After 500 Years, A More Machiavellian World Than Ever

What would Niccolo Machiavelli, the author of "The Prince" (published exactly 500 years ago), have thought about modern China? What would he have done with the Internet?

What would Machiavelli say?
What would Machiavelli say?
Gianni Riotta

TURIN — Half a millennium after the publication of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, one of the most brilliant books ever written on political theory, the world has become more Machiavellian than ever.

The United States, which has been democratic for more than two centuries and invented the Internet as a place of transparency, has now ended up in trouble for its National Security Agency (NSA) spying on allies. The former KBG agent, Vladimir Putin, in his semi-free country where independent journalists are murdered, welcomed NSA mole Edward Snowden as a political refugee, as he put on his laticlave and preached to the world about human rights and privacy.

Meanwhile, in Syria, just because President Bashar al-Assad is massacring his subjects doesn’t mean that he’ll meet the same fate as Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi. He’s still in power in Damascus, a merciless and bloodthirsty character lifted right from the pages of Machiavelli, who pays no attention to his conscience, just to power and its cruel nature.

The clash between China, Japan and the U.S. over the minuscule Senkaku-Diaoyu islands oozes pure Machiavelli. Beijing implemented an “Air Defense Identification Zone” around the islands, Tokyo challenged it and Washington still sent B52s into the zone, declaring they would continue to carry out unregistered flights in the region.

In chapters 12-14, Machiavelli warns against troops borrowed from an ally because if they win, he is indebted to them. And if he loses, he is ruined. Thanks to the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, a threat to the islands would require the United States to come to Japan's aid.

Evil and ethics

Who is right? Who is wrong? Who is on the side of ethics? Machiavelli would have laughed at such questions. He would have explained to those interested, as he tried to do with those who wanted to rise, that where power and politics are concerned, moral questions and ethical integrity aren’t even factored in.

In this way, America, in a delicate and yet existential way, has been celebrating the 500th anniversary of The Prince diligently. Canadian philosopher and politician, Michael Ignatieff, in The Atlantic magazine, commends Machiavelli, remembering that Barack Obama’s choice to eliminate Osama bin Laden, was a Machiavellian moment of excellence, even if it was outside the bounds of moral and international rights.

The assassination of an enemy, as well as innocent bystanders around him — something condemnable by any democratic jury — was deemed pardonable by the Florentine writer. Obama, he would have said, did well to defend his republic with each decision he made. Yet, Machiavelli also praises restraint when it serves the republic. Ignatieff notes that it may even be advisable, for example, for the president to call off the cruise missiles to Syria if he cannot discern a clear target or a defensible strategic objective.

Five hundred years later and history has finally vindicated Machiavelli. Throughout the years he has been placed on the list of banned books in 1559 by the Pope and deemed by modern conservative political theorist Leo Strauss a “master of evil.”

New books argue that in order to understand Machiavelli’s brutal honesty, we must understand the times that produced him. These authors declare that he wasn’t “a gangster” of critical indulgence, but a patriot and a republican who fought for unification of the city-states that had too long been kept at odds, searching for a virtuous and true politician who was not superficial but capable of sacrifice and harsh choices.

He’s more alive than ever. Our world can be found in his: violence, hypocrisy, clashes of personalities and forces, as well as interests. The only thing that would surprise Machiavelli in this modern world is the web, the huge information network where The Prince would be subject to direct debate, analysis, criticism and censorship.

Trading in his evenings networking in taverns, Niccolò Machiavelli would have delved to the depths of the Internet to make his plans, plotting and looking for his Prince, using the new technology to bring him to government, and then, with the help of Big Data, keep him in power as long as possible.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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