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I have a world where there are five guilds, each creating a semi-autonomous political entity over a region of the world. At one point, a single empire controlled the whole continent, but the empire's power has since waned and is now only a figurehead.

The guilds are based around common traits, so they did exist during the empire, however the empire did not allow guild leaders to rule politically. That is, governors ruled taxes, land, and the legal system, and the guild leaders tended to guild specific matters. Since the decline of the empire the governors have merged into the office of guild leaders.

How would the guild leaders reclaim power without causing political upheaval? Assume that the term of governor was for life unless the emperor appointed someone new. The office could be passed in a will, unless the emperor steps in.

Notes: - The emperor would not willing appoint the guild leaders as governors as that would undermine his already waning power. However, he has no central army under his control, instead military power is situated under governors in the regions, so he has little control over vassal states (hence the figureheadship). - I would like the guild leaders to either gain the official title of governor or for the post of governor to go away altogether.

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  • $\begingroup$ The emperor may not want to appoint guild leaders as governors, but the guilds could appoint a governor as their leader. Or the governors son marries the guild leaders daughter. Fast forward a few decades and the two positions start merging into one. $\endgroup$ – Burki Oct 28 '15 at 9:33
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Slow and stead wins the race. It's easy to slowly have the culture change to have them gain power, these sort of changes happen all the time. Look at England and the queen, she has almost no real power now, the parliament slowly took over, and now of days no one want her to have real power.

In a subtler example look at the US federal vs state government. Originally the states had a massive amount of power, due to their distrust of large government and wish to keep their independent rule. Over time the federal government has become more and more in a position of power, states now rule themselves but are more willing to allow the federal government to enact rules that apply to them and/or look to the federal government to fund more of their projects. The federal government taxes are now a larger percentage of taxes paid compared to states as well. This is all subtle stuff, and you don't notice it unless you look way back to the beginning of the US and see the way things worked then how much we now are supportive of the federal government compared to their view of it then. This all happened without any major changes to the constitution, just minor changes and states sort of allowing the transition to happen as we started viewing ourselves less as a state citizen and more as a federal one.

The process doesn't have to create upheaval if it's slow. The guilds start doing more and more of the government's jobs, people start looking to the guild as the ones to get new projects done. To support this the guilds start charging some dues/fees that grow into full blown taxes. Over time people stop being willing to pay as much tax to the failing government, and the government lacks the power and force to try to compel them, so it slowly agrees to less and less taxes to avoid alienating it's citizens and encouraging a true revolt. Eventually the government has power similar to the queen of England and the guilds rule everything.

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To prevent political upheaval, you simply move slowly and follow the trend.

The decline of the emperor’s power is indicative of a slow, but effective increase in power and influence of the governors. His figurehead status means that a power shift has already happened — from the emperor to the regional rulers. The governors seem to have achieved this power by controlling the major components of regional order: armies, tax collection, and law. This will be the model that you should examine when crafting the next transition of power to the guilds.

With your setup you have rulers who are appointed for life. This creates a number of problems because attempting to dissolve these appointed positions will be met by hostility and eventual upheaval. As a result, your governors will also need to become figureheads.

To achieve this, you need only look to the concept of a guild. As a unified group of skilled laborers with a long history, they have a platform of influence throughout the empire. This influence will extend to high places and will be closely intertwined with critical aspects of governance such as trade, military armament, and food stocks. So in the same way that the governors controlled the tools for maintaining order, the guilds control the cogs underlying each region’s basic functions. By subtly moving these cogs in the desired direction, the guilds can control the empire from the bottom up without even requiring support from the governors.

In the long term, the guilds can use their influence to position friendly people in line for governorship. This will make their goals simpler and increase stability even more. Ultimately, they won’t want to dissolve these governor positions because they provide a crucial means for regional control. After all, figureheads make great scapegoats.

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Go with the flow. Don't make waves. But there's an additional detail: make sure the flow goes where you want it to go.

Look at how Emperor Palpatine comes to power in Star Wars. He doesn't declare himself emperor using his godlike powers of the force. No, he subtly and quietly shifts things behind the scene, until the day the senate body chooses to elect him, and he ever so humbly accepts the honor.

You say your emperor is unwilling to elect the guild leaders as governors. Your emperor clearly needs persuasion. You can't approach him outright, for that would give him grounds to strike you down. However, if he is as weak of a leader as you say, there will be strife in the world. The guild leaders merely need to shape the situation such that that strife weighs on the emperor's heart more than the loss of power would weigh on him. Then, they simply wait for the emperor to offer the solution to them, and graciously accept.

Is there no strife? Then maybe the emperor is stronger than you think he is, because in a peaceful kingdom, figure heads have real power. In such a case, you need to provide a character stronger than them to work with them, slowly losening the emperor's grip on the empire. That's a much harder storyline.

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In revolutionary warfare theory, the revolutionaries assume power by creating systems of parallel government that usurp the power of the "real" government. This is particularly easy where there is a weak government or a power vacuum has been created by something like a natural disaster or invasion. The Muslim Brotherhoods began their rise to power in Egypt when a devastating earthquake cause widespread chaos and the government was simply unable to respond. Brotherhood cells in local neighbourhoods gained legitimacy and built their power base by being the ones who were able and willing to step in and provide emergency aid and shelter to displaced people.

In many insurgencies, parallel governments provide a form of policing and justice (especially if the government police and courts are ineffective or corrupt), although their method of tax collection is often pretty dramatic (of course there are some extreme anti-stateists who would suggest that an insurgent sticking a gun in your face and a letter from the local tax office are functionally the same things...).

