Friday, January 12, 2018

It's Not Even Past 5.2 - Machiavelli - Rewritten

So for the moment, we're going to adopt an every week format which I'm going to pretentiously call 'dualities' to frame the discussion we're going to have. 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 thoughts. Perhaps these thoughts are no better than the thoughts before, perhaps they inadverently create their own dualities, or perhaps these dualities lead us right back to where we were before. But for the moment, they seem like they might be able to frame our discussion differently. 

So here are the dualities for this week:

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace
Mercenary Army vs. Mercenary Citizens
Heroism vs. Nurturance
The Promotion of Virtue by Vice
The Brothers Pertinax and Bernie

So we begin with this duality, whose title, I think, comes from Gore Vidal, but what he terms with disdain I espouse reluctantly with a vague kind of approval:

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace

Machiavelli has the answer to why our lucky streak may not continue as well:
A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank. And, on the contrary, it is seen that when princes have thought more of ease of arms than they have lost their states. And the first cause of your losing it is to neglect this art; and what enables you to acquire the state is to be master of the art... For among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised...
You hear this hawkishness and you can't help hearing the neoconservative echoes of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle (remember them?). Hearing what sounds so much like the mantra of a perpetual war machine should make you recoil in horror. But here's a fact that might surprise you: neoconservatives hate Machiavelli. Leo Strauss, in some ways, the original neoconservative intellectual, wrote a whole book - Thoughts on Machiavelli - arguing that virtually everything Machiavelli said was a discourse on why morality itself is a terrible thing. To neoconservatives, with their dreams of using military force to end evil forever, Machiavelli is one of their great enemies - a proto-Foucault who claims that all which matters is power, not morality. But at the same time, neoconservatives clearly owe so much to Machiavelli that it almost seems like Machiavelli is an Oedipal father figure they have to overthrow. Machiavelli merely claims that mastery of the art of war is what's necessary to preserve peace; but neoconservatives take that doctrine to the nth degree and allege that the implementation of war is how we eventually implement peace. The most extreme neoconservatives would probably allege that the more total the war, the more total the peace that follows. And yet, as Iraq has shown far better even than Vietnam did, that utopian delusion that we can create a liberal peace from war is as fundamental a misunderstanding of the aims of war as can exist. Precise war in which the targets are destroyed in the most strategic manner can create peace, but as Iraq showed, perpetual war can only create hatred. Here's Machiavelli again in the Discourses, and  he seems to be writing to us from a crystal ball about Iraq:
a people, who being accustomed to living under governments of others, not knowing to reason either on public defense or offense, not knowing the Princes or being known by them, return readily under a yoke, which often times is more heavy than that which a short time before had been taken from their necks: and they find themselves in this difficulty, even though the people is not wholly corrupt; for a people where corruption has not entirely taken over, cannot but live at all free even for a very brief time, as will be discussed below: and therefore our discussions concern those people where corruption has not expanded greatly, and where there is more of the good than of the bad [spoiled]. To the above should be added another difficulty, which is that the state which becomes free makes enemy partisans, and not friendly partisans. All those men become its enemy partisans who avail themselves of the tyrannical state, feeding on the riches of the Prince, [and] who when they are deprived of the faculty of thus availing themselves, cannot live content, and some are forced to attempt to reestablish the tyrancy so as to recover their authority.

So in addition to post-2003 Iraq, consider Russia in the 1990's as we did last week. Everything we learned in Iraq we should have already learned from our experience overseeing the transition to capitalism in Russia, only the transition in Russia was far, far more calamitous to the world than Iraq's ever could be. Which brings us to our next duality:

Mercenary Army vs. Mercenary Citizens

Listen to this passage: 
And it has always been the opinion and judgement of wise men that nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength. And one's own forces are those which are composed either of subjects, citizens, or dependents; all others are mercenaries or auxiliaries...
Here in America, we have easily the world's largest army, 1.34 million active duty soldiers, and there hasn't been such a thing as conscription here for forty-five years. It's all volunteers, living a lifestyle of high discipline whose every ritual teaches them to love the for which they stand. 

So what happens if our army thinks the rest of us don't love our country as much as they do? What happens if our army thinks we aim to change what the country stands for? What happens if they feel the rest of us don't appreciate the sacrifices they make for us? 

