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In 1943 James Burnham wrote a book entitled “The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom.” It was Burnham’s thesis that nine-tenths of what is written in the field of politics is dangerous nonsense. He argued that most of the political words we use have nothing to do with political reality. And having nothing to do with reality, they lead us into countless errors, including fatal ones.
Take the word “democracy,” for example. This word is often understood to mean “rule by the people.” Our political system is therefore described as one in which the people decide. This, of course, is supposed to be a good and noble thing. But this, Burnham suggests, is nonsense. Unless the people vote every day, instead of every two years, they can hardly be ruling the country. In fact, most people are too busy to vote on those rare days when they have the opportunity to do so. And what is so noble about the decision of a large mass of persons who don’t understand the issues they are voting on?
Or do we imagine that the masses, in aggregate, are all-wise and all-knowing?
Whether or not the people are wise, grown men nonetheless use the word “democracy” to signify something beneficial and even practical. Therefore we regard polls as divine messages, imperatives from our new god — the people. It is a glorious system which leads us into many absurdities. Burnham cautions us and reminds us that democracy is largely a myth. As such, it stops political realism from emerging into public discussion. In consequence, when a citizen wakes to find himself living in a peculiar sort of oligarchy he is severely scandalized. The outraged citizen then begins to militate against the system, as if democracy has been stolen from him. But there was nothing to steal. What he lost was the comfort of his own delusions. Democracy, properly understood, is a way of organizing and validating oligarchy, giving it the stamp of public approval and legitimacy. There should be nothing scandalous in this. Oligarchy is not only normal, it is inevitable.
In politics, says Burnham, we easily become confused because our formal aims and goals are always dressed up in noble words. We might refer to justice, liberty or equality. We might speak of freedom or human rights. The underlying reality, however, is a competition for power. It is a desire for promotion and office, for privilege and position. The very use of noble terms in this context, says Burnham, often makes it impossible for a political writer to “give a true descriptive account of the way men actually behave.” Because of this, the truth is betrayed.
Political realism, referred to by Burnham as Machiavellianism, is what we need to protect the imperfect liberties we enjoy. That is one of Burnham’s arguments. Since men seek power, then power must be used to check power. This means we have to develop Machiavellian devices to guard against Machiavellian devices. If we delude ourselves with political myth, if we attempt to advance a utopian agenda, we neutralize ourselves. It would be nice if men actually, sincerely, wanted to live in a purely altruistic way. But which men have done this? Saints, perhaps, who never ran for political office. Such are clearly outside the nexus of politics altogether. In politics, wrote Burnham, high-minded words “serve only to arouse passion and prejudice and sentimentality in favor of the disguised real aims.”
Think of Jesse Jackson’s career. By opposing racism he made himself rich. What was his actual intention through it all? Was his intention to get rich or fight racism. No doubt the world is filled with good men who fought racism without making a penny. This is not Jackson. Behind the formal meaning of his words is a simple act of extortion. In other words, he raises millions of dollars by threatening white people with an ugly label. If we look at him closely, his words are one thing but his real purpose is to advance his own personal interests.
Besides democracy and the campaign against racism, there is another high-minded word that confuses us. At the time of the L.A. riots we heard mobs chanting: “No justice, no peace.” But was the persecution of white police officers, in terms of an incident involving a black criminal, actually justice?
No, it was a campaign of resentment and revenge.
Time and again, people express outrage that they are no longer living in a democratic utopia. They are outraged that the courts produce dismal results. One only needs to think of the O.J. Simpson case to see how a wealthy murderer can buy his way to freedom with clever lawyers. Consider, as well, the impeachment of President Clinton, where the Republican Senate refused to decide guilt or innocence on the basis of the evidence.
There is no utopian system. The very best we can arrive at is checks and balances which do not always check or balance. Even so, it is no mean accomplishment to avoid tyranny. Of course, such a system is going to break down from time to time. This is unavoidable.
In Monday’s column I described the case of Gen. Pinochet, who intervened when Chile’s political system broke down. In response, some readers complained that I had “prescribed” a dictatorial solution. In reality, I did not prescribe anything of the kind. Machiavelli didn’t even prescribe it. He merely explained how, historically speaking, declining republics have been salvaged and restored by dictators. In reciting the history of Pinochet in Chile, I merely offered a modern example which agrees with Machiavelli’s ancient examples.
But people do not hear political facts above the noise of their moralizing. They won’t sit still and listen to a little political history, to a simple description. Political children want a political fairy tale. They will accept no realism and are therefore doomed. Political children live in a world of myths: If only we revolt against the state, then we’ll be free. If only we adopt socialism, we’ll escape the evil ruling class.
They want an ideological word to save them from a practical reality.
Only an immature mind believes in fairy tales of a perfect society or perfectible human beings. The best society, in reality, is a society in which evils are limited by devices of Machiavellian construction (as opposed to devices of utopian or ideological construction). And in order to make such devices, you have to understand how things work. This is very different from how they “ought” to work.
Burnham said that 90 percent of our political thinking has been contaminated by our desires. We wish X, Y and Z. Americans have a peculiar weakness in political thinking because we think that all bad actions, for example, have bad results. We also imagine that all good actions have good results. But when you study politics and history you find something profoundly disturbing. You find that bad actions can sometimes produce good results, as the case of Pinochet in Chile or Franco in Spain. We also find a good action, with the best of intentions, like the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, produced bad results. This is profoundly upsetting to our simplistic sensibilities. Yet this is the chief discovery of Machiavelli. Politics is filled with moral paradoxes.
Consider the following: The war to end all wars only gave us a bigger war. The war against poverty only encouraged poverty. The war against drugs has empowered the drug lords. The war against crime coincided with a dramatic increase in criminal activity. President Bush’s emphasis on local control and participation means, in fact, more power to the federal
The reason that things turn out this way has to do with the fact that high-minded political statements do not reflect political reality. War, poverty, drunks and drug addicts will always be with us. As for the federal government, does anyone seriously believe it’s going to shrink? The only thing that changes hands in all this is power.
“The primary subject-matter of political science,” wrote Burnham, “is the struggle for social power in its diverse open and concealed forms.” Take whatever slogan from the recent presidential campaign you like. The text was: I am noble and good. The subtext was: Give the power to me!
We will never understand politics if we take men’s words at face value. Forget about the high-minded words. Look at the deeds! This is why Russia’s open declarations of surrender at the end of the Cold War were meaningless. While declaring that Russia had become a democracy, the communists continued to rule the country and to modernize the country’s nuclear strike forces. The words meant nothing; the deeds signified everything.
There is another point that Burnham brings forward that needs to be mentioned. He wrote that “logical or rational action plays a relatively minor part in political and social change.” This statement, no doubt, will shock most American readers. It is widely and erroneously believed that people rationally work out everything they do. But in everyday life this is not so. Look at your own daily life. Rational behavior is only a small part of what you do, though we incorrectly assign it a dominant role. In other words, we flatter ourselves. We imagine that our actions are more rational than they are. “For the most part,” wrote Burnham, “it is a delusion to believe that in social life men take deliberate steps to achieve consciously held goals.”
Burnham’s book, “The Machiavellians,” should be read by all students of politics. Only by thinking and talking in a realistic way can we safeguard our power, which high-minded citizens prefer to call their “liberty.”