Monday, February 14, 2011

The Machiavellianism of Our Chimpanzee Politics

So what would Niccolo Machiavelli say about Hosni Mubarak's political career?

Machiavelli might admire Mubarak's rise from a military career to princely rule in Egypt. His military success--particularly in the October War of 1973--showed his mastery of war and his understanding that "good laws" depend upon "good arms."

As Vice President of Egypt, Mubarak became President after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, so he understood the vulnerability of princes to assassination. Mubarak himself was the target of a least a half-dozen assassination attempts. He understood, as Machiavelli taught, that even the most powerful ruler can be brought down by any assassin willing to lose his life in an attack.

He also understood that if a prince has to choose between being feared and being loved, it is better to be feared, and consequently, he maintained his princely power for 30 years through a declaration of emergency law that allowed him to arrest and terrify his political opponents without due process of law.

His mistake towards the end of his career, however, was in failing to see that even if the prince is feared, he must avoid the hatred and contempt of the people, particularly that coming from the young men. The popular demonstrations of the last few weeks showed that this hatred and contempt coming from the people would make him vulnerable to those ambitious few around him who were looking for the first opportunity to take his power from him. His dependence on the military then left him open to the military decision to force him out of office.

Reports suggest that Mubarak's son--Gamal Mubarak--was pushing him to cling to power, for the obvious reason that Gamal was his successor. The military leadership of Egypt has declared that the Constitution and the Parliament is suspended, and that until elections occur, the country will be represented by Egypt's Defense Minister, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Previously, he has been a loyal supporter of Mubarak. But now he appears to be a shrewd opportunist who might have managed Mubarak's ouster.

The leaders of the Egyptian protestors had studied the techniques of non-violent resistance--the techniques of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others, as presented in some books by Gene Sharp. Such techniques work only if the police and soldiers refuse to kill the protestors. In this case, the decision of the military leaders to order their soldiers to assume a posture of neutrality deprived Mubarak of the terrorizing force that might have stopped the public protests.

We can see here Machiavelli's political psychology as based on the three or four distinct "humours" or personality traits in any community--the one, the few, and the many.

Every political regime must have one person at the top, someone who exercises the chief executive power. Even in the most primitive societies of foragers, who have no formal ranks of political power, some individuals exercise leadership, particularly in war. And once human beings settled into agrarian states, the position of war leader was transformed into formal military command. Today, even in modern democratic regimes, the chief executive acts as commander-in-chief in time of war.

The one prince is surrounded by those Machiavelli called "the great ones"--the ambitious few or the elites--who naturally want to rule, and thus want to take the place of the prince. Those with military power might be considered a distinctive "humour," or they might be considered as belonging to the ambitious elite. The prince must fear these people the most, because they are the ones who have the ambition to replace him.

The great majority of people have no ambition to rule. They naturally submit to being ruled by the prince and the ambitious few. But they also resist being exploited by the few. They want to be secure in their property and their private lives. Even though they don't want to rule themselves, their hatred or contempt of their rulers will move them to violent resistance or revolution. Even if the prince is feared, a successful prince must avoid the hatred or contempt of the people, and he does this by keeping his hands off their property and their women.

This dark view of politics makes Machiavelli's political realism disturbing to most of us. But it's hard to deny the basic truth of his teaching as a description of political history. In every political community, we see rule by a single person, usually a man, who shows a powerful drive for dominance. Around that alpha male, we see a small group of people--mostly men--who are naturally ambitious for power, and who are the natural rivals of the alpha male, although they will support him if he pulls them into his political coalition. Finally, around the prince and the ambitious few, we see the great multitude of people--men and women--who have no political ambition, who submit to political rule, who seek only security in their private lives, but who can be provoked to rebellion if they feel unduly oppressed by the rulers. Even in democracies, we never see absolute equality, with everyone having equal power, because democratic citizens exercise only indirect and episodic power, as in elections, and they depart from their natural submissiveness only in rare circumstances where their feeling of being oppressed has become unusually severe.

