2022 Philippine Elections

[OPINION] Machiavelli’s cameo in Philippine politics

Andrea Bardin
[OPINION] Machiavelli’s cameo in Philippine politics
'What really is Machiavelli’s political philosophy? What lessons can and should politicians learn from him? What relevance might it have for Philippine politics?'
in a conversation withRoderick Galam

The Florentine-Italian political philosopher and writer Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) suddenly burst onto the stage of the presidential campaign. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. proudly described himself as Machiavellian. The adjective now floods social media. 

With members of the public quick to point out that “Machiavellian” meant “cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics,” Clarita Carlos, the UP political science professor whose question prompted Marcos Jr.’s answer, has clarified what she meant by Machiavellian: 

“To me, being Machiavellian is characterized by astuteness, strategic thinking, the use of power judiciously, and undertaking any and all means to achieve an end.” 

“To be Machiavellian is not to be weak, submissive, incompetent, and intellectually vacuous.”

“Success to a Machiavellian is doing what is necessary when it is necessary.”

In typical Pinoy humor, many have mocked the misunderstanding, if not ignorance, displayed in the current fascination for Machiavelli. A few pieces, such as Manolo Quezon’s, have provided thoughtful discussion of this turn to the Renaissance thinker. Carlos herself has not provided a discussion that demonstrates her grasp of the substance of Machiavelli’s thinking. Her statements quoted earlier are generic. 

What really is Machiavelli’s political philosophy? What lessons can and should politicians learn from him? What relevance might it have for Philippine politics?

Andrea Bardin, an Italian political theorist and philosopher, provides answers to these questions and more in a conversation with Roderick Galam.

Why is Machiavelli so important as a political philosopher?

He is the one who really started treating politics as a science, against all past idealistic and utopian attempts to identify politics with morality by Classical and Christian philosophers, who traditionally thought it to be an activity for wise and virtuous men.

Machiavelli was certainly not the first to say, What are you talking about, that is not how things really happen! Politicians are not at all “virtuous,” “wise,” or “just.” They are not the best human beings – they follow their passions more than reason, they are impulsive and often confused, they usually have no idea of what they are doing. In short, they are just ordinary humans, enslaved to their changing “humors” (this was a medical term at the time: the interplay of body fluids – “humors” – was believed to be what mainly determines human health and illness).

He was not the first one to notice the fact that politicians are just common human beings, of course, but he really was the first one to fully endorse this – Wait a minute, he said, are you sure we need politicians to be “virtuous?” Perhaps what we need is just people who are good at their job, who are aware of the political effects of their actions and of their words. This is why he really is the first modern political thinker: the science of politics needs to study human beings as they are, and not as they ought to be – and we must accept that politicians are only human, too.

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So what does it mean to be Machiavellian? What is the job of politics about? 

Well…this is a bit controversial. If you read The Prince, it seems that Machiavelli is just telling political leaders, Your job is to be ruthless, destroy your enemies, prize your friends, be a fox and a lion, use deception and force to control the people. Govern, whatever it takes!

But if you are a serious scholar, you will soon realize that this is not the whole story. You know that Machiavelli also wrote a comedy, La Mandragola, and he liked to make fun of his readers. Actually, he is the guy who loved to drink and play cards until late night in a tavern, and then go home and write his masterpieces. Now, as any good scholar should know, Machiavelli wrote two masterpieces: The Prince and The Discourses on Livy. The second is a bit more boring, and so people often skip it and prefer to stick to The Prince. But reading The Discourses shows something more on the art of government than does The Prince.

In a sense Machiavelli is telling us that governing is not only about holding power, because your power depends on how you manage to transform yourself depending on the “humors” of the people rather than to control them for political gain. 

What would being Machiavellian be like in practice today? How would Machiavellian politicians think and what strategies would they use to win or hold on to power? Who among contemporary leaders would you characterize as Machiavellian?

Unfortunately, there are plenty of Machiavellians in the first sense, in the sense of those who have not done their homework, as it were. They take The Prince as their model, and they use it as a mirror for their vanity – Oh I am such a good leader, so strategic in my choices, I really deserve the power I have! These are the would-be Machiavellians, whose ignorance is also their force in the short term. They enchant the people and get votes, but they are completely unaware that their power depends on the “humors” of the people, and they soon start guiding them as a flock. This may last for long; people like to play the flock for a while, but then they switch to a more aggressive animal…and the leader is over. Usually quite badly. In Italy, Mussolini lasted around 20 years, and Berlusconi, too. Putin has lasted for longer, Trump much less so far, but this is not over. And there are others of course, just have a look around…

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Then there are the properly Machiavellian leaders, those who listen to the Discourses’ hidden message, and therefore listen to the people. These are the ones who do not enter politics with an idea of manipulating undifferentiated matter for their goals. They study the people, and what they want is not just their approval. They want the people to teach them how to do what they have in mind, but also how to change their mind. They want to learn, respecting the peoples’ fluctuant mood, what is “good” and what is “just” for that people and for themselves, at that precise point. And, ultimately, they accept the risk that this may all go wrong, because politics is precisely this kind of bet. “Fortuna” (fortune) always matters. Politics is a bet on what we can decide can be “our” good, our “justice.” There is no such a thing as “justice” in general for a good Machiavellian; there is a collective construction of justice which is never ending and never over. This is what a “good” government is from his perspective.

You would expect me to name someone at this point, but I prefer not to. I believe that for Machiavelli, politics is, after all, and despite all the conservative readings of The Prince, a collective enterprise. The Discourses are, after all, a defense of the Republic, and the charismatic leader is more a problem than a solution there.

What is something that a Machiavellian would not do? Why?

They would not pretend they are going to save the nation or the world. I mean they would not pretend with themselves, for sure. But I think they would also avoid using this rhetoric as a deception, because – yes, it may lead to mass mobilization, but it also destroys political culture in the long term. Treating people like idiots will eventually transform many of them into idiots. And this is certainly the end of politics as a collective enterprise. Treating them as someone capable of changing for the better, and deciding together what this “better” can become in the long term: this is the Machiavellian art (and the risk) of politics.

Do you consider the following statements as necessarily Machiavellian? It seems to me that these are things that any leader, regardless of their political philosophies, would need to demonstrate or possess:

“To me, being Machiavellian is characterized by astuteness, strategic thinking, the use of power judiciously, and undertaking any and all means to achieve an end.” 

“To be Machiavellian is not to be weak, submissive, incompetent, and intellectually vacuous.”

“Success to a Machiavellian is doing what is necessary when it is necessary.”

It is hard to say whether these statements are Machiavellian. It depends on the kind of Machiavellianism we are talking about. Almost anything can be ascribed to a political thinker if we pick up random quotes from their writings. As I said, the core of Machiavelli’s teaching is that politics is not a matter of virtue as commonly intended. Nor is it the mere display of power by an allegedly strong man. It is a matter of understanding the people and building with them the body politic. A political leader should be aware that words as much as action have effects, and this is what good politics looks like from a Machiavellian perspective: something that will be judged on the basis of its long-term effects. – Rappler.com

Andrea Bardin is senior lecturer in politics at Oxford Brookes University.

Roderick Galam is senior lecturer in sociology at Oxford Brookes University.