Strakon Lights Up, No. 30

A new legitimacy,
gray as steel

I turn the question of legitimacy over and over in my mind. In SLU No. 28 — "America sleeps with the fishes," March 24 — I asked why most Americans continue to consider the regime legitimate. I left the question hanging, proposing only that the answer to it might be frightening.

To my knowledge, all political philosophers who have confronted the question agree that the idea of legitimacy is a crucial "labor-saving device" for a political regime. In The State, Franz Oppenheimer portrays nomadic horsemen initially raiding and slaughtering communities of unarmed farmers but eventually deciding to rationalize the process by overthrowing the farmers' traditional tribal elders, settling down among them, and converting them into peasants to be milked on a long-term, systematic basis. Oppenheimer regarded that emergent system as the primordial state. Further rationalization was in order, though, so that the new ruling class of human wolves could catch forty winks without always having to keep one hand on their sword. They manipulated myth and superstition, created dazzling ceremonies and regalia, and eventually cozened their victims into accepting the new idea of legitimacy. It was right for the lupine shepherds to shear and for the sheep to be shorn.

American republican institutions — transmuting, or degenerating, over time into democratic institutions — lifted the notion of legitimacy to a new level and provided a new, stable foundation upon which a great state apparatus might be erected. The ancient, now unbelievable, superstition of divine right was dropped. Politically, God was dead, and vox populi was claimed to be the equivalent of vox dei.

To be sure, so-called republican institutions also relied on myth and superstition. In Indispensable Enemies, the populist historian Walter Karp traces the fundamental corruption of the republic to the rise of the major-party cartels and contends that, owing to a system of inter-party collusion, contested elections in most of the country came to be a sham or were even prevented from occurring; and that in legislative chambers, collusion blocked genuine reform and muted the people's voice. Unlike Karp, I believe that that state of affairs represents the natural evolution of the American system; in any case, during the republican era most Americans ignored the reality and believed the myth. [Here is my review-essay on Karp's book.]

Now the myth of republicanism, or democracy if you prefer, is wearing so thin it's becoming invisible to anyone with normal vision. It is apparent that less and less of importance is decided by elections — except perhaps by the presidential election, where a single vote has the least chance of affecting the outcome of any vote for any office and is the most obviously ceremonial. The states — those so-called laboratories of federalism — have become little more than administrative provinces of the Central Government, which exerts a totalitarianism so pervasive that it decides the volume of our toilet tanks and forbids every mother from cradling her baby in her arms while riding in a car. And fewer Americans want to have anything to do with politics.

Or do they? Fewer may bother to vote, fewer young people may express an interest in a political career, and fewer Americans in general may be able to take seriously old republican ceremonies having to do with the flag, Memorial Day, the Pledge of Allegiance, and so on; but if there's one thing totalitarianism does, it's to involve everyone with politics in some form or another. Most modern Americans are deeply involved in the politics of plunder, whether that plunder takes the form of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security; SBA loans; college loans; FHA mortgages; agricultural subsidies; tobacco settlements; government contracts; or a thousand other forms.

This is the scary possibility, which becomes more of a certainty the more I think about it: that in the minds of most Americans, the presumption of state legitimacy has been refounded on a new basis that is at once more primitive and, in a sinister way, more sophisticated. All old myth is abandoned, all old ceremony is contemned, all tradition is forgotten. Our new citizen-positivist, cold-eyed, regards the state apparatus as legitimate insofar as it continues the plunder and insofar as he continues to believe he derives net benefits from that plunder. In return for whatever he gets, he is, of course, prepared to behave himself.

The old peasant may have been dazzled by glittering crowns and purple robes, but it's doubtful that he ever tried very hard to see the state apparatus and its plundering through the eyes of the predators who owned it. If I'm right, though, that's exactly what the new citizen-positivist does.

When old myths are abandoned, they're usually replaced by new ones. In the days of the republic, the citizen identified with and sanctioned his rulers because he thought he chose them. He may have hoped they would plunder on his behalf, but that's not why he considered them legitimate. Now their legitimacy rests solely on their plundering. The citizen's notion that they really do it on his behalf — that's the new myth.

March 31, 2000

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