The Relevance Of Machiavellian Principles In The Prince To The Politics Today

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Politics is not always open, democratic and fair, world leaders often have their own agendas and are sometimes not honest about their means and methods, but is this really the right way for politics should be done? Some could argue that politics is not ruthless enough, leaders are not always decisive or strong enough, or perhaps others would say a bit of cunning whit is exactly the kind of trait a political leader should possess. In this essay we will be looking at whether politics today could use some Machiavellianism or not, turning to Machiavelli’s own words in ‘The Prince’ while also looking at some analyses from other academics and writers, all while exploring what it actually means to be ‘Machiavellian’.

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So, let’s first start with a definition of how we define being Machiavellian. The phrase derives of course from Niccolò Machiavelli himself, author of The Prince (1532) among other works. Machiavellianism is said to be an ‘individuals’ tendency to use other people as tools to maximize their personal benefits’. Machiavelli himself wrote in chapter XVII of The Prince that ‘it is much safer to be feared than loved, when one of the two must be lacking’ – this means that given how you cannot be both feared and love, as one counteracts the other, it is better (or in his words ‘safer’) to be feared. It can also be useful to give some context to Machiavelli himself, who at the time of writing The Prince had been stripped of his political power and isolated from political leaders, influencing his opinions on leaders and politics generally. So when we talk about being Machiavellian throughout this essay, we’re referring to someone, or something, being ruthless, cunning and at times immoral.

Turning to the arguments in favour of why our politics can be viewed as Machiavellian, there is a case to be made for why Machiavellianism remains relevant today: Even after half a millennium, Machiavelli’s advice to leaders is as contemporary as tomorrow. He goes to the essence every time. He doesn’t allow us the comfort of easy generalizations or soothing moralisms’. Many would argue that strong leadership is necessary in politics and that it is merely a part of the job to make tough decisions at times, even if it means having a bit of ruthlessness. The classic question can be raised about whether the ends justify the means, and it can certainly be said that having an intelligent; cunning; tough; calculated and fierce political leader is a good thing, otherwise leaderships would never be strong or trusted enough to defend the interests of their citizens, and that a white lie can be worth it if citizens are put first.

The point here is that perhaps if our politics were more Machiavellian government could be more effective because it is less worried about the people it may upset and instead be more concerned with getting things done and having strong and effective leadership. Machiavelli himself said that he wanted duplicity to be used for the common good, in a way that would benefit the state, in fact he also said in The prince that: “A man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good” and goes on to say that it is necessary for leaders to possess skills and knowledge of how not to be good and wield that knowledge accordingly. Machiavelli follows on with this by saying that while ‘It would be good to be considered generous’ he says ‘generosity employed in such a way as to give you a reputation for it will injure you’ again highlighting the need for strong leadership, while also protecting citizens from the consequences of such generosity so as to avoid burdens such as excessive taxation due to the need to maintain this image of generosity. If we were to look at an example of where our politics is not Machiavellian enough, perhaps I could turn to a very contemporary example from here at home in the UK and our ongoing attempts to leave the European Union. Theresa May’s greatest downfall was that she was viewed as a weak leader, and that she was not competent or strong enough to negotiate with Brussels, so perhaps if she had adopted a firmer stance and was more respected, maybe she could have had more success with our withdrawal from the EU and negotiated a better deal. Clearly this is hypothetical, but I feel as if it does leave room for thought.

Looking now at how our politics could be seen as too Machiavellian, or at least why it shouldn’t turn to it, having identified the traits of a Machiavellian personality, it would be fair to say that many people would look unfavourably towards such characteristics, in fact when studied in a psychological context, Machiavellianism is often used as a basis for certain personality disorders which derive from narcissism. Machiavellianism can be viewed as very exploitative: ‘Machiavellianism is one of three personality traits referred to as the Dark Triad – including subclinical psychopathy and subclinical narcissism – which have been studied as distinct but overlapping dimensions of exploitative personality’. So I think with this a point could be made that politics should avoid being manipulative and should never exploit citizens, as this would be neither open nor democratic. In fact in liberal democracies such practice should arguably not be tolerated especially when it involves ‘a relative lack of affect in interpersonal relationships, a lack of concern with conventional morality, a lack of gross psychopathology, and low ideological commitment’ – we should arguably ask for better from our politics.

If we want to use an example, I say we could look at a figure such as Vladimir Putin of Russia as a leader who employs Machiavellian traits, someone who is clever and knows how to exploit opportunities and manipulate. Other examples from our politics today could include leaders such as Erdogan of Turkey, Duterte of the Philippines, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, or Xi Jinping of China; all callous leaders who have their own agendas and their own means of fulfilling those agendas, and are not afraid to supress opposition through totalitarianism. For example Putin’s main goal has been to silence any who oppose his world view, while also manipulating elections at home and abroad. Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has taken an extreme view on drug policy, reportedly killing thousands of drug users in pursuit of the ‘greater good’, drawing accusations of harbouring a ‘large-scale murdering enterprise’. People can have their own views on these leaders, but I would make the point that these examples of Machiavellianism are also examples of dictatorships, something that our politics today could use fewer of, as Machiavellian leadership can: ‘lack honesty and humility, and prefer to form antagonistic short-term relationships’, while also explaining how these limitations can lead to limited sympathy and thus exploitative social styles.

Conclusively, we have explored the definition of what it means to be ‘Machiavellian’, identifying it as a complex personality which resorts usually to manipulation, exploitative and ruthlessness, even if those who would describe themselves as Machiavellian would say that they do so to best protect citizens, looking at examples of Machiavelli’s own words in ‘The Prince’. We have turned to the advantages and disadvantages of being Machiavellian while also using examples of where and why such Machiavellianism should and shouldn’t be pursued in today’s politics. So having looked at both sides I would come to the conclusion that our politics should not turn to Machiavellianism, and using the examples of world leaders such as the previously mentioned Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, to show that perhaps on balance our politics is too Machiavellian, or at least if we wish to encourage democratic values of fairness and honesty, we should not turn to Machiavellianism as the cure for all our political troubles.

14 May 2021

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