In the world of Scythe, politics as they existed in the Age of Mortality no longer exist. Instead, the world is governed by the Thunderhead, a sentient, all-knowing, and reliably fair version of the modern-day "cloud." While the Thunderhead can perform any number of necessary tasks and services, like call for ambudrones, police infractions, and monitor the populace from its many cameras, it does have one blind spot: by design, it cannot watch, record, or catalogue data that has anything to do with scythes, who have a separate cloud-like system to record their goings-on. By setting up a swath of society that's effectively outside the realm of the law, Scythe makes the case that even in its ideal, utopian society, the corruption that the Thunderhead was supposed to prevent still runs rampant—and is even more difficult to stop from within.
When humanity came up with the idea to create the Scythedom, several hundred years before the start of the novel, it put rules in place to guide scythe behavior, while also insisting to the rest of humanity that scythes are unusually and incorruptibly just and moral. It also created the scythe organization to perform oversight functions in case of bad behavior. In the novel's present, however, it soon becomes clear that the oversight methods available for corrupt scythes are insufficient at best, and enable bad behavior at worst. While Scythe Goddard's penchant for mass gleanings isn't outside the law in any official sense, the way that he taunts and torments his victims is morally questionable—and yet, Goddard appears to be quickly gaining a following as he advocates for abolishing the quota and instead allowing scythes to glean as many people in a year as they want to. Especially when Rowan discovers the kind of cruel and inhumane person that Goddard is in private, this becomes a clear attempt to infuse the Scythedom with a lack of humanity and send it completely off the rails, bypassing the rules that were set up to check bloodthirsty scythes like Goddard.
Most importantly, Citra's suspicion that Scythe Faraday was murdered, rather than that he self-gleaned, suggests that even though this suspicion turns out to be incorrect, the Scythedom doesn't appear trustworthy or infallible to the young new scythes entering it. Instead, it appears cutthroat and like a battle between the cruel "new guard" scythes like Goddard and the compassionate "old guard" scythes like Faraday and Scythe Curie—and most importantly, not at all about actually overseeing scythe activity and promoting good habits and practices.
This sense that nobody can truly trust the Scythedom isn't an accident. Because the Thunderhead cannot observe scythes at any time, it creates a void in information that makes it impossible for anyone, scythe or otherwise, to monitor what is or isn't happening among scythes. The novel does show that despite its general ineffectiveness in this regard, the Thunderhead does want to do what it can to make the Scythedom more reliable. This is why, when Citra is deadish and therefore, technically not a part of the Scythedom, the Thunderhead wakes up a portion of her brain to give her a clue—Scythe Faraday's given name—so that she can put the pieces together and discover that he wasn't actually murdered, but is in hiding in Amazonia. This suggests to the reader and to Citra that while the Thunderhead and the Scythedom are, at first glance, impossible to use as a tool to police or use for unintended purposes, it's possible to get around the rules by capitalizing on technicalities and drawing on information from multiple sources in order to come to conclusions.
More importantly, however, this suggests that in a situation like the one Scythe sets up, carrying out justice and stamping out corruption is something that only individuals can do effectively. By showing how Scythe Goddard manipulates the High Blade as well as the entire Scythedom during the seasonal meetings, the novel makes it clear that the organization itself cannot do anything to check him—instead, the only person who can put a stop to Goddard's bloodlust is Rowan, an individual who feels duty bound to act outside of the system to place checks where the system itself cannot. The novel ends with one of Citra's first entries in her official scythe journal, in which she writes that she's heard of a mysterious figure whom people call Scythe Lucifer—Rowan—who takes out corrupt scythes. This final turn offers a suggestion for a two-pronged approach to fighting corruption. While Citra, as a licensed scythe trained by the old guard, can work from within the Scythedom to enforce rules and check any of Goddard's supporters, Rowan can work on the outside to shift the balance of power to scythes like Citra and Scythe Curie, who believe in justice and will do what they can to stamp out corruption. By working in this way and offering hope for a fairer future, the novel suggests that artificial intelligence like the Thunderhead can only go so far—it's necessary for people to do the work themselves to ensure balance, fairness, and justice.
Surveillance, Corruption, and Justice ThemeTracker
Surveillance, Corruption, and Justice Quotes in Scythe
When it was decided that people needed to die in order to ease the tide of population growth, it was also decided that this must be the responsibility of humans. Bridge repair and urban planning could be handled by the Thunderhead, but taking a life was an act of conscience and consciousness. Since it could not be proven that the Thunderhead had either, the Scythedom was born.
The idea that not all scythes were good was something neither Rowan or Citra had ever considered. It was widely accepted that scythes adhered to the highest moral and ethical standards. They were wise in their dealings and fair in their choices. Even the ones who sought celebrity were seen to deserve it. The idea that some scythes might not be as honorable as Scythe Faraday did not sit well with either of his new apprentices.
"But people could read it. The Scythe Archive is open to everyone."
"Yeah," said Rowan, "like the Thunderhead. People can read anything, but no one does. All they do is play games and watch cat holograms."
The Scythedom uses the Thunderhead for countless tasks—but to us, it's simply a database. A tool, nothing more. As an entity—as a mind—the Thunderhead does not exist for us.
And yet it does, and we know it.
Estrangement from the collective consciousness of humanity's wisdom is just one more thing that sets scythes apart from others.
"I was headstrong and stupid in my early days. I thought that by gleaning just the right people at just the right time, I could change the world for the better. I believed, in my arrogance, that I had a keen grasp of the big picture that others lack. But of course, I was just as limited as everyone else."
Would the Thunderhead grieve our passing, I wonder? And if so, would it grieve as the child who has lost a parent, or as the parent who could not save a petulant child from its own poor choices?
"But if this really is a scandal in the Scythedom—"
"—then your best possible position would be to achieve scythehood yourself, and fight it from the inside."
"Had she lived, who knows what she might have done. Perhaps she could have changed the world and redeemed her family name. I choose to be Scythe Anastasia. I vow to become the change that might have been."