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Question inspired by Batman: Arkham games - although this trope is definitely not limited to this series, it is very widely (ab)used in various media.

In Batman: Arkham, various mob leaders are excessively cruel, even towards their own henchmen. They will torture and kill their own guys whenever they fail to stop the Batman, whenever it feels convenient or sometimes even just on a whim, for no good reason at all.

Ostensibly, it would seem such a behavior is not feasible at all. First of all, people are valuable - from the POV of a crime lord whimsical killing of their own guys would seem no more sensible than, say, whimsical destruction of their own firearms stacks. Even if people are viewed just as resources, no sane person keeps robbing themselves of their own property.

Secondly, who would sign up as such a crime lord's henchman? If signing up as Crime Lord X's henchman does not even guarantee security from X, then, from the POV of a random crook, X is a terrible candidate for an employer and instead the crook should rather seek employment from Crime Lord Y who is known to be less excessively cruel towards his own people and who can be at least trusted not to be a threat towards those who are loyal to him.

Therefore, it would seem to me, that the trope is BS and the Penguin or the Joker (who in the games behave in this way) would, in reality, be doomed to fail.

However, it seems that real life does not confirm my conclusion. Stalin, for example, was known to behave in this precise way - not even unyielding loyalty towards him could guarantee safety from him. Stalin was, in reality, almost as dangerous towards his own people than he was towards his enemies. Yet, however grudgingly, I must admit that Stalin was very successful.

Also perhaps it is possible that if crooks are used to such a treatment (that crime lords tyrannize them and kill them on a whim even if they remain loyal to their lords) then, if a crime lord arose who was actually valuing his own people, then the crooks would believe this to be a sign of weakness and turned against such a crime lord (instead preferring lords who keep killing them?)

If and under what conditions is it viable for a lord to kill their own people even though the victims remain loyal?

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    $\begingroup$ It's much easier to be cruel to your own people when you're the only game in town. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jun 16, 2023 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ Oderint dum metuant, they may hate as long as they are afraid. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 16, 2023 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ It's usually not "despite"... $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Jun 16, 2023 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ Mandatory CGP Gray lesson: youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2023 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MindwinRememberMonica Interesting, though it does seem short sighted. So in a dictatorship the leader MUST spend virtually all resources they have robbed from their people onto a small number of key supporters... and not on developing their own country. Very often the result is that their country is so poor that even the richest key supporters are poorer than moderately rich people in better developed countries. Even from the POV of key supporters it would seem that for long term it would be better to spend a bigger share on investing in their country? $\endgroup$
    – gaazkam
    Jun 16, 2023 at 20:11

6 Answers 6

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No Better Option

Stalin will kill you if you betray him. He might kill you to make an example. He might kill you if the mood strikes. But whatcha gonna do? Sign up with the second most popular Grand Leader in the USSR? Scoff, let me know how that goes, champ. . . .

You could always try to flee the country, but this is more dangerous than staying. If Stalin catches you he will definitely kill you. If you stay around and keep under the radar, he will probably not.

You are in danger from Stalin. But your best option is to stay where you are.

Your mobsters work the same way. They come in two flavours:

(a) The droogs who are not known by name to their boss. They join the gang out of desperation. They have no better option. They are poor. Or their family is already in the gang. They are not worried about the crimeboss killing them because they never even meet him, and are too concerned with the danger from their day-to-day jobs. Heists, drug-running, murders, gang wars, et cetera.

(b) The pins. These guys oversee the gang. They do not get their hands dirty. Their biggest threat is indeed the crime boss, but they are stuck in the gang now whether they like it or not. The boss knows them personally. If they run or betray him, they will be made an example of.

Of course some Droogs become pins, but as the day-to-day danger drops the danger from the boss increases. They are always in a state where their best option is to stay.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, all you need to ensure is that joining/staying is always cheaper compared to leaving. And you can make leaving arbitrarily expensive. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jun 16, 2023 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ I also think there's a few others things to mention. Firstly, of course, greed: if the pins get good money, it will tempt quite a few people despite the risks. Secondly, cockiness: everyone is the hero of their own story, and imagine themselves much more likely to safely navigate the boss' moods than their unfortunate colleagues. $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2023 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ Some consider Stalin even worse than Hitler... $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2023 at 3:58
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A) Killing needs to be a norm, B) there should be a cult of personality C) the economic benefits of being in the uppermost echelons justify the risks

What do Stalin, Beria, the Ottoman Selim I/Murad IV, all have in common?