The United States Military has increasingly become a family business. 80% of the US Military now has other members of the family serving in the military and half the military is stationed in just five states: California, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas. Afghanistan is now by far the longest war in American history. Most Americans have forgotten about it and about the people who are still making sacrifices for it, most American liberals have long since thought the war should have been over, most American progressives and socialists think that we're simply in a perpetual war to feed the military industrial complex. 

On the one hand, we have people like Trump's chief of staff, General John Kelly, saying that America doesn't understand the sacrifices its soldiers make. On the one hand, General Kelly said this as a grieving father who'd just lost his son in combat, but it was the armed forces themselves who decided that this was to their benefit. 

Dan Carlin, to whom this podcast owes just about everything, alleges that this is because the powers that be have de facto banned us from seeing these sacrifices on Television as Americans saw day after day during the Vietnam War; because if you see the sacrifices, you no longer want to make them. But that does not change the fact that ever more and more, the military cannot wipe its nose without it being documented in a free press. Every military death, both on our side and theirs, can be documented by journalists today. The problem today is that there is so much fake journalism to go along with the real thing that the atrocities of war can both be exaggerated by may and dismissed by others. 

We in America have succeeded in promoting our way of life so well that we've fallen victim to its problems. Our press is so free that it there's no accountability for when it's fake. And when you have 3000 outlets to help you decide what you believe rather than 3, you will believe the outlets that tell you the alternative facts that fit with the theories you already held. Therefore, the more one side of the argument refuses to see that America is not blameless in its conflicts, the more the other side will insist on shouting the war crimes we're to blame for from the rooftops. Pretty soon, every moral grey area becomes black and white - nearly half the country believes America does not commit atrocities, and nearly half the country believes we commit only atrocities. And this doesn't just go for news, this goes for history as well. So for many millions, the military sacrifice will become something to venerate beyond any other kind of sacrifice, for other many millions, military sacrifice seems only like what the American military inflicts on others. 

If this what our country is now, then we no longer have an army fighting to protect its country. Rather, we have almost the same army of professional soldiers who existed in Machiavelli's Italy, the difference is that from the soldiers' point of view, we are the mercenaries. Who can quite blame them? A government that can't pay its debts gets involved in wars it can't end. After the nation building it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, the average American soldier knows more about building infrastructure than the average construction worker, and more about how to maintain rule of law than the average policeman. And given how clearly war has clearly shifted to the internet, the average soldier might in twenty years know more about computer coding than the average programmer. 

Machiavelli would ask us what army of hired soldiers would fight with real passion for a monarch or a noble when they can always switch loyalties to a higher bidder or a ruler whom they think will potentially be better. But what happens when the military thinks it can switch loyalties from its ruler or its republic to itself? It's happened in so many other countries already. How many people still think America is the exception?  

So with all that in mind, listen to this passage and try to reinterpret it with modern ears:

They are ready enough to be your soldiers while you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off and run from the foe: which I should have little trouble to prove, for the ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting her hopes for many years among mercenaries, and although they formerly appeared valiant amongst themselves, yet when foreigners came they showed what they were. Thus it was that Charles, King of France, was allowed to seize Italy with chalk in hand, and he who told us that the cause of it told the truth, but they were not the sins he imagined, but those which I have related. And as they were the sins of princes, it is the princes who have also suffered the penalty. 
I wish to demonstrate further the infelicity of these arms. The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; If they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by opposing you who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions, but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way. 
If the last thirty-five years are any indication, corporate profit margins can get still higher and higher while creating less and less product. Industries can decline while captains of industry can get ever richer. So when we talk about the military-industrial complex, a complex that has always been true for just about every powerful country in the history of the world, we're only seen the tip of how powerful it can grow. Think of modern states like Pakistan and Egypt, where the military is the only competently run part of the country. Every industry, every civil institution, every government apparatus, eventually declines into dysfunction. Only the military, from generation to generation, has the discipline to provide public services from generation to generation. All they demand in return is absolute power over rule of law and the treasury.... 

Can this happen in America? Of course it can. Will it? Well, it's just one of a couple hundred different disasters that can befall this extremely decadent country of ours at any moment, and yet, we've avoided nearly all of them so far, so why should we think that streak won't continue? And that brings us to our next duality:

Heroism vs. Nurturance

So listen then to this passage:
...there is nothing proportionate between the armed and the unarmed; and it is not reasonable that he who is armed should yield obedience to he who is unarmed, or that the unarmed man should be secure among servants. Because, there being in the one disdain and the other suspicion, it is not possible for them to work well together. 
So let's not even think of the army for a moment. Just think of the Red America vs. Blue America. One is armed to the teeth. Not just professional soldiers - though it's worth noting that of the 10% of the country that is veterans, 2 in every 3 generally vote Republican. But this Red America also includes the vast majority of the possessors of the 300 or so million privately held firearms in this country (at least the firearms that are registered), and not to mention the most reliable bloc of Red America within Blue America - the police, who have readier access to firearms than anyone in America, and more legal means at their disposal to use them by far than even soldiers on active duty. 

