The Legitimation Crisis
The Legitimation Crisis by Jurgen Habermas.
This is Oldie-Moldie Marxist theory from the 1970’s.
It has never been more terrifyingly true.
What was once academic philosophy suitable for arguing about in the seminar rooms of Columbia, placing prominently on your table in a coffee house at Berkeley, or using to impress a date in Paris, is now grim truth.
Abstract theory is now concrete reality.
The legitimation crisis is a crisis in capitalism in which the lower class refuses to accept the authority of the state, or the authority of experts.
Legitimation is the acceptance of any kind of authority as being legitimate. It represents voluntary obedience because one ‘buys into the system’ and buys into the goodwill and expertise of one’s leaders. It is a standard trope in both Marxist and Non-Marxist sociology that legitimation is a critical element for societal survival.
Without legitimation, no one
A. Listens to authority on questions of public good
B. Obeys the law without the threat of immediate coercion
C. Pays their taxes or supports the state or
D. Works for capitalism
The 70’s Marxists had naïve hippie-level ideas about what a legitimation crisis would look like. They thought when workers stopped legitimating capitalism they would become left-wing. They thought when workers stopped legitimating capitalism they would become socialists. They thought when workers stopped legitimating capitalism the revolution would come.
The legitimation crisis came. It came for many of the reasons Marxists like Habermas thought it would come. The results were not what the Marxists expected.
Habermas saw at least two reasons that the working class would lose faith in capitalist authority.
1. Capitalists Justify Their Existence By Producing Economic Growth and Prosperity. Politicians Justify Their Existence By Guaranteeing Low Unemployment. When Economies Start Getting Worse Rather Than Better – The Credibility of the “Economic Experts” Gets Challenged.
The economy has grown fairly consistently since the Industrial Revolution, punctuated by regular crises like the Great Depression that were overcome. Real wages grew continuously from the Industrial Revolution until the mid 1980’s. Then the wage growth stopped. Globalization came. Jobs began to move out of the wealthy nations to the Global South. The industrial heartlands of the United States and Europe became devastated. Capitalism continued to provide growth and jobs for computer yuppies in information cities. The working class saw that big government was just going to let the jobs go to China and the migrants enter the country to take the rest of the jobs. Never mind the fact that those migrants would create vast numbers of jobs with their own investments and their own skills. The working class saw government that could no longer guarantee good jobs or high wages. Legitimation was shot.
2. The Environmental Problems of Capitalism Would Prove Intractable. This has certainly turned out to be true. No one really has a solution to global warming or the destruction of the oceans (or at least a solution to global warming or destruction of the oceans that would not require consumers to lower their level of consumption). As the environmental situation worsens, people adjust their expectations to a new reality that experts don’t really seem to be able to solve global problems. The result: Delegitimation.
* * *
Delegitimation did not make the working class all start reading Mao Tse Tung and marching on Washington to demand an end to the extraction of capitalist exploitation.
An angry working class does not suddenly start agreeing with latte drinking professors at Wisconsin-Madison. An angry working class starts opposing latte drinking professors at Wisconsin-Madison.
They start supporting people who promise simple forceful solutions to what the famous experts can’t solve. The experts talk globalized production? Fuck China. The experts talk globalized labor markets? Fuck Mexicans. The experts talk carbon taxes and shutting down dirty industry? Fuck Climate Change Liars. The news says we have to do what the experts say? Fuck the Media. The experts and the media say women need more power in the household? The experts and the media say we need more gender role flexibility? Fuck Women.
* * *
So how does a legitimation crisis play out in an era of coronavirus?
Since the experts have shown they cannot create jobs, high wages or growth, the experts are clearly not on “our” side. We don’t have to listen to them anymore and they are definitely allied with other forces like the Clinton Foundation who want to screw us over.
They want to shut down the economy and throw everyone out of a job because their computer says there might be a problem? Their computer screws up all the time. Their yuppies can work from home doing their computer coding. If you work at 7-11, or building houses, or fixing cars, you can’t work from home. They can stay rich staying home. We can’t.
So we are not doing anything they say. And that includes wearing no stinking mask. That includes going out for a beer when we want. And that includes no black lady or Mexican telling us when we can or can’t go into our grocery store.
Back when experts were trusted, when medical authorities told people they had to do something, people generally were willing to obey. People bought antiseptics for cuts and bruises, let doctors take their children’s tonsils out, and took their vitamins every day.
Now a security guard asks you to wear a mask before entering a crowded store, and you show them your gun.
The cost of delegitimation is going to be a pandemic that is going to be much more deadly than it needs to be.
And this is not the last global challenge where the experts are going to be disregarded – with horrifying
For More Information
Habermas, Jurgen. 1973. Legitimation Crisis. Boston, Beacon Press. This is a short but incredibly dense book. It includes complex discussions of the structure of culture, language, human discourse, political forms of representation and macroeconomics. The discussion presented here is a distillation of the arguments in one chapter, the chapter on “Economic Crisis”. Frankly, those are the ones I find convincing. The arguments about the debasing of public discourse are stimulating, but I am not convinced that public discourse has become debased in any way under modernity.