Machiavelli and the Economy of Violence

The New Inquiry has a fascinating dialogue on the role of the reactionary in conservatism, featuring Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, and Daniel Larison, writer and editor at the American Conservative. Corey Robin’s thesis is that a central goal of conservatism is “to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality.” Larison objects, and the dialogue goes from there. The entire piece is worth reading. There are a lot of interesting points made about conservatism in a historical context, the relationship between conservatism and nationalism, and conservatism as a counterrevolutionary force. But what really caught my eye was this: Robin writes

I don’t think the right has by any means a monopoly on the discourse of violence; the left has its own long tradition of reflection on violence. But where the left’s discourse is primarily influenced by Machiavelli — that is, an awareness of what Sheldon Wolin calls “the economy of violence,” or the necessity of instrumentalizing violence, of making a very little go a long, long way — the right’s attitude is reflected in Burke’s moral psychology, particularly his theory of the sublime.

Here’s what Robin is referring to when he cites Wolin:

In evaluating Machiavelli’s economy of violence it is easy to criticize it as being the product of a technician’s admiration for efficient means. A century like ours, which has witnessed the unparalleled efficiency displayed by totalitarian regimes in the use of terror and coercion, experiences difficulty in being tolerant on the subject. Yet to see Machiavelli as the philosopher of Himmlerism would be quite misleading; and the basic reason is not alone that Machiavelli regarded the science of violence as the means for reducing the amount of suffering in the political condition, but that he was clearly aware of the dangers of entrusting its use to the morally obtuse. What he hoped to further by his economy of violence was the “pure” use of power, undefiled by pride, ambition, or motives of petty revenge.

A more meaningful contrast to Machiavelli would be the great modern theoretician of violence, Georges Sorel. Here is a true example of the irresponsible political individual, fired by romantic notions of heroism, preaching the use of violence for ends which are deliberately and proudly clothed in the vague outline of the irrational “myth,” contemptuous of the cost, blinded by a vision of virile proletarian barbarians who would revitalize the decadent West. In contrast, there was no hint of child-like delight when Machiavelli contemplated the barbarous and savage destructiveness of the new prince, sweeping away the settled arrangements of society and “leaving nothing intact.” There was, however, the laconic remark that it was better to be a private citizen than to embark on a career which involved the ruin of men. This suggest that the theorist like Machiavelli, who was aware of the limited efficacy of force and who devoted himself to showing how its technique could be used more efficiently, was far more sensitive to the moral dilemmas of politics and far more committed to the preservation of man than those theorists who, saturated with moral indignation and eager for heroic regeneration, preach purification by the holy flame of violence.

—Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, Princeton, 1960

Robin continues:

I think that the primary audience for violence on the right is the perpetrator and/or his/her allies. In other words, the right sees violence as primarily a source of rejuvenation among a ruling class that has gone soft. That’s what is so interesting to me, in part because it completely inverts the standard stereotype we have of the conservative being more hard-headed and realistic than the progressive. If anything — and I really assign no normative weight to this; it’s more interesting to me as an intellectual problem — it is the left, as I’ve suggested, that has been more influenced by realist modes of thinking when it comes to violence.

I think it is very important to stress that Machiavelli did not see virtue in violence or in subterfuge, as is commonly believed today (e.g. “Machiavellian”). I especially like using Sorel as a counterpoint to Machiavelli, the differences between the one who sees violence as a necessary evil to preserve the stability and viability of the state and one who views violence as an invigorating instance of the heroic ideal in society, in which the exercise of violence is an end unto itself: a way to get society’s blood flowing again, literally and figuratively.

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