Obama The Prince: a tale of our unchanging power structure
The way by which power is realized and sustained has not changed. Today’s princes walk upon the same paths as The Princes of the past, glancing back for guidance. And with every prince the path becomes more polished and better acquainted. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” speaks true of the actions princes must take to get to where they’re going and to stay there.
The work covers different types of principalities and armies, the importance of warfare, the favorable and unfavorable characteristics of a prince, and guidance on his conduct and the company he keeps, while supplying examples from history throughout. Although “The Prince” was completed over 500 years ago, in reading it one will draw clear parallels to the actions of today’s prince, Barack Obama.
“Although the light of almost four centuries has been focused on "The Prince," its problems are still debatable and interesting, because they are the eternal problems between the ruled and their rulers.” – W.K Marriot
Before we delve into the déjà vu, I’d like to introduce some context. “The Prince” was written in 1513 with a dedication to Lorenzo de Medici, shortly after the Medici regained power in Florence. The work has since been subject to several interpretations. Popularly, “The Prince” is read as a vehement endorsement of dictatorial power. Although logical at first glance, this is unlikely considering that it “contradicts everything else Machiavelli ever wrote and everything we know about his life.” – Garrett Mattingly
Also, if Machiavelli were truly an evil intentioned endorser of despots, you’d think he’d have more success in politics. The “The Prince” wasn’t published in Machiavelli’s lifetime; the most attention it received was a few cases of plagiarism. Lorenzo most likely never read it, and it did not win Machiavelli any favors. Machiavelli was a republican. He believed that the ideal system was one in which people are participants in their government. This belief is reflected by all his other written work, especially “The Discourses on Livy.” But my mother always told me "never listen to a man's words, only observe his actions." Machiavelli holds up. He served the republic for 15 years. He was imprisoned, tortured and exiled for suspicion of plotting against the new state and for his republican ties with the previous government. And he continued to participate in republican circles throughout the length of his life.
"He does not present himself, nor is he depicted by his contemporaries, as a type of that rare combination, the successful statesman and author, for he appears to have been only moderately prosperous in his several embassies and political employments.”- W.K Marriot
It may be more likely that “The Prince” is satire.
“Some looked upon his writing an iniquitous precepts for the same maintenance of tyranny; others on the contrary, maintained that The Prince was a sanguinary satire upon despots, intended to sharpen daggers against them and incite peoples to rebellion”- Villari, Pasquale
It’s odd that Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” for the Medici immediately after they imprisoned, tortured and exiled him. It’s also peculiar that he would create a manual to power for someone who just successfully reclaimed rule. Then to really drive home the irony, Machiavelli went on to write the “History of Florence” in 1525, again dedicated to the Medici, right at the point of their downfall. Keeping all this in mind, as well as Machiavelli’s republican spirit, a ring of sarcasm begins to emerge throughout the work.
Another school of thought attests that Machiavelli was playing the game of thrones, which would explain his contradictory political attitudes.
“I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful.” (The Prince, pg 219)
“The Prince” may have been written for the sole purpose of getting on the good side of the Medici. His life was centered around participating in politics and he seemed to want nothing more than to get back to his passions, whether he liked the current system or not. Another cue lies in the fact that he first dedicated the book to Giuliano de Medici, but after his death, he changed the dedication to Giuliano’s nephew Lorenzo, who was next in line for power. This dedication is saturated with compliments and praise.
“Take then, your Magnificence, this little gift in the spirit in which I send it; wherein, if it be diligently read and considered by you, you will learn my extreme desire that you should attain that greatness which fortune and your other attributes promise.” (The Prince, pg 31)
He also infuses the work with statements such as this: “Princes, especially new ones, have found more fidelity and assistance in those men who in the beginning of their rule were distrusted than among those who in the beginning were trusted.” He goes as far as to misquote history with the possible intention to sway the Medici into giving him a second thought. Because he was incredibly well read, it would not be safe to assume that this was done by mistake.
“To help convince the Medici of his loyalty, Machiavelli used examples of princes from ancient Rome or recent Italian history that he twisted to serve his purpose… By describing someone who gave second chances and was successful, Machiavelli attempted to persuade Lorenzo that it is acceptable to do the same in the present case with Machiavelli.” – Stacey Kniatt
Lastly, one can read “The Prince” as a strictly objective and amoral observation of power acquisition and maintenance. It has a matter-of-fact tone, and all advice is based on history and observation. “The Prince” is unromantic, doesn’t delve into the moral sphere, and approaches all topics by way of what we would today consider the scientific standard.