This ultimately means two things.

1. There is a fundamental difference in ethos between the two sides of American, indeed, Northwestern, life, one of which believes in arming itself and the quality which always accompanies those who crave conflict, heroic self-reliance, the urge to prove oneself against obstacles, which means that if there are no obstacles in their way, they have an unconscious urge to create obstacles for themselves to overcome. For example, making enemies of people whose natural inclination would be to support and welcome them, to an extent which their communities never have.

Against them there are those who don't arm ourselves precisely because we crave a peaceful life, free of conflict. We don't want to be heroic, we want to support each other, we want to rely on each other, we want a community. And therefore, those who do not want to be part of our community of support are viewed with just as much disdain and suspicion (Machiavelli doesn't specify which side is which) as the others do. 

And therefore,

2. There will inevitably conflict between these two sides, and inevitably, the better armed side will win almost instantaneously. It is up to those of us on the more nurturant, liberal, side of the debate, the Barack Obamas, the Hillary Clintons, to be the conciliatory voice of reason. What the Bernie Sanderses and Elizabeth Warrens of America fail to understand is that our side does not have anything like the armaments to provoke the other side. If we can cool down the temperature of the debate, we can win, if the temperature goes up, we lose instantly, just as happened in 2016.

So let's just say for a moment that the impossible happened and Bernie Sanders became President as so many socialists alleged would have happened had he been nominated rather than Hillary and faced Trump. In the episode about The Godfather, we talked two weeks ago about the coup in Chile against Salvador Allende. I have no idea what sort of president Bernie Sanders would have been - the actual policies he presented were barely more progressive than Franklin Roosevelt, it was merely the temperament with which he advocated that made him so revolutionary - in some ways Sanders brought the worst of both sides to bare. Had he proposed more radical proposals more subtly, he might have effected the change he wanted to see. But had he had done even a small fraction of what Allende did, if he implemented any kind of fundamental policy change as our President, any at all, and advocated for it with the kind of scorched earth brimstone he spoke with on the campaign trail, he very well may have provoked a coup d'etat. The only way to have prevented it is if socialists and progressives armed themselves to the teeth in the manner conservatives do, but if they armed themselves the way conservatives do, they would cease to represent the supportive, nurturant view of the world they espouse. They would be militants like Che Guevara and Maximillian Robespierre, and become the violence they claim to detest. So let's just say that an American Che came into conflict with an American Pinochet; economically, financially, militarily, we are a much more developed nation than Chile or Cuba, so the death toll would be much more catastrophic. 

The nature of the world is conflict. If you seek conflict out, you will find it. If you deliberately avoid conflict, conflict will find you. The only way to avoid conflict is not to make peace, but to make peace with conflict - accept its inevitability, accept that you will never live in a world where conflict can come even close to banishment, but only minimized like a terrorist whose ransom has to be paid. The ransom, in this case, is vigilance. It is the acceptance that the world, to stay peaceful, must always be ready for war; reluctant and ever aware of its horrors, but realizing that the notion war that the world would ever exist without it is dangerously false. 

The military industrial complex is what has provided rule of law from the beginning of time. The proper question is not how we can dismantle it, because if we don't control the world militarily, China or Russia will certainly step into the vacuum we created, and it's naive to think they will be anything in their treatment of smaller countries but much worse than us. So the proper question is not how America's military industrial complex can be dismantled, but how it can be maintained in the most peaceful, unobtrusive, liberal manner that's of benefit to society than to its detriment. Which brings us to our next duality:

The Promotion of Virtue by Vice

Many Bernie Sanders supporters point to Northern Europe as the ultimate place which shows that a peaceful social democracy living in harmony with its neighbors is absolutely possible. They don't really think to look at how Northern Europe has done so with a ruthless immigration policy, and how ruthlessly it treats the immigrants who arrive, even by American standards. 

