Machiavellian has become a byword for scheming, calculating, sinister, and manipulative. But that is exactly what Machiavelli is not. Let me explain.
Bullies are not Machiavellian. Bullies are weak-minded, appetitive, brutish individuals who think they can impose their will by force on particular people — not to achieve any particular end, but simply to take joy in another’s suffering. This is unstrategic, and probably unsatisfying, behaviour. It makes very little sense.
But then there is the accusation of bullying, which has a whole different set of criteria. Often we accuse people of being bullies when they are just standing up for themselves against the real bullies.
For instance, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that Manichean distinctions between good and evil were weaponised to maintain class divisions. Michel Foucault made a similar argument. Traditional morality was but a justification for practical slavery. This was the real bullying — and they sought refuge in Machiavelli for a counter-bullying; a strategy that emulated bullying, like a Trojan horse, in order to defeat it. When the bullies wake up to the trap that is sprung upon them, it is all too late for them.
We like to say the alternative to bullying is empathy. This is not true. Empathy, Machiavellian logic would suggest, is a mirage. Empathy imagines we can feel what someone else feels. It involves psychological projection and is really a form of enlarged selfishness. We cannot know what someone else feels without deception of ourselves or other people. The language of empathy, for Machiavelli, is the language of bullies.
Machiavelli saw this and decreed cruelty a better strategy than empathy — because although it may produce resentment, cruelty keeps the peace in a way nothing else can. And empathy itself is a kind of cruelty — a manipulative attempt to deny our subjectivity while also imposing it on the world. The cruelty of Machiavellians is kind; the cruelty of bullies is not.
So if the behaviour of Machiavelli and his critics is functionally identical, how do we know which is which? Who is good, who is bad? But this is precisely the line of questioning which Machiavelli undermines, since it presupposes a predetermined set of storylines along which characters must follow in a play not of our choosing. Machiavellianism frees us from slavery to the narratives of others, and frees us to be ourselves.
In liberalism, fear and cruelty are condemned as pale imitations of love and kindness. Anyone who has watched Whiplash will know that this is not particularly effective. To win, you cannot be all good. To win, you have to be bad, too. And that is the true way to be good. At least, that is what Machiavelli would say.