58. Our Obsession with Niccolo

Seldom has a single book influenced so many, for so long – and often with so disastrous consequences – as The Prince. Written 500 years ago by Niccolo di Bernardo Machiavelli, it is taken by many as the definitive guide to power politics; a book whose prescriptions are taken by many political scientists as having the persuasive power of religious edicts. Contemporary writers of power politics have not made it any better. For instance, the ever green Robert Greene added chili sauce by bundling Machiavelli and Sun Tzu (he of The Art of War notoriety) among others, to make an intoxicating brew of bitter political medicine which he calls The 48 Laws of Power.

In Kenya, you will hear statements by pundits, the crass-wing of the political class and other devotees of Machiavelli, say “since politics is a dirty game, it is okay to play dirty”; and, “the President is too soft – he should be merciless in dealing with his opponents”; and tweets such as these: “Consensus in war is by dominance not dialogue.” Hard-tackle political tactics are applauded.

Since human beings are selfish, ungrateful, and greedy – with an insatiable appetite for power – so the argument goes – every means, even force, repression, deceit, should be employed to keep these evil tendencies in check. This, they argue, is realpolitik: the exercise of power based solely on practical considerations, rather than on a system of ideals or ethics. If this will ensure the unity and stability of the State, ‘the end justifies the means.’

Quite appealing and reasonable, you are tempted to say; except a closer reading of The Prince will reveal that its practitioners are either selective or ill-informed.

First, Machiavelli’s prescription was not out of context: Italy was the scene of fractious states prey to powerful countries like Spain and France – both of which invaded Italy during Machiavelli’s time. His advice was therefore primarily meant to keep the state strong and united against external aggression. In fact, in the last chapter, Machiavelli appeals to Lorenzo (the Prince) to unite Italy and drive out the invaders.

Second, Machiavelli believed in the use of ruthless methods “only when the normal tools of government have failed to meet a crisis.” He was quiet categorical too that whilst the ruler should strive to win the popularity of his people, he must not touch their property. He also said the prince or leader must have the council of wise men and not flatters.

It is clear from a closer reading of Machiavelli that his advice should not be taken blithely: as plain vanilla with no nuance. Many would be surprised that the same Machiavelli who advocated manipulation and repression of people in The Prince says something quite different in Discourses on Livy, his other work. In Discourses, he says “… the governments of the people are better than those of princes.” And to make the point even more forcefully, adds “Doubtless these means [of attaining power] are cruel and destructive of all civilized life…and should be avoided by everyone. In fact, the life of a private citizen would be preferable to that of a king at the expense of the ruin of so many human beings.”

It is unmistakable that Machiavelli’s advice was contextual: driven by specific experience at a specific time and place. More importantly, in Discourses, he clearly advocates republicanism and a system of checks and balances when he says “In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check.”

It is manifest from his later works that Machiavelli recognized the dynamism of political economy and therefore the value of an adaptive approach in the art of governance.

And lest you also misread Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, the author is category in his other book, Mastery, that true success in leadership is not about cynical manipulation of human weaknesses, but patient and tenacious honing of skills and knowledge.

In statecraft, the lesson from history is unambiguous: repressive, cynical and manipulative leadership may work, but only for a while. In the long run, sustainable and widely shared prosperity and power comes from a governance approach that is firm but fair; consensual but accountable; and responsive but meritocratic. Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail ask a pertinent question: why was it the British – and not the Germans, the French, the Spanish, or the Russians– who incubated the industrial revolution and built the greatest empire on earth whose legal, linguistic and cultural legacy continues to be felt? The short answer, according to them, is inclusive political and economic institutions and the interplay between these two during major turning points.

Next time you hear political hacks quote Machiavelli tell them to stop their unhealthy obsession with Nicolo.

Enter your email address to subscribe and receive notifications of new posts by email.