Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Monday, October 31, 2011

Antiquarians and Historians

Here's the difference between an antiquarian and an historian: the former cares about the past for its own sake, while the latter seeks to understand the present more deeply through knowing about historical developmnets that still shape our world. As an historian, this is what I would say the Ciompi revolt can teach us-- the elite's hold on power is always weak, the masses may seize power whenever they are so inclined. However, elites are like the moles in whack-a-mole: eventually they pop back up, and start screwing things up for the rest of us until we whack 'em again! Peace out, brothers and sisters...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Aftermath of Ciompi Revolt in Florence

After the Ciompi succeed in seizing power in Florence they find a leader in a wool carder named Michele di Lando. From 1378-1381 Florence is someting of a medieval workers' paradise. In 1381 the elites take back power, but some of the workers' gains are maintained in a power structure that requires the cooperation of the less poweful guilds  Forty years later, in the spring of 1424. the Florentines were very unhappy with what they perceived as an unnecessary foreign war. A crushing defeat at Zagonara was especially galling, with an enormous loss of men and money. Heavy new taxes were of course imposed to pay war debts.  

Machiavelli tells us that the Florentine councils in 1424 [Florentine Histories, Book IV, chapter 8]
  “created twenty citizens to levy a new tax, who, inspired by seeing the powerful citizens depressed by the last defeat, loaded them down without giving them any consideration… [the tax collectors had] authority to be able to kill anyone who might defend himself against the public agents. From this arose many grievous accidents, with the death and wounding of citizens, from which it appeared that the parties [Albizzi v. Medici (allies of Ricci] would come to blood… [the leading citizens] “decided they  should all meet again together…

 [ IV, 9]  Messer Rinaldo degli Albizzi spoke to all.  He pointed out the condition of the city and how through their own negligence it had come again under the power of the plebs… He reminded them of the iniquity of the state that had ruled from 1378 to 1381 and how, of all those present, this one’s father and this one’s grandfather had been killed by it; that they were returning to the same dangers and disorders; for already the multitude had levied a tax to suit itself, and very soon, if it were not restrained by greater force or better order, it would create magistrates according to its own arbitrary will. If this should happen, it would seize their places and would wreck the state… Therefore, he declared, it was necessary for everyone who loved his fatherland and his own honor to come to his senses and and remind himself of the virtue of Bardo mancini, who, with the ruin of the Alberti, had got the city out of the dangers it was in then… He concluded, therefore, that he saw only this mode by which to remedy it: restore the state to the great and take away authority from the lesser guilds by reducing them from fourteen to seven.  This would make the plebs have less authority in the councils both because their number would be fewer and also because the great, having more authority there, would be unfavorable to them on account of old hostilities… And as for carrying out these things, there was deceit or force to which they could easily have recourse, since some of them as members of the War Council of Ten, could bring men secretly into the city… and there was no other remedy than winning Giovanni  de’ Medici over to them. So the commission was given to Messer Rinaldo to go to Giovanni and see if he might attract Giovanni  to their judgment…”

As it turned out, Giovanni de’ Medici wasn’t willing to betray the common people, and so the city became openly divided between an elitist faction adhering to the Albizzi, and a more populist faction that favored the Medici family. Eventually the Medici do take advantage of their populist reputation to slowly gain total control over Florence, first under cover of republican forms, and eventually (in the sixteenth century) ruling the city for generations as the dukes of Florence.  Indeed, the Medici also marry into the royal House of France, and give the Church three Popes, thus becoming pretty much the most powerful family in early modern Italy.
We'll have a bit more to say about all this next time...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Ciompi Revolt appears victorious

Well, Machiavelli tells us (Florentine Histories, Book III, chap. 14), this kind of talk from a rebel leader soon came to the attention of

