Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Irrelevance of Legitimacy - now as a working paper!

(This paper has now been published. The official version is available here, and an ungated version can be found here).
Sorry for the recent silence. I've been busy with administrative tasks, the beginning of the term here in the Southern hemisphere, and indexing a book. I've also been working on a paper: "The Irrelevance of Legitimacy":
The concept of legitimacy plays an important explanatory and normative role in political theory and political discourse. The idea is typically used both to explain the stability of a political order by pointing to acceptance of discursive justifications for that order, and to evaluate its normative appropriateness by comparing the conditions of the actual acceptance of discourses of justification to the conditions of their rational acceptability. The normative and explanatory roles of the concept of legitimacy are linked insofar as actual acceptance of justificatory discourses is usually taken to be (defeasible) evidence for their rational acceptability. I argue here that legitimacy (in the sense of acceptance of discursive justifications for political order) is generally irrelevant for the explanation of political stability: if anything, stability explains legitimacy rather than the other way around. Stability is in turn best explained by the way in which signals of commitment are generated through collective action, not by pointing to the individual acceptance of discursive justifications for political order. I illustrate the inadequacy of explanations of political order in terms of legitimacy by examining the phenomenon of cults of personality in totalitarian regimes, and raise some questions about the normative utility of the concept given its explanatory irrelevance. (Link to download).
I'll be presenting a shortened version of this paper at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting in Chicago on April 13.

Most of the arguments in the paper will be familiar to readers of this blog; in fact, many began life as blog posts (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here), though the paper ties them together and explicates them more carefully. Responses to these posts convinced me that there was something there worth researching more fully and discussing in more detail, and I want to thank readers and commenters for feedback and encouragement. Comments on the paper are also welcome; it is still work in progress (the final section, in particular, still needs a great deal of work, but every part of the argument could be tightened and subject to careful scrutiny, and will likely change a great deal before the paper gets submitted to actual peer review).

The main ideas of the paper were motivated by my dissatisfaction with the Weberian dictum (almost a cliche at this point) that power needs to be legitimated in order to endure. Though relationships of domination are often embedded within justificatory discourses, my view is that we cannot in general explain the stability of such relationships by pointing to the genuine acceptance of such justifications by the subordinate. (As I note in the paper, Weber himself seemed to be aware of this point, if inconsistently; he notes that all that matters for the stability of relationships of domination is that the claim to legitimacy be taken as valid, not that it be believed, and these are two very different things). To say that power needs legitimacy in order to endure is at best to say that power needs credible commitments in order to endure, and discourses of justification typically provide the language in which such credible commitments are expressed and measured; they are the form, not the cause of the stability of power. The title is nevertheless a bit of an exaggeration; a more appropriate title might have been "the limited relevance of legitimacy," since I admit that there are some conditions (primarily cases where exit or voice constraints on a relationship are minimal) where appeals to legitimacy have some explanatory and normative force, but I decided to go for broke. Anyway, I would be grateful for any feedback. Enjoy!

Your irregularly scheduled blogging will resume shortly.


  1. Hi Xavier,

    I still haven't gone through the entire article but I had the following thought regarding the function of the cult of personality.

    Maybe the main function of the cult of personality is as a filtering mechanism, allowing a venue for the ambitious and opportunistic to climb the ladder of influence and prestige by showing zeal in cult activities.

    Similar phenomena are exhibited in corporations, where one's willingness to go along with every twist and turn of the corporation's "culture" is used to filter those whose loyalty to the corporation is their first priority.

  2. Yoram, yes, that's one potential function. The problem is that flattery inflation can make it difficult for this filtering to occur - it's not always easy for people at the top to distinguish credible commitments from irrelevant flattery (see my post here: And yes, you do get similar phenomena in corporations.

  3. An expression of loyalty is sincere or credible when it is costly for the subject. Thus, like Veblen's conspicuous consumption, the actual activity is not important - only the fact that the there is a cost associated with it. The only irrelevant flattery is flattery that is easy to offer.

    In the corporate context, adopting odd jargon, attending long, boring meetings, or spending nights and weekends away from family and leisure activities proves that one is loyal to the corporation, no matter whether there is any use to those activities. In fact, the more useless those activities are, the more sincere (i.e., expensive) they are since they benefits the actor in no way other than as an expression of loyalty.

    1. Right - much activity there is signalling loyalty through self-imposed costs. The reference to Veblen is useful too.