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Diary of a Bad Year

All the while she was conveying this rather desultory information the air around us positively crackled with a current that could not have come from me, I do not exude currents any more, must therefore have come from her and been aimed at no one in particular, just released into the environment. Hospitality, she repeated, or else perhaps human resources, she had some experience in human resources (whatever those might be) too; and again the shadow of the ache passed over me, the ache I alluded to earlier, of a metaphysical or at least post-physical kind.

As during the time of kings it would have been naive to think that the king’s firstborn son would be the fittest to rule, so in our time it is naive to think that the democratically elected ruler will be the fittest. The rule of succession is not a formula for identifying the best ruler, it is a formula for conferring legitimacy on someone or other and thus forestalling civil conflict. The electorate—the demos—believes that its task is to choose the best man, but in truth its task is much simpler: to anoint a man (vox populi vox dei), it does not matter whom. Counting ballots may seem to be a means of finding which is the true (that is, the loudest) vox populi; but the power of the ballot-count formula, like the power of the formula of the firstborn male, lies in the fact that it is objective, unambiguous, outside the field of political contestation. The toss of a coin would be equally objective, equally unambiguous, equally incontestable, and could therefore equally well be claimed (as it has been claimed) to represent vox dei. We do not choose our rulers by the toss of a coin—tossing coins is associated with the low-status activity of gambling—but who would dare to claim that the world would be in a worse state than it is if rulers had from the beginning of time been chosen by the method of the coin?

I imagine, as I write these words, that I am arguing this antidemocratic case to a skeptical reader who will continually be comparing my claims with the facts on the ground: Does what I say about democracy square with the facts about democratic Australia, the democratic United States, and so forth? The reader should bear it in mind that for every democratic Australia there are two Belaruses or Chads or Fijis or Colombias that likewise subscribe to the formula of the ballot count.

Australia is by most standards an advanced democracy. It is also a land where cynicism about politics and contempt for politicians abound. But such cynicism and contempt are quite comfortably accommodated within the system. If you have reservations about the system and want to change it, the democratic argument goes, do so within the system: put yourself forward as a candidate for political office, subject yourself to the scrutiny and the vote of fellow citizens. Democracy does not allow for politics outside the democratic system. In this sense, democracy is totalitarian.

In the meantime, she went on, I help Alan with reports and so forth, so he can claim me as a secretarial resource.

Alan, I said.

If you take issue with democracy in times when everyone claims to be heart and soul a democrat, you run the risk of losing touch with reality. To regain touch, you must at every moment remind yourself of what it is like to come face to face with the state—the democratic state or any other—in the person of the state official. Then ask yourself: Who serves whom? Who is the servant, who the master?

Alan, she said, my partner. And she gave me a look. The look did not say, Yes, I am to all intents and purposes a married woman, so if you pursue the course you have in mind it will be a matter of clandestine adultery, with all the risks and thrills pertaining thereto, nothing like that, on the contrary it said, You seem to think I am some sort of child, do I need to point out I am not a child at all?

I too am in need of a secretary, I said, grasping the nettle.

Yes? she said.

04. On Machiavelli

On talk-back radio ordinary members of the public have been calling in to say that, while they concede that torture is in general a bad thing, it may nonetheless sometimes be necessary. Some even advance the proposition that we may have to do evil for the sake of a greater good. In general they are scornful of absolutist opponents of torture: such people, they say, do not have their feet on the ground, do not live in the real world.

Machiavelli says that if as a ruler you accept that your every action must pass moral scrutiny, you will without fail be defeated by an opponent who submits to no such moral test. To hold on to power, you have not only to master the crafts of deception and treachery but to be prepared to use them where necessary.

Necessity, necessità, is Machiavelli’s guiding principle. The old, pre-Machiavellian position was that the moral law was supreme. If it so happened that the moral law was sometimes broken, that was unfortunate, but rulers were merely human, after all. The new, Machiavellian position is that infringing the moral law is justified when it is necessary.

