Friday, March 02, 2012

On stability and legitimacy

Consider the following passages from David Beetham’s The Legitimation of Power (1991):

…it is a notable feature of power relations that they are themselves capable of generating the evidence needed for their own legitimation. Thus the evidence of superiority and inferiority which justifies the inequality of condition between dominant and subordinate is itself largely the product of that condition. Those who are excluded from key positions, activities or resources are thereby denied the opportunity to acquire or demonstrate the capacities and characteristics appropriate to their occupation or exercise, so justifying their subordinate position. This is true even where relatively open processes of selection are at work, once the selection is performed by an educational system which is given the task of preparing children differentially for their respective future roles. Evidence about the fitness or appropriateness of people to exercise power thus tends to be structured by the relations of power themselves, and therefore to have a self-fulfilling quality about it.
The same holds true for demonstrations of the general interest. Once some necessary social resource or activity comes to be controlled by a particular group, it follows that the interests of society at large can only be met through satisfying the interests of that group, and on terms acceptable to them. (pp. 60-61)


The capacity of power structures to generate the evidence necessary to their own justification, and to reproduce the conditions of dependency from which consent to subordination is freely given, helps to explain how it is that their legitimacy can come to be widely acknowledged by those involved in them, the subordinate included. ‘Dominant ideology’ theories tend to put far too much emphasis upon the determining influence exercised by the powerful over the ideas of the subordinate, through their preferential access to the means of ideological construction and dissemination … The account offered here suggests a different kind of explanation: that both the evidence and the interests of the subordinate that the justifications advanced for the rules of power prove plausible to them within the given social context. Their plausibility can only be challenged from a position or standpoint outside that context, e.g. by comparison with alternative rules of power, or when social changes have come to undermine from within the evidence on which they are based. (p. 62)

I think this is pretty insightful, though I still want to take issue with it. Basically, what Beetham is arguing is that to the extent that subordinate groups willingly accept their position within large-scale systems of domination (e.g., to the extent that women accept a subordinate position to men in patriarchal societies, peasants to landlords in an agrarian societies, low-caste groups in caste societies, or for that matter disenfranchised people in a dictatorships or workers under capitalism) this is not primarily because they are duped by the propaganda of the dominant (the classic “false consciousness” explanation), but rather because the operation of the system makes the claims of the dominant – their claims to greater skill, intelligence, effort, care for the common good, etc. – generally plausible.  People will accept the propaganda of the powerful only if (and so long as) it is not obviously in conflict with their everyday experience; and a system will remain legitimate only so long as it works to reduce the gap between the lived experience of people in subordinate positions and the justificatory rhetoric of the powerful by producing systematic evidence that the claims of the powerful are plausible, even true, at least within the context of shared categories of interpretation (which may themselves be structurally biased to favour the views of the powerful). Moreover, given the plausibility of these claims, it will make sense for the subordinate to pursue their interests within the terms set by the system.

It is worth stressing that Beetham does not argue that this is always the case in every social system. Not every social system is experienced as legitimate; and those which are not experienced as legitimate are precisely those where the subordinate can perceive an obvious gap between the qualities or actions the powerful say justify their position and the qualities they actually have, or between the possibilities for pursuing their interests given within the system and possibilities obviously available elsewhere. Moreover, his argument only applies to large-scale social systems. Small-scale relations of domination could not systematically generate the evidence necessary for their own justification; they must “borrow” it from the larger scale system within which they are embedded. For example, in a highly patriarchal society the claims of men for their own position – claims based on education, experience, etc. that are themselves differentially allocated - will only be generally plausible to women; exceptions will abound, and within particular relations it will not always make sense for women to “accept” subordinate positions. (There are a lot of nuances and complications packed into the term “accept,” but let that pass for the moment). If women experience this system as legitimate, it will not necessarily be because of their individual “micro-experience,” so to speak, but because their understanding of “normative” facts (that is, their understanding of what is “normal”) tells them that in general women are less educated, have fewer of the relevant qualities for rule, etc., and that given those facts it will be easier to pursue their interests within the terms set by men.

Yet I think Beetham still puts too much stress on belief as a way to explain stability and pays too little attention to the constraints that opportunities for exit and collective action impose on these same beliefs. If anything, stability explains belief, rather than the other way around. To say that a legitimate system is stable, I want to suggest, is merely to express a tautology: systems of domination that are believed to be stable (even if this belief exists only because, for example, no one can coordinate large numbers on specific alternatives) will (most of the time) produce beliefs rationalizing the legitimacy of the system.

