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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Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.