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Fred Allebach
Connecting the Dots
Fred Allebach

Machivelli, Power, and Sonoma

After reading Machiavelli, The Prince, it has been fun to play with how the same insights might apply to Sonoma. Machiavelli, who wrote the Prince more than 500 years ago, was the first modern political scientist. You can also see him as a proto evolutionary psychologist, transposing insights from baboon troops and chimps onto human behavior. Machiavelli is about dominance and survival. Machiavelli’s insights foreshadow Darwin, anticipate primatology and show how individuals in a social species work with power and status markers to achieve control.

In Machiavelli’s world there were Kings, Princes, nobles and on down the line. One’s ability to survive and prosper hinged on how to navigate this dominance hierarchy. Suck up properly to the Alpha male and you gain favor. Hitch your cart to the wrong horse and you go down the tubes.

In Sonoma, as compared to Machiavelli’s Italy, each sector or class of society has a peculiar set of interests they want to see maintained. Desired status quo is relative to class interests. What is good for some is bad for others. In terms of power and influence in Sonoma, interests are marked by a dominance hierarchy of relative wealth, wherein lie associated status symbols and memberships in various socio-econ groupings.

Defenders of the current order and status quo are those to whom advantage accrues. The Alphas fight hard to keep power and control. What top dog does not endeavor to stay that way? In the Sonoma hierarchy, the desired status quo is different for wine tourism interests, east or west side residents, foothills residents, or the servant class.

Control of the overall Sonoma area and the tone of town reflect the values of the group(s) in power. Other less powerful groups and individuals dispute the current controlling values yet do not have the same wealth to compete on an equal playing field. An Alpha mercenary who appeals to underdog values may have a chance at unseating the current power structure.

In general if one group makes a move to change the existing order, others stand up for their particular interests. The contras are then called NIMBYs. All NIMBYs are really doing is sticking up for their flavor of status quo.

In the Sonoma hierarchy, middle and upper middle class residents, the bourgeois merchants and successful careerists, see they are at odds with the foothills living nobles and aristocracy. The very purpose of town is at stake here, whether it will be a small, face-to-face residential community of mostly materially successful people mixed in with aging locals, or it will be a cash cow for a rising tourism bonanza. Should tourism forces prevail, mercenary investors and vacation rental occupants stand to replace all locals whoever they are.

Servants see little difference between the middle, upper middle and the nobility. The varying flavors of paradise town represents is out of reach for them in any case. Yet interests do cut across classes of people here, depending on the issue at stake. In some cases the nobles and homeowners interests intersect, in others not. Strange bedfellow dynamics emerge from needs for tactical advantage; these are an entertaining part of local politics. The existence of strange bedfellows also proves Machiavelli was right, there are no principles or values, only what is good for me now.

Pretty much in current Sonoma it is the nobles and their minions who run the show while the people take it with high rents, prices and runaway inflation. The people have no say. The nobles run up the stakes and drag the middle class along, forcing them to pay more or leave. The nobles are a conglomerate of the super rich investor class, the trust fund leisure class, old money, mercenary Silicon Valley new money, vintners and owners of critical real estate. Top nobles vie among themselves to be the Prince.

Perhaps the Valley is tacitly controlled and divided up among top nobles, in ways the people might suspect but cannot prove. The composition of various boards of directors may represent proxy interests of nobles interested in exercising power and control. While non-profits’ mission are to serve the people, the inclusion of nobles on the boards makes it so aristocratic interests cannot be compromised before those of the people. The fundamental power imbalances that make for nobles and commoners in the first place, these inequities can’t be directly or structurally addressed by non-profit boards with nobles on them because then the nobles would be in a position of seeking to revoke their own privilege.

Thus, while seeking to do good works, non-profits can only work insofar as actions do not upset the applecart of the donor class that funds them. Only symptoms can be addressed; addressing causes would lead to one: abandonment by the donor class and two, a radical restructuring of the status quo. You might say non-profits are muzzled, from any socio-econ critique of the status quo.

The city administration, hewing to common sense survival, plays to the power and influence. Continued prosperity for city minions depends on serving the interests of those who pay the city’s bills. The merchant class is caught betwixt, sometimes finding advantage to ally with the nobles, other times it pays to identify with the peons or middle class residents. The city sides with the nobles and power more often than not because from therein comes the money to run the city and pay for the staff’s handsome benefits. Should the city side with peons too often, the nobles would object.

The county is more far removed and practically speaking, peasants cannot drive all the way to Santa Rosa, get 3 minutes to say something and expect to compete with top nobles who have infiltrated the whole county apparatus. The mobilization bias top dogs have with government is obvious. The premise of democracy is over ridden by a disproportionate wielding of power at inside, top levels.