The Guilds can gradually become legitimate power centres by providing the sorts of services that the government "should" provide, and doing so in a reasonably effective and transparent manner. Replacing one sort of corrupt police and court with another, equally corrupt police force and court system is not likely to gain too many adherents, and unless the Guilds can literally suppress all opposition with an iron hand, this in itself will create the conditions for upheavals (imagine a third group decides to clean house and establish their own transparent police and court system in opposition to the guild and Imperial ones....). As many people have mentioned, this can be done in an evolutionary fashion and so gradually that few people will notice that contract arbitration is now done exclusively through Guild sanctioned courts rather than the Imperial one (for example).

The only real issue that might derail this process, outside of the obvious one of trying to be an illegitimate and corrupt alternative power centre, is defining what exactly "should" be the ambit of government. If the Guilds decide to intrude in business that is not traditionally the domain of governments (child rearing, to make an example), then they will probably generate opposition to that as well. The Taliban gained power in Afghanistan by promising to end the battles between competing Mujahideen warlords and implementing a "clean" government. Their first promise was kept (they defeated the feuding warlords), but their idea of a "clean" government and society was pretty extreme and people who were able to fight them did so. Guilds which overreach will also end up in the same situation.

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You say that the emperor wouldn't assign governorships to guild leaders because that would weaken his power. But to me it looks like the guild leaders aren't necessarily his biggest worry: it is the regional governors who have the armies, and perhaps it is only a matter of time before one of them decides to advance on the capital and take the Imperial throne for themselves.

What to do? Well, the guild leaders are also powerful, but they are a little more under the emperor's direct control. He can always re-appoint them after all, at least on paper, and a guild leader has much less motivation to storm the imperial palace than the regional governors. Perhaps by shifting the balance of power towards them the Emperor can safeguard his family's future. He knows that this will give the guild leaders much more power than his family, but it's still the best option. They'll become figureheads, but it's better to be alive figureheads than dead despots.

So, by a series of crafty interventions - an increase in funding here, a surprise reassignment of the governorship there - the emperor builds a stable society in which power is divided along the lines of the guilds' specialisations. The regional states are no longer a threat, and while the emperor's family have given up the power they once wielded, they are not only get to live but even get to keep the palace.

Of course you have to play around with the details to make this convincing, but the point is that if the emperor sees that his power is inevitably waning he might not desperately try to hold onto it, but might willingly choose to give the guild leaders power if that helps him avoid a worse fate.

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The guild leaders should be good citizens and help the emperors legally appointed governors to fulfil their duties in the best manner possible.

The governor, not being a local, might not know all the important people and issues. The guild leader should make sure that all the information he has about trustworthy and untrustworthy people, current and potential issues and ways to solve or prevent them is easily available to the governor. Naturally in a discreet and inoffensive manner, so that the governor won't feel like he is being imposed upon. But if a person affiliated with the guild happens to be talking with a person affiliated with the governor and the guild has helpful information about the topic it should be supplied in passing. And there is no harm in guiding such discussions towards pressing concerns.

To maximise the contact point the guild should also do its very best to help the governor connect with all the right people of his province socially. Find what interests the governor, his family and friends might have, arrange events catering to such interests and invite the interested people. It saves the governor and his inner circle the bother - and considerable expense - of trying to arrange such events themselves. This will allow them to fully focus in their duties to the empire and allow them easily and naturally access to all the information you think they should have. And more time they spend with reliable and trustworthy people, less time they will have to be exposed to untrustworthy people telling lies and falsehoods.

Naturally the help should extend beyond personal interests if needed. If the empire is really in decline and the central government is losing its grip, the governor might at times find himself in situations where the official resources available to him are simply insufficient to what must be done. At such time it is the civic duty of the guild and its leaders to help out behind the scenes with their own resources. Why should the soldiers keeping peace and order have to wait for their pay just because the imperial treasury is mired in corruption? The guild has money. Why should people starve when the guild can arrange imported food? Why should trade suffer from bad roads or piracy when the guild has resources to help the governor deal with it.

And more you help the governor, more time he will have for, not just enjoying his personal interests, but also to focus on the important things only he can do. Such as dealing with the imperial bureaucracy and making sure their inefficiency and corruption does not derail the smooth and efficient manner things work in the province thanks to the cooperation of all responsible parties.

Now in the unfortunate case the deterioration of the empire should continue, at some point there will no longer be any benefit for accepting the new governor the emperor sends. That is fine - all the soldiers and administrators already know the guild will pay their wages, just like they have always before. The people will know that the guild will take care of any issues that might arise, just like they always did.

For that matter it will probably not even be necessary to defy the empire by refusing the governor they send. If the ability of empire to maintain itself becomes compromised, it makes perfect sense to withdraw from some provinces in order to save resources and focus on securing the core of the empire. Obviously you do not want to leave a vacuum behind and it would be good to leave the province in hands of a reliable and cooperative party that can be trusted to keep that border safe. Typically the guild would be given control of the province for some period of time in exchange for a cash payment. If things get better the empire can reclaim the province. If not they will need the next payment more than another province to defend.

Even if control can't be bought outright. The empire should be willing to accept status quo of guild controlled provinces as long they are offered enough money, are treated with respect, and the cost of taking the provinces back by force would be impractical.

This establishes a safe, peaceful and mutually beneficial model for control of the provinces moving from the empire to the guilds. Nominally all the provinces would be part of the empire, of course. The Holy Roman Empire lasted a long time beyond the fall of Rome and even fall of Constantinople.

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