Perhaps even more relevant to municipal politicians who are elected to their role than his comments on hereditary states, Machiavelli also wrote about republican states where a ruler was appointed from among the populace,
“…by the favour of his fellow citizens, not by wickedness or force, this may be called a civil principality.”
Machiavelli titled this Chapter IX: Concerning a Civil Principality, but he did not mean civil as in civility, but rather in the sense of, “relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns.” Civil as in civic.
Somewhat sarcastically, Machiavelli noted that in such positions, even mediocre rulers with a little political astuteness, can prosper:
“…nor is genius or fortune altogether necessary to attain to it, but rather a happy shrewdness.”
We all know councillors who get elected not by force of talent or ability, not from a well-conceived and presented platform that captures the public’s imagination, but rather by sheer luck. We also know politicians who have benefited from the “It’s not what you know, but who you know” effect, especially in small towns.
Some politicians get elected because the electorate gets tired of long-serving incumbents. Sometimes the electorate is galvanized against incumbents by special interest or ratepayers’ groups flogging hot-button issues. Other times, it is the inability of the existing council to respond appropriately or quickly enough to popular issues or events that gets newcomers elected.
Machiavelli offers us another method for attaining power: cunning and deception (a “happy shrewdness”). We have experienced politicians who campaign as one person, but become another when elected. On the hustings, they stand for what the people want, but at the table they morph into something else, often acting contrary to what they stood for during the campaign.
Unlike work in the private sector, running for office enjoys a basic benefit: there are no job requirements, outside being able to breathe and occasionally raise your hand to vote. Politicians get elected based on popularity more than on what their resume holds. But popularity is like luck; a shaky foundation on which to build your career. Public affection, Machiavelli warns us in several places, is fickle and easily lost.
Newcomers have to get known by the public and the media quickly, especially new mayors; they need to make a name for themselves early, to establish their presence and legitimize their term in the minds of the voters. One way to do this is by passing new laws that reflect your campaign promises (or equally, by repealing unpopular laws made by the previous council). The other way is by setting yourself up as the example of good governance, a paragon of virtue and a defender of the public good (see Chapter 18 for more):
“A reminder is given either by the passing of some law whereby the members of the society are brought to an account; or else by some man of rare worth arising among them, whose virtuous life and example have the same effect as a law.”
The Discourses: III, 1
Sometimes it takes a memorable act to seal your place in municipal history. Start your rule with a bang, Machiavelli writes in The Discourses. Begin with something that will have people talking about you for years to come, and will send a clear message to your opponents as to who is now in charge.
“… after a change in the form of a government… those who are hostile to the new order of things must always be visited with signal punishment.”
The Discourses: III, 3
Sometimes just getting your own way in the face of opposition is punishment enough.
One big event isn’t all you’ll need to accomplish, however. Over your term, you’ll have to stay in the public eye, be in all the photo ops, and occasionally get into the headlines to remind everyone you’re still here.
Those Oppressive Nobles
Public affection for politicians may rise and fall, but for bureaucrats it is generally always low. Machiavelli gives us his vision of the basic tension between the people and the bureaucracy:
“The nobles wish to rule and oppress the people; but the people do not wish to be ruled nor oppressed by the nobles. From these two opposite desires there arises in cities one of three outcomes: a principality, self-government, or anarchy.”
Machiavelli believed this tension between nobles – the politicians and bureaucrats – and the people was a fundamental cause of many problems. He repeated this sentiment in The Discourses I, 5 and in other works:
“The serious enmity between the populace and the nobles, which arises from the desire of the nobles to command and that of the populace not to obey, is the cause of all the evils that occur in a city.”
The Florentine Histories, II, 1, trans. Constantine
People often see municipal staff as obstructionist bureaucrats who stand in the way of progress, growth, change, low taxes, freedom of action and ultimately the people’s happiness. Bureaucrats are perceived as the master craftsmen of red tape – and the tax collectors.
The public doesn’t appreciate the notion that bureaucrats should have privileges or salaries beyond those the public has. Why, for example, is a receptionist in a dental office paid half of what a receptionist in town hall makes? Aren’t they doing the same jobs?
