“All states and all companies that have ever ruled functioned as oligar-chies. While there are multiple forms of governance, all operate through control by a few.”
James Sherry’s The Oligarch is a modern sequel to Machiavelli’s classic, The Prince, which shows how little leadership roles and problems have changed in the last 500 years. By using a literary strategy to present the mechanisms of U.S. and world politics, the book offers a compelling view of Trump’s America and the direction of global politics and economics.
The Oligarch maps the roads to power. Over its 26 chapters, echoing the form of The Prince, it exposes the way authority is wielded throughout the world by groups who govern both nations and corporations. Examples include people and events straight from the headlines, including Trump, Clinton, Merkel, Thatcher, Xi, and Putin, along with corporate leaders from business and media. The Oligarch shows how the networks of power actually operate, disentangling the binaries sensationalized in the news.
If Machiavelli focused on power concentrated in republics and principalities, The Oligarch shows how cor-porations and stated exercise power similarly. Sherry argues that while the form of democracy usually improves the well-being of the people, too little consideration has been given to how different forms of governance operate and who benefits. Rather than discussing only the forms of government, The Oligarch addresses the operations of both states and corporations as a single set of common processes.
Sherry links politics, ecology and literature in order to raise awareness of alternatives to the current over-reach by the corporate classes. The Oligarch shows how groups in power conduct themselves, working in concert for their joint interest, and how their behavior affects workers and citizens everywhere.
“Admirers of Machiavelli’s ideas and style will enjoy this slim and provocative book which addresses a topic dear to the Florentine secretary: the role of elites in society and politics. James Sherry adds a new twist by taking account of the work of twentieth century ‘Machiavellians’ such as Gaetano Mosca, early James Burnham, as well as the networks described by ecologists. The result is a smart and ironic view of the contemporary networks of oligarchs, in business as well as in politics and society. Readers interested in such different topics as populism, corporate business, high-level politics and the inevitable Donald Trump will find food for thought—accompanied by Machiavellian wit.”
— Giovanni Giorgini, Professor of Political Theory, University of Bologna and Princeton University
“500 years after Machiavelli, James Sherry offers us a modern (and wide-ranging) treatise on the oligarchs who now rule our world and how they gain and maintain power. One wonders if the pejorative ‘Sherryan’ will be hurled at the power plays of future oligarchs.”
— Jeff Cohen, Director, Park Center for Independent Media, Ithaca College
What initially drew you to The Prince? Can you talk about the first time you ever read it & that experience? Have you read many different versions of it?
I studied The Princeat college. At that time I was absorbed by the usual questions about Machiavelli’s seriousness and whether he supported princes and aristocracy or was really an ironic republican. Prior to the Medici taking over Florence, Machiavelli was secretary of the Second Chancery where he coordinated relations with Florence's territorial possessions. So our professor always stressed how clearly Machiavelli’s personal perspective did not support the prince’s party. We concluded then that Machiavelli was satirical. When Trump and the other Republican candidates began debating in their primary race, I recalled The Prince; something new was clearly happening; the relationship between aesthetics and politics in America had changed. Reading The Princeagain, in two English versions and through many pages of the Italian as part of writing The Oligarch, I was struck by the complexity of his motives. The notion that he had a single point of view seemed naïve. When the Medici took over Florence, ending the Republic, Machiavelli was recalled from his post and tortured by Medici henchmen. He was later released to his country farm where he spent the next years writing The Prince. Now it seems that The Prince was also a job application. And, in fact, after submitting the text, Giulio Cardinal de Medici commissioned him to write The History of Florence.
The notion that Machiavelli wrote from any single perspective is exactly the kind of idealism that he was writing against. And in practice we all know that we think and look at our surroundings from many different points of view and cannot easily separate our motives from our actions (except often to our dismay). I should add that the structure of The Prince also attracted me because its 26 chapters offered a more complete view than the way journalism and academic papers focused on only one or two issues.
Even people who haven't read The Prince have probably heard the term "Machiavellian" before, often in reference to business or political dealing(s), as a synonym for unscrupulous/opportunistic/cunning... in that vein, do you think your book could potentially function as guidebook for today's young aspiring super-entrepreneur?
