Saturday 17 August 2013

Machiavelli Mandela Manmohan Modifications

Just been going through some newspaper cuttings I picked up in the holidays. Interestingly - on the eve of Fred Lawrence's arrival - two of them deal with the business of politics. One is a review, by Harvey C. Mansfield, of Corrado Vivanti's Niccolo' Machiavelli (Princeton) (The Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2013, p. 29). The other is a rather extraordinary piece on the differing styles of Mandela and Obama. Fred, I remember, has written incisively on Machiavelli - perhaps the first truly sensible thing I read on the topic, and also the last. But it was one of those things that remained with me, inhabiting some back room of the mind.

Mansfield calls The Prince "the most famous book on politics ever written," a book in which he "openly denounced both Christianity and the church," while also somehow professing admiration for Savonarola. My sense is that no one would argue with this judgment, though I would certainly be curious to compare Machiavelli with the Indian Chanakya. Anticipating Nietzsche by several centuries, Machiavelli "attacked morality by declaring it unaffordable": a good man, he said, will come to ruin among so many others who aren't good.

Mansfield goes on to note that since the 19th century, almost all Machavelli scholars have been trying to make excuses for him, blaming the corruption of his time rather than him. Vivanti, it would seem, gently delivers "some hurtful blows," as when he delcares the widespread republican reading of Machiavelli, holding that republics can avoid the faults of princes, to be a 'somewhat forced reading.'

Vivanti regards Machiavelli as a founder of modernity: 'from the mind of Machiavelli flows the modern world of the state.' Fred Lawrence said this years ago. Mansfield deplores any attempt to explain a great thinker through his sources: this is simply trying to explain greatness by non-greatness, and Vivanti, he says, is aware of this pitfall.  Machiavelli's own political experience was not glorious, but his writing refuses to be conditioned by this. In this he exemplifies his own recommendation: the prince must act according to the times, but in such a way as to change those times. The prince, in other words, does not follow a trend; he sets the trend. So in The Prince we have the germ of our modern politics, our business, our intellectuals, our arts, our morals.

Mansfield ends on this note. He does not have much more to say. Perhaps we have to turn to others like Lonergan and Lawrence to find people who set a trend rather than merely follow the now ubiquitous trend originating in Machiavelli. That requires courage.

The Mandela and Obama piece (Bill Keller, "Mandela and Obama," International Herald Tribune, Monday, 1 July 2103, p. 6) does not enter into this grand issue. It is content to remain on the level of effective leadership. Mandela had a sense of political theatre; Obama does not, or at least his sense of it peaked at his first inaugural. Obama seems to be doing his best to make the fact that he's black a nonissue. Mandela "understood how to deploy his moral authority in grand theatrical gestures." As a newly elected president of a deeply divided country, he turned the Rugby World Cup - the whitest sporting even in South Africa - into a festival of interracial harmony. He understood instinctively that political is not a mainly cerebral sport, but a business of charm and flattery and symbolic gestures and eager listening and little favours. He understood that it is above all a matter of empathy, as when he learned the Dutch dialect of the Afrikaners, and allowed them to keep their national anthem. "You don't address their brains," he would tell his colleagues. "You address their hearts." I cannot help thinking of what I am convinced is a good team, despite a five-year long effort to blacken their names: Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. What they lack is precisely Mandela's sense of political theatre, and his understanding that politics is a matter of empathy and of charm. John Paul II, instead, and, it would see now, Pope Francis, understood these things. As did Gandhi. You cannot reach out to a billion-strong, largely uneducated people through their minds. You get at them through their feelings.

And then, Bill Keller points out, Mandela was a consummate negotiator. He was an expert at deducing how far each side could go. He was patient. He was opportunistic, using every crisis to good effect. (wow!) "He understood that half the battle was convincing your own side that a concession could be a victory." And he was willing to take a risk.

And he loved what he was doing. He gave the impression that he was having the time of his life - and he probably was, because the movement was his life. Obama instead, Keller says, often seems to regard the job as an ordeal.

Above all, Mandela had a clear sense of his core principles: freedom, equality, the rule of law. So he could change tactics and alliances while never losing sight of his ultimate goal. The question is what moral purpose drives Obama. Here perhaps Manmohan is a step better. My doubt is whether either he or Sonia have an idea of what it is that India needs to do to move from where we are to where we want to be. The grand strategy is what is missing in India, besides a mastery of the feeling dynamics and symbolic dimensions of politics.

Mandela and Manmohan: can they be classified into the Machiavelli brand of politics? I would think not. Modi is a more likely candidate. I have always had the impression that he had either read The Prince, or else that he had instinctively learned to act that way. When a prince conquers a country, Machiavelli writes, he should avoid trying to change things in dribbles. Let him cut off the heads of any and every rival, and then let him settle down into benevolence. The people will forget in time. If instead he tries to cut off one head at a time, the people will never forgive him. Be bold. Strike hard. Once. Then settle down to good governance.

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