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The World Controlling Agency

I have long had a concept about a world-spanning NGO; an organisation with the power to start and end wars, and whose CEO any monarch would kneel to rather than risk their wrath - but which is practically unknown to the general public.

This organisation, let's say the World Controlling Agency (WCA), operates less like a government and more like a Godfather-style extortion scheme. They don't exactly do any governing or control territory - they just occasionally intervene in the politics that be. Their assets are their network of people. They might be anyone or everyone, and though none would risk their lives for the WCA, and though most agents would not even break the law when acting for the WCA, their size and coordination is what gives them power.

See, this world (not Earth) is already generally well-connected, but still very much pre-industrial. The best equivalent is the 16th century Indian Ocean and surroundings, including China and the Ottoman Empire. There's great nations, decentralised tribes, and a plethora of small independent polities. There is religious and cultural diversity and not one superpower influencing everything - except the WCA, which has agents in each country and place that matters.

The ace up their sleeve is an instantaneous communication system. This is magical in origin - and may be considered the only existing magic for the purposes of this question. Every WCA agent can contact and be contacted from the secret headquarters, where the actions are coordinated. Those outside the WCA are still restricted to the speed of postage, which is not very good.

What is the WCA's leverage?

Here's where I hit a dead end. What is the precise leverage the WCA has on powerful people outside it, and what is the leverage they have on their own agents?

This does not need to be a universally applicable leverage. Part of having the network is that the agents you have can be part of the effort to recruit more agents. Five peasants can coerce a baker to join, by threatening to get their bread elsewhere. The baker can coerce the banker to join by threatening to tell everyone about his secret bastard daughter in the nunnery. The banker can coerce the baron by threatening to offer his military rivals a generous loan. Up the ladder it goes. Once there's a king in the network, many more agents are easily recruited.

But ultimately there needs to be some base leverage, to prevent every agent in a region from disbanding en masse, leaving the WCA with no options but threatening war on the region. And the WCA does not want war. They are the self-avowed keepers of the peace, and generally none of their agents ever have to do anything truly awful for them. Their grip on each individual agent is tenuous; the strength of the network is in its size and coordination.

My first instinct was gold, making the WCA a bank in its origin. But in a pre-industrial society a loan is only as good as its enforcer, which becomes a problem in the mass desertion scenario (only communication is instant, not violence).

Another idea is information. The WCA could keep a dire personal secret of each of its agents. But try to get your new agents to give those up when they were just barely coerced into joining the networks, and it won't work for recruitment.

I would like to know what I can do with this concept to give the WCA teeth. Tweaks to the organisation and system are fine. Giving the WCA a proper army or more overt institutions would draw much more attention than they want to bring upon themselves, so that's harder to justify. The entity itself should stay wispy, hard to pin down and with little earthly traces outside their secret headquarters.

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  • $\begingroup$ "late-medieval" is probably the wrong term for 16th-century Indian Ocean, but renaissance period makes even less sense for that region. Suggestions are welcome. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 11 '21 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ ??? And this is different from the Holy Universal Chuch how exactly? Remember that one of the most salient characteristic of the western European medieval society was the double hierarchy, temporal and spiritual. While the temporal hierarchy was extremely fragmented, with dozen upon dozens of separate pyramids which had minimal interaction between them, the spiritual hierarchy was highly centralized and very powerful, for many reasons which unfortunately won't fit in a comment. In the Arab world, for some time, the Caliph played a somewhat similar role to the Pope in western Europe. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 11 '21 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP I don't see your confusion. The WCA is not religious, the setting is not European, and the church to my account did not possess an instant communication system, nor did they operate with hidden agents and by coercion. You are just naming one other organisation that crossed borders in this general time frame. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 11 '21 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP No, I meant what I said. I said "the 16th century Indian Ocean and surroundings, including China and the Ottoman Empire". I named those two entities to indicate the breadth of the 'surroundings'. The key points are that it is culturally and religiously diverse, not controlled by superpowers (except for the WCA), but also generally connected. The religious diversity means a Pope/Caliph cannot exactly function as the WCA either. And religions do not meet the "generally unknown to the public" requirement. If you mean to suggest using religion for coercion, write that in an answer! $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 11 '21 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ A suggestion might be to read the Wiki on the recruitment of spies, I'm going to, it looks interesting. I've no idea how to quantify the limits of loyalty, but there seem to be ways apparently. $\endgroup$ Oct 11 '21 at 22:29
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Possible leverages, hugely benefiting by the use of instant communications:

  • money - prototype Medici. A respectable amount of wars (Crusades included) were financed on loans.

