In his major writings, especially the Discourses on Livy and in Florentine Histories, Niccolo Machiavelli addresses a fundamental conflict in the very use and necessity of conflict itself. On the one hand he firmly believes that conflicts are inevitable to civic existence and flourishing. Deferral of conflict is not a choice given to us. In fact, periodic tumults can do some good in affirming certain lost democratic principles in the civitas by bringing the corrupt and the wayward aristocracy within the ambit of a certain popular reckoning.

On the other hand, he seriously worries about the deepest wound and harm that existential modes of conflict might lead to, preventing states from achieving stability and advancement in their wake. This fundamental dichotomy is crucial to understanding the discontents of democracy in our times, though the conditions may seem to be different.

Most of the time in Machiavelli, such conflicts have a class nature to them: conflicts arise between the grandi – patricians and oligarchs on one side, and plebeians – small producers and artisans on the other. But sometimes tumults and distrust cut across classes, spreading laterally and taking more ominous contours. Ambition then becomes the prime motivating factor and aspirations turn rogue. Factions narrow their identities and turn into random collection of dissociated individuals, each struggling for raw power. The space of collective negotiation and bargaining begin to shrink.

The arithmetic of modern politics

Machiavelli views history as a process of mutation, to borrow Antonio Negri’s term, realised essentially through conflict. And such mutations are given direction by the political actors through a combination of judgement/prudence and arms.

Are violent conflicts another mode of negotiation? Are conflicts the initial signposts for asserting collective rights which may eventually lead to legal changes and fresh civic formulations, thus making a whole people more democratic? Or do real conflicts inevitably degenerate into personal skirmishes and bloodletting? Can such modes be seen as forms of necessary purgation in public life or are these merely cycles of vendetta extraction and as such, have little to do with any genuine transformation of public life? In between all these, one traces the realities of active citizenship.

Indeed, Machiavelli penetratingly calculates the arithmetic of modern mass politics. The stability of any regime depends on the dynamic relationship of adversarial and conflictual politics between the prince and the plebs. The two are existential adversaries to each other and yet there is a cat and mouse game that constantly characterises the relationship. The dialectical principle between the two classes is left open and taut.

This game of formal distancing can break down into chaos if any one side decides to uncover fangs and turn violent. In such a case the prince turns into a tyrant and the people, into a fascistic mob. The Prince and the Discorsi essentially deal with two sides of the same motor, calibrating the ever dynamic relationship between the people and the nobility and the formal shifts in the sphere of regime that each develops within a particular conjecture of history.

Indeed, Machiavelli charts a veritable force-field of conflict. From within the belly of such radical contingency, where “only the constellation of events is meaningful”, as Claude Lefort has put it, sometimes the order of custom shifts gear and a new order of innovation appears. Such innovation leads to new modes of operation. In other times, conflict goes haywire and the system crashes. Therefore, force needs to be husbanded. Certain political antagonists must be cajoled while others annihilated; some honoured while others exiled. This calibrating and husbanding of force is the key to a productive idea of mass politics.

Since Machiavelli is not warm to the idea of natural law, the notion of governance in the Discorsi, where the question of class appears front and centre, is once again based on speculation about human nature and its fundamental conflictual tendencies. The perversity of human nature is most apparent in the appetites of the grandi and in people’s adversarial desires. Democratic institutions arise out of political tumult. The Tribune is one such restraining institutional apparatus which was designed to put limits to the insolence of the grandi at that time.

Indictments and calumnies

In fact, Machiavelli makes an astounding claim in the fourth chapter of the First Book of Discorsi: that disunity between the plebs and the senate brings prosperity and flourishing to Rome. Tumults are not meaningless noises; they constitute the reason for kindling freedom. Class divisions and social conflicts need not be masked; the productive tensions within the divisions must rather be explored. The power of such a free state fostered by disunity appears to be the regime of law itself. Law “happens” in Rome by giving full vent to people’s appetites and ambitions. This is Machiavelli at his egalitarian best.

But soon he begins to delve into the inner dynamics of popular politics and a vital distinction is made between the populist and the popular – a distinction that is especially germane for our times. The distinction is worked out through two divergent modes of enacting plebian grievance: through indictments and calumnies.

Indictments are run through an objective process which is based in manifest evidence and judicial deliberation. Calumnies, by contrast, are spread in public squares and backrooms, which implicate people via rumour-mongering and hearsay. Calumny is venting of humour in a private manner with little objectivity.

We realise that the animosity is not just a matter of pitting two historically antagonistic classes against each other but about mapping two existential conditions. And it is here that political indeterminacy increases manifold. From the side of the plebs, the key is to keep badgering the grandi. From the side of the grandi, the essential element is to maintain the esoteric and secret ways to govern.

This accepting of reactionary nature of venting animus, which is projected as progressive measures of class antagonism, is crucial to realising the existential nature of populism in general. Demagogic and factional excesses are counterproductive to democracy – since there are “very many judges” under the category of people. The danger with slandering is that “slanders irritate but do not punish the citizens and those who are irritated think of avenging themselves, rather hating than fearing the things that are said against them.”

Here Machiavelli prescribes severe punishment for the slanderer. But soon he also argues for the violent route of enacting justice: through “memorable executions” of people’s enemies. In other words – lynching becomes a kosher method in order to identify and isolate scapegoats. We encounter a terrified, restless, depressed and acutely insecure culture. This is not the promise when uprisings get triggered.

Machiavelli also tells us that such a form of direct democracy must also nest a righteous core, which would constantly signal collective virtue for the sake of common good. There is an underlying melancholic tone and a sense of wasted opportunity in Machiavelli’s democratic overtures.

Cases in point

In his works Machiavelli depicts this key struggle through two memorable cases that changed early modern European politics altogether. One, the case of Brothers Gracchi, who started with the aim of bringing economic equity by reviving certain Agrarian laws, but ended up pushing Rome into a cycle of retribution and “private remedies”. This led to the complete collapse of the republic.

The other case is that of the 1378 Ciompi revolt – the wool carders uprising, dealt extensively by Machiavelli in Florentine Histories. Once again, what started as an egalitarian movement soon vitiates into gaining raw power and settling scores. In moments that required prudence, the insurgents redouble evils, multiply arson and robbery. They take resort to a primal drive: converting envy and fear into hatred.

Both the episodes, in practical terms, show the cost and debasement of progressive political conflicts into factionalism, especially if such forms of conflict are allowed to burn slow – through mere scandals, half-truths and a steady bloodshed. Conflict, instead of helping the city-state thrive as was Machiavelli’s hope, ends up as a zero-sum game. The result of such primitive outpourings is finally inconclusive cycles of massified sectarian power play.

We are left with the fragility of human hope.

Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English in Delhi University.