Consider the question of why repressive dictatorships invest so much effort in monopolizing the public sphere and policing the “attention economy.” The problem such regimes face is not that the majority of the people fail to believe the justificatory rhetoric of the rulers now (though they may or may not!), but that whatever they believe now cannot stabilize the regime in the absence of the regime’s efforts to monopolize the public sphere; if their justificatory claims were self-evidently true, they would not require policing the public sphere in the same way. These regimes can close the gap between their justificatory claims and the experience of the people subject to them only by credibly threatening to punish those who might want to break their monopoly over the discourse of justification. It is only when the system is believed to be stable – that is, when the threats to those who would like to break the state’s monopoly over the public sphere are deemed to be most credible – that people will be most likely to adaptively accept the claims of the powerful

One might also point to a number of experiments (ungated) that suggest that it is precisely when a constraint is experienced as inevitable or absolute that people are most likely to accept it, whereas when they experience the constraint as somehow not quite as absolute – perhaps because they see a way of changing it or resisting it that they are most likely to reject it.What matters causally, in other words, is the belief in stability rather than the belief in the justifications for the relation of domination; absent the belief in stability, the belief in the justifications also goes.  

Or consider the case of the dalits in India, as described in a short piece I came across recently by Shikha Dalmia. The caste system endures even where formal institutions do not enforce it; it is an informal equilibrium which the dalits themselves help to perpetuate. But why? Dalmia notes that an individual dalit will often do best by abiding by the rules of the caste system:

How? Consider Maya’s story.

Maya assigned herself to our house in 1977. We had no choice. If we wanted our trash picked up, bathrooms scrubbed and yards cleaned, Maya was it. Indians find dealing with other people’s refuse not just unpleasant, but polluting. Hence only dalits are willing to do this work, something that both stigmatizes them and gives them a stranglehold on the market. And they have transformed this stranglehold into an ironclad cartel that closes all other options for their customers.

When Maya got married at 16, her father-in-law paid another dalit $20 for her wedding gift: the “rights” to service 10 houses in our neighborhood, including ours. Maya has no formal deed to these “rights,” yet they are more inviolable than holy writ. Maya’s fellow dalits, who own the “rights” to other houses, can’t work in hers, just as she can’t work in theirs.

Doing so, Maya insists, would be tantamount to theft that would invite a well-deserved beating and ostracism by the dalit community. No one would help a “poacher” or attend her family functions like births, weddings or funerals.

This arrangement has guaranteed Maya a monthly income of $100 that, along with her husband’s job as a “gofer” at a government lab, has helped her raise three children and build a modest house with a bathroom, a prized feature among India’s poor. But Maya’s monopoly doesn’t give her just money. It also hands her clout to resist the upper-caste power structure, not always for noble reasons.

None of Maya’s employers dares challenge her work. Maya takes more days off for funerals every year than there are members in her extended family. Complaining, however, is not only pointless but perilous. It would result in stinking piles of garbage outside the complainer’s home for days. Every time my mother gets into spats with Maya over her sketchy scrubbing, my mother loses. One harsh word, and Maya boycotts our house until my mother cajoles her back. Nor is Maya the only sweeper, or jamadarni, with an attitude. All of New Delhi is carved up among Maya-style sweeper cartels and it is a rare house whose jamadarni is not a “big problem.”

This is consistent with Beetham’s story: Maya accepts her position within the caste system (to the extent that “accept” is the right word for what is going on, but let’s pass that over) because she finds that it is plausibly in her individual  interest to do so, though collectively this results in a bad outcome for all dalits, including social segregation, lack of mobility, etc. (Prisoner’s dilemmas everywhere!). But it is plausibly in her interest to accept her position because opportunities both for collective action to change the system and for exiting the relationship are thought to be unlikely; the collective action or exit constraint is prior to Maya’s first-order beliefs about her caste position, which would easily change if these collective constraints and exit opportunities changed, as we can glimpse near the end of the story:

Maya is resigned to such discrimination, but not her oldest son, 36. He holds a government job, works as a sales representative for an Amway-style company and dreams big. He is embarrassed by his mother and lies to his customers about her work. He makes enough money to support Maya and wants her to quit, but she will have none of it. She fears destitution and poverty more, she says, than she craves social respectability.

But the choice may not be hers much longer.

Upon retirement, she had planned to either pass her “business” to her children or sell it to another dalit for about $1,000. But about six months ago, municipal authorities started dispatching vans, Western-style, to collect trash from neighborhoods, the one service that protected Maya from obsolescence in an age of sophisticated home-cleaning gadgetry.

