A World Tour of Books: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (Italy)

The term Machiavellian refers to someone who is cold, calculated and unscrupulous when working towards his goals. It comes from the name of the Italian Renaissance man Niccolò Machiavelli, who was a man of many gifts. He was a poet and playwright, a philosopher, a diplomat and politician and well as a historian.

What he is most known for is his book The Prince. A political treatise, it deals with how Machiavelli believed a monarch ought to rule and what he must do to stay in power.

Since remaining on the throne is a prince’s main goal, Machiavelli prescribed that he should not be guided by mere morals but do whatever it takes, including using cruelty and deceit.

If for example someone would try to take his throne, the prince must crush them and their family so utterly that the he never has to worry about retribution. As one of the most famous quotes from The Prince states:

If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.

Interestingly, Machiavelli believed the prince should act this way in a sense for the greater good. When the ruler is merciless in dealing with external and internal enemies of the state, then the state remains stable, peace abounds and the people are happy. Or at least that was Machiavelli’s theory.

Machiavelli used famous examples to illustrate how a ruler should and should not act. Some were from history but others were more recent, things he had himself witnessed during his career as a politician and diplomat.

He goes in length into different types of states and historical events and I don’t know if it’s his style of writing of what but at times I found this book a bit boring.

Still, I found it overall interesting. The Prince is a historically important document and one of the most famous political treatises in history. But its lessons can be surprisingly useful in different areas, such a business and personal relationships. Even if you are yourself not inclined to Machiavellian tendencies (not that you should be), knowing for example the art of manipulation could prove useful, at the very least in helping you recognize it.

It is fascinating that book written in the 16th century could prove relevant 500 years later and that gives me a certain respect for the man who wrote it, even if I don’t share his views on morals.

 

As this book as no copyright, you can listen to it for free on Youtube and read it as a free e-book online.

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Finally

This is going to be a short post because it’s late and I’m exhausted. I just wanted to update on the political situation here in Sweden. Well, the Riksdag voted today and it’s now official: we have a government!

I was worried the far-left would vote against the coalition of the Social Democrats, Green Party and the two social liberal parties but it seems they probably realised voting for continuing this no-government chaos might make them lose support.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this is the government I had been hoping for. The Social Democrats will now be working with social liberals instead of the authoritarian far-left and hopefully this will move their politics more towards the centre and make Sweden a country of greater freedom.

Spoke too soon: we don’t have a government

This post is a follow up to the one I wrote 3 days ago about the current political situation in Sweden. In it I wrote that we now finally have a government after an agreement between four political parties. But it seems I misread the news. A government will not happen until all parties in the Riksdag have given the thumbs up to this new arrangement. The vote will happen on Wednesday and all parties except for the far-left Left Party seem to agree.

So it is now up to a supporter of many former and current communist dictatorships to decide whether or not Sweden will finally have a government over 4 months after the elections.

The likelihood that the Left Party will shoot down this new coalition is very high since it excludes them and we all know how much authoritarian socialists love power.

Knowing that a decision affecting the future of my country lies in the hands of the Left Party honestly makes me nauseous.

A World Tour of Books: First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung (Cambodia)

It’s rarely that I come across a book that shakes me to the core and bring real tears to my eyes. Loung Ung’s autobiography First they Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is one of those books.

Through it she retells her experience of the tyrannical rule of the Communist Khmer Rouge. It starts in April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge forces invade the capital Phnom Penh and Ung’s family have to flee for their lives. They move from village to village and have to hide their true identities in order to survive. They come from a privileged background and that is enough to deserve death in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge. Even something like wearing glasses could get someone killed since it made them look intellectual and “bourgeois”.

This is an aspect of what happened that I think is important to read about for anyone interested in politics. It is crucial to never let the struggle for more equality degenerate into hatred for those who have more. It has in the past and can still lead to bloodbath and, ironically, to more oppression. Concern for people must be what motivates and not ressentiment towards the privileged classes, less we turn into monsters.

The Khmer Rouge eventually found and killed Loung Ung’s father and the rest of the family had to separate and disperse to get a better chance at survival. Loung ended up in a work camp for children where she was trained as a child soldier. Even the blood of children was considered worth spilling for the sake of the Khmer Rouge’s hypothetical communist utopia.

