Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Twelfth Dialogue


Machiavelli: I have only showed you the "defensive" part of the organic regime that I would impose on the press. Now I would like to show you how I would employ this institution for the profit of my power. I dare say that, until today, no government has had a bolder conception than the one of which I will speak to you. In the parliamentary countries, governments almost always perish due to the press; so, I foresee the possibility of neutralizing the press by the press itself. Since it is as great a force as journalism, do you know what my government will be? It will be journalistic, it will be journalism incarnate.

Montesquieu: Really, you make me pass through [many] strange surprises! You display a perpetually varied panorama in front of me; I am quite curious, I will confess, to see how you would go about realizing the new program.

Machiavelli: It would take much less fresh imagination than you might think. I would count the number of newspapers that represent what you would call the opposition. If there were 10 for the opposition, I would have 20 for the government; if there were 20, I would have 40; if there were 40, I would have 80. This is how -- you will now understand -- I would make use of the faculty that I reserved for myself of authorizing the creation of new political papers.

Montesquieu: Indeed, this would be very simple.

Machiavelli: Not as much as you might think, because it is necessary that the public masses do not suspect this tactic; the arrangement would fail and public opinion would detach itself from the newspapers that openly defend my politics.

I would divide into three or four categories the papers devoted to my power. In the first rank, I would place a certain number of newspapers whose tone would be frankly official and which -- at every turn -- would defend my actions to the limit. These would not be, let me tell you, the ones that would have the most influence on public opinion. In the second rank, I would place another phalanx of newspapers whose character would no longer be official and whose mission would be to rally to my power the masses of lukewarm or indifferent people who accept without scruple what exists, but do not go beyond their political religion.

It is in the following categories of newspapers that the most powerful levers of my power would be found. Here the official or unofficial tone would be completely lost -- in appearance, of course -- because the newspapers of which I speak would all be attached by the same chain to my government: a visible chain for some; an invisible one to others. I would not undertake to tell you what would be their number, because I would assign a dedicated organ to each opinion, in each party; I would have an aristocratic organ in the aristocratic party, a republican organ in the republican party, a revolutionary organ in the revolutionary party, an anarchist organ -- if need be -- in the anarchist party. Like the God Vishnu, my press would have a hundred arms and these arms would place their hands upon all the nuances of opinion throughout the entire country. One would be of my party without knowing it. Those who believe they speak their language would [actually] be speaking mine; those who believe they were acting in their party would be acting in mine; those who believe they were marching under their flag would be marching under mine.

Montesquieu: Are these realizable ideas or phantasmagoria? This gives me vertigo.

Machiavelli: Mind your head, because you are not at the end.

Montesquieu: I only asked you how you could direct and rally all these militias of publicity that are clandestinity hired by your government.

Machiavelli: This would only be a matter of organization, you must understand; for example, I would institute -- under the heading of the Department of Printing and the Press -- a center of common action[1] at which one could seek the password and from which the signal would come. Then, for those who would only be half in on the secret of this arrangement, this center would appear to be a bizarre spectacle: one would see papers that are devoted to my government and that cry out, that cause me a crowd of troubles.

Montesquieu: This is beyond my reach; I no longer understand.

Machiavelli: But it is not so difficult to conceive, because (remark it well) neither the bases nor the principles of my government would be attacked by the newspapers of which I speak; they would only make a polemic of skirmishes, a dynastic opposition within the narrowest limits.[2]

Montesquieu: And what advantage would you find in this?

Machiavelli: You question is quite ingenuous. The result, already considerable, would be to have it said by the greatest number of people: "But you see that one is free, that under this regime one can speak [freely], that the regime is unjustly attacked, that instead of repressing -- which it could do -- it suffers, it tolerates." Another, no less important result would be to provoke observations such as this: "See the point at which the bases of this government, its principles, are respected by all of us; here are newspapers that allow themselves the greatest freedoms of speech, but they never attack the established institutions. It is necessary that these institutions are beyond the injustices of the passions, because the very enemies of the government cannot help themselves from rendering homage to them."

