The Currency of Power: Conquest & Commerce

Politics consists of the struggle for power among humankind, stated plainly by James Burnham in his echoing of Machiavelli. Anything else we add to that definition discolours the truth of human behaviour as enacted in space and time, over the course of our bloodied history – we add condiments and icing to the truth because it’s so much easier to look the other way. When we accept the struggle for power that exists at the heart of human behaviour, there are two peculiar expressions of said struggle that we stumble upon: conquest and commerce. We could even say that conquest and commerce are two sides of the same coin – a coinage existing as the currency of power. These two modes of power are embodied in different authors and different types of states that I want to explore for the sake of elucidating strategies that cause-pursuing actors can use.

Immediately, we can associate Machiavelli with the school of conquest – I hardly need to cite a passage from his Prince or Discourses to make that point. What I do want to make explicit though is that the tactics of Machiavelli assume that various political actors are at the same level of technological development. It is surprising how little attention is paid to this particular fact since the school of conquest completely ignores the dynamics of technology and economic development. There is no better embodiment of conquest in the early modern period than Spain, with a formula that essentially consisted of war, territory amalgamation, and resource extraction – no different than the Romans centuries before them. It’s important to see how the lack of understanding of (or regard for) the importance of technology and economic development plays into the incessant need for territorial expansion. This is what we can call extensive growth. To use a car analogy, if early modern Spain was a car manufacturer, Spain’s mechanics don’t realize that they can improve fuel efficiency – they assume that if they want to put more cars on the road they need to match that car growth with a proportionate amount of fuel availability.

The alternative way is intensive growth, embodied through a lesser known theorist: Antonio Serra. He was the first documented individual to make note of the difference between increasing return industries – in his time, manufacturing – and diminishing return industries like resource extraction. I am indebted to Erik and Sophus Reinert for saving his work, the Breve Trattato, from obscurity. In any case, the logic of this realization is that one need not expand one’s territory boundlessly in a geographic sense; rather, by investing in the right technologies, one can have a geographically compact nation that can hold its own against larger empires. This is because technology is intricately intertwined with commerce: take some resources, add labour to them through technology, and arrive at a product that can be traded. What comes to mind to embody intensive growth are none other than the Italian city states (Venice, Florence, Genoa), the Dutch, and the English – all geographically compact but advanced in commerce and technology during their respective reigns of dominance. Although it must be admitted that the failure of the Italian city states to invest in their military force (they foolishly thought mercenaries could be trusted) was their eventual downfall, it is clear to see that investments in technology and commerce were the origins of their power.

A way to visualize the difference between extensive and intensive growth is to take a world map and super-impose a metric of technological development on top of geographical territories. On this map, technology development adds progressive layers of height on top of the flat 2D map according to the amount of total nation hours devoted to R&D (as opposed to, let’s say, engaging in warfare). This is crude but it should do the trick; alternatively, we could measure dollars invested as well but I feel that time is the one true constant that can be worked with to provide actionable insights (24 hours in early modern Europe, at base, is still 24 hours in 2017 Canada). If we were to apply this methodology to early modern Europe, we would see Spain having vast territories but their height on the map would be relatively flat; on the other hand, the Italian city states would be geographically small but would tower high above all the others (this would be seen progressively for the Dutch and then the English as well). The utility of this modelling is to break cognitive biases against automatically assuming vast territories are a sign of power.

These two alternative ways of pursuing power have been fleshed out for the mere purpose of saying this: activism operates all too often under the Machiavellian way. I mean this in the broad sense of not fully conceptualizing the importance of technology (that is, the frontier of technology) but also in the specific sense of comparing protests to military campaigns. It’s not hard to see the analogies that emerge through this lens of analysis. The resource of awareness is seized through conquest-oriented campaigns – confrontational and defiant, in the spirit of war – on territories of contested space, often ideological in nature.

The other route is embodied in a technologically-rooted activism that values technological supremacy as the means of making one’s point. We often call them hacktivists in our age of ICT – Anonymous being the quintessential embodiment – but we should evolve away from that term as we progressively enter new fields of technology. Without necessarily condoning hacktivism, I want to point out that the amount of attention given to countering hacktivism far outweighs governmental attention on countering in-person protests. I’ve lived through the 2012 student protests in Montreal (symbolized by the Red Square) and I’ve seen various protests on Yonge Street in Toronto when I had an office north of Yonge/Queen in 2015. All one needs is the proper ratio of police officers to number of protesters and things are relatively under control and self-contained – this methodology of activism is essentially a known quantity, so to speak. Seeing some of those Yonge Street protests, the word “tame” came to mind – the police had all the protocols in place to deal with the scenario and I would argue that not much true impact was sustained in terms of awareness building.

In other words, with the above in mind, perhaps intensive growth is the right mindset for lasting impact as a cause-pursuing agent. Build out an organization; be at the frontier of technology; have sustainable revenue streams. The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t necessarily see activism and entrepreneurship as different things – they can be mutually reinforcing. Moreover, rather than using technological superiority to crack into the systems of a corporation or government (we have to admit some underlying Machiavellian conquest elements there) one can use said technological strength to build new systems that force existing governmental, corporate, and social systems to adapt. In the process of having others adapt to a more effective system (whatever parameters we use for defining effectiveness) we have conquered without engaging in conquest. The school of commerce, using Serra’s increasing returns insight, wins when it acts as a system builder by engaging in intensive growth.

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