Thursday, January 4, 2018

It's Not Even Past #5.1 - Machiavelli - 90%

I have a friend who used to tell me, exasperated with my tendency to do this, that there are two types of people in the world: those who don't divide the world into two types of people and those who do.
I'm going to start doing something I used to do in my class, which I affectedly call 'dualities.'
The reason I call them 'dualities' is because I believe that more than anything else, it's the divided self, the tensions between our ideals and our realities, that creates new and better thoughts. Every thesis has an antithesis, every pleasant fantasy has a nightmarish mirror image, every person has a mother and father. 

Dividing the world into two camps can, obviously, be a very dangerous slippery slope, and if we indulge in what's generally referred to as dialectical thinking, it's very important to understand that it can never be anything more than an intellectual game we can use to theorize about the world and there is absolutely no scientific value to it without going through the exact same process scientists do - thousands of trials and errors through which recorded data and statistics. Sometimes there aren't two sides to every issue, sometimes there are three or four, so sometimes there will be trialities or quadralities, and occasionally, the opposing point of view is based on sand, so those we will call 'monalities.' 

So let's get to our first duality:

Venial Sins vs. Mortal Sins

But first, a little music:

(first half)

I joked with my producer and editor this week that one out of every five of these podcasts would be about The Godfather. The editor told me he had no idea if I was serious but he was behind the idea.

I'm pretty sure that in the last podcast I completely forgot to talk about the core of The Godfather's appeal. The core is this: it's the key movie, one of the key works of art ever made in any form or time period, that explains to us the appeal, the inevitability, the temptation, perhaps even the necessity, of evil.

Evil will always be with us. Everything that's created will be destroyed, and every morally good objective in life requires some things actions along the way that wade into, to say the least, moral grey areas. If the world is already filled with murderers, do we simply work to make a world without unjust murders and all the nearly as grisly things which accompany it, and if we do, what are we prepared to do to make it happen? If we're on the right, are we prepared to advocate for authoritarian methods? If we're on the left, are we prepared to advocate for terrorist methods? And if those methods fail to rid the world of murder, are we prepared to take those matters into our own hands and be the change we wish to see in the world? Or, do we just shrug and accept that injustice is simply part of the world that we can't change? Certainly the latter path is easier, which means that most people will choose it over the former, which makes life for those who choose the path of activism will become that much more exponentially difficult.

So if, as the statistics tell us, 1% of the population is psychopaths, if 7 or 8% of the population have narcissistic tendencies, wouldn't it stand to reason that maybe we should all make 1 in every hundred decisions the way a psychopath would, and in 7 or 8 in every hundred the way a narcissist would? We'd still be acting ethically more than 90% of the time, but at least we know that we'd be harder to exploit.

But once you taste from the tree of knowledge, it's impossible to go back to naiveté. When you free yourself from ethical considerations, it becomes much easier, perhaps much more pleasant, to live life than it was when you were concerned about ethics. No matter how Catholics or ex-Catholics think of the Church's stance on various sins, there's a reason Catholics talk about venial sins as well as mortal sins. If, at the end of a day, you try to remember it detail by detail, I doubt any person could get through a single day of their life without committing a dozen venial sins, but when one comes to rely on these sins rather than do one's best to avoid them, one becomes in danger of committing much worse acts.

But it still remains true, in order to live through our days, we have to sin, and the more we sin, the easier we find it to thrive. Those who truly thrive in life are, usually, not the best of us. There are of course many exceptions, but if the idea of living your life in moral grey areas it usually takes to achieve great success fills you with excitement, you're probably not the person we can best rely upon to look after anyone's interests but your own. 

But there do exist people of means and power who do genuinely care about those under them, and through the last two hundred years there have been Washingtons and Lincolns and Roosevelts and Johnsons; and Clemenceaus and Gladstones and Atlees and Brandts and Nehrus and Ben Gurions and of course Mandelas who used levers of power, often truly destructive levers, to the purposes of making good changes in the lives of millions last longer. And while these men through history are rare, the fact remains that because they backed up their good with the capacity to do evil, the manner in which they helped people is far longer lasting. Even the famously socialist French prime minister Leon Blum delayed helping the Spanish Republicans for years because he knew that the sooner he got involved the easier the facsists would find it to depose him and his reforms. They did what they thought was necessary to extend human rights to people who had none, and let more squeamish souls wring their hands about the consequences. And this brings us to our second duality. 

