Locked in freedom: Machiavelli vs. La Boetie in present context

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by renaissance artist Santi di Tito.

Today, Sri Lanka is in a state of transition while there is minimum level of attempt to examine authentic political dissent factor in the Sri Lankan context and how it can change the entire society in terms of oppression against absolute power. The report issued by the United States Department of State on May 24, 2012 highlights deep wounds in the Constitution after the introduction of the 18th amendment in September 2010, “The [then] president used his authority under the September 2010 18th Amendment to take greater control of appointments to previously independent public institutions that oversee the judiciary, the police, and human rights. The president now holds the authority to name all members to the Constitutional Council and its subsidiary councils, with only the requirement to ‘seek advice,’ but not approval, of parliament,” the report observed. This is the core evil effect of the executive presidential system in Sri Lanka.

“The [then] president, who was re-elected in January 2010 for a second six-year term, holds executive power, while the 225-member parliament, elected in April 2010, exercises legislative power.  The government is dominated by the president’s family; two of the president’s brothers hold key executive branch posts, as defense secretary and minister of economic development, while a third brother is the speaker of parliament.  A large number of other relatives, including the president’s son, also serve in important political or diplomatic positions.  Independent observers generally characterized the 2010 presidential and parliamentary elections as problematic,” the report added while claiming that, “corruption and general mismanagement were common in many state institutions and state-owned companies. Nepotism and cronyism continued to be a concern, and trusted ruling-party stalwarts allegedly received favoritism for high-ranking government and business positions.”

This was first time that the US had highlighted the constitutional problems and institutional collapse that are major concerns in Sri Lanka, even though writers like Paul Craig Roberts, who is a former assistant secretary of the treasury for economic policy of the US and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that, “the State Department’s human rights report never examines the US. It is a political document aimed at Washington’s chosen enemies.” However, understanding the problem in Sri Lanka without putting it into some specific pot of ethnicity or minority rights, the report has made clear the real distress in the island nation.

It was a significant event in Jaffna during the May Day (2012) celebration where the then leader of the main opposition, Ranil Wickramasinghe, tactically won the battle within the party while taking most of Tamil parties in to his cage of “good heart”. Not only because of Wicramasinghe but several other reasons, the power of the then opposition was very weak, and the opposition had become just a group of people who had to walk through a narrow path. Meanwhile former Army Commander turned politician, Sarath Fonseka, was provided the President’s special pardon. Lots of debates are going on about the former General. I too believed that the Fonseka factor was only of significant consequence in the long process. General Fonseka’s transformation into a politician was a result of intolerance and social disorder.

Unfortunately, politics in Sri Lanka has always fallen in the family category. In other words, common national policy has no actual room in Sri Lankan politics, though some outstanding people were dedicated to good governance.  In these circumstances, the opposition hardly had a chance to stop the then government’s bad ambitions. Basically, with the introduction of the 1978 constitution, the dissent factor of politics was assaulted and assassinated. The political culture that evolved after 1978 was meant to force one to believe that the dysfunctional system was the system.

Many writers have tried to explain the weakness of the constitution while the political elite were centralizing all power among themselves. What we saw in politics in Sri Lanka was that the very foundation of bad governance had been embedded in the habitual political life of lies and vulgarism. These were the despicable core tactics the government then was using to stay in power. Spreading baseless gossips about opponents played a very important role not only in keeping their reputation high but in undermining the truth.

In this context popular politics ignored the political wisdom, eventually overlapping with the popular cultural aspects rather than organizing within the framework of the rule of law. Generally, politics has more bondage with culture than with law. Because of that an idea of “social change” came into the discourse where social moments originated.  Our culture is based on a pyramidal hierarchical edifice which is always allowed to dominate and undermine the people who are at the bottom of this hierarchy. Caste has registered a system where freedom has no room. We do not have a common authentic acceptance of condition for justice. We value human beings on the basis of the place they have in the hierarchy.

The creation of a God was nothing other than to justify the authoritarian system which was headed by the King, who has tremendous unquestionable power to do whatever he wanted to. It resulted from the idea to dominate and the clash between tribal and feudal leaders. A more liberal tribal leader was changed into an undemocratic dominant king. In ancient times there were many unknown incidents occurred that human were trying to figure out. For example, natural rain was not understood by humans but later it scientifically came to be appreciated as the “water cycle” after series of experiments. With developed knowledge, most incidents were controlled to a certain extent by mankind. Once humans started controlling those incidents the whole world was changed. Fantasy had no room when the unknown became known, which in effect was the birth of a revolution. But depending on an almighty power and by living for it, is always symbolic of our backwardness not only in our personal life but for the whole society as well.