  • insider trading and price fixing - prototype Rothschild ("the family network was also to provide Nathan Rothschild time and again with political and financial information ahead of his peers")

  • assassination - prototype Asāsiyyūn - the order of assassins ("the covert murder of first Muslim and later Christian leaders who were considered enemies of their state")

(maybe I'll find some more prototypes for which I can find convincing references)


last but not least - feel free to ignore it... at your peril tho

- depriving humanity of 007 movies - prototype: Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion

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  • $\begingroup$ The insider trading option seems very compelling. The agents themself does not even need the whole picture, keeping the feal knowledge of how it works in hq. $\endgroup$
    – lijat
    Oct 11 '21 at 15:49
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Take a look at society today. Notice especially what everybody is doing whenever they don't have anything in particular to do this instant. They check their phones.

The WCA transfers information

Why do people check their phones? To find out what's happening. What's the news? Today, when information is at anybody's fingertips, no one needs to doubt how addictive information is, nor how upsetting it is when information is slowed down.

WCA operates bearers of news, important geopolitics and gossip alike, and can also transfer information for people. The public is aware that the news might not at all times be unbiased, but they travel so quickly and are so available that you seek them out still. Having a Wanderer (or whatever catchy name the WCA's PR people choose) coming by the local square once a fortnight might be enough, dropping the latest news about the fashions of foregin ladies, the piracy crisis in the Orange Sea or the recent scientific discoveries about static electricity. (If you want to keep the agents hidden, you could use seals or a special paper to ensure the information is authentic and drop them in public places or to people you want to grant the knowledge.) Compared to other news channels, this is rocket speed. When you can offer songs from afar, occasional scandals about nobility, and even the ever so slight possibility for someone to get a few minutes of fame if they can capture your interest, people will listen to what you have to say.

This means power.

It means power to play down news that needs to be played down, power to make select people very unpopular and the power to incite rebellion. Especially as you can put leverage in use against key people. A king would find it very hard to rule a kingdom if actively opposed by the WCA. A king that instead is supported would find this immensely useful.

Imagine how useful it would be for a controversial leader to spread their messages to any small community of followers, or to tweak ever so slightly what the people hear from their neighbours. Also, imagine an organisation powerful enough to de-platform one of the most powerful persons alive, the leader of a world super power, when all other information in said world travels with the speed of a sailing ship.

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Oaths

While a person is not entitled to obey or do anything generally for the WCA, they are under the oath of doing something in particular when asked to.

What

If asked, the baker is under the oath of refusing to serve bread on a particular day.

If asked, the guard from the palace is under the oath of refusing the access to the palace to a certain person. etc etc...

Why

Using your "instant communication" device, it should then be possible to paralyze completely a country for a period of time. It could also be useful to threaten someone specific, cause massive strikes, even kill someone if needed.

How

The only thing you need to figure out is how to actually make people swear those oaths; it could very well be the mission of some of the WCA agents : their oath would be to make three nobles swear an oath. Oaths could even be passed down from generations to generations, provided the right conditions be met. Decades of WCA domination has allowed them to hoard oaths in all countries, for all types of people with all kinds of jobs. People could be tempted to swear an oath via blackmail and violence, but also in exchange for a benevolent service, or a fair trade.

WCA would be as powerful and secret as they are because they are the only ones to truely master oaths : how to make them, how to force people to fulfill them and not talk about the oath itself and the contractor, etc..

Prerequisite

Of course, for oaths to be really effective, you would need leverage to actually force people to fulfill their promises. That would be, as mentionned in another answer, violence, money, magic, fear ... You can found in lots of religions/cultures/myths this system of "oath" and the obligation of not breaking them at the price of your life/soul/honor/place in society.

The "leverage" problem is not solved but displaced, and this solution might give you another POV on the problem.

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How to prevent mass desertion without too large of an army to do so?

aka "What is the WCA's leverage on their own agents?"

  1. Information flow passes through central hub/command and is logged.
  2. Instant transfer of information turns out to be addictive and useful.

Your agents become attached to instantaneous information transfer over time. Heck, some of them even routinely tune in on every 8PM to listen to WCA's foreign news program.

This instantaneous information transfer is only available if you're in the ranks of WCA. Once you're out, you can't use it. This magic requires agents to log in to some central hubs first. Suspected agents may have their logins revoked to prevent abuse. Other agents may as well come to their last known position to do a "friendly visit" or because they wonder "why you've been logged out for so long".

While the use of instantaneous transfer is somewhat regulated, your agents have habits that suffer if they desert from WCA:

  • They like to gamble in local taverns about the situations from far away. Making large quick bucks once in a long while by predicting what news will the next scout bring.

  • They have been authorized to use it to communicate with their loved ones so they can remain in contact even when one is far away in a commercial voyage.

  • They have realized that knowing something well in advance makes them able anticipate very well for anything. Evading local police, avoiding plagues coming from other towns, preparing for next wave of economic boom; you name it. They don't think their previous non-WCA life is palatable after exposure to instantaneous communications.

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