Niccolò Machiavelli wrote Il Principe in the 1530s. In the centuries since, The Prince has become notorious as a guide to ruthlessness in politics, and Machiavelli’s name has become a byword for a person who will use any means necessary to win and keep power.
Machiavellian: Adopting unscrupulous methods; duplicitous, deceitful, cunning, scheming. (OED)
His reputation is well-deserved. Much of The Prince is devoted to principles of military conquest, with Machiavelli advising cruelty, and deriding compassion as weakness. Yet how to hold on to power, once obtained? Here nuance enters his rhetoric, for Machiavelli is well aware that there is one thing that can easily deprive a ruler of power — the people themselves. He advises his Prince to ensure that the people are content, that they respect him, and that they see him as their best option.
I conclude, therefore, that when a prince has the goodwill of the people he must not worry about conspiracies; but when the people are hostile and regard him with hatred he must go in fear of everything and everyone. Well-organised states and wise princes have always taken great pains not to make the nobles despair, and to satisfy the people and keep them content; this is one of the most important tasks a prince must undertake.
The Roman poet Juvenal knew this principle when he coined the phrase panem et circenses — bread and circuses. Juvenal was a satirist, and had the satirist’s knack of getting to the core of the issue at hand in as concise a manner as possible. The theory is: meet the basic needs of the people (bread) and provide them with sufficient distractions (circuses), and they will let you cling on to power.
But what about when the people decide that bread and circuses are not enough? What about when they realise that their circuses are bought using the bread of their neighbours? What about when they demand, not sustenance and distraction, but justice?
There is a scene in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Gladiator, where Maximus (Russell Crowe), enslaved and desperate to avenge the murder of his family by the Emperor Commodus, bemoans his lack of power to Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). As she tells him that the gods have spared him, he responds in anger. ‘The gods have spared me? I am at their mercy, with the power only to amuse a mob!’ Lucilla’s reply is quick. ‘That is power. The mob is Rome. And while Commodus controls them he controls everything.’
The mob is Rome.
Lucilla realises what Maximus does not — the one who commands the respect of the people has more power than the one whom the people despise.
We are the mob.
We are the mob. We hold the power, and we may use it as we see fit. ‘Are you not entertained?’ roars Maximus to the crowd, as he single-handedly despatches an arena full of gladiators. What happens when we decide that, no, we are not entertained? When we will no longer be distracted from the human cost of the bread that sustains us? When we demand justice, not only for ourselves, but others? When circuses are not enough?
I write this in the UK, in the lead up to a snap general election that was never supposed to happen. This is where we can say: bread and circuses are not enough. This is where we can say: you will not distract us any longer. This is where we can say: we demand justice.
But whatever country we are in, we needn’t wait until election day. We can resist, we can speak up, we can make our voices heard. We can demand justice. We are the mob, and those we describe as being ‘in power’ must answer to us. Don’t let anybody (including yourself) tell you that you can’t make a difference.
You are the mob.