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Occupy Wall Street as Seen Through Machiavelli's Lens

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I do not know how political sage Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, would have estimated the OWS prospects of success. However I am certain of the warning he would be giving the ruling class, the one-percenters: they are pushing the people too far.

Like most original thinkers, Machiavelli is more often misquoted than understood -- in his case usually mis-portrayed as a lackey of the ruling class -- so it is important to note he was one of the first to point out that in ancient Rome, an emperor had only to please the nobles and the army, but by the Renaissance a European ruler had to consider the people, "because the people can do more than the army."

And that was in 1532. It was radical thinking, but then The Prince was Western civilization's written introduction to realpolitik, seeing politics as they really are, and power as what it is.

Machiavelli called them like he saw them, and part of what he saw coming was that rulers could abuse some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time -- but they could no longer abuse all of the people all of the time.

The people finally made this clear to the ruling classes in the wave of revolutions that swept the Americas and Western Europe from the late 1700s through the early 1800s, as the British and Spanish monarchs began to lose their empires and the French monarchs lost their heads.

The current American moneyed ruling class has sort of grasped that in a general way -- that they don't want the herd to actually stampede towards water, or God forbid, back towards equality. They vaguely know this due to news about little bits of turbulence in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya ... that there are of tipping points out there ... but surely not with a public so docile as Americans, they reckon.

And indeed Americans have become relatively docile. The intensity of protests is not what it was in the anti-Vietnam War riots, and those protests were milder than the riots of the early 1900s, when my grandfather fought fist and club against the corporate strike-breaker thugs.

But at the same time, most Americans can no longer afford circuses, and many can barely afford bread, so the American ruling class has abandoned a crowd control technique that was obvious to even the most ruthless of Roman emperors. The crowd is restless, and the rich are pushing beyond just taking away bread and circuses, in three notable ways described in The Prince:

That We [Princes] Must Avoid Being Hated and Despised (Chapter 19)

Here the rich have crossed one of Machiavelli's most clearly drawn danger lines:

... when one does not attack the property or honor of the generality of men, they will live contented, and one will only have to combat the ambition of a few....

"Property" is vague, and Machiavelli in other chapters more often referred to "patrimony," meaning one's rightful inheritance.

That's an important distinction, because the rich can take half a peasant's crop, and it might be forgotten as the normal thievery of the rich. Take the land their parents had given them, though, and the peasant became a piece of tinder, hating the king until their dying day, and ready to burst into revolutionary flame if the opportunity came.

Today patrimony extends far beyond what we inherit from our parents, to the many things we believe we are owed by deep social covenants: pensions, Social Security, Medicare ... and for the millions willing, able, and eager to work -- a job.

Of these things, there is little the rich have not attacked. With the exception of Social Security, so far, all these patrimonies are being stripped from the masses. Baby boomers are laid off early to reduce their pension benefits. State governments have slashed medical benefits for the poor, the new poor, and slashed aid to the elderly.

And this time around, the young are joining the protests -- indeed instigating them. This is new. In the protests of the 1900s, the young were protesting injustices that did not touch the older middle class, such as dying on foreign fields, while the elderly were protesting injustices that were far beyond a young person's horizon, such as Social Security cuts.

For young people today that patrimony is not a plot of land from their parents, it was the promise that the future was bright. So they took out student loans to invest in the American Dream -- and then got sacked from their jobs like extra baggage thrown off the train, still on the hook for the loans. In short, their patrimony was stolen.

The other part of Machiavelli's warning was about depriving humans of their "honor." This not a word used much in America -- but it translates well into "dignity," and the theft of their dignity is also putting demonstrators in the streets.

These are the depressed unemployed in their 20s who have lived in front of the TV for the last two years, self-ostracized because they could no longer afford to socialize, suddenly seeing a locus where anyone who joins the protests gets a piece of their dignity restored. They are the jobless, foreclosed, and homeless of all ages. I know them, because they are the people I have interviewed for three years, and as they shake off the recent years of learned helplessness, there is both anger and hope -- a combination far stronger than either emotion alone.

Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villainy (Chapter 8)

Cruelties well committed may be called those (if it is permissible to use the word "well" of evil) which are perpetrated once, for the need of securing [one's power], and which afterwards are not persisted in, but are exchanged for measures as useful to the people as possible.

Cruelties ill committed are those which increase rather than diminish with time. Those who follow the first method may remedy their condition, both with God and man. As to the latter, it is impossible for them to maintain themselves.

In short, Machiavelli observed that the people would overlook and forget a certain amount of cruelty used in conquering a kingdom -- but not when it persists after the ruler has assured their personal power.

There is a huge sense across America that the rich are increasing their cruelty far beyond the point necessary to live lives of obscene privilege. It goes past contempt -- there is a smell of sadism in the one-percenters' disdain at the continuing foreclosures, the homelessness, the unemployment, and the forty-five thousand people a year who die for lack of medical insurance.

Today there is no poor or middle-class American who does not personally know someone being ground into the dirt -- far past Henry David Thoreau's observation that "most men live lives of quiet desperation" -- and towards the destruction of their last shred of dignity.

People, like armies, fight to the last when they sense that the enemy's rules of engagement end with "no mercy, no survivors" -- and across every age, race, creed, color, and economic strata of the 99 percent, the American people are starting to sense that there is no mercy planned for them.

Whether Fortresses and Other Things Which Princes Often Contrive Are Useful or Injurious (Chapter 20)

Machiavelli carefully observed that while fortresses are usually useless against determined foreign armies, because they cannot withstand sustained sieges, they are quite useful in repelling revolts of peasants equipped with burning torches but no siege equipment.

Today "fortresses" are built of technology: of imposing skyscrapers, of helicopters that whisk Wall Street CEOs from the office rooftop to their homes in the Hamptons; of surveillance and SWAT teams, of anonymous limousines with tinted windows for the politicians. These modern fortresses do a good job with willing troops to operate them.

However Machiavelli was presuming a loyal garrison to defend the fortress against the motley peasants. Will today's rich as easily find the arms to defend their fortresses?

The police? Certainly, up to a point -- but layoffs have stretched the "thin blue line" taut -- and among that thin blue line there are cops whose spouse is laid off, whose house is underwater, and whose laid-off kids have moved back home.

Call in the Army? Call in the morally and physically exhausted vets from Iran and Afghanistan, who are full aware of how mortgage bankers have been foreclosing on vets' homes while they were overseas? It might "only" be a few cases, but it hit the news hard enough to generate a visceral reaction among many vets.

Under those circumstances it will be extremely difficult to get police or military forces to use mass violence against the protesters, if they continue to be peaceful -- and thus near-impossible to keep the protests from growing.

Machiavelli allowed for differing circumstances among rulers, where one might want a fortress and the other not want one. In this, as in much of his other advice to rulers, he returned his attention to the people, the new wild card in political power:

Therefore I would praise the one who erects fortresses and the one who does not, and would blame anyone who, trusting in them, reckons little of being hated by the people.

Machiavelli as quoted from The Prince (Il Principe), Luigi Ricci translation of 1906, with brief condensations. Machiavelli's original title was De Principatibus (Of Principalities), and while his advice to rulers about protecting the principality against foreign armies was traditional and ruthless, his advice about dealing with an increasingly informed citizenry was radical and far-sighted.

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