Friday, June 24, 2011

The Irrelevance of Legitimacy

(As I intimated a while ago, I’ve grown weary of the concept of legitimacy. This is an experiment in thinking about how one might understand political life without recourse to this idea, or with a very different version of it).

Both everyday and academic explanations of uprisings and revolutions tend to make heavy use of the concept of legitimacy. For example, a common argument suggests that some of the regimes of the Middle East (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya) collapsed in part because they had long forfeited their legitimacy due to the abusive ways in which they treated their own people, whereas others (Morocco, the absolute monarchies of the gulf) are likely to weather the current crisis because their governments are still considered legitimate by the majority of their populations. (A very sophisticated version of this argument can be found in this piece by Jack Goldstone). More generally, I often come across arguments for the view that some action or discourse “legitimates” certain forms of power and thus helps sustain it, or conversely that the breakdown of particular power relations can be explained (at least in part) by pointing to the fact that people have ceased to consider them “legitimate.” Yet I find most of these explanations for the maintenance or breakdown of regimes unsatisfactory. They seem to amount to little more than saying that regimes (or, more generally, relations of domination) endure so long as they are accepted by the ruled, and when they are not, they don’t. But this is not obviously true.

For one thing, it is not empirically clear that “acceptance” needs to be very deep to sustain many forms of domination and oppression. Consider the variety of ways in which we might say that someone accepts their domination. For example, a person might sullenly submit to some oppressive institutional order because of his or her inability to imagine a different one; or (more commonly) because of his or her inability to mobilize collective action in favor of some alternative order (they face a coordination problem); or because despite the fact that a different institutional order would be better for a large group, it is individually “rational” for individuals to defect from collective efforts to change the current institutional order (they face a standard “prisoner’s dilemma”); or because the institutional order so shapes his or her interests and identity that they find challenges to the order against their “long-run” interests (their interests and those of the order are ultimately aligned, though they still think of themselves as oppressed); or (very rarely) because they think that the institutional order that dominates them is right and just. Many obviously oppressive social orders are not believed to be right and just by majorities of the dominated and yet they endure for a very long time, at least if we believe studies like James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance or Weapons of the Weak, which thoroughly document the fact that peasants in many agrarian societies do not come to accept their domination as rightful and just in any sense. The same is true of most authoritarian regimes, where preference falsification is often rampant, as I indicated in passing in my cults of personality post. Yet it is also clear that many people in such orders also accept their domination in a loose sense of the term: they conform publicly, they vote, they don’t rebel, they even contribute to the maintenance of the oppression by denouncing others or taking advantage of opportunities to climb the social ladder at the expense of others, and so on. Should we say that these social orders are considered “legitimate”? I say no: they should not be considered legitimate in any empirically relevant sense (let alone in any normatively relevant sense, but that’s another story).

The basic (and probably correct) intuition behind the use of the concept of legitimacy to explain the endurance of oppressive regimes or social relations is the idea that power – and more specifically, relationships of domination - cannot normally be sustained by private incentives (payments and threats) alone; “something more” is necessary if domination is to endure for any length of time. Domination is involved in relationships that are typically contrary to the interest of at least one of the parties, and hence it is likely to be resisted whenever the opportunity presents itself. Domination thus often requires repression to sustain the relationship, but repression is costly and often ineffective over the long run if the relationship is supposed to induce the cooperation of the dominated in some productive endeavour; hence domination needs to be “legitimated,” i.e., needs to be based on a set of shared and relatively stable beliefs that enable those who benefit from relationships of domination to direct the actions of those who are in subordinate positions with a minimum of repression even when such direction is against the interests of the latter. When domination is actually sustained in the long run, the argument goes, it must be because those who are dominated somehow accept their domination, however grudgingly, and in particular because they believe certain things about the people or institutions that dominate them (e.g., that the powerful have a “right” to command, or that they have a special sort of charisma, or that certain institutions represent the natural order of things). Conversely, if domination breaks down, then it must be because the dominated have stopped believing these things. (Note that I am talking here about “empirical” legitimacy, not “normative” legitimacy: I am interested in the role the concept of legitimacy plays in explaining domination, not in whether particular relationships of domination are legitimate in some interesting normative sense. Empirical legitimacy claims to be about the beliefs that people actually do have, not about the beliefs that they ought to have).