Montesquieu: This, I confess, is truly Machiavellian.

Machiavelli: You honor me, but there is even better to come. With the help of the occult devotion of these public papers, I can say that I would direct public opinion to my liking in all questions of domestic and foreign policy. I would excite or lull minds, I would reassure or disconcert them, I would plead for and against, the true and the false. I would announce a deed and I would deny it, according to the circumstances; thus I would sound out public thinking, I would try out combinations, projects and sudden determinations, finally what you in France call trial balloons. I would combat my enemies to my liking without ever compromising my power, because -- after having made these papers speak -- I can, if need be, inflict upon them the most energetic denials;[3] I would solicit opinions about certain resolutions, I could reject or retain them, I would always have my finger on the pulsations, which would reflect -- without knowing it -- my personal impressions and they would sometimes be astonished at being so constantly in agreement with their sovereign. One would then say that I have the popular sensibility, that there is a secret and mysterious sympathy that unites me with the movements of my people.

Montesquieu: These diverse arrangements appear to me to be an ideal perfection. Nevertheless, I submit to you an observation, very timid this time: if you break the silence of China, if you permit the militia of your newspapers to make (to the profit of your designs) the false opposition of which you have spoken to me, in truth I do not see how you could prevent the non-affiliated newspapers from responding with real blows to these annoyances, the trick[4] of which they could divine. Do you not think they would end up raising one of the veils that covers so many mysterious springs? When they know the secret of this comedy, could you prevent them from laughing? This game seems quite risky to me.

Montesquieu: Not at all. I would say to you that I have employed a great deal of my time here examining the strengths and weaknesses of these arrangements; I am well informed about what concerns the conditions of existence of the press in the parliamentary countries. You must know that journalism is a kind of Freemasonry: those who live in it are more or less attached to each other by the links of professional discretion; just like the ancient augurs, they do not easily divulge the secrets of their oracles. They gain nothing by betraying them, because for the most part they have more or less shameful secrets. It us quite probable, I agree, that in the center of the capital, in a certain circle of people, things would not be a mystery; but everywhere else, one would not suspect anything, and the large majority of the nation would march with the most complete confidence along the guided routes that I will have provided.

What would it matter if, in the capital, a certain world could be up-to-date concerning the artifices of my journalism? It would be in the provinces that the greatest part of its influence would be felt. There I would always have the temperature of public opinion that would be necessary for me, and each of my blows would surely hit home. The provincial press in its entirety would belong to me, because neither contradiction nor discussion would be possible there; from the administrative center in which I would be seated, one would regularly transmit to the governor of each province the order to make the newspapers speak in this or that way, so well that -- at any given time, all over the country -- great impetus would be felt, even before the capital suspects it. You see that public opinion in the capital would not preoccupy me. It would, when necessary, lag behind the external movement that would envelop it, if need be, unknown to it.

Montesquieu: The interlinking of your ideas invests everything with so much force that you make me lose the feeling for a final objection that I want to make to you. It remains the case, despite what you have said, that there would still be a certain number of independent newspapers. It is certain that it would be practically impossible for them to speak politically, but they could make a war of small details against you. Your administration would not be perfect; the development of absolute power involves a number of abuses of which even the sovereign is not the cause; one would be vulnerable for all your agents' acts that concern private interests; one would complain, one would attack your agents; you would necessarily be responsible for them and your reputation would succumb in detail.

Machiavelli: I would not fear this.

Montesquieu: But it is true that you will have so multiplied the means of repression that you would only have your choices of blows [against you].

Machiavelli: This is not what I would say. I do not want to be obligated to ceaselessly repress; I would like to use a simple injunction to be able to stop all discussion of subjects that concern the administration.

Montesquieu: And how would you accomplish this?

Machiavelli: I would obligate the newspapers to welcome at the top of their columns the corrections that the government would communicate to them; government agents would pass to them notes in which one would say to them categorically: "You have advanced such and such a fact, but it was not accurate; you are permitted to make such and such a criticism, [but] you have been unjust, you have been improper, you were wrong, you must say so." As you can see, this would be an honest and open censure.

