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Political Realism: General Aspects

One of the major obstacles to achieving concrete multiple sovereignty (political, military, and economic) is, in our opinion, the lack of political realism, which cannot be reduced to an ideology because, on the contrary, it is intended to oppose it. For example, realism contrasts with the ethical transfigurations of human nature. According to realism, a deep narcissism underlies utopias and ideologies because they project into the future the satisfaction of the pleasure principle; they are, therefore, constructions of desire, driven by an iconoclastic impulse towards reality, which surrogates anticipate collective happiness with the rituals of participation. Realism is alien to perspectives of emancipation because it is combined with the principle of responsibility, as realism indirectly aims to educate towards a heuristic of fear: the real is seen as something threatening for survival, and human efforts are directed to counteract its threats. Realism’s object is not ideologies but facts of power, and for this reason, a mandatory starting point for its reflection is the famous passage from chapter XV of Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. This passage asserts, among other things, that the path to political knowledge is that of direct observation and recording, without emotional coloring, of what happens. In opposition to those who prioritize prescription over description, the realist first and foremost seeks to establish the facts and to question their dynamic connections. From this point of view, realism is a true form of radical empiricism because it starts from the naked facts of politics. From the realist’s viewpoint, politics is a struggle that has power as its end and force as its means. It should not be surprising, then, that realism is in a certain sense a praxeology, that is, a doctrine that interprets situations, develops maxims for action, and formulates predictions based on experience. Great political realism arises from the intersection of the author’s perspective and that of the spectator.

One of the major obstacles to achieving concrete multiple sovereignty is institutional pacifism, based on the following illusory assumptions: 1) it is generally possible, through world government bodies, to prevent conflicts of any nature; 2) it is always possible to transform political conflicts into legal disputes, making them resolvable through quasi-judicial procedures; 3) if this is not enough, the international community possesses sufficient and credible moral or economic sanctions to bend the will of States resistant to the law. However, both World War I and the Cold War, as well as the multipolar world, have relegated the League of Nations and then the UN to a marginal and declamatory role, contrary to the expectations of Kelsenian neo-Kantianism, demonstrating once again the validity of political realism. As Hans Morgenthau pointed out in his 1948 essay “Politics Among Nations”, political realism should allow us to understand: the need to protect national interests (after identifying them), the need to identify threats to those interests, and finally the means by which those interests are pursued and those threats are confronted. Any political oligarchy that must – and wants to – govern with the aim of safeguarding the interests of its own country must follow these three simple rules resolutely and decisively.

For the realist, political reality is intrinsically about power, conflict, order, and hierarchy. This leads to specific implications regarding values, which allow us to better understand the fracture between realism and the ideological coordinates of modernity, namely pacifism, solidarism, egalitarianism, and anarchism. Indeed, one of the core principles of realist thought is that all political thought must begin with the principle of the original inequality of men. Realism maintains that there are and will always be inequalities in property, power, and knowledge because men are unequal by natural endowment and society only accentuates these inequalities; moreover, the recognition of inequalities is a factor of integration and dynamism, a principle of order and development of societies. Legal equality of individuals is not a natural presupposition but a historical product of humanity’s development and has a positive influence only when combined with the recognition of more substantial inequalities. Regardless of the various functional forms that organize coexistence, effective power is – and remains – in the hands of narrow oligarchies.

In relation to liberalism, political realism cannot accept the affirmation of the primacy of civil society, nor its idealization. As for socialism, the egalitarian conception of society it puts forward is opposed by realism, for which the goal of generalized economic equality is not only utopian but self-destructive. The representation of the Marxian realm of freedom, that is, a social condition liberated from the coercive organization of labor, and therefore a society without classes and without the state, is obviously as far removed as possible from the paradigm based on the postulates of the inescapability of struggle and the necessity of hierarchy.