Divine Reliance vs. Self-Reliance:

And here is our first quote about Machiavelli:
"It is necessary, therefore, if we discuss the matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consume their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance, they always succeed badly, and never compass anything: but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force."

When you rebel against something so long entrenched, and nothing in human history was so entrenched as the Medieval Church, you can only rebel by turning the ideas you resent against themselves. When the human mind wasn't advanced enough think of the self apart from being a creation of God, it could only conceive of self-reliance in terms of the most atrocious sinning, and the sins can only committed by the world's most powerful people, who are the nearest human incarnations to God that the people surrounding them can conceive. Humanity was only emerging from the Middle Ages - murder in the name of Crime or the State was a terrible sin, but murder in the name of the Church was to save souls, and what's loss in this world compared to the eternal rewards of Heaven?

Machiavelli was a contemporary of Martin Luther, and greater notions of free will so much beloved of Protestants were beginning to marinate in the human mind. A hundred fifty years later, John Milton would express this notion still much better. Free will would still be couched in sin, but this most religious of poets would make Satan into his most interesting, and beloved character in his famous epic poem - Paradise Lost. So think of these famous lines from Paradise Lost and how they elucidate that concept from Machiavelli:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. 
What matter where, if I be still the same, 
And what I should be, all but less than he 
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least 
We shall be free; the almighty hath not built 
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice 
To reign is worth ambition though in hell: 
Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.

So this brings us to our second duality:

Virtue vs. Fortune or to use Machiavelli's terminology: Virtu vs. Fortuna

One does not want to traffic in stereotypes, and yet when we're talking about how linguistic meanings have changed, we have to talk about inner lives, about differences not only of historical periods but geographic spaces as well. The Northern European philosophical terminologies with their heavy metaphysics was only beginning at this point in history with Luther - before the individual could be saved by faith alone, the individual's consciousness and the troubles of one's conscience was not nearly as important as the priestly absolution of it. Your ethical actions, your inner experience, belonged to God from birth to death, so the only part which belonged to you was your sensuality - the part that God said was forbidden, but because it was so forbidden, perhaps the urges to sensual pleasure felt that much more powerful. 

And so virtu does not mean Christian virtue, but classical virtue. Every person who ever studied a bit of classical music knows the term 'virtuoso', which means something closer to mastery of dexterity rather than good behavior. And fortuna does not mean Christian fortune, in which all fortune that matters is salvation or perdition, but classical fortune, the wheel of fate, which always shifts and arbitrarily distributes good luck and bad luck. So what matters to Machiavelli is the dexterity to stay abalance in circumstances of fortune that are always shifting. It's as though thinking before Machiavelli was in basic geometric shapes, and with Machiavelli, we're now thinking in fractals.

Not being a mathematician, I'm going to leave the definition of fractals to the internet and some odd website that calls itsel the 'fractal foundation.'

(ahem) "A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems – the pictures of Chaos. Geometrically, they exist in between our familiar dimensions. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc."

So from a physical standpoint, fractals are the diverse and many, far too many to count, geometric patterns that produce nature. if you take this from a metaphysical standpoint, fractals are literally an order that is so complex that it seems like chaos, and what better definition of nature can there be than that? So in Machiavelli, we are seeing political fractals; those weird cosmological shapes by which the most gifted politicians know exactly when and how to strike and when and how to wait. 

Consider this quote about the four ancients whom Machiavelli considers the greatest men in history, and let's note, as the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper did, that they were all at very least, semi-mythological. 

".In examining their actions and lives one cannot see that they owed anything to fortune beyond opportunity, which brought them the material to mould into the form which seemed best to them. Without that opportunity their powers of mind would have been extinguished, and without those powers the opportunity would have come in vain.
It was necessary, therefore, to Moses that he should find the people of Israel in Egypt enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians. In order that they should be disposed to follow him so as to be delivered out of bondage. It was necessary that Romulus should not remain in Alba, and that he should be abandoned at his birth, in order that he should become King of Rome and founder of the fatherland. It was necessary that Cyrus should find the Persians discontented with the government of the Medes, and the Medes soft and effeminate through their long peace. Theseus could not have shown his ability had he not found the Athenians dispersed. These opportunities, therefore, made those men fortunate, and their high ability enabled them to recognize the opportunity whereby their country was ennobled and made famous."

