Machiavelli, Weber, Nietzsche, and the music of politics

It is commonplace in the social sciences to use music as a metaphor for politics. Power is ‘articulated’ through institutions by individuals ‘harmonising’ on common themes. But by what mechanism does power flow in the modern world? We imagine power to be a top-down pyramid, but it can equally be viewed as a web-like structure of interlocking strands, with a common source but no easily definable unity. How can this complex and brutal world be effectively managed? Niccolò Machiavelli gave advice to princes and republics alike, advising that the former act ruthlessly and the latter harmoniously. There can be peace under a sovereign, as Thomas Hobbes argues. But to become sovereign, one must be more ruthless than anyone else. A commonwealth inherited is easy to lose. A commonwealth acquired by luck is even more easily forfeited. A commonwealth acquired by virtue and determination is almost impossible to lose, as the founder will pass on virtue to their successors, virtue in which the whole state will partake. This is the ancient theory of politics. But we are modern people. The world has changed. Right?

Verdi’s Requiem.

For Nietzsche, the medieval period created a replacement for Roman imperial authority — Christian religious hierarchy, rooted in the Pope’s apostolic connection to divine authority. The rejection of papal infallibility by Protestant states led to the abolition of Catholic unity and its substitution with modern disunity. Each state is internally unified under its sovereign, while externally competitive with other states. But of course, class warfare within states means this ‘reall Unitie’, as Hobbes put it, is but a façade. The violence of antiquity persists in modernity, but is masked by medieval fantasy and its long legacy.

Nietzsche wants us to wake up to the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Then again, he wants to celebrate descriptive disunity by prescribing a return to warring city-states. He thinks this is preferable to modern nation-states where the liberty of great leaders is limited by the constraints of elaborate social structure and manipulative ideological nonsense. The ‘slave mentality’ of Christianity persists in the universalisation of wage slavery in modernity. Nietzsche prefers antiquity because then some people were free; however, they were supported by the forced labour of chattel slaves. Modernity has no formal system of slavery, but neither does it have any more Alexanders or Lycurguses. ‘No more Lycurguses, no more Numas’, declared Benjamin Constant in the early nineteenth century. Modernity formally abolishes slavery while maintaining its informal persistence in the form of wage labour. It also formally celebrates the individual while informally quashing all liberty in favour of systematised rules and regulations. But we are still human beings. We will not give into this inhuman and dehumanising system forever. But we cannot escape easily. We cannot go around it. We must go through it.

Max Weber differed from Nietzsche, favouring the ‘Apollonian’ emphasis on order over the ‘Dionysian’ emphasis on chaos. This is equivalent to favouring ordered baroque music over chaotic romanticism. But Weber’s nationalism has a certain romanticism that Nietzsche’s brutal utopian realism lacks. Weber romanticises the present, while Nietzsche romanticises the past. Who will speak for the future? Who will speak for a balance between order and chaos?

For Machiavelli, it is almost always better to be ambitious than cautious — for although circumstances may demand caution, it is almost impossible to know which is which. To be permanently on the offensive is the best, and only, form of defence — so long as you do not make people ‘hate’ you in the process. Indeed, that will happen anyway. In this world, which masks the reality of chaos with the appearance of order, the only way of reliably balancing the extremes is by acting decisively, realistically, and courageously. Appearance matters — but not nearly as much as reality. Appearance is fragile. Reality is strong.

Weber fears strength, being concerned that it will conflict with the modern state and its regulatory pacification of individuals. This reflects Thomas Hobbes’ call for unity. Hobbes thinks individuals must trust that the state will protect them from harm. But this is not realistic. We cannot know anyone will protect us from harm. In today’s market society, which has almost totally captured the sovereign state, the only person each individual can trust is their own gut instinct. Humanity is thus stripped bare of all artificial constraint. Only natural impulse remains. Wisdom is recognising this and channelling the impulse towards justice, not evil. Shall we begin?

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