“Machiavelli was undoubtedly a man of great observation, acuteness, and industry; noting with appreciative eye whatever passed before him, and with his supreme literary gift turning it to account in his enforced retirement from affairs. Machiavelli always refused to write either of men or of governments otherwise than as he found them” -W.K Marriot
Although important to note, Machiavelli’s intent is inconsequential. Princes will interpret the work in alignment to their needs. Today’s political environment may owe a lot to Machiavelli, but it may be that the observations laid out in the “The Prince” and their execution are both simply manifestations of truths, codependent in nature. Whatever the case, the parallels are uncanny.
Concerning the Nature of Politics
“The nobles, seeing they cannot withstand the people, begin to cry up the reputation of one of themselves, and they make him a prince, so that under his shadow they can give vent to their ambitions. The people, finding they cannot resist the nobles, also cry up the reputation of one of themselves, and make him a prince so as to be defended by his authority. He who obtains sovereignty by the assistance of the nobles maintains himself with more difficulty than he who comes 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 to his liking. 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; for they, being in these affairs more far-seeing and astute, always come forward in time to save themselves.” (The Prince, pg. 96-97)
There has always been a tug-of-war relationship between the people and the nobles. The ruling classes live under constant threat from the general population due to the simple fact that there are more of us. We, in the end, are the deciding factor. This reality motivates the nobles to try and raise one of their own to power. Meanwhile we have an unfortunate tendency of wanting to be protected so we too try and empower one of our own. Today this takes the form of elections, and usually the puppet prince wins. But being the choice of the elite is not as safe as one might think. Because when a prince is brought to power by the same forces he cannot control, he ends up with one of two options: submission or death. This can be either political or literal death.
A prince chosen by the people too needs to be wary of the nobles. Once in power, he quickly learns that he is in an environment where he must bend to the will of others. Even the most morally uncompromising, well-intentioned prince, who wishes to truly do good onto his people, cannot be successful because when he acts out of favor, he is no longer secure in his hold and is discarded. This again can take the form of assassination or destruction of character, depending on how serious his transgressions are.
So keeping this in mind, let’s imagine that Ron Paul, the people’s prince, won the 2012 presidential election. Can we seriously believe that he would have been permitted to do any good? They would have either killed his spirit or ended him. If the vehicle of politics is designed to never work in our favor, then we need to get out.
“When a leading citizen becomes The Prince of his country, not by wickedness or any intolerable violence, but by the favor of his fellow citizens—this may be called a civil principality: nor is genius or fortune altogether necessary to attain to it, but rather a happy shrewdness. I say then that such a principality is obtained either by the favor of the people or by the favor of the nobles.” (The Prince, pg. 95)
America recently became a perfected civil principality. With Obama, we have seen an evolution from Machiavelli’s time. Prince Obama was handpicked by today’s equivalent of “the nobles” and then marketed to the people for their approval. There is no longer an either or. Instead we have a combination; the nobles’ pick and the manufactured consent of the populace.
Obama The Prince
Obama’s strategy seems to have been pulled straight from the pages of “The Prince.” He follows Machiavelli’s advice on almost everything.
On Being Loved or Feared
Different from popular belief, Machiavelli does not exclusively favor the quality of fear over love. He prefers The Prince to have both attributes and only picks fear if both cannot be achieved. One of the reasons for his choice is that “men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.” (The Prince, pg. 152) Another is that being feared is under The Prince’s control while being loved is subject to the people, and “a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others.” (The Prince, pg. 155)
Our prince has achieved both love and fear, and in a brilliant way. He’s done so by becoming a celebrity. This allows Obama to disassociate from cruelty, fear and dominance, leaving these qualities to be attributed to the entity of government. This way, Obama gets away with being loved while his government is still feared.
On the Art of Warfare
The most concerning parallel between “The Prince” and our prince, is the focus on warfare. “A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules.” (The Prince, pg. 135) A scary truth indeed. America today has military involvement with at least 75 countries, with the highest claim being 120. While on the topic of colonies, Machiavelli writes “that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot.” (The Prince, pg. 41) Everything that goes on in the Middle East and Africa is done with this in mind.
