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new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

How rulers came to rule.
A fable about power by Kit Garbett.

Gather round,' said the young man. 'Call the villagers and those in neighbouring villages too. I've got something to say.

With some murmurs of 'I've got dinner to cook' and other murmurs of 'It sounds more interesting than cooking dinner', the villagers gathered round. The young man told them his idea.

'At the moment everybody does what they want, whenever they want as long as no-one else objects. If you, for example,' he indicated a red-haired villager, 'if you fancy fish you go fishing.'

Illustration by ALAN HUGHES 'I don't like fish,' the villager said emphatically.

'Yes, but if you did, then you'd go fishing...'

'I've never liked fish. Too many bones... '

'OK, forget the fish. Take another example. If you fancied an apple, right...'

'Yes, I like apples. No bones. Pips and...'

'If you want apples,' the young man continued, 'You pick some in the forest, as you please. For the big decisions, though, that affect everyone, we all decide what to do, don't we?' He appealed to them. They all agreed.

'Now, I suggest that, instead of doing as we please, or having discussions, one person makes all the decisions. That will be me of course,' said the young man hastily. 'Everyone does what I say. It's a deal. I tell you what to do, in return you do what I say.'

They thought this over for a while. It seemed fair, though the details would have to be worked out.

'What things do we have to do?' someone asked brightly.

'Everything,' the young man replied. 'Everything I say. If I fancy some fruit, whoever I tell has to get some apples.'

'And if there's no apples, you get fish,' the red-haired villager contributed happily. He could see what he was getting at.

'Almost,' the young man agreed warily. His new subjects would need training. 'Now, listen carefully. I'll be in charge and called the King. OK?' There was a general nodding of heads. The King hurried on as the red-haired man opened his mouth. 'If any of you,' he pointed a regal finger, 'want an apple or anything, you ask my permission. If I say no, you can't. If I say yes, you can.

'Let's see if this is right,' a tall villager began.

'Wait,' the King stopped him. 'Remember, you ask my permission before you do anything, so you have to ask my permission to speak, now go on.

'Right, so...'

'No, I meant go on and ask permission to speak,' came the kingly rejoinder.

'I see,' the tall villager beamed. 'May I have permission to speak,' he petitioned.

'No,' commanded the King. The tall villager sat down.

The King had further commandments. 'Because I'm the King you do everything I say, and everything belongs to me. The fish in the river, the fruit on the trees, in fact the river, the trees, all the things on the land and everything I haven't thought of yet, all belong to me. You collect fruit, fish, wood, crops, animals. In return, I'll let you keep some for yourselves. You won't have to worry any more. That's fair enough isn't it?' The villagers nodded cautiously. It seemed reasonable enough; was there a catch in it?

'Permission to speak, King?' asked the tall villager.

The King nodded graciously.

'It's OK so far,' the tall villager continued. 'But what if I don't do as you say, or do something without asking permission?'

The King smiled sagely. 'That's easy. If you, or anyone else, disobeys my orders, then you, or whoever, will be killed. Quite messily. It's the simplest way. Any more questions?' The King smiled benevolently.

The tall villager was not satisfied. 'I don't...'

'Permission,' the King reminded him gently.

'Sorry, permission to speak please, King.'

'Good, good.' The King smiled at his subjects. 'You're getting it now. Permission granted,' he assented.

'Thank you, King,' the tall villager continued. 'This killing... I'm not sure about it. Will you do the killing yourself? After all, I am bigger than you'. 'Good, I like this. You're anticipating. You show promise. You'll be knight or something. I don't get involved in the killing,' the King explained. 'I order someone else to do it. Special people do the killing. They're what I'll call an army.

'May the King have permission to tell us about armies?' asked another villager.

'Nearly right,' said the King magnanimously. 'I was going to tell you later. I shall need an army, of course. That's a lot of very strong men, called soldiers. The soldiers ensure that everyone obeys my orders. In return, the army protects you by fighting other armies. Of course, there aren't any other armies yet, but when they hear about us other people will copy us and have Kings and armies. Then we, or rather the soldiers, will fight them.'

'May I have the King's gracious permission to ask another question?' said the tall villager.

'Very good indeed. You'll be a duke or something - go ahead,' the King said, making a note to himself to keep an eye on the tall villager and have him beheaded at the first signs of competition.

'Pray, would the King tell us where he gets these noble soldiers?'

'That's the beauty of it,' said the King. 'Because you are all my subjects, I'll make the biggest of you soldiers. The rest work to support me and the army. In return, the army protects you from other armies and kings. Now that we've covered most things, the audience is closed. You have permission to leave. Except you,' he added, pointing to a beautiful maiden.

'It has its points, I suppose,' the red-haired villager muttered to the tall villager as they walked away. 'But there's too many bones...'

"'My Lord Duke"', replied the tall villager sharply. 'Call me "My Lord Duke", peasant!'

Kit Garbett lives, lectures and writes in the UK city of Leeds.

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New Internationalist issue 229 magazine cover This article is from the March 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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