Tuesday, 3 January 2012

To What Extent was Machiavelli Republican ?

In addressing this question first I will delineate the different forms of government which Machiavelli considers in the Discourses and the peculiar advantages and disadvantages of each. After having done so I will proceed to show in what way Machiavelli wants to use these and combine them in a particular arrangement to create his ideal Republic. From there I will end with a deduction to the question posed above.
Regarding states in general, Machiavelli writes that there are three basic “good” forms of government and each of these have a “bad” counterpart.
The first of these was the principality; once these became hereditary they begot lascivious and licentious princes aroused the hatred of the populace. Propelled by the fear of the angry mob the Prince began to rule harshly and quickly Tyranny gained a foot hold. The populace along with some wealthy nobles conspired and plotted against him and by the force of arms soon laid him to rest. The nobles who were now heralded as liberators by the plebeians constituted a government by aristocracy. This too like principalities, upon being passed on to descendants quickly gave rise to rapacious oligarchs who confiscated Plebeian property and womenfolk. Once again the plebeians erupted in flames, undid the government and having lost their conviction in principalities and aristocracies simply chose to rule themselves and constituted the first democracy. However this democracy like all “simple” democracies was short lived and degenerated into anarchy. The subsequent chaos was finally put to an end by an authoritative individual who once again erected a principality. This is the blue print outlined by Machiavelli which he claims that repeated itself until some noble prince appeared and by brute force established the first constitutional republic.
Machiavelli explains that the instable nature of democracies is due to a lack of restraint on the Plebeians. He points out that Solon did nothing to restrain the avarice of the Plebeians and within his lifetime a tyranny was erected by Pisistratus. Although the democracy was recovered after a lapse of forty years, once again it lasted no longer than a century. It is for the same reason that Republican thinkers of the Enlightenment era like James Madison condemned democracies as:
” [They] have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Despite his long campaign for Principalities in The Prince in Chapter three of The Discourses Machiavelli concedes that each of these three basic governments are inept and far from satisfactory each having its own particular set of weaknesses. Hence for Machiavelli the dilemma of constituting a suitable form government has two fundamental touchstones: first being stability, the second being its adaptability to the winds of fortune. Machiavelli writes that prudent legislators in light of this, to procure security and long lasting prosperity, have contrived to create mixed Republics in which all three are blended in the correct measure, so as to create a system of “checks and balances” where one watches over the other and their individual defects diluted.
Those who have read about the Roman constitution will find in it many peculiar institutions; namely the Senate, Tribunes, Consulship and the interim seat of Dictator. Unlike modern Republics, Rome had an oral constitution, in which additions and subtractions of in branches occurred mainly as reflections of present circumstances. There were certainly many others that came later like the Plebeian Council, but the key ones listed above are those to which the scope of this essay applies.
For Machiavelli these four branches of government, in order of appearance, constitute the democratic, aristocratic and princely attributes of the Roman Republic and the combined symphony of these effected to strengthen and perfect the Roman constitution.
Having discussed the three basic forms of government and their atomization in a constitutional Republic I proceed to elucidate the peculiar character and personality of each sought after by Machiavelli within a Republic like Rome.
Going back to our previous paragraph Machiavelli outlined the basic flaw of hereditary principalities as the absence of any guarantee of the merits of the next prince. Indeed, if fortune wills he maybe the next Suleiman, the Magnificent or the last Louis XVI.
And although he advises that a Prince should adapt to the times he doesn’t fail to point out that men seldom have the ability to alter their conduct in a way that is contrary to their disposition, nature and habits. God forbid the times should change, princes who lack such virtue, shall unequivocally end up in self-destruction.
Therefore, in order to mitigate the problems enumerated above, a Republic must ensure that its princely institution must result in an infinite succession of capable and merit worthy consuls. In Chapter 19, Machiavelli tells us that a weak prince preceded by another weak prince will not be able to hold any principality for long, however if he is preceded by a strong prince and the winds of fortune do not blow him away he might be able to last his term playing on the success of the previous one. But in the next chapter he writes that two strong princes, one following the other have a multiplier effect and their acquisitions are that much greater.
The Republic altogether eliminates the malignity of hereditary succession by conferring the power of suffrage to the general population and what better judge of merit of a Prince except his own people. With regards to the reserved power of the prince in a Republic Machiavelli’s view from The Prince would still hold, which is the powers vested in the Consul should concern warfare and military affairs only.
However, contrary to modern day Republics, by vesting power in a multitude of executive magistrates with veto over one another, the Romans went a step further in securing the rights and liberties of the Republic. Having split the regal power into two separate offices the Romans recognized the bad prince from the good one; and in doing so availed the utility of both. Machiavelli is well aware of the dangers of a Dictator undoing the Republic and instituting a tyranny, as Caesar in fact did, but he is more than happy to accept the institution. Sudden changes in fortune will ultimately impel the people to seek refuge under a dictatorial power. Machiavelli realized that to compose a chaotic crowd and re-mobilize it in a military enterprise it is necessary to have an exception for a Hitler like figure. To elucidate, Machiavelli gives the example of how Cincinnatus rescued the Minucius’s army from the Aequi. He also presents him as a model of Roman virtue and military command.
