- Machiavelli and Democratic Theory:McCormick's Machiavellian Democracy; Pettit's Republicanism; and, Vatter's Between Form and Event
John McCormick has recently offered a bold and compelling reading of an under-appreciated democratic strain in Machiavelli's thinking by highlighting the elite-controlling and citizen-empowering aspects of democratic institutions within Machiavelli's major writings. The book is an excellent work of scholarship that is sensitive to the nuances of the tradition in which Machiavelli was writing and the settled assumptions he sought to overturn. Scholars working within the field of democratic theory will be aware that McCormick's book is the latest contribution to a growing interest in Machiavelli for contemporary democratic thought. Throughout the history of interpretation of his work, Machiavelli has been characterized as many things, such as the founder of modern political science, a pre-modern classicist, a post-modern theorist of conflict and power, a teacher of "pure evil," a detached technical theorist of statecraft, and an impassioned patriot. The past two decades have witnessed the emergence of a rather different Machiavelli: one who speaks to our contemporary concerns about the lack of robust and popular participation in politics, the inability to hold political elites to account through extra-electoral institutions, and the need to foster a substantive civic culture.
McCormick's work is located within a Machiavellian revival that can be traced back to J. G. A. Pocock's influential reading of Machiavelli as a republican thinker in his 1975 book, The Machiavellian Moment. Pocock depicts Machiavelli as one of the earliest modern writers on free city-states and gives a reading of Machiavelli as advocating a theory of freedom as non-domination, mixed constitutional government and civic virtue. From this important work Machiavelli's thought has been taken in two major directions within democratic theory. Following Pocock's republican perspective, Philip Pettit has incorporated Machiavelli's writings into a republican theory of freedom and government that emphasizes the importance of formal legal institutions and electoral procedures to constrain elite decision-making. A number of other theorists associated with the "Cambridge School" (Pocock, Pettit, Skinner, Viroli) can also be found in this camp. For McCormick, however, these writers tend to stress the aristocratic elements of Machiavelli's thinking at the expense of a more popular interpretation and also overlook Machiavelli's persistent criticisms of the republican tradition. On the other hand, Miguel Vatter seeks to locate a "Machiavelli after Marx," which can be seen as one of a number of recent attempts to search for alternative resources outside of the Marxist tradition in order to reconceptualize radical democratic theory. Vatter argues that Machiavelli supported a vision of freedom as no-rule, outside of all fixed and constituted forms of government. McCormick positions himself between these two readings and attempts to chart a course that avoids the drawbacks of each extreme. A thorough analysis of Machiavelli's relationship to democratic theory thus requires an overview of each perspective.
The most prominent interpretation of Machiavelli in recent years is undoubtedly that given by the Cambridge School who have been instrumental in the revival of republican thinking in political theory. Of these theorists, Philip Pettit in particular has made several contributions to discussions within democratic theory. In his most influential work, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Pettit analyses key republican thinkers, including Machiavelli, to promote a republican alternative to a liberal or communitarian understanding of politics. Pettit founds his republican theory of government on a conception of freedom as non-domination. Domination in this sense consists of "being subject to the potentially capricious will or the potentially idiosyncratic judgement of another" (5). To simplify a complex series of arguments, Pettit argues that this conception of freedom has...