“the Signori, for they had in their hands one Simone dalla Piazza, from whom they learned the whole conspiracy… when the danger had been seen, they gathered the Collegi… before everyone was together, night had already come. By these men the Signori (leading city officials) were advised that they should have the consuls of the guilds come, who then all advised that all the men-at-arms in Florence should come and that the Gonfaloniers (Standard-Bearers) of the people should be in the piazza (plaza) in the morning with their armed companies. While Simone was being tortured and the citizens were gathering, the palace clock was being regulated by one Niccolò da San Friano. As Niccolò became aware of what was happening, he returned to his home and filled all his neighborhood with tumult so that in an instant more than a thousand armed men gathered in the Piazza Santo Spirito. This uproar reached the other conspirators, and [the churches of] San Piero Maggiore and San Lorenzo, the places designated by them, were filled with armed men.
… in the piazza not more than eighty armed men in favor of the Signori had appeared; not one of the Gonfaloniers had come because, having heard that the whole city was filled with armed men, they feared to leave their homes. The first of the “plebs” (Ciompi ) to be in the piazza were those who had gathered at San Piero Maggiore, and at their arrival the armed men did not move. After these appeared another armed crowd, and, finding no opposition, with terrible cries they demanded their prisoners… and so as to have the prisoners by force since they had not been given up by threats, they burned the houses of Luigi Guicciardini: so the Signori gave them over for fear of worse… This tumult lasted the whole day; and when night came, the Ciompi stopped at the palace of Messer Stefano behind the Church of San Barnaba. They numbered more than six thousand; and before day came, with their threats they compelled the guilds to send them their ensigns. Then when morning came, with the Standard of Justice they went to the palace of the chief Justice (Podestà); and as the Podestà [always a very distinguished judge from another city—Ulysses] refused to give them possession of it, they fought for it and won.”

So, now the lowest-paid wool workers have seized control of the city! What will they do with their newfound power? Stay tuned…

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ciompi Revolt: Florence, 1378

So, Machiavelli puts us at the scene in the spring of 1378, when the Albizzi faction in Florence hesitates to use force to put down a workers' revolt that aims to put the elite families who dominate the Parte Guelfa out of business.

The spark that ignites the flame of revolution in Florence is the stirring resignation speech of one Salvestro de'Medici, a wealthy man who was sympathetic to the demands of the Ciompi (unskilled wool workers). Powerful men are killed, and many houses are burned. After some days of unrest, many of the rebels are ready to stop and ask for mercy from the authorities. But one intelligent leader has another plan:

"If we had to deliberate now whether to take up arms, to burn and rob the homes of the citizens, to despoil churches, I would be one of those who would judge it was a course to think over, and perhaps I would agree to put quiet poverty ahead of perilous gain. But because arms have been taken up and many evils have been done, it appears to me that one must reason that arms must not be put aside and that we must consider how we can secure ourselves from the evils that have been committed... You see the whole city full of grievance and hatred against us: the citizens meet together; the Signoria is always on the side of the magistrates. You should believe that traps are being set for us and that new forces are being prepared against our strongholds. We must therefore seek two things, and we must have two ends in our deliberations: one is to make it impossible for us to be punished for the things we have done in recent days, and the other is to be able to live with more freedom and more satisfaction than we have in the past... If we wish that our old errors be forgiven us, [we need] to make new ones, reoubling the evils, multiplying the arson and robbery-- and to contrive to have many companions in this, because when many err, no one is punished, and though small faults are punished, great and grave ones are rewarded." (Florentine Histories, III, 13) to be continued...

We'll have more to say about all this soon-- I hope that Leftsiders are enjoying the words of Niccolo Machiavelli!!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thomas Paine still speaks to us today

Here's a comment made by one of the American Revolution's heroes, Thomas Paine, in an essay advocating the imposition of an estate tax in post-Revolutionary France-- to fund substantial benefits to those of modest means:

Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man's own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.
This is putting the matter on a general principle, and perhaps it is best to do so; for if we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.
It is a sign of how little progress we've really made that now, more than 200 years later, these words of one of our founding fathers still fall on deaf ears. 21st century politicians, who denounce taxes on the wealthy as "confiscatory," or, "punishing success," represent an ancient, greedy point of view. This outlook survived the American, French, and Russian revolutions. Yet the clear logic and good moral sense of Paine's position still retains its power as well.
We must continue to press the case, as Paul Krugman does so well, that trickle-down policies weaken our economy. But we also shouldn't be afraid to follow Paine-- in calling for restoring the principles of justice, gratitude, and civilization that are essential to any decent society. Helping the middle class and poor will not only stimulate demand, it will restore a sense of self-respect in all Americans.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Machiavelli's class analysis of the ancient Roman and medieval Florentine republics

So here's Niccolo Machiavelli (Florentine Histories, Book III, chapter 1)on the different results of class struggle in Rome and Florence:

