Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 2 – Tyranny, Republicanism, and the End of Radical Politics

Following on from Part 1 of this series, I want to suggest that Machiavelli’s work can be seen as grounded in a concern with the vigour and health of the republic, defined in a specific way. The way I want to use the word ‘republic’ here is centred around the idea of a collective agent: the political group conceived by analogy with the individual person, so that terms like ‘vigour’ and ‘health’ can be applied to it.

The key feature of persons that I want to consider is their goals and desires. Let us suppose that we have no problem with speaking of the interest or goals of a single individual. What then are the interests or goals of the group?

Well, the first notion to define is the simplest, what I’ll call the collective interest: which is simply the sum of the interests of all the individual members added together. But that will be diffuse and often contradictory, and so won’t produce much of the unity in action that characterises a person.

So we might amend it to a second notion, what I’ll call the common good: those interests which are shared by all or most of the individual members of the group. So for example, averting the floods that will drown everyone is very much in the common interest, and so the group can be expected to act in unison (if they can get it together) to prevent flooding.

A slightly stronger notion would be what I will call corporate interest (the choice of words is largely arbitrary), which means those interests which individual members have insofar as they identify as members of the group. For example, if the group is a married couple, then keeping the marriage going is not merely in the common interest of the two spouses (assuming that it is in both their individual interests) but also in their corporate interest, because they both identify with “the couple” and the couple requires that the marriage keeps going. To the extent that an individual comes to feel that the marriage is not in their interests, they need not only to take certain actions but to adjust their identity, disengage their very selves.

I mention this because it seems like a reasonable generalisation that by and large, corporate interests will exert a stronger influence on group activities than others, because of this element of identity – a threat to someone’s identity can seem like a mortal threat in a way that a mere threat to their interests need not. (This may for instance be part of how to understand ‘groupthink‘, where people are reluctant to speak against the developing group belief because of their strong identification with it).

But a final adjustment is needed. The group may ‘have’ an interest but that doesn’t guarantee that it will act upon it. Collective action requires organisation, and organisation can take many forms. In particular, it will allocate to different people different degrees of influence over the outcome, different levels of power. An interest that belongs to a few powerful people is more likely to govern the group’s actions than an interest that belongs to numerous powerless people.

So we might finally define a ‘practical interest’, by which we mean, a group interest (whether we are concerned with collective, common, or corporate) in which the interests of each individual are weighted according to their power, so that the interests of the powerful count for proportionally more than the interests of the powerless.

On this basis, we might posit a ‘virtual person’ called ‘the republic’ which is defined merely as ‘the person whose individual interest is the practical interest of the group’. Remaining conscious that we speak metaphorically, we can then speak of such things as the ‘health’ or ‘vigour’ of the republic as meaning the degree to which the republic/the group functions and acts so as to advance its practical interest.

I think this construct provides a good interpretation of Machiavelli’s concerns with ‘decadence’ or ‘corruption’ (i.e. sickness of the republic) and conversely his desire to promote ‘virtu’ – the health of the republic. Things which evidence decadence for Machiavelli are various forms of self-interest and factional interest being elevated above the good of the republic, the weakness of being unable to defend the republic (i.e. to carry out probably its strongest ‘practical interest’), deceit and laziness, etc. etc.

Conversely, what he most strongly desires is republican health: strength in battle, civic participation, strong identification with the republic, sacrifice of individual interests (both your own and those of others) for the greater good, etc. I’m sure I don’t need to point out how easy it is to find contemporary examples of the same sort of thing.

Ok, so how should we as anarchists, and progressives more generally, relate to this ideal, the health of the republic. It will perhaps be useful first to draw out a bit of what it implies.

The republic, conceived as a person, has a fairly determinate sort of personality, because some sorts of motivations will be more prominent in it than others. In particular, the love of power in its various forms is liable to be the strongest factor in the practical interest.

This is for at least three reasons: firstly, love of power will tend to be part of the common interest, because people’s power is very dependent on the group and on the way that it’s organised. Those who have power within the group will share the same desire to preserve its structure.

Secondly, for similar reasons, it will be a corporate interest – it will be specifically operative in proportion as people identify with the group, because it is only the group that grants political power, and that power will seem most legitimate and satisfying when the group is seen as a legitimate conferer of power.

And thirdly, love of power hits the jackpot when we step from common or collective interest in the abstract to practical interest – because the love of power, and the desire to maintain power, is liable by and large to be strongest in those who have the most power, whose motivations will exert the most influence.

