Introduction: Characteristics of Legitimacy

Legitimacy is an awkward subject, because it does not exist by itself, it exists in a series of potentially shifting relationships. It exists within complex systems, with the problems involved in analysing those systems.

Legitimacy is not really a noun or a thing in itself (that usage leads to significant problems), it is a descriptor – some process, institution, custom, series of events, has gained some kind of ‘legitimacy’ somehow or other, and that legitimacy probably varies throughout society, throughout different groups, and probably has to be maintained in someway.

Early studies on legitimacy tended to focus on legitimacy of powerful organisations such as the State. In this case legitimacy essentially meant the ‘right’ of dominant people to be recogised and accepted in their dominance. The democratic move of the early 17th Century was based on the idea that at least some of the ‘ordinary people’ being governed should have to consent to the governing for it to be legitimate – legitimacy is inherently associated with ethics. David Hume, went as far as to imply the fact that the governing existed meant there was some consent, even if there was only the consent of fear and imagination, otherwise no one would follow the instructions. The consent of imagining implies a degree of precarity in the legitimacy of any institution, process etc.

More recently, these ideas have been generalised and legitimacy can be seen as form of ethical/political struggle in which a process, thing, or series of events, is made ‘legitimate’ in the sense it has some (enough?) significant support to function.

That could mean it has tacit acceptance, and I’m wondering whether we can avoid the idea that the legitimacy of something is a belief about that something, but lack of effective challenge?

It is possible that a group’s legitimacy to rule, may not be agreed to by the vast majority of the population, but the group claiming legitimacy holds effective violence or is ‘supported by’ social inertia – people can’t be bothered to get rid of them. The legitimacy of the group is not a belief for most people. In such a case a claim of legitimacy may be a claim that tries to make legitimacy, but is ignored.

People can adapt to events (reluctantly), rather than overtly resist them, so these events may again have little ‘legitimacy’ (in the sense the term is usually used) for many people. They are an expected order rather than an accepted or supported order. Legitimacy might then appear to be habits, or simply ‘expected order,’ even if the promised order is yet to arrive, as with communist or capitalist utopias.

Finally, institutions and processes etc can become sites of power struggles and conflict; they do not have to be uniform, or simply an abject tool of one class alone. Culture, information and ‘legitimacy’ does not have to be uniform within organisation, and this lack of uniformity can imply gaps of comprehension within that organisation, and the generation of fantasies to explain the gaps.

Legitimacy, Ethics, Delegitimation

Legitimacy of a process, institution, thing or series of events is, like ethics, a struggle to appear persuasive, right, virtuous, inevitable, effective and so on. Like ethics it affects, and is affected by: cosmology (whether it fits with the supposed working of the universe); is a familiar or established custom (that fits in with the cosmos or not); whether it allows whatever is considered ‘normal politics,’ and the supposedly ‘real’ relationships between groups to function – the strongest dictatorship is not without internal politics. Something’s legitimacy can also be enforced by power relations, by law as a symbol of power relations, and sometimes by violence or threat; To establish legitimacy, powerful people may try to render other plausible actions illegitimate, they will certainly exclude some people from real power. Although if an organisation’s legitimacy appears to be enforced by violence, it may also appear illegitimate in some circumstances. Like many other processes, what is used to attain it, can also undermine it. However, domination can appear legitimate, if it survives long enough. Yet again, if a group is growing in power, the systems that ignored it or held it down, may look increasingly illegitimate to that group and others, or the groups can be deceived and pull things down in a way that further disempowers them. Like ethics a change in context can change a process, institution (etc.)’s legitimacy for some people.

A process (etc.)’s legitimacy does not have an on/off switch, and may only rarely be agreed to by 100% of the affected population; as such it always carries the possibility of contestation. We may need to recognise that something’s legitimacy can always be partial – by using some more complicated term like ‘degrees of legitimacy’, or ‘ratios of legitimacy,’ although it is probably impossible to measure.

To repeat, the existence of ethical positions in a society, does not imply uniform norms throughout society and so we cannot appeal to these overarching norms as explanations for legitimating activity or legitimacy. That some process/insitituion is present and accepted may create any widespread norms, rather than be justified by them.

The recognition of, or achievement of, the appearance of legitimacy by a process (etc.), implies the possibility that it’s legitimacy may be challenged. Further, legitimacy is risked every time it is pushed, stretched or fails, or it could be open to destabilisation, from either (random?) ‘internal’ or ‘external’ events. Motion is not an addition to a ‘normal’ stasis or equilibrium. Processes are always in flux, and always have the potential to be self-undermining.

Legitimating activity may depend on ‘something’ else being declared illegitimate or unfavourable. There may be no binary, or dialectic here, with processes simply being either legitimate or illegitimate, they may have both characteristics in different degrees for different parts of society – making appeals to different group. We may need to think of (de)legitimisation processes as as intertwined, while recognising what it is that appears legitimating for one group may appear delegitimating for another.

The possibility of ‘de-legitimation’ comes with legitimation itself.

