Often, speculative fiction relies on common government types, like monarchies and republics, because they’re familiar to readers. History, however, offers other examples of sociopolitical systems. They can be a gold mine for worldbuilding ideas that stretch beyond the mainstream.
Many societies worked just fine without strict hierarchical leadership. Power can come from more informal sources than “voting versus inheritance.” It can be shared in unstructured or ambiguous ways even within a single culture.
In fact, societies and cultures sometimes have incredibly diverse leadership structures even within their own region. We see this in modern-day America, with some states legislating via referendum and others preferring a more indirect method of democracy. When Europeans arrived in Polynesia, they found a series of islands where people had wildly different political systems, despite having similar ethnicity, economies, and religions. For example, one chief was technically the king’s subject but had such a strong personality that he was the one actually in charge. Another island had a more formal system, with two co-equal kings à la Sparta or post-Diocletian Rome. Gallic polities were similarly diverse, ranging from a chief’s despotic and unrestricted power to the complex systems of checks and balances commonly found in aristocratic republics.
Pre-colonial Igbo society also had a complex political system. Priests were very important. Village councils of elders could consult and debate key issues. Merchants, male and female, could get rich and become prominent voices in the community. Although “kings” (called Eze) existed in this era, their amount of power and influence varied wildly. Scholars are still trying to figure out how inheritable the title was, what the limits on their power were, etc. At least one source says that if an Eze died it could be up to seven years before he was replaced, which certainly implies that the society could function well with power left in the hands of informal leaders.
Informal governments, where the question of who is in charge is not always easily answered even by people within the culture, can offer a lot of opportunities for an author.
Age-sets are a sociopolitical system common in East Africa. Among Kenya’s Nandi people, each ibinda (age-set) corresponds to a stage of the life cycle. Boys and girls from each region would be initiated into their age-sets during a series of mass ceremonies. As an analogy, consider a series of nearby communities gathering children into one centralized boarding school then transitioning them out of school and into the lifestage of young adults marrying and being busy with young children, after which they would return to the workforce before finally amassing the experience to lead the community as political figures.
In the Ethiopian Highlands, this sort of cycling age-set system, known in some places as gadaa (for men) or siqqee (for women), led to the development of a republic with democratic elections and the peaceful transfer of power, which took roughly eight years to accomplish. It is not the “democratic republic” as described in ancient Greece. Men were bound to their neighbors by the bonds of shared experiences, handling infrastructure projects for the whole region. In some places, this led to peace. In others, expansion of the length of time men spent in the warrior stage meant an increase in raids and conquest.
Among the Oromo people, balancing representation of all clans, lineages, regions, and confederacies via the age-set system allowed for the development of a strong culture surrounding the selection of wise, clever, knowledgeable, and talented leaders—instead of despots and war chiefs. This system began as a religious institution and evolved into a more comprehensive political, legal, religious, and social system around the 16th century.
Real political systems are changeable, inconsistent, and messy. Part of creating fiction, especially commercial speculative fiction, is streamlining and exaggerating for effect—but a political system that is too rigid can represent a missed opportunity for social conflict.
Link to the rest at SFWA
(perhaps PG’s computer has been possessed by demons (again), but, after he finished his excerpt from SFWA, when he clicks on anything to do with https://www.sfwa.org/, he gets an empty download instead of a website. He tried a different browser and had the same experience. He will defer to greater expertise than his to explain whether this is some sort of hack or if PG used up his daily allotment of SFWA clicks when he went to the OP)