Thursday, November 3, 2022

Review: Machiavelli and the Orders of Violence by Yves Winter

One should reproach a man who is violent in order to ruin things, not one who is so in order to set them aright.
Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy

I, and I think this is common to most of us in the West, feel a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the concept of violence. “Violence is bad! I won’t condone it!” I feel I need to yell in my own defense, when spotted reading this book. “Instead, we must fix the unequal socioeconomic conditions of our society by…..” And here, I falter.

While elite actors can frequently mobilize significant forces to pursue their objectives, popular actors must rely on numbers and on tactics that specifically target elite properties: their privileges, wealth, reputation, and social standing.

How do you target the privileges, wealth, reputation and social standing of the elite? It’s either shame or violence, isn’t it?

Machiavelli’s writings on violence are portrayed, in Winter’s reading, as a necessary antidote to liberal perspectives on violence. Necessary, because the threat of violence is one of the few tools popular (plebeian, proletariat) forces have at their disposal to achieve their objectives against the elite. In the liberal world, violence has been depoliticized primarily through four methods:

  1. Marginalization: Violence is either a fundamentally human weakness, a remnant of our bestial, pre-civilization roots; or, an inhuman or pathological urge. In either case, violence is not a political tool because it is not something wielded by thoughtful, strategic, justified humans.
  2. Technicization: a favorite of the political realists, violence is a mechanical tool, that can be precisely dialed in impact and scope to achieve the desired ends, so obviously necessary for enforcement of law that it is trivial to discuss in its particulars. As it is obviously required, fully controllable and transparently applied, it is not a political tool.
  3. Moralization: Violence is evil — but when is it justified? Philosophers invent a slew of thought experiments for when it is morally justified. Because in these hypotheticals, violence is abstracted away from the power structures and historical context in which violence is actually deployed, this violence is no longer a political tool. (Often accompanied with portrayals of violence as an apolitical acid that eats away at the foundations of functioning political systems).
  4. Ontologization: Violence is transcendental, mystical. According to Derrida, even naming something can be violence. Violence can be anything, which makes it not a political tool.

Winter’s Machiavelli instead views violence as a political tool, and as inherent to a social structure with class inequality (the populi and the grandi):

Those serious, though natural enmities, which occur between the popular classes and the nobility, arising from the desire of the latter to command, and the disinclination of the former to obey, are the [origin of] all the other evils which disturb republics (Machiavelli, 1532)

Unlike in Weber’s construction of violence, in which violence is a coercive force between an object/subject pair, Machiavelli views violence as tryadic: object, subject, and audience. From this key insight emerges most of the rest; how violence is perceived becomes the key question (violence as cruelty, violence as spectacle, violence as catharsis, violence as justified).

Machiavelli considers there to be four political emotions: hate, love, hope, fear. Hope is relegated to foreign policy and conquest, for reasons that Winter didn’t really make clear to me. The relationship between hate and fear, and the way violence mediates this switch was of particular interest to Machiavelli, because it is crucial to strategy both for Princes and for the masses.

Politically, the power of fear lies in its capacity to isolate individuals. We hate collectively but we fear individually. (...) Unlike fear, which tends to individualize, hatred produces the possibility of unifying a multitude. (..) From the point of view of the prince, this yields the problem of how to deploy violence without generating hatred. (...) From the point of view of the rebellion, it yields the opposite problem: how to nurture collective hatred and avoid fear, especially in the face of repression.

This switch between hate and fear poses one limit on violence. The other limit is long-term stability and succession. For this, laws are necessary. Political systems are continuous – even in times of turmoil – and the violence of founding a state sets the stage for the laws that develop over time.

I learned far more about civil unrest in Florence in the late 14th and early 15th century than I thought I would. It was a fascinating time, with the beginnings of a proletariat class, and Marx’ and Engel’s axiom, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, was brought to the foreground of Winter’s presentation of Machiavelli’s analysis of the times. 

Applying Machiavelli’s perspectives on violence beyond the 15th century is left as an exercise for the reader.

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