They arose in societies where a) killing was the norm, b) there was a cult of personality that justified it, and c) the henchmen had powerful material incentives to take the risk of being henchmen.

In Stalin and Beria's case, they took a murderous tyranny where it was normal to kill subordinates and rivals, and took it to the logical limit.

In the case of the Ottomans, you can track a series of loose norms that became customs and even laws surrounding killing rivals, failed servants, and especially, the siblings of the Sultan (not so much society at large as in the USSR). It actually became a real law that brothers of the Sultan were to be killed.

In both cases, you had cults of personality that made crossing the Boss considered both a) wrong, and b) a death wish.

You also had extremely unequal societies where obscene rewards accrued to the ranks just beneath the tyrant, which, coupled with ambition, provided a steady stream of replacement Politburo members/pashas and Viziers.

These three properties ensure that: A) There is a tyrant. B) There is acceptance or eben celebration of the tyrant killing subordinates C) There are plenty of replacement subordinates.

Edit: In response to comments, a cult of personality may emerge for different reasons but relies on patronage (see: point c) and a positive feedback loop with killing off rivals.

In Stalin's case, he used his position as secretary to install cronies, then factionalism to kill off rivals and replace them with more cronies and eventually bypass the collective authority of the Politburo.

In the Ottoman Empire, the office of sultan had a cult 'fairly earned' by a combination of achievements and ruthlessness, set by early conquering sultans like Mehmed II, who both conquered Constantinople and was a sadist. Each generation got more ruthless with killing their own family,while still governing effectively until after the practice was well established. "The Ottoman Centuries" is an easy popular history that is relatively pro-Ottoman but outlines the gradual but horribly consistant evolution of family murder as a practice within the royal family.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer, but you seem to have misplaced your description of how personality cults emerged in these societies (after "b) there") somewhere in the editing process? $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Jun 16, 2023 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ hmm as a side note Stalin's cruelty did backfire, he didn't have enough replacement subordinates after all... his purge within the army left his armies practically devoid of competent personnel, which is why the Red Army initially fared pretty badly against the Nazi invasion $\endgroup$
    – gaazkam
    Jun 16, 2023 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @gaazkam That's true, although he didn't kill Zhukov, and during WW2 was much more pragmatic about letting his generals do their job (contrast: Hitler). But sure, the initial invasion was spectacularly bad in this way; he was ordering officers who were reporting, "A full scale German invasion has begun" shot for possibly conspiring with the British. The 900 Days has one fascinating chapter on nothing but how ludicrous and self defeating his actions were. Still, he got away with it all in this world (but I believe is now finding things quite warm). $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Jun 16, 2023 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ There is a suggestion that Beria poisoned Stalin with warfarin. Stalin had a history of getting rid of heads of the NKVD every few years, and Beria had definitely passed his sell by date. Moreover Stalin had "discovered" a plot against him, the so called "Doctors' Plot"; curiously each of Beria's predecessors had been removed following a plot which they had failed to discover; each time Stalin "discovered" that the ex head of the NKVD had been implicated in the plot. Perhaps a fake plot turned into a real one this time. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2023 at 7:09
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The Emperor Commodus is a good example of a ruler who bumped off people randomly and suffered from delusions of grandeur. From the Wikipedia article:

...early in 192 Commodus, declaring himself the new Romulus, ritually re-founded Rome, renaming the city Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. All the months of the year were renamed to correspond exactly with his (now twelve) names: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, and Pius. The legions were renamed Commodianae, the fleet which imported grain from Africa was termed Alexandria Commodiana Togata, the Senate was entitled the Commodian Fortunate Senate, his palace and the Roman people themselves were all given the name Commodianus, and the day on which these reforms were decreed was to be called Dies Commodianus.

