Thursday, November 12, 2009

The American Principate

Giambologna, Cosimo de Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.

One of the most fascinating and troubling aspects of Florentine history is how quickly it went from a vigorous republic to an absolute monarchy, a principate with the Medici, a family of self made bankers, transformed into one of the most important ruling dynasties in Europe.
Lots of historians argue about where Florence took that first step toward monarchy. Some say it was when a Medici became Pope with Pope Leo X effectively ruling Florence from Rome. Some put it as far back as 1378 when the ruling oligarchy successfully defeated the Ciompi rebellion, perhaps history's first labor uprising. The legions of impoverished and voiceless textile workers, upon whose labor the wealth of the city depended, rose up and briefly seized power in the city. What they wanted was not a dictatorship of the proletariat, but their own guilds, their own representation in the system as it was. For awhile they got it with 2 new guilds created to represent them in the Commune. The newly made nobility of the Florentine banking families quickly put an end to those guilds and to any hope that the laboring classes would ever be even partially enfranchised in Florence. More than a century later, Savonarola would exploit the long dormant resentments and aspirations of these classes to briefly establish himself as the leader of a theocracy.

It was the great Florentine political humanists like Coluccio Salutati and Lionardo Bruni who revived the ancient Roman idea of public service, of putting aside private interests in the service of the larger community, the patria. In the wake of their very lucky and seemingly miraculous deliverance from the aggression of the Duke of Milan at the beginning of the 15th century, the Florentines created an ideology of civic liberty and independence. A new kind of patriotism appeared in Florence identifying their state with the Biblical hero David. Florence, blessed by God, stood for liberty in the face of the tyrant Goliaths of Europe consolidating nation states under their rule. Michelangelo made the most eloquent and memorable expression of this patriotism in his famous 14 foot high marble David, transforming the lucky little shepherd boy favored by God into the determined tyrant slayer whose strength comes from the popular will.

The general consensus of historians is that it was a tangle of self-interests that ultimately put the Medici in power. The city's oligarch's put the interests of their families and their businesses ahead of the larger interests of the city. The glamor of Lorenzo de Medici making diplomacy with the King of France and the German Emperor (all of it unofficial) created a new ambition for Florentine oligarchic families, to dress and act like princes even if they weren't. Inherited wealth became far more fashionable than self-made wealth. This class depended on the Medici, not for money, but for peace, to keep potential aggressors away with a combination of diplomacy, flattery, and bribery. The Florentine merchants had long relied on mercenaries for military matters. The burghers were very adverse to putting themselves, their children, and their assets at risk in military ventures. After the experience of the Ciompi uprising, there was great reluctance to put weapons in the hands of the laborers and peasants. So, Florence relied on military contractors who extorted huge fees to keep their loyalty, and to keep their troops from sacking the surrounding countryside.

The Medici established themselves as princes over all the older families of Florence by making themselves indispensable to them, and with the help of those very powers of France and the Empire which they had courted and flattered for all those years.

What undid the Florentine Republic is what undid the Roman Republic. Both failed to include and incorporate all classes of their citizens. Both broke apart when ambitious men exploited the greed of the wealthy and privileged, and resentments of the poor and disenfranchised, to install themselves as princes over all. As the Social Wars laid the groundwork for Augustus and the Empire, so the Ciompi rebellion and the oligarchic reaction against it laid the groundwork for the Medici and the Grand Duchy.

Does any of this history lesson sound vaguely familiar?

I sometimes wonder if something like a principate is being created in the USA. The arrogance of the executives of the financial industry with their bonuses and "let them eat cake" attitude in the face of widespread suffering would astonish the Bardi and the Portinari bankers. The craven subservience of federal, state, and local governments to the corporate oligarchy belies all the Veteran's Day rhetoric about patriotic sacrifice and national solidarity. The self-serving policies of Senator Princes in the American House of Lords threaten to eliminate the last vestiges of the middle class prosperity created by the New Deal and the Post WWII boom. Sanctimonious scoundrels like Senator Lieberman identify their own self-interest and the interests of the oligarchy with those of the nation. They treat public office like a princely sinecure. America is indeed starting to look like Europe, the Europe of a hundred years ago with its systems of established privilege and rigid class divisions.
Foreign policy and military matters are left more and more to mercenaries and to the underclass of effectively indentured labor and to immigrants because the rest of us can't be bothered with them.
There are legions of aspiring Savonarolas out there eager to exploit the resentments created by all this concentration of wealth and privilege. As the Frate aspired to transform very worldly Florence into a New Jerusalem to lead Europe in a Christian revival, so there is no shortage of ambitious fanatics eager to remake worldly and cosmopolitan America into a purified Celestial City, an Empire of the Righteous.

And there's no Michelangelo around to carve a huge boldly sexual image of Liberty, personifying the collective determination of all the citizens of the republic to defend their rights against all tyrants foreign and domestic.


Ueber-G said...

It is telling that Lieberman named his campaign "Connecticut for Lieberman" and not "Lieberman for Connecticut" It think that says it all.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

I think you are quite right, dear Counterlight.

rick allen said...

I think it was Dante that said that Florence changed forms of government the way a sick man continually changed position to try to become comfortable.

I don't know how comparable we are to those earlier republics. I read Mommsen's history of the Roman republic a few years back and was generally horrified at its ruthlessness and the convoluted ways in which the governing class's concessions to the plebians were never quite sufficient to meet the grievances that regularly broke out into social violence.

I think that, by and large, we do live in a plutocracy, enabled largely by the enormous sums of money needed for elections. We have very few elected officials who are neither rich themselves nor beholden to the rich from the beginning.

This question of whethere there can ever, in fact be a vary large republic is discussed in the "Federalist," very briefly.
But, then, the corruption of the
Florentines can't be laid at that door, can it? The very coming together for common purposes at the heart of human life creates opportunities for avarice.

Counterlight said...

We always wait in faithful expectation for the Kingdom of the Saints when greed and ambition will be things of the past, but in the meantime, we are responsible for governing ourselves.
I give the Florentines credit for trying to govern themselves at a time when the modern nation states were being forged out of myriads of principalities and city states by ruthless tyrants who laid the foundations for 17th century Absolutism. The Florentines tried very imperfectly to graft some nascent form of modern liberty onto the old medieval commune, an experiment that perhaps was doomed from the start.
However, I can't help but notice that all the life went out of Florence with the advent of the Grand Duchy. The city finally had a stable government; but, it became a quiet and impoverished backwater in the 17th and 18th centuries with a sullen population watched over by 2 large fortresses and a network of spies and police.

Historical comparisons are always imperfect. I think it was Mark Twain (I could be wrong) who said that history may not necessarily repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. Florence was a plutocracy, and arguably servicing that plutocracy ended the republic. I can't help but see a warning there for our own oligarchy as it reduces representative democracy to a necessary pretense.