I wrote The Oligarchwith several audiences in mind, including leadership, the rising aspirants and citizens concerned with politics in our nations. To respond to your question about what I want to say to aspiring entrepreneurs and officials, The Oligarch suggests that adopting its multi-perspectival model would force many potential leaders to understand that their successes are not due entirely to their own skills and exertions. Rather all of our efforts, including poetry, must be understood as the result of our individual efforts, and also of our group of friends, conflicts and influences as well as the impact our surroundings, mental condition and social situation. Ayn Rand’s notion of Objectivism that informs many young libertarians is yet another false ideal that The Oligarch hopes to debunk. While there are many other readers addressed, the book is dedicated to Elon Musk but addresses different audiences as it develops. And changing oligarchs’ perspective about the source of their success to a more complex model rather than an ideal unity is my focus for these readers.
An environmental model of politics addresses other points of view as well. These perspectives include the different ways we understand the availability of resources. Some people think that there are resources in abundance, some that they should be freely available and others that they are accessible only through skill. Some think that resources are limited and need to be fought over or that our aspirations should be to reduce our attachment to things. Some people think what happens is a matter of chance. And these different perspectives are not owned by people but by the roles each takes, my own point of view changing depending on whether I’m a writer seeking publication, a citizen standing at the polling booth or a tourist in a national park. Conditions, as much as mores, dictate how we view our surroundings. Practically and in my own mind, I have ideals that hardly change, but behavior that changes in different situations. For example, I expect the right of free speech in the public realm while prioritizing respect when speaking to individuals. I wanted these points of view to communicate to various audiences.
In addressing those who do not see themselves as part of the oligarchic network, I hope to show how oligarchs think and act, their aims in different circumstances and their decision process, so that we as citizens do not attribute erroneous motives and characteristics to leaders. If oligarchic methods are made more transparent, we have a greater agency in moving leadership toward supporting other citizens.
Do you find ultimately that this archetypal character of the prince or the oligarch can be somewhat sympathetic, perhaps since they may have no choice but to assume the power that gets handed down to them, maybe by their family...that they are, let's say, destined and/or doomed to assume power? Can you think of examples of princes or oligarchs that have completely rejected their inheritance?
John Milton introduced “Sympathy for the Devil” in Paradise Lost. What we can gain from these cultural artifacts, including The Oligarch, is a comparative point of view, not a bible of literal truth or a roadmap to perfection. The notion of archetypal leadership is only partly valid: conditions and surroundings dominate how leaders behave, yet leaders apply similar solutions through history.
Leadership is magnetic as power is aphrodisiac, but lest we become enamored of these leaders because we identify with them, The Oligarch tries to humanize them so we don’t see them as ideals to be emulated or hated. Plenty of people have stepped down from positions of power from Japanese emperors to the children of European dynasties. Plenty of people are generous in positions of power like Warren Buffet or Good King Wenceslas. There’s a whole chapter about generosity in The Prince that I transposed to The Oligarch that I found funny when I reread it.
I can’t really support your assumption behind this question, because it treats all the different ways people get to power as part of a single process. I notice how Trump’s irrational discourse has begun to permeate the public discussion of governance. He acts differently that other American leaders. And then the press wants to show similar behavior from other leaders to normalize Trump’s. And many countries today are suffering through kleptocracies. It’s important to present a viable, alternative way to speak about these issues, so that the very attractive hyperbole from both Trump and the media are not the only available discourse. Disinformation about leadership is as old as agricultural civilization. Carrying leadership’s distorted presentations of itself and reality into our own plans makes it much harder for citizens to achieve personal and collective goals. Understanding the multiple motives in a leader’s network is critical to effective counter-measures. For example, is Jerome Powell, the new Federal Reserve Chair, a creature of the Koch brothers, no? Is the presence of many senior military leaders in Trump’s administration a sign of a coup d’état, no? Where do each of the oligarchic networks with their fingers in the administration’s pie have representatives in the Cabinet or in other important posts? Very interesting question!
Do you find Machiavelli to be a sympathetic character? How has the message he may have originally wanted to send with his work been perverted or distorted over the years?
Machiavelli was a person of his times, and a person in 1500 was quite a different thing than a person today. (I’m in the middle of writing a new book called Selfie about identity and environment, so I will say more about this subject there.) Also, I am interested in his writing more than his character; and they can be separated. In general, I’m try not to identify with dead people; it’s my superstition. Further I don’t want to try to validate myself by elevating or attacking Machiavelli as a person. He was born to the rising middle class and, while not rich, was never fully dependent on his public income; he had four children; he had one wife and had affairs with other women. There’s too much judgmental behavior going on in our social media melee. I’d rather discuss how he fit into other writing of the time than evaluate him.
