Machiavelli and his half-blood Prince

niccolo_machiavelli_statue-2I’ve just caught up with Alan Yentob’s BBC documentary on Machiavelli and The Prince, broadcast (I think) around Christmas. Old Nick is going through something of a rehabilitation at the moment (Jonathan Powell has recently published a sympathetic “updating”, for example) at the hands of our plutocratic elite, who are increasingly confident and willing to openly flaunt their Machiavellianism. Boris Johnson’s remarks last year about greed being good and rich and poor deserving their lot was another example of this tendency.

Taken on its own, The Prince is a horrible book, but one perfectly in tune again with the age. One of Yentob’s contributors made the point that we’re living through times remarkably similar to those Niccolò Machiavelli lived through at the beginning of the Renaissance: intense but futile competition for power, instability, a collapse of old certainties, widespread fear about security, and a bunch of unscrupulous rulers of dubious competence.

It’s an age of turbulence and Machiavelli’s harsh message strikes a chord with many. Not least those in power, to whom it offers a virtual carte blanche to behave as they see fit if they can get away with it.  “The common people,” Machiavelli wrote, “are only interested in appearances and results.” But what are these “results” and why should a Machiavellian ruler care?

Machiavelli’s fans — always most plentiful among the rich and powerful — contend that he is “only telling it the way it is”. Like it or lump it, people really do only care about themselves, and experience shows it is better to be feared as a leader than loved (obviously no one told that to Nelson Mandela). But for me it’s never been really clear what all this Machaivellianism is for. Often boiled down to “the ends justify the means”, Machiavelli’s thinking in The Prince seems to lack any concept of the common good. What are the ends exactly? Sometimes he talks (in striking echo to today’s leaders in the US and UK) about the “security of the state”, but this often means little more than the leaders own personal interests.

Machiavelli’s is an impoverished view of human nature. Even if it’s true to some extent of all of us, it’s not all that we are. Yes, we all want power and control over our own destiny, not everyone wants the same destiny, or sees the means of pursuing it as irrelevant to the value of acquiring it. He assumes everyone wants to live in a perpetual state of competition. This may suit the story of hyper global capitalism, but I don’t think it’s how most people want to live their lives.

The Prince is a book born of despair, written by a desperate man just released from prison trying to ingratiate himself with the new Mr Big in Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici. It leaves no room for love or kindness, or for the idea that the people might want to collaborate (or any other “idea” for that matter). Machiavelli knew a lot about one aspect of human nature and one aspect of power, but he either knew nothing about the other half, or chose not to express it in The Prince. Probably, every politician needs a bit of Machiavelli. But Machiavelli’s Prince, and Powell’s “new Machiavelli”, would be half a politician and, worse still, a bloodless half of a human being.

(Incidentally, Machiavelli emphatically did not take his own advice. Shortly after writing The Prince, he retired to his vineyard outside Florence and lived a quiet life writing books and plays. You can still buy his wine – I imagine it leaves a bitter taste.)

Andrew Rawnsley wrote on Nelson Mandela: ‘His ego was pressed into the service of an idea, not self’. Machiavelli has nothing to say about ideas and, for him, self-interest is the only thing that a prince should concern himself with. But there is low scheming and there is scheming in pursuit of an idea, what Rawnsley called Mandela’s ‘classy cunning’. Ultimately, what’s wrong with the Machiavelli of The Prince is not that he thinks the means don’t matter (although they do a bit, because bad means can tarnish good ends), but that he doesn’t think the ends matter much either.

A new Bambi or a new Speedy in the Matignon?

Manuel Valls, France’s new prime minister, is often compared to Tony Blair. He even describes himself, without apparent irony, as “Blairiste”. Surprisingly, this hasn’t done him much harm. In recent months, Valls has emerged from relative obscurity to become by far the most popular member of France’s embattled Socialist government.

Manuel Valls in the Assemblée Nationale, 2012
Manuel Valls, France’s new PM, combines Sarkozy-style aggression with a Blairite tendancy to face both ways at once.

Like Blair, he comes from the right of a left-wing party. Like Blair, it’s the issue of crime that brought Valls to political prominence. Blair made his name with his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan as shadow home secretary in the early 1990s. As interior minister since 2012, Valls has revelled in his role as France’s premier flic (‘top cop’), and ruffled the feathers of his socialist comrades with his generally hawkish approach to crime and immigration. And like Blair, Valls likes preaching the virtues of free market capitalism to a party that remains very suspicious of its vices.