After the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia, Loung was reunited with her surviving siblings. Later she and one of her brothers travelled to a refugee camp in Thailand, from where they were accepted by American sponsors and immigrated to the United States.

Today, Loung Ung is a human rights activist and has campaigned for important issues such as an international ban on landmines.
There was a happy ending for her after going through hell but for two million Cambodians it wasn’t the case. This is why stories from survivors like her are so important, so that the truth of what happened is told and we hopefully learn something from it.

First They Killed My Father was also adapted into a movie available on Netflix. It is worth a watch if you want to learn about this dark chapter of the 20th century.

After 4 months: Sweden finally has a government

Ever since the elections in September, the Swedish people have been waiting to know who will be part of our government. Since no political party got a majority of the votes on their own, a coalition of different parties had to be made. And after a lot of debating and negotiations, there finally is one.

The government will be made out of the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the social liberal parties Centre Party and Liberals.

This is the coalition I’ve been hoping for. With this arrangement, the proto-fascists of the Sweden Democrats as well as the left authoritarians of the Left Party (who supported Stalin and the Soviet dictartorship in their time) are kept away from major political influence.

It also means the Social Democrats are moving away from a more authoritarian leftism and are now accepting to have a less controlling public sector.

Although I’m a bit frustrated it took so long for the parties to reach this deal, I’m thrilled about it and feeling hopeful about the direction my country will be taking.

Beyond rage and ressentiment and towards politics of positive freedom

One thing rarely talked about in politics is how feelings affect ideology. It is quite clear that many political beliefs, both on the left and the right, are influenced by feelings. Christian conservatives who believe being queer is a personal choice and should be illegal rarely have their minds changed by being presented with empirical evidence that sexuality and gender are innate. Likewise, you can present proof to a devout authoritarian communist that their ideology when put in practice leads to tyranny and not utopia and they will come up with the most far-fetch explanations as to why the facts are wrong. Their feelings about what they want to be true will always trump the actual truth.

But just as feelings can lead a person to gravitate towards a specific ideology, an ideology can affect a person’s feelings and state of mind.

When reflecting on my time being involved in the anarchist movement, I realised just how destructive my thinking sometimes was during that period. As anarchists have a belief that liberty exists primarily in the form of negative liberty, the obstacles to people’s freedom is often in the focus and this leads to frustration. One develops a tendency to obsess over the hindrances to freedom and the longing to destroy what one believes stands in the way can become overwhelming. The idea that the best things you can do is riot, rob the rich and set cop cars on fire is common among anarchists and I’m ashamed to say I’ve sometimes in most depressed moods fallen into the same destructive mindset.

Of course, not all anarchists think this way but of those I’ve met I’d say it’s more common than not.

What I increasingly felt was missing was a constructive idea of freedom, strategies for creating liberty in the here and now and not after some hypothetical revolution. Especially considering revolutions often leads to worse tyranny than existed before.

But there is then the question: where does positive liberty come from? In my opinion, both the public and private as well as the third sector have the potential to either create or hinder it. They are also probably best suited for different areas. Private companies should for example not own workers’ unions but can add positive freedom in the realm of healthcare by offering alternatives, which can also shorten the waiting lists for those dependent on public healthcare.

After focusing on negatives for so long, I have a strong desire to find a way to work towards greater positive freedom both for myself and others. Negative freedom is something also to be strived for in the areas where it is for the best but being free is about so much more than simply not having somebody tell you what to do.

On negative and positive freedom

After realising that libertarian socialism would in practice lead to the Tyranny of the Majority and create a world without much individual freedom, I spent many days and some nights brooding on the problem of how a free society could be made. I tried to dissect in my mind the very nature of freedom itself. While reading up on the topic, I came across two terms that helped clarify some things for me: negative liberty and positive liberty.

Negative liberty refers to the absence of interferences while positive liberty is having the power and possibly to reach one’s potential.

A major disagreement in political discourse is what type of freedom government can create. For many who call themselves Libertarians, government can only be a source of negative liberty, specifically by avoiding involving itself in people’s lives. For anarchists, government can only create freedom by not existing and therefore doing nothing at all.