Likewise, politically in Sri Lanka, we were culturally conditioned to believe there would be no alternative if an incumbent leadership lost its power. This absurdity was rooted throughout the society, though it has cultural impact which we cannot annul from our mindset. The tradition of “no alternative if we lost the present” has become our norm, and it’s unbelievable that most intellectuals also believe it as the fact. This norm was used in two directions, one was, the regime could stay in power while presenting or creating this kind of dominant reputation among the people. Second is the worse, is that the society can obey whatever leadership has done while justifying even the unjust as the thinking is, there can be no alternative. This is ridiculous and there will be more debacles than positive achievements of societies. In other words, this can be used as a tool to move away from the responsibilities that every citizen of the country must have.

Let us go into the socio-political aspects of the present situation in the country. The problem is not from the outside but arising within. As long as the world about them did not change, the regime could be content with their way of life, indeed feel so superior to other people that they could ignore them. The trouble is that the world is changing as it happened in the past. Present system is still able to manage the ground situation but it has already failed when it’s come to international and regional levels.

There is much talk about Niccolo Machiavelli and his prime work, the Prince. The Prince is more highly regarded than his other work, the Art of War. The Prince has been reviewed hundreds of time by various people — not only those interested in politics, but others from a variety of subjects as well. The Prince always justifies absolute power and order from the King. He advises the King on how to manage the power to control and repress the citizens, even on killing people. According to the Prince, cajoling, bluff, breaking promises, chicanery were core notions to be followed by the ruler.  “A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise,” Machiavelli wrote in the Prince.

Like any other country, maintaining the power is a difficult task that a ruler is facing always. In terms of maintaining power the Prince has raised a very rational point, “Let anyone now consider with what little difficulty the king could have maintained his position in Italy had he observed the rules above laid down, and kept all his friends secure and protected; for although they were numerous they were both weak and timid, some afraid of the Church, some of the Venetians, and thus they would always have been forced to stand in with him, and by their means he could easily have made himself secure against those who remained powerful.”

The Prince always preferred centralized power, and it never concerned the rights of the citizen. In other words, the liberty of the ruler is important than anything else; perhaps the freedom of the people was locked in the cage of power. But the Prince has unable to understand or sincerely ignored the reaction of the people against an unlawful ruler. The solution that was advised by the Prince meant elimination when people were against the power. Insincerity and cajolement had become core notions of governance.

“A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this. Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them…

“States that rise unexpectedly, then, like all other things in nature which are born and grow rapidly, cannot have their foundations and relations with other states fixed in such a way that the first storm will not overthrow them; unless, as is said, those who unexpectedly become princes are men of so much ability that they know they have to be prepared at once to hold that which fortune has thrown into their laps, and that those foundations, which others have laid before they became princes, they must lay afterwards.”  In this political philosophy the defense is always authoritarian and unlawful ruling tactics. Power has been supreme to undermine the people.  Whatever the circumstances are, there the ruler must protect his power first, and only then he must be concerned about his citizen. This was the central notion of Machiavelli’s work.

After understanding this philosophy with the facts of the situation in Sri Lanka, it is very clear that most of political parties, including the so-called Marxists, are directly or indirectly based on the Machiavellian political philosophy. It’s knowingly believed that the constitutional change in Sri Lanka in 1978, when for the first time an executive presidential system was introduced, assonances of Machiavellian philosophy were found in party politics which we decorated as “colorful electoral process”. However we should not forget that principles introduced in the Prince were implemented in Sri Lanka thousands of years before they were discovered by Niccolo Machiavelli in Italy.  Kingship in ancient Sri Lanka was established on the basis of “absolute power” and the “right to transfer power in order to favor the king” — a basis which no one could question.

The idea of “no alternative if we lose the present” was rooted in our system, which became the dominant culture even after colonial inventions in the sixteenth century.  Rule of the country was based on an emotional intention of the king, people’s rights were none other than what they received by birth. Perhaps, no one has dared to questions the “power centric system”. The idea to struggle against “absolute power” or “royal absolute” first time rationally questions during the end of colonial times with the social changes that occurred in Europe during the industrial revolution, though there were minor incidents in ancient times which were basically identified as “power struggle between brethren”. There were no mass struggles against the regime till the foreign intervention period in Sri Lanka.

Even though, we never fought to change the system. We fought to protect the system on behalf of the kingdom, while people who really wanted to change the system were labeled as “national traitors.” Basically, we did not have the courage to fight against authoritarianism and unjust rule till the British established the system based on electoral process. This was developed up to a certain extent, but our own politicians were unable to read the meaning of it other than having dozens of political parties. In this context politics has become agitation without visionary political ideology. The very core reason behind this failure is that we do not extend our knowledge to understand the importance of dissent or collaboration of voluntarily work in politics.