Valls was even endorsed by the free marketeers’ house rag, The Economist (also an early fan of Blair’s) when he ran for president in 2012. This didn’t impress Parti Socialiste activists much: he got just 6% of the vote in the party’s primary

To me, a more useful comparison would be with Hollande’s predecessor as president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Valls’s energetic, media-savvy image, evokes Sarkozy’s time as interior minister under Jacques Chirac, when he earned the nickname “Speedy”. Valls has enthusiastically adopted Sarkozy’s ultra-aggressive style. Hollande, announcing his appointment on Monday night, was playing this up when he said Valls’s administration would be ‘a government for combat’.

Both as mayor of the depressed Paris suburb of Evry (Essonne) and as interior minister, Valls has endorsed — and even stepped up — Sarkozy’s policies on immigration and crime.

Valls took a lot of flak over his support for cops in their heavy-handed deportation of a 15-year-old Kosovan schoolgirl from France last year. Tough new immigration rules and quotas, introduced by Valls, build more in Sarkozy’s legacy than Socialist Party principle. His remarks on Roma people — “these people have ways of life extremely different to ours”, and claims that it was impossible for most Roma to integrate into France, echo similarly controversial remarks by the former president.

(Interestingly, like Sarkozy, Valls is of foreign origin himself. Sarkozy was famously the son of Hungarian immigrants, while Valls is a Catalan, born in Barcelona, who did not become a French citizen until he was 20.)

Valls’s appointment sets the seal on Hollande’s “tournant social-démocrate”, his supposed shift towards pro-market and austerity-based solutions to France’s economic woes. While Valls is hard to pin down on economics (he’s certainly more “left”, as we Brits would understand it, than Tony Blair, although not necessarily more so than Sarkozy) there’s no doubt Valls is a more credible frontman for Hollande’s “responsibility pact” — his pledge to cut France’s deficit in line with EU demands — than the outgoing Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Valls is an enthusiast for austerity. He has supported the idea — floated by Sarkozy himself — of enshrining the need for a balanced budget (France hasn’t had one since 1974) in the French constitution. Valls’s enthusiasm for “TVA sociale” — shifting some of France’s social insurance charges onto VAT — is another a policy which finds more favour in Sarkozy’s party than his own.

Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Sarkozy’s energy and ambition made him a thorn in Jacques Chirac’s side towards the end of his presidency.

He has also been critical of France’s 35-hour working week, introduced by Lionel Jospin’s Socialist government in 1998, which remains a talismanic policy for many French Socialists. The policy was also a frequent target of Sarkozy’s ire, although he never got round to doing much more than moaning about it. In true Blairite style, Valls talks about “flexisecurité” — a vague and meaningless blend of protection against unemployment and making it easier to sack people.

The appointment is not without risks for Hollande. Valls is loathed by many on the centre and left of the PS and has little real power base in the party. The Greens have threatened to leave the government over his appointment. And everyone knows, like Sarkozy, Valls is murderously ambitious.

Sarkozy’s noisy campaigning for the presidency was a constant pain in the backside for Chirac after the president passed over his interior minister and appointed the donnish Dominique de Villepin as prime minister in 2005.

In sending Valls to the Matignon, Hollande has perhaps been shrewder, and tied Valls’s political fortunes to his own. Yes, the president has a big problem in 2017 if his ambitious prime minister is successful. But he has an even bigger one if he isn’t.

Thumbs up for the real digital revolution

Cover of Petite Poucette by Michel Serres
Petite Poucette, by Michel Serres. Editions Le Pommier 2012.

Saint Denis was beheaded on the hill looming over northern Paris now known as Montmartre. The legend is that he picked up his own head and carried it several miles north, before finally collapsing and expiring on the site of the present day suburb that bears his name.

It’s to Saint Denis that Michel Serres compares future generations of human beings in this remarkable little book (barely 90 pages long). Petite Poucette (“little thumb”) is his female avatar for today’s young people who, with their dextrous digits, carry their heads — their knowledge — on laptops, mobiles and tablets. This is changing everything, not just the way we learn, do business and enjoy ourselves. It’s changing human nature itself, and just as importantly, the way we live together.

I’ve been a Serres fan since writing about him in my very first blog three years ago. His reasoning is razor-sharp, and he writes with the radical clarity of someone very young and the wisdom of someone very old. Yes, he’s 83, French, and professor of something very intellectual at Stanford. But he’s no grumpy old don whingeing about porn-addicted kids with minuscule attention spans and the world going to hell in an online shopping cart. Believe it or not, Serres is optimistic about the future.