“Be not deceived about that antiquity of blood by which they exalt themselves above us; for all men having had one common origin, are all equally ancient, and nature has made us all after one fashion. Strip us naked, and we shall all be found alike. Dress us in their clothing, and they in ours, we shall appear noble, they ignoble – for poverty and riches make all the difference.”
The Florentine Histories: III, 3
The public is also often envious of the power, privilege and riches (salaries and benefits) of municipal staff.
“In every republic there are two conflicting factions, that of the people and that of the nobles, it is in this conflict that all laws favourable to freedom have their origin, as may readily be seen to have been the case in Rome.”
The Discourses: I, 4
Machiavelli saw that the division between these classes – the public and the entitled bureaucracy – led to conflict. However, he believed that not all social conflict was necessarily bad. It could lead to better laws, as long as it did not break out into armed conflict. The disruptions, the debates and negotiations between the sides can lead politicians to craft to laws that soothe these troubled waters.
The ruler – you – stands between the two groups; you have the power to create the laws and establish accountability that secure the rights and the liberties of the people, and mitigate oppression by the bureaucracy.
“He who looks well to the results of these tumults will find that they did not lead to banishments, nor to violence hurtful to the common good, but to laws and ordinances beneficial to the public liberty.”
The Discourses: I, 4
In many municipalities, civil service is one of the best paying, most secure jobs around. It’s natural for someone shoveling gravy onto fries, or an assembly-line worker worrying about layoffs and plant closures, to feel jealous of those municipal employees whose names regularly and with increasing frequency show up on the provincial ‘sunshine lists’ of public servants making more than $100,000 a year.
“Those serious, though natural enmities, which occur between the popular classes and the nobility, arising from the desire of the latter to command, and the disinclination of the former to obey, are the causes of most of the troubles which take place in cities; and from this diversity of purpose, all the other evils which disturb republics derive their origin.”
The Florentine Histories: III, 1
The result is often an uneven and confrontational “us-versus-them” contest between town hall and the public: the elites versus the vox populi. Politicians get to play referee in the middle.
“The reason why all these governments have been defective, is that their Reforms have not been made to satisfy the common good, but for the security and confirmation in power of one of the Parties; which security, however, has not been found, because one Party has always been discontent and it has been a powerful instrument to whoever has desired change.”
The Reform of Florence
A canny politician can use this tension to craft policy and legislation that cements his or her place as the people’s champion. Use conflict to your own advantage. This is the ‘divide and rule’ tactic Machiavelli stated in The Art of War, Book III (see chapter 26): don’t allow groups to unite and use suspicion and fear to keep them divided. The French, Spanish, the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire all used this tactic to keep Italy divided during Machiavelli’s lifetime.
Incumbents – and sometimes staff – line up behind their political champion to preserve and defend their status and privileges, and the electorate gets behind a newcomer they have elevated as the one who will bring about change and protect their rights:
“The nobles, seeing they cannot withstand the people, begin to unite to support of one of their own, and they make him a prince, so that under his shadow they can gratify their ambitions. The people, finding they cannot resist the nobles, also promote one of their own, and make him a prince so as to be protected by his authority.”
Nobles can be read here as either staff or other, entrenched incumbents, all of whom have long occupied the ranks of office and privilege. It can also be read as those board and committee appointees who had been put in place by council before the election. All of them have a vested interest in retaining their position.
The champion of the incumbents is burdened by owing favours to supporters and insiders, many of whom don’t feel he or she is superior to themselves. If the incumbents win, this ‘champion’ of the nobles will have a difficult time keeping the other politicians or senior staff in line:
“He who obtains his position by the assistance of the nobles maintains himself with more difficulty than he who is raised to it by the aid of the people, because the former finds himself with many around him who consider themselves his equals, and because of this he can neither rule nor manage them as he wishes.”
But the newcomers who get elected often find themselves alone in office, without having built the networks of friends and allies the incumbents had. The newcomer mayor faces other challenging problems: resistance to new goals and initiatives from those returning incumbents or long-time appointees (and sometimes even senior staff) who see themselves as the newcomer’s equal or superior.
New goals, also challenge the status quo, a threat Machiavelli discussed in Chapter 6.
But when the newcomer gets into power by popular support, without relying on the ‘old boy network’ so common in politics, he or she will find less resistance, and more people in town hall willing to obey. The newcomer gets respect, and at least initially,
“…has none around him, or few, who are not prepared to obey him.”
