Legitimacy and Tradition

by The Webmaster

Guest contributor Rupert August looks at the concept of political legitimacy and its relevance for statehood

Legitimacy, is generally defined in a political sense as: “the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a régime”. In that sense then, it may be considered to be the means by which certain people or groups can have their will - be regarded as meaningful. If, then, we are to function in a kind of collective context, we must accept some form of legitimate authority to contextualise this co-operation. It is worth noting, however, that much of this is a matter of perception; the legitimising process is one part reality, and another (perhaps even larger) part image. Therefore, institutions which possess the means to promote, stifle, or alter this image could be considered legitimising institutions. For now this will not be a consideration, as we will assume that perception and reality are not distinct from one-another, but it will come up later. First though, in order to demonstrate why legitimacy must necessarily exist in some form, we will explore the hypothetical of a society without legitimate authority.

In this case, first it is necessary to establish that no preceding state of being can be considered to exist, as it would grant a legitimising tradition. All individual predilections may be pursued at will, because an individual desire requires no validation external to the person; but when these clash with the actions or desires of anyone else, the conflict cannot be resolved or mediated by any third party - for none possess nor may possess the authority to mediate. In addition, there can be no limitation by means of property rights, for no authority exists to enforce these, and so the property of each is what they can take and hold (in Hobbesian fashion). This leaves only negotiation of both parties, and force as methods of resolving the inevitable disputes. However, due to the fact that neither has any greater claim over the item or privilege in question, resolution by force seems the likelier option. Furthermore, although this may logically serve as a precedent for later dispute resolution; this is not possible without the granted authority of success, and so the instance must be reset each time. Curiously, this appears to be quite close to Thomas Hobbes’ formulation of the state of state: war of every man against every other man. In practice however, this cannot be, as it requires a population with no conception of either the past, or the future, and which is incapable of recognising hierarchies.

With the necessity of its existence in mind then, what forms of legitimacy exist?
Beginning with what we would typically consider to be the most primitive: authority of force. This represents the ability of the authority to legitimise its dictates through the threat of force - typically some kind of violence in response to non-compliance. Although this could take its most obvious form in small groupings, larger groups require more sophisticated means of force-based authority, such as a loyal bodyguard or army. This is, in the modern west, typically considered to be the most primitive form of authority, but is perhaps the easiest to attain as a starting point.

Then there is legitimate authority by consent: the form which seemed to most fascinate the early liberal thinkers, as it seemed to them to represent the only legitimate form of authority. The principle is rather simple: those whose judgements are given significance are seen as such because they have been granted their position by the consent of the body. This may be in the case of an agreement on a course of action to be carried out by an individual or body - whose authority extends only to a specified degree. Or alternatively, it may be extended to an individual or group without consensus on a particular action - simply that authority be invested. The former case may refer to the situation in the wake of a referendum, (particularly one which is legally binding) which is then passed on to a civil service, or other executing body to carry out. The latter meanwhile could be said to exist in the case of electing a representative, where there is no recourse to summon them at will to face an accounting of their actions; should they go back on their word.

The category of legitimacy by tradition perhaps needs the least explanation, being a continuation of the judgements of the past, or the methods by which judgements are taken. Even in the cases where this no longer applies in a practical sense. If one were living in the very early days of the Roman Empire, this would be the situation one experiences. All other forms of authority reside with Augustus, but the senate continues about its business with a certain amount of influence regardless - as  tradition demanded it. 