You might think only a conservative could be optimistic at the moment, but Serres reckons that if the powers that be aren’t trembling yet, it’s only because they don’t understand what’s hit them. “I see our institutions shining with a brightness similar to that of constellations that astronomers tells us have been dead for a long time,” he says.

With knowledge freed, existing power structures will crumble. It starts, says Serres, with education.

Why sit listening to a tired teacher reading “approved” excerpts from a book, when the whole book is out there, freely accessible from anywhere, at any time? Why accept the established interpretations when you can read and discuss the comments of thousands if not millions of people who’ve read it and thought about it?

Why sit with your ‘arse parked’ in serried ranks, when you can sit in the park, on the beach, in the pub? Why listen to this single narrow conduit of knowledge and power (the teacher at the lectern) when the whole world of knowledge is there in your hands? And why bother learning facts when you can bring them up under your thumb? The minds of Petite Poucette will be free to think and have ideas instead of being clogged up with remembering second-hand information.

This, says Serres, is the true birth of the individual. ‘Grumpy adults’ may see this as “selfish”, but weigh that egotism against where the “libido of affiliation” has got us in the last 100 years. In the name of abstract collectives like the nation, race and religion, hundreds of millions have died. Individuals rarely ask this of each other. And no one was ever asked to die for a virtual community.

Michel Serres
Michel Serres: “I would like to be 18 years old, since everything is to be remade, everything is left to invent.”

“To no longer build a community on the massacre of another or of oneself — this is our future life set against your history and your politics of death,” replies Petite Poucette.

And are the virtual communities young people have created any less “real” than the ones we have been taught to value? ’We adults have succeeded in creating no new social connections,’ says Serres. The “community”, the nation, the church, school, family, class, the market — where do they stand today? To Petite Poucette, they are just ‘abstractions flying overhead like cardboard mascots’.

Are the British and French “nations” any more “real” than a Facebook group? Do we “belong” to a social class, or the company we work for, more than the online communities we choose to join?

For thousands of years, from the pyramid of Cheops to the Eiffel Tower, the ‘global form’ of human society has been broad at the bottom and narrow at the top, with power, wealth and the control of knowledge concentrated in a few hands. New technology is set to change that, perhaps within a generation, says Serres. The real revolutionaries are not the inventors of this technology, but the users. They will turn the world upside down.

It’s a striking view of the future, both optimistic and disturbing at the same time. But unlike the zombie ideology of free market capitalism, young people don’t have to sit back and take it. It’s something that they can shape for themselves. Serres has no fear. ‘I’d like to be 18 years old,’ he says, ‘because everything is to be remade, everything is left to re-invent.’

Forgive but don’t forget

The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe
The Blunders of our Governments
by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe
Oneworld, 470pp, £25

‘To err is human, to forgive, divine,’ wrote Alexander Pope. But we mortals often forget rather than forgive. Even if you lived through all the calamities described in The Blunders of our Governments, you’ll probably still find yourself asking, ‘How the hell did they get away with that?’

Veteran political observers Tony King and Ivor Crewe kick off this analysis of the biggest political cock-ups of the last 30 years with the textbook case. The poll tax was cooked up in splendid isolation by two ambitious junior ministers (William Waldergrave and Kenneth Baker, since you ask). The team never seriously considered alternative policies, ignored implementation problems and seemed deaf to even constructive criticism.

No one has ever successfully introduced a ‘head tax’ in Britain (the last attempt was in Pope’s time, in 1698). This one became a ‘runaway train’ which led to riots on the streets and cost taxpayers billions of pounds.

But at least Mrs Thatcher paid the price, and hopefully it will be another 300 years before anyone tries it again. With most blunders, say the authors, the chances of ministers ever being held accountable ‘approach zero’. Worse still, the same mistakes are repeated over and over again.

Often policymakers seem to develop a defensive ‘group-think’ mentality which sees ‘all objections as obstruction’, a tendency made worse by the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation – ‘a dangerous instrument of persuasion’ which encourages group-think, warn the authors.

Then there is ‘cultural and operational disconnect’ – the authors’ polite term for ignorance. The Child Support Agency failed mainly because policymakers just didn’t realise that many absent fathers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay maintenance. Years later, ministers presiding over the individual learning accounts fiasco simply didn’t understand that some people in the training ‘marketplace’ could be dishonest. Fraudsters siphoned off a third of the £290m spent on the project.