In The Discourses, Machiavelli warns against making alliances with former politicians – exiles, he calls them – who did not get returned to office.
“Wherefore, let a prince be careful how he embarks in any enterprise on the representations of an exile; for otherwise, he is likely either to be put to shame, or to incur the gravest calamities.”
The Discourses: II, 31
These former politicians are, he says, only looking to use you as a way back into office in the next election, and will encourage you to actions that only further their return, not consolidate your own position:
“Let a prince be careful how he embarks on any enterprise on the representations of an exile; for otherwise, he is likely either to be put to shame, or to incur the gravest calamities… they fill you with false impressions, on which if you build, your labour is in vain, and you are led to engage in enterprises from which nothing but ruin can result.”
The Discourses: II, 31
Newcomers without followers often try unsuccessfully to throw their weight around among staff and boards, but instead create enemies and resentment. However, the people often see the newcomer “putting a bit of stick about” among staff as a sign of strength, and expect it will benefit them by bringing the staff into line with populist expectations:
“One cannot satisfy the nobles by fair dealing, without injury to others, but you can satisfy the people, for their intention is more honest than that of the nobles. The latter wish to oppress the people, whilst the people only want not to be oppressed.”
The ruler has to choose between using the ‘force of the people’ or ‘force over the people.’
Staff are always looking to expand their own domains. They want more employees, they want more authority, they want more policies to manage, more laws to enforce, more properties and facilities to control, more paperwork to process. All of which is necessary to justify a department’s growing budget. Bureaucracies grow or perish, like Machiavelli’s principalities.
It’s called Parkinson’s Law today. In a 1955 article in The Economist, Cyril Northcote Parkinson “explains this growth by two forces:
- ‘An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals,’ and
- ‘Officials make work for each other.’ He notes in particular that the total of those employed inside a bureaucracy rose by 5-7% per year ‘irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done’.” (Wikipedia)
You, as protector of the people, have to keep the bureaucracies in check and stem their growth.
Politicians can’t control bureaucracies by just being nice. You have to be cruel, too, if you want to get your way among them. It won’t make staff happy, but it may make the people happy.
Possibly you need to dismiss opponents or dissidents among staff, or reorganize departments. Maybe you need to bring in your own people to manage things. All of which causes injury and upset. But you can make the electorate happy by simply appearing to be the defender of their rights and showing you care about their concerns. You can exploit the envy and fear of the electorate toward staff, and portray yourself as the savior and protector of the public good.
Machiavelli points out that, even for the newcomer who rode in on a wave of popularity, public affection is fickle. You cannot defend yourself from the volatile public mood if it swings against you:
“A prince can never protect himself from a hostile people, because there are too many of them. But he can secure himself from the nobles, as they are few in number.”
The electorate is many, the staff are few. Which group is the larger?
The threat to the newcomer from the waxing and waning favour of the people is powerful, but limited, usually to the election campaign. As angry as it may be, the electorate really only has one weapon to turn on you: the vote. So you have a few years to make amends and win them back.
A more dangerous threat is from those closer to you: other councillors, board appointees, and staff, all of whom enjoy independence and power, and can wield more immediate forces against you and hurt your reputation and future:
“The worst that a prince may expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them; but from hostile nobles he has not only to fear abandonment, but also that they will rise against him. The nobles have more foresight and cunning. They always act in time to save themselves, and to seek favours from him whom they expect to win.”
Machiavelli was pretty clear that the newcomer had to deal with these ‘nobles’ sooner, rather than later. If their position depends on you, or rises and falls on your success, then keep them and show them favour so they stick by your side.
“The two handles are punishment and favour… Stick to your objectives and examine the results to see how they match; take hold of the handles of government carefully and grip them tightly.”
Han Fei Tzu: Sec. 7: The Two Handles
He even suggests you may be able to make use of those who are not allies, but can still be useful for advice, especially those whose career requires a neutral or distanced relationship with elected officials:
“A prince… can do well without the same nobles, since he can make and unmake them at will, and to give or take away their authority when it pleases him.”
