Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Machiavellian Biopolitics of Assassination and Conspiracy

It appears for now that the military dictators of Burma have suppressed the public protests against their rule led by Buddhist monks. But now there are reports that the rebel groups in the countryside are plotting to overcome their ethnic differences so that they can successfully launch an assault on the government.

This is a reminder of how political rule depends ultimately on violence and military force. And although the appeal to violence might seem to favor tyrannical rule, just the opposite is true. Tyrants are more vulnerable to violent attacks than are rulers with some claim to justice. This is as true for chimpanzee politics as it is for human politics.

Studies of chimpanzee groups both in captivity and in the wild show that becoming the dominant ruler or alpha male is not just a matter of physical strength. Dominant chimps must have the personality traits that allow them to manage the complex social life of a chimpanzee society. When adult males are fighting for dominance, their fights are ritualized through bluffing displays that minimize violence, even though the canine teeth of an adult male are powerful enough to kill with one bite. But the threat of physical violence is always there, and both Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall have reported a few cases of lethal violence in fights for dominance.

The same is true for human beings fighting for political dominance. The fighting can generally be ritualized in ways that prevent actual violence. But the threat of violence runs throughout political life.

The longest chapters in Machiavelli's Prince (ch. 19)and his Discourses (III, 6) are on the danger that princes face when--being hated by their people--they are exposed to conspiracies, and particularly conspiracies for assassination. In fact, these chapters are actually little treatises on how to assassinate or otherwise conspire against tyrants. This explains why Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, coauthored with Voltaire a book--Anti-Machiavel--attacking Machiavelli's Prince as a handbook for regicide.

There is some empirical evidence supporting the conclusion that tyrannical leaders who become hated are more likely to suffer a bad end than are democratic leaders. Arnold Ludwig's book King of the Mountain (2002)supports the claim of Aristotle and Darwin that male dominance of politics is rooted in human biological nature. He argues that the male desire to be the supreme political ruler expresses the same biological propensities that support the dominance of alpha males among monkeys and apes. He develops his argument through a meticulous analysis of the 1,941 chief executive rulers of the independent countries in the twentieth century. He illustrates his points with anecdotes from the lives of the 377 rulers for whom he had extensive biographical information. He shows that the struggle for social dominance is a "dangerous game" (chap. 4). A tyrant is much more likely to be victimized by assassination plots or to be overthrown by violence than is a leader of an established democracy. "Tyrants, by far, are most likely to suffer a bad outcome, with half of them being deposed, one-fifth being ousted after having lost a war or being voted out of office, and another 15 percent being assassinated or executed. That is a whopping 85 percent chance of leaving office in disgrace or in a casket" (120).

As Machiavelli indicated, the history of politics is largely determined by the history of war and violence. But this harsh reality of political violence does not necessarily favor tyranny, because tyrants who become hated are likely to be assassinated, executed, or overthrown. This favors republican or democratic politics. For example, the execution of Charles I in 1649, which opened the way for the English Republic, was a dramatic illustration of how popular violence can check the power of a tyrant. Similarly, the American and French Revolutions showed the vulnerability of would-be tyrants to revolutionary violence.

Republican institutions supporting limited government are designed to so limit power that recourse to political violence will be minimized. But when political conflicts of interest and principle become so deep that persuasion cannot resolve the dispute, then there is no final settlement except by force of arms--as was the case, for example, in the American Civil War.

A Darwinian political science recognizes that political order always rests on a natural rivalry for power and dominance that must be resolved either by persuasion or by force.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jefferson or Hamilton?