When I in the beginning of last year came to the conclusion that I could no longer ignore the many ways out-of-control capitalism creates oppression in people’s lives, my first instinct was to look for non-government solutions. This is why I gravitated towards libertarian socialism rather then middle-of-the-road solutions like social democracy or social liberalism. Having been raised in a cult, I have a strong distrust of authority and have always been suspicious of government solutions.

But of course, just as private capital can be a source of oppression towards individuals so can the collective itself. For some reason I didn’t think of that, which I am in hindsight a bit embarrassed about.

The idea that government can create positive liberty is one I am still not quite comfortable with. But I also can’t deny that it is the case. Just looking at my own life, I can see how things like universal healthcare, free school supplies and free medication have allowed me to have a level of freedom which someone of my economic class might not have otherwise.

For example: if I had to pay myself the full market price for my medication, I would have to use up about a quarter of my monthly salary just for that expense. And it I had to on top of that pay for the surgeries I needed, it would take me years to even save up the money necessary. Some surgeries I’m waiting for are so expensive, I likely wouldn’t be able to gather the resources under my entire lifetime!

But of course, while the government can in some ways help booster people’s freedom there is a limit to how much power it should hold over economic resources. Putting all of it under the authority of the state has been tried and it has led to mass graves and mass starvation every single time.

In the end, I seem to always come to the same conclusion: the collective, private interests and the state are all potential sources of oppression and none of them can be allowed to be given too much power if individual liberty is to continue flourishing. Something needs to keep them all in balance. Having people in government who support and cherish freedom could be that something.

A World Tour of Books: Maghnia – sökandet, by Mohamed Hocine (Algeria)

In the early 1990s, a conflict rose up in Algeria when the government refused to give up power to the Islamic party who had won the election. This angered more radical Islamist groups and an armed struggle ensued.

During this time, many people accused of being involved with the opposition mysteriously disappeared. Some were active members of the Front islamique du salut or FIS, others were sympathizers but being suspected of involvement with the group could be enough to be taken away by state security, never to be seen again.

Meanwhile, the various armed groups making up the opposition targeted civilians as well, sometimes massacring entire villages and forcibly “disappearing” a great many people also.

The result of this civil war was a death toll of between 44 000 and 200 000. It also led to the still unsolved disappearances of over 7000 people.

Maghnia (with the subtitle Sökandet – meaning the search) by Mohamed Hochine tells the fictional story of one such disappearance. One day armed men storm the home of Rachida and Brahim, a young couple expecting their first child. Brahim is falsely accused of being involved with the FIS and arrested.

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Eleven years later, Rachida is raising their daughter Maghnia alone and still waiting for an answer to what happened to her husband. She hasn’t heard a word all this time from either Brahim or the authorities who took him away. Sick of waiting she decides to leave Maghnia at a home for girls and to travel to the capital Alger to try and find the answers to her questions.

Rachida will meet others in her situation, people who are also searching for their missing loved ones. She will meet people who will try their best to help her. But others will be eager to use her desperation to their advantage. As for the authorities, they will be unwilling to even acknowledge the issue. Can she find out what happened to Brahim after all these years? Is there any hope that he is still alive?

Meanwhile, Maghnia will make new friends at the home and discover mysterious things about the place her mother has temporarily left her at. What are those files hidden away in the attic? And what is the purpose of that strange cave in the garden?

This is as mentioned a fictional story. But the heartbreak it portrays is sadly very real for over 7000 families in Algeria. 17 years after the end of the war, the authorities still haven’t made any effort to reveal the truth about what happened. Maghnia sheds light on the devastating consequences this silence has on many families.

 

The book has been published only in Swedish and can be purchased here. It is the first of a series and the second book can be found here.

A case for the existence of the state?

I have been feeling sort of ideologically lost since my delusionment with the libertarian left, a delusionment whose reasons were actually more than what I mentioned in my previous post. I learned more about current and historical examples of supposedly successful “libertarian” socialist societies and found that they were not nearly as anti-authoritarian as I had in my ideological fervour imagined. It’s a really long topic to cover but if it interests you there is for starters an essay by Bryan Caplan about revolutionary Catalonia and why it wasn’t what many proponents of libertarian socialism claim it was.

