Reading Machiavelli: Why conflict can be good and inequality is bad for everyone

Thanks to the notoriety of his most famous work, The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with the ruthless and cynical exercise of power. Bertrand Russell described the work as little more than ‘a handbook for gangsters’ (it was even name-checked in The Sopranos – though Tony Soprano claimed he prefered Sun Tzu’s Art of War) and there is no doubt that Machiavelli gives an unflinching account of what an autocratic leader must be prepared to do in order to win and retain power.

Yet, as the Bolshevik and Soviet politician Lev Kamenev argued in a late essay (Stalin had him executed shortly after publication), Machiavelli’s reputation owes less to his actual political outlook than it does to the ugly realities of political life which he was attempting to describe and demystify, on the basis of his own first-hand observations of the use of power in sixteenth-century Florence. As Kamenev hints, the ‘true countenance’ of Florentine political life was not so different to that of the Soviet Union under Stalin: ‘an oppressive class of masters struggling amongst themselves for power over the laboring masses’.

It is this ‘naked truthfulness’ that sets Machiavelli apart from most other political theorists and explains the still extraordinary urgency and relevance of his writing. His works continue to resonate because the reality he describes is a reality which, in some fundamental ways, we continue to recognise. Of course, Machiavelli did not anticipate the detail of political life in modern liberal democracies and had a limited view of what democracy could consist in; but he gives a hugely persuasive, and wholly unflattering, account of the real face of power and its tendency to corrupt both those who exercise it and those who are subject to it. Equally, the political philosophy behind The Prince, best expressed in his other major work, The Discourses, has a great deal that is useful and constructive to say about contemporary political concerns such as class, conflict and inequality. It is this, I think, that makes Machiavelli particularly worth reading today.

In The Prince, Machiavelli informs his readers that he is to deal exclusively with principalities, having dealt extensively with republics in another work, meaning The Discourses. It is here that Machiavelli expresses his own political philosophy and asserts the superiority of republics over principalities. He is no advocate of autocratic rule, though he accepts that in certain circumstances it is necessary, for example, to save a failing state or to found a new one. In normal circumstances, however, a republic is to be preferred. Government ‘by the populace’ is better than government by princes, he says, since ‘if account be taken of all the disorders due to populaces and of all those due to princes, and of all the glories won by populaces and all those won by princes, it will be found that alike in goodness and in glory the populace is far superior’.

For Machiavelli, a republic is a ‘government of the people’ in the sense that its citizens play a significant part in grounding and stabilising a form of political and civic life which is typified by consent and spirited participation rather than by force. He paints a picture of the best-managed republics as mixed governments involving a healthy and malleable combination of ‘regal power’, middle-class influence and popular government. The strength of each element can vary according to circumstance, but Machiavelli believed the best states to be those that mobilise the people rather than rely on their passivity or indifference. By involving all three elements, in whatever degree, ‘a republic has a fuller life and enjoys good fortune for a longer time than a principality, since it is better able to adapt itself to diverse circumstances owing to the diversity found among its citizens than a prince can do.’

In short, Machiavelli considers republics preferable to principalities because they are stronger, more stable and more adaptable. Stability is a critical consideration in Machiavelli’s thought. A well-managed republic is characterised by a free, open political culture in which both nobility and the people are engaged, and dissent and conflict are not discouraged but seen as essential elements of a flourishing society. What is interesting about Machiavelli’s discussion here is that he has a very clear view of conflict as contributing to the stability of society. This, I think, is quite different to the prevailing view of today’s political class. Conflict of any sort is actively discouraged, as threatening either the stability or security of our social or political life. Union action is condemned as a matter of course, while political demonstrations, even when peaceful, are routinely met with the disapproval of every mainstream party. Machiavelli, on the other hand, recognised that ‘in every republic there are two different dispositions, that of the populace and that of the upper class and that all legislation favourable to liberty is brought about by the clash between them’. It was conflict of this sort that enlarged the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of a republic – he did not subscribe to the view, still entertained by some politicians, that rights and freedoms were benevolently conferred by those at the top upon those below them.

It is better for the life and freedom of the state that all sections of the populace are engaged politically. For Machiavelli, active citizenship is an essential part of any flourishing republic – it cannot thrive without it. Securing it, however, is dependent on a number of factors, including the presence of a large and engaged middle class and the absence of extremes of inequality. The later point is particularly interesting. Machiavelli does not call for equality for all, though he does argue for a rough equality between citizens (meaning those who pay tax or own property). More intriguingly, he argues that inequality between the classes should be limited and not allowed to reach extreme proportions. The rich must not become so rich and powerful that they can afford to ignore the will of the people, and the poor must not become so poor and wretched that they have no hope of either improving their lot or influencing their environment for the better. Where such inequalities do exist, the rich become corrupt and the poor desperate, thus threatening the health and stability of the state.

I suspect Machiavelli would have deplored the levels of inequality we now tolerate in our own society, as he would the gradual shrinking of the middle-class, the culture of deference and quietism that characterises our political life and the parlous state of public debate in our society. More importantly, though, so should we. As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have eloquently demonstrated, inequality is not only bad for the poor; it is bad for all of us. It pollutes every aspect of national life. It makes us less happy, less healthy and less honest. It means the economy misses out on the skills and excellence of large numbers of its young people. It is responsible for the complacency with which we are governed and the desperation of many of those so governed. It affects the way we think of ourselves, our mental wellbeing and our sense of what we are capable of achieving. As Danny Dorling argued recently, it also makes us believe stupid things, among them that some people are superior to others:

We work best, behave best, play best and think best when we are not laboring under the assumption that some of us are better, more deserving or so much more able than others. We perform the worst, are most atrocious in our conduct, are least relaxed and most unimaginative in outlook, when we live under the weight of great inequalities – and especially when we live with the illusion that these are somehow warranted.

What is most depressing about the current state of public debate about these issues is the idea that gross inequalities are somehow inevitable or natural, that there is no point in challenging them or making any concerted, meaningful effort to change things. This is reinforced by an education system which, in the main, appears to be designed to reproduce privilege, reserving elite education for people who can afford to attend elite schools, very often the same elite schools their parents attended. Although more of Britain’s poorest young people are going to university, just one in five young people from comprehensive schools and further education colleges got into the top third most selective universities this year, compared with 86 per cent of privately educated young people. For far, far too many of our children, life chances seem to depend almost entirely on the circumstances of their birth. And second chances are harder to come by. Meanwhile, we embrace a programme of austerity measures, justified by political sleight of hand, which see the poorest and most vulnerable bearing the greatest burden of fiscal belt-tightening while those responsible for the financial crisis get away, in the main, scot free – effectively underwriting the greed and recklessness of global investors with public money. It is no wonder that a third of young people who leave school with poor grades fear they will face a ‘life without hope’.

I mentioned The Sopranos at the start of the article. One of the show’s themes – perhaps its main theme – was that a man cannot wholly shed his humanity, however hard he might push it from him, however deep he might bury it; that even the most corrupt and brutalised among us remain capable of considering the greater good and even (on occasion) acting on it. Machiavelli too allows himself a heavily qualified optimism about human nature. A prince must learn not to be virtuous, he says. He is not born to it. It is in us all – perhaps even in our natures – to play an active and equal role in the political life of our society. The cynicism and indifference produced by extremes of inequality may do harm to hopes for a genuinely progressive politics, frequently thwarting our best thoughts and aspirations, but they aren’t inevitable, and they needn’t be permanent.

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