What Étienne de La Boétie, a French judge, writer, anarchist and “a founder of modern political philosophy in France,” wrote in his famous essay entitled “Discours de la Servitude Volontaire” (The Politics of Obedience: the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude), became the foundation of political dissent and power of balance. Hence nobody can oppose what Roland Bleiker of Cambridge University asserted in his paper published in 2000: “While Machiavelli’s The Prince helped to define sovereignty, state power and the ensuing international order, la Boetie’s Anti-One contributed to the emergence of forces that came to circumvent and undermine the spatial and political logic of this order.”

In his writing as a young student Étienne de La Boétie expresses his objections against the authority and royal absolutions while spreading the idea of struggle for freedom and how to deal with radical oppression against absolute power. In the beginning of his Discours de la Servitude Volontaire, La Boétie, noted his main objective of dealing with the subject: “It must be said that the domination of several could not be good for the power of one alone, as soon as he acquires the title of master, is harsh and unreasonable . . . it is extremely unfortunate to be subjected to one master, whose kindness one can never be assured of, since it is always in his power to be cruel whenever he desires; & as for having several masters, the more one has, the more extremely unfortunate it is.” This is the very first attack of the beginning of his writing against royal absolutism.

The 1978 constitution in Sri Lanka was based on this critical issue, where we again opened our gate to royal absolutism which was annulled after a series of infernal struggles and colonialism. Unfortunately we never critically analyzed the way of creating authentic dissent that could fight this absolute power and corrupt system. While we are taking Machiavelli into our home from the back door we did not concern as much as we wanted to find other side of Machiavellian politics in the western philosophical context. Machiavelli and La Boétie are black and white if we compared the colors of their works. I personally think that writings by La Boétie influenced the achievements of personal liberty of ordinary citizens than Machiavellian politics in the West. La Boétie always encouraged the citizens about the discourses important to volunteerism against royal absolutism.

Even after eighteenth amendment to the constitution in Sri Lanka, we are not moving in a way to achieve the core notions of personal freedom (liberty) of citizens in the country; while conducting narrow minded nihilistic actions are very common phenomena. What we dragged in as the freedom is not real freedom. But how did we lose it? In other words, how was the regime able to create a framework which limited freedom? The “simple assumption is that real power always lies in the hands of the people and they can free themselves from a despot by an act of will unaccompanied by any gesture of violence.” The power of people is always exceptional and it can change the system. In China, traditionally it is said, “Water can both sustain and sink a ship.”

La Boétie’s ideology never proclaimed social reform through violence, thus he tried to explain that a tyrant was in power because of the people and only the people can evaluate the society to find the real meaning of freedom. What he explains is that a tyrant is never a true friend of his country but gaining and expanding his absolute power is his ultimate goal. “The fact is that the tyrant is never truly loved, nor does he love. Friendship withers under tyrants. Friendship is a sacred word, a holy thing; it is never developed except between persons of character, and never takes root except through mutual respect; it flourishes not so much by kindnesses as by sincerity. What makes one friend sure of another is the knowledge of his integrity: as guarantees he has his friend’s fine nature, his honor, and his constancy. There can be no friendship where there is cruelty, where there is disloyalty, where there is injustice. And in places where the wicked gather there is conspiracy only, not companionship: these have no affection for one another; fear alone holds them together; they are not friends, they are merely accomplices.” The real basis of many governments in developing nations is exactly similar to this. They do not expect true relations between the Executive and the people; rather they expand the distance between the people and the rulers.

La Boétie in his essay identified three types of tyrants; some receive their proud position through election by the people, others by force of arms, and others by inheritance. The dangerous tyrant is the one who gained his proud position through election by the people. “Obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself.” But in Sri Lanka as well as in a few other places in the region the situation can be quite clear where you can’t say that the tyrant who holds absolute power is single; he is holding his power in cooperative action, with strong network where you can identify cooperated killing, cooperated disappearances, cooperated corruption, and other most cruel and inhuman practices against the people.

“The more tyrants pillage, the more they crave, the more they ruin and destroy; the more one yields to them, and obeys them, by that much do they become mightier and more formidable, the readier to annihilate and destroy. But if not one thing is yielded to them, if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies.”  Eventually here is the point where authentic dissent needs to play its role genuinely and extensively. What we have to remind is what the Chinese traditionally say, a single tree cannot make a forest.