Friday, June 10, 2005

Lord Acton's Dictum And Machiavelli

OK, so no-one suggested anything they might like me to write about, indicating perhaps a definite lack of interest in my decidedly overlong posts on political theory, but I'm going, stiff-upper lip and all, carry on regardless. In particular, as the title of the post suggests, write about Machiavelli and his views on corruption and power, not least because that topic has, in the past, been a fair banker for coming up on the history of political thought paper I'm taking. As I am sure everyone is aware - if only through the use of the word 'Machiavellian' - Machiavelli has a bit of a reputation as an apologist for advocacy of double-dealing, cheating, backstabbing and general being shifty and dishonest in the pursuit of power, which seems, for him, to be an end in itself. This would make him wholly unconcerned about Lord Acton's dictum, that 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely' because the acquisition of power is only goal around: corruption simply doesn't matter, because presumably you can be corrupt and continue to hold power.

For some time now, the almost unanimous academic consensus is that Machiavelli's reputation is not really deserved, a conclusion which I'm not going to dissent from. However, precisely because it is relatively easy to see, both from a historical perspective and from the texts themselves, how Machiavelli did acquire this reputation as an advocate of unprinciple Realpolitik, despite the fact that he actually does have some rather interesting ideas about the consequences of various distributions of power, I want to explore his thought through the lens of Lord Acton's dictum.

Lord Acton's dictum itself is perhaps most usefully understood as a core tenet of liberal constitutionalism, as a version of the doctrine of the separation of powers, that it is inherently dangerous to grant excessive authority to one part of a government as it will inevitably be abused, that checks and balances are required, simply because unchecked power inevitably leds to abuse. This is undoubtedly a common liberal idea: it appears in discussions of the tyranny of the majority, perhaps most sophisticatedly in De Tocqueville's ideas of atomisation and centralisation, and does a lot of the work behind the calls for limitations of the scope of democracy. Someone who, like Machiavelli, valorised the exercise of power simply for the sake of that exercise surely could not understand the idea that power might need to limited, it would seem. Yet, despite the rough truth of the claim that Machiavelli did valorise the exercise of power simply for its own sake, I think he holds a version of Lord Acton's dictum.

To see this, we need to look past what is probably his most famous work, 'The Prince', which is, at least on the surface, a handbook for autocrats on how to seize and maintain political power, and look - initially at least - at his 'Discourses On Livy', a kind of history of the Roman Republic, which then generalises from this history to give guidance on how to set up and maintain a free state. Apart from the parts on military tactics, something I will also return to, the largest part of this book is devoted to a discussion of how Rome's greatness in this period followed from an institutionally created but contained conflict between the aristocracy and the commoners, which argues that had this conflict not existed, Rome would not have remained a Republic for as long as it did. It is not wholly implausible to interpret this argument as a version of Lord Acton's dictum, as it looks like the central claim in it is that it is precisely because the power of both these groups was opposed by the power of the other that prevented either of them from seizing power and abusing it.

This is not quite the whole story though. Machiavelli's claim is more of a positve liberty style claim than the conventional interpretation of Lord Acton's dictum: rather than being checked in the sense of being constrained, power is strengthened by conflict, it requires it to be exercised properly. It's almost like the critique of the Hobbesian idea of liberty I made on Sunday: for Machiavelli, absolute power is almost - not quite, as his account of the fall of the Roman Republic is an account of the corrupting influence of nigh-on absolute power - an impossibility, because to be properly called power, power must have something to act against, must be opposed (the reason it is almost an impossibility is that whilst a state or person may acquire absolute power in the sense that they may rule the known world, as the Romans did - at least in Machiavelli's version - they can never wholly tame Fortuna, capricious Luck, which may undermine them at any point). This way of seeing the importance of constraint on power, of that constraint being empowering, undoes the first half of Lord Acton's dictum, because it denies that power, properly conceived, is corrupting: in fact, power, which is not absolute power, is enabling, both a necessary and a sufficient condition of ethical greatness.

This can be seen in another way if we look at Machiavelli's ethical theory, such as it is. It's almost Nietzschean, in ways, a nearly aesthetic criterion of glorious, memorable deeds. It has its limits: wilful, unnecessary violence is condemned, but basically because it is not thought of as the mark of someone in control, but rather someone driven by a gratuitous bloodlust, and so not remembered well. Romulus's murder of Remus, though, because it is integral to the foundation of Rome, is praiseworthy for Machiavelli: it shows a man unafraid, unbowed by circumstance, yet aware of how it closes off his options, of what he must do. One could almost state it as boldness in the face of necessity, which requires necessity just as much as it requires boldness. There must be something to be bold about, and so the idea of an opposition being required reappears.

The history of the Roman Republic offered by Machiavelli is full of such examples: his argument about the way that lengthening military commands was one of the causes of Rome's downfall could be taken as a case in point, for its claim is that the absolute power - within the sphere in question - that such lengthy military commands offered those who held them corrupted them and the men under them, created bonds of loyalty which over-rode those to the polis and granted unopposable power to the commanders (a state's military organisation was very important to Machiavelli, precisely because of the great power that military commanders exercised, both as containing potential for much glory and as containing potential for a state's ruin). It's a kind of civic republican argument, because the ability to dominate is clearly one case of holding absolute or unchecked power, but it is perhaps got at by a means that modern civic republicans would eschew, because of its undoubted commitment to violence, even if, through its positive analysis of power, it offers an interesting way of readin Lord Acton's dictum.

1 comment:

El said...

I read this one, if not yesterday's, if that makes you feel better.