Then he did something even really stupid: he caused his own domestics, his concubine Marcia, the chamberlain and the praetorian prefect to fear for their lives; they felt that they would be safer if he were dead. Marcia poisoned him, then he was strangled, as he was taking too long to die.

Moral: never let those closest to you feel that they would be safer if you were dead.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Ridley Scott said they had to significantly downplay his evil in Gladiator from what was historical, because it would have been perceived as over the top and unrealistic by audiences and even then, he is widely regarded as one of the most evil characters in any film. PS. Maximus had a comic scene where he was endorsing a brand of olive oil as a gladiator, but that was cut because it felt too modern, despite being historically accurate for what gladiators often did as a side gig $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    Jun 18, 2023 at 0:30
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Have weak internal opposition and distracted external enemies.

Stalin personally didn't actually order that many killings. He was fairly hands off and uncaring of what was happening. What he did was organize the security forces so that they had a certain quota of dissidents to capture. This meant that anyone vaguely suspicious got captured, but also a lot of innocent people got randomly swept up and killed. It was a very top down mass slaughter.

This was only possible because Stalin had centralized power and their external enemies were distracted. There was no force that could effectively oppose him or cause problems and no external enemy able to take advantage of the weakness caused.

I've seen you in the comments say it's not efficient- no, no it was not. Stalin did terribly in ww2, and Russia would have lost if not for massive loans of British and American equipment. But, so long as you have weak internal opposition and weak external opposition, then you can kill people pretty freely.

Batman is the same. The police are very weak, there's a huge supply of poor men with minimal job prospects, and Batman is one man. For the most part the lack of serious opposition means supervillains can do as they want. They only really need to be careful if Batman starts pressuring them hard, or if they get in a gang war with another gang.

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Rule by fear

Ultimately, a system of rulership that we often see in history and that, at least for a certain time, works. Whether it is a tyrant or a gangster boss, the seemingly arbitrary violence is not entirely random, even against loyal, own people. It creates an essential, necessary element of such a form of rule: competition among accomplices.

No one - whether a fascist tyrant or a Mafia boss - rules alone. A rule based primarily on terror is essentially dependent on accomplices, since other methods of imparting rule (laws, public discourse, ethics of responsibility, etc.) cannot come into play here.

But these accomplices are also the greatest and most direct threat to the ruler. If they join forces, the ruler could be propped up quickly. Showing that arbitrary violence is possible even against the most loyal accomplices effectively prevents this from happening: Everyone does not want to be next. The (superficially) safest method is to please the ruler. By being particularly ruthless, by delivering the best news, by getting the best results. And above all: by betraying other accomplices on the same level - so that they become the next target of the ruler's displeasure and not oneself. A current example: the public dispute between the Russian defence minister and the boss of the PMC "Wagner" about who is to blame for the foreseeable failure of the invasion of Ukraine.

Why is it nevertheless appealing to be active in such an environment?

It offers the possibility of becoming incredibly powerful and/or rich yourself. An accomplice in the inner circle has opportunities that others do not have. While there is the possibility of not being lucky and losing everything, it is more likely (historically speaking) to be lucky while it lasts. And even if it is completely clear to an outside observer that things cannot go well, man's ability to suppress existential dangers is unbeaten.

Likewise, such complicity offers more security than being more distant from the ruler. A commoner or a small street thug without contact to the ruler has no possibility to influence him (especially: by betraying others from the inner circle) and has a higher probability of being hit by arbitrariness.

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Misdirection

Use the same technique used in real life--create an enemy that's scarier than you are, and present your tyrannical rule as the only reliable protection from that enemy. Pick whoever you want--Jews, Blacks, and Communists are popular options, but immigrants, fascists, liberals, conservatives, nazis, or any available minority can do the trick. The key is to hype them up as at least as ruthless as you are, but malevolent as opposed to your benevolence. This draws a reaction like "They're all bastards, but this bastard is our bastard."

As long as people feel threatened more by your bogeyman then by you, they'll rally behind you.

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