So overall, the republic as a virtual person will be a sort of megalomaniac – or, more moderately, will be a very strongly ‘masculine’ person (the word ‘virtu’, or ‘civic virtue’, is derived from the word for ‘man’, along with ‘virile’), very concerned with its pride and status and strength and power. But the collective interest may differ starkly from this: people may, on the whole, be much more interested in security, or love, or beauty, or having fun, or learning, or religious ecstasy, than in power. Nevertheless, we can expect the republic, in action, to be disproportionately interested in power.

What is this liable to mean in practice. Well, we might observe a certain tension. On the one hand, the republic’s interest will perhaps be strongest and most tightly bound when society is most hierarchical, because then the distortion of the top power-holders skewing the practical interest towards their own motivation will be strongest, and this will contribute to the health of the republic.

But at the same time, the republic will be strongest the more of its members are enlisted and given a stake in it, since then there will be more concordance of aims. But involving more people cuts in the opposite direction from greater authority – or at least it did in Machiavelli’s time, when the means of propaganda hadn’t reached their current development.

The best way to square this circle is to find people outside the republic who can be the lesser-thans to provide the members of the republic with the warm glow of being greater-than, a feeling that can then be distributed widely among members of the republic (when I say widely, I mean more widely than in a monarchy, of course).

And this is…exactly what Machiavelli advocates! A republican government with a strong military that incorporates the masses and provides them with a sense of power and strength through the measurement of their collective military force against those of others, outside the republic, whose support is not desired.

More broadly, we can observe that for this sort of mentality, war is a positive good. The army is the paradigm of ‘discipline’ and ‘courage’ and everything desirable. Or, as it was brilliantly put by Randolphe Bourne, War is the Health of the State.

Now given that by and large, war is an outrage, we should look quite negatively on the ideal of ‘republicanism’ which praises it. To go a step further – Machiavelli advocates elements of democracy as the left wing side of a doctrine which justifies democracy on the same grounds as it justifies tyranny. He prefers democratic and constitutional institutions to tyrannical ones not so much because tyranny and slavery are despicable, but because the democratic republic is a more efficient structure of domination and power.

What he advocates can be called a ‘tyranny of the majority’ in the following very specific sense: the republic, the common good, serves the twin roles of demanding from the individual a sacrifice, a dedication, a devotion and love and dissolution of individuality into the will of the greater being, and conversely of providing to the individual, through identification, a vicarious gratification of the ego, a sense of exultation and power, and that these roles are played in other cases by individual tyrants, to the extent that they rely on consent rather than force.

But at the same time, we cannot entirely distance ourselves from this power, its politics, its psychology. What else is symbolised by the raised fist so common in radical iconography? What else provides the libidinal satisfaction of “the workers! united! will never be defeated!”? That satisfaction and joy from submerging oneself into a group is a basic fact of political life. And in practice, how is the power of the state, capitalism, patriarchy, and God-knows-what else, to be defeated except by collective action, by a strong and ‘vigourous’ mass movement?

The optimistic thing to say is that is that though it is employed as a weapon, to fight fire with fire, this attitude and feeling may be expected to subside under the right conditions – to, so to speak, wither away. But probably there is much to be gained from an attempt to understand precisely what those conditions are and how they can be secured.

As I’ve said before, if the goal is to subvert the politics of power-pleasure, then the subversion of gender may be a central issue, because a large part of how our current genders are defined is through the eroticisation of power relationships, of actor-and-object, of taking and conquering.

But that is only a suggestive gesture. I will for now confine myself to pointing something out – that the joy of politics itself must disappear, or at least recede, if political justice is to be acheived. The goal of radical politics is a situation in which the psychology of ‘the radical’, ‘the activist’, ‘the demonstration’, ‘the organiser’, ‘the leader’, etc. no longer captures people’s imaginations – in which people’s real lives and real relations to others do not leave them with a surplus or a deficit (depending on how you define things) that is then expressed through the chanting of slogans and the writing of passionate blog posts.

Sadly such a vision, for us at least, is not very inspiring – which is why a description of vegan-anachist-genderless-communism is unlikely to be as inspiring, as gripping, as moving, as a description of the struggle that acheived it. But that is to be expected – for when we read an account of “utopia”, we’re reading it for political reasons, not for, say, horticultural reasons, and so if the people there have moved beyond politics to focus on horticulture, we will be a little let down.

2 Responses to “Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 2 – Tyranny, Republicanism, and the End of Radical Politics”

  1. The State is Incapable of Submissiveness « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] argued before that one difference is that states are liable to be megalomanic (i.e. pathologically concerned with […]

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