Delegitimising US Government

Legitimacy of a process (etc.) can be precarious and subject to quite rapid change. It was probably inconceivable, 2 years ago, that US election results would be widely disbelieved in the US, with the concurrent assumption that not only was the election illegitimate, but the Presidential results, and hence the Presidency, are also illegitimate. This suggests legitimacy can be broken by political struggle. How broken it is, we cannot know in advance, and still do not know, but it is not looking good.

Legitimating Trump’s claims requires the delegitimating of Biden, his party and the electoral system, while delegitimating Trump only require delegitimating him and his party, so the shock of delegitimation is even greater. But the struggle involves a lot of delegitimating of both ‘sides’, which adds to the legitimacy problems of the system, and hence reinforces the Republican position.

Supporters of the ex-president, assert both a) the moral superiority of Donald Trump over the ethical integrity, or legitimacy, of the whole electoral system, and b) their victimhood to the system. To those on ‘any other side’ such an assertion seems ridiculous, but it clearly appears likely to be accepted by a significantly large number of voters in the US and elsewhere, and almost certainly cannot be ignored with impunity.

It also shows that evidence, and argument do not have to be coherent, or detailed, for them to have an effect in some circumstances. The overwhelming, and growing, affective truth of the feeling that ordinary people in the US have little input into their government (are victims of the system), threatens the legitimacy of governance processes – the fact that Trump is called out as illegitimate, may only add to the effectiveness of his claims, as he is being pronounced illegitimate by a system which is losing legitimacy – and is felt to be oppressive which, in turn, delegitimises that governance in terms of US cosmology.

The context of the power struggles over government in the US has also changed over the last 20 years.

  • Corporations have become more dominant (because of wealth appropriation, and legal rulings magnifying corporate rights and political purchase) and ‘ordinary people’ have become more excluded through that extension of dominance producing a kind of ‘distant dominance‘.
  • The information ecology has changed radically, meaning it is harder to create community unanimity. It is also easier to manipulate people, create antagonistic information groups fueled by anger against ‘the others’, to keep revitalising positions with little real validity, and to add unspecified power to allegations the internet was involved in the fraud.
  • The economy, life and ecology have also become more precarious, partly because of corporate dominance and the pursuit of destructive methods of producing order and power.

All these changes in context, threaten established habits, customs ways of life, and the sustainability of the dominance which has created these conditions. This change possibly renders even extremely mild challenges to corporate power, like Joe Biden, something that has to be de-legitimized to keep that power going. So powerful people throw their weight behind it, sure of their ability to ride the waves, something which probably would not have been risked even 20 years ago…

Not only is the power struggle different, but the implied rules around what is permissible in power struggles have changed, and the context of struggles have changed. Results granting Presidency to one party have become delegitimised, and perhaps the whole system will come to share that fate.

This is a risky game for the Republicans, as their own legitimacy is challenged in the process but, from my position, it seems plausible to assert that when they win, which they will through stacked elections, vote prevention and threats to those who proclaim results they don’t want, they will attempt to enforce legitimacy through violence, threat and law (engaging in shadow politics), while proclaiming this violence is supporting liberty for their followers. This will probably render the system even more doomed, as it will suppress responses to real challenges, or even the recognition of real challenges.

Legitimation/Delegitimation Struggles and the Fossil fuel Industry

A similar dynamics could apply to fossil fuels. Their legitimacy is not only dependent upon a perceived need for cheap customary energy and exports, but upon the dominance of parts of the corporate sector, and a degree of ‘invisible violence’ – ignoring court decisions when appropriate, changing the law to allow continuance, changing regulation to make alternatives difficult, poisoning locals, disrupting or destroying ecologies, increased penalties for protest etc.. This legitimacy could theoretically slide as quickly as that of US elections, although established dominance is probably largely on the side of fossil fuels and profit at any cost. However, the gorwing explicitness of this siding may undermine the appearance of legitimacy, and other corporations may wonder about their survival and change sides on this issue, as with the Business Council of Australia recently going for emissions targets that 2 years ago it said would destroy the economy. Whether the announced change of the Murdoch Empire’s position in Australia is real, a smokescreen, or an attempt to minimise action, will be seen with time, as was their last supposed change.

One of my colleagues Devleena Ghosh pointed out that delegitimation is part of the process of change, not just when climate change, pollution or health issues, are used to delegitimate coal and gas in Australia, but in India. sometimes people will come in to villages to attempt, actively, to de-legitimise old modes of life, as when Indian villagers are told not to use cowpats as fuel. Unintended consequences may be generated (what happens with the cowpats, now?), which then become part of the process, and disrupt it.

To reiterate, legitimate/illegitimate does not have to be an exclusive binary. Coal can appear to be part of the expected order and to disrupt that order, and it is this ‘paradox’ that allows questioning to be generated. Going off coal will likely disrupt the expected order and legitimate order for some people. Saying, to those people, we have to change our lives and get off coal, merely proves this disruption to those people.

The Next part of this series discusses legitimation issues for Fossil Fuels in Narrabri, a country town in NSW.