12.02.17, McCormick, Machiavellian Democracy

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Geoffrey Koziol

The Medieval Review 12.02.17

McCormick, John P.. Machiavellian Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 252. ISBN: 978-0-521-82390-6.
ISBN: 978-0-521-53090-3.

Reviewed by:
Geoffrey Koziol
University of California, Berkeley

Although the title of John McCormick's new book is perfectly descriptive once one knows what he means by "Machiavellian democracy," he might equally have entitled it "Discourses on Machiavelli's Discourses." For though he has a few striking things to say about Machiavelli's rhetorical strategy in The Prince, he is principally concerned to rescue The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy from misrepresentation and what he regards as not just addled but dangerous misappropriation by modern apologists for "republican" government. To this end, he discusses at length Machiavelli's treatment of popular and aristocratic interests in the Discourses (especially Book I) and the reform proposals advanced in the "Discourse on Florentine Affairs." On this basis, he then criticizes the presuppositions of modern republican constitutionalism (taking Philip Pettit's works as a recent epitome). Finally, he offers his own proposals for rendering contemporary republican governments more truly and justly democratic, where the specifics of his proposals owe much to his analysis of Machiavelli's two above discourses and his comparison of them to Francesco Guicciardini's Dialogue on the Government of Florence. McCormick's reading of the Discourses is quite interesting, in part because it stays so close to the historical specifics of Florentine politics: the legacy of Savonarola and Soderini, the intricacies of contemporary voting procedures, and the identity and political leanings of the two Florentine ottimati to whom Machiavelli dedicated the Discourses. Nevertheless, the book is less a work of historical scholarship than a proudly partisan argument in political theory, McCormick's ultimate purpose being to advance political reforms today that might empower the "general citizenry" against the socioeconomic elite that McCormick believes even now dominates elections and legislation by means both direct and indirect. His concerns and proposals are therefore strikingly relevant to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. Indeed, if Occupiers were seeking a coherent program for the reform of contemporary American political institutions, they could do worse than read Machiavellian Democracy.

The heart of McCormick's complaint about republicanism lies in its apologists' persistent fear of any true popular democracy. For McCormick, whether republicanism is espoused by Cicero, Guicciardini, and Madison (or Hans Baron, J. G. A. Pococke, and Philip Pettit), it always betrays its origins as an aristocratic or elitist ideology developed to thwart the realization of democracy. Thus, theories of republicanism vaunt notions such as "virtue," "wisdom," and "the common good" in response to dangers anticipated from strict majority rule and direct democratic legislation. Always, the sorts of values espoused by republicans are assumed to be the special preserve of a special few possessed of special virtue and knowledge ("impartial," "non-partisan" technocrats educated in elite universities no less than Athenian aristoi and Florentine ottimati). And republican constitutions consistently protect the privileged position of the few by establishing institutions and rules that dilute the power of the majority in elections and legislation. For McCormick, talk of "the good" and "the common good" is worse than epistemologically empty. It is nothing but an ideological sideshow that diverts attention from the class interests at stake in the control of elections and legislation. And whether he is writing of Republican Rome, Renaissance Florence, or the contemporary United States, McCormick's approach to politics is very class-based. A striking example is his criticism of Pettit's belief that "discriminatory policies that disadvantage religious, ethnic, aboriginal, and other minorities are the most pressing types of domination" in democratic regimes that require redress (152). Most American liberals and progressives would find this statement unexceptionable. For McCormick, however, fixation on such categories has led to practices that are "countermajoritarian," and therefore profoundly undemocratic, while again serving to divert attention from more straightforward and pervasive issues of power: who makes legislation and who enforces it. It does no good to tout legislative and judicial remedies for any kind of discrimination if the financing, organization, and processes that shape elections and legislation are structurally weighted against all those who are disadvantaged and towards the interests of the wealthy and politically powerful.

