About a month ago, I wrote this: “Power finds a narrative to justify itself. Humans are naturally social, and so tribes are to humans as ant hills are to ants. Institutions are not called forth by supernatural means- they propagate themselves naturally through coercion, utility, or the appearance of utility. Often a mix of the three. This is not a value judgment.”

I meant to expand on it, but local events pushed my writing in a different direction for a while. Even here, I go slightly off the rails a bit, but it’s time to post and move on.


Quoth the Archdruid:

Karen Armstrong starts by claiming that “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions,” which is quite simply not true. All religions? There are many in which compassion falls in the middling or minor rank of virtues, and quite a few that don’t value compassion at all. All ethical traditions? Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, widely considered the most influential work on ethics in the Western tradition, doesn’t even mention the concept, and many other ancient, medieval, and modern ethical systems give it less than central billing. All spiritual traditions? That vague and mightily misused word “spirituality” stands for a great many things, many of which have nothing to do with compassion or any other moral virtue.”

No, ideologies are not necessarily about human flourishing. Not at all. The only thing an ideology is in favor of for certain, is the propagation of itself. This might be easier if the “host” does not die as a rule, but sometimes it does mean that the host perform risky behavior to be noticed, or to evangelize, or to strengthen bonds with others who have also selected to perform the behavior. Good strategy for an ideology is ultimately focused on the population, not the single specimen.

[source]: Analogizing to physics, maybe legitimacy is more like the dark matter of political development, a substance we cannot observe but whose existence we can infer from the otherwise strange behavior of human particles in visible political systems.

The problem with that analogy is that the theoretical models we have of social systems are nowhere near as well-developed and specific as the ones physicists have used to infer the existence of dark matter. […]

Likewise, technology may be the dark matter of economic thought. Political Theory professor Xavier Marquez makes the legitimacy/technology argument here:

Technology is here the “Solow residual:” all the different mechanisms by which economic growth occurs that are not accounted for by simple measures of labor and capital utilization. But there are many such mechanisms! Education, changes in political institutions and property rights, the invention of new machines and business methods, new forms of economic organization, changes in social roles, norms, and culture, etc. all can contribute to economic growth beyond increases in labor supply and capital accumulation; but only some of these mechanisms correspond to what we normally think about when we say “technology,” and forgetting this is likely to lead to incorrect inferences. Moreover, we do not actually know which of these mechanisms is the most important in general, and hence which government policies would be most likely to increase growth.

And likewise, he and others argue, with “legitimacy”.

At best, I could define political legitimacy as “acceptance of a power’s rationalization of ts own persistence”. This is incomplete, though. There must clearly be many kinds or mechanisms of legitimacy.


The idea of legitimacy is apparently relational, and is apparently related to the consent of the governed and the consistency of the governing. But for most of history, and in most places, the governed don’t have a choice individually, and will be punished severely for questioning the legitimacy of a power. Across all of history, social contract claim to power is empirically every bit as legitimate as the divine right claim to power. Clearly, I (and most Westerners) prefer the values signaled by one of these justifications than the other. But that wasn’t always true, was it. The Archdruid demonstrated above how values can be wildly different over time. In some sense, though, it must matter what a power says about itself, right?

Common values and a sense of ideological/social order may be necessary for inter-tribal peace. Whatever power can instill that sense is “legitimate”. That doesn’t solve the puzzle though.

The Chinese Communist Party and the Vatican are both examples that should clearly illustrate the usefulness of “legitimacy” as a concept, and what’s left to be desired: Both have ‘sacred’ texts and tenets whose utility are the alleged basis of the two organization’s legitimacy. This orthodoxy is too important to edit on a whim, because being able to freely distort the orthodoxy closes the power loop (“these papers are our backbone, they give us power” <–> “we write and edit the papers at will”) and lays bare the emptiness of their claim of consistency to whatever principles or rituals are supposed to give the ruled their promised prosperity or blessedness or what-have-you. Instead, the Party employs apologetic, carefully argued rationalizations that explain away changes in policy in evolutionary terms. The Organization’s sacred tenets and the current leadership’s reading of the history of the tenet’s applications will appear to inform whatever course they decide to make- slowly. Are they still obviously different entities with different views today than thirty years ago? Clearly. By what mechanisms did they actually maintain legitimacy? Is it a purely narrative phenomenon? Other social creatures settle on orders based on strength or trust. Is the concept of “legitimacy” valid with them, or does legitimacy involve language? Is legitimacy just something that happens to explain and reinforce some local stability?


Alien Views of Legitimacy

On Aztec Political Thought:

We might say that the theatre state at Tenochtitlan was primarily organized not to provide security, prosperity, or even glory, but for producing transcendental experiences. In this setting, Mexica priests were, in Clendinnen’s felicitous phrase, “impresarios of the sacred” (p. 242), practitioners of the only art that really mattered in the polity, and capable of setting in motion all of its resources for the sake of producing such collective experiences. Their “work” involved not just sacrifice, but a whole series of techniques, from fasting to powerful hallucinogenic drugs to chanting and dance, designed for maximum emotional effect. (There is a great deal of interesting “psychological engineering” in Mexica ritual, and I occasionally wondered idly about the genesis of such complicated practices). And the overall effect of their work was a “calculated assault on the senses,”


Consider this passage Clendinnen quotes from the Florentine Codex (one of the main sources for pre-conquest Mexica thought and culture), coming after the speech with which the Mexica greeted a new tlatoani (ruler; literally, the “Great Speaker”) and exhorted him to good behaviour:

Those early and anxious exhortations to benevolent behaviour were necessary, ‘for it was said when we replaced one, when we selected someone … he was already our lord, our executioner and our enemy.’ (p. 80; the quote is from Book 6, chapter 10, in Dibble and Anderson’s translation from the Nahuatl).

It’s an arresting thought: “he was already our lord, our executioner, and our enemy.” (Clendinnen comments on the “desolate cadence” of these words). The ruler is not understood by the Mexica as normally benevolent though potentially dangerous; he is the enemy, and yet as the enemy he is indispensable. There is something profoundly alien in this thought, with its unsettling understanding of “legitimacy,” something I do not find anywhere in the classical Western tradition of political thought. (Indeed, as longtime readers may guess, I think the political thought of the Mexica is further evidence of how impoverished and irrelevant our ideas about legitimacy are in the vast majority of historical cases).