What Machiavelli knew

It’s a delusion to believe, as the western powers do, that law can ever supplant politics. And in politics, achievable and worthwhile ends justify the means.

All exception and no rules: Machiavelli and the dark arts of leadership
Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Santi di Tito (1536-1603)/Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria) Florence, Italy/Bridgeman Art Library

One of the peculiarities of political thought at the present time is that it is fundamentally hostile to politics. Bismarck may have opined that laws are like sausages – it’s best not to inquire too closely into how they are made – but for many, the law has an austere authority that stands far above any grubby political compromise. In the view of most liberal thinkers today, basic liberties and equalities should be embedded in law, interpreted by judges and enforced as a matter of principle. A world in which little or nothing of importance is left to the contingencies of politics is the implicit ideal of the age.

The trouble is that politics can’t be swept to one side in this way. The law these liberals venerate isn’t a free-standing institution towering majestically above the chaos of human conflict. Instead – and this is where the Florentine diplomat and historian Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) comes in – modern law is an artefact of state power. Probably nothing is more important for the protection of freedom than the independence of the judiciary from the executive; but this independence (which can never be complete) is possible only when the state is strong and secure. Western governments blunder around the world gibbering about human rights; but there can be no rights without the rule of law and no rule of law in a fractured or failed state, which is the usual result of westernsponsored regime change. In many cases geopolitical calculations may lie behind the decision to intervene; yet it is a fantasy about the nature of rights that is the public rationale, and there is every sign that our leaders take the fantasy for real. The grisly fiasco that has been staged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – a larger and more dangerous version of which seems to be unfolding in Syria – testifies to the hold on western leaders of the delusion that law can supplant politics.

Machiavelli is commonly thought to be a realist, and up to a point it is an apt description. A victim of intrigue – after being falsely accused of conspiracy, he was arrested, tortured and exiled from Florence – he was not tempted by idealistic visions of human behaviour. He knew that fear was a more reliable guide to human action than sympathy or loyalty, and accepted that deception will always be part of politics.

That does not make Machiavelli a cynic, still less amoral. As Philip Bobbitt puts it in his book The Garments of Court and Palace (newly published by Atlantic, £22), “Machiavelli is a profoundly ethical writer.” He may have found a place in history as Old Nick – the apologist for violence and treachery who is such a disturbing presence in Shakespeare and Milton. But Machiavelli was also an enthusiast for republican government, who wanted to free Florence from the grip of the Medici dynasty and create a modern state uniting Florence with Rome and the territories ruled by the papacy.

Published posthumously in 1532, Machia - velli’s best-known book, The Prince, acquired its Luciferian reputation because in it he counselled that rulers must not be guided by conventional ideas of virtue and morality: “It is essential to understand this: that a prince – and especially a ‘new’ prince – cannot always follow those practices by which men are regarded as good, for in order to maintain the state he is often obliged to act against his promises, against charity, against humanity and against religion.” As has often been observed, the lesson of The Prince is that, in politics, the end justifies the means.

Crucially, however, the end is never only gaining and keeping power. If we read The Prince alongside Machiavelli’s other writings – particularly the Discourses, written soon afterwards and also published after he died – it becomes clear that he believed that departing from what are commonly perceived to be the dictates of morality was necessary in order to achieve high political ends. Rulers were justified in using the most ruthless methods, but only if the ends they pursued were achievable and worthwhile.

For Bobbitt, the author of The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002) among other notable books and himself a constitutional lawyer, Machiavelli’s most celebrated work is a constitutional treatise dealing with the transition from feudalism to the princely state. What is modern in Machiavelli’s thinking is the idea of the state, which feudal society – a network of institutions and authorities with no sovereign power – lacked. The advice he gives applies in the realm of politics, where the overriding obligation of the prince is to protect and promote the common good. Modern princes do not have the luxury of governing according to their judgement of right and wrong. They are required by the authority they exercise to depart from ordinary morality. Machiavelli’s seeming disdain for virtue is actually, in this view, a thoroughly moral affirmation of the duties that go with ruling a modern state.

In the course of arguing for a view of Machiavelli as a constitutional theorist, Bobbitt provides a gripping account of his role in the tangled and dangerous politics of the time, including a detailed analysis of the complex role of the Borgias and the Medici. He discusses and rejects the common view of The Prince as a “mirror book” – the genre, going back at least as far as Cicero, in which the writer advises a prince or court official on how to behave. He presents a compelling picture of Machiavelli as someone unable to live by his own ideal of virtu: the vital energy a human being could use to achieve a partial victory over fate.

