Machiavelli is often cited as a progenitor of modern politics and the modern state. How might Machiavelli’s thought inform our present and future state? This essay is inspired by Phillip Bobbitt’s The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the world that he made. He presents a fascinating analysis for any reader of Machiavelli’s classics. This essay is not a review of the book but is motivated by its analysis and, in particular, by its epilogue – sardonically entitled “Satan’s Theologian.” (169-184)
Throughout his analysis Bobbitt stresses Machiavelli’s recognition that, in his time, a new form of state was emerging to be constituted to serve the primary moral purposes involved in seeking the “common good.” Princely states constituted by blood and personal power were giving way to “imperial state-nations” thence to constitutional nation-states based on a new economic and political order. In all cases, “…the watermark of any particular constitutional order is its claim to legitimacy.” (169) Becoming increasingly industrial in economy and democratic in politics the versions of the nation-state arising over the most recent two or more centuries rested their legitimacy on popular support and a commitment, sometimes explicit, always implicit, to improve the material well-being of their people. Whether the modern state became democratic, autocratic or totalitarian, responsibility for the well-being of the people became the core element to any claim to legitimacy. Such stress on the connections among popular well-being, politics, and the state let Machiavelli instruct us not to take anything but change for granted. Indeed, the “… turn of the wheel that will bring one constitutional order to an end and replace it with another is simply the latest iteration of a process going back to the Renaissance.” (Bobbitt, 171)
Changes of both potential and real magnitude as in those brought by climate and technology, such as the emergence of cybernetic algorithms, that might occasion dramatic change in the constitutional structure and processes of politics on a global scale merit further consideration. While Bobbitt calls attention to changes at work that weaken states and undermine constitutional orders he concludes that in the first quarter of this century “…we still live in nation-states…“ defined by a “… legitimating mission – to better our material well being…“ 171) That is much the same mission identified by Machiavelli over five centuries ago. The latter underscores a fundamental question about the continued survival of the nation-state as a dominant political form rooted in the expectations of constant growth in the material well-being of people as the primary source of legitimacy. The necessity of the state may persist but its form and mission may require dramatic changes. Machiavelli’s conceptions of political change did not include a globally catastrophic change in the basic conditions of life and survival for the human species so this essay must consider how such a prospect informs the emergence of the next state.
The emergence of modern capitalism and its companion ideologies in the late 18th and into the 19th centuries reconstituted the nation-state by incorporating dynamic, and competing, political and economic forces within ever more explicit, but often fragile, constitutional structures. Both the nation-state, its government, and the emergent institutions of capitalism have created a set of conditions revealing that neither the state nor capitalism can lay claim to being the sole agent for the realization of a common security, justice, and prosperity. Surely, these conditions were central in Machiavelli’s conception of the common good. So, while capitalism and the nation-state can each claim to be necessary to the realization of a prosperous and just society neither can claim to be sufficient thereto. Since each also has contributed, either in collaboration or independently, to the existential threat posed by climate change the underlying justifications for both, their legitimacy, is also in existential jeopardy. Bobbitt does not pursue these lines of thought but, in his epilogue, attempts to develop another that may or may not be tenable in light of these considerations.
Bobbitt argues (170-73) that the nation-state will not evaporate but will adapt to a new form of constitutional order incorporating an evolving capitalism within the “market state.” No longer will the state be accountable for general material welfare but for “…the maximization of opportunities for civil society and citizens.” (Citing the 2005 Royal Dutch Shell Scenarios) The new order of the state would become responsible for “…fostering market expansion to provide a wide range of public goods.” (173, quoting the Royal Dutch Shell Scenarios) Variously called the “market” or “postmodern” state the new constitutional order he thinks may be emerging carries with it a number of unstated, and largely unexplored, assumptions. Of those assumptions the following five may be most critical: first, the state retains Machiavelli’s primary constitutional objective, to realize the common good. The second is that the common good is coincidental to maximizing opportunity for realizing material well-being for citizens thus implying that only those who successfully take advantage of opportunities merit consideration in any measure of the realization of the common good; this latter leads to a third assumption – that the state must regulate the market in order to maximize and distribute opportunity thus creating a likely set of contradictions; fourthly, the market-state (read as predominantly capitalist in character) must tend to produce (as capitalism tends to do) concentrations of economic wealth and the political power that results, and, lastly, there is the rather clear assumption that humanity, as a species, has a nearly unlimited future – an assumption that may be overly optimistic. Indeed, Bobbitt asserts: “like the nation-state, the market-state assesses its economic success or failure by its societies ability to secure more and better goods and services, but in contrast to the nation-state it does not see the state as more than a minimal provider or re-distributor…” of those goods and services.