Another reason was that I began to question if radical economic democracy, even in a decentralised form, really would booster individual freedom. If it’s up to the collective to vote on resource distribution then what stops the collective from voting against certain individuals or minorities getting their share? What guaranty is there, for example, that a lesbian would be treated fairly by a homophobic collective? Or a black man by a predominantly white and also racist collective? An atheist by a Christian one?

Just as auhoritharian communism puts the individual at the mercy of the state and laissez-faire capitalism puts the working class individual at the mercy of the rich, wouldn’t the individual under decentralised socialism be at the mercy of the group?

It feels like wherever I look, there are these chains around the individual and I don’t know how to break them.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. After realising that by embracing libertarian socialism, I had in fact promoted another form of oppression I went into kind of a depression. I’d become something I had always sworn never to become: a person who wants to put chains on other for the sake of their ideology

I’ve started to look at different possible political solutions to the problem of individual liberty, trying my best this time to stay rational and not get swept away by idealist hopes.

I’ve asked myself: disregarding the goals of every ideology, what do they lead to in practice?

Because these are two very different things. Many people for example do not know that one of Karl Marx’s most important goals was individual freedom. But Communism when tried has always led to an absolut crushing of liberty. So what politicians and revolutionaries attempt to do can vary greatly from what they end up doing.

When looking at it through a pragmatic and not ideological lens, there is no question that social liberal societies have little competition in terms of level of individual liberty. So I decided to read up more on social liberalism from thinkers like John Rawls, John Stuart Mill and L. T. Hobhouse.
The goal of social liberalism is to balance out the free market with social policies so that although things are not completely equal between people (which it can only be in theory anyway), everyone gets a fair chance. For that the state must be the arbitrary between the public, private and what is called the third sector. In a sense, the state under social liberalism is supposed to be the guardian of the individual’s liberty from the different forces who would wish to oppress it.

But is that really what the state does? The answer is that what the state does depends greatly on who controls it. A state government by Leninists is going to do wildly different things than it would do if controlled by neo-liberals.

As someone who has until very recently called themselves an anarchist, it is obvious that I am highly sceptical of the very idea of the state. But with every ideology I have looked at, I keep running into the same problem: who will stand up for the individual? A state focused on doing just that might be the answer that was in front of me the whole time.
I am not calling myself a social liberal yet, or anything else for that matter. My complete disillusionment with libertarian socialism has made me cautious and I’m not ready to sign under any specific ideology yet. But the notion of a social liberal state as guardian of personal liberty is an idea I want to explore further.

A World Tour of Books: The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)

I didn’t plan to read a book about a man being a woman’s slave right after reading a book about a man being a woman’s slave but it’s what happened when I picked the first book I found by an author I’ve wanted to read for a long time: Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Bad Girl starts in the 1950’s when the narrator Ricardo first meets the girl who will use him for many years to come. She is fifteen then, claims to be from Chile and calls herself Lily.

He will meet her again throughout their lives and in different parts of the world. Her chosen names will be as varied as her made-up backstories but one thing will be consistent: Ricardo crawling back to her whenever and wherever she appears.

Always choosing rich and powerful men over him and using him as a lover and source of comfort, the bad girl seems to not have much of a conscience about what she is doing to poor Ricardo and it is hard for most of the book to feel much sympathy for the character.

One also feels annoyance at Ricardo for being such a wimp and not breaking things up with someone who treats him so terribly. But his love for the woman, although undeserved, is just too strong and he will follow her loyally to the very end.

This is a book I think primarily about the irrationality of love. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale or maybe it’s an ode to unconditional love; but it’s probably a bit of both. The Bad Girl is a beautifully written book with complex characters who will both charm and infuriate you. I feel the author is a man with great understanding of human nature and I found this work of his to be of inspiration to me personally as a writer.

The milieus in the book also make the story come to life. From the 60’s hippy period through political revolutions and the AIDS crisis, The Bad Girl tells the story of the later half of the twentieth century as well as it does the story of a cruel love.

If all or even most of Vargas Llosa’s books are as good as this one then his 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature was definitely well-deserved.