Sunday, August 19, 2012

Status, Legitimacy

A Functioning Society, Peter Drucker

No society can function as a society unless it gives the individual member social status and function, and unless the decisive social power is legitimate power [..]

Social status and function of the individual is the equation of the relationship between the group and the individual member. It symbolizes the integration of the individual with the group, and that of the group with the individual. It expresses the individual purpose in terms of the society, and the social purpose in terms of the individual. It thus makes comprehensible and rational individual existence from the point of the group, and group existence from that of the individual [..] Lack of social status and function, and absence of a functional relationship between society and individual are at the bottom of every persecution of minorities which either are without social status and function—that is, not integrated into society [..]

[L]egitimate power can be defined as rulership which finds its justification in the basic ethos of the society. In every society there are many powers which have nothing to do with such a basic principle, and institutions which in no way are either designed or devoted to its fulfillment. In other words, there are always a great many “unfree” institutions in a free society, a great many inequalities in an equal society, and a great many sinners among the saints. But as long as that decisive social power which we call rulership is based upon the claim of freedom, equality or saintliness, and is exercised through institutions which are designed toward the fulfillment of these ideal purposes, society can function as a free, equal or saintly society. For its institutional structure is one of legitimate power.

This does not mean that it is immaterial whether non-decisive powers and institutions of a society are in contradiction to its basic principles. On the contrary, the most serious problems of politics arise from such conflicts. And a society may well feel that a nondecisive institution or power relationship is in such blatant contrast to its basic beliefs as to endanger social life in spite of its nondecisive character. The best case in point is that of the American Civil War when the chattel-slavery of the South was felt to endanger the whole structure of a free society. Yet the decisive power of antebellum America was undoubtedly legitimate power deriving its claim from the principle of freedom, and exercised through institutions designed and devoted to the realization of freedom. American society did thus function as a free society. It was indeed only because it functioned as such that it felt slavery as a threat.

What is the decisive power, and the decisive institutional organization in any society cannot be determined by statistical analysis. Nothing could be more futile than to measure a society by counting noses, quoting tax receipts or comparing income levels. Decisive is a political, and that means a purely qualitative, term. The English landed gentry comprised never more than a small fraction of the population; furthermore, after the rise of the merchants and manufacturers it had only a very modest share of the national wealth and income. Nevertheless, down to our times it held the decisive social power. Its institutions were the decisive institutions of English society.  [..]. Equally, laws and constitutions will rarely, if ever, tell us where the decisive power lies. In other words, rulership is not identical with political government. Rulership is a social, political government largely a legal category.

[One] example is that of British “indirect rule” in certain African colonies. There the socially decisive power is within the tribes. At least in theory the government of the white man wields no social power at all; it confines itself to mere police matters designed to support and to maintain the social organization of the tribes within a loose and purely normative framework of “law and order.” Yet, constitutionally, the governor and his council have absolute power.

Finally, it should be understood that legitimacy is a purely functional concept. There is no absolute legitimacy. Power can be legitimate only in relation to a basic social belief. What constitutes “legitimacy” is a question that must be answered in terms of a given society and its given political beliefs. Legitimate is a power when it is justified by an ethical or metaphysical principle that has been accepted by the society. Whether this principle is good or bad ethically, true or false metaphysically, has nothing to do with legitimacy, which is as indifferent ethically and metaphysically as any other formal criterion. Legitimate power is socially functioning power; but why it functions and to what purpose is a question entirely outside and before legitimacy.

Failure to understand this was responsible for the confusion which made “legitimism” the name of a political creed in the early-nineteenth century. The European reactionaries of 1815 were, of course, absolutely within their rights when they taught that no society could be good except under an absolute monarch; to have an opinion on what is desirable or just as basis of a society is not only a right, it is a duty, of man. But they were simply confusing ethical choice with functional analysis, when they said that no society could function unless it had an absolute monarch. And they were provably wrong when they proclaimed the dogma that only absolute monarchy was legitimate. Actually, after the Napoleonic Wars, absolute monarchy was illegitimate in Europe; the dynastic principle had ceased to be a legitimate claim to decisive power. The revolutionary half century before 1815 had resulted in a change in basic beliefs which made illegitimate any but constitutionally limited government. This change may have been desirable or deplorable; but it was a fact. The Legitimists might have tried to make undone this change in beliefs. They might have maintained that it would be better for the individual and for society to have an illegitimate absolute rule than a legitimate constitutional one. Or they might have invoked a “right of resistance,” of secession or of revolution. The only basis on which their claim could not be based politically was that of legitimacy.

Illegitimate power is a power which does not derive its claim from the basic beliefs of the society. Accordingly, there is no possibility to decide whether the ruler wielding the power is exercising it in conformity with the purpose of power or not; for there is no social purpose. Illegitimate power cannot be controlled; it is by its nature uncontrollable. It cannot be made responsible since there is no criterion of responsibility, no socially accepted final authority for its justification. And what is unjustifiable cannot be responsible.

No illegitimate ruler can possibly be a good or wise ruler. Illegitimate power invariable corrupts; for it can be only “might,” never authority. It cannot be a controlled, limited, responsible, or rationally determinable power. And it has been an axiom of politics—ever since Tacitus in his history of the Roman emperors gave us one case study after another—that no human being, however good, wise or judicious, can wield uncontrolled, irresponsible, unlimited or rationally not determinable power without becoming very soon arbitrary, cruel, inhuman and capricious—in other words, a tyrant.

For all these reasons a society in which the socially decisive power is illegitimate power cannot function as a society. It can only be held together by sheer brute force—tyranny, slavery, civil war. Of course, force is the ultimate safeguard of every power; but in a functioning society it is not more than a desperate remedy for exceptional and rare diseases. In a functioning society power is exercised as authority, and authority is the rule of right over might. But only a legitimate power can have authority and can expect and command that social self-discipline which alone makes organized institutional life possible. Illegitimate power, even if wielded by the best and the wisest, can never depend upon anything but the submission to force. On that basis a functioning, institutional organization of social life cannot be built. Even the best tyrant is still a tyrant.