Thus, given the character of the emergent “market-state,” a paradox seems inevitable in that while opportunity increases so does economic inequality and distorted political power, predictably assuring that the essential common goods found in justice perceived and delivered must go wanting. Bobbitt sees the difficulty but takes it as a necessary element of the “market-state” – ie, “…the market-state is largely indifferent to the norms of justice, or for that matter to any particular set of moral values so long as law does not act as an impediment to economic competition.”(174) Thus, the modern state’s role as “provider” and “distributor” of economic well-being is to be displaced by the emergent post-modern state. But, an important point may have been missed here in that the regulatory functions of the state must need expansion and/or improved in effectiveness, efficiency, and efficacy in response to the “cultural indifference” of the market.(175) It might be more accurate to expect that the role of the modern state may be significantly altered rather than displaced even while its essential legitimating function remains. We may consider that the historical and continuing interaction of the instrumentalities of the state and the market may be a fundamental cause of the ecological crisis forcing attempts to adapt to and manage their effects.
Given the issues identified above, it seems more likely that we have yet to take the measure of the causes and effects of change and a post-modern state is yet clearly to evolve. Indeed, they may well push existing political orders in the direction of regression rather than progress. The market state seems to be a recasting and resurrection of the classical liberal state model more than any other. Many forecasts of the effects of climate change on social and political conditions increasingly suggest that a failure of the contemporary state to adapt to severely changing conditions may lead to the possible displacement of both the “modern state” and the “market-state.” Few political analyses consider the effects of increasing negative externalities as causative elements in both climate change and social, cultural, and political disruption. All the while, the emerging post-modern state, if such it be, seems to be facing dramatically increasing demands to perform its services to the common good while its capacity to address those demands is being forcibly reduced by countervailing political pressures serving the interests of those who desire a less inhibited market-state and by populist reactions to “cultural indifferences” as well as changing norms of justice wherein many are alienated and cast adrift on a sea of material values and expectant opportunism.
In the “market state,” justice, equity, and fairness must be redefined to fit a world in which the state has a minimal or no role in assuring a probability of outcomes and only need assure maximum opportunities for participation in the optimal production and consumption of economic goods. So the justification of all individual action becomes success defined as the accumulation of wealth as it has so long and so often been since the emergence of the modern state.
While Bobbitt recognizes the challenges posed to civil society by the market-state and it’s largely negative effects on politics (175 ) one must look in vain for an explanation of this rather perceptive notion. He does not explore the possibility that this is not so much reflective of evolution into a new constitutional order but a reversion to an older one nor that a new order not fitting past experiences may be required. Guided by his analysis of Machiavelli’s writings, he keeps to an essentially optimistic, albeit implicit, view of the human future within an evolving political context – that is, that there surely is a positive future for the human species. Since publication of his work in 2013 conditions have changed rapidly and significantly in important respects. He sees changes taking place up to that point and those he anticipates to result from them in the context of his thesis that, in his reading of Machiavelli’s thought, “…a change to the constitutional order is underway.” That new order he projects, presciently, will “… bring an added ferocity to our politics, as different groups feel abandoned by government or their values betrayed.” (175) The market-state that he foresees as the successor constitutional order, with its cultural indifference, is not likely to be congenial to maintaining shared cultural values heretofore considered fundamental to the unity and cohesion of the state. Whereas the nation-state, he concludes, took responsibility for the well-being of groups, the market-state “… is responsible for maximizing the choices available to individuals primarily by lowering the transaction costs of choosing by individuals.” (176) The alienation of a large portion of the population from ruling elites is noted indirectly but not developed. (180) Bobbitt’s insight into Machiavelli’s anticipation of changing constitutional orders remains key to his approach but may be questioned with respect to his conception of the market-state. Indeed, “…appreciating the constitutional nature of Machiavelli’s work…” lies in making clear that the “ nature of the state – its commitment to the common, public interest which embraces all classes and groups under law – is what makes the state worthy of the devotion that Machiavelli felt is its due.” (182-3)
Bobbitt may be correct in identifying the key characteristic of the new order as information management as opposed to the industrial order it is replacing. Yet, in making his case there is no recognition that the current information order is not, necessarily, decentralizing but the opposite. Increasing information management may not produce a maximization of choice having a positive effect upon individuals or society as a whole but a confusing proliferation of choices with negative results including a concentration of autocratic political power. The dispersal of economic activity on a global basis does not necessarily bring with it decentralizing economic power or increasing individual opportunity unless it also brings increasingly meaningful freedom of choice among those opportunities. The latter must require clarity of information more than quantity. Economic power will continue to beget political power and, thence, control and/or restraint of individual choice.