Finally the category of authority by status. This may take the form of either relevance through raw competence or charisma, or by proximity to power - biologically or institutionally. In practice biologically: this takes the form of a familiar relation (or sometimes an adopted relation), usually where a name is shared. Institutional status legitimacy, this is where an individual gains legitimacy through association with a legitimated group or organisation. This is typically used as a heuristic of individual competence, but is not necessarily so in the expected fashion, so it is worth distinguishing. For example: through the proxy of an unsure Chancellor of the Exchequer (or other similar minister for the economy), high ranking members of major banks, and the central bank may gain effective power over economic policy. Somewhat similarly, the head of the civil service will have a certain amount of legitimate input over policy; ostensibly with feasibility concerns in mind. However in both of these examples, this would be an expression of obfuscated power, so a formalised example would be that of the 2011 Italian Monti Cabinet of technocrats (or any other technocracy for that matter). Another slightly more complex form of status legitimacy exists however: one which I shall call status by symbolic occupation. This phenomenon is seen most glaringly in France and Byzantium, and does not apply everywhere - but functions as a legitimiser by occupation of (usually geographically) where power lies. The owner of Paris and Constantinople respectively have had a vastly disproportionate effect on the legitimacy of the claimants to authority, to the extent that; the July Revolution in 1830 functionally only took place in Paris, where Charles X theoretically (and quite probably, practically) still held authority over the rest of France, but was forced to abdicate regardless. Meanwhile, Byzantium ceased to exist as a coherent entity after the fourth crusade in the absence of Constantinople to bind the remaining imperial lands together. This is until Constantinople is regained, thus restoring the empire. Equally, this could apply to something less than a capital city, such as a throne or crown, but of course with somewhat less impact in most cases. 

With these different forms of legitimacy laid out, it is worth musing on the interactions that some of these have on one another. Although there may be one overriding source of legitimacy, there will usually be more than one present where authority is actually legitimately held.  It must be said that these represent only formal forms - informal forms will be discussed later.

The law, for example, is a contentious issue in its origin. It is indisputably backed with force, usually tradition, and according to proponents of social contract theory - with consent. Monarchies overall rely on the legitimacy of their status as part of a distinct lineage, and tradition, with force also a readily available legitimiser. 
Dictatorships meanwhile rely typically on a combination of their status of personal excellence (perceived or otherwise), and force.

Oligarchies are maintained by the status of their oligarchs (the exact status will differ depending on the character of the oligarchy), occasionally tradition, and can usually rely on force, but less so than the previous two forms most typically.

Democracy is legitimised by consent, and will exist under the pretense of its access to the authority of force, but in reality, its grasp on the means of the monopoly of force is the most tenuous. In particular, this is shown by conflicts such as those between the Interwar French army generals, and the civilian government. The civilian government feared the loyalties of the generals, and were thus hesitant to give them the means to hand the ability to use legitimising force over to a rival institution, such as a new government - perhaps similar to Napoleon’s return from Elba.

It cannot help but strike one that force is a staple of all cases. This is because the additional legitimisers are usually a construct which follows the establishment of an authority by means of force, at least in transitions between authorities, not necessarily in their initial founding. And so it is that maintaining their hold on the monopoly of force tends to be the primary concern of any authority, even though an authority may still be legitimate and able to give meaningful dictates without the ready availability of force. There are of course exceptions to these rules, such as that of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, wherein despite being at the top of the army command structure, the elected king could not necessarily demand submission by force, because the noble magnates could themselves raise and command armies larger than that of the king. 