In those days, Italy was a pawn of foreign powers; the state of the state was a mess almost everywhere, and people often opined for a less chaotic society. Look how sad people have become with a year of Trump’s dislocation of civil discourse, and talk isn’t action. Imagine how we would feel if today, NY was taken over by Canadians and Alabama by Mexicans. Then next year, the French prime minister sent an army to lower Manhattan, and the Venezuelans invaded Florida. That was the kind of society Machiavelli lived in, but his expectations were different, so my comparison is problematic. Machiavelli was a political operative in a disorderly society. How many twists and turns did it require to stay alive?
The Prince, as mentioned above, had no single message. Machiavelli’s judgements about governance were conditional rather than fixed. This is the measure of my book, The Oligarch. It’s not a fixed set of ideas, but presents situations. Machavelli was a political animal; he was satirizing leadership; he was showing the underlying structure of leadership in a way it had not been elucidated before, so he intended to be a political philosopher by formalizing some of the classical ideas of power, Cicero perhaps in particular. He was seeking employment in the diplomatic service but ended up as paid author for Medici family interests. He was looking to get back into the good graces of leadership; he was angry at the treatment he received; he specifically extolled the virtues of republican rule in The History of Florence and never says that the best form of governance is the principality.
Showing complexity with icky plants
The Oligarch is a work of appropriation. Can you talk about the particular ethics of this kind of writing as opposed to more "traditional" modes?
The Romantic notion that you call “traditional modes” that an author creates poetry alone isn’t quite the way I look at writing. I’m in my room, surrounded by other people’s writing—books, magazines, daily papers, websites and manuscripts. My mind is crowded with conversations with people, poetry that I’ve read and poetry that I’ve heard at the Segue Reading Series. I remember other poems that suddenly appear in my mind, a phrase from Blake or MLK. My own impulses and language informed by a lifetime of other inputs as well as the consolidation of the moment barge their way in or insinuate themselves into my existing cache. My work room is quite packed, from mind to matter, with influences, friends and antagonists. I am far from alone in writing. And The Oligarchis far from radical appropriation. It is a careful update of a significant work that itself appropriates from Livy and other classical sources. The Oligarch includes citation from Machiavelli and Winters, references to other works of political theory, discussion of different ideas of politics from theory to journalism, translations from other genres and disciplines of thought, relationships to similar modes of writing and a couple of potentially innovative ideas like comparing the value of forms of governance to operations that haven’t been widely discussed in this context. In other words, The Oligarch establishes an entire ecosystem of reference, mostly in the realm of politics but also from biology, ecology, psychology and even poetry. Finally, I tried to style these inputs together, but often the seams show.
I think our obligation as writers in using source material is to have worthy objectives and raise questions about our assumptions. It’s neither an argument to win nor do I see the need to target people who are suffering. This process of leveling, working on an inclusive rather than evaluative hierarchy, is how I came to certain realizations about Machiavelli while trying to create a nuanced relationship between my work and my sources. The Oligarch seeks to effect people who impact our lives and who need feedback from those of us who are out of the fray of the everyday conflicts of governance.
Conceptualism, as we have used it since the 70s, is not simply to demean or extoll the source or to toss the relationship between motive and action out the window. The Oligarch marks my choice not to appropriate or imitate mockingly those with lesser privilege than the author, but rather to question those in the high castle. And I’ve been doing this for decades. One of the pieces in Oops! Environmental Poetics (2013) rewrites a biology text into a poetry text by word substitution. Years ago, I wrote a poem derived from a 19th century song in “She’ll Be Comin’ Round” (Part Songs, 1978) to connect popular and high art. And many of other writers from the period from language writers to conceptual artists showed how creative work is a collaboration between prior writing and our own efforts.
What do you think of Machiavelli as a literary stylist? You said before that he wrote The Prince as a kind of job application. He also wrote plays. What do you think of his other work(s)? My Italian isn’t that strong, but Machiavelli’s writing style is a marvel. His winding, hypotactic sentences have an emotional impact beyond semantics. To take an extreme position, I’d suggest a stylistic relationship between his sentence structure and late Romantic novelists. Another acclaimed prose stylist, Richard Hooker, wrote Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 50 years after The Prince and exhibits a similar prose complexity but lacks Machiavelli’s roundness and elegance. Most of the recent translations attempt to break up his semicolons in to separate sentences, and I have mostly done that, transforming sentences into shorter more modern periods. Yet, despite his winding sentences, Machiavelli’s diction is discrete, accurate and spare. Most readers of my simplified sentence structure still think in this age of Hemingway and popular journalism that The Oligarch is too dense. Machiavelli is even denser in the original and alternately nuanced, witty, serious, and viciously realistic in the space of a sentence. (I can show a sentence in Italian, if that will help prove this point of the long sentences.)