"The grave and natural enmities that exist between the men of the people and the nobles, caused by the wish of the latter to command and the former not to obey, are the cause of all evils that arise in cities. For from this diversity of humors all other things that agitate republics take their nourishment. This kept Rome disunited, and this, if it is permissible to compare little things with great, has kept Florence divided... For the enmities between the people and the nobles at the beginning of Rome that were resolved by disputing were resolved in Florence by fighting. Those in Rome ended with a law, those in Florence with the exile and death of many citizens... for the people of Rome desired to enjoy the highest honors together with the nobles, while the people nof Florence fought to be alone in the government without the participation of the nobles. And because the desire of the Roman people was more reasonable... the nobility would yield easily and without resorting to arms. Thus, after some differences, they would come together to create a law whereby the people would be satisfied and the nobles retain their dignities... the desire of the florentine people was injurious and unjust, so that the nobility readied greater forces for its own defense, and that is why it came to the blood and exile of citizens... in the victories of the people the city of Rome became more virtuous, for as men of the people could be placed in the administration of the magistracies, the armies, and the posts of empire together with the nobles... but in Florence, when the people conquered, the nobles were left deprived of the magistracies, and if they wanted to regain them, it was necessary for them not only to be but to appear similar to men of the people in their conduct, spirit,and mode of living."

O.K. Leftsiders, let's chew on that for a moment... we'll be back tomorrow with some ideas on how these general ideas about class conflict will shape Machiavelli's whole historical understanding of the Ciompi revolt in Florence.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Alan Grayson on Occupy Wall Street

World Forum

Electric energy in the Big Apple

So the people on the street here in Gotham City are ready for change. When I wear my Jobs with Justice "Stop Corporate Greed" t-shirt, I am peppered with requests from folks who want to know where they can buy one. Hint: not at Walmart!! Even some of the pinstripes in midtown wink and share conspiratorial little grins with me as we pass on the sidewalk. I had one gentleman on 7th Avenue offer me $40 to sell him the shirt off my back. I should talk to the JWJ people, and see if they can't produce some of these treasured items for sale to all the occupiers and sympathizers in town!

People in the U.S. (not just NYC) are pretty much fed up with the status quo. They have no faith in either of the two major parties and the moment is ripe for new parties to emerge. One such party in New York State is known as the "Working Families Party." here's an account from Mathew Cain of the WFP, describing his recent visit to the Wall Street area:

I just got back from the march. The energy was palpable before we even arrived at Foley Square. Taking the subway from the office, it seemed like everyone else in the car was headed to the march.

When we got to the square around 4pm, people were streaming in from all directions. Literally thousands of people. Across the square, several WFP field staff were standing on the steps. For some of the staffers, it was their first time at the square, but for many others they had already spent nights sleeping in the park. Even those who have been there for two weeks or more have not seen their spirits diminished – they’re every bit as committed as they were when they first showed up.

WFP staff in the crowd

During the march, I talked to the people around us, to see what motivated them. There were a lot of students and recent college graduates, worried about loans and job prospects, but there were also climate activists, public health workers, and housing advocates (“Homeless shelters, not tax shelters!”). It’s clear that, while there is no one unifying demand, everyone was brought together out of a desire to see a more equitable society that treats all its members fairly.

Whenever I broke out of the stream to take pictures, it was obvious that it was a big group. A huge group. The street was packed in both directions, as far as I could see, with people holding signs and chanting: “We are the 99%!” “The people, united, will never be defeated!” “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” “How do you fix the deficit? End the wars and tax the rich!”

Intensely yet peacefully, we marched from Foley Square to Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street’s home base. The overflow crowd milled about as organizers prepared for the General Assembly, practicing their “people’s mic” – a process where everyone within earshot repeats what the speaker said to spread the word to the edges of the crowd.

As I left to head back to the office close to 8pm, marchers, undiminished, were still pouring into Zuccotti Park.

Here's an idea for all my peeps in the heartland. Why not find a Bank of America Plaza, or similar symbol of corporate greed, to occupy in your hometown? It's fun and good for the soul!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Some historical background for Machiavelli's Florentine Histories

My medievalist colleagues will no doubt crucify me for the gross over-simplifications that follow. My only excuse is that I want this lesson to be accessible to the educated layperson, even if they haven't been lucky enough to study Italian history.

So-- the Italian world of the late 14th century was very different from today's Italy. Italy was just an ethnic and linguistic concept, a holdover from the ancient Roman times. Major city-states, like Florence, Venice, Naples, and Milan dominated the peninsula, along with the vast territories under Church contol known as the papal states. All of these city-states were forced to pay some sort of homage to larger powers-- either the Holy Roman Empire (the Germanic descendant of Charlemagne's empire), the Church, the French or Spanish monarchies, etc. The Italians who sided with the Church and the French were called Guelphs (Parte Guelfa in Florence), while those who sided with the emperors were usually known as Ghibellines. Milan was traditionally a Ghibelline stronghold, while Florence was usually firmly inside the Guelph camp.

