Machiavelli Against Republicanism

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    Machiavelli against Republicanism: On the Cambridge School's "Guicciardinian Moments" Author(s): John P. McCormick Source: Political Theory, Vol. 31, No. 5 (Oct., 2003), pp. 615-643Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.Stable URL: 04-03-2015 20:15 UTC

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  • MACHIAVELLI AGAINST REPUBLICANISM On the Cambridge School's "Guicciardinian Moments"

    JOHNE McCORMICK University of Chicago

    Scholars loosely affiliated with the "Cambridge School " (e.g, Pocock, Skinne; Wroli, and Pettit) accentuate rule of law, common good, class equilibrium, and non-domination in Machiavelli's political thought and republicanism generally but underestimate the Florentine 's preferencefor class conflict and ignore his insistence on elite accountability. The author argues that they obscure the extent to which Machiavelli is an anti-elitist critic of the republican tradition, which theyfail to disclose was predominantly oligarchic. The prescriptive lessons these scholars draw from republicanism for contemporary politics reinforce rather than reform the "senatorial," electorally based, and socioeconomically agnostic republican model (devised by Machiavelli 's aristocratic interlocutor, Guicciardini, and refined by Montesquieu and Madison) that permits common citizens to acclaim but not determine government policies. Cambridge School textual interpretations andpractical proposals have little connection with Machiavelli 's "tribunate," class-specific model of popular government elaborated in The Discourses, one that relies on extra-electoral accountability techniques and embraces deliberative popular assemblies.

    Keywords: Machiavelli; republicanism; Cambridge School; Skinner; Pocock; Pettit; elitism


    Republicanism, in ancient and modern political theory and practice, guar- antees the privileged position of elites more than it facilitates political partici- pation by the general populace (Nippel 1980, 1994; Molho et al. 1991). I argue that this fact is obscured by scholars associated with the most influen-

    AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay was presented at the American Political Science Association meeting, SanFrancisco (September2, 2001); theRemarqueInstitute, New York University (Sep- tember 21, 2001); and the Department of Political Science, University of Chicago (December 13, 2001). For comments and criticisms, I thankEeterBreiner, Bob Dahl, Tony Judt, Jacob Levy, Bernard Manin, Patchen Markell, John Padgett, Jennifer Pitts, John Pocock, Jerry Seigel, Ian Shapiro, Carl Shaw, Quentin Skinner, Susan Stokes, Nathan Tarcov, Iris Marion Young, Alex Wendt, and two anonymous reviewers for Political Theo.

    POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 31 No. 5, October 2003 615-643 DOI: 10.1177/0090591703252159 C) 2003 Sage Publications


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  • 616 POLITICAL THEORY / October 2003

    tial approach to the study of classical and early-modem republicanism, the so-called Cambridge School. The classical model of republicanism-from Aristotle to Cicero in theory, from Sparta to Rome in practice-assigns spe- cific institutions or particular functions to the general or poorer segments of the population who govern alongside of, or subserviently to, aristocratically dominated offices and bodies. The modem form, perhaps best represented by Guicciardini and Madison, permits the populace at large to select which- almost invariably wealthy and notable-magistrates will rule over them. The latter form is often identified as the forerunner of representative, liberal, or mass democracy, and even-with proper disassociation from ancient, more "direct" examples-democracy, as such. Theorists such as Pareto (1987), Michels ([1911] 1990), Mosca ([1896] 1980), and Schumpeter (1942) rel- ished the persistence of elite domination over the general populace in modem democracy; more progressive theorists like Dahl (1990) and Przeworski (1999) seem to be resigned to it. The republican-inherited "minimalist" crite- rion of popular government generally agreed upon by both sets of democratic theorists-namely, periodic selection of public officials for specific terms of office by the general populace-seems insufficient for contemporary demo- cratic theory and practice.' Critics point out that the primarily electoral con- ception of popular government does not succeed at keeping elites account- able and responsive to the general public (see Bachrach 1967; Habermas 1973; Shapiro 2001).

    Scholars of republican political thought associated with the Cambridge School, such as Pocock (1975), Skinner (1998), Viroli (1998), and Pettit (1999), often use insights derived from their historical and theoretical research in an attempt to inform, enhance, and broaden contemporary political theory and practice.2 They admirably show us what contemporary liberal democracy, whatever commonalties it shares with republicanism, lacks in contrast with the latter tradition: for example, the expression of a non-xenophobic patrio- tism, attention to the common good, emphasis on duties as opposed to rights, and the importance of more substantive political participation (e.g., Viroli 1997; Skinner 1978; Pocock 1985; Pettit 2001).3 However, on the basis of what follows, I implore these scholars to desist in such endeavors. Because of the traditional oligarchic tendencies of republicanism I plead with them, and those influenced by them, to reconsider the use of the term and cease in the attempt to supplement contemporary democracy with insights from that tra- dition (see Ackerman 1991; Habermas 1996; Sandel 1996; Sunstein 2001). I am convinced that republicanism, unless reconstructed almost beyond the point of recognition, can only reinforce what is worst about contemporary liberal democracy: the free hand that socioeconomic and political elites enjoy

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    at the expense of the general populace. The grounds for my plea are based on conceptual analysis and historical examples, and my greatest resource in this effort is the work of an intellectual figure very dear to the Cambridge School scholars of republicanism mentioned above: Niccolo Machiavelli.4

    I have argued elsewhere (McCormick 2001) that Machiavelli is an unac- knowledged compromise between minimalist or elitist theorists of democ- racy, on the one hand, and more idealist, participatory theorists, on the other (e.g., Barber 1990; Sandel 1996). Importantly, I understand this compromise to be, as it were, a better deal for egalitarian democrats than what is generally offered by elitist, minimalist, republican, and/or substantive democrats. Machiavelli conceded that socioeconomic elites will very likely attain most of the positions of political power even in the most popularly inclusive regimes, but he also shows that the general populace can render these elites more accountable than do the simple electoral standards and mechanisms that liberal democracy has inherited from republicanism. On these and other grounds, I have argued that Machiavelli's populist theory of holding elites to account is closer to a more egalitarian democratic than to a traditional republican theory: unlike the latter theory of popular government, which is largely acclamatory, Machiavellian democracy is both participatory and contestatory.

    Beyond conventional republican principles and practices, in Book I of The Discourses, Machiavelli advocates procedures for the popular indictment of officials, judgment by the people on certain kinds of legal cases, and the establishment of class-specific advocacy institutions; praises the people gathering collectively in deliberative bodies; and, generally, interprets Roman representative institutions in more democratic ways (e.g., 1.4,1.5,1.7, 1.44,1.57). These practices and institutions may seem superficially consonant with republicanism, but, as I will elaborate below, the latter had always pre- scribed a much more narrow role for the populace in republics or "mixed regimes"-at least too narrow to warrant association with Machiavelli and to render republicanism a resource for contemporary progressive politics. Thus, while we owe republican interpreters of Machiavelli a tremendous debt of gratitude for calling into question narrowly "tyrannical" or "immoralist" interpretations of the great Florentine, their inattention to the inherent elitism of traditional republicanism and the steadfast anti-elitism of Machiavelli's political thought renders their attempts to improve the contemporary theory and practice of popular government wanting and even harmful. Before dem- onstrating this, however, I would like to reinforce some of the provisional claims made above.

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