Let me tell you a story.
A while back a change of attitude ran through the nations of Europe, before jumping the Atlantic and making its way into the colonies. It was a rootless movement, starting in many different places. It took into account changes in religion, industry, society and philosophy. It forged the path for a new world by promulgating new ideas and ways of doing things. It changed the world.
It was called the Enlightenment.
From 1650 to 1800, the Western world changed in ways that nobody had thought possible. Entire populations changed and evolved, societies questioning their most basic foundations. Advances in science had prompted an adaptation of the classic method of inquiry that became known as the Scientific Method and, seizing on this, thinkers applied those methods to all the questions of society. Men like Adam Smith applied science to the ability to make money and invented Economics. Men like David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Rousseau applied it to Philosophy and developed Empiricism, Logical Positivism and Utilitarianism. Elsewhere, every aspect of life was somehow improved and advanced, from Astronomy to Zymurgy (which became beer-brewing, in case you were wondering). Everything changed in this period, and it’s often thought that the Enlightenment was a spontaneous process that merely suited a period during which men of letters had the opportunity to think freely.
In fact, the Enlightenment merely built on what had existed before, and can be traced back to a specific individual: Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli, an Italian historian and philosopher, predates the Enlightenment by more than a hundred years. Nowadays, Machiavelli’s name, like de Sade, is unjustly associated with evil. When we talk about a criminal mastermind, a back-room plot or a scheme of some sort, we call it Machiavellian. This refers to his masterpiece, il Prinzip, a work that has been interpreted and misinterpreted for the best part of half a millennium.
In il Prinzip, a part-social document, part-parody, Machiavelli outlined, using rational principles, how any man might seize power. In careful steps he illustrated the methods by which his contemporaries, including the Medicis and the Borgias, had insinuated themselves into positions of power and affluence, and provided a casework of how to do the same. Machiavelli is forever associated with this, his best-known work, because it was from the start groundbreaking and contentious. Until this point, positions of power had been seen as providential, and provided by a higher source. Machiavelli revealed that those in power had got there by hoodwinking the people, killing their enemies, bullying, bribing and cajoling, and cementing their power by expunging their crimes from history. By careful analysis, he showed how men of power got to their current positions, simultaneously creating political realism and providing a handbook on how to be like them. For his insight, tact and intelligence, Machiavelli was a key element in the developing Enlightenment. Having revealed how kings and emperors evolved, he, and his inheritors like Rousseau, Kant, Hutcheson, Hobbes and Locke, showed the people that they were not the inviolate sun-people appointed by god. Unjust kings could and should be toppled and replaced by the will of the people.
Almost at once there was a call to arms. During the span of the Enlightenment, kings were executed, notably Charles I and Louis XVI, colonies became nations, most notably America, and the way that people were ruled changed dramatically. The common cry was for government by the people, for the people. There were false starts, here and there: England succumbed to a dictatorship almost immediately, and France’s king was replaced by an emperor, but over time democracy, the government of those who vote, became more or less the norm. The greatest change of the Enlightenment was to foster a new kind of body politic, one in which anyone can become ruler, and this change in thinking can be traced in a straight line all the way to Niccolo Machiavelli and political realism.
But then something interesting happened. Because a forum that included anyone and everyone was an impractical system, it was customary for groups of people to elect representatives that did the work for them. On the whole, this was a sound idea: unlike, say, a town hall, which could give voice to everyone, a parliament or congress was too small to accommodate a nation, and it made sense for representatives of the people to take their place. These men and, eventually, women, were tasked with two duties: to represent those who voted for them, and to safeguard the nation. They were to act, in the truest sense, in the interest of the nation, and to do so unceasingly.
It was a wonderful, practical idea. And it failed utterly.
For while the modern parliamentary democracy, and its genesis, can be traced back to Niccolo Machiavelli’s political realism, its creators failed to forsee that Machiavelli was a prophet as well as a thinker. They reasoned that, in a society in which a man and his vote were equal, dangerous elements would hold each other in check while the reasonable majority held sway and representatives would be chosen from a list of those most suitable for the job. In these assumptions they were wrong. Even a cursory reading of il Prinzip shows clearly that liars, bullies and double-dealers would naturally seek power, and in this they would be aided by the majority.
That is not to say that the majority is stupid. It’s long been known that while the man and woman on the street is a reasonable, intelligent sort, if you collect enough of them together they become fractious, easily-alarmed and reactionary. It’s a curious quirk that no single person in a majority is disturbed, but the majority most definitely is.
Against this backdrop of disturbed, irrational men and women were those dangerous elements who, in a right-thinking society, would never be allowed near a position of power. In a disturbed society, these bullies, cowards, liars and cheats thrived. They became leaders. Acting in the public interest, they systematically began to dismantle the very edifices of the political machine they were elected to preserve. In the interest of greater freedom, they abolished freedoms. In the interest of openness, they buried their secrets deep. In the interests of morality, they assumed the right to act like beasts. And in the interest of the nation, they enriched themselves. They were only doing what they had learned from patient study of Machiavellian principles. It is we, the people, who aided them in climbing to the top of the pile. Seduced by election slogans and patriotic colours, we were easy prey for their bright words and callow smiles.
And that brings us to now. Machiavelli, by being honest about politics, created a Machiavellian world in which small men in suits cast the shadows of giants and where village idiots call themselves kings. This is our fault – we, the people- because we thought ourselves so wise that we comfortably believed that our decisions were the right ones. We believed that we, as a group, could elect hard-working servants to the common goal. We believed that our opinion was the right one, that our decisions were the just ones, and that our voices should be heard.
We should be proud of ourselves. We, the people, have done Machiavelli one better. We create our own princes now. We live in a country that is comfortably democratic in which nobody has a say. We live in a society governed by an irrational and capricious majority. We live in a nation that prides itself on being free in which freedoms are sacrificed for the greater good. We live in a world in which that which is private is public, and that which should be public is private.
As a monument to our arrogance and lack of self-awareness we built a democracy that served everyone, and therefore no-one. And while we fussed and fought over who could shout the loudest, the bullies, liars and murderers skulked around, wearing false smiles and guilty looks, and solemnly declared their devotion to the common good in voices that quaked with silent laughter. They are our leaders, our princes, and we deserve them.