On Machiavellianism

I touched on the idea of Machiavellianism in both my last post and my most recent Path to Legionnaire.  Given how often I seem to referencing it, I thought I’d give my thoughts on the subject directly.

First, I think we should perhaps define what Machiavellianism actually is.  Wikipedia is most helpful here, and in that article, Machiavellianism is defined as:

“The employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct”

You’ll notice that definition doesn’t assume a moral judgement.  It shouldn’t, for Machiavellianism is fundamentally an amoral system of making judgements.  Machiavellianism fundamentally doesn’t concern itself with morality.  For some, this is enough to lambast it as an immoral paradigm through which to view the world.  I think this belief lacks nuance (actions taken when operating from an amoral frame can still be “moral”), but I’ll let sleeping dogs lie.  I have no desire to defend Machiavellianism on ethical grounds here today, though I do think that much of the time it is morally defensible.  I’d rather just give a brief overview of the subject, discussing a few aspects of it I haven’t already talked about, as we as how it fits into my view of the Reaction in general.

Now, Machiavellianism and pragmatism often go hand-in-hand.  There’s a crucial nuance here though.  Machiavellianism often implies a certain level of trickery and deceit, while pragmatism is about using the most effective means to ones disposal.  The Machiavellian approach is not always the most pragmatic one, for sometimes honesty and straightforwardness are the most effective means to achieve ones’ ends.  Nonetheless, the Machiavellian approach is frequently the most pragmatic one, and it is almost always pragmatic to be Machiavellian.  You condemn the one, you condemn the other.  You don’t get to pick and choose here.  Thus, I shall for the most part use the two terms interchangeably in this post, with a distinction made when necessary.

(Note: I’m taking the gloves off a bit with this one, but I would like to clarify that at no point do I mean any disrespect to those with whom I might disagree.  No offense is intended, but with that in mind, any offense taken will not be apologized for. Fortis in arduis.)

To be quite honest, I don’t much like the word “Machiavellianism”.  It’s a term that has far too much baggage.  I much prefer “pragmatic”, which works in almost all the same situations and is just a much better word in general.

My personal linguistic preferences aside though, there are certainly many people who hear the word “Machiavellian” and have a knee-jerk reaction to it, instantly proclaiming moral judgement, as if the word itself was tantamount to devil worship.  To clarify, Machiavellianism is not a license to lie and do distasteful things for the sake of lying and doing mean things.  It is not an excuse to sing about how Evil feels Good.  We have a word for that sort of thing: it’s called “evil”, and although “psychopathic” is a far more precise term, “evil” works pretty well for this purpose.

Brutality, duplicity, and cruelty are always last resorts, to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, and even then, to be weighed as options very carefully.  That’s what any pragmatist realizes.  It takes a certain kind of fortitude to leave such options on the table in this way, and it’s not for everyone to go through life like this.  The life of pragmatist is no less difficult than the life of a moralist, and some people are definitely more innately suited for one path over the other.  They can both benefit each other, and each side has things to teach the other.

It’s true that Machiavellianism can have deleterious effects on a society if it rises above a certain level of prevalence, as it erodes traditional ideas of honor and makes a high-trust society (at the highest levels of trust) impossible.  Yet, this is not a condemnation of Machiavellianism per se, but a warning against its application against members of your own ingroup.

With a little digging, it’s not hard to find successful examples of Machiavellianism on the world stage with none of the ill consequences of domestic Machiavellianism.  This is because there’s an ingroup/outgroup distinction to be made here.  Within the group, Machiavellianism undermines group trust and loyalty.  Outside of the group, there are no such bonds to worry about, and so the consequences in no way outweigh the benefits.

To paraphrase Jack Donovan, “Honor only functions within the group”.  Excessive care toward outgroups is the mistake of the liberal mind (except when it comes to “bigots”, for then they circle the wagons fairly quickly).  Any clash of ideologies is war, and in this match between Modernism and Reaction, sympathy for the enemy is not something that will be reciprocated.

What does this all mean for Reaction?  Well, while it might be a stretch to say that any of us are truly Machiavellian at heart, there’s certainly a pragmatic streak among many Neoreactionaries (less so for Reactionaries in general, but it’s still there).  Since this sort of behavior doesn’t come naturally to most of us though, it might not be all that fitting for us to try to be Machiavellian schemers, drawing up nefarious plans in order to achieve the hegemony of Reactionary thought in modern philosophy.

Still, there will be times in which we are forced to be pragmatic for the good of the Reaction.  Some have claimed this will make us like leftists or quasi-leftists, or will otherwise “corrupt” the movement in general.  But will it?

