Demos21 Talk by Carlo Burelli (University of Genova): No Virtue like Resilience – A new Machiavellian justification of democracy

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021 - 17:00 to 18:30

Political realism claims that normative evaluations of politics should be grounded on political rather than moral values (Rossi and Sleat 2014). This paper revives Machiavelli’s justification of republican government (Machiavelli 2003), and seeks to update it by grounding it on a functional interpretation of political normativity.

For Machiavelli the most important ‘virtue’ of a political actor is flexibility (Machiavelli 1961): the ability to change one’s nature depending on the contingencies of fortune. Being politically virtuous means being able to act as prudent and impetuous, greedy and generous, cruel and compassionate. The dangerous competition of political arenas makes this flexibility essential to survive and thrive.

The paper inquires whether this argument fits political institutions as well as individual actors. Flexibility can also be a good virtue for political institutions, because societies, as well as individuals, only prosper in a dangerous and competitive world if they adapt to different contingencies.

Personalistic regimes, be they renaissance princes or modern-day authoritarianisms, tend to exhibit limited flexibility, because the individuals in charge only have an imperfect capacity to change their own nature to deal with the different problems that societies face. On the contrary, democracies can replace leaders and select those whose nature is most suited to the contingent situation. For example, Churchill’s temperament was appropriate for wartime, but not necessarily for the reconstruction era.

This Machiavellian flexibility can be identified with the contemporary concept of ‘resilience’, i.e. the ability of a system to absorb shocks and reorganize as to retain the same function (Walker et al. 2004). So understood, resilience is an essential function that politics discharges, and one that allows to evaluate regimes as better or worse on the basis of how well they do so (Burelli 2020). As societies recurrently face internal conflicts (e.g. terrorism, revolts and civil war) as well as external shocks (e.g. wars, pandemics, natural disasters), the basic function of politics is to select and implement binding collective decisions in order to provide societal resilience.

So understood, resilience provides a better normative core than stability, which is often invoked by ‘ordo- realist’ approaches (Rossi 2019), because it focuses on the very purpose of politics but is not biased towards the status quo. Indeed, resilience might necessitate even wild and radical changes. For example, whenever a destructive economic crisis threatens the very functioning of a political union, resilience might require radical progressive reforms to disarm it.

The paper is organized as follows. First it introduces the familiar Machiavellian view of individual virtues. Second, it extends this view to political institutions. Third, it links it to the contemporary concept of resilience and shows that it can be seen as a functional desideratum of political institutions. The last part shows how this account enjoys some advantages with respect to the traditional realist view of order.

Carlo Burelli is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Genova, where he works at the intersection of political theory and political science. Most recently, he published the article “Political Normativity and the Functional Autonomy of Politics“ in the European Journal of Political Theory.


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