Machiavelli’s enduring notoriety derives from his willingness to offer political advice to anyone, and his acknowledgement that such advice may differ radically according to circumstance. The answer to the question ‘What would Machiavelli say?’ is always going to be an interesting one because Machiavelli does not have a set of abstract principles from which his answers can be deduced. His analysis works only with motivations internal to the situation to which it refers, and comes without the usual side-constraints. For that reason it is always liable to surprise, redescribing the familiar in unfamiliar terms, and placing means and ends in novel relation.

To benefit from his advice, the modern reader has to reinterpret Machiavelli’s historical examples and apply them to contemporary events. Machiavelli himself worked the same way, raiding both classical antiquity and Italian history for material applicable to the political crises of the sixteenth century. Recent republican interpreters have found in Machiavelli an ideal of self-government that offers an alternative to libertarian accounts of negative liberty. Meanwhile theorists on the left have focused on two diverging themes. Some, following Gramsci and Althusser and drawing primarily on The Prince, see Machiavelli as a prophet of unpredictable change and historical rupture, offering to all who can master fortune the possibility of making things new.footnote1 Others, most notably Chantal Mouffe, use the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy to argue that Machiavelli is above all the theorist of ineradicable political antagonism, whose crucial insight is that the interests of the people and the nobility are always opposed.footnote2

In the latter cases, the problem that Machiavelli is being asked to address is the same: the resilience of the liberal-democratic (now neo-liberal) nation state, which has so far proved immune to revolutionary transformation and stubbornly resistant to piecemeal reform. Is there anything to be done about it? Machiavelli does not provide a straightforward answer. In part, that is because he is unfamiliar with the terms of the problem. But it is also because, in his view, it is impossible to prescribe any remedy without knowing whether the society in question is corrupt.

For Machiavelli, corruption is destiny. As his analysis of the early history of Rome reveals, little harm can come to a republic unless it is corrupt, and little good if it is.footnote3 When the Roman kings, the Tarquins, were expelled, the republic was able to acquire and maintain its liberty; yet 465 years later when Caesar was killed, it could not. Such diverse outcomes can only be due to the fact that ‘in the time of the Tarquins the Roman populace was not yet corrupt, but in the later period was extremely corrupt’.footnote4 The obvious implication is that corruption must be avoided at all costs. But in the long run there is no escape, for corruption is the inevitable change wrought in states by time. All institutions, both religious and political, have something good in them at the start, but as the years go by they become increasingly corrupt unless something or someone intervenes to bring about renewal. A people that regains its freedom can keep it only if it is free from corruption, yet that freedom is often lost through the corruption of the very means by which it should be maintained, and, once established, corruption can never be reversed by normal methods.footnote5

According to Machiavelli, corruption consists in esteeming the private more than the public good, and is caused by division into factions, which seek to benefit themselves and so propose laws ‘not for the sake of their common liberties, but to augment their own power’.footnote6 Factions are the result of idleness, and they feed off inequality, which is what created the divisions between patricians and plebs in republican Rome, and between the nobles and people (and later the rich and the poor) in medieval Florence.footnote7 Idleness therefore constitutes the turning point within the historical cycle in which the positive results of good government turn bad: ‘Virtue is the mother of peace, peace produces idleness, idleness begets disorder, and disorder brings ruin.’footnote8

In these circumstances, it is obviously vital to be able to tell whether a state is corrupt or not, and where it is in the cycle of corruption. And so in chapter 17 of the Discourses Machiavelli offers what amounts to a diagnostic test:

It is possible then to arrive at this conclusion: when the material is not corrupt, tumults and other troubles do no harm, but, when it is corrupt, good legislation is of no avail unless it be initiated by someone in so extremely strong a position that he can enforce obedience until such time as the material has become good.footnote9