Fortune has to favor people in order to become successful, but they need the virtue, or more to the point, the virtuosity, to know exactly how to exploit fortune to their advantage. Consider the mythical leader my generation considers to be our modern Moses or Theseus: Barack Hussein Obama. Conventional wisdom would have dictated that he would lose to Hillary Clinton in 2004, and that he was well-disposed to be a Presidential candidate in 2016 or 2012. But President Obama knew that truth of Democratic presidential candidates from time immemorial. Democrats fall in love, not in line, and you have to run when you're still mysterious and don't have a long track record to pin yourself down upon in the liberal imagination, before which your record can be hairsplit into shreds. This is why Hillary Clinton lost twice. Had she run in 2004 when her political career was new and shiny, who knows, she might have won. John Kerry was considered similarly bright and shiny in 2000, the dream candidate everyone longed for against the too worn and well known Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Al Gore was considered such a candidate in 1992, one of a half-dozen who could have beaten the little known Bill Clinton. But President Clinton, like President Obama, knew that familiarity only works to the favor of conservatives. Among the temperamentally progressive, fortune favors the barely known - the exciting newcomer who can conjure the ideas of untried possibilities. Both Clinton and Obama exploited not just political chaos, but the longing for political chaos, to become the closest thing America has to a prince.

"Those who by various ways become princes, like these men, acquire a principality with difficulty, but they keep it with ease. The difficulties they have in acquiring it arise in part from new rules and methods which they are forced to introduce to establish their government and its security. And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take lead in introduction of the new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders under those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe new things until they have long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack, they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered with them."
I saw a Canadian documentary about Machiavelli from the 90's which claimed that the 90's was a particularly Machiavellian era because Bill Clinton was President. The 90's were about as un-Machiavellian as any era can possibly get. The reason to use comparisons from recent history is that it's in everyone's memory. Every era is a Machiavellian era. What changes from era to era is not the rules but the stakes, and compared to Machiavelli's own time and place, the stakes of politics in ours are, even in the era of Trump, relatively low. 

Machiavelli to Save Lives vs. Machiavelli to Take Lives

We'll get to talking about how Machiavelli is used to take people's lives later, but for the moment, let's just talk about how Machiavellian tactics were used to save lives. Particularly, we're going to talk for a moment about the Obama debate and how Machiavelli seemed to see it all coming: the vituperation against it, the halfhearted defenses, the unbelievable miracle it seemed in 2011 that Obamacare passed at all, and all the Machiavellian things Obama and company had to do to pass it at all. 

From the very beginning of the Health Care debate, the process was nearly impossible. Merely to get Universal Health Care on the table, Obama pulled his first Machiavelli card by ditching his Single Payer healthcare promise of the '08 campaign, the process by which health care would be nationalized and paid entirely through taxes. In 2008, Single payer was an absolute impossibility in America and those who believed it could even have been used as a bargaining chip were out of touch with reality. 

Obama came into office with a 60 seat Senate Supermajority. Holding sixty seats of the Senate's hundred is of paramount important, because a three-fifths majority can end any attempt at a filibuster, the process through which any one senator can stymie all government progress. But even with what was technically a supermajority, the Democratic coalition was anything but monolithic. Even if the Democratic party was even more fractious in other eras, Lyndon Johnson's supermajority was 68 senate seats in 1965, Franklin Roosevelt's was 77 senate seats in 1937! Furthermore, in the 2000's, Congressional Republicans were a monolithic coalition as no political party had ever been in the country's history, famously termed by TIME journalist Michael Grunwald 'the party of no'. When it came time for the first Obamacare vote in the House, 39 Democrats voted against it, 1 Republican voted for it. 

And then came the crushing, hugely symbolic death of Ted Kennedy, who made better health care the fight of his career, died without seeing it a reality, and ruined the Democrats' 60-seat supermajority. For the moment, Kennedy's seat was filled by Paul Kirk, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, but Kennedy's death entailed a special election to elect a new senator. 

Then came Obama's next Machiavellian move. On Christmas Eve 2009, the Senate voted on their version of the Obamacare bill, 'The Healthy Future Act', and its author was Max Baucus of Montana - the moderate if not downright conservative Democrat who was the Party's greatest opponent to the bill - calling Obamacare a 'trainwreck' that would be hell for small business owners. Baucus had also taken more than $5 million in campaign contributions from the various health industries. How did Obama get Baucus to author the bill? Because the bill did not even have so much as a public option. It was dirty, underhanded, disgusting way of privatizing universal health care that let insurance companies make even more money off the suffering of the American people, and it might have saved 50 million lives. 

