Niccolo’s ManualTarek Raimo
Virtually every EVE player will be familiar with the word Machiavellian. Most will know that its origin is a work by political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli entitled The Prince, and a few of them may even embrace the concepts that are encapsulated by that book. The Prince is written as a manual for political success that advises the most pragmatic, cunning, and ruthless course of action, in an effort to gain, consolidate, and expand power. Most notably, Machiavelli was the first to completely divorce politics from ethics in this treatise. The only concession to moral virtues the author makes, is to acknowledge that a ruler would do good at times to appear ethical for no other end than to appease followers and discredit opponents.
Many modern readers are however unaware of how The Prince fits into the broader context of Machiavelli’s work. Quite ironically, those who take the book as sound advice for actual rulership are prone to make that mistake. The term Machiavellian implies an ideology directly derived from the conviction of the originator, just as Marxism is derived from the theses of Karl Marx or Christianity from the teachings of Christ. When it comes to Machiavelli however, closer examination supports an interpretation that he himself was not actually a Machiavellian in the sense of how that word is commonly used; he possibly was even the exact opposite.
The Bittervet Of Renaissance Italy
To understand the context of the man’s work, we have to consider his biography and the political situation of his time. Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence during an era when Italy was both at the threshold of the Renaissance, and also plagued by constant wars, intrigues, and coups occurring among a number of petty duchies and city-states. On a superficial level, it is quite easy to draw parallels between Italian politics of that time, and what plays out in EVE’s game-world today.
Central to the role of Florence in that ongoing conflict was the Medici family, a powerful banking clan who had gained de-facto rulership over the Republican council that governed the city. Machiavelli held a position of minor importance in that government, but it was not before the Medici lost their power after a popular uprising that he rose to prominence by becoming Secretary of War. As such, he became a strong supporter of the Republic and he raised an armed militia to defend the city against the Medici who he feared would return to rule as dictators. Eventually, Machiavelli became second chancellor of the Republic under Piero Soderini, a statesman he greatly admired. In time, the Medici family gained more power by being appointed as cardinals and acquiring great influence in the Vatican; soon a Medici would even become Pope. After the War of the League of Cambrai which devastated Northern Italy, the Medici did in fact return to rule Florence as a duchy. Machiavelli was forced to flee the city and lived in exile. It was that period when he started writing The Prince.
Machiavelli dedicated the book to Lorenzo de Medici, the father of the first Duke of Florence as “advice on how to unify Italy”, but as I mentioned, Machiavelli was neither a supporter of the Medici, nor of hereditary monarchy. It is often speculated that Machiavelli wanted to try and gain the favour of the Medici by writing the book “for them”, but another explanation exists which has a significant following among historians and political philosophers. There is a distinct possibility, that Machiavelli intended The Prince as an exposition of the amoral ruthlessness with which his contemporary rulers would pursue their goals. Most notably, the 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau said that this was the real lesson to be learned from the book.
This view is particularly viable when considering the second major work by Machiavelli which he wrote at the same time: The Discourses on Livy. In this book he takes a completely different approach based on the virtues and values of the Roman Republic of ancient times. Central themes in this work are: an advocacy of popular liberty, free speech, open criticism of autocratic rulership and the catholic church. Furthermore, he suggests the establishment of political checks and balances to hold Republican rulers accountable, which makes him the first to introduce this concept into the discourse on political theory since antiquity.
As if he wanted to include an inside joke, he dedicated The Discourses to two personal friends whom he considered worthy to be princes in a world where, according to him, such dedications are usually done on behalf of people who don’t deserve such power. There are people who interpret this dedication versus the one of The Prince as something of a satirical jab—the contemporary political philosopher Leo Strauss among them.
In fact, the idea that Machiavelli could have meant The Prince not only as an exposition of the conniving political protagonists of his time, but also as a bitter satire of their actions does hold some water considering how many works of political satire Machiavelli wrote. Political scientist Mary Deitz goes as far as interpreting The Prince not as well meant advice on how to be a successful ruler. and not even simply an empirical work of satire, but an entrapment which would lead those who follow Machiavelli’s counsel up to a certain point only to end up deposed, ideally to be replaced by a Republican government as Machiavelli endorses it in his other works.