Thus is inaugurated the dualism of modern political culture, which simultaneously upholds absolute and relative standards of value. The modern state appeals to morality, to religion, and to natural law as the ideological foundation of its existence. At the same time it is prepared to infringe any or all of these in the interest of self-preservation.

Yes? she said.

Yes, I said, I happen to be a writer by profession, and I have a major deadline to meet, as a consequence of which I need someone to type a manuscript for me and perhaps do a little editing as well and generally make the whole thing shipshape.

She looked blank.

Neat and orderly and readable, I mean, I said.

Use someone from a bureau, she said. There is a bureau on King Street that Alan’s company uses when they have urgent work.

Machiavelli does not deny that the claims morality makes on us are absolute. At the same time he asserts that in the interest of the State the ruler “is often obliged [necessitato] to act without loyalty, without mercy, without humanity, and without religion.”3

The kind of person who calls talk-back radio and justifies the use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners holds the double standard in his mind in exactly the same way: without in the least denying the absolute claims of the Christian ethic (love thy neighbor as thyself), such a person approves freeing the hands of the authorities—the army, the secret police—to do whatever may be necessary to protect the public from enemies of the state.

The typical reaction of liberal intellectuals is to seize on the contradiction here: How can something be both wrong and right, or at least both wrong and OK, at the same time? What liberal intellectuals fail to see is that this so-called contradiction expresses the quintessence of the Machiavellian and therefore the modern, a quintessence that has been thoroughly absorbed by the man in the street. The world is ruled by necessity, says the man in the street, not by some abstract moral code. We have to do what we have to do.

If you wish to counter the man in the street, it cannot be by appeal to moral principles, much less by demanding that people should run their lives in such a way that there are no contradictions between what they say and what they do. Ordinary life is full of contradictions; ordinary people are used to accommodating them. Rather, you must attack the metaphysical, supra-empirical status of necessità and show that to be fraudulent.

I don’t need someone from a bureau, I said. I need someone who can pick up installments and get them back to me speedily. That person should also have a feel, an intuitive feel, for what I am trying to do. Can I perhaps interest you in the work, since we are near neighbors and since you are, as you say, between jobs? I will pay, I said, and I mentioned a rate per hour which, even if she had once been the tsarina of hospitality, must have given her pause to reflect. Because of the urgency, I said. Because of the looming deadline.

05. On terrorism

The Australian parliament is about to enact antiterrorist legislation whose effect will be to suspend a range of civil liberties indefinitely into the future. The word hysterical has been used to describe the response to terror attacks by the governments of the United States, Britain, and now Australia. It is not a bad word, not undescriptive, but it has no explanatory power. Why should our rulers, normally phlegmatic men, react with sudden hysteria to the pinpricks of terrorism when for decades they were able to go about their everyday business unruffled, in full awareness that in a deep bunker somewhere in the Urals an enemy watched and waited with a finger on a button, ready if provoked to wipe them and their cities from the face of the earth?

One explanation on offer is that the new foe is irrational. The old Soviet foes might have been cunning and even devilish, but they were not irrational. They played the game of nuclear diplomacy as they played the game of chess: the so-called nuclear option might be included in their repertoire of moves, but the decision to take it would ultimately be rational (decision-making based on probability theory being counted here as eminently rational, though by its very nature it involves making gambles, taking chances), as would decisions made in the West. Therefore the game would be played by the same rules on both sides.

An intuitive feel: those were my words. They were a gamble, a shot in the dark, but they worked. What self-respecting woman would want to deny she has an intuitive feel? Thus has it come about that my opinions, in all their drafts and revisions, are to pass under the eye and through the hands of Anya (her name), of Alan and Anya, A & A, unit 2514, even though the Anya in question has never done a stitch of editing in her life and even though Bruno Geistler of Mittwoch Verlag GmbH has people on his staff perfectly capable of turning dictaphone tapes in English into a shipshape manuscript in German.

I stood up. I will leave you now, I said, to get on with your reading. If I had had a hat I would have doffed it, it would have been the right old-world gesture for the occasion.

Don’t go yet, she said. Tell me first, what sort of book is this going to be?

  1. 3

    The Prince, Chapter 18.

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