In some ways Machiavelli was at odds with the spirit of the time, which was better expressed by more sceptical writers such as his friend Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), a historian and aphorist who criticised him – perhaps rightly – for having an excessive belief in the power of human intelligence to fathom the complexity of events.

This is an extremely innovative interpre - tation of one of history’s most enigmatic thinkers, and one that anyone concerned with modern politics will profit from reading. Yet I cannot help thinking that Bobbitt’s reading has the effect of domesticating Machiavelli for a liberal audience, and thereby evading his true message. Like successive generations of scholars and poets who misread Homer and failed to grasp how remote from Christian values the Homeric world was, Bobbitt has projected late-modern (and particularly American) beliefs and values on to a writer who lived in a world where they were unknown.

Machiavelli’s attitude to religion is an instructive example. Keen to refute the view that the author of The Prince was a latter-day pagan, Bobbitt attempts to show that the book’s teachings can be reconciled with Christianity. Machiavelli believed that the ruler of a modern state must of necessity depart from ordinary moral norms; but, Bobbitt suggests, obedience to necessity was, in Machiavelli’s view – and that of many theologians at the time – God’s will, and so not at odds with Christian belief.

It is a somewhat contrived argument. There is no trace in Machiavelli of the idea of a providential order in history, which (whether they knew it or not) underpinned the belief of generations of liberals in continuing progress. Following pagan religion and the historians of classical antiquity, Machiavelli had no such faith. He knew that history was a mix of fate and chance, which human beings could resist and at times even partly shape, but never master. This belief in fortuna, the wheel of fortune that eventually overturns all human works, is the guiding thread in Machiavelli’s view of politics.

Bobbitt’s Machiavelli is a prescient obser - ver of changes that led to the modern system of sovereign states. As Bobbitt makes clear in the epilogue, however, he believes a transition is under way in which this system is mutating into another: a “market state” in which sovereignty will no longer exist. The model for this market state is evident – so much so, that Bobbitt thinks it could be glimpsed in the early 16th century.

“Machiavelli,” he also writes, “is the ‘spiritual forefather’ of the US constitution.” And ramming the point home, he continues: “A free and powerful republic, with a civil religion (the reverence Americans have for their constitution) . . . are elements of a Machia - vellian polity that has, thus far, been a remarkable success.”

Much like Francis Fukuyama, Bobbitt sees modern history as moving – not quite inevitably, but with a powerful momentum – towards a world order modelled on the US system of government. Unlike Fukuyama, Bobbitt has always stressed that this process can advance only through a succession of intense wars. The assault on Iraq was one such war. A stage on the way to an Americanised world, post-Saddam Iraq was intended to become a secular democracy whose example would transform the Middle East. As many in 2003 warned would happen, the invasion has had altogether different results. Heavily tilted towards Iran, with its oil resources increasingly open to Chinese control, the new state of Iraq is an arena of geopolitical manoeuvring and sectarian warfare.

Democracy is proving not to be the vehicle for constitutional freedom that Bobbitt, along with so many others, imagined it would be. Throughout the Middle East, and now in Turkey, democratic development is producing varieties of Islamist rule rather than anything resembling secular liberalism. At the same time, while American projects of regime change have proved to be self-defeating, the United States itself has suffered something close to economic collapse. The paradigmatic market state has survived only by nationalising large parts of its financial system. If the US is recovering better from the financial crisis than other countries, it is as an exceptionally cohesive 19th-century nation state and not the prototype for a new world order. A global market state is an ideological phantom, just like the end of history.

If Bobbitt misreads Machiavelli, it is because Machiavelli is as much of a heretic today as he ever was. Resistance to his thought comes now not from Christian divines but from liberal thinkers. According to the prevailing philosophy of liberal legalism, political conflict can be averted by a well-designed constitution and freedoms enshrined in a regime of rights. In reality, as Machiavelli well knew, constitutions and legal systems come and go. According to Bobbitt, “The lesson of Machiavelli’s advice to statesmen is: don’t kid yourself. What annoyed . . . Machiavelli was the willingness of his contemporaries to pretend that quite simple formulations were adequate to the task of governing in the common interest.” Plainly, the market state is a formula of precisely this kind.

The true lesson of Machiavelli is that the alternative to politics is not law but unending war. When they topple tyrants for the sake of faddish visions of rights, western governments enmesh themselves in intractable conflicts they do not understand and cannot hope to control. Yet if Machiavelli could return from the grave, he would hardly be annoyed or frustrated by such folly. Ever aware of the incurable human habit of mistaking fancy for reality, he would simply respond with a Florentine smile.

John Gray’s latest book is “The Silence of Animals” (Allen Lane, £18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.