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Machiavelli in China, or, European democracy and the return of conflict

Chinese thought has a millenarian aversion to political and social fragmentation. From the classics of Confucius to the writings of liberal Huang Zongxi (1610-1695), words such as partiality and partisanship have always represented the rejection of the common good of society in favour of selfish or private interest. A party has always been understood as a clique, the representation of a particular interest as a demand for personal gain.



  • The crucial danger for most Chinese philosophers has always been to fall in love, to subscribe passionately to a single position

  • The agonistic conception of change, typical of European phisosophy, is mostly absent from Chinese thought

  • The attempt to entrench a defence of constituted power and privileges, in the face of rising demands for a new social deal, is irresponsible and dangerous


Whilst in ancient Greece the the flow of 'Becoming' was pitted against the stable truth of ‘Being’, this idea – foundational for European thought – has never appeared in China. Chinese philosophy has always felt profound malaise with ultimate convictions, certain beliefs, and, in the political arena, the intransigence of the partisan.


The crucial danger for most Chinese philosophers has always been to fall in love, to subscribe passionately and convincingly to a single position, a single chosen true belief.


This is evident in the concept of the mean, an idea already present in Confucian political philosophy. The mean is not the middle-point between two opposites, it is not the average between two different entities, nor, as in Aristotle, is it a sense of reasonable moderation between extreme positions.


Rather, and unexpectedly, the mean points to the ability to move freely from one side of the spectrum to the other. It is a not specific point on the continuum, but represents the possibility of dynamism, of changing one’s position as befits the moment. It is a temporary equilibrium.


The result of this dynamism is a peculiar understanding of the notion of change, one of the pillars of Chinese thought. There are European philosophers who have placed change at the centre of their work, from Heraclitus to Hegel.


But the notion of change is here considered as a fight between two hostile or contradictory realities, be it in the logical field or in its political, Marxist developments. This agonistic conception of change is mostly absent from Chinese thought, where the stress was not placed on the confrontation of opposites but on their complementariness and collaboration, with the notion of inclusive, as opposed to exclusive, opposition, as theorised for example by Wang Fuzhi (1619-1692).


This flexibility comes at high cost. The role of government - of the Emperor - was then to embody and govern the field of change in the interests of the whole body-politic, transforming cacophony into harmony through rational judgement.


The state-as-unity turns into the agent of a synthesis of all national energies and opposing tensions. In the absence of any legitimation for competing forces struggling for power within an accepted agonistic field, the system becomes dependent on an absolute centre, a throne that is super-partes and is tasked with establishing the temporary equilibrium, the mean, social harmony.


In Europe, much debate has developed on the impossibility of conflict, or of a genuine politics of struggle, in a society where all properly political decisions have ceded ground to increasingly administrative-functional prerogatives and all conflictuality inherent in the decision-making process has been discarded.


The 1990s represented the intellectual peak of this tradition and the peak of Europe’s Chinese turn, with the so-called third way ushering in a vision of a rational European modernity suited for a post-ideological and rapidly homogenising, democratising, neoliberalising world. This is also the background for the conception of governance in the European Union as we know it today.


This is the picture that is today in crisis. Consensus has broken down and conflicting visions of society have returned. Traditional centre-left and centre-right parties, amounting until recently to a vast majority of the electorate, are forced today to join forces through grand-coalitions or republican pacts in order to ensure governability or keep insurgent parties at bay. A radicalism of discourse has returned, denouncing the status quo as a sham and a scandal.


We should welcome this change. The pacification of the political field of the last twenty years presided over one of the largest transfers of wealth towards the top 10% of the population. It implemented a foreign policy that inflamed the Middle East.


It allowed the financial sector to grow out of size and blackmail the real economy. It was anything but a society fair for all, anything but a non-ideological society, and anything but simple administration requiring consensus and the harmonious rule of rationality and techne.


After all, the idea that without insubordination and conflict, the status quo is always detrimental for the majority, is a historical pillar of the European concept of the democracy.


In the institutions of ancient Republican Rome, according to Claude Lefort’s reading of Machiavelli, conflict was not merely a temporary state of affairs - a disruption - waiting to be subsumed in a higher state of harmony. Rather, conflict was the very matrix of the body politic, and the political dynamic emerging from and ensuring the continuation of the spirit of liberty.


Conflict originates with “the people” resisting the arbitrary and absolute exercise of power of “the powerful” (“i Grandi”), and establishing a political institution that protects them against unrestrained coercion and oppression (the figure of the Tribune).


Not only is power limited, but most importantly its exercise is subject to a process of negotiation and subject to a law, hence removing its arbitrary and abso-lute nature. This is made evident with the collapse of the ancien régime in Europe. Power, no longer physically embodied in the figure of the absolute king, remains hovering around an empty throne, access to which is both temporary and governed by law.


At the same time, not only does the law simply protect against abuses (it does that too), but most importantly it creates a field of legitimate political struggle where the law itself (and the limits and protections it introduces) can be constantly renegotiated through political conflict.


In other words, the establishment of a law is what allows for its own denunciation and surpassing, with the drive of liberty constantly uncovering the hidden oppressive character of the status quo and demanding its renegotiation, in an act of denouement and reconfiguration of constituted society.


This is what allows Machiavelli, in stark contrast with a Chinese tradition obsessed with the risk of social conflict and chaos, to conceive of a connection between unity and disorder, refusing the idea that disorder can or ought to be eliminated or pacified or that it represents a return to a state of nature and war. Disorder - or dissent – is, on the contrary, the principal safeguard of liberty. And, in the modern period, of democracy.


The return of political conflict in Europe, of radically competing visions of the ‘good’ of society and of the significance of laws and of Constitutions, is hence a return to the essence of democracy. We live in a time when the status quo and the social contract underlying it is failing an increasing number of people in an increasing number of countries.


It is a positive sign that people react by denuding and denouncing the entrenched privileges and injustices of the current system and that the democratic structure of political parties and popular mobilisations reflect that.


Granted, it is noticeable that a good part of the insubordination, with some important and mostly Southern European exceptions, takes the form of more or less virulently illiberal, xenophobic and nationalist pushes. And granted, there is a risk that regulated conflict, faced with a weak and fragmented polity, might turn into unregulated strife, as represented by terrorism or fascist tendencies. 


A good part of the responsibility for both is to be found in the timidity of establishment and especially social-democratic forces in accepting the end of the politics and policies of the last twenty years. The attempt to entrench a defence of constituted power and privileges, in the face of rising demands for a new social deal, is irresponsible and dangerous.


It is perhaps no coincidence that the states where right-wing extremism fails to stick are precisely those states where new social forces and parties are attempting to usher in a new social contract, such as in Greece and Spain.


Pace Confucius and pace the establishment, it is time to return to embrace de-mocracy in its simplest and most radical formulation: as a constituent practice serving to re-imagine, re-claim and re-configure the distribution of privileges, wealth and power.



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