Harari (2017) suggests that the emerging structure of order for humanity will be found in a master or universal algorithm through which humanity will be subjected on a global basis. (371-402) The emerging constitutional order may not in some ultimate sense be an agency of expanding individual choice. Who will construct and apply such a universal information master? Will it be the outcome of power struggles among elites? Will it be perfect at inception or, by means of artificial intelligence, self-perfecting thus removing humans from the political process and ending Machiavelli’s conception of an evolving human order? Put in classic form, who will guard the guardian? Is not a dystopian autocracy also likely?
Apologists for the “market-state” tend to discredit or willfully ignore the dangers posed by climate change by reason of their faith in a market which they see as capable, by definition, of overcoming any threats as they emerge and over time. Similarly, they often deny the implications of the “tragedy of the commons” described by Garrett Hardin in 1969 in which the state, in some form, is the only way to control self-destructive self-aggrandizing behavior. (See 1995, 124) In so doing, they may be guilty of claiming a false virtue for the market-state wherein the clash of population growth and resource destruction, exhaustion, and inherent limitation will always be solved by market forces. Here, we can locate within Bobbitt’s projection of the competitive, opportunity creating, market state some reason to suspect that the market state he describes may be a passing phase leading to a different result. While “socialists” of various stripes may be more willingly aware of the climate crisis they are subject to the same political and economic dilemmas posed by it as any other ideological construct or form of government. Others, perceiving the issues posed try to find solutions in variations of the “market state” often now referred to as “stakeholder capitalism.” (See, Foreign Affairs Digital Anthology, 2020)
It should be understood that markets and societies no less than leaders, individuals, and the institutions they inhabit can become corrupt and corrupting. Historically, exceptions to that possibility seem rare. Achieving a non-corrupt state with non-corrupt leaders is not the most common accomplishment of statecraft. As Mark Warren observed, “…corruption creates inefficiencies in the delivery of public services …by shifting public activities toward those sectors in which it is possible for those engaged in corrupt practices to benefit.” (328) Competition for corrupt advantage, it seems, must spring up naturally in a market-state and, presumably, “stakeholder capitalism” wherein monopolistic or oligopolistic economic organizations, themselves corruptions of the economic system, strive for advantage. The principal corrupting advantage sought by such organizations is to reduce or eliminate competition, not to meet it on capitalism’s fabulist ground of competing self-interests. Also, they have sought to achieve critical things poorly considered in relation to environmental, ecological and climatic degradation. Seeking and gaining these corrupt advantages in the economic sphere requires corruption of public institutions, leaders, and political processes to the detriment of the production of that body of consistent and coherent law perceived as a primary collective good reflecting just governance. As this is written, for example, it appears that environmental regulation is being degraded allowing for increased negative externalities. In consequence, the core obligation of the state – to serve the common good – is weakened and replaced by service to self-interests often masquerading as public interests. On this basis alone, an argument for the emergence of a market-state producing expansive “…opportunities for individuals…” generally must be questioned. It is unclear how stakeholder capitalism changes this picture since the trading for advantages characteristic of the private economic world necessarily tend to become corrupt extortions in the public, governmental, arenas.
Bobbitt writes that “…we cannot be aided by Machiavelli, but we can be alerted by him.” (179) Certainly, Machiavelli insists that “…we look at the world as it is and do not pretend otherwise, lest we harm the public as a consequence of acting on our platitudes.” (180) He also insists that it is service to the common good which makes republics great.( See Viroli. 12) But, we can add, it must be perceived to do so by the people. In this context Bobbitt warns that perhaps the greatest threat comes from “…internal dissolution and disgust with our own institutions.” (180) (See “alienation,” above) The human future is not necessarily progressive, regressive, nor subject to control or manipulation by our institutions or by humans in service to their self-centered ends. Past solutions, “platitudes” as Machiavelli had it, are those most often called upon to meet current or anticipated problems but they are apt to fail in the face of change. Surely, Machiavelli would have agreed. For him, the nature of man is constant but his environment is in flux. (Masters, 1995, 113; Bobbitt, 100) A leaders prime function, if a society or state is to avoid self-destruction is to identify, define, and articulate the emergent situation and develop collective solutions truly in the common interest. Yet, if Machiavelli’s contention that the “nature of man is constant” holds true, the emergent situation may not allow for effective leadership.
