Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Legitimizing the Regime

In response to my post on May 28th of recent comments by James Howard Kunstler in his Clusterfuck Nation weblog, a colleague wrote this:

"I certainly agree with Kunstler that suburbanization and sprawl has been an environmental and social disaster, and like him I am eagerly anticipating a return to sanity imposed by higher oil prices. But he is way off base when he says that the USA invaded Iraq so that Usanians could have gas to put in their SUVs. If all they wanted was gas for their SUVs, they would not have invaded Iraq; they would have had peaceful relations with Iraq and simply bought from Iraq the oil that they needed, which Iraq was very much willing to sell. Invading Iraq has actually had the effect of causing oil prices to rise because of the disruption of Iraqi production, so this war has actually inconvenienced SUV drivers. The real purpose of the invasion was to consolidate US influence, militarily and otherwise, in the oil-producing zone so as to have a veto on China's economic development, because China is dependent on Middle East oil. The idea is that by controlling Middle East oil the USA has China by the balls - or at least is positioned to grab China's balls at a moment's notice. That is a far more important consideration for the Usanian elite than cheap gas for the SUVs and minivans of the suburban masses. The elite does not need cheap gas. They have lots of money to buy gas at any price. Their concern is controlling the world, not saving money at the pump."

I think it is useful to distinguish between the aim or objective of US rulers in invading Iraq and their need legitimize their regime to the US populace. They seem to aim, as my colleague says, to "control the world" but they may need to "save money at the pump" to maintain the legitimacy of their regime with the suburban masses.

The following passages from The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A Tainter (Cambridge University Press, 1988) illustrate this distinction. The key words are the variants of legitimacy, which I've highlighted below. Square brackets contain the page numbers of the passages. Bill


The citizens of modern complex societies usually do not realize that we are an anomaly of history. Throughout the several million years that recognizable humans are known to have lived, the common political unit was the small, autonomous community, acting independently, and largely self-sufficient. Robert Carneiro has estimated that 99.8 percent of human history has been dominated by these autonomous local communities. It has only been within the last 6000 years that something unusual has emerged: the hierarchical, organized, interdependent states that are the major reference for our contemporary political experience. Complex societies, once established, tend to expand and dominate, so that today they control most of the earth's lands and people, and are perpetually vexed by those still beyond their reach. A dilemma arises from this: we today are familiar mainly with political forms that are an oddity of history, we think of these as normal, and we view as alien the majority of the human experience. It is little surprise that collapse is viewed so fearfully. [24]

Leadership in the simplest societies tends to be minimal. It is personal and charismatic, and exists only for special purposes. Hierarchical control is not institutionalized, but is limited to definite spheres of activity at specific times, and rests substantially on persuasion. [24]

Equality in these societies lies in direct, individual access to the resources that sustain life, in mobility and the option to simply withdraw from an untenable social situation, and in conventions that prevent economic accumulation and impose sharing. Leaders, where they exist, are constrained from exercising authority, amassing wealth, or acquiring excessive prestige. Where there are differences in control of economic resources these must be exercised generously. [24]

Personal political ambition is either restrained from expression, or channeled to fulfill a public good. The route to an elevated social position is to acquire a surplus of subsistence resources, and to distribute these in such a way that one establishes prestige in the community, and creates a following and a faction. Where several ambitious individuals follow this course there is a constant competition and jockeying for position. [25]

Native Melanesians often refer to such an ambitious individual as a Big Man. A Big Man strives to build a following, but is never permanently successful. Since his influence is limited to his faction, extending that influence means extending the size of the following. At the same time, the loyalty of his existing followers must be constantly renewed through generosity. Herein lies a tension: as resources are allocated to expanding a faction, those available to retain previous loyalties must decline. As a Big Man attempts to expand his sphere of influence, he is likely to lose the springboard that makes this possible. Big Man systems contain thus a built-in, structural limitation on their scope, extent, and durability. [25]

Other simple societies are organized at higher levels of political differentiation. There are true, permanent positions of rank in which authority resides in an office, rather than an individual, and to which inhere genuine powers of command. Chiefly rank is often hereditary, or nearly so. [25]

The authority to command in such chiefdoms is not unrestrained ... Claims of followers obligate a chief to respond positively to requests. Chiefly generosity is the basis of politics and economics: downward distribution of amassed resources ensures loyalty. [25]

Chiefly ambitions, like those of Big Men, are thus structurally constrained. Too much allocation of resources to the chiefly apparatus, and too little return to the local level, engender resistance. [26]

States contrast with relatively complex tribal societies (for example, chiefdoms) in a number of ways. In states, a ruling authority monopolizes sovereignty and delegates all power. The ruling class tends to be professional, and is largely divorced from the bonds of kinship. This ruling class supplies the personnel for government, which is a specialized decision-making organization with a monopoly of force, and with the power to draft for war or work, levy and collect taxes, and decree and enforce laws. The government is legitimately constituted, which is to say that a common, society-wide ideology exists that serves in part to validate the political organization of society. [26]

Despite an institutionalized authority structure, an ideological basis, and a monopoly of force, the rulers of states share at least one thing with chiefs and Big Men: the need to establish and constantly reinforce legitimacy. In complex as well as simpler societies, leadership activities and societal resources must be continuously devoted to this purpose. Hierarchy and complexity, as noted, are rare in human history, and where present require constant reinforcement. No societal leader is ever far from the need to validate position and policy, and no hierarchical society can be organized without explicit provision for this need. [27]

