Seventeenth Dialogue

Montesquieu: I have said that you have genius; genius of a certain kind would truly be necessary to conceive and execute so many things. Now I understand the apologue of the god Vishnu: like the Indian idol, you would have a hundred arms and each of your fingers would touch a spring. Would you be able to see all in the same way that you would touch all?

Machiavelli: Yes, because I would make of the police such a vast institution that, at the heart of my kingdom, one half of the people could see the other half. Will you permit me several details on the organization of my police?

Montesquieu: Do so.

Machiavelli: I would begin by creating a ministry of the police, which would be the most important of my ministries and which would centralize -- as much abroad as domestically -- the many services with which I would endow this part of my administration.

Montesquieu: But if you would do this, your subjects would immediately see that they were enveloped in a frightening net.

Machiavelli: If this ministry displeases, I would abolish it and I would, if you like, name it the Ministry of State. Furthermore, I would organize in the other ministries corresponding services, the great majority of which would be founded, quietly, in what today you call the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You will understand perfectly well that here I would not at all be concerned with diplomacy, but uniquely with the means capable of assuring my security against factions, as much abroad as domestically. So, you can believe that, in this connection, I would find the majority of the monarchs in practically the same situation as I was in, that is to say, very disposed to seconding my views, which would consist in creating international police services in the interests of reciprocal security. If I were to attain this result, which I do not doubt, here would be some of the forms in which my foreign police services would be produced: men of pleasure and good company in the foreign courts, who have their eyes on the intrigues of the princes and those of the so-called exiles, banished revolutionaries among whom -- for money -- I would not fail to find some to serve me as agents of transmission with respect to the schemes of shady demagogy; who would found political newspapers in the great capitals, printing houses and bookstores placed in the same conditions and secretly subsidized to follow closely the movements of thought through the press.[1]

Montesquieu: It would no longer be against the factions in your kingdom that you would end up conspiring, but against the very soul of humanity.

Machiavelli: As you know, I am not afraid of great words. I would want things so that any statesman who would like to form cabals abroad would be observed, noted from point to point, up to the moment of his return to my kingdom, where he would be incarcerated for good so that he could not be in the position to try again.[2] So as to have the thread of revolutionary intrigues better in my hand, I dream of [implementing] an arrangement that would be quite clever.

Montesquieu: Great God! What would this be?

Machiavelli: I would like to have a prince of my house, seated upon the steps of my throne, who would pretend to be dissatisfied.[3] His mission would consist in posing as a liberal, as a detractor of my government, and in rallying -- so as to observe them closely -- those who would like to perpetrate a little demagogy from the highest ranks of my kingdom. Insisting upon domestic and foreign intrigues, the prince to whom I would confide these missions would thus play a game of dupe with those who would not be in on the secret of the comedy.

Montesquieu: What? You would confide the assignments that you yourself classify as police-related to a prince of your house?

Machiavelli: And why not? I knew reigning princes who, in exile, were attached to the secret police of certain cabinets.

Montesquieu: If I continue to listen to you, Machiavelli, it is to have the last word in this frightening wager.

Machiavelli: Do not be indignant, Monsieur de Montesquieu: in the Spirit of the Laws, you called me a great man.[4]

Montesquieu: You make me atone for it dearly: it is for my punishment that I listen to you.[5] Pass over the sinister details as fast as you can.

Machiavelli: Within the country, I would be obliged to reestablished the black cabinet.[6]

Montesquieu: Reestablish it?

Machiavelli: Your best kings have made use of it. The secrecy of letters must not serve as the cover for conspiracies.

Montesquieu: Here is what would make you tremble: I understand.

Machiavelli: You are deceived, because there would be conspiracies under my reign: there must be.

Montesquieu: Still?

Machiavelli: Perhaps there would be real conspiracies, I am not sure, but there would certainly be simulated ones.[7] At certain moments, when the prince's popularity has decreased, they could be an excellent means of exciting the sympathy of the people in favor of him. By intimidating the public spirit, one could thus obtain, if needed, the severe measures that one would want or one could maintain those that exist. False conspiracies, which of course could only be used with the greatest restraint, would have another advantage: they could permit me to discover real conspiracies, by giving rise to investigations that lead one to seek everywhere the traces of what one suspects.

Nothing is more precious than the life of the sovereign: it would be necessary that he is surrounded by innumerable guarantees, that is to say, innumerable agents, but it would be necessary that this secret militia[8] is quite dissimulated, so that the sovereign would not have the air of being afraid when he appears in public. One tells me that in Europe such precautions have been perfected to the point that a prince who walks the streets can have the appearance of a simple citizen who promenades amongst the throngs without being guarded, whereas he is actually surrounded by two or three thousand protectors.

Moreover, I would have my police officers sprinkled among all the ranks of society. There would be no meeting, no committee, no salon, no intimate foyer in which one could not find an ear to hear what is said everywhere, all the time. Alas, for those who wield power, the facility with which men are made into paid informers is a surprising phenomenon. What is even more surprising are the faculties of observation and analysis that develops among the political police; you have no idea of their ruses, disguises and instincts, of the passion they bring to their work, their impenetrability; there are men of all ranks who pursue this trade -- how can I describe it? -- due to a kind of love for the art.

Montesquieu: Ah! Draw the curtain!

