Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 3 – Public and Private, Contracts of the Powerful and the Powerless

Machiavelli says in several places that it is important, in order to stay in power, that a ruler avoid being hated – and what this means in practice is quite unequivocal:

“It is perfectly possible to be feared without incurring hatred…if he refrains from laying hands on the property of his citizens and subjects, and on their women.”

Let’s consider what this means. One way to read it, a reading which has a certain ‘liberal’ flavour, is as saying ‘let people keep their own private, extra-political lives intact, and they will be content’. That is, it might be seen as recommending that the political realm be held back from interference in the ‘private’ sphere.

But this has a number of problems.

First of all, it would suggest that the people who must be feared are those who most want to avoid politics, or who are in a sense the most unpolitical, which seems counter-intuitive. Secondly, it would suggest that women, rather than themselves being people, are someone else’s ‘private’ sphere. Finally, it requires us to see ownership, including of land, trade resources, businesses, etc. as a ‘personal’ matter, which I believe is a mistake.

So I will suggest a different interpretation: what Machiavelli is saying is that the best way to maintain power and political dominion is to leave untouched other forms of power and dominion. That is, what is being ‘indulged’ or ‘respected’ when the ruler keeps their hands off their subjects’ ‘property and women’ is the desire for power and supremacy, merely in a slightly different form from its explicitly “political” manifestation.

That is, far from saying ‘leave people an extra-political space to live their private lives’, it’s much more like ‘leave people kingship of a private kingdom’. To stop people trying to seize your throne, guarantee them smaller thrones. And the people who are ruled by those smaller kings? The women, children, servants, animals, slaves? They get nothing. There is no good political reason to be concerned with them because they are so powerless that they present no threat.

Now let us suppose that Machiavelli was, in empirical terms, on to something here – that this was a useful and sensible maxim, gleaned from his extensive political experience. There are two implications I want to draw from this.

The first is that the division between a public and a private sphere, as it has traditionally appeared, is not a division between a realm of power and politics and a separate realm without those things: rather, it is a division within the realm of power and politics, between the ‘public sphere’, in which multiple holders of power confront each other, and the ‘private sphere’, in which, to a certain extent, individual holders of power (‘people’) can enjoy the ‘privacy’ of unchallenged power, surrounded by ‘their’ powerless.

That’s not to say that this applies in any simple way – for example, people can be ‘miniature kings’ in one part of their lives but subjects in others. Intersecting oppressions, blah blah, you know the deal.

It’s also not to say that there is necessarily no value in the idea of a private sphere, or the idea of privacy. It’s just to say that the notion of a private sphere that we have, which is already effected in our culture and in our institutions and in our political discourse, is one that has developed in an oppressive context, through a dispute between different sections of the privileged. (See for example the long and venerable tradition of seeing physical assault as a ‘private’ or ‘personal’ issue when it happens within a family).

If we want it to be different, if we want a notion of privacy that will apply to everyone, we will have to do some work to reconfigure it from the ground up.

So that’s the first line of implication I wanted to draw out. The second is related, and applies to the notion of a ‘social contract’.

The ‘standard’ social contract story (I’m locating it principally in relation to Hobbes and Locke) goes like this: ‘people’ initially exist in a state of non-society and moreover a state of mutual hostility (that last is not universal, but common). Collectively they recognise the disadvantages of such a situation, the dangers and inefficiencies it exposes them to. Thus they enter into an agreement with each other, to follow a set of rules that will both limit each one’s original freedom, but nevertheless make their freedoms, on the whole, more secure.

So key points include: 1) people start in a pre-social state, rather than being from the word ‘go’ in some sort of society, 2) people’s initial, pre-social relationship to one another is one of hostility, not of attraction, friendship, desire, etc. 3) society is born from a collective recognition that self-interested war is disadvantageous to all, and 4) society has the aim of protecting the freedom that each person started out with, and making it more secure.

Of course that’s not to suggest that the philosophers are trying to do actual history – it’s a conceptual endeavour, to clarify the nature of society by considering how it might hypothetically come about from non-social roots. But nevertheless we cannot ignore how spectacularly strange it must look to put this story next to actual history, with its tyrants and wars and tribes and religions.

But I think we get a much more interesting and realistic picture if we look at it in the context of Machiavelli’s advice. That advice boils down to “avoid conflict by respecting the private kingdoms of other power-holders, other adult male property-owners”. That is, it prescribes securing peace by setting things up so that all the power-holders can secure their power, and will have it more securely because of that peace.

To change this into ‘social contract theory’, all you have to do is replace ‘power-holder’ with ‘person’, and ‘power’ with ‘freedom’. The contract then becomes not a resolution of universal war, but a resolution of war that presents itself as universal by denying personhood to those who are not fighting. And now it’s much more relevant to actual history.

If we wanted to express it in terms that would make sense to a chimp, we might put it like this: chimp X and chimp Y both want to be the alpha male, both want to be supreme (over the troop, over the territory). But they can’t both be supreme, and if they fight each other constantly they will be so tired and injured that they’ll be eaten by a leopard. So they make an arrangement – they will divide the troop or the territory, or more broadly the domain over which they’re fighting, into two sections. Then chimp X will be alpha male in domain A, and chimp Y will be alpha male in domain B. Over the whole domain, they will share power.

Of course chimps can’t actually form such agreements because they don’t have language, they can’t sign contracts. But humans can, and I think that dynamic can be seen throughout human history and society. How else can we make sense, for example, of Biblical laws on marriage, sex, and rape, apart from as an agreement between men on the allocation of women, an agreement which enables greater co-operation between men because they’re not constantly fighting over it? This woman, this slave, this settlement, this area of land, this portion of resources, this factory, this ministerial portfolio – whatever the domain is, it can be divided so as to let each would-be despot be a despot over their own miniature kingdom.

This is the social contract that has really happened. And it’s clearly not good enough. It creates a government by the powerful, for the powerful, of the powerful. And ‘powerful’ here means: someone who is willing and able to fight to subjugate others, i.e. the worst sort of person.

And it’s given us, as I’ve been discussing, a tradition of political theory that reflects this nature: political theory by the powerful, for the powerful, of the powerful. Political theory that correctly identifies important dynamics, such as the public/private divide, or the social contract, but presents them as universal, erasing the experiences of those who are not the ‘people’ referred to in the formulas.

And even the left-wing of that theory is, as often as not, merely the demand that a new layer be admitted to elite status – that the black millionaires of South Africa be allowed to sit opposite its white millionaires, that the female secretaries of state be allowed to sit opposite the male. And it’s a pyramid scheme – it can never include everyone. There have been grand democracies, in Athens and America, which proclaimed equality while enfranchising only a minority of their population. And in the 20th century, there have even been those which have enfranchised a majority, but they haven’t empowered all those who they have enfranchised.

And it’s fairly clear to see why: the logic of how this goes on is that which Machiavelli articulates: whoever has enough power to impose themselves on others is rewarded with recognition, but it’s those who have lived from birth with the most recognition, the most social privilege, the most conditioning to assert themselves, who can develop that power.

Fortunately, this sort of social contract is not the only one that can be imagined. In place of the powerful associating together in order to preserve their respective dominions, there is the possibility of the powerless associating together in order to destroy those dominions. That is, a contract to form a society, membership of which requires only the giving up of all other forms of power, whether economic, political, sexual, or other.

In its economic aspect, this union of the powerless is called “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. The work of finding out what form it should take specifically and in its other aspects, as the union of, for example, the gender-powerless (women, queers, transpeople) remains to be done.

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