Legitimacy is the belief of the populace and the elites that rule is proper and valid, that the political world is as it should be. It pertains to individual rulers, to decisions, to broad policies, to parties, and to entire forms of government. The support that members are willing to extend to a political system is essential for its survival. Decline in support will not necessarily lead to the fall of a regime, for to a certain extent coercion can replace commitment to ensure compliance. Coercion, though, is a costly, ineffective strategy which can never be completely or permanently successful. Even with coercion, decline in popular support below some critical minimum leads infallibly to political failure. Establishing moral validity is a less costly and more effective approach. [27]

Complex societies are focused on a center, which may not be located physically where it is literally implied, but which is the symbolic source of the framework of society. It is not only the location of legal and governmental institutions, but is the source of order, and the symbol of moral authority and social continuity. The center partakes of the nature of the sacred. In this sense, every complex society has an official religion. [27]

The moral authority and sacred aura of the center not only are essential in maintaining complex societies, but were crucial in their emergence. One critical impediment to the development of complexity in stateless societies was the need to integrate many localized, autonomous units, which would each have their own peculiar interests, feuds, and jealousies. A ruler drawn from any one of these units is automatically suspect by the others, who rightly fear favoritism toward his/her natal group and locality, particularly in dispute resolution. [27-28]

The solution to this structural limitation was to explicitly link leadership in early complex societies to the supernatural. When a leader is imbued with an aura of sacred neutrality, his identification with natal group and territory can be superseded by ritually sanctioned authority which rises above purely local concerns. An early complex society is likely to have an avowedly sacred basis of legitimacy, in which disparate, formerly independent groups are united by an overarching level of shared ideology, symbols, and cosmology. [28]

Sacred legitimization provides a binding framework until real vehicles of power have been consolidated. Once this has been achieved the need for religious integration declines, and indeed conflict between secular and sacred authorities may thereafter ensue. Yet ... the sacred aura of the center never disappears, not even in contemporary secular governments. Astute politicians have always exploited this fact. It is a critical element in the maintenance of legitimacy.

Despite the undoubted power of supernatural legitimization, support for leadership must also have a genuine material basis. Easton suggests that legitimacy declines mainly under conditions of what he calls 'output failure'. Output failure occurs where authorities are unable to meet the demands of the support population, or do not take anticipatory actions to counter adversities. Outputs can be political or material. Output expectations are continuous, and impose on leadership a never-ending need to mobilize resources to maintain support. The attainment and perpetuation of legitimacy thus require more than the manipulation of ideological symbols. They require the assessment and commitment of real resources, at satisfactory levels, and are a genuine cost that any complex society must bear. Legitimacy is a recurrent factor in the modern study of the nature of complex societies, and is pertinent to understanding their collapse. [28]

As long as elites must rely on force to ensure compliance, much of their profit will be consumed by the costs of coercion. [36]

All official ideologies incorporate the thesis that the structure of government serves the common good ... Some delivery on this promise is essential. Legitimizing activities must include real outputs as well as manipulation of symbols, and where they don't, costly and unprofitable investments must be made in coercive sanctions. Claessen makes the point that, in order to secure loyalty, rulers need return as gifts to the populace only a fraction of what has been secured in taxes or tribute. [37]

Rulers must constantly legitimize their reigns. Legitimizing activities include such things as external defense and internal order, alleviating the effects of local productivity fluctuations, undertaking local development projects, and providing food and entertainment (as in Imperial Rome) for urban masses. In many cases the productivity of these legitimizing investments will decline. Whatever activities a hierarchy undertakes initially to bond a population to itself (providing defense, agricultural development, public works, bread and circuses, and the like) often thereafter become de rigueur, so that further bonding activities are at higher cost, with little or no additional benefit to the hierarchy. [116-117]

This point may require clarification. Consider the situation of a hierarchy that must invest in legitimizing activities among a politically potent but minimally compliant segment of the population. Once this population segment has become accustomed to any pattern of increasing investment in legitimization, continuance of this trajectory is necessary to maintain the compliance status quo. Increased investment in legitimizing activities brings little or no increased compliance, and the marginal return on investment in legitimization correspondingly declines. [117]

The appeasement of urban mobs presents the classic illustration of this principle. Any level of activities undertaken to appease such populations - the bread and circuses syndrome - eventually becomes the expected minimum. An increase in the cost of bread and circuses, which seems to have been required in Imperial Rome to legitimize such things as the accession of a new ruler or his continued reign, may bring no increased return beyond a state of non-revolt. Rewards to Roman military personnel would often follow the same pattern, particularly when bounties were granted upon a ruler's accession. Roman soldiers regarded such bounties as a right. [117]

The alternative course is to reduce legitimizing activities and increase other means of behavioral control. Yet in such situations, as resources committed to benefits decline, resources committed to control must increase. Although quantitative cost/benefit data for such control systems are rare, it seems reasonable to infer that as the costs of coercion increase, the benefits (in the form of population compliance) probably do not grow proportionately. In the United States from 1960 to 1973, for example, an increase in total crime of 258 percent required a rise in law enforcement expenditures of 332 percent. Thus the marginal cost of coercion increases, and the marginal return declines. [117]

These remarks are not meant to suggest that social evolution carries no benefits, nor that the marginal product of social complexity always declines. The marginal product of any investment, declines only after a certain point; prior to that point benefits increase faster than costs. Very often, though, societies do reach a level where continued investment in complexity yields a declining marginal return. At that point the society is investing heavily in an evolutionary course that is becoming less and less productive, where at increased cost it is able to do little more than maintain the status quo. [117]

Bill Totten


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