What Happens When State Legitimacy Dissipates?

stealth of nations

Bob Neuwirth’s book on the economies that operate completely independent of the State is an indictment on State effectiveness, and State Legitimacy.

In considering the concept of state legitimacy, we need to understand why is it so important?  I’ve mentioned before that there are two kinds of legitimacy as I see it, an internal legitimacy and an external legitimacy.  External legitimacy is that conferred upon a sovereign state by the international community, affording it standing in the community of nations, making it entitled to trade and interact in international affairs.  Internal legitimacy is that internal relationship between the state and its people, wherein the state is recognised as representative, or authoritative in matters such as justice, taxation and (to a greater or lesser degree) morality.

In order to understand why legitimacy is important, we should consider what happens when it disappears.  We need to consider this in respect of both internal and external legitimacy.  External legitimacy is perhaps easier to consider, as there are so many well documented examples, and because the legitimating forces are clear and easily measurable; when the international community describes a country as a failed state, it is primarily in relation to its external legitimacy.  Sanctions are usually the first indicator.  The International Community decides, in its wisdom, that due to some breach in the rules – formal or otherwise – a State, and in particular its régime, needs to alter its behaviour in order to be considered persona grata.  The State becomes isolated, trade opportunities become limited, and economic progress is retarded.  This happened in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, Somalia – the list goes on.

The International Community, such as it is, is dominated by major powers that cannot in practical terms themselves be declared illegitimate; structurally that is the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK and USA), but in today’s reality it is essentially China and the USA.  These two states, in a kind of symbiosis that has replaced the Cold War duopoly on power of the old Soviet Union and America, for all intents and purposes administer the international legitimacy structures.

The failure of internal legitimacy is a far more nebulous concept.  When does the extent to which a State has failed its citizens render it illegitimate?  Is it sufficient that the State retains a monopoly on the legitimate use of force?  Different parts of the State may have different standards.  For example, the British government was undeniably legitimate in the 1980’s in external terms, and notwithstanding race riots, football violence, massive miner strikes and other domestic unrest, remained essentially in control of its citizenry.  There was a significant exception in the North of Ireland, however, where policing of Catholic areas was either administered by the IRA, or enforced, often brutally, by the British Army.  There was no question that for those people, the State had failed, and was entirely illegitimate.

In other parts of the world, some states have never had genuine legitimacy.  In Africa, many tribes operate today as they have always operated, with their own systems of justice, and even their own economies.  They trade in multiple currency denominations – often dollars – and don’t pay any taxes.  They are part of what is known as The Informal Economy, which one writer – Robert Neuwirth – argues will make up 66% of the world’s workforce by 2020.  This astonishing off-books collective has an infrastructure that has developed of its own accord, independent of State functions, and often in spite of State infrastructure.  He wrote a book about it – the Stealth of Nations – and did a TED talk, which I’ve included below.

Legitimacy serves a purpose – or, rather, a legitimate state serves a purpose.  It provides an economic infrastructure including the enforcement of contract; it provides a criminal justice system; it provides for common defence and security; and it provides for social cohesion.  The modern nation state does in a formal codified way what had historically been provided for for centuries by community and or tribal based systems.  Where the state fails, or where the internal legitimacy of the state is compromised, perhaps it is the case that we revert to old habits, old systems, that – say it quietly – come naturally to us as humans, just as our cynicism for faceless bureaucrats seems to flow naturally from us as well.

There is a further interesting question that needs to be addressed, though I won’t do it here:  what happens when a state’s external legitimacy fails, yet its internal legitimacy remains intact, at least in part?  This could at least partially explain the fiasco of post-invasion Iraq, though I need to study that some more.

Finally for today, the connection between the infrastructure for external and internal legitimacy may find parallels in Negri and Hardt’s work on Empire and Multitude respectively.  I will come back to this at a later date.

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4 thoughts on “What Happens When State Legitimacy Dissipates?

  1. […] posted just yesterday about the Informal Economy described by Robert Neuwirth as System D, where it is […]

  2. […] discussed before on this blog the distinction between internal and external legitimacy before: where the people of a state can […]

  3. […] looked at informal economies and structures. We’ve discussed informal economies this on this blog before, but also informal justice systems. That concept was about current day emerging countries, but […]

  4. […] comes to mind, a little lighter and more optimistic, perhaps. Certainly sharing, peer-to-peer and informal economic structures that are community based seem to have some credibility in emerging economies. One must also bear in […]

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