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Lately I had been reading some RP guides for Dungeons & Dragons on the alignment of Lawful Evil. Many of the points brought up in them mostly referred to characters but I thought it could apply equally well to entire city-states with interesting results.
What do most countries under “evil” regimes have in common? The government tends to mistreat their citizens and neglect civil projects in favor putting their efforts into maintaining government power. My vision was an “evil” regime that didn’t do this. Hear me out.
The trains run on time. Civil projects are followed through on. The general populace is well-fed and properly housed. However, the citizens still fear the government. Maybe the government procures these resources through means so barbaric it makes real world corruption look vanilla. Or maybe it has the laws of any normal country but they’re enforced through brutal methods to ensure stability above all by scaring the absolute shit out of would-be crooks.
In general I want to convey a society where the denizens recognize it as “evil” but the government does a good enough job ensuring the populace is taken care that they’re hesitant to speak against. Perhaps “grimbright” applies here. Is such an idea even possible? And if so, how may I further refine it?
The idea isn't really possible. If people are comfortable, they tend not to care what the government is doing to maintain that comfort. The closest real life analogue to what you are suggesting might be Singapore, an authoritarian, essentially one-party city-state, which is notoriously brutal to anyone stepping outside the law. There is almost no free speech or press.
Singapore is generally well-liked internationally, has a decent tourism industry, and is invited to attend G20 conferences despite not being part of the G20 officially. The government is democratically elected, and though it's very disproportionately represented, it does always win the majority of the popular vote, showing that the people don't consider the situation bad enough to stop it. The government is not considered evil.
On the other hand, governments which are unpopular but remain in power tend to not need popular support anyway, (otherwise they'd have been removed) and thus ignore public works projects.
There is also another potential real-life analogue to your suggestion, and that's Gaddafi's Libya. Public works projects certainly happened, and the government was generally disliked, and was extremely authoritarian. However, there was intense corruption and quality of life was generally fairly low. The public works projects were delayed constantly by the corruption, education was entirely propaganda, and there was a national holiday based around executing dissenters, of which there were many. When the government DID try to properly care for its people, starting in the late nineties onwards, and began liberalizing, the people got together and eventually overthrew Gaddafi and killed him, because they could suddenly dissent. This pattern repeats in other oppressive societies. The moment they let people dissent generally or give them opportunities to do so, things rapidly start to deteriorate and the government is usually changed very quickly. For example, the USSR also collapsed because of letting the people have better quality-of-life, because suddenly the people could say "things were bad and this government hurt me in the past, so let's change it".
A government internationally and locally perceived as "evil" (which is almost always going to be a dictatorship. Democracies inherently polarize the people and as a result there will be no internal consensus and likely a generally positive external consensus about them.) cannot provide efficient public services for two distinct reasons. First, they can't because if the various public service leaders don't get what they want (opportunities to be corrupt), they won't do their job, and will support anyone who promises them a chance to be corrupt, usually overthrowing the leader in the process. The second reason is that the general populace does not actually contribute that much to keeping dictators in power. Their loyalty is much less valuable than say, the military forces, and so it's generally not worth it to buy their loyalty when you can buy better loyalty from the military or from the mine manager or whatever, which don't require good public infrastructure. (This is the main reason dictatorships are almost universally state-capitalist organizations.)
Yeah, unfortunately I assumed as much. It was mostly a thought experiment I thought it would be fun to throw out.
That being said, the wealth of info in your response is incredibly interesting and I will likely use it for reference in the future!
The government is extremely heavy handed and draconian. There is no violent crime because anybody suspected of being a violent criminal is shot or sentenced to being worked to death in a gulag. Laws are followed to the letter because any failure to do so will result in public torture or execution. Judges are allowed to declare guilt on the flimsiest of evidence and police are allowed broad and unchecked power to investigate crimes and apprehend criminals. Civil projects are done by the forced labor of criminals and conscripted citizens when there aren't enough prisoners. Food is brought in at gunpoint and the farmer will be left to starve if he doesn't have enough.
