Machiavel et les élections américaines

Il y a exactement 500 ans, Nicolas Machiavel rédigeait «Le Prince», l’œuvre qui devait être à l’origine de sa gloire – douteuse – tardive. A l’occasion de la troisième édition de «sharing knowledge», les rencontres du Pour-cent culturel Migros sur des sujets de société, Stephen Greenblatt, expert de la Renaissance, a expliqué à quel point ses réflexions sont toujours d’actualité. Pendant son exposé, le lauréat du Prix Pulitzer a posé un regard machiavélique sur les récentes élections américaines. Le Magazine du Pour-cent culturel Migros propose l’exposé original de Greenblatt, en version légèrement abrégée.

Auteur: Le 22 février 2013, Stephen Greenblatt

One of Machiavelli's most striking qualities is his absolute contemporaneity. Certainly anyone who observed with care the American presidential election conducted last year would have reason to think that Machiavelli was sitting in the same room. I refer not only to the mendacity that (as always) characterized much of the political advertising on both sides but also to the almost exclusive focus on considerations of property, as if those considerations were virtually the only serious political concern. «For men», as Machiavelli writes in «The Prince», «forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony».

This was an election in which the great geopolitical rivalries and ideological struggles that preoccupied earlier generations seemed to shrink to near-invisibility; in which global warming and the environmental disasters that are looming were virtually unmentioned; in which the ethical issues posed by drone rockets or by massive government invasion of privacy in pursuit of terrorists were simply not debated. The campaign turned on the domestic economy, and particularly on taxation, and the two candidates seemed at moments to be actively modeling themselves on characters taken directly from Livy, one leading the party of the plebs, the other of the optimates.

There was, to be sure, an attempt, particularly on the part of the Republicans, to give the argument over the economy an ideological dimension. Republican candidates repeatedly argued that Obama was what they called a European socialist, by which they meant someone with a deep distrust of free enterprise and a belief that the government holds the solution to most problems. Romney by contrast was the candidate of liberty: he would unleash the power of capitalism, lift the crippling burden of regulation, staunchly defend the Second Amendment's conferral on all citizens of the right to bears arms, and discard «Obamacare». Above all, he would block any attempt to raise the marginal tax rate on income above the 35% cap put in place in 2003 under the administration of George W. Bush. To tax at higher rates would sap the ingenuity and inventiveness of capitalism by effectively placing a limit on wealth acquisition. Liberty could brook no such limit.

Capitalism at its Cruelest

Though they called for economic «fairness,» the Democrats had no comparable clarion call, an absence painfully evident in Obama's dismal performance in the first presidential debate. What the Democratic party did, as soon as it became clear that Romney would be the Republican nominee, was to depict him as the grotesque embodiment of capitalism at its cruelest and most rapacious. He was, advertisements by the Democrats insisted, the spokesman for a political party whose only concern was to increase the already enormous wealth of the optimates at the expense of the plebs.

These claims received unexpected support midway through the electoral struggle in a set of comments that were made by Romney to a group of his wealthiest donors. The comments, captured on a cell phone perhaps by a waiter at the event, quickly passed into the mainstream media. In them Romney observed that the 47% of the people who do not pay income tax feel victimized, take handouts, and believe that the government has a responsibility to care for them. They will therefore vote for Obama no matter what. «My job is not to worry about those people», Romney said. «I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.»

These apparently candid remarks seemed to confirm the Democrats' depiction of Romney as the candidate of the wealthy and privileged, people who spoke about the public good but privately despised almost half the population as spongers and parasites. What was unusual about this analysis was not its content but rather the fact that what was said in confidence to a small, like-minded group became public almost instantly, the consequence of a technology that neither the Roman historian nor the Florentine political scientist could have anticipated and of which Romney himself seemed weirdly ignorant.

