Friday, November 21, 2014

Politics & Machiavelli: the real lessons

When Machiavelli completed The Prince in 1514, he was not to know that it would become one of the most infamous books for the next five centuries. Indeed the worst things anyone could do in gaining or retaining power came to be known by that deplorable adjective, ‘Machiavellian’.

Anyone who has actually studied the works of Machiavelli, especially his Discourses, an essential companion to The Prince, would know that Machiavelli was far from being a friend of deceptive and arbitrary rule. After all he was the one who insisted that “when it is necessary for [a ruler] to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause.”

But before we look further at why the common misunderstanding should be corrected, we should consider a current trend that projects an even more perverse interpretation of Machiavelli. Take the BBC programme, ‘Who’s Afraid of Machiavelli?’, aired just last year. Instead of challenging the view that Machiavelli was seeking to guide people with power to use it immorally, the makers of the programme and all who were invited to speak on it not only reinforced that view, but also claimed that it was to be celebrated. Their take on Machiavelli essentially came down to this: if you’re running a government or a large business, you have to be ruthless; you have to make others fear you; and you have to go with your judgement alone on what should be done, and get it done by whatever means necessary.

For these political insiders and business gurus, Machiavelli should not be denounced for advocating nasty power play, but praised for validating it as essential in getting the business of a ruler or top executive done.

But while some people may revel in imagining that even the most ruthless behaviour (of their own or the leaders they advised) would be endorsed by a world famous thinker, there are three crucial points they should have noted. First, when Machiavelli advised that the ends would justify the means, he was very specific about what those ends were, namely the establishment and development of a free republic – i.e., an association of citizens who collectively have a say through public deliberations over how they are to be governed. The people are, he insisted, “more prudent, more stable, and of better judgment than a prince.” So unless the leader in question is genuinely striving to create and secure a form of governance which spreads power more evenly to all people, nothing is justified; least of all, any action to simply make oneself more powerful and feared.

Secondly, the authoritarian model is only recommended where the option of a free republic is not immediately attainable. Machiavelli’s advice was not that a leader should be authoritarian, but that if one were living in a state where power was concentrated exclusively at the top and rival forces would resort to vicious means to seize the throne (not to mention stopping anyone from democratising power to the citizenry), then one would have to be ruthless in countering those threats and firm in securing one’s own power. But if one were in a free republic, or had managed to transform an absolute monarchy into one, then there would be no excuse for using repressive measures.

Thirdly, for Machiavelli, even when a ruler is steering a course from the prevailing authoritarian conditions to a free republic, it does not mean that anything is permissible. One has to ask if one’s actions are helping or hindering the all important process of bringing about a form of governance whereby people can speak feely about contested issues and jointly secure their safety and prosperity without being dependent on the whims of one individual (or an elite).

Indeed Machiavelli was consistently critical of rulers who put their own desires above the good of the people. In relation to the ruthless tyrant, Commodus, he wrote, “Commodus, to whom it should have been very easy to hold the empire, for, being the son of Marcus, he had inherited it, and he had only to follow in the footsteps of his father to please his people and soldiers; but, being by nature cruel and brutal, he gave himself up to amusing the soldiers and corrupting them, so that he might indulge his rapacity upon the people; on the other hand, not maintaining his dignity, often descending to the theatre to compete with gladiators, and doing other vile things, little worthy of the imperial majesty, he fell into contempt with the soldiers, and being hated by one party and despised by the other, he was conspired against and was killed.” The Marcus referred to here, incidentally, is Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the stoic, philosophical, compassionate ruler of Rome.

If political and business leaders want to learn the real lessons from Machiavelli, they should stop focusing on expanding their personal power as an end in itself, and start devoting themselves to empowering others to share in decision-making so that it is never the elite few but always the people who together determine the common good.
For an extended discussion of Machiavelli’s political ideas with reference to historical leaders, see this interview with Henry Tam, made by the Documentary Film-Makers Cooperative: