Machiavellian Resistance Rethinking Resistance 2007 Conference, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, March 31, 2007

Rethinking Resistance 2007 Conference
Emory University, Atlanta, GA, March 31, 2007

Machiavellian Resistance

Perhaps the greatest single roadblock between resistance activists and more successful interventions are our own misguided "good" intentions. These stop those working for the common good from using methods perfected by those in power to disseminate their ideas, fearing that by doing so, they will be "copping out," or using immoral practices. These sundry practices are viewed as "tainted," as if the fact that presidents’ and king makers’ use of money, advertising, war-like and patriotic language, dissemination of their ideas through popular culture and even their abuse of the general media has hopelessly compromised these avenues of infiltration, leaving resistance fighters to beat around the edges at poetry slams and puppet-walk protests.

There is a basket of specific, powerful tools that we resistance fighters have ceded because the guardians of the status quo got there first, as if their use of these methods has permanently disfigured them. If the current political class lives with a copy of Machiavelli’s "The Prince" by their bedside, than resistance activists should, as well. It is through co-opting Machiavellian forms of social intercourse, though tied to the strict moral guidelines that fuel resistance activism, that the most successful interventions can be undertaken.

Moving towards Machiavellian forms of resistance means turning those means on their head; literally co-opting them, one-by-one, attaching them by the roots to the moral centers of truth, the common good and basic human rights and then re-inserting them into the public square: Truth packaged in a savvy, post-modern manner as the appearance of truth! Resistance workers must fool their public into believing that they are simply ingesting more of the same mealy pap, while in fact infecting them with the potent seeds of truth and justice!

Our political system is littered with the least spiritually realized among us, those who desperately need a sense of personal power to feel as if their lives have existential meaning. The political realm is a literal struggle for these actors’ own sense of self, as many driven into politics feel as if they would existentially dissolve if their self-worth was not validated through the exterior trappings provided by power. Given this primary impetus of personal, existential survival, the public forum is often left to become a Machiavellian scrum among the morally bereft, the vast majority of whom put their need for self-worth above the public good.

This explains the lack of moral center in the public square, today and forever past. The misuse of the specific tools for achieving and retaining power stems directly from this lack of a moral core in the political sphere. The Greek philosopher Xenophon (d. 355 B.C.), said: "A prince who wishes to achieve great things must learn to deceive."i Machiavelli expanded on this thought, averring: "The great majority of humans are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are." A cursory reading of the newspaper reportage over the past six years will verify that this strategy of the powerful remains in vogue.

So how does this basic premise for the accrual and retention of power – that lies and the appearance they create are more powerful than truth (which can’t be manipulated) – provide an opening for the resistance fighter?

Context. That’s how.

In understanding how the lies of the political and business communities are disseminated is to understand how our population ingests and then orders their reality. So to use Machiavellian tools to work towards the common good, the resistance fighter must package truth to look like the appearance of truth, through using all of the normative forms of general distribution of information. Resistance fighters must infiltrate and co-opt the very mainstream mechanisms that they find so distasteful.

For most people, their sense of reality grows from what they see in television advertisements, hear from politicians and read in the newspapers. Very few people in our culture truly consider how they create and order their reality, or the sources themselves: they simply ingest this never-ending series of messages and then build their sense of "objective" reality out of it. And if they are in agreement with a majority of Americans (as seen in the latest poll numbers), they feel vaguely assuaged, as if they are on the "right track."

Recently, to counter this overwhelming, myopic view of their reality, resistance fighters have taken to the streets with puppets, wheat-pasted notices on brick walls, founded ‘zines, pounded drums, started blogs and explored other, non-mainstream methods of disseminating a more "real" and morally-based version of reality. But context is everything, and no matter how "true" this truth is, if it isn’t packaged in manners from which the public is accustomed to ingesting its reality, these ideas will simply be marginalized by those in mainstream culture, shunted to the back pages of newspapers and ridiculed on TV.

The bottom line is that this truth must be packaged to appear as truth in the same way that all the other mainstream information is: Resistance fighters must learn to be savvy, look good in ties and sound oily during television interviews. Resistance messaging needs to be slick, and we must even go so far as to use the language that the general public has become so used to. "Peace" must become "Security;" universal health care must be couched as a bio-defense mechanism, and engaging with our enemies in a non-combative manner must be presented as "pulling one over on them," at least to the domestic audience.