“Principalities are liable to danger when they are passing from the civil to the absolute order of government, for such princes either rule personally or through magistrates. In the latter case their government is weaker and more insecure, because it rests entirely on the goodwill of those citizens who are raised to the magistracy, and who, especially in troubled times, can destroy the government with great ease, either by intrigue or open defiance; and The Prince has not the chance amid tumults to exercise absolute authority, because the citizens and subjects, accustomed to receive orders from magistrates, are not of a mind to obey him amid these confusions, and there will always be in doubtful times a scarcity of men whom he can trust.” (The Prince, pg. 101)
Machiavelli points out that when magistrates (today’s congress) hold power, state power is weakened because it depends on their action. This is of course is one of the beauties of a republic, an entity that keeps The Prince in check. Considering this, we should not be surprised with Obama’s defiance towards the congress and expansion of executive power.
On Happiness, Welfare and Unions
Sustaining the happiness of your people may be the most powerful weapon of a prince. This is partially done through distraction: “He ought to entertain the people with festivals and spectacles.” (The Prince, pg. 201) But also by keeping “the whole people encouraged.” (The Prince, pg. 100) Our prince’s entire image was, and continues to be based on hope and the promises of utopian growth. Obama also knows to keep the populace in need of him and his government (or as I like to call it, givernment). “A wise prince ought to adopt such a course that his citizens will always in every sort and kind of circumstance have need of the state and of him, and then he will always find them faithful.” (The Prince, pg. 102) Machiavelli also notes that keeping favor with guilds (unions) is beneficial. “As every city is divided into guilds or into societies, he ought to hold such bodies in esteem, and associate with them.” (The Prince, pg. 201)
On Promises and Perception
“Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.” (The Prince, pg. 156) One would think that an extraordinary string of broken promises would hurt a prince. But as Machiavelli points out, it’s really inconsequential and actually beneficial for a ruler to lie as long as he does it well. “But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.” (The Prince, pg. 159)
Machiavelli goes on to say that to truly be “merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright” (The Prince, pg. 106) will be damaging to a prince. Instead he should be perceived this way while acting in an opposite manner. “It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.” (The Prince, pg. 160)
This strategy works because: “Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them;” (The Prince, pg. 163) Obama is simply following suit. Most of the princes of our past were masters of deception, so it’s only natural this be continued.
“Alexander never did what he said, Cesare never said what he did.” – Italian Proverb
He finishes the chapter on keeping faith by referring to the success of Ferdinand of Aragon: “One prince, of the present time, never preaches anything else but peace and good faith, and to both he is most hostile, and either, if he had kept it, would have deprived him of reputation and kingdom many a time.” (The Prince, pg. 164)
On Arming Citizens
Machiavelli suggests a prince arms those who he trusts to love him and fight for him while disarming those who may pose a threat. In the context of his time this would mean that the citizens of The Prince’s state should have arms, while the colonies (newly acquired principalities) should not. “When a prince acquires a new state, then it is necessary to disarm the men of that state, except those who have been his adherents in acquiring it.” (The Prince, 187). Again we have seen an evolution of this concept. Obama arms those loyal to him: the police and military. These are still citizens, but they are specific to his needs. The general public however is being systematically disarmed. He is treating Americans as a newly conquered principality, which may be his downfall. Machiavelli states that “when you disarm them, you at once offend them by showing that you distrust them, either for cowardice or for want of loyalty, and either of these opinions breeds hatred against you.” (The Prince, 186).
We cannot know if Obama has read “The Prince,” but if he ever does, he should pay close attention to the following:
“Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens” (The Prince, pg. 152)
“I repeat, it is necessary for a prince to have the people friendly, otherwise he has no security in adversity.” (The Prince, pg. 99)
“Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory.” (The Prince, pg. 89)
“And he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watchword of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point. And whatever you may do, they never forget their privileges unless they are disunited or dispersed, but at every chance they immediately rally to them. In republics there is more vitality, greater hatred, and more desire for vengeance, which will never permit them to allow the memory of their former liberty to rest; so that the safest way is to destroy them.” (The Prince, pg. 61)
Obama has been an ideal prince. I doubt the nobles are at all displeased with his performance, but as they already know, we are the deciding factor. There is hatred building for Obama. His people will not stay friendly long. We feel deep resentment for him trying to disarm us. This is a warning to Prince Obama, and the next Prince, and all the Princes to follow. We see through the lies. We see a threat to our life, liberty and property. We remember what freedom is, and as long as we have that memory, we will not be destroyed.
Niccolò Machiavelli. “The Prince.” iBooks. https://itun.es/ca/171Kx.l
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