A NEW WORLD: What would Machiavelli do?

un_human_rights_councilWhether it’s the deputy Greens leader quoting Machiavelli (although really just ripping off a Graham Freudenberg book on Gough Whitlam which quoted him) or now Hollywood’s portrayal of him alongside Jeremy Irons who has reinvented his role as The Lion King’s Scar as Pope Alexander VI (nee: Rodrigo Borgia) in a new TV series about the Borgia family, or one of Sydney’s finest spivvy restaurants which took bears Machiavelli’s name, VEXNEWS was inspired to ask the eponymous Nick Mack to examine the amazing era of the Machiavelli, Borgias and Renaissance history for the politics of now.

In political science, Machiavelli’s works are as notorious  – ‘a teacher of evil’ is how Leo Strauss labels him – as they are notoriously misrepresented.

Many frame his works as crystallising the amoral ‘dirty hands’ approach to maintaining and retaining power. The vilification of Cesare Borgia, whom Niccolo praises, and his family has been central to that centuries-old campaign. Nevertheless, many great philosophers and historians knew there was much more to Machiavelli than the dirty hands motif. Even deputy Greens leader Christine Milne gets it, although some suspect she has just ‘A Certain Grandeur’ by former Whitlam speech-writer Graham Freudenberg. Some of the Greens are so intellectually low-rent, it’s little wonder squatters feel free to move in.

So what would Machiavelli really advise in this modern era? Well, he certainly wasn’t a Green, he was far too ethical for that. He’d interpret Christine Milne as unfavourably as most of us do.

In order to enliven works like The Prince, Machiavelli’s political and literary career needs to be seen in its historical context as it sheds light on the Florentine eccentric as both a revolutionary and, dare I say it, ethical figure.

During the fifteenth century or quattrocentro, the deteriorating medieval system of governance was giving way to new political system within and between states, in so much as discernable territorial states existed.

The Renaissance’s destructive birth pangs, thought Machiavelli, could be directed to something as ennobling, namely republican virtues, as a revival of the best of ancient Rome. Three key development of epochal significance had to be taken into account:

â–  First, wealthy Italian city-states, including the Papal States, were outsourcing the defence of their realms by paying for new skilled workforce among il condottieri. The Italian condotteri were contracted soldiers and their leaders were considered to be merciless warlords operating outside any code. Gaddafi does much the same now, paying as many as 6000 African mercenaries to fight to keep his tottering regime alive.

Post-imperial Roman societies saw the breakdown on urbanism and the rise of feudalism. To defend the unity that élites felt across Europe, dynasticism and knightly military orders were created. While it was often chaotic, a chivalric courtly ethos developed which could be constructively directed against the aggression of ambitious men towards the defence of the Faith through a chivalric courtly code. Its apogee was the Carolingian empire, the only medieval political entity in Western Europe comparable to the Caliphates and the Byzantine empire.

This had an enormously civilising influence on peoples like the Normans; it was strategically effective in reconquering the Iberian Peninsula and in containing the Muslim threat to North Africa and the Levant. It was far from perfect but the longevity of the system attests to its strengths.

Over time, private companies co-existed with and then superseded knightly orders. Medieval mercenaries ruthlessly mastered Roman and Punic techniques of warfare and discipline and disregarded chivalry. Using these military arts, warlords need not risk their lives on the battlefield like medieval kings and lords had, ensuring their longevity. Notable family who were originally il condottieri include the Sforzas of Milan and the Catalan Borgias.

The Florentine remedy to the ruthless warlords was for city-states to acquire their own standing armies. They were to be funded by their own taxes and levies and recruited among their own loyal citizens. That is, Machiavelli recommended the basic features of effective ‘states’ as we recognised them today.

■ Second, the nature of warfare changed. Among Renaissance historians, the turning point is considered to be the fall of Constantinople in 1453 when the high fortifications of the Byzantine capital succumbed to Mehmet II’s massive iron cannon assault. These new offensive weapons changed the role of soldiers on the field. Furthermore fortifications required greater fiscal demands on rulers to fund them.

■ Third, Italian city-states relied on foreign armies in lieu of il condottieri. This appalled Machiavelli’s sense of nationalism. Although his patriotism was challenged, he did admire the King Charles VIII of France who invaded Italy in 1494. This new kind of king was investing in his own standing army and created a bronze mobile cannon similar to Mehmet II’s iron beast of 1453.

Charles VIII’s mighty independence of agency was crystallising Europe into politically distinct territorial states. The complex mosaic feudal order that marked medievalism was ebbing away in favour of something vertically integrated. Machiavelli thought a new ethos was required for Italian potentates to balance their interests with other states beyond dynastic and other claims.

In short, Machiavelli was head-hunting for a suitable Prince who could challenge and overcome the blight of murderous warlordism. If the Borgias could fill that role, he was fine with that, so long as the Prince could protect republican virtues to flourish. After all republic virtues would be indispensable in defending these new states.

Was this new world order project really evil? I don’t think so.