But this general understanding of how domination requires legitimacy is, I suspect, incorrect or at least fundamentally confused. Though belief may on occasion help sustain domination, the idea that domination is always sustained by (shared) belief is not true. At the very least, the majority of the mechanisms that sustain relationships of domination over the long run are not reducible to beliefs in the rightness or charisma or naturalness of certain people or institutions. For example, we ought to distinguish between a belief in a lack of alternatives (which may make people sullenly conform to a social order they deem oppressive), and a belief in the rightness of a social order, or between the idea that some of the mechanisms through which people are dominated are “hidden” and the idea that these power relationships are considered to be legitimate.

In order to make some progress on thinking about this problem, it may be useful to take a somewhat lengthy detour into Max Weber’s Economy and Society, where Weber rigorously tries to define the idea of empirical legitimacy in order to explain what constitutes a “social order” or a regularity of social action (feel free to skip the next 3-4 paragraphs if this is not your cup of tea). This is still the standard understanding of legitimacy in the social sciences (though it is not the only possible one, other conceptualizations of legitimacy typically draw on it), so it is worth examining in some detail (and improving on it, if possible). At the very beginning of the work, Weber analyzes how different sorts of reasons for action (“micromotives,” to use Schelling’s term) give rise to and disrupt different kinds of social order (“macrobehaviors” or patterns of social action). According to him, there are only three kinds of social order (I draw here on Habermas’ interpretation of Weber’s thought in his Theory of Communicative Action, especially I.ii.1, pp.157-185 and I.ii.4, pp. 254-271; the relevant passages of Weber are mostly in Economy and Society I.i, especially sections 4-6):

  1. In habitual orders, social regularities emerge and are kept in existence through the unthinking inertia of everyday activity (“habitual action”); reasons do not play a motivating role in their creation. Such orders are not stable, however, to the introduction of reflection; when people think about what they are doing, they may sometimes act differently, transforming their social order into an interest-based or a legitimate order.
  2. In interest-based orders (such as markets, though Weber does not think that markets are sustained purely by interest), social regularities emerge from the mutual adjustment of the activities of more or less instrumentally rational actors engaging in tactical and strategic activity in pursuit of their various interests. Reasons here play a motivating role in the emergence of social regularities, but only privately: each actor has his or her own (different) reasons for acting as he or she does in pursuit of his or her interests, yet social regularities still emerge from the private adjustments each actor makes to his or her behavior in light of the actions of others. In modern game-theoretic terms, the social order is an equilibrium of some game, given people’s (potentially heterogeneous) private incentives for action. Weber thinks, however, that pure interest-based orders are generally unstable, and are thus often stabilized by what we might call “shared” or “public” reasons, which transform interest-based orders into “legitimate” orders properly speaking.
  3. In legitimate orders social regularities emerge from the shared acceptance by agents of certain reasons for action or inaction. These reasons are usually understood as normative constraints on the kinds of courses of action that agents might privately consider, such as for example beliefs about the validity, justice, fairness, or virtue of particular actions or norms. Here reasons produce social regularities not through their being held privately (as in interest-based orders) but through their being shared or “public” reasons that can rule out of bounds or override, so to speak, certain kinds of private reasons for action (e.g., reasons to revolt). Weber goes further and identifies three basic ideal kinds of legitimate order: the traditional order, where the legitimating reasons refer to the supposed naturalness of an institution (people fail to imagine alternatives; this is the legitimate equivalent of a habitual order); the charismatic order, where the legitimating reasons refer to the special qualities of a person or persons from whom rules issue; and the legal-rational order, where the legitimating reasons refer to the special qualities of a set of rules (which can themselves be used to generate further rules). These ideas are rather abstract, but the basic point is, I think, generally comprehensible. In a traditional order, when one asks the question “why do you obey/submit/follow somebody’s commands?” the expected answer is “because that is the way we do things here” (not “because otherwise I will be beaten over the head with that stick”). Similarly, in a charismatic order, the expected answer is “because my leader or messiah told me,” and in a legal-rational order the expected answer is “because (other) rules authorize it” or “because the rules are just (i.e., in accordance with the rules or principles of justice).”

But what does it mean for reasons for action to be shared or public? The obvious interpretation (and the one that Weber seems to prefer) is that reasons are shared and public to the extent that many agents believe the same thing about why they or their rulers should or should not act in particular ways. In game-theoretic terms, we might say that in legitimate orders social order emerges not from the private adjustment of behavior by participants in a game according to their private reasons for action (the expected "utility" they might derive from acting in one way rather than another), but from the shared beliefs of participants about the rules of the game, which limit the strategies available to them: a legitimate order is simply one in which enough participants accept the rules of the game as rules (and not merely as constraints imposed on them by the action of others in equilibrium). Empirical legitimacy enables a social order to economize on coercion both by consistently narrowing the range of the possible strategies open to actors and by clearly signaling any violations of the  rules (and hence enabling violators to be more easily punished). This sort of legitimacy is also conceptually related to trust: a government that is illegitimate is one that violates the (shared) rules consistently enough to lose the trust of the population.

