A few weeks back, I wrote a bit about the malignantly-misunderstood Friedrich Nietzsche and his unfair association with Nazism. What is perhaps a much worse historical judgement is that which falls on a different ‘villain’: Niccolò Machiavelli. In the generation after his own lifetime and for many that followed, Machiavelli was labelled evil, degenerate, immoral, and more than once was suggested to be the Antichrist himself.
In reality, Machiavelli was a political philosopher who advocated for Republicanism and used his writings to subtly undermine the authoritarian tendencies of the Medici family which ruled his native Florence. Machiavelli uses irony and humour to mock and insult these immoral actors, all while confirming his belief in popular rule and the usefulness of moral governance.
Perhaps I have a penchant for the historically-misunderstood, but I’ve been reading The Prince this week, as well as Erica Benner’s brilliant biography of Machiavelli (Be Like the Fox). Both together paint a very different portrait than the one I had inhaled via our culture at large, and I’m finding that Machiavelli is surprisingly insightful not only about the political machinations of his own day, but of ours as well.
This past week has seen two major upsets to the political systems of the UK and Israel, respectively. With Brexit looming and crises in both major parties far from resolved, we witnessed the creation of the Independent Group, a growing number of MPs from both major parties who have upset the status quo, and as of today, hold more seats than the government’s confidence-and-supply partner, the DUP. In the course of a week, the power map of Parliament has changed dramatically, and will likely continue to do so.
Meanwhile in Israel, something truly astonishing has happened: two politicians have set aside their massive egos for the sake of a perceived common good. For the first time in over a decade there is a credible threat to Netanyahu’s rule because of an agreement reached in the early hours of this morning to merge Benny Gantz’s party with Yair Lapid’s. The new party will be called ‘Blue and White’ and has the chance to capture as many (or more) Knesset seats as Likud– creating a genuine competition in an Israeli election for the first time in recent memory.
Both of these phenomena have been about creating a vital and radical centre, and more specifically, about a new type of politics. In stump speeches and late-night tweets, both the Independent Group and Blue and White have endorsed the notion that they are looking not just to change the government, but to change politics. The Independent Group has even got the #ChangePolitics hashtag going, and Gantz and Lapid opened today’s press conference not by talking policy, but instead history: evidently Gantz’s mother and Lapid’s father both lived in the same block of flats in Budapest’s Jewish ghetto.
Shared history and clever branding may not be enough to #ChangePolitics however. Why? Why is it so hard to break out of the ruts we find ourselves in– of one dominant personality, of a two-party system, etc? As expected, Machiavelli has some insight, although it’s not positive:
“…nothing is harder to organise, more likely to fail, or more dangerous to see through, than the introduction of a new system of government. The person bringing in the changes will make enemies of everyone who was doing well under the old system, while the people who stand to gain from the new arrangements will not offer wholehearted support, partly because they are afraid of their opponents, who still have the laws in their side, and partly because people are naturally sceptical: no one really believes in change until they’ve had solid experience of it.” (The Prince, Ch. 6)
A bit of a downer, sure– but also true. The challenge in the task of changing politics for the better is convincing people to take a risk on something untested, unknown. Yet, it is precisely those risks which have led to most major innovations in the past. It is the fragile factions formed in response to a crisis which can bring a new approach and new solutions to the table.
Perhaps if we, in the UK or in Israel, want to support a different type of politics– if we are sick of ‘business as usual’ while nothing gets done– we have to be willing to take the risk, and to imagine what change could bring. Whether it is good or bad, successful or not, time will tell– but no change can really be effected without the wholehearted support of the people who gain the most from it, even if they have to make the jump to offer that support before they’ve had solid experience of it. To change things we have to be willing to reconsider some of our most basic assumptions, and to challenge ourselves to imagine a different path.