From the Renaissance onwards, international affairs has been linked to the consolidation of this organisation of territorially defined societies. Each of the great European and international milestones in international affairs contributed to the modern state: the 1555 Ausburg Agreement, the 1648 Westpalian Peace, the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the 1919 Treaty of Paris/Versailles and the 1945 United Nations Security Council rules of engagement. (See Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles for further reading)

Among postmodern clever-dick circles, this has become known as the Westphalian system of territorial sovereign states. It’s a stupid misnomer as the Treaty of Westphalia between France, Sweden and Germanic princelings maintained many of the features of dynastic imperialism that Hapsburgs desired.

The eurocentic Westphalian system is portrayed to be a massive failure of Realpolitik writ large, leading to competitive, internecine states, susceptible to arms races and mutual territorial envy. The modern states from 1648 onwards were the harbingers of the meta-narrative of slavery, imperialism, fascism and Orientalism; not as the progenitor of modern secular responsive states, the rebirth of cities and commerce, mass education and meaningful citizenship.

In 1977, international affairs intellectual, Hedley Bull, coined the phrase ‘the new medievalism’. Bull noted the rise and rise of non-state actors in global affairs. These actors were creating a new force in the international order unaccountable to the imperatives to states and the people to whom states were supposed to be accountable.

Transnational ‘new medievalism’ denoted the wide range of overlapping non-territorial players in the world – global religions, businesses, charities and human rights advocates, mass migrations, media outlets. In this decentralised world, loyalties would fragment and authority diffused across a new mosaic-like order – just as had happened in Europe had been between the fall of Rome to the fall of Constantinople.

New medievalism is supposed to be about the international order as better governance rather than responsive government with the society of territorial states redundant. As cosmopolitan citizenship rises, a critical mass of people would rally behind transnational ideas, movements and institutions, not nation-states, their flags and distinctive heritages.

The so-called global human rights movement is one of expression of this phenomenon, jostling for heats and minds with its competitors: radical Islam, corporate brands as well as national and regional identities.

There are, of course, legitimate roles for transnational institutions and exchange by improving national laws, markets and governance but not always.

Citizens should be wary about giving up their powers to international bodies run by the champions of new medievalism. If the balance is wrong, the system will be essentially anti-democratic, anti-participatory and, as Machiavelli would say, anti-republican.

Many Europeans are concerned the EU has already reached that point of new medievalism, neutering nation-states in ways they never imagined. As John Rogge noted, Brussels is the ‘new Rome’.

Under its current leadership by Western lawyers, diplomats, administrators and other luvvies, new medievalism is a contemporary dogma for self-loathing sophists who have married cultural relativism with logical positivism.

Replacing the decisive role of meaningful accountable territorial states and the role of UN Security Council for great powers is their goal. Today’s system remains indispensable: it has the capacity to act in certain circumstances, as it has in Libya this year; it can provide limits between great power competition; and opportunities for emerging powers like India. When it fails to act, as it has in Darfur and Rwanda, it can be disastrous – but that is a failure of will, not of the system.

The new medievalists favour empowering the International Criminal Court – a recipe for disaster – in lieu of an otherwise effective system. So it is not surprising new medievalists simultaneously campaign to dilute the power of democratic states and increase the role of sharia law in the name of anti-Orientalism and multiculturalism.

When Savonarola claimed Charles’ invasion of Italy was punishment for Italy’s sins, Machiavelli famously stated the madden friar was wrong as ‘fortuna’ was a river. He argued a network of dams, levees and dikes were to be built when the conditions were suitable; that controlling a new political phenomenon like an arsenalled Charles VIII was possible with forward planning.

Dirty hands, however, are required to tame such raging forces. The ‘dirty hands’ found among major occidental parties, political traditions and governments and their allies across the globe continue to act as a bulwark against the new medievalists’ dystopia of litigious impotence favoured by the Western left.

I believe Machiavelli as the foundation thinker of statecraft for a system of modern states, would welcome a renewed mission to challenge those threats to current superstructures – strong democratic states, robust national defence forces, targeted supervised overseas aid funding, and crucially, a network of like-minded allies held together by American largesse – which continue to keep the realistic, relative peace of our times. Perhaps not quite what Christine Milne has in mind.

After all, the Prince who entirely relies on fortuna is lost when it changes. As it always does.



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4 responses to “A NEW WORLD: What would Machiavelli do?

  1. Machiavellian's conscious

    Most, if not all, states and major political parties (The Greens included) employ and embrace Machiavellian philosophy. The needs of the many outweigh the few. The State is always right and must be protected even when wrong.

  2. Greg

    The UN provides hegeonomy for pantywaists. Witness Libya. NATO, with UN sanction could achieve regime change in 24 hours but won’t. It would also never take on anyone with real power like Iran.

    They only take on Libya because of human rights embarrassment. Their real objective is the dismantling of politically incorrect democracies.

    Turkeys voting for Christmas.

  3. James

    Best Vexnews article ever. Will be coming back often.

    Great insight and analysis.

  4. wreckage

    It’s probably futile to point this out, but Machiavelli did not advocate the primacy of the ruler, preferring a Republic and espousing it as the most stable and powerful of nations.

    “Machiavellian” doesn’t really describe what you’ll find in “The Prince”, which combines a practical approach to the bloodthirsty politics of the time with unmistakable idealism, particularly with regard to the Republic.

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