Neoreaction at its core is about critiquing democracy, egalitarianism, and other modernist ideologies, as well as occasionally venturing into the territory of creating a better ideology.  While there’s admittedly room for some idealistic tendencies, we do try to be pretty realistic about things.  There’s nothing in Neoreaction that requires we have to condemn pragmatism, though.  To claim otherwise is to project the urge for a more idealistic, moral world onto a movement that thinks that modernism is already too idealistic.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Neoreaction still hasn’t been given a clear, precise, and universally agreed-upon definition, after all (though many, including yours truly, have tried to suss one out), and there is still room for certain individuals to leave their unique mark on it.  Still, I can’t help but view this as a case of Nobles getting in the way of Pragmatists, and I fear this might be harmful to the Reaction as a whole…

Neoreaction likes to claim it is realistic, more so than other competing ideologies (especially that damned Progressivism).  Yet if we reject Machiavellianism outright, utterly and completely, we deny the reality that sometimes the most pragmatic and effective way of going about things is the Machiavellian one.  We undermine our claim that we take the world as it is, and thus we do lose a part of ourselves.  Accepting utopian ideas of virtue would compromise a part of Neoreaction, whereas internalizing pragmatism would not.

Being Machiavellian for the sake of being Machiavellian is pointless.  Only idiots, tools, and downright depraved individuals are underhanded and duplicitous for the sake of being underhanded and duplicitous.  Treating Machiavellianism as an end in itself not only misses the point, but also guarantees that you’ll eventually screw yourself over in the end as you find yourself caring more about how to be cunning and clever than how to be successful.  It’s a classic case of missing the forest for the trees, mixed with ego-stroking and trying to conform to an unfounded self-image.

No, you don’t want to play with fire for the sake of playing with fire, but it is realistic to recognize that occasionally, if you really care about a cause or an ideal, you will be forced to do what is necessary in service to that end.  As Amos and Gromar puts it: Pragmatism when you have to, operate by principle when you can. That’s just how life works sometimes.

Anyone who wants to create a state that incentivizes “virtuous” behavior and places high costs on “corrupt” behavior won’t find too many (if any) opponents among the reactionary community.  Hell, we pretty much all advocate for more stringent, traditional norms of behavior.  We’re reactionaries because we detest the degenerate, hedonistic time in which we live, and we all want to change it to something better.

With that in mind though, we need to bear in mind that one of the tasks of Neoreaction is about “Making human nature a feature, not a bug, of the system” (to paraphrase Bryce LaLiberte).  The problem with striving to make a society in which everyone is more virtuous and less Machiavellian is that the pragmatic behavior that characterizes a huge swathe of the population (especially towards the extreme-right of the bell curve) is a giant bug in the system, one that would require years and years of education and re-education and rigidly enforced rules and norms to even have a hope of succeeding.  If that sounds like the approach that advocates of feminism, multiculturalism, and “diversity” push for, that’s because it it.

Neoreaction won’t turn into a quasi-leftism if we accept that pragmatism is what we need right now, but we’ll end up looking a lot like it if we reject human nature in pursuit of “virtue”.

Again, some similarity to Modernism is going to occur if we succeed, because Modernism has succeeded in dominating the discourse for the past few hundred years.  Success breeds similarity.  We don’t want to be different in every way, just the ones that really matter (which, to be honest, is most of them).  Part of enacting that process though, is learning from the mistakes of our opponents, not repeating them in our own special way.

Ignoring the true nature of humanity and trying to wish it away is the crack in the liberal narrative that renders it most vulnerable.  Ignoring the pragmatic side to human behavior and trying to pretend we can do without it would be a mistake of equal magnitude for Neoreaction.



5 thoughts on “On Machiavellianism

  1. infowarrior1 01/13/2014 / 6:49 PM

    What do you think of this pragmatism?:

    Proverbs 25:21-22
    21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
    and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
    22 for you will heap burning coals on his head,
    and the Lord will reward you.

    This is probably partly why Christianity is so successful today. A muslim applied this and turned a thief to Islam:

    • Legionnaire 01/13/2014 / 10:02 PM

      It’s a great way to hit the psychological buttons of certain people. In the right context, very pragmatic.

  2. pumpsix 01/14/2014 / 10:43 AM

    Niccolò Machiavelli is one of my favourite political intellectuals. Every Hard Right advocate and Reactionary needs to read at least The Prince and Discourses. Machiavelli, himself, constantly looked to the past glory of Rome and its great rulers, so I don’t think that there is too much of a clash between pragmatists and virtuous.

    • Legionnaire 01/14/2014 / 7:36 PM

      Agreed. Much of the time there’s a lot of overlap between the two positions (and that’s even if we reject the axiom that it is virtuous to be pragmatic).

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