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Politics 101: Machiavelli

Prof Frederick V. Rael has been teaching for almost 20 years in various local colleges and universities in the Philippines.

Continuing their discussion about politics, Pedro asked another question…

Pedro- How come that many Filipino politicians engage in corrupt activities as if robbing taxpayers’ money is not a crime?

Juan -I heard that they are Machiavellian or something like that.

Pedro- What does Machiavellian mean?

Juan-In political conversation, it means someone who is deceitful, treacherous, and tactical.

Pedro- I must admit Juan, you are getting sharper and sharper every day.

Machiavelli said, “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.”Juan might be correct in assuming that Machiavellian is a term referring to the deceitful practices of politicians since such tactics are more effective than the use of force. The term Machiavelli has become a buzz word in the world of politics because of the numerous deceptive tactics that he has written in his book “The Prince.” Until now, I have taught my students the fundamental of politics through Machiavelli’s philosophy, but unfortunately, politicians have abused and misused his teachings to serve their interests.

Brief Background

As Machiavelli, worked as a senior officer in the Florentine Republic as a diplomat and consultant in military affairs, he was able to observe critically how politicians acted or behaved in public as well as in their personal lives. Contrary to the presentation of the politicians in public that they were honorable, Machiavelli thought otherwise. The Prince was a result of his vast experience in politics, interaction with high-ranking public officials, and keen observation of how political affairs were conducted during his time.

ThroughThe Prince”, Machiavelli was able to expose the unscrupulous ways of politicians and how such ways can result in effective leadership in government. Certainly, Machiavelli did not recommend morality as the sole basis of governance but instead, he viewed the political arena as a board game or a chess game. His vast experience in politics had shown him that deception, betrayal, and cunning, among others, were instrumental in maintaining power as a ruler. A kingdom, republic, or government can be managed effectively if rulers or leaders are courageous and tactical, but not necessarily morally upright.

When “The Prince” was published, it became the reference material of politicians-wanna-be during his time. Machiavelli wanted the Prince to be a practical guide in politics rather than a moral guide. It is not a theoretical framework but a realistic approach to politics. It was highly acknowledged by scholars and academicians during his time because of his excellent analysis of how politicians behaved and how strategies can be implemented to gain power. On the other hand, “The Prince” was also heavily criticized by the Church and politicians because of its negative presentation of said institutions and its emphasis on immoral ways of maintaining power. For Machiavelli, “The Prince” provided substantial insights on how to become an effective ruler as someone who ought to be an amoral, tactician, and has a genuine concern for people.

Selected Teachings of Machiavelli

“In a corrupt world, a strong or a dictatorial government is necessary.”

Machiavelli views society as consisting of people who are evil or corrupt, which would require a strong leader and a dictatorial government. He observed that people in politics were driven by their lust for power and money. People can easily be tempted to engage in unethical practices since scheming, betrayal, manipulation, and deceit are common in politics. A ruler has to be extra careful since politics can unleash the worse side of human nature. Everybody wants to grab power and will do anything (even kill) just to achieve such an objective. To effectively control these people, a leader has to exert authority and implement a system in which power is centralized to one person, a dictatorship. Machiavelli saw the evil in men in the world of politics, which can only be repressed by striking fear to the constituents. A strong and brave leader can easily obtain support from his/her constituents through fear, not love.

“A perfectly good person would not last long in any high office because that person would have to compete with the mass of people who are bad.”

This leads him to propose that a kind person is not appropriate to lead a country or society consisting of naturally evil people. A kind person can be easily overthrown by these people who have evil intentions. As politics is all about grabbing power, many people will attempt to overthrow the leader by any means possible. If a leader would want to compete with people having bad intentions, he/she should not be kind or soft, but, instead, he/she should be strong, brave, and authoritarian.

“A prince must make himself feared and at the same time not to be hated.”

A leader (prince) has to strike fear rather than appeal for compassion from his/her constituents. Fear is an effective tool in grabbing power and maintaining it. If people are scared, peace and order are assured. Fear also erases doubts over the capability of the leader. This means that scared people tend to follow the leader without any question. More importantly, a leader has to make sure that the people are scared without nurturing hatred. This is quite difficult since scared people incline to hate the source of their fear. To further strike fear, don’t allow your enemies to recover from their defeat, it’s either you crush them or caressed them. If enemies would obtain minor damage, they may immediately retaliate. To show the people that you are in control, show the people that you have crushed your enemies or forced them to beg for your mercy. Machiavelli emphasizes that if this is not achieved, people will continue to plan to overthrow the ruler. The leader has to effectively convince his/her constituents that he/she is doing the right thing for the country. In striking fear in the hearts and minds of the people, a leader has to implement drastic measures, which will be explained in the next quotation.