These are Pope’s ‘human failings’, and they can affect any large organisation with ambitious plans, private as well as public. In fact, private contractors were at the heart of some our costliest blunders, including the public-private partnership to modernise the London tube, which collapsed in 2007, leaving taxpayers with a bill of at least £20bn (John Prescott and Gordon Brown, since you ask).

But, without completely exonerating officials, King and Crewe largely blame the specific behaviour of British politicians for making blunders much more likely and costly. We pay a high price for our adversarial politics and ‘decisive’ system of government, they say. ‘British politicians in general have a curious habit of functioning in crisis mode…even when no crisis exists. They seem to enjoy it.’

Far from being presidential, they argue that British government suffers from a ‘weak, under-organised and understaffed’ centre, a rapidly revolving door of ministers and officials and a chronic lack of accountability. As for parliament, their verdict is brutal: ‘As a legislative assembly…parliament is either peripheral or totally irrelevant. It might as well not exist.’

Although the authors reserve judgement on the Cameron government, the early signs are not good. ‘Omnishambles…is scarcely too strong a word to describe its performance so far,’ they warn. In fact, Cameron’s ‘may turn out to be the most blunder-prone government of modern times’.

Reform is possible, say the authors, but their tone is not optimistic. We’ll have more forgetting – and perhaps forgiving – to do in the years ahead.


A version of this review was published in Public Service Magazine, Autumn 2013.

The game has changed

2010 looked like the beginning of a three-party system in the UK. But British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways.
2010 looked like the beginning of a three-party system in the UK. But British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways.

Do you ever think, looking at the British political scene, that all possible results of the next election just feel wrong? That no one deserves to win? That we’re in a weird place where the 2015 poll might as well be decided by rolling dice or drawing lots?

Everyone says Labour’s opinion poll lead is fragile. The party doesn’t look ready to return to government and, for all his efforts, voters don’t see Ed Miliband as a potential prime minister. Optimistic Tories are talking up their ‘summer recovery’, but they’re still stuck at around 30% in the polls, and have a mountain chain to climb in terms of seats to gain a majority in 2015. Which should make a hung parliament and another coalition involving the Lib-Dems (which amounts to a ‘win’ for them) the most plausible outcome. But that doesn’t feel right either. Lib-Dem support is hovering around 10%, Nick Clegg is a national joke and the party appears to have lost a significant slice of its core support to Labour. It’s like one of those periodic seasons in the Championship when suddenly no club seems to want to win the title.

When everyone is unpopular you don’t have to be popular to win. You don’t have to have the best policies, the most likeable leader or a good record in government. You just have to be a bit less unpopular or a bit luckier than the other party.

British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways. We’re used to elections being decided by a relatively small group of ‘swing voters’ – uncommitted to either main party – shifting their heft one way or the other, ‘lending’ their votes to Labour or the Tories on an election-by-election basis. But now there are a lot more swing voters, and they’re all over the place: toying with UKIP, the Greens and local ‘anti-politics’ candidates, voting differently in local and national elections, switching back and forth between parties while puzzling over whether there’s any real difference between them, and – increasingly – not bothering to vote at all.

Of course, this isn’t new. Ever since I started studying politics in the 1980s, people have been talking about the ‘breakdown’ of the two-party system. And the share of the vote taken by the main parties has indeed fallen steadily from 97% in 1951 to 65% in 2010. Perhaps it has now (finally) reached a critical point beyond which, instead of the three-party system we expected, we are seeing multi-party politics or even ‘no-party’ politics.

Despite this, most commentators are still talking the old language of stable majorities and the ‘magical’ 40% barrier. But what if no one gets over 40% again? What if Labour’s 29% last time round was not a ‘disaster’ (as it undoubtedly was in 1983) but a ‘normal’ score for a party coming second. What if hung parliaments are not the result of an unusually strong third party performance, but the norm – and the Lib-Dems don’t have to do well to end up in government? What if so-called ‘fringe’ parties become ‘niche’ parties, able to appeal successfully to particular voters in particular areas?

If you look at it this way, Labour’s overtures to the Lib-Dems and Ed Miliband’s reputed ‘35% strategy’ (the idea that Labour only needs 35% to win an election, so why bother alienating core supporters by moving onto Tory territory?) looks less like defeatism or complacency and more like the results of a sober assessment of the political future.