Monday, 26 April 2010

Shakespeare and the Privatized Military

Shakespeare has a long history of refreshing the parts of life that other writers have difficulty in reaching. One of the more surprising lecture invitations I have received was to talk to a conference of the “family offices” of “high net worth individuals.” Hard as I found it to imagine what it would be like to be so rich that you needed advisers to help you keep your family in order, I went along and it proved a fascinating occasion. The brief was to explore how Shakespeare dealt with the problem of succession. I took the examples of Prince Hal as rebellious son who goes slumming it in Eastcheap (or, as it would now be, snorts lines of cocaine at Boujis) and of King Lear’s difficulties over the division of his kingdom among his three children. Afterwards, several people—both advisers and family members—told me that I had precisely described their experience.
I was reminded of this sense that Shakespeare has something to say to worlds far from the theatre and the library when this morning I happened upon an article about Falstaff in the most unlikely place: the Journal of International Peace Operations. This is not, as the title might suggest, the august organ of a think tank for NGOs in the aid trade, but rather the house magazine of the International Peace Operations Association, the trade association of the burgeoning private military industry—though they do not call themselves "private armies," but rather "the Stability Operations Industry." It is reassuring to note that Blackwater Worldwide (now renamed Xe Services, following all its bad publicity in Iraq) was expelled form the association in 2007.
Anyway, here is the article in question: “Shakespeare on Military Contracting: Lessons from History about Private Contracting.” The piece proves to be extremely well informed not only about the tricky issue of the resemblances/differences between Falstaff in Henry IV and Sir John Fastolf in Henry VI, but also with regard to the finances of raising an army in the early modern period when there was no state standing army. I don’t know of any better introduction to the fascinating question of Falstaff’s role as a military entrepreneur.
I’m not sure that the author, Gary Sturgess, draws quite the right conclusion from the plays: “He may be a figure of fun, but Falstaff shows us that incentives matter.” A better conclusion might have been “state provision is usually burdened by inefficiency, but reliance on the private sector is usually tarnished by corruption and inevitably leads to the exploitation of the poor.” Still, at a time when all political parties are asking what are the services that must be provided by the state and what are those that can be contracted out in the name of “efficiency savings”, there is grist in the “lesson from history” that a state-run as opposed to a entrepreneurially-led army is a relatively new phenomenon in Britain.
My thanks to the polemical new journal Cambridge Literary Review for drawing my attention to the piece.

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