Among the powers available to a state, the realist’s preference goes to those of a political or executive nature, which do not express so much a point of view above the parties, but the viewpoint of the strongest party. Realism’s primary interest is not the protection of law but the effectiveness of action: for a technical conception of the state, the essential thing is to find adequate means to achieve a specific result in a specific case. For the realist, the judiciary is, precisely because of its claim to impartiality, the weakest power. It is rather at the root of the discriminatory character of the judicial paradigm that the realist perceives the memory of war and the trace of a more original moral and political paradigm. It is therefore futile to postulate the purity of the law and presuppose a perfect separation between the strategic logic of conflict and the logic of law, even when the process touches the sanctuaries of power: the major political controversies can only be decided in a political manner.

Constitution, as a set of social and political forces and the legal arrangement of their relationships, is not for realists the result of a rational project, an act of constitution, a decision that creates the legal order from a normative void, but rather the result of a process that unfolds over time through struggles and agitations, as observed by the historian Polybius. For this reason, the realist cannot accept constitutionalism because for the realist, war is not a wound destined to heal in the regularity of politics, but its ineliminable backdrop, as observed by Leo Strauss in the essay “Jerusalem and Athens. Studies on the Political Thought of the West.” Another profound observation of realism is that constitutionalism does not take into account the complexity of the strategies of macro and micro-powers that easily circumvent the limits set by situational arrangements. Indeed, while constitutionalism averts major violence and injustices, it is nonetheless unable to prevent the entropy of corruption, as limited and moderate power is also disarmed power in the face of evil forces; moreover, the mechanism of the division of established powers has no grip on powers that act informally in the folds of society.

Reflection on raison d’état is central to the context of realism. In its radical variant, the theory of raison d’état may seem nothing more than an apology for the oppression of the powerful, while in its moderate variants, it is a doctrine of state conservation, a practice of its political prudence, oriented towards the prevention of disorders and dangers, characterized also by a polemological imagination.

For the realist, the strategic use of forces and thus the secrecy of plans, the dissimulation of one’s intentions, which allows surprising and defeating the adversary without excessive expenditure of means and energy, is fundamental. This is why, for the realist, the doctrine of arcana imperii constitutes a central and not marginal aspect of political reflection. It is not surprising that, in the context of political realism, it becomes necessary to institutionalize secret knowledge. For this reason, the practice of secret services can find a satisfactory explanation, from a political point of view, only within the realist paradigm and certainly not in the liberal, pacifist, or anarcho-capitalist paradigm.

For the realist, the society of needs and egoism is the true principle of civilization. The power of states is based on strength and deceit. In the name of state interest, it is necessary to contravene not only the commandment not to kill but also not to steal. Corruption is not only a symptom of decadence but more often a vector of expansion and consolidation of power. In this regard, the reflection of the Enlightenment philosopher Bernard Mandeville is extremely significant. For this author, it is not frugality—which is suitable for small closed societies—but selfish passions, greed, ambition, vainglory, or pride that are at the base of the development of large societies. In this author’s reflection, the polemic is evident both towards Christian morality and towards classical ethics, and in particular towards Rousseau. Both for the novelty of his anthropology and for the radicality with which he outlines his contractualist solution, and still for his pedagogical program, the French philosopher remains the antipode of political realism.

Political Realism: Between Geopolitics and Disenchantment

In the context of political realism, the spatial and therefore geopolitical aspect is certainly intrinsic. Indeed, the struggle for power, the conflictual dynamics that underlie history, is also a struggle for the attainment of a vital space. For example, the Greek historian Thucydides did not miss the fact that Athens’ vital interest was control of the sea, without which the supply of raw materials and the trade on which the security system of the imperial Mediterranean was based would be threatened. In the reflection of the Greek historian Thucydides, the geopolitical polarization between land and sea power is evident, a contrast that the historian sees in Sparta and Athens. This inevitably leads to a vision of history that is not only pessimistic but in a certain sense melancholic: the dynamics of power are in fact subject to both the law of growth and the law of decay. The hegemony of a power is destined to wane, as taught by both Machiavelli and the Greek historian Thucydides. On the other hand, as the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto observed, history is a graveyard of aristocracies.