It is also vital that history be mined for precedent for resistance actions. For instance, if the State can kill Martin Luther King Jr., fight desperately against making his birthday a national holiday and then, once the battle has been completely lost, wholeheartedly embrace the man and his message as a Great American Hero, then resistance fighters should certainly be able to mine the past for untold truths, using their own valid readings of forgotten histories.

It is a well-known fact that history is written by and for the victors – and we are left with a patchwork quilt of half-truths and important omissions stretching back into Mesopotamia, that define our shared cultural legacy. However, there are many and sundry truths and forgotten histories that are vital to resistance work, which can set the contemporary struggle within the context of an historical fight by those with a moral center against the temporally powerful and spiritually bereft of their own time.

Excavate the past for these stories! Use these examples as the basis for contemporary action – and don’t disseminate this view of history on cardboard placards at rallies; package it in the same way that the State packages war! Commission statues for town squares of Cesar Chavez, Emma Goldman, Thomas Merton and Abraham Heschel. Make trading cards out of these heroes (numbered "1-52" most vaunted Americans): agitate for national holidays, get politicians to sponsor resolutions, hold belated birthday parties with invited media, create cartoon super-hero action figures based on them and use other popular culture means of distribution, only this time for ideas wedded to the common good of all. Wear a tie and give an interview about this important stream of American resistance fighters, heroes who sacrificed part or all of their lives for the real American dream of truth, justice and liberty for all.

The histories are there, as are the Machiavellian methods – it’s vital to bring them together! Look, if the people want reality packaged in digestible sound bites for dinner every night, give it to them – but make it nutritious. Packaging is so much more important than content – so use your content and their packaging!

In a general sense, resistance work must be thought of in terms of infiltration and co-option, rather than hand-to-hand combat. True resistance work will enter the social consciousness like an odorless gas, changing minds without making too much noise, or leaving any visible marks. And the bottom line in this struggle is that there is hope – there is genuine possibility that resistance workers can actually effect positive social change in this infiltrative manner.

How can I say this, you might ask? Well, allow me to tug on your coat about one final thing.

We live, nominally, in a democracy. That is to say, there is some kind of obligation from those in power to their constituency, which are us. For the most part, those in power will do what they want, because they are morally rudderless – and the more they are able to express the narcotic effects of their power, the greater will their sense of existential meaning become; the more will they consciously feel "meaningful" as human beings.

However, the most important thing to the vast majority of politicians is retaining power – this trumps all other concerns. And we can clearly see this over the past year or so in our own political scene, as politicians have climbed over each other to see who could change their minds more quickly about the War in Iraq, the minimum wage and the general priorities in the country, due to shifting political landscape. The Republicans and many Democrats, with one finger to the wind, are falling over each other, running from the president that kept them in power for six years, towards some other power center, in the hopes of individually retaining their fiefdoms for another few seasons.

The point is this: Although virtually no politician in our system will ever put his principles ahead of his or her personal needs – as did, for instance, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela – if we, the general public, can tie our support for politicians to a moral center, they will act in a moral manner, if only for self-preservation’s sake. The general population must provide the moral center to the political system. Left to their own devices, politicians will rob from the poor to give to the rich; start wars of choice to be fought by other people’s children and foul the earth. The only hope – and it is a real hope, given the psychological make-up of those who lust for power – is that we resistance fighters can use the Machiavellian means of power to infiltrate a moral center into the public square.

As columnist Bob Herbert said recently in the New York Times:

"There is a hole in the American system where the leadership used to be . . . The most effective answer to this leadership vacuum would be a new era of political activism by ordinary citizens. The biggest, most far-reaching changes of the past century – the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement – were not primarily the result of elective politics, but rather the hard work of committed citizen-activists fed up with the status quo." ii

And Machiavellian resistance actors, turning the tools of power back on those that have so misused them, might well begin the agitation, leading to an army of non-violent citizen warriors retaking the public square.

iQuoted by Machiavelli in The Discourses, pg. 319
ii Bob Herbert, “Real Citizens Would March into the Arena,” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), January 26, 2007


Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince and The Discourses (ed. Max Lerner), Random House, 1950

Sholette, Gregory, “Dark Matter: Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere,”

Raleigh News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, 2007