Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Legitimacy destroyed

I'm taking the liberty of reproducing most of an excellent post by The Barefoot Bum on his blog about the subversion of legitimacy by unashamed naked power:

Legitimacy is coherent only in an agreed-upon context, such as national or international law. Having stepped outside the bound of international law, there is no context whatsoever to confer or deny legitimacy to any party in this conflict. The U.S. war of aggression in Iraq is more than just a deeply and thoroughly immoral activity. It is more than simply an illegitimate activity. It has actually destroyed the notion of "legitimacy" in international relations.

Even the first Gulf war, itself entailing deeply immoral activities (notably the refusal to accept Saddam Hussein's surrender and the subsequent "Turkey shoot", the slaughter of retreating Iraqi troops), still preserved at least lip service to the notion of international legitimacy through the United Nations. Clinton likewise nodded towards legitimacy.

The rule of even a bad law is preferable to no law at all. A bad law can at least be discussed and changed; but there is nothing to discuss, nothing to change, when pure power is on the march. At this level, everyone is operating directly from pure immediate self-interest, with no thought at all towards abstract or global principles. No one in this conflict, neither the United States nor any but a few naive cannon-fodder teenagers, is fighting for anything but what they sees as their narrow, parochial self-interest. America is fighting for global dominance (and, happily, losing); the Iraqis are fighting for at best sectarian power and at worst individual personal power. Or perhaps I should characterize sectarian power as at worst: The chief goal of this sectarian power seems to be the power to slaughter those of different sects.

Formal definitions of legitimacy emerge from a balance of power. There is no such thing as a priori or objective notions of legitimacy. Moral "legitimacy" (including my own use of "immoral" above) without any explicit, formal definition is nothing more than personal opinion. Formal legitimacy emerges from competing self interest when no one's self interest can dominate by pure power. We agree to be bound by laws (and, more importantly, police and prisons) to refrain from murder, rape, theft, etc. because we do not have the personal, individual power to protect ourselves from these objectionable activities. But if I feel secure that I can protect my own self interest with my own personal power, what motivation do I have for acknowledging the rights of others? Abstract notions of morality by themselves have never proven effective at motivating behavior.

It should perhaps be unsurprising that formal notions of legitimacy are being eroded not only in international relations but in our domestic law. Two things happened. We went from an economically "open" system to a "closed" system: Unrestricted economic growth is no longer possible, and thus physical human labor is losing its value. (Only a fraction of people are capable of "soft", intellectual productivity, which is still relatively open.) Secondly, the balance of powers has been upset, both internationally, with no strong state or alliance to balance the military power of the United States, and no economic or social power to balance ultra-wealthy Americans.

What bugs me as a moralist, but even more as an engineer, is the sheer stupidity of our current problems. The almost half-trillion dollars spent on Iraq could have been better spent researching alternative sources of energy and making Iraq's oil wealth far less important. Our economic and political problems are caused chiefly by over production: We're fighting - absurdly! - because we have too much wealth. Control over physical wealth is no longer a way to enslave and control people... and we don't even really want to enslave and control others: Who wants anymore to be murdered by his butler? In the United States, at least, our entire social structure is running on pure delusional paranoid schizophrenia.

At some point, at an appalling cost in blood and wealth, some new balance will occur, and we will again turn our attention to abstract notions of morality and ethics, and develop a new formalism of legitimacy. Until then, we are doomed to a brutal competition of self interest that would shock even Machiavelli.


The Barefoot Bum said...

A couple of minor points. It would be nice (and required) to link to the original article: Legitimacy.

anticant said...

Barefoot Bum - Apologies if you feel I've invaded your copyright. I would have emailed you for permission, but couldn't find an email address on your blog. Please send me one to




Emmett said...

/LEGITIMATION/ In the sense we are alluding here specifically is a constitutional concept. Philip Bobbitt writes in depth about the very-possible passing of the constitutional order, in /Shield of Achilles/ (2002)

The Barefoot Bum said...

It's ok, don't worry. I'm pleased that you liked my essay enough to reprint it.