Mercenary stakeholders have invaded Sonoma a little at a time, second homeowners, vacation rental investors, and flippers. Mercenaries appear as citizens but their loyalty is always questionable. The “rights” of mercenaries are sometimes confused to be that of citizens themselves. Whose rights and interests are at stake then gets wound up in discussions about “local control”. Control is the critical weasel world here, by who and why? Watch out for the mercenaries, they have no loyalty.

Any citizen can show up to participate in public forums that vet unfolding issues but practically speaking they have no actual power, they are not listened to. Control is reserved for those with power, not principle.

Peon (working class) deprivation and concomitant need is a conundrum for those in power. How much can peons tolerate before they revolt? How far can the nobles let the peons sink before it becomes an embarrassment to their morals and largesse? How much to dole out as charity to keep these menial servants workable and content? The appearance of high moral impulse can be used to strategic advantage, to head off rebellions based on the allocation of too few resources from the castle coffers. Altruism, in a true Machiavellian sense is actually calculated selfishness. Noblesse oblige, rather than an expression of guilt, is a practical measure to forestall outright rebellion.

In todays’ political system the nobles usually get what they want through systemic mobilization bias. They have the resources to keep their hands on the levers of power to forward their interests. They buy influence, they threaten to cut off the largesse; they get their quid pro quo. In the upper echelons of government, the nobles, officials and paid functionaries all work like gears in a machine to perpetuate the power and control of those at the top. Words, principles and values count for nothing here, no power, no dice.

People like me can talk until they are blue in the face about justice, and all we get is a polite, blank stare, are you kidding? To give away power to the serfs, that is just plain stupid! Hammer away at principles of equality etcetera and this is seen as inconvenient Constitutional chatter the Founders must have postulated in moment of drunken weakness. Rent control? Sorry, that’s against the law. A living wage, sorry we of the copper-topped fence post can’t afford that.

It’s an easy enough strategy to run the working class out by attrition and high prices, then the servants have no voting power, there’s no people left. All the people are pushed to the Springs, where high prices are still a scourge but there is only one distant representative to protect them and thus, the peons threshold of suffering can be more easily sequestered and managed. Nobles and sublords then have fun over coffee comparing how little they pay for yard services.

Serfs are no doubt piling up in Lake County, Vallejo and American Canyon, where rent and prices are manageable. Hopefully subsistence work can still be had back in the castle compound.

With actual peons increasingly run out of town proper, the middle class and old-time locals will become the new people of Sonoma, the new bottom of the barrel, except for the ones who cash in on the gentrified, inflated real estate values and can then join in on the Dionysian fest of $50 lunches and $10 cups of coffee.

Looked at in terms of population biology, this whole Sonoma socio-econ gestalt amounts to a J-Curve, unsustainable trajectory. What ecosystem can survive as only top predators? Unfortunately for the nobles, their mythology relegates future planning and greater good to the emergent properties of aggregate selfishness, the “invisible hand”, which continues to justify their dominance but ironically will tear down the whole house for all.

The servant people are left in the Springs disenfranchised, redlined and gerrymandered, to turn their desperation on themselves in the form of Mississippi-level crime and pathos. Machiavelli had this all figured out: it’s about power and control. Give enough leash for people to move and survive but not enough to pretend to power. Get a few glasses of wine or a few beers or 10 into them and they will feel OK.

In Machiavelli’s day no Princes or Lords shared out their bounty with mere serfs, any more than they had to. It is the same today; no need to pay more, or ensure any housing; the way to keep serfs as serfs is to keep your foot down on them. None of them would work menial jobs if it weren’t hoarding the benefits of their labor and creating forced necessity.

The Prince of Sonoma may be any one of a number of really big top dogs; you fill in the blank. The nobles are: winery owners, Plaza real estate owners, the uber rich, et al. Many nobles are vying to princedom themselves. Uneasy sits the King. There are also mercenary nobles to watch out for, invaders and out-of-towners that may threaten an all out coup d’état of the existing power structure. This potential coup is often referred to as “becoming Napa” or “becoming the South Bay”. Local nobles probably look with a sense of split conviction on whether or not to become Napa; will it ruin the goose that laid the golden egg? How can we resist so many golden eggs?

In any case mercenary and local nobles have it all figured out how to jobber the system to run off with huge profits for them and their stockholders. Part of the public rationale for this starts with how so and so is such a great guy, and so and so gives so many hundred thousand to charity, and therefore this new project is a public good and should go forward. There’s enough water, don’t worry. Don’t be “unfriendly” to business interests.