I was also reminded of British filmmaker & journalist Adam Curtis, particularly his documentary HyperNormalization (2016). His voiceovers tell of an acute financialization of politics in our time, how politicians have become so utterly beholden to the supposed law or rule(s) of globalized markets, so it is the oligarch or the CEO who calls the shots in governance today; similarly, to the way a prince would have in Machiavelli’s time. Then there is Curtis’s three-part television opus All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011) which explores how the ecology movement was nearly co-opted by computer scientists; they wanted to render nature as a system just like a computer, or the stock market. Have you seen Adam Curtis's films? Someone wrote a review recently of The Oligarch in MoneyWeek (The UK's widest-read financial magazine) where they say your book "verges on conspiracy theory" which is what people say about Adam Curtis too.
Accusing writers of conspiracy theories is a standard method that financial media outlets use to confuse analysis of how elites extract surplus from societies. But what does conspiracy mean in this case, when there are many different ideas of conspiracy—legal, social and psychological? There have been proven conspiracies to rig prices of LIBOR rates (Barclay’s Bank), dairy (Sainsbury), commodities (Enron) and semiconductors (Samsung). There have been plans to overthrow governments that have failed (Brutus & Cassius) and some that succeeded (Pinochet in Chile and Bonaparte in France). There are more complex and sophisticated ways to control outcomes such as passing laws that are biased against or in favor of certain classes of citizens. Some systems help citizens like food distribution networks, but these networks can also be used to unfairly extract wealth from customers through price fixing, increase greenhouse gas emissions from trucks or discourage local food production by making it seem inexpensive to ship a head of lettuce from California to NYC. Which is illegal, which conspiracy and which a good idea that was exploited for bad purposes? Which is merely self-interest writ large? Which is failure to see all outcomes of a given act? Which ultimately improve society while temporarily hurting some vested interests? Which ultimately undermines a society while appearing to be a wonderful invention? Such a broad set of statements about control of systems by small groups has diverse meanings.
To address operations of governance, we need to look at a range of behaviors. When professional financial people are trained to think similarly, they act similarly and do not need to conspire, collude or even to know each other. Owners of assets and companies use conventional methods like taking an excessive percentage of workers’ labor value. When multiple owners of separate corporations agree on prices that they charge or salaries they will all pay, that’s called collusion; it’s illegal in many, but not all, countries. Also, financial workers invent new methods and construct financial instruments to make a profit. Exploitation of innovative products such as Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations exacerbated the financial collapse of 2007. Most major banks used these instruments and then agreed that their failure was unforeseeable, but anyone who looked at the composition of the mortgage-backed securities could see that securitizing many subprime mortgages together did not decrease their risk.
At another level, there are plenty of oligarchs who plan to make money. Some of these plans help develop society like building infrastructure or setting aside fallow farmland to reduce the likelihood of crop failure. Some of these plans simply extract value from resources and labor or eliminate competition without adding value. As I say in The Oligarch, “Putting on one side the myths concerning oligarchy, like conspiracy theories, and discussing on the other those acts which are material, all people exhibit qualities which bring them both blame and praise.”
The processes of business have long been suspect. As Adam Smith said, “To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers… The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” Wealth of Nations.
And then practically, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Ibid. So there are many levels of planning, conspiracy and unforeseen consequences, and I’ve barely touched the deeper problem of self-interested legislators. As I said above, all complex, non-linear systems follow similar (not identical) paths, the environmental model that I have written about regarding poetry as well. We can discuss environmentalism at the individual level, group or political level, and as a different kind of hierarchy than the Facebookian like/don’t like evaluative binary. The Oligarch addresses this political or group framework.
I haven’t seen Curtis’ documentaries. The question you raise that interests me is the systems analysis question that he raises and your apparent worry about treating nature as a system. To really answer this question, which I won’t quite be able to do, I need to go beyond politics and treat human activity environmentally, that is, from multiple perspectives. To clarify how humanity and environment are parts of a single complex entity, I found it necessary to deflate the image of people projected by humanism. If we treat humans as part of the biosphere, human minds and actions must be governed similarly to other parts of the planet. Our uniqueness is modified by common processes of the biosphere. And complex entities follow similar mathematics whether they be human or non-human.