Yet, even when these legitimisers are not present in the sovereign authority, they often still exist somewhere. The wider population might well have a distinct will, there will usually be men of excellence and prestige around, a tradition of certain types of rule will typically still exist, and of course - if the realm is itself a distinct and independent entity - the means of applying coercive force will exist. This is largely why a stable government tends to need a backing of force - if it does not, then use of force is the easiest route to power by other contenders for it. In particular: the republic of Turkey, and late Imperial Japan serve as examples for what can happen when authority is unsecured by force. In the case of Turkey, the armed forces have a tradition of serving the republic’s founding ideals, rather than the civilian government strictly, and thus toppled the civilian governments in 1960, 1971, and 1980 in overt coup d’etats, but have since intervened allegedly with soft coups in 1993, and 1997, and allegedly planned to do so in 2003, 2004, 2007, and 2016. Clearly this is not a tremendously stable situation, however the army has done little to shift the underlying governance, and has always defaulted back to civilian government. This has allowed the civilian government to erode the army’s power, most recently through purges of dissidents in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, and thus allow the civilian government to seemingly win out in the long term if the current trajectory continues. Conversely however, the Meiji constitution of Imperial Japan manifested in different ways throughout the course of the empire - wherein it began as a monarchy with significant aristocratic influence, transitioned into a parliamentary democracy in effect, with the accession of the sickly emperor Taisho, and transitioned further into what was largely a military governance under emperor Showa. The exact events and reasons for these shifts are much more complicated, but for our purposes, it is relevant to note that by the time of the ‘Taisho Democracy’, all four sources of legitimacy were functionally separate from one another; with the aristocrats of the Zaibatsus, the emperor, the civilian government, and the military, were all distinct pillars, despite all being formally beholden to the emperor. The military then underwent a process of subsuming each under its will in turn, often through circumstance rather than planning, but without changing the constitution to reflect the new reality. In both cases then, the multipolar situation has trended towards centralisation, but usually avoids a formal changes, relying instead on informal relationships.

Thus far, the categorisation of legitimate authorities has mostly been expressed in terms of formal arrangements, but things are seldom so simple. Consent, for example, is rarely universal, and democratic mandates are often muddled and confused; such that a government relying on consent alone will find itself quickly challenged as to the quality of its mandate. This is to assume no opinion formation, which itself is an ever present factor; not only in shaping consent for certain policies, but also in raising or lowering the perceived status of potential leaders. And then there’s tradition; so let me ask you a question, dear reader: would a strengthening of the executive in the US be in keeping with, or in contravention of tradition in US governance? It would be my judgement that it could relatively easily be argued both ways. If one were to adhere to the tradition of trends, then it would be traditional to increase the power further, but if one wishes to emulate the traditional structure of the executive as devised by the ‘founding fathers’, then diminishing this power would be a move closer to tradition. This argument does take place, when the appropriateness of certain executive actions is challenged by the opposition. Even in the realm of force, the picture is somewhat muddied, as both incumbent and opposition see their opponents holding the batons and rifles, metaphorically speaking. The reason these contradictions exist is not because the situation truly is so chaotic, but because it allows authority to legitimately be held while pushing in any direction deemed necessary at the time - consent already exists for it, those pushing in either direction can be raised or lowered in status, while certain elements of tradition are pushed to portray the change as a mere continuation. Or alternatively, the reverse can be applied to obstruct a trajectory, depending on how the legitimising institutions lean.

Within this framework, then, it becomes entirely possible to legitimise an authority which does not boast the qualities it claims or is credited with. The reasons for this can be many, but typically revolve around the preferences of a population (or other power centre) - who would typically rather believe their input is essential to the formulation of policy, or that theirs is the way it’s always been done and worked - rather than the alternative, that they are effectively under occupation by a bureaucratic or autocratic authority. In retrospect, the distinction is often clear, such as in the Second French Empire under Napoleon III (who held referenda to legitimise many of his policies), or the Eastern Bloc countries during the latter half of the 20th century, most of whom had parliaments and elections, but in the moment it can be more difficult to discern, as it would have no doubt been in those two examples. More insidiously, another reason that this misdirection may take place is to misdirect the anger at unpopular policies. Concrete examples of this are relatively difficult to come by, but as it is somewhat covered in Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, it must have been a known technique - reportedly practiced by Cesare Borgia. Similarly, logically it forms a staple of proxy rule and protectorate governorship, but I have no specific instances to cover.

