The structure of Game of Thrones reveals a Hobbesian-Foucauldian philosophy of power. What exactly is that, you ask? Well, let’s start with Hobbes.
He famously claimed that life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, and therefore anyone living in such a state had better give up their liberty to be nasty and brutish to one another and form a social contract.
This contract would empower a sovereign to protect everyone’s rights and put an end to their state of war, which would be best for everyone on the whole.
However, Westeros does have a sovereign, albeit not a very good one.
Joffrey, however, almost certainly contributes more to shortening the lives of his subjects than to protecting them, so we might wonder whether Hobbes’ theory is actually relevant.
What is really Hobbesian about Game of Thrones is not so much what the sovereign can accomplish as what it essentially is. For Hobbes, the sovereign essentially possesses absolute power, because that’s what is needed to put an end to the state of war and force subjects to obey.
Nowadays we like to think that political authority is only legitimately derived from the will of the people, and Hobbes believed that too in a sense. However, in his view, that requirement was entirely compatible with a sovereign’s coming to power by force, because for Hobbes contracts established by force are just as legitimate as those established without coercion.
Stannis Baratheon might not agree, but as long as Joffrey has the power to control the Seven Kingdoms, he is the rightful king, at least as far as Hobbes is concerned.
Actually, it’s not just Joffrey who implicitly accepts Hobbes’ philosophy of authority. Almost all of the characters in Game of Thrones, at least all of the ones who don’t wind up getting their heads chopped off or sold into slavery, are essentially Hobbesians about political power.
Think of the speech Petyr Baelish makes to Varys in “The Climb.” “Do you know what the realm is?”, Littlefinger asks, before answering his own question: “It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies, a story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie.”
The literal story he’s referring to is that of the founding of Westeros by Aegon Targaryen. Littlefinger has already shown the story to be at least partly embellished, by counting the swords in the Iron Throne and determining that there are well fewer than the thousand described in legend.
Metaphorically, however, Littlefinger is also referring the story that Stannis Baratheon tells himself about his rightful claim to the throne, or that Ned Stark tells Catelyn about his duty to obey Robert and go to King’s Landing, or that everyone who’s not a Lannister tells themselves about the vileness of Jaime the Kingslayer.
The story consists in the idea that the right to rule the Seven Kingdoms is grounded in something other than sheer power, and that lords who pledge allegiance to the king are doing anything other than expressing their momentary self-interest. Almost everyone, from Littlefinger all the way down to Ser Bronn, sees this story as a cynical facade, and those who don’t see it that way often pay a price for their ideals.
The real story, however, can’t just be that the king of Westeros is whoever happens to command absolute power. If that were true, there wouldn’t be a civil war, or any of the other myriad instances of lesser treachery and self-dealing that go on behind the king’s back.
This is where it’s useful to bring in Foucault’s philosophy to supplement our Hobbesian analysis of Game of Thrones.
According to Foucault, power isn’t something that any one person can wield absolutely.
Rather, it’s a distributed network of physical and social forces in which everyone is entangled but which no one person can ever completely survey or control.
So for Foucault, there can never be a sovereign in the Hobbesian sense, because no one person can have absolute power.
Sure, Joffrey may be pretty well entrenched in King’s Landing at the moment, but he’s surrounded by armies outside his gates that want his head on a stake, a population inside his walls that’s increasingly fed up with being ruled by a psychopathic 12 year old, and advisers in his palace who are constantly hatching plots to promote their own interests at his expense.
He’s not exactly Hobbes’ ideal of a man whose dominion over his subjects allows him to “reduce all their wills unto one.”
In reality, Foucault’s philosophy of power focuses less on large-scale dramatic events like wars, and more on individual acts of control and resistance. For Focault, authority is mediated by what he calls biopower, or the techniques of controlling populations using methods that operate fundamentally at the individual level.
These techniques characteristically work by causing their subjects to internalize norms, causing them to behave in new ways without even realizing that they’re being coerced. A prime example in Game of Thrones is the scene in “You Win Or You Die” in which Littlefinger is teaching a new prostitute the tricks of the trade.
The new girl is putting on an embarrassingly overwrought show, so Littlefinger advises her on the more subtle art of seduction. Your client will never really forget you’re a prostitute, he tells her, so the key is not to try to overawe him with expressions of pleasure.
The key is to slowly woo him into forgetting who he is, so that he comes to believe he’s really something more than just an ordinary john. Littlefinger should know what he’s talking about, of course, because this is his precisely own modus operandi for seducing political clients.
Power in Game of Thrones isn’t about brute Hobbesian force, but rather about careful, skillful manipulation that leaves the mark believing he’s never been manipulated at all.
The other key feature of Foucault’s philosophy of power that is relevant for Game of Thrones is that it’s always possible in principle to resist. No matter how sly or clever a manipulator is, he can never gain absolute control, so there will always be ways to undermine his power, even if they seem like relatively inconsequential or symbolic gestures in themselves.
Take, for instance, Arya’s refusal in “The Kingsroad” to submit to the Lannisters’ sentence of death for her direwolf Nymeria, who attacked Joffrey. Joffrey is the heir apparent to the Iron Throne, so a lowly Stark girl has no business calling him a liar, but that’s just what she does.
She isn’t able to save her friend the butcher’s boy, but she does save Nymeria, although Sansa’s wolf Lady is executed in her place.
The really subversive act, though, is Arya’s refusal to accept that the norms of truth and decency don’t apply to Joffrey just because he is of royal blood.
By challenging his right to lie, she is reconfiguring the web of power relations just a little and claiming more agency for herself than the Lannisters would like.
So, which philosophy provides the best analysis of Game of Thrones, Hobbes’ or Foucault’s? Really, both are essential to the structure of the series.
The characters who endorse Hobbes’ theory of political authority think the joke is on the old-fashioned moralists like Ned Stark who try to play fair in a game that everyone knows is rigged.
But, as Foucault’s theory shows, the joke is just as much on these same cynics, whose power will never be absolute and who will always face threats to their authority, whether from little girls or from giant armies, in the game for the Iron Throne.