In any event, the ditching of the public option might have been an astonishing stroke of good luck, because just in case there was any chance at all that public option could have been reinstated, Scott Brown, an undistinguished, little-known Republican State Senator, won the special election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachussets against the heavily favored Democrat, Attorney General for the State, Martha Coakley. Had the public option been on the table, the senate might have filibustered the entirety of Obamacare into oblivion. 

It was basically Baucus's money grab of an insurance bill that went to the House, where it passed by seven votes. 34 Democrats voted in the House against bill, not a single Republican voted for it. Just seven votes after a year-and-a-half of painstaking, dirty, compromise. And somehow, the majority of progressives in this country still think Obama sold them out. Machiavelli would have seen that coming too... but this is how Machiavelli sometimes saves lives, and saved lives he most certainly has, many times. Every era, every effective political action, no matter how good or bad, is Machiavellian. 

But yes, some eras are more Machiavellian than others. Few ages, of course, were more Machiavellian than the time and place in which Machiavelli lived. The brutal rules of what creates common good came to him in an age of chaos, betrayal and brutality. Perhaps we'll talk more about that era next week, but in the mean time, let's talk about a more Machiavellian time and place than 2017 America, even 2017 America. That time and place is the Russia of the 1990's with our next duality: 

The Time of Troubles vs. The Great Depression

It's not like America has never known its share of suffering, but when you compare the two countries... you simply can't compare the two countries. There is absolutely no comparison in what Russians have suffered through their history and what Americans have. Russia has always referred to a fearful Time of Troubles in the early 17th century which saw a famine that killed off a third of the population from starvation and cold, and then a war with Poland which killed tens of thousands, including the massacre of thousands in Moscow itself. So imagine how Russians must have felt when many of them began referring to the 1990's as their Second Time of Troubles.

The exaggeration in this term is obvious. This country which lost 27 million people to World War II and something like forty million to Stalin experienced much much worse suffering than in the 1990s. Russia's worries were not akin to the Time of Troubles or even to World War II and the Great Terror. But small sufferings feel far more acute than life-threatening ones, because when you're not worried for your survival, all that remains is the palpable sense of humiliation for having lost so many people and decades to Communism, only for their losses to be worth nothing. Russia was experiencing its own form of post-traumatic stress. 

Nevertheless, post-traumatic stress is not the trauma itself, and the trauma just ahead of them was bad enough. When we speak of small sufferings, we're still speaking only in relative terms. Because while this was not a second Time of Troubles in which Russia lost a third it's population, it was nevertheless worse than The Great Depression was in America on its worst day. Losing the Cold War was already humiliating, but to then switch from a centrally planned economy to a market economy with no smooth transition for a soft landing - that was perhaps the greatest failure of Bill Clinton's thoroughly flawed Presidency. In three years time, the Rubble ruble 144 roubles against the dollar, to well over 5,000 roubles against the dollar. As far as we know, half of Russia's transactions existed on the Black Market. Wealth, already concentrated by the Communist Party and their secret police, became still more concentrated in the Russian elite than it had been since the era of the Czars. Party members who controlled various industries became the outright owners as they were the only people who knew how to run the industries. KGB agents became mafiosi and contract killers to eliminate competition. The old Russian joke goes that capitalism is when a man exploits a man, communism is the other way around. 1990's Russia reversed that joke... The stage was entirely set for a Machiavellian who could ride the chaos of these political fractals into some kind of order. 

Machiavelli writes:

There could never arise, in time of war, any unexpected circumstances he could not deal with. 
But to exercise the intellect the Prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have born themselves in war, to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former,...
There was not a single KGB agent who was not educated thoroughly in the history of warfare. Putin may not be the political virtuoso he seems to be in 2018 - he certainly didn't look that way before 2016, but he was thoroughly educated in military history in a manner few recent American leaders were (well read as Obama was, I can't imagine Thucydides or Herodotus were high on his priority list - on the other hand, I'm quite sure Eisenhower, Nixon, and Truman read nearly every page of both), so Putin operated at a considerable advantage over American leaders simply by knowing what's worked in history and what hasn't. 

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