One might want to say that to the extent that some people believe in the legitimacy of a social order (that is, believe that the rules structuring the social order, or the persons who have authority to produce such rules, are somehow the right rules, or the right persons), that social order will be made more “resilient” to changes in the habits or private reasons people may or may not have for conforming to the demands of the social order in question (e.g., rewards/penalties and the probability of physical punishment for nonconformity). How else should we explain the enormous investment that dominant groups make in the deployment of what we might call (I’m trying to use this term neutrally) “ideological” resources (persuasive arguments, sophistic arguments, propaganda, cults of personality, the mobilization of scientific or other authoritative discourses to “naturalize” certain institutions or practices, etc.)? How else should we think of these efforts to “legitimate” particular social orders, if not by seeing them as efforts to change people’s beliefs (by means fair or foul, good-faith persuasion or underhanded manipulation) so that they conform better to a particular social order? But then: should we really say that when Robert Mugabe holds a rigged election in Zimbabwe, for example, he is attempting to legitimate his rule?

The key to a different understanding of this problem lies in taking seriously the idea that supposedly “legitimating” beliefs are shared. What matters for (what we normally call) charismatic legitimacy, for example, is less the belief that some particular person is a demigod but that this particular answer to the question “why do you submit/obey/do X/etc.?” becomes expected in some group, and that not giving the expected answer singles one out for sanctions, exclusion, and other bad things. And just as we can have the spectacle of charismatic legitimacy without charisma, we should be able to see legal-rational “legitimacy” in the midst of corruption, or (I suspect) traditional “legitimacy” even when there is widespread awareness of the newness of tradition. Legitimacy is thus underpinned primarily by signals, not beliefs: those who do not provide the appropriate answer in the right circumstances (or rather, those who do not provide a credible answer) identify themselves as violators. Even the corrupt bureaucrat gives lip service to the law, whatever he or she may believe privately, and the irreligious king still takes seriously the traditional liturgical forms.

“Legitimate” social orders thus function like a signaling system in which rulers and ruled, dominator and dominated, both provide (credible) signals of their commitment to particular rules or persons or existing practices; and insofar as the system “works” it produces authority, i.e., it identifies certain people or rules or forms of speech as precisely those people or rules or forms of speech that one is expected (by other people subject to the social order) to follow or use in particular circumstances. But “credible” signals are not always “true” signals; that a signal – a particular answer to the question, “why do you submit/obey/ do X?” – is taken as credible by a relevant receiver does not mean it actually reflects some deep belief about the rightness or justice of the system (though it of course may). Credibility in a signaling system may be achieved in many ways, only some of which involve any sort of belief in the content of the signals.

What matters [for explanations of social change] are the conditions under which alternative legitimacy claims can emerge as focal points for new signaling systems, or under which the signaling equilibrium is disrupted. Here traditional explanations based on legitimacy have somewhat more to say: there are many common conditions under which, for example, the failure of authorities to demonstrate a credible commitment to norms of justice to which a population is committed produces anger and in turn triggers activities that reduce the costs of coordinating signals of commitment to a different social order (a different set of rules or persons). And from this point of view, “ideological” investments (or such practices as blatantly rigged or fraudulent elections, or unbelievable cults of personality) are thus useful not so much because they make people believe in the rightness or special qualities of particular people or institutions, but because they prevent the emergence of alternative focal points for legitimacy claims - e.g., because they destroy the common knowledge necessary for collective action, or because they are too salient for other foci of collective justification to easily emerge (they colonize public space).

But if this analysis is even partially correct, then it seems to me that legitimacy in the traditional sense (as beliefs in the rightness of people or institutions) is irrelevant to the explanation of political phenomena such as revolutions. Legitimacy still matters normatively – we want to live under social orders that are just or fair – but not so much for explaining social change. 


  1. The point Steven Pinker makes in this "drawing talk" embedded here about the difference between individual and mutual knowledge seems relevant to your expectations-about-rules analysis. As is his wider point about direct and veiled communication.

  2. Thanks for the link Lorenzo.