In any case, if realism is knowledge derived from practical experience in the world of history, the realist can only be disillusioned and disenchanted both with political power and with men. In reality, he does not approach history convinced of possessing the key to understanding its essence: he is, on the contrary, persuaded that understanding history can never become a philosophy of history. While the utopian searches for political perfection in a hyperuranian reality made of abstractions, and while the ideologue transfigures the reality of power and the world, the realist tries to strive to identify the true face of politics and history, rejecting the dream of utopia and the counterfeits of ideology.

Pacifism and Realism

The concepts of peace and violence, as interpreted by Galtung, are simply devoid of any meaning for political realism. Indeed, in this author’s reflection, the concept of violence is semantically expanded to include not only war but also the distribution of power and resources connected to institutions and structures that cause avoidable deaths and suffering. This form of violence is defined as structural violence. Alongside this, there would also be cultural violence, a term under which are included all those cultural, ideological, linguistic factors that lend themselves to operations aimed at masking or providing a veneer of justification for direct and structural violence. Well, in light of these reflections, peace is defined in a strict sense as the absence of direct, structural, and cultural violence.

For a political realist, peace understood in this sense is equivalent to condemning all foreign policy enacted since the beginning of civilization. Not surprisingly, the main exponents of international pacifism radically reject both the principle of power and the balance of power, as well as the attitude of distrust towards one’s opponent, which often translates into actions aimed at preventing possible moves by the opponent.

In the reflection of Robert Nozick, fundamental human rights are interpreted as absolutes in the sense that they constitute inviolable ethical limits to every behavior of ours, individual or collective. Indeed, any intervention that involves the violation of human rights is always considered morally inadmissible. This conception, like that of Galtung, can be considered very far from a realistic conception of both history and political praxis.

From a strictly historical point of view, asserting that human life is sacred—as claimed by the Christian doctrine that hypocritically ignores its history far removed from respect for human rights—means denying any historical value to both the human being and society. In the realm of historical reality, human life has always been a value exclusively relative and never absolute. The Declaration of Rights, for example, was born from an act of power and violence by the French bourgeoisie against the Ancien Régime, not from an act of love towards God and humanity. If, for example, during the liberation war in Italy, human life had been considered an absolute value, the partisans—regardless of their heterogeneous political orientation—should not have killed either the fascists or the Nazis. Likewise, the Algerian FLN—like the Irish IRA—should not have opposed the French presence in Algeria with the violence of terrorist actions and guerrilla warfare. In short, such a thesis is simply historically unacceptable from a historical point of view. In this absolutist—and we might say metastorical—context, the reflections of other authors also fit.

For example, according to Albert Schweitzer, it would be legitimate to speak of a veritable imperative of reverence for life, starting from the observation that I am life that wants to live surrounded by life that wants to live, and therefore destroying or impairing a being endowed with the will to live is always an act of violence.

Another conception starts from the assumption that every human being has a potentiality, that is, is capable of growing, developing, and realizing himself. Well, every human being is in a certain sense a teleological center of life and, as such, has an absolute value: deliberately destroying it means committing an act of violence against it. This conception is famously that of Arne Naess’s ecosophy. There is also a third conception that starts from the assumption of the existence of a unity of all that lives, an assumption this made explicit by Gandhi, according to whom all living creatures—including animals—partake of this metaphysical unity. Consequently, every time man kills or destroys the existence of another living being, he commits not only an act of violence but also an act of rupture against the unity of the living (among other things, within this Gandhian context, Aldo Capitini’s reflection fits).

The deepest aspiration of this pacifism is actually the radical transformation, from a psychological and anthropological point of view, of the human being and therefore of human society based on its metaphysical and moral assumptions. However, for a political realist, who is simply inspired by the reflections of Machiavelli and Guicciardini (without needing to refer to the sociological and politological refinements of Raymond Aron), these assumptions cannot be shared.