The Importance of Wealth in Political Life

It would not, I think, have surprised Machiavelli at all that the candidate of the optimates was himself an immensely wealthy man. The Florentine would have understood the crucial importance of wealth in political life. Nor would he have been startled to learn that the American plutocratic politician had contrived to use loopholes in the tax codes to pay a far lower percentage of his income in taxes than many far poorer people are compelled to pay. I doubt that Machiavelli would even have considered such a circumstance a sign of hypocrisy – a term that does not figure very much in his work. It would, I think, have simply seemed to him the way that people in such circumstances behave. Indeed he might well have approved of the candidate's stubborn refusal to make public the tax returns for which his enemies called – after all, as Machiavelli very well understood, a ruler needs to keep certain secrets.

But, for that very reason, the Florentine would certainly have regarded as culpable Romney's failure to keep his views about the 47% to himself, for they only strengthened the other party, while his own party was perfectly capable of intuiting their substance without public pronouncements. The history on which Machiavelli long brooded would have led him to expect that the tribunes would of course reward their followers, just as the senators would reward theirs. And he knew as well that the party of the plebeians would gleefully seize upon and exaggerate every detail in the wealthy man's life and opinions. Why give them ammunition?

A Relentlessly Reductive Analytical Intelligence

If Machiavelli seems to be one of our contemporaries, the risk is that he seems familiar, domesticated, even banal. And there is a further risk in his continued relevance: under the spell that Machiavelli casts, human motives can begin to seem all too predictable and familiar. There are no surprises or mysteries; everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator; humans seem like puppets. «And doubtless, if we consider the objects of the nobles and of the people, we must see that the first have a great desire to dominate, whilst the latter have only the wish not to be dominated.» The sun of a relentlessly reductive analytical intelligence shines down at mid-day and flattens everything out.

I think the risk is a real one, particularly if one stands at a safe distance from Machiavelli's actual sentences and tries to boil down what he saying to a small set of cynical propositions. He can indeed make everything seem smaller, narrower, and meaner than might first appear from the varieties of human behavior. But one of the reasons that he in fact remains exciting and alive is that his vision is far more capacious and interesting than a paraphrase or an isolated quotation might suggest – and indeed the behavior on which he reflected, including such behavior as we have observed in the American election, is stranger than it might first appear.

No Middle States

The quotation I have just cited is a case in point. It seems to reduce everything to the simplest of terms, in keeping with Machiavelli's distaste for ambiguous middle states: one is either noble or ignoble, one who wishes above all to dominate or one who wishes above all not to be dominated. But it is formulated as part of a consideration of who is best suited to be the guardians of liberty, the nobility (as in ancient Sparta or in the Venice of Machiavelli's own time) or the people (as in ancient Rome).

It is important to be alert to the silences in Machiavelli, as well as to the sounds: here while he provides both ancient and modern examples of the state ruled by nobles, for the state ruled by the people he gives only ancient Rome. What is missing is the modern state ruled by the people, and this absence almost certainly signifies the Florentine republic on whose fall Machiavelli brooded bitterly for his entire life. That fall was for him a disastrous loss of liberty, a loss that provides the context of the question he poses, when he considers whether nobles or people are best suited to be the guardians of liberty. Machiavelli gives serious weight to the claims of the nobles, as exemplified by Sparta and Venice, but he believes that the people are inherently more disposed to desire liberty.

Let us return to the sentence we have quoted and allow it to continue: «And doubtless, if we consider the objects of the nobles and of the people, we must see that the first have a great desire to dominate, whilst the latter have only the wish not to be dominated, and consequently a greater desire to live in the enjoyment of liberty; so that when the people are intrusted with the care of any privilege or liberty, being less disposed to encroach upon it, they will of necessity take better care of it; and being unable to take it away themselves, will prevent others from doing so.» Faced with the difficult choice – do you entrust your liberty with the nobles or the people – Machiavelli opts, without illusion, for the people.

All Men Are Bad

Machiavelli's account of the great mass of men and women is anything but sentimental. He follows the principle that he articulates for anyone who wishes to found a republic and give it laws, namely, that such a person «must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.» If they possessed the requisite means, the people would certainly attempt to encroach upon the liberties of the state.