So, I actually support the idea that we can understand ourselves more clearly by looking at how we operate in our ecosystem. I don’t agree that all we need to know about a poem resides in the poem; that’s the fallacy of New Criticism. Looking at non-human cognitive processes as an alternative, beavers might have evolved bigger muscles and longer legs so they could run out to eat the bark off the tree before the wolf caught them. Instead, they expanded their safe zone by building dams so they could stay in or near the water and still get food. Manipulation of surroundings is common to many species. The idea that different species and individuals operate both similarly and uniquely should not be alien or threatening. Rather it’s reassuring to know that others face similar difficulties and that the answers to many of our most thorny problems already exist in other parts of the biosphere like cures for illnesses in rain forests, unlimited energy in capturing sunlight and more complex organization of all societies to accommodate larger populations.
The words “oligarch” and/or “oligarchies” do appear in The Prince…for example, if we refer to the Penguin Classics edition (translated with notes by George Bull, reissued 2003) we read in Chapter 5 how the Spartans ruled Athens and Thebes through the oligarchies they established there…can you say a little more about the relationship between corporate and state governance and how it's changed over the centuries, ditto the forms and operations of government, since Machiavelli’s time?
The history of oligarchy is a bit complicated for me to address fully here: The Oligarch attempts to change the way people think about governance today. At least I hope it has that effect. Older definitions of oligarchy, like Machiavelli’s, limit it to discussions of the form of ruling states by small groups distinguished from monarchy or democracy. The perspective in The Oligarch is that oligarchy is also a method of operation and, while it occasionally merges with form when oligarchs rule the state, oligarchic operations are continuous. In the same way that contemporary poets are working through various interactions between form and content, rather than seeing them as separate, The Oligarch shows how the form and operations of governance influence each other through the channels that Machiavelli discusses—inherited and new power, local and foreign power, different sources of power affecting different parts of the oligarchic organization. An oligarch’s geographic location, their industry or branch of government, their family and other personal connections all carry political meaning for the small groups that run organizations at all scales.
Jeffrey Winters’ excellent book, Oligarchy (2011) which I also freely appropriated, says oligarchs are very rich people. That’s an easy definition to defend, but looking at oligarchs that way makes it harder to understand the more important questions around the processes of maintaining power and how people gain and lose power. I also wrote The Oligarch through the Italian elitists, Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto, who both attack Marx’s theory of class struggle and may be viewed on the one hand as bourgeois apologists and on the other as arguing against idealism. Taking this broader definition of oligarchy shows how it works, helping to avoid arguments that confuse self-interest and social conflicts. Machiavelli, too, talks about how people’s roles, fortunes and identities change with conditions. To me, it is vital to begin to address political solutions in ranges, as approximations and as a series of steps rather than as single noble acts, perfect attitudes or binaries even though noble acts and binaries are attractive to us because we are organisms.
Small groups act more effectively in the short term than large groups, so when we want something done, we establish a committee to set up the plan and then bring it back for approval to the larger body. This method operates on many levels. States, municipalities, companies, families and even our own organisms operate similarly. Focusing on form instead of operations starts an argument about the marginal effectiveness of one form over the other. The majority of our well-being, however, is determined by how forms operate. India and the United States are both democracies in form. Saudi Arabia, Denmark and England are both monarchies in form. Russia and Singapore are both oligarchies in form. You decide how you feel about your nation by how it operates, not by its form, although the publicity around form makes many adherents of one form or another. And of course, we defend our forms—our bodies, the ideas that have developed with us over time, our families and our works. But to improve general consent that is essential to address environmental concerns, we need to understand others’ points of view. Otherwise, the notion that resources are limited and the aggression that inevitably follows will dominate the alternative views of resources and destroy our species which is, after all its flaws, pretty wonderful. “Finally, modern thought, being probabilistic, supports this kind of abductive logic, which will be more useful than trying to squeeze the entire world of power into a few phrases or only defining it as the province of an individual. Yet there will be those who feel at sea in the modern world and lean toward a more circumscribable ecosystem, and so we provide space for your definition now that you’ve read the book: oligarch, n, ol-i-garch, (/ˈäləˌɡärk/).”