There are, at the very least, two ongoing major tragedies in English-language social and political theory: the non-translation of Carl Schmitt's Die Diktatur and the non-translation of Claude Lefort's Le Travail de L'Oeuvre Machiavel. While the non-translation of Schmitt is inexcusable (it's a pampthlet, it's an essential work and, yet, somehow we have two translations of "Theory of the Partisan" published in the same year), the non-translation of Lefort's book is understandable: Machiavelli studies is an already bloated field and, like most bloated fields, it is filled with negligible and unimportant works - one hardly, on first impressions, requires yet another book. And, of course, Lefort's book is seven hundred seventy eight pages long.
While I have some reservations with Bernard Flynn's recently published The Philosophy of Claude Lefort: Interpreting the Political, it is the only book on Lefort in English, it is a moderately able introduction to his work, and it contains the single, most detailed discussion of Lefort's book on Machiavelli in English (the first three chapters are on that book). The final chapter about Machiavelli, on Lefort's theory of interpretation and reading, ends as follows:
If we consider the imago of Machiavelli, where one finds in a condensed form certain beliefs regarding the political, the pursuit of power, and humankind in general, then "we must ask ourselves what does this image teach us about the sociological effect of Machiavelli's work?" Lefort does not dismiss the myth of Machiavelli; in fact, he claims that in a sense it incarnates a truth and as such is part of Machiavelli's legacy. How is one to characterize this myth which has become a stable part of the folklore of the modern mentality, a myth engendered by the decapitation of the proper name of Machiavelli? It is a myth of a particular type of evil, one that involves both deceit and ruse but which is not motivated by passion or fury; rather, it is subordinated to a calculation of means and ends. The Machiavellian character is not swept away by passion, he is sovereign in his own right. Reversing Kant, he gives himself as a maxim, "Treat others always as a means only." He not only dominates others but also takes pleasure in so doing. He incarnates the phantasm of total mastery. "Malicious logic, accumulated ruse, serene perversity, joy [jouissance] are the composite of the concept of Machiavellianism."
Lefort notes the remarkable stability of this concept across time and its utilization as an accusation across the entire ideological spectrum; one might that "Babbits" come and go but Machiavellians go on forever. According to Lefort, the word "Machiavellian" designates an evil, the origin of which is based on the very nature of power itself. It is the name given to politics to the extent that it is evil. It designates that which the ordinary imagination wishes to represent each time that power is perceived as that which is absolutely foreign. It is the principle of actions unknown and unknowable which "situates itself at an insurmountable distance and determines the common existence as it pleases and for its pleasure." According to Lefort, "Machiavellian" does not signify pure evil and simple. Were this the case, it would be simply a new name for a signification as old as human history. Rather, he contends that it expresses a historically specific experience of modernity's relation to power. In a very detailed exposition which I cannot pursue here, he traces the history of this accusation. Suffice to say that virtually every ruler, and every pretender to power, has been denounced as Machiavellian by his adversaries. Although aware that Machiavelli's works had been condemned by the Council of Trent, Lefort cautions against viewing religious intolerance as the sole explanation for the genesis of the myth. He argues that the specifically religious condemnation must be subsumed under the broader experience of modernity. In France, anti-Machiavellianism is liked to the widespred aversion to Catherine de Medici and her entourage; it is also part of a general Italiphobia at this time. It is an epoch when "Catherine appears to incarnate a foreign power, a power infinitely distant from her subjects, without any justification other than the interests of the sovereign." More generally, it evokes the commercial, financial, and usurious activities imputed to Italians. This anti-Machiavellianism is linked by Lefort to a primitive form of anticapitalism. During this epoch, an emerging capitalism begins to act as a solvent to the traditional social ties, engendering a situation in which the activities of commerce and finance begin to render opaque the traditional forms of authority and the experience of power as personal dependence. It is a moment in history when a modern mentality comes to co-exist with the Christian worldview. It is an epoch when the businessman is still perceived as a monopolist and the search for profit has the name of the sin of usury, when the evils engendered by the new play of the market are imputed to the practices of immoral individuals. And as Lefort claims, it is a time when "the imagination is prompted to project a singular human type as responsible for this evil." The name of this type is "Machiavellian." The Machiavellian myth condenses "all the effects of the anguish provoked by the desacralization of the ancient order." Machiavellianism is the name given by the early modern imagination to what Max Weber calls "the disenchantment of the world," or, evoking a phrase that often recurs in Lefort's later work, "the disencarnation of society." One could say that the fiction of Machiavellian power has a double intention: On the one hand, that of naming the loss of the substance of society - that is, the dissolution of the bonds that unite political power to the totality of human existence - and on the other hand, that of pondering the menace consequent upon this experience of the disappearance of the belief in the unity of society with itself.
By naming this loss and the menace consequent upon it, the Machiavellian myth both recognizes the loss of society's unity with itself and accounts for this loss by viewing it as the contingent result of the diabolical activity of a sovereign subject. In a highly interesting but all-too-brief reflection, Lefort links the "Machiavellian" with Descartes' figure of the evil genius, as elaborated in The Meditations. He does this to show that the status of the political and the status of the Subject are intertwined. The evil genius completes the practice of methodological doubt which is terminated by the experience of the Cogito. The evil genius shares many of the traits of the Machiavellian myth in that it condenses in itself both omnipotence and total deception. It is a transcendent power which turns everything into illusion, a transcendence of power which is detached from society and makes a "plaything" of our lives. Lefort tells us that the evil genius remains linked to the operations of science in the modern imagination, just as the phantasm of a power which is detached from society haunts the modern political imagination. Although he does not mention it, in the American context this link is incarnated in the figure of the "mad scientist," so often evoked by science-fiction writers. As I have already said, Lefort does not simply dismiss the myth of Machiavelli; rather, he emphasizes the fact that it attaches itself to an experience which is essential for modernity. One could even say that the real work of Machiavelli's thought is its sensitivity to a radical new experience, namely, the transcendence of a politics which is no longer linked to God, or to an intelligible cosmos.