Preparing the people: Machiavelli on ‘the populous’ and ‘environmental crisis’

The idea of people as an organized force with conscious will in political life is so familiar to modern people that we take it for granted, Gramsci argued that in the Mediterranean and European context it was not always so and therefore it has an origin:

“Gramsci recognized that Machiavelli was the first theorist to fully appreciate the significance of il popolo, the people, as new force in history.” (Sanbonmatsu)

That is the idea of society as made up of political bodies rather than people subject to “fatalism and moralism” and “human freedom as finite, limited to particular spheres of excellence and kept in check by the play of contingent forces beyond human control.”

Sanbonmatsu argue that Machiavelli saw his work in the form of the ‘The Prince’ to be teaching the il popolo the way of Princes or in other words “teaching people the ways of power.” Not as a means of informing then living Princes how to subjugate people but precisely the opposite. Gramsci saw his work as an intellectual as continuing this tradition in the form of ‘The Modern Prince’. This is in contrast to the postmodern tradition of intellectuals exemplified by Foucault who noted that:

“The whole of society is precisely that which should not be considered except as something to be destroyed. And then, we can only hope that it will never exist again.”

Foucault instead: “articulated a ‘spontaneist’ position of political action, eschewing leadership and strategy.” As such, Foucault saw the political role of the intellectual as contributing toward the deconstruction of what Gramsci called hegemony, whereas Gramsci was not interested in simply destroying the hegemony of a particular association, organisation, society or civilisation, but instead saw his purpose as an intellectual as preparing people for how to bring about a secular reformation in the form of what he considered socialism, and itself a hegemony:

“We might say for Gramsci, hegemonic leadership consists both of leadership in the sense of rule, and leadership in the sense of guiding the person out of confusion, i.e., helping them to make sense out of the otherwise unintelligible chaos of social reality. The Prince accomplishes this chiefly through a struggle to make what was “background” become “figure” i.e., by denaturalising social phenomena that are otherwise presented as already given, natural facts” (Sanbonmatsu)

Strategy for Gramsci, drawing straight from Machiavelli is precisely a meaningful relationship between these two facets of hegemony, or in other words the relationship between power and knowledge. The relation between the two is then the practice of this strategy, the basic tenets of which are reflected in this human-environmental analogy from Machiavelli:

“[Many are of] the opinion that the things of this world are, in a manner, controlled by Fortune and God, that men with their wisdom cannot control… [Fortune resembles] one of those ruinous rivers that, when they become enraged, flood the plains, tear down trees and buildings, taking up earth from one spot and placing it upon another; everyone flees from them, everyone yields to their onslaught, unable to oppose them in any way… [Yet] those who properly exercise Virtue need not be controlled by Fortune. The skilful leader thus plans in advance, preparing the people…”

This is an extract from my personal notes (2017) on the book ‘The Postmodern Prince’ I am sharing it here to link it with other blog posts.