Machiavelli: Discourses B

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As any schoolboy used to know, the Greeks not only invented or brought to perfection most of the great arts of civilization—epic, tragedy, and comedy; classical architecture, sculpture, painting—but left behind monuments that have rarely been equalled and never surpassed.  The history of philosophy, as Alfred North Whitehead once famously remarked, is a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle.  This observation is, if anything, even more accurate in the case of political philosophy and theory.  Even the bad theories of Epicurus (materialism, atheism, state of nature, social contract) are more brilliantly conceived  than those of his modern imitators, Hobbes, Locke, and Marx.  Marx, by the way, was well aware of his debt, since he wrote a thesis on Epicurus.

Naturally, the Greeks did  not think of everything or eclipse all subsequent achievement.  Vergil is as great in his way as Homer and Sophocles are in theirs, and there are even classicists who think that Shakespeare is fit to be named in the same sentence as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In political theory, perhaps the most important contributions have been made by Machiavelli and his disciples—a group that James Burnham discussed in one of his best books, The Machiavellians, perhaps the late Sam Francis’ favorite book about politics.

Machiavelli advanced human understanding in many ways, but three of his most significant advances  are associated with the words state, power, and liberty.  The Greeks had not talked much about the nature and functioning of what we call the state.  Aristotle did write a great deal about the nature of the city and the commonwealth, but of the state—a permanent institutionalized government that operates independently and often against the interests of the people of the commonwealth—he appears to know very little, except insofar as he is describing tyranny.  But a tyranny, even a popular tyranny,  is an illegitimate exercise of power,  while the state defines legitimacy.  The reason for the Greek and Roman silence-a silence preserved by St. Thomas—seems evident to me: the state is the creation of the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.  There are at least two lines of development: the development of centralized monarchies in England, France, and Spain, which is fairly well known, and the less familiar development of the city-states of Tuscany.  To condense a great deal of complicated history as succinctly and simply as I can, the republics of Pisa and Florence were the creatures of corporations, of, on the one hand,  craft and mercantile guilds, and, on the other, of protective associations formed by rich and powerful families, initially aristocratic but later including the wealthier businessmen.  The state, then, is the supercorporation that expresses the power of its constituents.  This is in sharp contrast with the Athenian polis or even the Roman Imperium, which were conceived of as institutions that served the interests of the citizens.

The state is an instrument of power, the power exercised by the corporate members over themselves and, what is more important perhaps, over non-members or junior members.  Thus in a state, politics is the pursuit of state power to use in your own interest and the interest of your family and allies.  This fact is sufficient to explain what seems to be Machiavelli’s obsession with power.

The ancients were very interested in political liberty, which they regarded as first, a commonwealth’s freedom from external control, such as the control threatened by the Persian invasion, and secondly, freedom from arbitrary and abusive government.  This is basically Machiavelli’s understanding.  For Florence to be free, she has to be free of foreign occupation, whether French, imperial, or papal, and freely governed by a broadly distributed elite class that does not too much abuse the lower orders.    To maintain freedom, the political class (neither Aristotle nor Machiavelli were foolish enough to include the masses) had to exercise vigilance.  It had to recruit and maintain a citizen army (mercenaries, as NM warned, were fickle and dangerous) and it had to be prudent in spending and taxing.  Florence’s wars of imperial conquest led to excessive debt, taxation, and, ultimately, to the opportunity for the Medici to buy the state.

Some of NM’s most penetrating analysis of power and liberty is contained in the chapters (16 ff.) of Discourses I that take up the subject of the expulsion of the Tarquins and the establishment of the Roman Republic.  NM is far from sanguine.  A people that recovers liberty he compares with a caged animal returned to the wild, where it does not know how to survive.  Since a corrupt people can never maintain its liberty, he says he will confine his attention to peoples who have not been completely corrupted.

The first obstacle to preserving liberty is the obvious fact that the friends of the former tyrant (or tyrannical government of whatever type) are now the enemies, whether foreign or domestic.  In Rome, the young aristocrats had enjoyed wealth and prestige at the court of the Tarquins, and they were ready to conspire for the restoration of the Etruscan dynasty, which was naturally being supported by Etruscan cities.  Even the sons of the liberator, Lucius Junius Brutus, were among the conspirators, whom their father the consul had put to death.  The problem with a free government is that in principle it rewards merit and not connections, an intolerable situation for those who depend upon affirmative action programs based on race, sex, or—in this case—family connections.

There is another, perhaps more serious problem.   Most people are content to lead quiet lives, minding their farms or businesses, taking care of their families, and their only interest in the regime is fair and just application of the law.  But a privileged minority, by contrast, has lots of free time to devote to one object: acquiring disproportionate power.  For this reason, the majority is always at a disadvantage.

NM’s powerful insight is an instance of what the great economist Mancur Olson called “the logic of collective action.”  In a so-called democracy, the  disinterested majority is always at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis disciplined minority groups that devote themselves singlemindedly to their own interests.   The obvious examples, in our own society, are the various lobbying groups that bribe Congress and presidential administrations to gain favors for their backers—the auto manufacturers, the labor unions, physicians, environmentalists, teachers, welfare dependents, criminal lawyers (ambiguity intended).

The result, in an older democracy such as Britain or the US, is stagnation and gridlock.  When all the parties involved have bought a piece of the law, reform becomes impossible. The best thing that can happen, then, is to lose a destructive war, as Japan and Germany did.  Not only did they have to rebuild their industrial base and economies, but also the shattered institutions of corrupt democracy.  Hence their rapid growth in the 1950′s and 60′s.  On the other hand, the good news is that gridlock is the only thing that has prevented the complete socialization of the US economy.  Take the Obamacare proposal.  It probably never stood a chance unless it catered to the insurance companies, major health care providers, and the AARP.  Naturally, many of these interested groups said they wanted reform.  If they had not said so, they would not be at the table where the pie was being carved up.  But once at the table, each group has its own knives, forks, plates and measuring calipers.  (Any attempt to start a discussion about healthcare or Obama will be removed immediately.)

Princes who seek to avoid the restoration of liberty should take note of the fact that most people only wish to be let alone without actually attaining real power.  In any republic–he is thinking, now, of Athens, early Rome, Medieval Florence–only 40 or 50 people have any share in power.    We might multiply that figure by 10 or even 100, and we would get some sense of the political elite in the US, which does not include most members of Congress.

NM drives home his point about a corrupt people being unable to recover their liberty by pointing out (I.17) that after the deaths of tyrannical emperors, the people could not be aroused by the senatorial/Stoic opposition to the imperial system.  Where a people is predominantly healthy, even riots and tumults do little harm, whereas in an unhealthy people, the best that can be hoped for is the emergence of a strong man like Epaminondas of Thebes.  I would add rulers like Augustus, Vespasian, and Trajan.

But is it possible for a corrupt people, even if  it cannot recover liberty, to  take measures to maintain it.(I.18).  This is not a mere question of good laws, because good laws are derived from good customs, and once the habits of a people are bad, laws cannot change their character.  This is very close to one of the important lessons Clyde Wilson has been explaining to those who will listen to his wisdom, that a sound constitution is an expression of national character and not vice versa.

Reform is always difficult, whether it is made all at once or gradually.  A gradual reform requires a ruler or legislator who can spot, like a prophet, the germs of mischief at an early stage, while a sudden reform requires a man of very high character and ability.  In any event, at the degenerate stage of a nation’s history, he argues, only a strongman can effect wholesome change and preserve a government of law.

To be continued in this place

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