But here's the truth: Machiavelli might have been taken in by Northern European prosperity too! Don't assume that Machiavelli was a complete realist. Even Machiavelli had his moments when he was taken in at times by the same naiveté as the rest of us. Consider his admiration for the Germany of his time. Here's what Machiavelli has to say of the German-speaking lands of 1500, and while you're listening, think of the Northern European lands of a half-milenium later:

"The Cities of Germany are absolutely free, they own but little country around them, and they yield obedience to the Emperor when it suits them, nor do they fear this or any other power they have near them, because they are fortified in such a way that everyone thinks the taking of them by assault would be tedious and difficult, seeing they have proper ditches and walls, they have sufficient artillery, and they always keep in public depots enough for one year's eating, drinking, and firing. And beyond this, to keep people quiet and without loss to the state, they always have the means of giving work to the community in those labors that are the life and strength of the city, and on the pursuit of which the people are supported;...

It's hard to not hear Machiavelli describe the Germany of this time without thinking that he's describing European social democracy circa 1500. But the German-speaking lands were literally on the precipice of 150 years of theological bloodshed, culminating in the Thirty Years War, whose casualties to Northern Europe were proportionally worse than even World War II or the Black Death. 

History never stops, and just when you think you've solved history's problems, a new one is created. The only option left to us is to use the vices of individuals as the means to check one another. Machiavelli knew this just as well, so consider what he says in his other book which is still read today - the Discourses on Livy in a passage which seems much more like a response to Plato's Republic. 

"Desiring, therefore, to discuss the nature of the government of Rome, and to ascertain the accidental circumstances which brought it to its perfection, I say, as has been said before by many who have written of Governments, that of these there are three forms, known by the names Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, and that those who give its institutions to a State have recourse to one or other of these three, according as it suits their purpose. Other, and, as many have thought, wiser teachers, will have it, that there are altogether six forms of government, three of them utterly bad, the other three good in themselves, but so readily corrupted that they too are apt to become hurtful. The good are the three above named; the bad, three others dependent upon these, and each so like that to whch it is related, that it is easy to pass imperceptibly from the one to the other. For a Monarchy readily becomes a Tyranny, an Aristocracy an Oligarchy, while a Democracy tends to degenerate into Anarchy. So that if the founder of a State should establish any one of these three forms of government, he establishes it for a short time only, since no precaution he may take can prevent it from sliding into its contrary, by reason of the close resemblance which, in this case, the virtue bears to the vice.
I say, then, that all these six forms of government are pernicious--the three good kinds, from their brief duration the three bad, from their inherent badness. Wise legislators therefore, knowing these defects, and avoiding each of these forms in its simplicity, have made choice of a form which shares in the qualities of all the first three, and which they judge to be more stable and lasting than any of these separately. For where we have a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy existing together in the same city, each of the three serves as a check upon the other."
So who that has even a passing knowledge of the Federalist Papers can hear this passage and not think of James Madison? Surely the idea for three branches of government to check and balance each other had to be derived in part from this. In the American system, in any democratic system, human vice, human sin, is the engine that people use so that worse vices and sins are never perpetrated. In the 20th century, we had a great experiment to base a system of government on human virtues, and the experiment covered half the world - the death toll was well over 200 million. It would seem that history shows, over and over, that if there is no political check on the most altruistic human urge; the urge to share with and give to and save others, this will to kindness will either be exploited, or turned into the urge to hurt those who don't have the exact same altruistic urge that you do. 

But let's talk for a moment about the opposite. What about those people who have not the same urge to help that you do, but who rather have an urge to hurt which you do not share? This may come as a shock to people who haven't read Machiavelli, but Machiavelli viewed the republic as the best form of government, and his reason was typically hard-headed. He believed that only in a republic would there be a proper citizen army that truly fights to defend itself. Here's Machiavelli:
Experience has shown princes and republics, single-handed, making the greatest progress, and mercenaries doing nothing except damage; and it is more difficult to bring a republic, armed with its own arms, under the sway of one of its own citizens than it is to bring one armed with foreign arms. Rome and Sparta stood for many ages armed and free. The Switzers are completely armed and quite free. 
And the 'Switzers' are still quite free with their mandatory conscripted army. We do not have a conscripted army, neither do most first-world countries. But, let's be honest, it's been five-hundred years since Machiavelli, and what if, in such time, we've evolved into precisely the opposite problem - that our army is so citizen based that we've created a professional class of armed forces within our citizens which feels no loyalty to their other citizens. Which brings us to our next duality:

The Brothers Pertinax and Bernie

What does it mean, ultimately, to earn the enmity of people who can easily thwart your desires in the name of virtue? Everyone who wanted to nail Hillary to the cross for speaking at Goldman Sachs or the Clinton Foundation's cozying up to Saudi Arabia, really ought to consider this passage from Machiavelli about the Roman Emperor Pertinax.

