Feudalism and Cronyism in Machiavelli’s Italy
[Editor’s Note: This is a selection from “On Political Power and Personal Liberty in The Prince and The Discourses” from the spring 2014 issue of Social Research: An International Quarterly.]
Although liberty is a recurring concern in Machiavelli’s writings, there is no consensus regarding either the definition of the concept or its relevance for his overall political thought. One direction of Machiavellian interpretation that has gained prominence in recent decades has focused on the concept of “libertas” in relation to a republican mode of government, even though Machiavelli’s use of liberty cannot be simply equated with republicanism. In tracing the various occurrences of the term in Machiavelli’s political works, Marcia Colish has pointed out that in the context of internal affairs “Machiavelli often connects libertà with certain personal rights and community benefits that characterize free states regardless of their constitutions.” She specifies, in fact, that “he clearly identifies freedom with the protection of private rights.”1
The most extreme form of aggression on private property is that upon one’s own person, negating the most basic right of self-ownership. In The Discourses, for example, uprooting men from their land is considered an act so horrendous that it is metaphorically equated with treating humans like animals. Commenting that Philip of Macedon “moved men from province to province as shepherds move their sheep,” Machiavelli remarks that this inhuman cruelty goes against universal law: “Such methods are exceedingly cruel, and are repugnant to any community, not only to a Christian one, but to any composed of men.” Indeed, in an uncompromising espousal of ethics over exigency, Machiavelli declares that not even the power of kingship can justify infringing upon human freedom in this way: “It behooves, therefore, every man to shun them, and to prefer rather to live as a private citizen than as a king with such ruination of men to his score.”2
Machiavelli imagines, moreover, how a condition of entitlement can be set into place ex nihilo through sheer political and military force:
Where considerable equality prevails, no one who proposes to set up a kingdom or principality, will ever be able to do it unless from that equality he selects many of the more ambitious and restless minds and makes of them gentry in fact and not in name, by giving them castles and possessions and making of them a privileged class with respect both to property and subjects; so that around him will be those with whose support he may maintain himself in power, and whose ambitions, thanks to him, may be realized. As to the rest they will be compelled to bear a yoke which nothing but force will ever be able to make them endure.3
In this scenario, political power both creates and feeds off of a system of privilege and parasitism. Citing Marc Bloch’s seminal Feudal Society, [Murray] Rothbard defines feudalism as “the seizure of land by conquest and the continuing assertion and enforcement of ownership over that land and the extraction of rent from peasants continuing to till the soil.”4 In agreement with Locke’s ideas on the origin of rightful property ownership, Rothbard states: “It should be clear that here, just as in the case of slavery, we have a case of continuing aggression against the true owners — the true possessors — of the land, the tillers, or peasants, by the illegitimate owner, the man whose original and continuing claim to the land and its fruits has come from coercion and violence.”5 Feudalism is thus one of the classic ways in which “the State provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for predation on the property of the producers; it makes certain, secure, and relatively ‘peaceful’ the lifeline of the parasitic caste in society.”6
I would contend, moreover, that Machiavelli goes beyond the specific issues related to taxation and private property to dissuade the prince from intervening in civil society (il vivere civile) more generally as well. During this period, it was not uncommon to find collusion between political and economic forces in society. Renaissance princes “pledged mining and trade monopolies”7 while privileged families were “concerned about controlling the political situation in order to profit from the monti (public funds), to be able to obtain reductions on taxes and forced loans, to establish international relationships of privilege, or even to set up monopolies via official missions and with the backing of popes and kings.”8 The Medici family was particularly notorious for using political power for economic advantage (and vice versa) ...
In contrast to the various forms of state corporatism operating in his day and continuing in our own, Machiavelli separates economic endeavors from political activity. As he wrote in a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, “Fortune has seen to it that, since I do not know how to talk about either the silk or the wool trade, or profits or losses, I have to talk about the state.”9 In pointing to his own limitations, Machiavelli is also envisioning economics and politics as two independent spheres, each requiring a different kind of expertise. In fact, in his political writing, he makes a point to assert that civil society can best flourish in the absence of government intrusion. In The Discourses he states that the common utility (commune utilità) of a free state (vivere libero) is “the possibility of enjoying what one has, freely and without incurring suspicion ..., the assurance that one’s wife and children will be respected, [and] the absence of fear for oneself.”10
Image source: iStockphoto
- 1. Marcia L. Colish, “The Idea of Liberty in Machiavelli,” Journal of the History of Ideas 32, no. 3 (1971): 323–350, esp. 325.
- 2. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses (London, New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 177.
- 3. Ibid., p. 247.
- 4. Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1982), p. 67n.
- 5. Ibid., p 65.
- 6. Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute,  2011), p. 62.
- 7. Lauro Martines, “The Renaissance and the Birth of Consumer Society,” Renaissance Quarterly 51, no. 1 (1998): 193–203, esp. 195.
- 8. Vittore Branca, ed. “Introduction” to Merchant Writers of the Italian Renaissance: From Boccaccio to Machiavelli, pp.vii–xlix. Translated by Murtha Baca (New York: Marsilio, 1999), p. xi.
- 9. John Najemy, Between Friends: Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513–1515 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), p 225.
- 10. Machiavelli, Discourses, p.154.