The Ghibelline faction favored the domination of society by noble familes who held titles like: count, baron, marchese, etc. While many Italian nobles were Guelphs, the Guelphs generally favored sharing political power with the merchant classes and the skilled artisans (butchers, bakers, jewellers, etc.) Indeed, the city government of Florence was basically a "guild republic". This means that you could only enjoy political power if you belonged to a sort of union. University professors, butchers, merchants, lawyers, doctors-- everybody was in the union (Arte). The wealthier unions (like the merchants) naturally dominated city hall. Yet the less powerful artisans (organized in the Arti Minori or "Lesser Guilds") did enjoy some rights of expression and participation in public affairs.

The next passage we'll read from Machiavelli concerns his general ideas on how divisions, between rich and poor, tended to polarize and harm the city of Florence. Powerful families like the Albizzi and Ricci always tried to exploit these divisions for their own ends. We'll wait for tomorrow to read those few paragraphs!! Ciao for now!

Bernie Sanders "What This Is Called Is Socialism For The Rich!"

Friday, October 7, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

First lesson taught at the Emily Higgins Ginet New School for Troublemakers and Malcontents

O.K. later we'll talk more about how this school will operate. First, though, I want to give away the first part of a mini-course on the Ciompi (unskilled wool workers) revolt in late 14th century Florence, for free, to all readers of this blog. This revolt is considered to be the first revolt of industrial workers in the Western world. Our primary source tonight is Laura Banfield and Harvey Mansfield's translation of Niccolo Machiavelli's Florentine Histories, Book III, Chapter 2:

"The power of the nobles having been tamed and the war with the archbishop of Milan ended, it appeared that no cause of scandal remained in Florence. But the evil fortune of our city and its own orders, which were not good, gave rise to enmity between the family of the Albizzi and that of the Ricci just as at first that between the Boundelmonti and the Uberti and afterwards that between the Donati and the Cerchi had done.... These families were full of hatred for each other, and each was thinking how it could crush the other so as to obtain primacy in the republic. They had not yet, however, come to arms but had only encountered each other in the magistracies and in the councils. Thus when the city found itself armed, a quarrel arose by chance in the Mercato Vecchio [Old Market]; and many people gathered, as they are wont to do in such unforeseen events..."

I know... you're saying: "Ulysses how are we supposed to make any sense of this stuff?!?? Give us a break!!"

I'll be giving you a break by filling in the historical context soon. For tonight, though, let's just observe a few general points from this short passage.

How did Machiavelli conceive of local city politics in medieval Florence? In these lines we find important clues as to his historical thinking.

The organizing principle that Machiavelli applies to interpreting medieval Florentine history is the same as that he used to analyze the politics of his own time. The key driver of events is the vendetta, or family feud.

Politics to Machiavelli is a lot like how many of us remember junior high-- cliques and factions always at odds, with the vague menace of violence ready to erupt at any time. In this instance it is the Albizzi and the Ricci squaring off against each other, But Machiavelli's Histories are full of countless rivalries involving dozens of powerful families.

How to think of this in modern terms? It would be a mistake to think of Kennedys and Bushes. Closer to the mark would be the Genovese, Gambino, Buonnano, Lucchese, and Colombo of New York. Politics and violence served up on the same platter. We'll read and analyze a little more tomorrow, Leftsiders. Hope y'all think this is fun!

Keith Olbermann Reads The Statement Released By The Wall Street Proteste...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

New Online School

When Ezra Cornell founded the great University that bears his name he had big dreams. He promised to "found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." I'm not so reckless... I'm only promising to try and do something where hopefully a few people learn some things they didn't already know. This new institution will be called: the Emily Higgins Ginet New School for Troublemakers and Malcontents. Details to follow tomorrow...

Wall Street Buzz

Normally I wouldn't pass on a rumor heard on the subway, but...

These two pinstripes were chatting on the M train as it rumbled through Brooklyn on the way to Metropolitan Village. "Sammy the zit Zonfrillo is telling everyone to sell all their FedEx stock. He says the company is going down in flames!" The other suit replied: "Manny Leite, the friendly Portagee spy, recommends selling stock of any company that does business with FraudEx." Weird stuff, eh?? Don't worry, Ulysses is on the case.