"But Pertinax was created emperor against the wishes of the soldiers, who, being accustomed to living licentiously under Commodus, could not endure the honest life to which Pertinax wished to reduce them; thus, having given cause for hatred, to which hatred there was added contempt for his old age, he was overthrown at the very beginning of his administration. And here it should be noted that hatred is acquired as much by good works as by bad ones, therefore, as I said before, a prince wishing to keep his state is often forced to do evil; for when that body is corrupt whom you think you have need of to maintain yourself-- it may be either the people or the soldiers or the nobles-- you have to submit to its humors and gratify them, and then good works will do you harm."

The ascension and murder of Pertinax is one of the first great sections of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, though I say 'one of the first great sections' on faith, because I've only gotten about about twelve chapters into that huge opus which I'm sure is worth a time investiture I've not yet put into it, but I'm not a real intellectual, I just play one on the internet. One day, if we keep going with this podcast, I have a bad feeling it would be all too rewarding to occupy ourselves with it for a good month or two.

The reason to mention the story of Pertinax is to ask ourselves, who are the equivalents in our day to the Praetorian Guard who killed so potentially noble an Emperor. Obviously, being a soldier in today's world, or even a member of the secret service, is not nearly as lucrative an occupation as it was to be a member of the Roman Emperor's Praetorian Guard. The licentious living does not exist among the American military, it exists in corporate America, and there is nothing corporate America will not do to make sure that they stay prosperous - it's a simple fact of worldwide life, perhaps some of you listeners are willing to undergo a second French Revolution to behead our corporate aristocrats that can start off half-a-dozen wars, but I'm not. 

Like the Praetorian Guard, Corporate America is not inherently evil, the system has simply allowed them to grow too powerful. I'm certainly willing to believe that the disproportionate power of both drew a higher-than-average percentage of psychopaths and narcissists to both, but the reason they act so narcissistically is not because of the inherent character flaws of their members, but because they know that the best guarantee of advancement is through making more money. And therefore every individual within the company knows that if they try to scale back the operations over ethical considerations, someone else, more ambitious and more ruthless, will take their place. 

Left-wing radicals point this out every day, and they see it as the ultimate indictment of capitalism - the fact that the capitalist system itself has more agency than any individual - whom when he shows any ethical sense to be generous to the workers under him can be replaced by a more cutthroat colleague. Who knows? Maybe they're right that capitalism is inherently evil. Many of these radicals even call this system 'Late Capitalism' and take it as an inevitability that this system is decadent and will be overthrown. I certainly don't think they're right about that, because even if a lot of listeners may acknowledge the enormity of what this behemoth controls, they don't acknowledge the enormity of the cost to try a different system.

Look at Russia in the 1990s, think of the price they paid for a revolutionary transition from communism to capitalism, a price they're still paying and whose price they're now visiting on us through Trump and fake news and probably a hundred other ways we don't know about. To inflict, because that's the only word for the change which many suggest, a revolution on America, whether socialist or capitalist, would, as happened in Russia, create an economic superdepression that might even dwarf the Great Depression. On the other hand, the hypercapitalist system we seem now to be implementing with the Trump tax cuts and the entitlement slashing may cause a superdepression anyway. But whether or not this superdepression ever occurs, there is no guarantee we come out the other side of it with a social democracy or a series of anarchist collectives. I'd place the odds that we won't at well over 99%.

The interests of corporate America are so vested, and the means at their disposal are so vast - not just in their private means, of which they have trillions, but in their control over public funding through lobbies - that they can find an infinite number of ways to bribe the armed forces, not just the traditional armed forces but the police and citizen militias too, to guarantee the safety of their persons and their wealth, and then to increase it more than ever. And when that happens, we will truly be not a Social Democracy but truly the Roman Empire reincarnated.

This was the part when I wanted to read to you Gibbon's whole description of Pertinax's ascension and assassination so you could draw parallels with what might have been possible had Bernie Sanders become President, or if a Bernie-like figure becomes President in the next fifteen years, but we don't have time for that. What we have time for is to say that if this podcast is to be something worth doing, it's worth keeping going even through the dull bits, and we're still only two-thirds of our way through what there is to say about Machiavelli. Who knew that classic books contained so much that's still relevant?

No comments:

Post a Comment