Dare more Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli lived in a republic that was even more broken than ours. He wanted to limit the power of the rich. His writings are an ever-current program for recapturing democracy – from below. Why this isn’t “populism” and why Leftists never understood Machiavelli.
Machiavelli is something like the lord voldemort or sauron of political theory. He is seen as a villain who justifies the unbridled use of political violence. Few seem to notice that Machiavelli wanted to limit the exercise of power, not limit it, by trying to give it rational rules. One of those few is John McCormick. In “Machiavelli and the Populist Scream of Pain”, the political scientist from the University of Chicago advocates rereading the classic: as Democrats and the first left-wing populists.
Machiavelli as a left-wing populist? It is by no means as far-fetched as it sounds. As an official of the Republic of Florence, he saw the rights of the citizens threatened – by the rich. Their power undermined the republican idea. There was nepotism worse than today’s governments, corruption that eclipsed all mask deals and secret pharmaceutical agreements, catastrophic wars, exploitation, mass impoverishment and popular uprisings, the so-called “tumulti”. These were troubled times that Machiavelli had in mind.
McCormick reads Machiavelli’s writings, the “Discorsi”, “The Prince” or “History of Florence”, against the background of the great conflicts of the time. And he shows how revolutionary ideas hide behind some superficial praise – as for the Medici. Machiavelli proposes that there should be separate political representations for the rich and for the poor. His argument: only the rich would prevail with elections for a single assembly anyway. However, not openly, but in secret.
Machiavelli seeks a democratic and institutional answer to the class question. In this way, class-specific institutions could counterbalance systemic corruption. For Machiavelli it is better to put the cards on the table than to condone an oligarchy under the cloak of democracy. One must “stop the arrogance of the few,” writes Machiavelli. He is constantly thinking about how to ensure that all citizens – no matter how much money and power they have privately – can influence public events.
McCormick describes Machiavelli as the first democratic theorist in the history of Western political ideas. He understood populism as a democratic deficit, formal democracy reigned, but not the people. Populism is the “cry of pain of modern representative democracy,” according to McCormick. In Renaissance Florence, history ended with the fall of the republic. Machiavelli saw the blame for the rulers’ hostility to democracy, not for the populus.
What McCormick envisions with Machiavelli is a recapture of democracy from below, not a populist revolution against it. That is the key difference between left-wing and right-wing populism. At the same time, it is the program for regaining the republican virtues that have to prove themselves in political reality – instead of being fobbed off unworthy with empty Sunday speeches. For McCormick, “Machiavelli’s writings should make modern citizens blush.”
Machiavelli’s ideas for remedying the crisis of democracy are more robust than those of other philosophers. Before McCormick became a renowned Machiavelli scholar, he dedicated himself to Jürgen Habermas, whom he has now left behind. One can understand. The “Theory of Communicative Action” seems a bit harmless compared to crass inequality and war. In addition, Habermas supported value-based de-democratization during the Corona period with the punch line “Freedom or life?”
Could McCormick’s neo-Machiavellianism find a sympathetic ear on the left? It would be desirable, but unlikely. The politically correct left accuses Machiavelli of the “anti-morality of an injured person”, as Jörg-Uwe Albig wrote in his grotesquely bad book “Moralophobia”. It is the preaching tone of moral teachings that, even on the class question, only produces banalities from the mindfulness workshop, but never leads to power-political action à la Machiavelli.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one of the very few Machiavelli advocates on the left, speculated in his “Notes on Machiavelli” that the disapproval of Machiavelli served above all to refuse the tasks of true humanism. He praised his writings as a “contribution to political clarity” and stated “that Machiavelli formulated some of the prerequisites for any serious humanism”. Only in the most recent “Italian Theory” was Merleau-Ponty’s impulse taken up again.
A revival of Machiavelli’s thinking would be a good sign, contrary to what is often claimed. Today’s politics is characterized less and less by a rational limitation, as the author of the “Discorsi” had in mind. Instead, the incredible dissolution of boundaries finds its legitimacy in absolute morality, as embodied in this country by the Greens. On the other hand, as McCormick shows, effective democratic means were devised 500 years ago. A way out of the crisis of democracy? Read Machiavelli!
#Democracy #Machiavelli #WELT