Montesquieu: To which one could not reply, of course.

Machiavelli: Obviously not: the discussion would be closed.

Montesquieu: In this manner you would have the last word, you would have it without using violence: very ingenuous. As you told me just a little while ago, your government would be journalism incarnate.

Machiavelli: In the same way that I would not want the country to be agitated by noise from abroad, I would not want it to be agitated by noise from within, even by simple news about private affairs. When there has been an extraordinary suicide, some gross financial affair that is too wormy, some misdeed by a public functionary, I would prohibit the newspapers from speaking of it. Silence on such matters would show the public's honesty much better than noise would do.

Montesquieu: And, during this time, you would engage in journalism to the limit?

Machiavelli: It would be quite necessary to do so. To use the press, to use it in all its forms: such is the law of the powers that want to survive today. It is quite singular, but it is true. I would plunge into this much deeper than you could imagine.

To understand the scope of my system, one would have to see how the language of my press is called upon to cooperate with the official acts of my politics. Suppose that I would want to publicize a solution to such and such a complication abroad or at home; this solution -- indicated by my newspapers, each of which has been leading the public's mind along for several months -- would show up one fine day as an official event. You know the discretion and ingenuous considerations with which an authority's documents must be drafted at important conjunctures: the problem to resolve in similar cases is to give [a feeling of] satisfaction to all the parties involved. So, each one of my newspapers, following its [respective] nuance, would strive to persuade each party that the resolution that one has reached favors it the most. What would not be inscribed in the official document would, instead, be published as an interpretation; what would only be indicated [in the document] would be rendered more overtly by the official newspapers; the democratic and revolutionary newspapers would cry the news from the rooftops; and while one would dispute it, while one would make the most diverse interpretations of my actions, my government could respond to one and all: "You are deceived about my intentions, you have read my declarations poorly; I have never wanted to say this or that." The essential would be to never place myself in contradiction with myself.

Montesquieu: What? After what you have said to me, you still have such a pretension?

Machiavelli: No doubt I do, and your astonishment proves to me that you have not understood. It would be more a question of reconciling words than actions. How would you like the great masses of the nation to judge things if it is logic that leads their government? If would be sufficient to give it to them. Thus, I would like the diverse phases of my politics to be presented as the development of a unique thought that is connected to an unchanging goal. Each foreseen or unforeseen event would be a wisely provided result; the digressions of direction would only be different faces of the same question, the diverse routes would lead to the same goal, the variable means would be part of a self-same solution pursued through obstacles without respite. The most recent event would be presented as the logical conclusion of all the others.

Montesquieu: In truth, one must admire you! Such strength of mind and such activity!

Machiavelli: Every day my newspapers would be filled with official speeches, reviews, reports to the ministers, reports to the sovereign. I would not forget that I live in an era in which believes oneself able to resolve all of society's problems through industry, in an era in which one ceaselessly occupies oneself with the improvement of the lot of the working classes.[5] I would be very devoted to such questions, which are a very fortunate distraction from the preoccupations of domestic politics. Among the southern peoples [of Europe], it would be necessary for the governments to appear ceaselessly occupied; the masses consent to be inactive, but on the condition that those who govern them provide them with the spectacle of an incessant activity,[6] a kind of fever; that they constantly attract their eyes with novelties, surprises and dramatic turns of events; this would perhaps be bizarre, but, once again, it would be necessary.

I would place myself in point-by-point conformity with these indications; consequently, I would make -- in matters of commerce, industry, the arts and even administration -- studies of all kinds of projects, plans, arrangements, changes, revisions and improvements, the effects of which would be covered in the press by the voices of the most numerous and most fertile publicists. Political economy has (one says) made fortunes among you; so, I would leave your theoreticians, your utopianists and your most passionate declaimers with nothing to invent, nothing to publish, nothing to say. The well-being of the people would be the unique and invariable object of my public confidences. Either I myself would speak or I would have my ministers and writers speak; one would never shut up about the grandeur of the country, prosperity and the majesty of my mission and its destiny; one would not cease to entertain the great principles of modern rights, the great problems that agitate humanity. The most enthusiastic and the most universal liberalism would breathe in my writings. Western people love the Eastern style; and so the style of all official discourse, all the official manifestations must always be embellished, constantly pompous, full of lofty thoughts and reflections. The people do not love atheistic governments; so, in my communications with the public, I would never fail to place my actions under invocations of the Divinity, thereby skillfully associating my own star with that of the country.

