Armed Contractors and the State Monopoly on Force

Mercenaries and auxilaries are useless and dangerous. Any man who founds his state on mercenaries can never be safe or secure, because they are disunited, ambitious, undisciplined, and untrustworthy.” 

These words were written almost 500 years ago by Machiavelli in his treatise The Prince, which has become required reading today for both students of political thought and aspiring politicians. Warning about the dangers of a republic relying on mercenaries for defense and expansion, Machiavelli urged new leaders instead to cultivate military virtue and patriotism among their own people. 

Today, more than 217,000 armed contractors are employed by the Pentagon in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Blackwater (now called Xe Services) is the most infamous of these organizations, it is far from the only one that has a hand in defining how the American military presence is perceived in these countries. It is without question that these groups’ ruthless and irresponsible tactics have contributed to the hostility with which many Iraqis and Afghans now approach the question of the American presence in their countries.  

Now, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.)  and Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are set to introduce a bill to Congress titled the Stop Outsourcing Security Act, which aims to reassign almost all the private contractors’ current duties back to the U.S. military. This is unquestionably a positive step, considering the incompetence and the complete lack of accountability with which private contractors have operated. Yet one of Schakowsky’s justifications touches on a crucial issue in this debate.

As she says, “Our definition of ‘nation-state’ has been a hegemony on the use of force. Now we seem so reliant on these companies that we need them to conduct war, that even when Blackwater was thrown out of Iraq, we had to extend their contract last fall because they were the only ones capable of this helicopter contract. And so we had to continue to use them.

In essence, Schakowsky is hitting upon a central ontological question of the modern state and sovereignty: can a state exist without possessing a hegemony or monopoly on force? The realist school of international relations, building on the tradition of canonical thinkers like Thucydides and Hobbes, answers with a resounding no. Political realism is also one of the most prominent interpretive lenses of Machiavelli’s writings, to the point that ‘Machiavellianism’ has developed as a pejorative term for a duplicitous and cynical approach to politics. Considering this, it’s a little ironic to see how the leaders of the same country that had practiced this so-called international Machiavellianism for decades decided to cede its control over the means of force to private companies. 

In reversing this trend, Schakowsky and Sanders are now seeking a return precisely to such a realist policy after eight years of neoconservative state-building idealism. The modern state being inseparably tied to economic circumstances, private contractors were at one point seen as a more cost-efficient alternative to the military. Now, however, we are witnessing a turn back toward statism, as this reliance on contractors has veered closely to challenging the sovereignty and supreme political authority of the U.S, defined precisely as the entity granted a monopoly on the use of force. If international politics today ultimately hinge on these relationships of violence and coercion, then shifting the onus back to the military can end up as less of a move toward greater democratization and constitutional rights than a reaffirmation of U.S. state hegemony over its foreign affairs. 

What is troubling about this development is that it shows the decision makers in government are unwilling to engage the very question of the relationship between politics and violence. In this opposition of a state monopoly on force to its privatization in the hands of contractors, the debate oscillates between these poles without challenging us to think about the future of the state and the role that force has in determining politics. In this rebuke to privatization (both in the sense of violence and capitalist enterprise) and this return to realism and statist politics, potentially new ways of organizing the realms of politics and violence are being obscured. Only a concerted decision to move away from both the capitalist privatization of force and from the cynical violence of the sovereign state can point the direction toward new methods of political organization that can further global justice.


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