It seems quite possible that the modern state, and whatever may succeed it, is trapped in a fatal set of contradictions. To a significant degree the material successes of the modern state has been made possible through the provision of access to low cost physical and human resources to the economy. As a result the full costs of growth, and the realization of the “common good” that Machiavelli posited as the purpose and justification of the state, have been concealed, ignored and diverted by passing those costs on to the future through negative externalities of which toxic waste is only one of many examples. These activities have allowed for current prosperity in exchange for a delayed future cost and treated it as if it was a process that could go on indefinitely. An accumulating and growing burden of negative externalities of production, of which CO2 is another significant example, are now presenting a due bill in the form of what is generally captured by the label “the climate crisis.” That bill may exceed the capacity of the state, as we have known it, to reduce negative externalities and increase positive externalities and the failure to do so may have cataclysmic outcomes.
Famously, Joseph Schumpeter identified the process by which the state and marketplace, implicitly or explicitly, collaborated in what he styled “creative destruction” in which old forms of production are destroyed and replaced by new. That phrase captured the essence of the way of material growth in the modern state while ignoring the real and total costs of production. Schumpeter also doubted that capitalism would survive but thought the cause would arise from the intellectual class undermining the bourgeois institutions of capitalism. But now we can perceive that a more powerful and material reason lies in the implicit assumption that material growth can continue indefinitely without having to account for externalized true costs of production. Certainly, capitalism in general is now confronted by a burden of accumulated and accumulating negative externalities that largely drive the climate crisis and will not allow such assumptions to persist. Of particular significance is the problem of time. The modern state, except for the possibility of widespread use of nuclear weaponry, has never been confronted with the probability of universal destruction and/or disorder within so brief a period of time (a decade or two) in which to prepare and act. This time framework has small allowance for gradualism or uncoordinated, piecemeal, responses. But, few of these observations have been applied to the matter of the nature and survival of the state. There are many who argue that the state is more problem than solution but, nevertheless, the state remains the single entity potentially capable of dealing with the emergent crisis at the scale needed and in the time available. In brief, many reject the necessity of an effective state to control self-destructive self-aggrandizing behavior in trying to provide for the common good and, thus, rely on an implication that a “free market” can provide an optimal opportunity to serve that purpose.
Whatever form of the state is constituted as the “post-modern” successor to the industrial state of the most recent 150 years or so must come to terms with the costs imposed by the past as well as the continuing costs of the present. In these circumstances, to rely on the ideologies of the past is to thoughtlessly and irresponsibly “act on our platitudes.” Given these considerations it seems probable that the contemporary state, be it democratic, autocratic, capitalist, socialist, slow growth or no growth or any other known or speculated variety, will add to the crisis rather than deal with it effectively. As Masters stated 30 years ago, “…our culture faces-as none before-the challenge of coming to terms with nature.” (The nature of politics, 1989, 248) Outcomes may be more positive than suggested here but surely will require effective leadership and in this some prophetic elements can be recalled from Machiavelli.
Bobbitt identifies Machiavelli’s primary counsel to be that we must be realistic in dealing with the “random waltz of fortune.” (181) No doubt, substantial creativity is also needed. The state, its institutions, its citizens and leaders must adapt to the changing music of the dance to meet their shared commitment to the common good. (See Masters, 1995, 128, 207-228) As Hardin would remind us, the “mere existence of the state does not guarantee immunity from the Tragedy of the Commons.” (Masters, 1995, 173) Most difficult is that it may entail redefining the “common good” in order to reconstitute the state and its reason for being. It is an open question as to whether that is possible without also reforming the nature of humanity, something that Machiavelli would think impossible. Indeed, Machiavelli pursued a consequentialist ethic to determine the responsibilities of leaders wherein they must maximize the security and well-being of all the people and only that end can justify the means they choose to employ. The employment of the reason of state as a basis for the actions of republican officials, in particular, is not justified or made legitimate on any other grounds. And, perhaps, so long as leadership is a product of human agency Machiavelli’s alert and warning remains relevant.
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Foreign Affairs, Digital Anthology-The path to a sustainable world: A Davos reader, 2020.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow. Spiegel & Grau. New York. 2017.
Masters, Roger. Machiavelli, Leonardo and the science of power. U. of Notre Dame Press. Notre Dame, IN. 1995.
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Warren, Mark. What does corruption mean in democracy? American Political Science Review. v. 48 no. 2, April 2004. pp. 328-343.
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Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Harper, New York. 1942.
Viroli, Maurizio. How to choose a leader: Machiavelli’s advice to citizens. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. & Oxford, UK. 2016.