“The end justifies the means”

This is a very famous quote from Machiavelli that means that the outcome of the activity is more valuable than the way of achieving it. A leader has to do whatever it takes to get what he/she wants. If he/she wants to win the election, then resorting to dirty tactics is necessary. Winning the election is the end (aim) while dirty tactics are means (way). Much worse, assassinating one’s enemies, rivals, and detractors is an option to maintain power as well as sustain peace and order in the country.

But, Machiavelli reminds politicians that such a strategy should be done to achieve a greater objective, which is maintaining peace and order. Moreover, robbing people’s money is also an option as long as it will result in the establishment of large infrastructure projects such as buildings, bridges, or the eradication of poverty. Don’t take the poor for granted, as Machiavelli recommends, for they are the ones who would die for the lead against their enemies. In short, dirty tactics are justified as long as it is for the greater good, not merely for self-interest.

“Be generous to your subjects as long as the money came from other people.”

This is a tactic that we usually observed among politicians, especially in the Philippines. Many politicians would show the public through television or news reports that they are giving their money to the poor. In the Philippines, repairing roads with their name on the signboards, and other generous acts are common strategies of politicians, especially during campaigns. They would even post their generous activities on their social media accounts, TV ads, and other commercial tools to uplift their image.

However, Machiavelli pointed out that the money being spent by these politicians are usually coming from the taxpayers’ money or government funds. It is foolish for anybody to spend lots of money, usually in millions, just to help the poor without any hidden political agenda. For politicians, spending money for political goals is like an investment in which they expect an ROI or return of investment after winning the election. Behind their generous acts are hidden political ambitions that would lead to profitable activities when they occupy high ranking government positions.

“Keeping promises is necessary if that would be beneficial to you as a ruler.”

Have you noticed how politicians regularly make promises, usually impossible ones? In the Philippines, many politicians are experts in making promises about free education, lowering prices of commodities, and even snatching stars from heaven just to get the support of the people during the election. Most of them have promised to solve poverty but until now almost the majority of the Filipinos are still poor. Machiavelli discovered during his time that politicians had to make promises to get the trust of the people even if they knew that fulfilling them was impossible. A promise is an effective tool to persuade people. A leader has to promise what the people desire. This would mean analyzing people’s psyche to detect what they truly desire and then promise it to them. Politicians who make the most promises (mostly impossible ones) usually win the election. So, take note, give as many promises as you can to the people, but choose only the promises that would benefit you.

“The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves

For Machiavelli, a ruler has to know how to harness the strength of the beasts, which are lions and foxes. The lion represents courage, which means that the ruler should possess extraordinary courage to face the fiercest enemies and treacherous friends. He/she should be much braver than his/her general or military officials. If his/her soldiers go to war, he/she should also be capable of engaging in actual combat. A ruler is expected to face the worse kind of people, criminals, treacherous friends, scheming enemies, and others. To overcome these foes, he/she must be extraordinarily brave. However, a lion can not detect traps. To discern the trap of enemies or treacherous friends, a ruler has to know to use the strength of a fox, which is cunning. A fox is an animal that can easily sense a trap, which a ruler has to possess. In politics, traps are everywhere and a leader should not be complacent even for a while. Even in times of peace, a ruler has to be cautious by planning, anticipating, and forecasting the next move of the enemies.

Conclusion

Perhaps, I have misread Machiavelli’s “The Prince” or I am just trying to be naive by admiring his teachings in politics. Although I do agree that many of his teachings are morally unacceptable, I think he was merely describing the behavior of politicians of his time, 15th century Europe. Hitherto, Machiavellian is considered a basic tactic in Philippine politics that connotes cheating against political rivals and a term that means being cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous.

During the time of Machiavelli, politicians were viewed as honorable statesmen. They were virtuous men who tried to follow the Socratic ethics, which was to provide genuine public service, not to manipulate or capture power for personal or selfish interest. Despite the Socratic mantra that reverberated in the political realm during the 15th century, Machiavelli was able to decode the real motive of the politicians who pretended to be honorable in front of the public. He discovered that politicians were not naturally virtuous since their actions were dictated by the actual circumstances. Instead of despising Machiavelli for his contribution to political science, we should admire his accurate analysis of the deceitful ways of politicians. Thus, Machiavelli’s teachings should be used to advance the interest of the general population, not to achieve the political ambition of corrupt politicians.

Reference

Machiavelli, N. (2003). The Prince. Boston. Translated by Rufus Goodwin. Dante University Press.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Frederick V Rael

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