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On #Machiavelli and Lessons for New Princes in the 21st Century

posted Nov 17, 2013, 3:59 AM by Peter Joseph Moons   [ updated Nov 17, 2013, 4:00 AM ]
On Machiavelli and Lessons for New Princes in the 21st Century

By Peter Joseph Moons

     Machiavelli does not advocate evil, per se, though he does teach that a prince who uses certain techniques will maintain his rule.  Essentially, he teaches how a Prince should rule effectively in the face of challenges and stay in power.  He notes that atrocities are acceptable, if they result in achieving the desired ends. (9*)  However, gratuitous violence against the people under one’s rule is unacceptable for they will rebel against the ruler.  To be timid against one’s real or potential enemies is also a sign of weakness; Christianity is in this vein. (69)  So the best route is to rule by creating fear of the Prince, without hatred.  His oft-cited choice is between being loved or feared, of which he chooses the latter, but also cautions against needless cruelty (66) that results in enmity.  Thus, these are not concepts of persistent evil but of moral realpolitik, for cruelty committed all-at-once is less cruel than when done sparingly and in a protracted manner. (38)  

     Criticism against Machiavelli’s leadership techniques recognizes their unsustainability, particularly for rule in an expansionist, militaristic, constant crisis-mode style.  A prince could grow an empire by continuous expansion and keep moving his capital to conquered kingdoms.  However, there are limitations to ruling as if an emergency exists every day, as subordinates may tire of this method of rule.  A prince who rules thusly would need to remember that being feared and committing violence against enemies holistically are the best paradigms to follow in order to stay in power.

     Machiavelli does see the world through a realist lens.  In context, Machiavelli was a disgruntled, former government civil servant then attempting to curry favor with his treatise, doing so in a sly, seemingly sarcastic style.  His manner of writing was over-the-top in its time and is still so today.  Thus, he is appears as an extreme realist and is emulated now only by autocrats.  Second, why was he so extreme?  The answer lies in the fact that the prince operates in a world with like-minded princes: as you state, “his peers would be playing by the same rules.”  Machiavelli’s world is the ultimate ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ -- but one where the prince who follows Machiavelli’s teachings will do two things: he will manipulate the competition beforehand to believe that there will be cooperation but the prince will ‘cheat’ the other guy, every time, ruthlessly, in order to win.

     The prince has to be more ruthless, more feared, and more cunning, because all the competition does the same.  For this reason, Machiavelli completely disfavored the magnanimity of Christianity and the softness of politicians who just want to be loved by their people.  Those qualities will only get the prince in trouble and threaten his ability to rule.  There are limits to the prince’s behavior, otherwise he will incur the enmity of his people.

Machiavelli vis-a-vis Technology

     The employment of technology under Machiavellianism would significantly increase a leader’s ability to achieve desired ends.  Competitors to a prince would likewise use technology against him.  What would likely be the result is a never-ending spiral of invention and innovation…for exceedingly evil ends.  One could see how a Machiavellian leader would use technology: to instill fear in a population, to manipulate citizens, to efficiently eliminate enemies, for militarism, to aid the military-industrial-media complex, for expansionism, to create a constant state of emergency, and to control domestic or international commodity supplies, currencies, and markets. (Shades of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the former East Germany, or some countries in the 21st century.)  

     When one looks at the applications on any smart phone, there are usually two kinds of apps: ones that influence what we think (information/news/”Yelp-type” reviewing) and others that influence what we do (games/tools).  Thus, while technology allows a person to run their life better, technology in a Machiavellian realm would ease the maintenance of a regime, aid in population manipulation, and achieve results faster, more easily, and more completely.

     Machiavelli advocated that a prince should manipulate the will of the people for the desired ends.  In this idea, a connection exists between technology and population manipulation, especially in, but not limited to, undemocratic political orders. There are several historical examples that show the paradigm of new technology exploited for propaganda or for mere control. Nazi Germany used three: they had a vast radio propaganda program, the first live television broadcast followed by its use, and monumental films, particularly those by Leni Riefenstahl and the state-sponsored film industry. In that country, the leader was loved more than feared, one could surmise. Another example, is Egypt during its so-called Arab Spring uprising. To stem the opposition's use of technology, the country's leadership hit the internet "off button" and the web there went dark for days.  Machiavelli would have approved as this all-at-once action bought the regime some time.

     Lastly, the use of 'big data' and 'data analytics' in political campaigns work well in democracies now but will work even better in corrupt and autocratic regimes, where limitations on data mining, surveillance, and media manipulation are stronger. Thus, without democratic controls, such as those in the Bill of Rights, the ability for a Machiavellian prince to leverage technology to control the population, defeat political enemies, and maintain his regime will only increase.

*Page references are from Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 2nd ed., Harvey C. Mansfield, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).