One way to explain this Machiavellian pattern in politics is to say that this shows the biological nature of human beings as political primates ruled by alpha males. That's the argument of Frans de Waal's book Chimpanzee Politics, based on his study of the chimpanzee colony in the Burgers' Zoo in Arnhem, in the Netherlands. Support for de Waal's argument comes from Arnold Ludwig's book King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership, which is a study of the human political leaders in the twentieth century.

If de Waal and Ludwig are right about this, this would confirm Aristotle's political biology. Aristotle identified the political animals as those animals who are naturally inclined to organize themselves into social groups for collective action, and he identified human beings as similar to those political animals who need "leaders" (hegemones). Moreover, Aristotle observed, since males tend to be more "hegemonic" than females, males are naturally inclined to seek the highest positions of political leadership. Although Aristotle did not identify chimpanzees as political animals, he did recognize that chimpanzees were the animals most similar to human beings, a conclusion that he reached after a meticulous dissection of chimpanzee bodies. Also, there's very little in Machiavelli's political realism that can't be found in Aristotle's political biology--particularly, in what he says about how tyrants preserve their power and what has to be done in times of revolutionary upheaval.

Now I know that the followers of Leo Strauss assume that Aristotle's talk about human beings as political animals by nature is only his "exoteric" teaching, and that his "esoteric" teaching is in agreement with Hobbes--that politics is artificial, not natural, because it depends on the artifice of statesmen establishing political traditions. But, as I have argued in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT, this assumes a false dichotomy between nature and artifice, which ignores the fact that human beings (like other political animals) have natural instincts for social learning, so that political order arises from a complex interaction of nature and nurture. To assert that politics is purely cultural and not natural at all would be to embrace an implausible "blank slate" view of politics. But then the Straussians contradict themselves on this point, because they insist that the utopian teaching of Plato's REPUBLIC is "against human nature," which suggests that there really is some natural structure to human social and political life.

Quoting Chapter 9 of Machiavelli's Prince ("Of the Civil Principate"), de Waal sees the political life of chimpanzees as conforming to Machiavelli's political psychology. Machiavelli writes that when a private citizen becomes a prince through the favor of his fellow citizens, which he calls a "civil principate," the prince comes to power either with the favor of the people or with that of the great. "For in every city, these two different humors are to be found. Thus it is that the people desire not to be commanded or oppressed by the great, and the great desire to command and to oppress the people." Consequently, the great will elevate one of their own to make him prince if he will help them oppress the people; or the people will make one man the prince if he will protect them from the oppression of the great.

Machiavelli explains:

. . . He who comes to the principate with the aid of the great maintains himself with more difficulty than the one who attains to it with the aid of the people--for he finds himself prince with many around him who opine themselves his equals, and because of this he cannot command or manage them in his own mode.

But he who arrives at the principate with the popular favor finds himself alone, and there will be no one or very few around him who are not prepared to obey. Besides this, one cannot with honesty satisfy the great without injuring others, but one can well do that with the people. For the end of the people is more honest than that of the great, the latter wanting to oppress, the former not to be oppressed.

One who becomes prince by means of the favor of the people ought, therefore, to keep them his friends. This is made easy for him, for they ask of him only that they be not oppressed. But one who becomes prince with the favor of the great, against the people, ought above all things to gain the people to himself; which is easily done when he undertakes their protection.

This point about how easy it is for a prince to please the people--by just not oppressing them--is stressed by John Locke in his account of how a "wise and godlike prince" can exercise the executive power without resistance as long as he refrains from oppressing the people. Only foolish princes become so oppressive, Locke observes, that the people must assert their right to resistance.

This is what de Waal saw in his chimps at Arnhem. The alpha male needed to gain the support of the adult females and the children by keeping the peace through impartial intervention into disputes. By contrast, an alpha male who was too dependent on other high-ranking males was insecure, because these ambitious males would look for the first opportunity to overthrow him and take his dominant position.

De Waal explained the political ambition of the adult males--their drive to become the alpha male--as a product of evolution by natural selection, because the dominant males had more access to fertile females, and thus the dominant males would, on average, have higher reproductive fitness.

