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Machiavelli's Real Transgression - by Alan Bock Print
October 6, 2007

I was planning to write about Blackwater and a growing distaste for contracting-out, privatizing or outsourcing various operations in wartime to "mercenaries," and I will a bit. But the topic of mercenaries got me to thinking about Machiavelli, who famously advised the ruler in his small masterpiece, The Prince, to avoid mercenaries.

"Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous," he wrote, "and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy … They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe; which I should have little trouble to prove, for the ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting all her hopes for many years on mercenaries, and although they formerly made some display and appeared valiant among themselves, yet when foreigners came they showed what they were."

That last paragraph offers some insight into the vehemence of Machiavelli’s distaste for mercenaries. Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a shrewd observer whose insights are still worth studying, but he was also a creature of his times. During those times, Italy, which was a collection of city-states, was imperiled by foreign nation-states, largely France and Spain, which had become more adept at using concentrated military power for conquest. Machiavelli wrote The Prince after Florence, an independent republican city-state he had served for about 15 years, was overthrown by the autocratic Medici and he was exiled. The mercenaries had failed to save his beloved Florentine republic and he was understandably bitter.

For all that he has been piously despised, Machiavelli has also been admired down the centuries, often for the same reasons he was despised. It isn’t quite fair to say that he endorsed or invented the concept of "the ends justify the means"; rulers had ruled ruthlessly for eons before he wrote. Machiavelli’s transgression in the eyes of much of posterity was that he wrote as a realist and pragmatist, explaining and justifying the practice of doing whatever it takes for a ruler to stay in power, even if this offended conventional or Christian morality.

Many, including more than a few intellectually or historically inclined neocons, admired him for those very qualities – the ability to take people as they are, to view the world realistically rather than through the rosy glasses of posturing idealism, to offer advice frankly and in the light of experience rather then indulging in empty moralizing. And he is definitely worth reading for his understanding of political power and what it takes to get it and keep it.

His aversion to mercenaries has been enormously influential down through the centuries, but I’m not sure it’s as universal an insight as some might maintain. Outfits like Blackwater may be called mercenary, and when it comes to money-grubbing they certainly are, but they’re not necessarily the classic mercenaries, often foreigners or a band of rogues put together by a skilled leader, of Machiavelli’s time. While they may hire worldwide, firms like Blackwater are closely tied to the U.S. government and the U.S. cause (as they conceive it; Blackwater chairman Erik Prince, as the recent book on the company points out, comes from a family of wealthy religious-right Republicans).

It’s hard to imagine them going over to the other side for more money. Blackwater and others are a variant of a more modern phenomenon, the government contractor. Contractors come with their own sets of problems, but they are not necessarily the same problems Machiavelli pointed out.

The very concept of contracting-out -- begun in a big way with behind-the-lines services like mess halls, barracks management, supplies and the like when the military downsized modestly after the end of the Cold War -- is pretty new. I don't know if the inevitable pitfalls (and the fact that most private companies can outsmart a government procurement officer in a heartbeat) have been properly assessed, let alone corrected. Contracting-out should cost less than having government personnel perform the task in question, and I don't think that's been the case in Iraq. Perhaps hearings like these will help if they're not too partisan. But it would be better to mend it, not end it. I think.

It would be even better, of course, not to get into misbegotten wars without thinking through the possible consequences and reverberations, and with fewer troops than needed to accomplish undefined but always growing and increasingly complicated tasks.

Machiavelli is reviled for being an openly amoral pragmatist in the service of power. A case can be made that The Prince, written in part to garner favor with the Medicis, who were autocratic rulers and thus focused on the problems of princes and autocratic rulers, doesn’t represent the entirety of Machiavelli’s approach to politics. His other writing suggests that at heart he was a republican (in the Renaissance sense of the word) who believed that giving the people more power and rights actually led to a more stable, productive and adaptable polity.

What was genuinely reprehensible about Machiavelli, in my view, was that he was a shrewd and intelligent observer and analyst who spent a lifetime putting his intelligence and analytical skill in the service of rulers. In that he became the model for most modern intellectuals.

One can understand some of the social dynamics that lead to most intellectuals being more like courtiers than independent observers and critics. A society has to reach a certain level of economic development and sophistication before it is possible for anybody but one born into an already-wealthy family to consider thinking for a living. As for those who are inclined to want to do their thinking and analyzing about political and social issues, about the ways of power and the like, those who control power and money are more likely to have use for them than those who don’t – unless, like Pierre Goodrich and a few others they have become captivated by a philosophical orientation and have resources to finance others of like mind.

I suppose I’m hopelessly naïve – or maybe it was that through what I always considered and hoped was a regimen of independent inquiry that I came to the conclusion that rulers are the enemies of humankind rather than benefactors – but it always seemed to me that the whole point of thinking things through for oneself was to become intellectually independent and beholden to nobody. So a proper independent intellectual should be a gadfly, a nuisance to those with power, someone who can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Most people who think seriously about politics and power, however, are more like Machiavelli. There are genuinely independent thinkers in think-tanks and universities, but most of those in political science and economics departments are or would be eager to serve somebody with real political power, to dance attendance on a third-rater who happened to maneuver or blinder his way into some position, like Kissinger wooing Nixon or all the neocons pretending that Bush is a wise leader worthy of respect and veneration.

Machiavelli provided the modern model for all these shrewd courtiers. That, rather than his frank and pragmatic amorality, is his real transgression.
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