The most important two sentences in the history of political philosophy since the ancient Greeks appears towards the beginning of Machiavelli’s The Prince. ‘[A] wise ruler,’ the author informs his reader, ‘must think of a method by which his citizens will need the state and himself at all times and in every circumstance. Then they will always be loyal to him.’
The history of the development of modern governance is essentially a riff on this basic insight. It tells us almost everything we need to know about our current predicament: those who rule us vigorously engaged in the task of making us need them, so that they can retain our loyalty and hence stay in power – and gain more of it.
Machiavelli was writing at a particular point in history when the thing which we now know as ‘the state’ first came into existence in European political thought. Before Machiavelli, there were kingdoms and principalities and the concept of rulership was essentially personal and divine. After him, it became secularised, temporal, and what Michel Foucault called ‘governmental’. That is, to the medieval mind, the physical world was a mere staging post before rapture, and the job of the king was to maintain spiritual order. To the modern mind – of which Machiavelli might be called the precursor – the physical world is the main event (rapture being an open question), and the job of the ruler is to improve the material and moral well-being of the population and the productivity of the territory and economy.
Machiavelli’s maxim forces us to think more seriously about the doctrine for which he is nowadays famous – raison d’État, or ‘reason of state’, meaning in essence the justification for the state acting in its own interests and above the law or natural right. The way that this concept is usually described suggests an amoral pursuit of the national interest. But this is to overlook its caring aspect.
As Machiavelli makes quite clear in the lines I have just cited, reason of state also means obtaining and preserving the loyalty of the population (so as to maintain the position of the ruling class) – and this means thinking of ways to make it reliant on the state for its welfare.
At the very moment that the modern state was coming into existence at the beginning of the 16th century, then, it already had at its heart a conception of itself as needing to render the population vulnerable (as we would nowadays put it) in order that they should consider it to be necessary. And it is not very difficult to understand why. Rulers want to maintain power, and in a secular framework in which the ‘divine right of kings’ no longer holds sway, this means keeping the mass of the population on side.
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