De Waal concluded that his study of chimpanzee politics sustained Machiavelli's teaching about human politics:

Nearly five centuries ago, Machiavelli described the political manipulations of the Italian princes, popes and influential families such as the Medici and the Borgias without equivocation. Unfortunately, his admirably realistic analysis has often been mistaken for a moral justification of these practices. One reason for this was that he presented rivalries and conflicts as constructive and not negative elements. Machiavelli ws the first man to refuse to repudiate or cover up power motives. This violation of the existing collective lie was not kindly received. It was regarded as an insult to humanity.

To compare humans with chimpanzees can be taken to be just as insulting, or perhaps even more so, because human motives seem to become more animal as a result. And yet, among chimpanzees, power politics are not merely 'bad' or 'dirty.' They give to the life of the Arnhem community its logical coherence and even a democratic structure. All parties search for social significance and continue to do so until a temporary balance is achieved. This balance determines the new hierarchical positions. Changing relationships reach a point where they become 'frozen' in more or less fixed ranks. When we see how this formalization takes place during reconciliations, then we understand that the hierarchy is a cohesive factor, which puts limits on competition and conflict. Child care, playing, sex, and cooperation depend on the resultant stability. But underneath the surface, the situation is constantly in a state of flux. The balance of power is tested daily and if it proves too weak, it is challenged and a new balance established. Consequently chimpanzee politics are also constructive. Human beings should regard it as an honour to be classed as political animals.

Like Aristotle, de Waal recognizes that human politics is unique because of the uniqueness of human language and conceptual reasoning, which allows human politics to express the human rhetorical debate over concepts of the good, the just, and the useful. Nevertheless, de Waal sees in human politics the same spirited desire for dominance that he sees in chimpanzee politics.

This claim that human politics manifests a primate political nature based on rule by alpha males becomes more persuasive if one considers Ludwig's study of political leadership. Ludwig's book shows that the political history of the 20th century confirms the claim of Aristotle, Darwin, and de Waal that male dominance of politics is rooted in human biological nature. Ludwig supports his argument with a meticulous analysis of the 1,941 chief executive rulers of the independent countries in the 20th century. He illustrates his points with lively anecdotes from the lives of the 377 rulers for whom he had extensive biographical information. In addition to this anecdotal evidence, he provides quantitative measures of the behavior of political leaders that confirm his argument.

The political history of the 20th century clearly supports Roberto Michels' "iron law of oligarchy": despite the attempts of socialists to establish absolute equality, every social group and political community shows a tendency to oligarchic rule by those elites ambitious enough to seek power. Moreover, we also see a tendency for power at the top to be taken by single person exercising executive rule.

And, in most cases, these highest positions of power are filled by men. Of the 1,941chief executive rulers in the 20th century, only 27 were women. Of those 27, almost half came to power through their connection to their politically powerful fathers or husbands. For example, Benazir Bhutto rose to power in Pakistan after the assassination of her father. After being expelled and then returning to power, she herself fell to an assassin. Corazon Aquino rose to power in the Philippines after the assassination of her husband. Only a very few women--like Margaret Thatcher--rose to power on their own without any tie to a powerful man. But even in these cases, women like Thatcher were embedded within a male-dominated political world. And their success depended on showing manly propensities--showing that they had "balls."

As indicated by Machiavelli and de Waal, Ludwig's study shows that rulers who oppress the people, and thus provoke hatred and contempt, are exposed to assassination, military coups, and violent revolutions. Those rulers that Ludwig identifies as "tyrants" or "authoritarians" are much more likely to meet a bad outcome than rulers in a democracy. If democratic rulers become unpopular, they can be removed from office by defeat in an election.

The spread of modern democracy--based on limited government with checks and balances--confirms the suggestions of Machiavelli and de Waal that our politial nature can be managed through a balance of power in a mixed regime. The ambitious few can satisfy their ambition by seeking the highest public offices. And the prince can satisfy his desire for dominance by filling the chief executive office. But this drive for dominance is channeled through a constitutional system of limited and balanced powers so that--as James Madison said--"ambition is made to counteract ambition." Consequently, the great multitude of the people who have no ambition to rule, but who only want to be free from oppression, are protected from exploitation by the ruling few, although there remains the threat of popular revolution if the constitutional restraints on power fail.