Maya and her fellow dalits held demonstrations outside the municipal commissioner’s office to stop the vans. They finally arrived at a compromise that lets Maya and her pals collect trash from individual homes and hand it to the vans for disposal. But Maya realizes that this arrangement won’t last. “I got branded as polluted and became unfit for other jobs, for what?” she wept. “To build a business that has now turned to dust?”

Her son, however, is pleased. He believes that this will finally force his siblings to develop skills for more respectable work instead of joining their mother. But Maya shakes her head.

And she might be right. Post-liberalization, the most dogged and determined dalits are able to escape their caste-assigned destiny and get rich. But for the vast majority, as Maya says, opportunities are better within the caste system than outside it.

Where does that leave us? If I had to make a grand claim – which I probably shouldn’t – I would suggest that relationships of domination are disrupted not so much because people come to reject the claims of the powerful, but because opportunities for exit or collective action become concretely available that make these beliefs dispensable. (Another example: the end of footbinding and infibulation. Link is to a superb paper by Gerry Mackie - ungated here).

[update 3/3/2012: fixed some really unclear sentences]


  1. Thanks - very interesting.

    I guess that in my mind sortition provides the opportunity for dispensing with the belief in the necessity, inevitability or legitimacy of electoral elitism.

  2. Or, to put this in the form of a question:

    If people only regard domination as legitimate as long as it is stable, then what maintains the stability of the electoral system? What is the reason that elections persist as being regarded as legitimate, despite the obvious fact that they put people in a state of subjugation to an electoral elite (and its allies)? Why do many (possibly most) people tend to instinctively, unthinkingly, reject sortition as an alternative?

    1. Forgot to click reply, so I don't know if you got my reply below.

  3. Hi Yoram,

    I'm working on a fuller answer to that kind of question (I have a paper in the works) but here's a sketch. Something like sortition may seem good in the abstract (seems good to me, though I'm not fully sold!), but you don't know how many other people are willing to work for it (it's not yet a concrete possibility) and most people tend to discount abstract arguments in favor of it ("better the devil you know" - I've called this "epistemic conservatism" elsewhere - check out some of the posts here So long as that's the case, the existing system will be believed stable - not so much because people normatively accept elections, but because elections are a solid default. If you ask them, they will come up with all sorts of rationalizations for elections; it will be only if there is a growing movement in favor of change, or if sortition appears as a concrete possibility, that they will seriously consider it. In other words, the vast majority of people are perfectly willing to rationalize elections because the claims on its behalf are plausible enough that, without a genuine possiblity of collective action, it makes sense to adopt beliefs in their legitimacy.

    Hope this makes some sense at least.

  4. > it will be only if there is a growing movement in favor of change, or if sortition appears as a concrete possibility, that they will seriously consider it.

    Makes a lot of sense - that would have been my explanation more or less.

    But then this seems exactly like a legitimacy effect: sortition (or any other unfamiliar idea) has to gain legitimacy through the perception that it is being supported by other people. (And of course, this creates a bootstrapping problem, where you won't believe something until others do, and they won't believe it until you do.)

    In term of stability, it seems that you are saying that the stability of elections is maintained through the cognitive or emotional costs of adopting a new idea. This, it seems, is exactly the kind of "false consciousness" effect that dominant propaganda is able to create, even without having any direct way of punishing dissidents or rewarding the loyal.

    1. I wouldn't call that a legitimacy effect. What's happening is that as the ideas become plausible alternatives, people can come up with reasons to support them, not so much the other way around (people becoming convinced of reasons to support them and then the ideas becoming plausible), though of course the process can happen in both ways.

      The "false consciousness" effect would come if there were some discourse of justification that was accepted even if alternatives are available. So I want to distinguish merely facing cognitive costs of switching (because, e.g., uncertainty about how sortition would work in practice, which can be quite rational) from a more powerful false consciousness effect that is induced by monopolizing the discourse of justification. I think the latter is rarer than the former.

    2. I agree with you that people tend to be motivated by practical issues. If a person has a way to improve their quality of life, they would find a way to rationalize following that way and other considerations would be easily overcome. In that sense, legitimacy is much over-rated.

      But the same practical considerations have different effects when collective action is concerned. In that case, the "legitimacy" - really the familiarity or popularity - of an idea becomes part of the practical considerations. Ideas that are unfamiliar or unpopular are not practical in the sense that they would be unlikely to be implemented.

      Therefore, for controlling public activity (but not for controlling private activity), monopolization of the public discourse is effective.