There is also the advantage that a person like Cincinnatus, honoured and respected, will always enjoy a lending ear from the populace; a trait of special utility in ending violent tumults and chaos within a Republic. Machiavelli gives the example of a religious figurehead Messer Francesco [242] and lays down Virgil’s edict “If then some grave and pious man appears. They hush and lend a listening ear”. However I will give another example which is more pertinent to our cause.
On November 8th, 1923 when Dr. Von Kahr made his pronunciation, which officially amounted to secession and Bavarian liberation, on the following day, a youthful Adolf Hitler and Ludendorff (a former commander in the First World War) stormed the streets petitioning against the secession in favour of a strong national union. In an attempt to subdue the insurrection the German army opened fire. Hitler and a few others who were caught in the crossfire fell flat to the floor with injuries, however an emboldened Ludendorff walked right passed through the spray of bullets; and once having appeared in full view of the soldiers behind the barricade, all of Germany went silent.
Not a man dared draw a trigger on his old Commander. [Mein Kempf]
All things considered, Machiavelli wasn’t averse to dictatorship (in fact he admonished all Republics that they should have some institution akin to that of the Roman Dictator) provided these conditions were satisfied: First and foremost the people aren’t corrupted and remain religious and law abiding. Secondly, the constitutional powers enumerated to the dictator didn’t allow him to make amends within the constitution and the civic institutions. Thirdly, the service of the Dictator when called upon would be temporized to a limited and short duration. Fourthly, any individual does not by unconstitutional authority vest himself with dictatorial, consular and princely powers. Fifthly, the dictator should preferably be called into service by a consul to avoid any blowback arising from a feeling of resentment.
Concerning the democratic part, the Tribunes, Machiavelli demands that the general discipline of the populace represented by the tribunal council should be at all times impeccable and of the highest ideals. He is far more assertive of the rights and liberties of the Plebeians than most would acknowledge and has very high expectations from a Republican populace. Machiavelli seems to have completely departed from James Madison’s view that one of the principal objectives of government was to shun democracy and protect “the minority of the opulent from the majority”. Noam Chomsky has always criticized Madison arguing that since conflict arises naturally from economic disparity it can only be dealt with by a welfare state where all people are given an equal share.
Machiavelli however has a more realistic picture in mind. He candidly declares that there are fundamentally two different dispositions: that of the populace and that of the nobility. He writes that the latter has greater propensity in usurping the public liberty where as the former having only the desire not to be dominated are seldom harmful to liberty. Balancing these two out essentially require some degree of class warfare. Quiet obviously perfect equality between men isn’t really possible and Machiavelli doesn’t want it either, otherwise the Republic will quickly disintegrate into a short lived democracy like Athens, but he doesn’t want extravagance either. Hence Machiavelli’s recommendation is that to constitute a republic there must be “notable” equality. The difference between wealth among the classes should be minimal and that there should be no individual [gentry] who derives his wealth by exclusive estates without having to perform physical labour, even among the nobles.
Although Machiavelli greatly defends the role and position of the general populace he is only willing to go so far in that the population has not been tainted by any sense of moral corruption. People must be disciplined to pursue their citizenry without being rapacious, servile and obsequious to their establishment, for a Republic only stands as long as a populace can keep a government accountable. Wherein a state the people shall be found content and happy within their place, law abiding and religious Machiavelli affirms that “when the populace is in power and is well ordered, it will be stable, prudent and grateful, in much the same way, or in a better way, than is a prince.” He also advances the view that the populace is also sounder in judgement and prudence compared to a prince (if not misled by artifice and rash promises), possessing a greater power to discern the intent of good or evil, and adopting the best alternatives that are conducive to their common interests. In appointing individuals, inspired by the fact that the Romans never had to repent more than four elections in hundreds of years, he writes that they will seldom make the mistake of electing a mischievous person to office.
If it be the case that a populace has become corrupted, in general Machiavelli seems to acknowledge that the remedy will mostly depend on the measure of corruption. Provided that the situation is not too dire, some noble individual should be able to correct this; however princes who become fixated within their ego may never be corrected, for they often lack the ability to adapt themselves to the times.
On a final note I conclude that Machiavelli doesn’t explicitly forward nor idealise any particular form of government or princely rule. He is mostly concerned on how to combine different types of government so that their individual deficiencies can be countered, their advantages availed and a more perfect Republic realised. This makes it possible to accentuate each of the constituent parts according to the situations that the Nation will face. Therefore, if the Republic is in dire conditions then it ought to exhibit steadfast princely rule by instituting a dictator; if it is peacetime then the democratic element ought to check the magistrates for stark accumulation of executive power; and in turn the class warfare between the nobility (senate) and the plebeians should keep the Republic devolving into an “absolute” democracy or “mob-rule”.

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