Machiavelli favoured direct democracy. He was a civil republican, who favoured the rule of the masses by the masses, as he explained in The Discourses and The Histories. That said, he did write some bloody book called 'The Prince' (or Il Principe) which, although it was often presumed to be a satire, later emerged in published letters from Niccolo to be a deadly serious text designed to ingratiate himself with the Medicis.
Meet the new boss
Let's back-track. The Medicis were an extraordinarily powerful merchant family in Renaissance Italy, who tried and often succeeded in finding establishment religio-political support. They had ruled Florence since 1434, but were briefly interrupted by a powerful reform movement in 1494 that included the renovation of ancient-style democracy (as with so much else, Renaissance political ideas merely recuperated and updated the ancients). During this time, Machiavelli was a diplomat and was sent on missions to other city-states, which caused him to conclude that some societies (corrupt and effete) need a smack of tough government. The Medicis regained power in 1512 with the help of Spanish troops, and Machiavelli was deposed from his public office, imprisoned and tortured with the strappado (a technique recently revived in Guantanamo ).
In his youth, Machiavelli had watched Savonarola from afar; the great religious charismatic was both anti-Renaissance and opposed to the new merchant class that was emerging. Lorenzo de Medici was to become the target of his preaching, and it was Savonarola's students who would collect mirrors, 'pagan' books, gaming tables, dresses etc and burn them in "The Bonfire of Vanities". Machiavelli later developed, like Hobbes, a comprehensive disdain for religion. Hobbes said:
If this superstitious fear of spirits were taken away, and with it, prognostics from dreams, false prophecies, and many other things depending thereon, by which, crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people, men would be much more fitted than they are for simple disobedience. (Leviathan, chapter 3, page 15).
We know what Hobbes thought of civil disobedience, and we also know what he thought of fear, whether inspired by goblins or external enemies: "it is impossible to approve any virtues that do not arise from fear, fear of violent death, and whose essence consists in the conquest and denial of fear". (Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis, 1952). Fear enjoins us to prudence, and Machiavelli was not immune to it, hence Il Principe. Machiavelli says in it: "men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared because love is held together by a chain of obligation which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken on every occasion".
Morals and morons
During Machiavelli's life-time, Italy was a loose collection of city-states, sometimes ruled by Princes, otherwise ruled on a republican democratic basis. These states were extremely small, powerless, and therefore vulnerable to being overrun by the King of France or the Holy Roman Emperor. As far as Machiavelli was concerned, republican liberty was not even possible unless the ruler of the country or state was adequate to the situation: that is, adequate to repelling a foreign invasion. For this reason, he argued that a certain code of ethics applied to rulers that didn't necessarily apply more generally to people. To a large extent, this position derived from his hostility to religious morality. He could believe that individuals had their private morality to pursue, if they must, but insisted that a different morality applied to the rulers of states since, without their success, one's private morality would not be possible. So, what would be immoral in a private citizen may be mandatory for a ruler. (See Isaiah Berlin, The Originality of Machiavelli, 1998, pp. 269-325; also this 1971 article for the New York Review of Books ). Machiavelli puts it thus:
You must realise this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate. (Il Principe, 2003, p 57).
The kernel of liberalism resides here: while the Christian political tradition venerated humility, self-abnegation and so on, Machiavelli argued that the state's primary obligation was to provide a framework of civil peace, and therefore that rulers were answerable to different standards of behaviour. Rulers must be bold, power-hungry, cunning and brutal, particularly in order to withstand threats from without. Hobbes would have rejected these as virtues as such, since they pertain only to a state of nature which is, for him, a state of war. Initially a fan of aristocratic virtue, he later dismissed it as so much strutting. Nevertheless, the similarity in Hobbes' and Machiavelli's view of human nature and the necessary safeguards against it is striking.
But while Hobbes was a rationalist, Machiavelli was an historicist. Since, he maintained, human beings shared essential, common features, "animated by the same desires and passions", it should possible to study historical parralels and draw relevant conclusions. For any political problem one might encounter, there was a historical database that would suggest solutions. Hence, much of Il Principe is given over to mining historical episodes like the Alexandrian conquest of Darius III, the last Achaemenid King of Persia for career lessons. Similarly, "I know no better precepts to give a new prince than the ones derived from Cesare [Borgia]'s actions". But the main repository of historical comparison for Niccolo is, obviously enough, ancient Rome, and he read the first printed edition of Livy's works when the enterprising Petrarch collated the dispersed manuscripts into a single text.
Courage, skill and women.
The conclusions he drew from that included the idea that a ruler's task is structured around three inter-playing factors: necessita, fortuna and virtu. The first is more or less what it sounds like, physical and practical necessity. Not a believer in Christian telos or divine necessity, he means simply that array of very probable circumstances that any ruler has to face. From historical example, he draws prescriptive generalisations that he says should guide a ruler (the necessity, for instance, of the "faculty of accusation" for "the maintenance of liberty").
Fortuna is - well, as he put it, la fortuna e donna: fortune is a woman. Impetuous, uncontrollable, unpredictable and dangerous, fortune is more readily wooed by a man who is himself impetuous, and siezes the opportunity, than one who makes "cold advances". Fortune "is the arbiter of one half of our actions", so any ruler had better make sure to recognise where fortune was heading, sieze chances, and act impetuously. Men, being set in their ways, do not respond adequately to fortune's alterations. Pope Julius II, for instance, fared well on account of being impetuous when the time was apt for it, but would not have done so well if fortune had altered significantly in his lifetime. So, fortuna entails flexibility of strategy in response to changing times.
Virtu refers to manliness and valour, but also skill, cunning and prowess. Chutzpah is close to its sense. How quickly does one see the opportunities and react to them? How readily does one spot similarities with past situations, but also important differences? It involves a "politics of the will" in which a person's capacities and proclivities are at the fore.
But these are skills required of a ruler who must protect his territory from some perpetual outside threat. How can Machiavelli square that with his belief in republicanism and the active involvement of the citizenry in government? Although Machiavelli was an essentialist about human nature, he was aware that skills were unevenly distributed among the public. Some were suited for leadership, others to making hats and farming. Even in a civil republic, leaders would emerge who had the quality of virtu, who could negotiate with fortune, and who understood political necessity.
This is all very well. A new political morality compatible both with direct democracy and the rule of the ruthless and conniving. "That's very Leninist", I hear some of you titter. Shut up. But what is interesting is the conclusions some liberal theorists draw from this: Of course our governments lie, of course we don't expect to be told the truth about weapons of mass destruction or the overthrow of democracy in Chile. Rulers are obliged to lie, and we expect them to. Frankly, I think that's bollocks. Machiavelli devised a narrow political science to help leaders achieve an end that might otherwise be relinquished to failure. But this is for rulers of states whose invasion or extinction is a genuine possibility, not venal mass murdering bastards who simply want to extend their reach in the world. And, at any rate, until we have our direct democracy and genuine republican liberty, we are doomed to be at the mercy of those who do not have our best interests at heart.
Therefore, channelling the spirit of Machiavelli, I suggest we undertake to throw off our rulers by whatever means necessary and choose for ourselves a polity, economy and popular music industry in which the masses are directly involved and those who hold any office or power whatsoever are directly accountable to them. A suggestion, like I say, no more than that.