Everyone seems to preach of the need of unity and “coming together.” In troubled times, in times of increased anxiety—sometimes spilling over into violence—the prophets of unity appear as a voice of “moderation.” Unity is, of course, a code-word for establishment power politics; for it is the existing status-quo which always loses its grip on power in moments of intense political turmoil and dialectic.
Niccolo Machiavelli, in his magisterial reflection on politics and philosophy—the Discourses on Livy—highlights how unity does not lead to political development. On the contrary, Machiavelli, it is sharp division leading to political conflict that advances political development. Examining the case of Rome Machiavelli repeatedly focuses in on the “Conflict of the Orders” between the plebeians and the patricians to highlight how this dialectic between the two classes ended up producing the best constitutional order for the Roman Republic and the republic itself.
Machiavelli was suspicious of mass democracy, but at the same could be said to have been a prophet of some sort of “democracy.” Political order, in Machiavelli’s eyes, came in two forms: Republics and Monarchies. Republics are political orders where all subject (or citizen) interests are represented. This does not necessarily mean democracy. A republic can exist in a monarchy. A republic can exist in a republic. A republic can exist in a democracy. Conversely, a monarchy is where only select interests are represented. A ‘monarchy’ can exist in a monarchy. A monarchy can exist in a “republic.” A monarchy can exist in a “democracy.”
In our language we can reinterpret Machiavelli as drawing a distinction between republicanism and tyranny. A republic is where every group of the body politic has some representational interest. This does not mean equal representation. It just means having some representational interest. Highlighting from the case of Rome, it was the plebeian tribunes, though not open to the plebeians themselves, that ensured Rome was a republic as the patricians had to grant concessions to the plebeians in political power and say. The plebeian tribunes, though taken from the order of patricians or the homines novi (new men) represented the plebeians in the Roman Senate. A nominal monarchy could be a republic (though it is often hard to have a republic in monarchy Machiavelli admits). A republic is probably a republic (though it may not be; this is called “oligarchy” where a republic only has the representational interests of a select group). A republic may be a democracy (assuming it is not majoritarian democracy where the minority interest is obliterated by majoritarian direction).
Thus, a tyrannical political order is any government that only represents certain segments of the population and doesn’t consider the interests of other groups. It is more than likely the case that monarchy leads to tyranny (hence Machiavelli’s opposition to monarchy and his celebration of the downfall of the Roman monarchy). However, this does not necessarily mean a “republic,” simply being a republic in paper, is ipso facto a republic. A republic can only be the “public thing” if all public interests are represented. Democracy may not necessarily be a republic either; a majoritarian democracy (rule of the majority) is just as tyrannical and anti-republic as a monarchy because it is not whether there is minority rule or majority rule that defines tyranny—tyranny, for Machiavelli, is whenever there is a cessation of all public representation. To illustrate, if in a majoritarian democracy the democracy only serves the interest of the majority then it is, by Machiavelli’s standard and definition, a tyranny. It is a tyranny because it doesn’t take into consideration the interests of the minority.
Given this reality, Machiavelli sees republics as only existing when there is political conflict. Because political conflict means there is a conflict of interest groups vying for representation (and therefore power). Rome’s republic was tyrannical when the plebeians were excluded from having their interests represented; in this sense the Roman Republic wasn’t a republic but a tyranny. Rome’s republic became a true republic only through political conflict between the orders wherein the plebeians had their concerns represented by the plebeian tribunate.
Those who call for “unity” often do so to eliminate political conflict. But that means the subjugation of conflictual interests to whomever is calling for unity. Thus, the call for unity is often the reorientation toward tyrannical rule; the rule of an established class that takes into consideration only its interests at the exclusion of other interests. Division is, therefore, healthy. Division ought to be sought after. For, as Machiavelli tells us—it is through division and conflict that the best possible political order and constitution emerges; it is through division and conflict that all citizen interests are heard and represented; it is through division and conflict that the leadership class doesn’t slip into decadence and disrepute as it is forced to give consideration and concession to other interest groups. As such, it is only through political division that a republic stands. Because it is through division that representation and interests are advanced. It is only through conflict that one’s interests can be considered. How, and why, Machiavelli reached this conclusion is for another time.
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