The Machiavellians: Principle II

The struggle for power
The struggle for power

The second principle outlined in James Burnham’s 1943 political science classic The Machiavellians is the fundamental truth about politics:

2. The primary subject-matter of political science is the struggle for social power in its diverse open and concealed forms.

(Contrary views hold that political thought deals with the general welfare, the common good, and other such entities that are from time to time invented by the theorists.)

To paraphrase Clausewitz:

[Politics] is nothing but a duel on a large scale. Countless duels go to make up [politics], but a picture of the whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries…to compel the other to do his will; his immediate aim is to throw his opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance.

Burnham’s emphasis on struggle is key. Power is finite. Desire is infinite. So no one can get everything they want. A few will get the power they need. Even more will not. Since the question of who gets the power necessary to satisfy their desires is unlikely to be settled by friendly discussion alone, struggle will inevitably result. Burnham expands on this idea:

What are we talking about when we talk politics? Many, to judge by what they write, seem to think we are talking about man’s search for the ideally good society, or his mutual organization for the maximum social welfare, or his natural aspiration for peace and harmony, or something equally removed from the world as it is and has been. Machiavelli understood politics as primarily the study of the struggles for power among men. By so marking its field, we are assured that there is being discussed something that exists, not something spun out of idealist’s dreams, or nightmares. If our interest is in man as he is on this earth, so far as we can learn from the facts of history and experience, we must conclude that he has no natural aspiration for peace or harmony, he does not form states in order to achieve an ideally good society, nor does he accept mutual organization is to secure the maximum social welfare. But men, and groups of men, do, by various means, struggle among themselves for relative increases in power and privilege. In the course of these struggles and as part of them, governments are established and overthrown, laws passed and violated, wars fought and won and lost. A definition is arbitrary, true enough, but Machiavelli’s implied definition of the field of politics as the struggle for power is at least insurance against nonsense.

Max Weber anticipated Burnham’s definition decades earlier earlier in Politics as a Vocation:

‘Politics’ for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.

Christopher Bassford expands on the same theme in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century:

Politics is the highly variable process by which power is distributed in any society: the family, the office, a religious order, a tribe, the state, an empire, a region, an alliance, and the international community. The process of distributing power may be fairly orderly—through consensus, inheritance, election, some time-honored tradition, or it may be chaotic—through assassination, revolution, and warfare.

Burnham’s second Machiavellian principle reinforces Clausewitz’s contention that “war is the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means”. A. A. Svechin provides a bridge between Clausewitz’s “other means” and Burnham’s struggle for power:

The foreign and civil wars are not self-contained but form only a portion of the continuous political interaction among human factions. During a war the political life of the countries waging it continues rather than grinds to a halt.

War is only a part of political conflict. The art of politics lies in defending the interests of a certain faction among all other factions. It operates in an atmosphere of the clash of many forces…

Since politics is the struggle for social power in its many forms, war is merely a continuation of the struggle for power with the addition of force and fraud.

Burham’s emphasis on social power reiterates the truth that politics pervades society and every group (or social) activity. Families do politics, groups of small children at play do politics, cheerleaders do politics, and high school students really do politics. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, previously a professor of economics, joked that he ran for Congress because he was sick of cutthroat faculty politics. Man, as Aristotle has been twisted to say, is a political animal.

Enumerating the forms of power as both “open” and “concealed” is important. Much of the power exercised in society is concealed or invisible. Power shifts along a spectrum that ranges between the invisible whispers of influence and the visible bang of violence. The invisible hand is sometimes the best route to political success.

2 thoughts on “The Machiavellians: Principle II”

  1. Looking at everything from a win – lose position is not very smart. It is useful for sports and war but little else.

    It is a large problem in the world. Subtly should be encouraged but is not.

    Go back to fighting each other … sorry to intrude.

  2. In the exercise of social authority there is always a winner and a loser, or at least some who win more than others – be it sports, war, business or politics. Power sharing implies some form of distribution. How one determines what is equitable in that arrangement is another matter. I don’t know that there is a good historical example where a government shared power for any other reason than that it had to in order to govern.

    In a republic the issue of mandate is often employed to provide cover for legitimately pursuing a policy that may not be desired or required, but in that example a “vote” is only a snapshot in time, one where the mandate may have been obtained due to factors that had little to do with the issue / policy at hand.

    Even if one builds a coalition between those who may be rivals on other matters, that venture is limited to the extent that interests coincide. Successful ventures may become more enduring partnerships, but when a point of impasse occurs there is still the issue of who has the authority to determine an outcome. It is a matter of tolerance, else why would there be more than one side of an argument, or point of view.

    Best, Rob

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