But the key here is the relative impotence of the people, compared with the nobles. They simply have fewer occasions and a smaller scope to make use of the malignity of their spirits. Machiavelli recognizes that it would be possible to argue that the wealthy, by virtue of having already achieved what men set out to acquire, would tend to be conservative and hence less inclined to behave with an avidity and a restless ambition reckless enough to threaten the state. One who wished to protect republican liberty might prefer, like Shakespeare's Caesar, to have the company of men «that are fat / Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights,» and not those who have «a lean and hungry look.»

A World in Perpetual Movement

But this is not Machiavelli's conclusion. In his vision, there simply are no sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights, at least none who wish to survive. For him the world is in perpetual movement. Though it may be blessed with brief periods of relatively tranquility, the world affords no long-term stability, and hence there is no existence without constant struggle.

This is why to the question who is likely to be most ambitious, he who wishes to preserve power or he who wishes to acquire it, Machiavelli gave an answer that most of us would consider counter-intuitive. The greater danger comes, he wrote, from those who already possess: «For the fear to lose stirs the same passions in men as the desire to gain, as men do not believe themselves sure of what they already possess except by acquiring still more.»

Thus far the argument only implies that those who already possess wealth have the same ambition as those who do not possess it. But the two groups are not in the same position. When those who already possess acquire still more, they increase their power and therefore their ability to usurp liberty. And the spectacle of their riches and honors only excites in the breasts of those who have neither both the desire to possess them for themselves and the wish to revenge themselves on those who already do and who misuse their possessions.

But this account raises a question that haunted the American election: Why in times of peace do people who already possess a great deal desire to possess more and more? Why would they be so fiercely opposed to paying a higher marginal rate on the top end of their fabulous earnings? And why would any canny political party have clung to this opposition – and still cling to it – at the risk of losing the election itself? Machiavelli writes that «men do not believe themselves sure of what they already possess except by acquiring still more,» but what accounts for such an intense and very strange belief?

The Illusion of Peace

Machiavelli's answer lies at the very heart of his vision of human existence. There are, he suggests, no times of peace, only of the illusion of peace. What appears to be a stable order is in fact always unstable: «But as all human things are kept in a perpetual movement, and can never remain stable, states naturally either rise or decline.» Consequently, there is no real equilibrium and no middle course to follow. And what is true of the state is true of the inner life of each individual – indeed it is true of the state precisely because of that hidden inner life. «The nature of men is ambitious as well as suspicious,» Machiavelli writes in a dark chapter on the ingratitude of people and princes, «and puts no limits to one's good fortune.» Humans possess no inner principle of restraint, no way to stop themselves.

The dilemma, Machiavelli argues, lies deep in human nature: «When men are no longer obliged to fight from necessity, they fight from ambition, which passion is so powerful in the hearts of men that it never leaves them, no matter to what height they may rise. The reason of this is that nature has created men so that they desire everything, but are unable to attain it; desire being thus always greater than the facility of acquiring, discontent with what they have and dissatisfaction with themselves result from it.»

The vision of the human dilemma here is not new with Machiavelli. It may be found among pagan philosophers, especially in the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, and among Christians in St. Augustine and in other great Church Fathers. But there is a decisive difference in Machiavelli's formulation. For the pagan philosophers the unquenchable, infinite desire in men is a sign of illness, an illness that can respond to moral therapy. With the proper philosophical training, a person can restrain longings and, in exceptional cases, achieve what the Stoics approvingly called «apathy,» a complete stilling of desire. Some Christians followed in the wake of this line of argument, but others took a very different position. It is true that humans have an unappeasable desire, but that is precisely a gift from God, for infinite desire leads inevitably a desire for the infinite, that is, a desire that can only be quenched by God.

Machiavelli perceives the anthropological dilemma in very similar terms, but for him there is neither philosophical therapy nor theological redemption. There is only human politics.

Version abrégée de l’exposé «Machiavel et les élections américaines, 2012», présenté le 7 février au séminaire «sharing knowledge» organisé sur le thème «Trop de tout, pas assez de rien».

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