I would like that, at every instant, one compares the actions of my rule with those of past governments. This would be the best manner of making my good deeds evident and of promoting the recognition that they merit.

It would be very important to highlight the faults of those who preceded me, to show that I have known how to avoid them. One would thus harbor against the regimes that my power has succeeded a kind of antipathy, even aversion, which will become as irreparable as an expiation.

Not only would I give to a certain number of newspapers the missions of ceaselessly exalting the glory of my reign and putting upon governments other than mine the responsibility for European politics, but I would also like a great deal of these published praises to be mere echoes of foreign papers, of which one would reproduce the articles -- true or false -- that render brilliant homage to my own politics. In addition, I would have in foreign countries newspapers that I have bought, the support of which would be all the efficacious if I could give them an oppositional color in several details.[7]

My principles, ideas and acts would be represented with the halo of youth, with the prestige of the new rights in opposition to the decrepitude and irrelevance of the old institutions.

I am not unaware that it would be necessary for the public's mental valves that intellectual activity -- driven back on one point -- could surge forth somewhere else. This is why I would not fear to throw the nation into all the theoretical and practical speculations about the industrial regime.[8]

Beyond politics, moreover, I will say to you that I would be a very good prince, that I would let philosophical and religious questions be debated in complete peace. In matters of religion, the doctrine of free inquiry has become a kind of monomania. One should not thwart this tendency; one could not do so without danger. In the most advanced European countries, the invention of the printing press ended up giving birth to crazy, furious, frightening and almost unclean literature: a great evil. So, it is sad to say it, but it would almost be sufficient to not hinder it, so that this rage to write -- which possesses your parliamentary countries -- is practically satisfied.

This plague-ridden literature, the course of which one could not stop, and the platitudes of the writers and politicians who would possess journalism, would not fail to form a repulsive contrast with the dignity of the language that will descend from the steps of the throne with the lively and colorful dialectic that one would have the care to apply to all the manifestations of power. You will now understand why I have wanted to surround the prince with a swarm of publicists, administrators, lawyers, men of business and jurisconsults, who would be essential to the redaction of the [vast] quantity of essential communications of which I have spoken to you, and of which the impression on the public's mind would always be very strong.

In brief, such would be the general economy of my press regime.

Montesquieu: Are you now finished with it?

Machiavelli: Yes, regretfully, because I have been much more brief than would actually be necessary. But our time is short: we must move on rapidly.


[1] This would be a kind of "central intelligence agency."

[2] An excellent description of what today we would call reformism, leftism, "spurious opposition," etc.

[3] See Michel Bounan's comments in The Crafty State, his 1992 preface to Joly's book: "those who serve as henchmen or soldiers in such maneuvers must learn from history that they are not protected from the repercussions of the cold monster: when their channeling and destructive tasks are done, they are abandoned, financially above all, defeated at Stalingrad, Courbevoie or elsewhere, coldly put down with or without trial."

[4] The French here, le manege, can also mean "horsemanship," which reminds one of Napoleon III's military position.

[5] Compare this idea with Karl Marx, who during this sam period imagined that capitalism would exploit and impoverish the working classes to the point of starvation and death.

[6] A remarkable anticipation -- a hundred years in advance! -- of Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle.

[7] Here we recall that, as part of his duties as an agent of the Russian secret police, Matvei Golovinski (the man who created The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by plagiarizing Maurice Joly) wrote pro-Czarist articles for Le Figaro.

[8] Perhaps including speculations on the international Jewish conspiracy to take control of the world through capitalism!


(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! December 2007. All footnotes by the translator.)




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