Think 1984 by George Orwell
The only way I can see this scenario being realistic is if the government (and possibly the citizens) are racist, where the government treats one race normally as 'citizens' and the other race as lower class at best or an eyesore at worst. Think southern USA/CSA or Nazi Germany. The association with evil comes not from the government's corruption but from a different reason, such as a selective violation of human rights.
A way you can do this is take some stereotypes (or facts) about real life cities or organizations and exaggerate and subvert them. Here’s a few ideas of societies that I would consider Lawful Evil.
Corporate Towns (this of the Union wars in America’s history). Workers and employers generally follow the rules, get paid, do the work, have infrastructure etc. However, they are also destoying environments, and also doing their best to ‘lawfully’ steal money from each other.
Lawful Evil Religions/Cults/organizations. What if the Aztec idea of ritual sacrifice was a mainstream culturally accepted idea? Or think about the KKK in America’s history, an undoubtedly evil organization that won several democratic elections in their counties.
Shady Militaries and Research testing. Maybe the populace doesn’t know the evil things that are made in testing labs or what their military does. The Atomic Bomb tests were conducted in Utah and Nevada, fairly near towns and cities full of people who didn’t really care that their government was making weapons of mass destruction.
Something I'm writing.
The primary reason why this regime is tolerated by the people is because it came to power after a 20-year Vichy Earth regime that was even more brutal (as in, "randomly executing people and dumping the burned-to-char corpses in the middle of the street in broad daylight for the sole purpose of keeping the populace scared shitless" brutal) until it got violently overthrown by a planetwide revolt. Compared to that, the current regime is downright sunshine-and-bunnies - and the Government Conspiracy in charge knows very well that going too heavy-handed will mean they too end up on the receiving end of the Torches and Pitchforks.
The status quo eventually gets hit in a big way when the Government Conspiracy's militant members issue illegal kill-all-witnesses orders under presidential authority (the president is the head of the Conspiracy) in an attempt to prevent being exposed to the public, the Big Good commander-in-chief countermands those orders as obviously fake (the president is offworld at the time and the setting does not have FTL communications, ergo he couldn't have issued those orders himself) and issues a recall order, the political officers try to pull rank to enforce the attack orders, more moral unit commanders arrest their political officers, different units open fire on each other in confusion over who's the loyalist and who's the traitor, the Conspiracy lose their heads and nuke the major city that was the attack target - which is the point where the commander-in-chief declares a coup d'etat and issues arrest warrants for the civilian government, partially to calm tempers down on the streets and partially to find out what the hell is going on since the fact that whoever ordered the nuclear attack did so by spoofing the command signal of the president's nuclear briefcase means it's someone very high up who'd have access to it.
Responding to the OP, an evil person could still be a competent ruler. Perhaps he got the position by secretive coups, rigging votes, and "disapearing" his political enemies but is smart enough to realize that heavy-handed oppression would lose him the support of his people so he secures their intrests and well-being. Being morally bad does not mean being bad at everything.
Or, perhaps his style of government is bad but he does it in a way that feeds into populism. Who says people know what is best for them, especially those in a medevil setting like D&D? Lead a revolution against the government by defaming the aristocracy as nothing more than a bunch of degenerts guilty of all manner of vices and have them extrajudicialy murdered or executed after a mock trial (let the people kill their children, too, just to show how evil your BBEG is). Free prisoners duely convicted of violent crimes from the state and justify the act by painting them as political hostages. Remove pesky laws restricting and regulating drinking and indecency, ban organized religion and persecute followers of "oppressive" gods (perhaps give evil or chaotic gods an exemption depending on your flavor of villain), publicly fund a gladiator arena and public executions to feed into the public's thirst for senseless violence, and of course give the people free resources and encourage laziness and hedionism so they remain stupid and lazy but superficially satisfied with their lives so that they never think about rebelling even if they figured out your scheme. Feeding into racism, sexism, or other in-grained prejudices may help as well.
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How well does it match the trope?