But you still need to show them you’re the boss. If you can trust them, and they represent no threat, keep them:
“The nobles ought to be looked at mainly in two ways: they either commit themselves entirely to your fortune, or they hold back. Those who commit themselves, and are not greedy, ought to be honoured and loved. Those who do not bind themselves may be dealt with in two ways; they may fail to do this through cowardice and fear, in which case you ought to make use of them, especially of those who give sensible advice. In good times they bring you honour, and in times of adversity, you won’t have to fear them.”
The ‘nobles’ – those staff and appointees – who are not your allies or cannot be won over, are far more dangerous and should be treated as enemies, he warns. They will always look out for themselves at your expense:
“But when for their own ambitious ends they deliberately shun committing themselves and remain independent, it is a sign that they are giving more thought to themselves than to you.”
When staff and appointees shy away from committing themselves to your agenda, it suggests they are looking for ways to promote their own goals. That identifies them as potential enemies.
“A prince must safeguard himself against them, and to fear them as if they were declared enemies, because in adverse times they will always be out to ruin him.”
And how do you deal with your enemies? Crush them.
Do staff or boards make recommendations that go against your goals or agenda, or that are simply self-serving? Reject them. Instead, pass bylaws and motions that are in direct opposition to what they want. Make sure they know you hold the reins of power, not them; and make sure they implement your policies, not their own.
Machiavelli writes that both incumbents and newcomers need to win the affection of the people if for nothing else than self-defence against the abuses of the ‘nobles.’ And the easiest way to do this is to become a champion of the people – protect their rights, protect their services, fight against tax increases, do whatever it takes to win them to you:
“One who becomes a prince through the favour of the people ought to keep them friendly, and this he can easily do, seeing they only ask not to be oppressed by him.”
It’s even more important for a returning incumbent to be seen as the people’s champion:
“But he who becomes a prince by the favour of the nobles, in opposition to the people, ought, above everything, to seek to win the people over to himself. He may easily do this if he becomes their protector.”
And it doesn’t matter if they voted for you. In fact, securing the favour of those people who voted for others is easier by good deeds because they weren’t expecting any favours from you:
“When men receive good from someone they were expecting evil from, they feel more obligated to their benefactor. The people quickly become more supportive to their benefactor than if he had been raised to power by their favours… I repeat, it is necessary for a prince to have the people friendly, otherwise he has no security in adverse times.”
Machiavelli argues that the old proverb, “He who builds on the people, builds on sand,” is not relevant for bold and daring leaders who can depend on the support of the people:
“A prince who has built his power on the people, one who can command, and is a man of courage, undismayed in adversity, who does not fail to take precautions, and who wins the people’s allegiance by his resolution and energy, he will never find himself let down by them, and it will be shown that he has secured his foundations well.”
Machiavelli ends with a comment that suggests majority governments – or perhaps a council where a slate of like-minded candidates, or a party-based group wins the majority of seats – are subject to more intrigue and disorder than a mixed government or council.
Those individuals who got raised to positions of authority – Machiavelli’s magistrates – become rulers in their own right, often acting contrary to what the mayor or council wishes. They become autocrats; princes like the mayor, and they steal away your power:
“These principalities are liable to danger when they are passing from the civil government to absolute rule, for such princes either rule personally or through appointees. In the latter case, their government is weaker and more insecure, because it rests entirely on the goodwill of those citizens who have been put in office. These, especially in troubled times, can destroy the government with great ease, either by intrigue or open defiance. The prince has not the time amid tumults to establish his authority, because the citizens and subjects are accustomed to receive orders from officials. They are not of a mind to obey him in adverse times. The prince will always find in doubtful times a scarcity of men whom the prince can trust.”
The electorate will be fickle in these times of adversity, says Machiavelli, and once they side with the appointed ‘magistrates,’ and other officials, they cannot be depended on to support the mayor or council:
“Such a prince cannot rely upon what he has experienced in quiet times, when citizens had need of the state, because then everyone agrees with him. When death is far distant, they all promise they will to die for him; but in troubled times, when the state has need of its citizens, there are few to be found. And this test of loyalty is all the more dangerous, because it can only be made once.”
To keep the people happy while you sort out your council, make sure you are seen to be doing good things for the people. Show them how much they really need you to protect their interests against the other councillors and staff.
“A wise prince must devise ways by which his citizens will always have need for the state and for him in every circumstance. Then he will always find them faithful.”
Previous Chapter – Next Chapter
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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