Like peon residential renters, the merchant bourgeoisie in Sonoma are captive to obscene rents from the nobles and noble wannabees. The servant working class gets low wages because the merchants can’t afford to pay the high rents of $10-$20,000 a month on the Plaza plus a living wage. Things are tough all over. The bourgeois merchants and working class then have a possible basis for an alliance against the nobility and the Prince.

Rule # 1 of Machiavelli, the smart Prince gives just enough sugar to fend off insurrection, just enough nice guy stuff. The rest of the time, keep the people in fear and respect. In Sonoma the sugar is now in short supply for the servants. A word to the savvy Prince and nobles: pay more, stick up for the little guy, or the veneer of respect for and tolerance for the aristocrats will evaporate. Be the lion but also be the crafty fox. Beware the crashing downfall inherent with J-curve predation.

In Sonoma, community services for the servant class are funded not by democratic taxes and government but are mostly privatized in a modern form of noblesse oblige. Those with power display a strategic social conscience. Such obvious wealth disparity is not fair or justified; it must be a little embarrassing? This can’t all be because so many are failing to get up early enough in the morning. And as Marx said, excess wage labor value is skimmed off from the serfs in the first place; they are not takers, they are the taken.

Tax money that could democratically go to benefit the servants is instead sequestered off as Tourism Improvement District money that serves to primarily benefit the nobles, merchant class and upper crust mercenaries. These guys then provide the jobs for our hard working families. It’s all good, if you’re in league with the nobles.

Sonoma charity functions all follow the same formula: elite events attract nobles to fenced off tents where they can drink wine in privacy surrounded by a stable of attractive young servants, and then agree to share their wealth, ease their conscience and guarantee government will not interfere with their hegemony.

The architecture of power is clear enough.

Another way to cut the Sonoma Machiavellian cake: the servant class and homeowners are the people; the business class and the nobles are the new aristocracy, and the Prince consists of Wall Street 1% Vampire Squid. Some homeowners justify the nobles; it suits them, they hobnob. Other homeowners are champions of field labor.

Educated servants such as myself pretend to a cultivated, erudite sophistication, as Marx would say, manifesting a holdover, ironic twist as I look down my nose at others less educated, as if I was aristocratic myself, even though I have no property or inheritance to back it all up. I represent a post-aristocratic, disembodied distaste for all things centered on money.

The US is supposedly a democracy and meritocracy, not a form of government based on inherited power (aristocracy).  Part of merit and equal representation is the potential of that the strongest, most compelling arguments win out, those win who satisfy the most sections of the socio-econ pie. This is supposed to continually balance out in democracy, one man/ one vote. This is true representative government. Only now it seems the US has devolved back into a plutocracy, the power is concentrated, sequestered, the money all controlled at the top, and democratic merit is more and more an illusion. Kleptocracy is more at where we are now.

In Sonoma Valley we see this manifested as potential voter power checked by disenfranchisement by municipal fragmentation. The servants cannot vote to change things in any immediate, democratic way, because the way they are districted dilutes their ability to be more fully represented. Any annexation of the Springs to a larger municipality?  Whoa, back up that train.

In the US we’ve never really made a qualitative change away from our roots in slavery and oppression. With all the talk about freedom and liberty, these original seeds of contradiction have never gone away, in spite of the Civil War and later civil and voting rights movements. Slavery and oppression are more and more apparent now as baseline facts n the ground of our system, in an increasingly unequal society. We had a brief interlude of equality with New Deal and Great Society, but the nobles pushed back hard. Any gains the people made have now been rolled back almost completely.

In all the noble apologist bluster about defeating Obamacare as socialism, where is any plan to actually make life easier for all those hard working people?

Few if any local politicians take any stances that might alienate the nobles or the noblesse oblige charity machine. This is surprising in the liberal North Bay, surrender to a noble dominated status quo; you’d think there would be more Elizabeth Warren types.

In Sonoma, who is the Prince? An actual person? Or is it a system of nobles and merchants along with government allegiance as the arbiter of power?

I can’t help but suspect that a status quo favoring the nobles is puppet-stringed by the 1%, behind an economic Wizard of Oz power curtain. The merchant class is the new nobility and aristocracy; the 1% is the Lord and King, the Prince. They are here in Sonoma, in their castles on the hills, behind their moats, walls and electronic gates. This Sonoma as Machiavelli is all very much a class based situation. To pretend not, to obfuscate this core class difference of interests, is disingenuous. The issues at stake in Sonoma are class issues.

If we are all in this together, all on the same team, then things need to be different than they are now. Wealth, power, and social benefit need a more fair and equitable redistribution. That’s my take from the bottom of the pile; if we have representative government, vote in those who will represent the actual majority. How is it we are not doing this? Why is actual democracy ineffective? Why do our reps kowtow to the nobles and talk a good game to the serfs but then not step up and hit any equity three pointers?

