Legitimacy is essential for the maintenance of any system of political rule. Attention has been given not only to the machinery through which it is maintained but also upon the circumstances in which the legitimacy of a regime is called into question.
Authorities exercise rights, sanctions, and other immunities and privileges, not because ‘authority’ originates in them, but owing to people’s belief in the source of base of their rights. The base or source of these rights is called ‘legitimacy’. Alike authority, power and influence also, in order to be effective, require legitimacy.
If there is no legitimacy, power and influence both are opposed and counteracted: authority is totally disregarded. It is legitimacy, which makes them effective and operational. Individuals, organisations, and institutions cannot have power and influence without having legitimacy, though all the three mutually may be reinforcing, even oppose each other.
Dahl regards it as necessary and economical. Leaders in democracies, usually espouse a set of, more or less, persistent and integrated doctrines, popularly called as ‘ideology’. It purports to explain and justify their leadership in the system. Leaders develop ‘ideology’ to endow their leadership with legitimacy and convert their political influence into authority.
It is far more economical to rule by means of authority than by means of coercion, power, or influence. Moreover, it is legitimacy which distinguishes coercion, force, and power from influence, persuasion and leadership. But exercise of force can be ‘legitimate’ against criminals, miscreants and rebels.
Legitimacy, according to Dolf Sternberger, is the foundation of governmental power. It is exercised both as consciousness on the part of government that it has a right to govern and with some acknowledgement by the governed that the government has a right to do so. Etymologically, ‘legitimacy’ is from Latin ‘legitimus’ which means ‘lawful’. During medieval ages, it meant constitutional role or order, conforming to ancient customs, traditions, and procedure.
Etzioni finds it as a source of satisfaction derived from participation in the organisation: the ability to justify. It is a belief that the structure, procedures, acts, decisions, officials and leaders of government possess the quality of ‘rightness’ property or moral goodness. They should be accepted as such irrespective of the specific contents of the particular acts, orders or communication.
The concept is as old as politics itself – from Plato down to Max Weber and Habermas. But the concept is not very much clear. It is opposite of usurpation, though all usurpers try to legitimise their usurpation as rightful occupation. Revolution or coup d’ etat may not necessarily be illegimate. If it is successful, it introduces a new principle of legitimacy superseding the older one.
Any means can be employed to acquire legitimacy. Recognition is not very necessary. Internal consolidation and acceptance by the people are, by and large, more helpful. However, even existing government may lose legitimacy by violating its principles of legitimacy. Leaders in every political system try to ensure that their decisions are widely accepted, not out of the fear of violence, punishment, or coercion but from a belief that it is morally right and proper to do so.
About obedience to the state, David Held proposed a continuum of seven types:
1. Coercion or following orders
4. Pragmatic acquiescence
5. Instrumental acceptance
6. Normative agreement
7. Ideal normative agreement
He likes to reserve types 6 and 7 for legitimacy. A legitimate political order is normatively sanctioned by the population. People follow rules and laws when they think they are right, correct, justified or worthy. There are some other explanations of legitimacy like ‘end of ideology’, ‘the one dimensional society’ and so on. By ‘end of ideology’ Lipset means a decline in the support by intellectuals, labour unions and left-wing political parties to ‘red flag waving’: end of class politics. It means ideological issues dividing the western societies are no more important.
Like Almond and Verba, Lipset affirms that there is a general consensus on political values, such as, equality, achievement and procedures of democracy, stability etc. Herbert Marcuse rejected it and propounded his thesis of ‘one dimensional society’. But both start with the appearance of political harmony in Western capitalism in the post-war era. In his book, One Dimensional Man, he finds that the cult of affluence and consumerism has created modes of behaviour that are adaptive, passive and acquiescent. All this is sustained by ideological and coercive forces. Then, political order is not based on genuine consent and legitimacy.
Differing from Weber, David Beetham in The Legitimation of Power (1991) develops a socio-scientific concept of legitimacy. Weber and others have emptied it of any objective reference and in effect acquiesced in the very manipulations of the powerful. One should go into its actual characteristics as a system of power. He highlights how legitimacy is brought about?
Accordingly, power can be legitimate if it fulfills three conditions:
(i) Power must be exercised according to established rules;
(ii) These rules must be justified in terms of the shared beliefs of the government and the governed, and
(iii) Legitimacy must be demonstrated by the expression of consent on the part of the governed.
Non-legitimate power, therefore, suffers from illegitimacy (breach of rules), absence of shared beliefs and delegitimacy or withdrawal of consent. It must not be the result of ‘ideological hegemony’. Otherwise, liberal democracy would turn into what Ralph Miliband calls a ‘capitalist democracy’. Education must not be reduced to a process of ideological indoctrination or mass media turning into a propaganda machine.
Antonio Gramsci drew attention to the degree to which the class system, as upheld by bourgeois ‘hegemony’, that is the ascendancy or domination of bourgeois ideas in every sphere of life. Thus the masses are deluded by bourgeois theories and philosophies. The proletariat remain incapable of achieving class consciousness and unable to realise its revolutionary potential.
As an alternative to the Marxist belief, ‘sociology of knowledge’ believes in thinking that the people can be traced back to their position in society and the social groups to which they belong. Each one of these groups has its own distinctive way of looking at the world. Ideologies are, according to Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), ‘socially determined’ and reflect the social circumstances and aspirations of the groups they live in.
Berger and Luckmann find in The Social Construction of Reality (1971) that everything that passes for ‘knowledge’ in society is socially constructed. Not only they see the world as it is but as they think it is, or as society tells them it is. Legitimacy is always a ‘social construction’.
Legitimacy can also be manufactured. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent (1994) have developed a ‘propaganda model’ of the mass media. They explain how news and political coverage are distorted by the structures of media itself. It operates through a series of ‘filters’ and at sources, advertisers, sponsors, agents of power, business-backed think-tank and the like. Mass media can subvert or deter democracy. They overlook the fact that the people have their own values and can resist media messages.
Legitimacy is essential for the maintenance of any system of political rule. Attention has been given not only to the machinery through which it is maintained but also upon the circumstances in which the legitimacy of a regime is called into question. This is popularly known as ‘crisis of the state’. There are two views: one, of ‘overloaded government’, and, two of legitimation crisis.
The first is held by Huntington, Nordhaus, Kind and Rose and Peters. Jurgen Habermas and Offer stand for the second. The former calls for measures of containment and control. The latter see dilemmas difficult but also look for decisive, progressive, and radical change. Habermas in his Legitimation Crisis (1975) points out that within liberal democracies there are crisis tendencies which challenge the stability of such regimes. There is tension between a private-enterprise and a democratic political system. Capitalist economy inherently makes democracy instable.
But David Held does not agree with them on three grounds:
(a) There is no empirical evidence that there is progressively worsening crisis of the state’s authority;
(b) State power is not eroding as its capabilities, resources and apparatuses remain intact; and,
(c) The state is not vulnerable to collapse or disintegration.
Political order is the outcome of a complex web of interdependencies between political, economic and social institutions and activities that power centres around. They create multiple pressures to comply. State power is important but is not the only key variable. State is deeply implicated in the creation and reproduction of systematic inequalities of power, wealth, income and opportunities. It enjoys sustained legitimation by groups other than those whom it directly privileges. However, only a political order that places the transformation of those inequalities at its centre enjoys legitimacy in the long run.