The writer himself supplied a cryptic quote which suggests he may not have been entirely sincere in his intentions when writing The Prince:
“For some time I have never said what I believe and never believed what I said, and if I do sometimes happen to say what I think, I always hide it among so many lies that it is hard to recover.”
Back To The Future
I’ve already suggested the parallel between EVE Online and Renaissance Italy. Both environments are characterised by brisk political maneuvering, and destructive campaigns of warfare full of shifting alliances and treachery. Of course in EVE there are no real lives at stake and no real money either, with the exception of subscription fees and PLEX people have sunk into their hobby. Still, the supposed doctrine of Niccolo Machiavelli does find its followers in the game and particularly the “princes” of nullsec alliances owe a debt to the writings of the Italian philosopher. Some may even emulate the rhetorics of The Prince quite explicitly. If one would put a text like The Art Of Nullsec War next to a collection of quotes from The Prince, the parallels become obvious.
The often repeated statement that democracies do not work in EVE, and how only ruthless power players can have any hope of controlling anything “relevant” in the game, is another indication that the game has its fair share of at least implicitly declared disciples of Machiavelli’s writings in The Prince. Some may do so in the name of content creation. After all, a snakepit of squabbling power blocs that are engaged in a constant game of backstabbing and warfare, does make for more interesting gameplay in an environment where PVE is generally dull and limited. Others, however, either get into character way too consistently, or are unironically considering Machiavelli’s manual on rulership a viable blueprint for political organisation. Usually those “Machiavellians” will look with aloof smugness at anyone who “doesn’t get it”, but it may just be that the joke is on them.
To begin with, there are quite a few successful republics in EVE. An important distinction that has to be made here, is that a republic is not necessarily a true democracy with universal suffrage. The republics of the Italian Renaissance—the Hanseatic League or the Dutch Seven Provinces—were ruled by representatives of the populace rather than a secular or ecclesiastical autocrat; they were presided over by a citizenship elite that was not truly elected by a universal popular vote. In the examples mentioned above, this elite was usually comprised of successful entrepreneurs, especially in Italy and the Hanse cities of Northern Europe.
In EVE, the NPC empire of the Minmatar is the most obvious example of such a government. There, a council of tribal elders forms the ruling body. Among EVE players, there are many comparable republican models, such as the Council of Newbie Management of BNI, or the popular meritocracy of FCs that decides the course of action for Pandemic Legion. Besides such large and prominent organisations, there are many smaller ones which have prevailed or even thrived for a long time based on more-or-less republican principles; the core of the lowsec Gallente Militia alliances would be a fitting example.
The other factor which puts the merit of following The Prince into doubt is the empirical unsustainability of the model. Both in real-world history and in EVE, autocratic regimes are not necessarily granted a long lease of life. The Medici may have co-opted several republics and even achieved the highest seat of power—the Papacy—but their excesses and corruption eventually contributed in a major way to the success of Martin Luther’s reformation movement which eventually sacked Rome, and wrested large parts of Europe from the control of the Catholic church. In modern times, absolute powers were even more short-lived. The empires of Napoleon, the Fascists and the Soviets endured for mere decades. In EVE, great autocratically ruled powers like Band of Brothers or Northern Coalition collapsed due to internal strife and Goonswarm, which currently celebrates absolute leadership, can not really exist without introducing republican aspects into their organisation.
It appears that Mary Deitz’s thesis could be correct, and Machiavelli’s The Prince carries within itself a seed of self-destruction that affects the endeavours of those who would follow the precepts of the book. In that case, everyone who points at this book as a source for successful politics, may have actually fallen for a troll from the fifteenth century.
At the very least, they are about as well informed about Machiavelli as someone who discusses Ridley Scott’s science fiction work based on Prometheus, without ever having heard of Alien.