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.
In the centuries since Machiavelli was writing, we have seen a vast expansion in the size and scope of the administrative state, and as thinkers from Francois Guizot to Anthony de Jasay have shown us, this great framework of government has come into existence largely on the basis of this caring aspect of raison d’Ètat. It is not that, as Nietzsche had it, the state is merely a ‘cold monster’ imposing itself on society unbidden. It is that a complex series of interactions has developed, with the state convincing society that it is in need of its protection, and gaining society’s consent for its expansion accordingly.
To return to Foucault (whose writings on the state are among the most important and insightful in the last 100 years), we can think of the state as having emerged as a series of discourses by which the population, and groups within it, are constructed as being vulnerable and in need of the state’s benevolent assistance. These groups (the poor, the old, children, women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, and so on) gradually increase in number such that they eventually make up more less the entire population.
The ultimate dream, of course, is for the state to find ways to make literally everyone vulnerable and in need of its help (for its status will then surely be forever secure) – and I hardly need to spell out for you why Covid-19 was seized upon with such gusto in this regard.
This, then, is the basic story of the development of the state since Machiavelli – essentially, legitimising the growth of state power on the basis of helping the vulnerable. And it is at the heart, and has always been at the heart, of the concept of raison d’Ètat.
But the story does not stop there. It only takes us far as the end of the Second World War. We are now in an age – as we are frequently reminded – of international cooperation, globalisation and, indeed, of global governance. There is barely a field of public life, from posting parcels to carbon emissions, which is not in some way regulated by international organisations of one kind or another.
Though the decline of the state has time and again been shown to have been greatly exaggerated, we are indisputably in an age in which raison d’État has at least partially given way to what Philip Cerny once termed raison du monde – an insistence on centralised global solutions to a proliferation of ‘global problems’.
Like raison d’État, raison du monde is dismissive of petty constraints – such as law, natural right, or morality – that might limit its field of action. It justifies acting in what is seen as the global interest irrespective of borders, democratic mandate, or public sentiment. And, as with raison d’État, it presents itself as a Foucauldian ‘power of care’, which acts where necessary to preserve and improve human well-being.
We can all of us list the litany of areas – climate change, public health, equality, sustainable development – in which raison du monde displays an interest. And we can all, I hope, now see the reason why. Just as the state has since its inception at the time of Machiavelli seen its path to security as being through the vulnerabalisation of the population and the securement of its safety, so our nascent global governance regime understands that in order to grow and preserve its status, it must convince the people of the world that they need it.
There is nothing conspiratorial about this. It is simply the playing out of human incentives. People like status, and the wealth and power that derive from it. They act robustly to improve it, and to keep it when they have it. What animated Machiavelli and those he was advising is thus the same thing that animates people like Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, Director-General of the WHO. How does one gain and preserve power? Convincing people they need you. Whether it’s raison d’État or raison du monde, the rest simply follows accordingly.
Thinking of things in this way also helps us to understand the vitriol with which the ‘new populism’ of anti-globalist movements has been treated. Whenever a campaign like Brexit succeeds in rejecting the logic of raison du monde, it threatens the very notion on which the concept rests, and hence of the entire global governance movement. If a state like Britain can ‘go it alone’ in some sense, then it suggests that individual countries are not so vulnerable after all. And if this is shown to be true, then the entire justification for the framework of global governance is called into question.
This same basic pattern, of course, underpins contemporary anxieties about such phenomena as the no-fap movement, homesteading, tradwives and bodybuilding; if it turns out that the population is not so vulnerable after all, and men, women and families can improve themselves and their communities without the aid of the state, then the entire structure upon which the edifice of raison d’État rests becomes radically unstable. This is at least part of the reason why these movements are so frequently smeared and traduced by the chattering classes which are so reliant themselves upon the state and its largesse.
We find ourselves, then, at a crossroads in the trajectory of both the state and global governance. On the one hand, the imperatives of raison d’État and raison du monde seem to both have been spurred by rapid advances in technology with vastly more potential to both vulnerablise the populace and promise to assuage and ameliorate its every inconvenience. But on the other, political and social movements which reject this vision are growing in influence. Where this will lead us is a genuinely open question; we find ourselves, like Machiavelli, at the beginning of something – though there is absolutely no telling what.
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Republished from the author’s Substack