If these were not class issues, the nobles wouldn’t fight so hard against a decent living wage, or argue that equity was a taking, or find every way to not protect affordable housing. No, the excess profit is horded at the top, while the servants get run out of town from super high prices and rents. Sonoma is left as a haven of self-serving nobles and minions who keep the city council at their command. The council can’t represent the people, if there are no people left in town to vote for them. Council members will not survive taking about the peoples’ interests when there are so few actual people anyway.

Machiavelli, at the dawn of the age of psychology, came out with the observation that human behavior is based on self-interest. Today the self-interest of power and control is not measured by strategic use of local militias and armies, by swords and spears, but by money and insider manipulation. Looking at city and valley politics this way all you have to do is follow the money. You see the power and control by where the money is and is not going, by who is channeling the money and how it is procured. If you get a glimpse behind that Wizard of Oz power curtain, there is Machiavelli, speaking of the Prince today just as if it was the year 1500.

What is this behavior, interest-based psychology that Machiavelli is so vilified for pointing out? It is our primate social instincts.  These are manifested on one track through deep structure moral/ behavioral capacities. These capacities are then reflected by culture and words. Morals are not to be understood by content alone. The moral social dimensions that govern our behavior (ingrained capacities for recognizing loyalty, harm, fairness, purity, respect for authority), these pan out along a spectrum of class interests. We in Sonoma are a glorified version of a baboon troop, only our hierarchy is: Prince, nobility, Prince, administrators/ government and commoners. Herein our lives play out in a Machiavellian drama. Sonoma is no exception. Take away the white table clothes and other camouflage and there is the same set of human, primate social relations going back from time immemorial.

It is the interests of a class of people that informs the content of morals. Harm? Fair to whom and why? Different societal subgroups have different interests and thus see harm, fairness and purity differently. Harm to the Alpha clique means taking away all their marbles, that’s not fair, they earned them; anyone in the hierarchy can find fairness issues or appeal to purity.

In Measure B, we saw “sustainable” spun in entirely different ways to reveal the interests of different competing classes. Protect what? Preserve what? Is it unsustainable to think of little guys before big guys? Harm who? Fair to who? Go ahead, connect the dots. Everyone operates out of the same moral capacity palette and seeks reasoned justification through various appeals to fairness, harm, authority, loyalty or purity What people are ultimately after in town, to control how things are, this impulse underlies all the reason and moral content. Power and control, that’s the Machiavelli Zone.

There are multiple classes of people in Sonoma vying for power and control, not just the nobility. The nobles et al usually win but the other guys keep trying. Supply-side economic philosophy, talk of the nobles to justify themselves, promised rising tides and trickle down economics, sorry; it never happened. We’re seeing trickle out demographics instead. Just as always the powerful run off with all the marbles. A bag of noblesse oblige cabbage is not adequate compensation to assuage the implicit guilt of the nobles taking over all and making town as a whole into an inaccessible palace.

Go back to other essays in this column, to themes of local control, weasel words, sustainability, rent control, living wage, ruling class philosophy, use of the commons, consumption of resources, the 1%, development. These themes all add up to an impression of a place fundamentally out of balance and skewed to the interests of the very top dogs. The people are just barely audible here.

In town, should you join the master narrative, it becomes like the Stepford Wives, you get comfortably numb. Eat, drink and be merry. This is like one big party. It’s shallow. The powers that be conspire to keep things all going down the same track. Am I being overly cynical? Perhaps. I’ve been working a theme that has some logic to it. And you have to admit; Machiavelli’s analysis fits Sonoma nearly like a glove.

Back in the Middle Ages the aristocracy looked down on the up and coming bourgeoisie as being overly concerned about money. The little merchants could never buy inherited status and cultivated education. But boy did those little merchants ever make a play for power and control! Now we have a new boss (merchant class), same as the old boss (aristocracy), and the new bosses have taken steps to enshrine their power just as the aristocracy before them did. Above all kings, princes and bosses hangs the Sword of Damocles; uneasy sits the King.

Life in Sonoma is plush and it’s tempting to sweep away the poverty, inequity and anything else that might be sand in the shoe, of the feel good, epicurean, eat drink and be merry, wine country lifestyle master narrative. Who wouldn’t want to be the Alpha animal, the Prince?

Even servants like me can apply the same old aristocratic disdain for pursuit of money. Money, money, money; where is the heart, the erudition? Where is the appearance of compassion? Money as power is just too transparent. If we are really a step above Social Darwinism and Machiavellianism culturally, why can’t we show it in ways that don’t seem to recapitulate a baboon power hierarchy?

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