Monday, July 26, 2004

Reading:: The Discourses

Originally posted: Mon, 26 Jul 2004 19:14:11

The Discourses

By Niccolo Machiavelli

Machiavelli, as I've noted earlier in this blog, is a major inspiration for actor-network theorists. Latour cites him in his earlier works, and Callon, Law, and Rip make him the central figure in their introduction. This has led critics to accuse ANT of double dealing, of claiming that power is distributed while positing Machiavellian princes who actually control the political landscape. That criticism is suspect even when reading The Prince, and dissolves when considering Machiavelli's text on the workings of republics, The Discourses.

The Discourses are, in fact, discourses on how republics work, just as The Prince provides a discourse on how principates work. Machiavelli underpins his discussion of republics with Titus Livy's history of Rome, his ideal republic. By closely reading Livy, Machiavelli develops a set of principles that he argues govern republics; he confirms his principles by testing them with recent and contemporary events. It's evident that Machiavelli relishes this work, partially because he believes republics to be superior to principates. At several places, he argues that even though the populance often chooses leaders by gossip, reputation, and prejudice (p.496), nevertheless the populance makes fewer mistakes than do princes (p.500). The populance is more reliable than are princes (pp. 252-257). Freedom results in better conditions across the board (p.280). Defenses should be distributed rather than centralized, the populance should be armed (p.359). Contrary to popular opinion, Machiavelli evidently believed that one can distribute decision making and power and come up with a better republic.

The key, of course, is that we are talking about republics here. Machiavelli argues early on that republics, aristocracies, and tyrannies tend to follow each other in an inevitable cycle. The Prince gives us "best practices" in a tyranny, while The Discourses gives us "best practices" in a republic. Nevertheless, many of these "best practices" are the same. And, I think, Machiavelli's response to the charge leveled against ANT would be that, yes, there are great men and women who have disproportionate impact on a society -- but their impact is in how they are able to coordinate and persuade others, not in their will alone. Machiavelli talks quite a bit, for instance, about how a good general leads by drill, preparation, and example before the battle so that the army can take care of itself during the battle (pp.491-492).

Let's discuss Machiavelli's investigation for a moment. After reading this book, I was better able to understand why Callon, Law, and Rip praised Machiavelli as an ethnographer (of sorts) who did not let anything get in the way of his investigation. Machiavelli plainly admires Livy, but is free in disagreeing with Livy when the evidence supports a different interpretation. Similarly, he clearly despises particular actions, but still tells us how the actions are accomplished and what "best practices" underpin even them. He generally does not hold with conspiracies, for instance, and says that they almost always fail, but then he carefully discusses how they might succeed (pp. 398-432). By being able to become detached enough to analyze, Machiavelli produces a generally clear-eyed and measured analysis of the principles he's laid out. It's worth examining in methodological terms, and it's worth remembering as we continue to read the ANT work drawing from Machiavelli.

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