State Legitimacy is an amorphous thing. It’s difficult to measure, difficult to assert, and relative. Not only is the legitimacy of the state relative to other states, but it is relative across other dimensions too – relative to its citizens, or subjects, relative to its power or to the effectiveness of its power (an admittedly cyclical compare), and relative to the context of its actions. In other words, it’s tough to pin down. If we think of it another way, if we could measure state legitimacy, and we could similarly measure state illegitimacy, or the extent to which a state is failed, what would be the point at which we recognise one polarity from the other?
An interesting assessment of a similar diametric arises in Syria, as the state roils in its current troubles, with politics and war and foreign relations and all that go with it rending the country mercilessly. The Washington Post has cleverly picked up on the point – interpreted through Google Trends – that the revolution there became a civil war. It seems that happened in or around September 16th. This is based on ‘interest’, which pretty much translates to searches, as far as I can tell, and the measurement on the chart is itself relative – the number 100 represents peak search volume, and not, for example, the number of searches per day or per hour. Up until that date, there were more searches for revolution than for civil war.
What does this say? Well, it tells us that the world as seen through Google has seen the Syrian conflict as a civil war since September 16th. Does that mean it’s a civil war? Well, it could. It’s certainly a more immediate categorization than that provided by the lens of time, through which historians categorize and pass judgement. Of course we could see the trend reversed should events so dictate, and people could again see the conflict as a revolution. That would make things hard for historians, who like things in neat boxes, and clear stories with a discernible beginning, middle and end, almost like Hollywood. EH Carr described history as an unending dialogue between past and present, and perhaps he was right. Life, and politics, are just too complicated.