WikiLeaks and other reformers: has Machiavelli met his match?

It’s most instructive to read carefully the Stratfor emails WikiLeaks released recently.

Their language and tone are alarming: both brutal and ruthless, in my view they reflect all that is wrong with a world now programmed to a rampant neo-liberal economic model that is underpinned by Machiavelli’s philosophy of power.

In an era where governments and private enterprise have merged – or, more accurately, governments have become the proxy force for big business – it is not surprising to discover that the prose of the “father of modern politics” is everywhere in the business section.  Books explicitly adopting his philosophy line the shelves: Throwing the Elephant/What Would Machiavelli Do?; The New Machiavelli: The Art of Politics in Business; Management and Machiavelli: A Prescription for Success in Your Business; What Would Machiavelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness; The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women; Machiavelli for the 21st Century: “The Next Decade” Review. Only last year Forbes ran a piece ‘5 Machiavellian Business Lessons From Billionaire Aliko Dangote’.

So Machiavelli’s philosophy is now found in the boardroom as well as on the battlefield and in government.

Machiavelli (who himself was tortured, by the way) suggests that whoever becomes the ruler of a free city and does not destroy it, can expect to be destroyed by it. He urges the would-be prince to:

“Secure himself against enemies, to gain friends, to conquer by force or fraud, to make himself beloved and feared by the people, followed and reverenced by the soldiers, to destroy those who can and may injure him, introduce innovations into old customs, to be severe and kind, magnanimous and liberal, suppress old militia, create a new one, maintain the friendship of kings and princes in such a way that they are glad to benefit him and fear to injure him, such a one can find no better example than the actions of this man.”

In the modern private sector that means “judge us by what we achieve rather than how we achieve it”. The focus is on the outcome rather than the form. So when you receive those healthy dividend cheques you should overlook the use of child slave labour, the degradation of environments, the fracturing of societies and the extinction of species. You do note reports like Citigroup’s ‘The Plutonomy Symposium – Rising Tides Lifting Yachts’, highlighting that the most potent and short-term threat to plutocracy – the elite have moved on from democracy – would be societies demanding a more ‘equitable’ share of wealth, but don’t feel unduly concerned because the authorities quickly put down organised protests like Occupy Wall Street that threaten the status quo. You’re not concerned about plans by government ministers and the world’s largest oil companies to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves the year before the country was invaded on a fabrication, or that according to Stratfor emails energy interests smoked out supporters for the Libyan ‘campaign’.

I once would have questioned the notion of the IMF and World Bank being tools of a neoliberal onslaught, but if it is true that you must destroy something before you control it, it doesn’t get more Machiavellian than Greece. Stratfor’s email notes:

Greece’s privatization efforts have become central for the new approximately 65 billion to 70 billion euro ($94 billion to $101 billion) bailout package being finalized by eurozone member states and expected to be approved by the June 20 eurozone finance ministers’ meeting. As the chief condition of the new bailout plan, Greece’s eurozone partners are demanding that Athens speed up its sale of publicly held assets and shift the responsibility of privatization from the government to an independent agency that would, sources tell STRATFOR, have considerable input from foreign governments. In other words, Greece needs to sell about 50 billion euros worth of public assets by 2015 and on terms that satisfy Germany and other eurozone countries, regardless of the preferences of the Greek state that owns the assets or the Greek public that depends on them for employment.

Greece stands conquered by fraud. No arms necessary. Given the role of Goldman Sachs and other financial behemoths in ramping up Greek debt to unsustainable proportions, should we call this “another Wall Street production”? Isn’t it a repeat of the Asian crisis: money comes flooding in, debt levels rise, credit suddenly dries up and money flows out, the economy collapses, the “rescuers” come in and “restructure” and the carcass is sold off to “investors” at bargain basement prices.

What is interesting about Machiavelli is that he warned that the powerful can never insure against a hostile populace on account of their number; that the powerful need not be concerned about conspiracies when the people are well disposed, but when they are hostile and hold the powerful in hatred, then they must fear everything and everybody; and that the populace merely want to avoid oppression.

That’s why it’s so interesting that Stratfor emails reveal the US Department of Homeland Security concerns about the potential risks of the Occupy Wall Street movement to critical infrastructure, “critical infrastructure” being the assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, public health or safety, or any combination thereof. They don’t mention that the private sector owns or controls 85-90 per cent of the United States’ recognised national assets. So who are the princes? And to what lengths would they and their governmental minions go to protect their empire?

When being interviewed about Stratfor’s emails about Bhopal Andy Bichlbaum, a member of The Yes Men, made this astute observation:

…what Stratfor seems to be really a bit obsessed with is whether we or other organizations are going to draw this into a bigger critique of corporate power… they seem to be really concerned that we, Amnesty, Greenpeace, etc., would be broadening this into a systematic critique and attacking the basis of corporate power. And it’s interesting that that’s what they were concerned with, rather than anything to do with the exact bottom line of Dow itself. And that might be a clue that they were really concerned about systemic critique and, you know, making statements that could affect policy. Maybe that’s also why they’ve been so afraid of Occupy Wall Street….

Equally telling is Stratfor’s ‘Client Project-must read’ 2008 email about threats facing chemical companies and their products, like nationalisation of oil, increased regulation or even talk of regulation.

What it all comes down to is that the greatest threat to monopolies, oligopolies, plutocracies and to neoliberal capitalism itself is reform.

Machiavelli knew that ‘the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.’

Enter WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, a person and an organisation capable of achieving reform because of the information they publish. Or Anonymous, a network of computer hackers that neutralises Machiavelli’s essential requirement for ‘the powerful to disguise their character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler, by hacking thoughts and strategies off a computer system and putting them out for publication’. Organisations and people like these are the harbingers of reform because they expose the truth: they expose for all to see the blatant mendacity, insatiable greed and calculated inhumanity of the economic elite and their political stooges.

What would Machiavelli do to destroy reformers and preserve the (old order) empire? Be ready to break both morals and religious principles when needed? Issue economic sanctions and red Interpol notices? Be prepared to waterboard, incarcerate, isolate or assassinate the enemy? The answer is an unreserved “Yes”. Any measures necessary to drive the wolves out. As Henry Kissinger said:

“There are some situations in which the more the survival is threatened the narrower the margin of choice becomes unless you can say you would rather have your society destroyed than to pursue the marginal means.”

The problem for the plutocrats is that horse has bolted. Even if they silence reformers like Assange – and it’s all stops out to do that – the people of many countries around the world are already hostile and feel oppressed. Attempts to censor the internet and crack down on social media will only intensify those feelings. Over the last 30 years people have watched what Machiavelli described as cruelties ill committed (ie increasing rather than diminishing with time): the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. The plutocrats are well aware of that: America’s National Defence Authorisation Act is a clue that the powerful have become afraid of their own shadow.

As Arundhati Roy suggests in her 2012 Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Trust Lecture ‘Capitalism – A Ghost Story’, capitalism is going through a crisis. The international financial meltdown is closing in and huge corporations are sitting on large cash reserves that they don’t know where to invest, which she describes as a structural crack in capitalism. More terrifying than anything is having money that they can’t make grow. Roy’s lecture demonstrates the catastrophic results of Machiavelli’s Prince operating in the neo-liberal economic model.

In the spirit of International Women’s Day 2012 I urge all women to watch Arundhati Roy’s lecture and to read ‘The Prince’. Women aspiring to sit at the boardroom table shouldn’t imitate the alpha males operating in their Machiavellian corporate world but need to be forewarned and forearmed to be able to change it. May you all give life and legs to corporate and social responsibility and may we all support the reformers.

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