Machiavelli: Yes, there are indeed, in the depths of power, secrets that terrify those who see them. I will spare you any further dark things. With the system that I would organize, I would be so completely informed that I could even tolerate guilty actions, because at any minute of the day I would have the power to stop them.

Montesquieu: Tolerate them? Why?

Machiavelli: Because in the European States, the absolute monarch must not indiscreetly use force; because at the bottom of society there are always subterranean activities with which one can do nothing if they are not conducted; because it is necessary to use great care not to alarm public opinion about the security of power; because the [political] parties are content with murmurs, inoffensive teasing, when they are reduced to powerlessness; and because pretending to disarm them down to their bad humour would be folly. Thus, one would hear them complain, here and there, in the newspapers, in books; they would make allusions to the government in several speeches or in several legal appeals; under diverse pretexts they would make several small demonstrations of their existence -- all this would be quite timid, I swear to you, and if the members of the public would be informed of it, they would laugh. One would find me quite good because I tolerate it; I could pass as too good-natured. This would be why I would tolerate what of course appears to me to be without danger; I would not want it said that my government is touchy.

Montesquieu: This language reminds me that you have left a lacunae, and a very serious one, in your decree.

Machiavelli: What's that?

Montesquieu: You have not touched upon individual liberty.

Machiavelli: I would not touch it.[9]

Montesquieu: Do you believe so? If you conserve the faculty of toleration, you would principally conserve the right to hinder all that appears dangerous to you. If the interests of the State or even a slightly pressing concern would demand that a man should be arrested, at a particular moment somewhere in your kingdom, how could you do so if there were still in the legislation some law relating to habeas corpus? If the arrest of individuals is preceded by certain formalities, certain guarantees? While one proceeded, time would pass.

Machiavelli: If you will permit me: if I would respect individual liberty, I would not in this regard prohibit myself from making several useful modifications in the judicial organizations.

Montesquieu: I know it well.

Machiavelli: Oh, do not be triumphant: this would be the simplest thing in the world. In general, who hands down rulings concerning individual liberty in your parliamentary States?

Montesquieu: It is the Council of Magistrates, the number and independence of which are the guarantees of those who are held accountable by it.

Machiavelli: This is a completely vicious organization. How can justice have the speed necessary to apprehend malefactors if it moves with the slowness of a council's deliberations?

Montesquieu: What malefactors?

Machiavelli: I speak of the people who commit murder, theft, the crimes and offenses subject to common law. It will be necessary to give this jurisdiction the unity of action that is necessary for it; I would replace your council with a single magistrate tasked with handing down rulings concerning the arrest of malefactors.

Montesquieu: But here it would not be a matter of malefactors. With the help of this disposition, you would threaten the liberty of all citizens. At least you should distinguish between accusations.

Machiavelli: This is precisely what I would not want to do. Is not the one who undertakes something against the government as guilty, and even more guilty, than the one who commits an ordinary crime or offense? Passion or poverty attenuates mistakes, but what forces people to be occupied with politics? I also would not want any distinctions between common-law offenses and political offenses. What modern governments have the spirit to establish criminal courts for their detractors? In my kingdom, the insolent journalist would be confounded in the prisons with the simple thief and hauled before the correctional jurisdictions. The conspirator would be seated before the criminal jury, side by side with the forger, with the murderer. This would be an excellent legislative modification, you will note, because public opinion -- upon seeing the conspirator treated just like the ordinary malefactor -- would end up confounding the two types in the same scorn.[10]

Montesquieu: You would ruin the very basis of the moral sense. But what would that matter to you? What astonishes me is that you would keep the criminal jury.

Machiavelli: In the centralized States such as mine, there would be public functionaries who would impanel the members of the jury. In matters of simple political offenses, my minister of justice could still, when necessary, fill the chamber with judges called upon to be knowledgeable.

Montesquieu: Your domestic legislation is irreproachable. It is time to move on to other subjects.

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[1] This was precisely the role played by Matvei Golovinski (the fabricator of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) when he worked for Le Figaro in Paris.

[2] Napoleon III, aka Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, launched two failed coups d'Etat (in 1836 and 1840) before finally being successful in 1851.

[3] Louis Bonaparte called upon his nephew, Eugene Louis, to play this role. His faction was called the Palais Royal Group.

[4] Author's note: Book VI, Chapter V. [Translator's note: "Machiavelli attributes the loss of the liberty of Florence to the people's not judging in a body in cases of high treason against themselves, as was customary at Rome. For this purpose they had eight judges: 'but the few,' says Machiavelli, 'are corrupted by a few.' I should willingly adopt the maxim of this great man."]

[5] Neither Machiavelli's punishment nor the nature of the offense that landed him in hell have been mentioned.

[6] A secret operation in which the letters written by people under the suspicion of the government were intercepted, opened and read before being sent back on their way. Conducted with some regularity before the French Revolution, especially under the reign of Louis XV.

[7] See the discussion of "conspiracies in favor of the established order" in Guy Debord's Comments on the the Society of the Spectacle (1988).

[8] It was not until 1901 that the United States Secret Service began protecting the country's presidents from potential assassins.

[9] Note the pun: to touch upon (to mention or discuss), to touch (to despoil or violate).

[10] See the following comment in Book II, Chapter VI, of Victor Hugo's Napoleon the Little: "Call the causes: correctional police, sixth chamber; first cause, one Roumage, swindler; second cause, one Lamennais, writer. This has a good effect, and accustoms the citizens to talk without distinction of writers and swindlers."