Ludwig explains modern constitutional democracy as showing how human beings can use cultural institutions to restrain their biological drives for dominance. But I am persuaded by Christopher Boehm's argument that constitutional democracy is rooted in the evolved natural tendency of subordinates to resist being exploited--a tendency that can be seen in chimpanzees as well as human foragers. Thus, we can understand constitutional republicanism as a mixed regime that balances the evolved biological propensities of the one, the few, and the many.

And yet there are some obvious objections that should be answered. Surely many people would object that while the primate model of rule by alpha males depends on the alpha males having greater reproductive success than other individuals, it's not clear that this holds for human rulers.

Ludwig answers this objection by showing that there really is some reproductive benefit for human rulers. He calculates the rate of "sexual profligacy" among married male rulers--their rate of sexual promiscuity, infidelity, or polygamy; and he shows that the most powerful rulers have higher rates of sexual profligacy. The highest rate is 95% for tyrants, and the lowest rate is 40% for democratic rulers. Apparently, the limits on the power of democratic rulers constrain their sexual behavior. But even so, the 40% rate for democratic rulers is a little higher than the estimate of the Kinsey Report for married men in the United States who have had at least one extramarital affair--37%.

Another objection is that the primate model of rule by alpha males fails to account for the potential of alpha females. After all, even among chimps, females have their own dominance hierarchy. And among some primates--particularly bonobos--the females seem to be dominant over the males. Furthermore, we could argue that the human pattern of male dominance is changing as more and more women are beginning to rise to the top.

Ludwig only briefly refers to bonobos, and he doesn't consider the possibility suggested by de Waal that human beings might be "bipolar primates" who combine chimp and bonobo propensities--who might, therefore, be open to female rulers as well as male rulers. Ludwig does suggest, however, that human politics could benefit from having more women in high positions of power so that they can introduce a more "estrogenic approach" to politics that would bring more peace and less war. Here Ludwig would be on the side of Malcolm Potts, who hopes that giving more influence to women will moderate the male propensity to war.

It is not clear to me, however, that this is likely. It is certainly true that women today have more freedom than ever before in modern democracies to pursue political careers. But most of the women who enter politics prefer to concentrate on local politics where they can do some good for their communities. Those women who might pursue the highest offices--women like Maggie Thatcher ("The Iron Lady")--are likely to be high testosterone women who will show all the character traits of manly dominance.

Some of my essays and blog posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Troy Camplin said...

Analysis makes sense to me. You might consider my thesis on the specific causes, though:

Kent Guida said...

Great post. Mubarak, Maciavelli, Aristotle and deWaal all singing the same song. Very impressive.

One question: who are the "followers of Leo Strauss" who say Aristotle is a secret Hobbesian? I confess I'm drawing a blank on this.

Kent Guida

Larry Arnhart said...


From my experience, many Straussians (particularly those connected to the University of Toronto and Boston College) have adopted the argument of Wayne Ambler in "Aristotle's Understanding of the Naturalness of the City," REVIEW OF POLITICS, 47 (1985): 163-85. Ambler claims that the esoteric teaching of Aristotle is that human beings are not political animals by nature.

Troy Camplin said...

Esoteric readings of Plato and Nietzsche make sense. But not of someone as straightforward as Aristotle

Kent Guida said...

Thanks. I got the Ambler piece, and I'll give his argument my best effort.

A number of the Toronto/Boston faction you mention have decamped to Austin, and I will have ample opportunity to pursue this angle with them. I'm very interested in hearing their complete case.
Kent Guida

Anonymous said...

These articles in the current issue of Science may be relevant:

Contemporary humans exhibit spectacular biological success derived from cumulative culture and cooperation. The origins of these traits may be related to our ancestral group structure. Because humans lived as foragers for 95% of our species’ history, we analyzed co-residence patterns among 32 present-day foraging societies (total n = 5067 individuals, mean experienced band size = 28.2 adults). We found that hunter-gatherers display a unique social structure where (i) either sex may disperse or remain in their natal group, (ii) adult brothers and sisters often co-reside, and (iii) most individuals in residential groups are genetically unrelated. These patterns produce large interaction networks of unrelated adults and suggest that inclusive fitness cannot explain extensive cooperation in hunter-gatherer bands. However, large social networks may help to explain why humans evolved capacities for social learning that resulted in cumulative culture.