Thus, McCormick believes that politics is a matter of interests and that interests are a matter of wealth, power, and influence. These beliefs are what attracts him to Florence, Machiavelli, and the Discourses. For in Florence, the interests of elites were advanced by their control of civic and guild institutions, offices, and voting procedures, and political struggles, often open and violent, were openly focused on maintaining or breaking the elites' mechanisms of control. And Machiavelli is "modern" precisely because he broke with medieval idealizations in which moral ends were supposed to govern political means and instead analyzed politics entirely in terms of interests. And as McCormick reads them, in the Discourses and the "Discourse on Florentine Affairs," Machiavelli used his understanding of Roman history to imagine institutions that might advance popular interests and protect the people from the power of elites. Thus, Machiavelli advised the selection by lottery of "provosts" whose offices were modeled on the Roman tribunate: his provosts could not be grandi; their presence at meetings of the Signoria and Select Council was required; and if they could not veto legislation passed by these bodies, they could at least temporarily suspend it pending appeal to a Great Council composed of the "generality" or "universality" of the people. On the basis of Roman Republican practice, Machiavelli also suggested the practical benefits gained from allowing trials of public figures for corruption and malfeasance to be heard by or appealed to his Great Council, for trials of elites before elite councils made the subversion of justice too easy, thereby undermining everyone's respect for law and government.

Because McCormick sees the same sorts of issues underpinning the veneer of commonality in modern republican constitutions and constitutional thought, he believes it worthwhile to rehabilitate Machiavelli's proposals in order to reform modern republics. Specifically, he wants to establish a contemporary "college of tribunes," fifty-one private citizens selected by lottery for non- renewable one-year terms--political and economic "elites" being explicitly prohibited from candidacy--each of whom can veto one piece of Congressional legislation, one executive order, and one Supreme Court decision. By majority vote, the tribunes may also call one referendum on any issue they wish, to be put to the entire electorate. At the end of their terms, they may be indicted, either individually or collectively, upon a two-thirds vote in the subsequent seating of tribunes.

Even if one were to agree with McCormick's analysis, it would be hard to see his proposals as anything but utopian, at least in the sense that there is no imaginable way they could be instituted. They are still interesting to think about, which may be why he has articulated them so forcefully. In particular, McCormick offers us a kind of thought experiment that allows us to see how different our political institutions are from what they might have been; and in contemplating the difference, he draws welcome and renewed attention to the great distance separating republican theory and democratic reality. To that extent, I found his analysis invigorating. To be sure, many readers will not be especially surprised by its basic elements, for McCormick is not alone in criticizing the optimistic assessments of Renaissance republican theory by Pococke and Quentin Skinner. Indeed, his understanding of Florentine politics generally and of Machiavelli in particular depends on work by a number of recent scholars (notably John Najemy). Yet McCormick's reading of Machiavelli achieves a clarity and contextual specificity that is not often attained. Above all, he recaptures the urgency of the stakes in the debate between Machiavelli and Guicciardini in a way few scholars have.

Nevertheless, I found it hard to accept McCormick's broader analysis and recommendations, for the same reason I distanced myself from the Occupy Movement even as I agreed with many of its grievances. For exactly who are the 99%, and what procedures and criteria defined the Occupiers' "general assembly" and gave its decisions legitimacy? Similarly, exactly who are the "people" whom McCormick's modern tribunes would represent? In both the Roman Republic and Renaissance Florence, the content of McCormick's "people" (who are not, of course, the Florentine popolo) can be defined with almost legal precision: those who did not vote in the assemblies that made legislation or who were not eligible to hold public offices or who could not participate in scrutinies of those eligible. The clarity of the rules that excluded so many adult Florentine males from directly participating in civic government is why so much of the discussion in Florentine politics was about, precisely, who could and could not vote, stand for office, and conduct scrutinies. When everyone can vote and can be elected to public office, that definitional precision is lost, leaving McCormick's "tribunes" to represent everyone from Tea Partiers and evangelical conservatives to progressives and staunch separationists. But if that is true, then the "99%" and a "college of tribunes" representing it will only reproduce the same vitriolic and irreconcilable arguments that already plague us.

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Author Biography

Geoffrey Koziol

University of California, Berkeley