman with fine tastes, to a steadfast supporter of the Breaker of Chains, later getting a taste of a slave’s life himself when he and Tyrion are themselves captured by slaveholders. All of this context is then stretched out in real time on the other side of the Narrow Sea as we see feudalism at pains to become established in the slave cities as Daenerys asserts her right to rule. Alongside the introduction of her ‘benevolent’ system, we see the introduction of wage slavery. A scene in Season 5 shows a former slave begging to be sold back to make a living. Instead of allowing this to happen on moral grounds, Daenerys establishes what could be the first wage slave relations in Essosi history, already commonplace in Braavos, the financial heart of the known world. The former slave must now settle the new terms with his former slave master via a one-year contract that must be revised each year.  

Much like in the historical transition away from slavery and to either feudalism or capitalist wage relations, we must pose the question: what happens to the wealth accrued from being a slave master? What is your status in society? Historically and in the fictional universe, the same trajectory is followed. Daenerys stops executing slaveholders and the former Masters maintain their positions. What is more, they are even compensated for the loss of slaves and essentially continue to occupy dominant economic and political positions.  Some of them, just like the slave masters in Britain, assume political functions or roles, as advisors or members of various councils on the presumption of expertise and prestige even though their allegiance lies with the old system. In Westeros, the Lords of the Great Houses sit as advisors to the King on the Small Council, calling back to the King’s Council of Norman England in this aspect, as well.

Religion plays not an insignificant part. Slavery is formally outlawed in Westeros because it violates the tenets of the Faith of the Seven but one of the seven kingdoms still practices it in all but name: on the Iron Islands, salt wives and thralls perform forced labour. However, it is a far cry from the chattel slavery system seen in Slaver’s Bay, as their children can still escape if they accept the Drowned God and start a new life the ironborn way, where they are the ones now pillaging instead of being at the receiving end of such violence. Without changing the mode of production, you either win or you die, there is no middle ground.

What Game of Thrones captures is true to form in terms of historical development, one that we can see is not sanitized as a narrative of moralized progress but one that is absolutely brutal, contradictory and ultimately designed to benefit only one class, the ruling class. Daenerys, despite her idealism, is therefore compromised because of her short-sighted approach: while formally ‘liberating’ the slaves, she reproduces unequal relations in society and ensures that the slave masters can continue to exploit their new ‘employees’. This is precisely what happened historically as well and we can see that all the way until today: scionic merchant families, who built their wealth from slavery, continue to dominate.   This transition from slave ownership and/or feudalism is a historic process that took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. Merchant princes of a wide sort began to apply pressure or even engage in war, as seen in England, too. The net result was the establishment of a parliament that then curtailed the power of the monarch and extended the power of the merchants and slave owners who populated it.  The maxim of the state being the instrument of the bourgeoisie should spring to mind and inspire strong opposition.

What Daenerys also fails to do is confront the opulent Essosi cities outside Slaver’s Bay that recoil in disgust from the institution of slavery but still benefit from it, such as Pentos.
Ilyrio Mopatis, an obscenely rich Pentosi, acted as middleman when Viserys effectively sold her as a broodmare, using a loophole that allowed him to benefit from slavery for years as long as it wasn’t strictly on Pentosi land, akin to how outlawing slavery in the heart of the empire didn’t mean that this ‘enlightened’ measure was extended to the colonies

What this all demonstrates is that we must rigorously study history as a battle of social forces between the exploiter and the exploited, no matter the cultural background it is set against.  We call this method and style of analysis ‘dialectical materialism’, and use it as a prism to assess how society functions and develops.  In adopting this method of analysis, we come to a much more nuanced understanding of why society changed and what forces drove the specific change. This is in stark difference to the Hollywood/Disney style of ‘good guys and bad guys’ that we’re often sold as youngsters, where the specifics are hand-waved away.

“Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (George R. R. Martin)

We, in the Connolly Youth and the Communist Party continue our rigorous education of how capitalism works. In doing so, we are able to recognize its mechanisms and point it out in real life and pop culture alike to generate class consciousness. We extend another thank you to Mel for running the session and look forward to more such events in the near future.

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