Analyzing some reflections of Giuliano Pontara, we cannot fail to underline the presence of evident logical paradoxes. According to Pontara, when men act within authoritarian structures, as are invariably military ones, they can very easily be led to behave in extremely inhumane ways towards those who are characterized as the enemy. Well, this statement, legitimate or not, how can it not be defined as a statement in turn Manichean? In this regard, Pontara himself explicitly condemns the black and white ways of thinking that implement a dichotomous logic built on statements such as: we are right and true, they are in error and false; we are the good, they are the bad. But, we wonder, is not Pontara himself a victim of that same dichotomous logic he would like to eliminate? For the Italian philosopher, capitalism would be totalitarian because it is characterized by rapacious policies towards nature, weaker groups, and third world countries. The system of powerful and all-encompassing multinational corporations is increasingly taking over the place and functions of the totalitarian state because these exploit, manipulate, indoctrinate, and condition us from the moment we are born until we die. In other words, for the Italian philosopher, capitalism represents an almost absolute evil at least as much as the political system of those countries that were based on real socialism. Isn’t putting the two systems on the same level a Manichean evaluation?

However, the logical contradictions of the author do not end with these statements. According to the Italian philosopher, one of the characteristics of education for peace would be fallibilism, according to which no one can ever be sure that what is believed to be true at a certain moment is indeed so. Now, not without irony, we ask ourselves: can this same principle not be applied to pacifism?

Now we come to another consideration formulated by the same author that would certainly please all those who have always wanted, strongly wanted, a weak Europe and therefore easily dominated. But let’s see what the Italian philosopher states: the negative side of the ongoing European unification process consists in the risk that it will lead to a new, larger and stronger national state, a new economic and military superpower in which French thermonuclear weapon systems have contracted an indissoluble marriage with German capital and military science. In a realistic perspective, all this would not be a serious mistake but rather desirable to put in place a brake on the ambitions of other countries that, playing on the internal divisions of Europe, have so far dictated the rules of the game.

Another observation, in our opinion extremely significant formulated by the author, is the one relating to the necessity not only of a planetary morality but even of a legal system valid at the global level. This thesis, once again, ignores the intrinsically historical nature of both law and morality and therefore ignores the exquisitely relative dimension of our moral systems as well as our political systems but above all ignores the totalitarian implications to which such a conception would inevitably lead. However, the Italian philosopher Pontara is forced to recognize the limits and paradoxes of an absolute pacifism that always and in any case disregards the consequences. Indeed, he states, this time realistically, that the use of violence cannot always be condemned a priori and cannot always be unjustifiable. If this statement is true, then as a logical consequence, it follows that human life is not sacred because human life is inserted within a historically defined temporal context. For a realist, both war and peace are not absolute values—as Bobbio reminded us—or intrinsic but relative or extrinsic. And secondly, Bobbio always stressed, it is not possible to objectively determine when a war is just or when a peace is just, and this is due to the lack of an impartial judge, that is, above the parties in the international order. Indeed, every political grouping tends to consider just the war it makes and unjust the peace it suffers, as Bobbio stated in the successful essay “The Problem of War and the Ways of Peace” (Il Mulino, 1984). Also in this essay, Bobbio emphasized not only how war and violence have always existed but also how history is largely a product of violence. Moreover, many of the civil conquests that we consider beneficial for human progress were born through violence. In this regard, Bobbio brings some significant examples: the humanists considered themselves heirs of a great civilization, the civilization of Rome, which had been founded on a series of atrocious wars. The liberal fathers of the Risorgimento considered themselves heirs of the Reformation, that is, a period of religious struggles that had bloodied the world for decades. We moderns consider ourselves children of the French Revolution, which for the first time established a regime of terror, and of the Soviet Revolution, which ended in Stalin’s massacres. Did not the republican history come after one of the most tragic moments of our history, and would it have come if it had not been preceded by that history of tears and blood? Violence is so interwoven in history that it is impossible to do without it. As harsh as it may seem, considering violence a scandal of history constitutes a gross historical error.

In conclusion, the political realist perspective offers a pragmatic, often unflinching view of the dynamics of power and conflict. It sees history and human interactions through the lens of power struggles, dismissing idealistic or utopian visions. This realism is rooted in the acknowledgment of the inherent inequalities and conflicting interests in human societies, emphasizing the need for pragmatic and sometimes ruthless measures in the pursuit of national interests and stability. This approach, while criticized by proponents of more idealistic or ethical frameworks, remains a significant and influential perspective in the understanding and practice of international relations and political strategy.

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