So what might be some indicators that one is being presented with a differing authority than the one that actually exists? Well to cover these in a non-exhaustive fashion, partially because it varies so much based on the exact nature of the ruse: An authority by force that seems to provide punishment to transgressions either inconsistently or arbitrarily. A ‘tradition’ which contradicts precedence, whereby the contradiction is either gas-lit or ignored out of the public domain. A status is either non-unique or significantly aided by perhaps even seemingly reliant on other entities. A ‘consented to’ or ‘democratic’ mandate which does not match public opinion, seemingly often through restriction of the options available at the time of writing, rather than outright tampering. Or equally an aggressively partisan or one-sided presentation of an issue - thus stifling the free formation of opinion, if we are to hold such a thing up as an authority.

Perhaps finally it only remains to discuss these sources of legitimacy in terms of their desirability. In the present, at the time of writing, the most publicly preferable form of legitimacy is one of authorities through consent, but this has not always been the case, as we see in many 19th century and early 20th century elections - returning reactionary results and representatives. This was, of course, much to the disgust and disdain of the liberals and socialists who perceived the electorate as ‘voting against their own interests’, or even using it as a demonstration of their incapability to be responsible in their selections (seemingly without a sense for the irony). For example, the 1795 French Directory elections which returned an outright majority of monarchists, and nearly a quarter of the total body of “ultra” monarchists. This being in the wake of the anti-monarchist reign of terror and execution of Louis XVI, which one might expect to significantly diminish such sentiments (if for no other reason than demographics). Similarly, the history of the Rump and Long Parliaments during the English Civil War period - is, among other things, one of frustration at the representatives’ lack of republican zeal. Elections, and acquiring consent are also expensive means of generating legitimacy, especially when the claim can usually be quite reasonably be challenged in the absence of foul play. 

Force, meanwhile, is one of the least popular, but relatively reliable. Only relatively, because if it is only force available that gives a ruler his legitimacy - then he is one insubordinate commander away from his downfall. Precautions must therefore be made to ensure that the army (and other security forces) remain loyal, which is both a troublesome and costly enterprise. Both late Rome and the middle period of Byzantium suffered from the problems of securing power through force, which necessitated that the armies available to defend the empire be treated as much as a political kingmaker as a means of defending the empire. In the aftermath of civil wars in both cases, it is not hard to see why this would be a priority. In the more contemporary examples of Iraq and Iran, both countries maintained Republican Guards as a political insurance of their power - as much to counterbalance the influence of army generals as provide shock troops, but this will create potentially problematic tensions and rivalries where cooperation might serve the nation better in a time of war. 

Status is a point of amenability to the sensibilities of most eras, depending on the type of status - as few will challenge obvious merit too strongly, however most types of merit and status can be challenged, if only subjectively quite often. Such a system will also be unstable, as candidates will forever by trying to prove their superior claim by merit of their own qualifications. While meritocratic, this may result in frequent policy course-changing, and/or opportunities for system change for the sake of a stability that it much craved in its absence. 

This leaves only tradition then: by far the cheapest in terms of upkeep costs, and intrinsically stabilising when it is held as a central ethic. It is, of course, at the mercy of the tradition in question, and thus a tradition of demanding consent governance will take on the costs of such, but it allows, perhaps, a reduction in the consent elements in favour of a pure tradition. Examples of this can be found in the Holy Roman Empire under Habsburg rule, which gradually became a de-facto hereditary position, despite definitively not beginning that way. Likewise the transition of the Roman Republic under Julius Caesar and Augustus to a hereditary empire. Though for obvious reasons of avoiding conflict, the former example would be the better one. Tradition alone, then, represents the most civilised form of legitimacy, as it uses the least amount of cost to secure legitimacy, both from subjects and the authority alike, and until one party deviates from the duty of tradition, there is little scope for the instability of unrecognised legitimacy - thus allowing the pursual of higher aims, and preventing civil war. This is clearly an ideal of sorts, for it is natural to at least want to ensure some level of competency in the system, but pursuits to this end seldom yield a return, and serve to undermine otherwise stable legitimacy, which necessitates more resources to be diverted towards shoring up the authority. Therefore, although an ideal it may be, it must be considered an ideal which is imperative to achieving higher levels of civilisation.


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