To Be Incorruptible V: If You’ve No Shelter You’ll Have No Peace, Research Time, 25/04/2017

Continued from previous . . . I find a lot that’s valuable in Machiavelli. But there are limits, of course. Someone like him writing in the 1530s is in a very different historical position than someone like me writing in the 2010s.

I mean, the reasons why are obvious, of course. But I want to call attention to one reason in particular – it’s not as if there weren’t plenty of good ideas in the same tradition of materialist radical democracy in the intervening five centuries.

However much I value Machiavelli’s concept of patriotism as devotion to the public good of your community, other questions related to the nature of the community generate troubling answers. Not a reason for rejecting Machiavelli as a whole, but a reason to be careful with how his thought might influence you.

Here’s a serious problem of the 2010s that Machiavelli’s writings can’t break through – the boundaries of a community. Globally, there’s a near-universal political crisis over the nature of the border.

I draw a sword against conspirators;
When think you that the sword goes up again?
Never, till Caesar's three and thirty wounds
Be well avenged; or till another Caesar
Have added slaughter to the sword of traitors.
For decades, we’ve been troubled over the dangers that come from borders in trade, and investment fall away. The erosion of borders in these cases has encouraged explosive social problems as terrible inequalities entrench themselves.

The most intense iteration of border erosion facing the West is state attempts to control the movement of people. Most in our faces is the refugee crisis – literally millions fleeing horrifying wars and oppression across North Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Many crowd into slums and makeshift camps like the squalid tent cities at Calais.

I go to Machiavelli thinking there might be an answer to this question in his book on the strengths and safety valves of democratic society. I don’t find the answers I want. Machiavelli, living in a time of wars and invasions, sees in the movement of desperate people only more invasion, violence, and war that desperation has driven to extremes.

Most often, in his era and in the time of Republican Rome, Machiavelli encounters refugees as literal invading armies. If some natural disaster rendered a city-state unliveable, its leaders and people would invade another country’s territory and set themselves up.

War was the only response to what we’d today call a humanitarian crisis. Yet he does describe a material root of the erosion of human capacities for kindness as well as our state borders.

Returning to his golden age of Republican Rome, Machiavelli sees the root of the fear of refugees in what – during that ancient era – were the most common causes of whole cities uprooting themselves.

Resource wars. A drought would ruin a harvest, or a flood would wreck too much farmland, and a city wouldn’t have the material to support itself. All they could do was invade their neighbours and hope to plunder enough loot to sustain themselves.

A battle over scarce resources, made more scarce by massive disasters, would bring ordinarily peaceful cities into deadly conflict. Their means of survival itself was at stake. Life was inescapably fragile. Risk was great, and likely perceived to be greater in the moment.

If there isn’t enough to keep everyone alive, our peaceful ideals can all too easily be pinched into nothing. A flame between two calloused fingers.

It was a catastrophic drought in the late 2000s that drove Syria into upheaval. A time when, in a state with tight borders, there was no longer enough to keep everyone alive and prosperous.

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