Loss of Political Legitimacy


This presentation, the first of two related contributions, is based in part on two sources that provide valuable insights into the topic chosen for this year’s course. The first is a book by Noreena Hertz (University of Cambridge) titled The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy. The second is a paper, titled Recapturing Fugitive Power, by Katharine Farrell (Queens University Belfast) presented at the 6th Nordic Conference on Environmental Social Sciences, June 12-14, 2003, in Finland.

(Please note that the second reference is now available in a published version: Farrell, Katharine N. (2004) ‘Recapturing Fugitive Power: epistemology, complexity and democracy’ Local Environment 9(5): 469-479.)

The aim in this presentation is to outline possible causes of the frustration and unhappiness felt by people in the context of the systems that shape their lives. Futility of participation in the normal ‘democratic’ processes has led many to abandon any effort to influence trends. More to the point, the systems that govern people’s lives appear to them, with justification, so complicated, as opposed to being simply complex, that any individual effort is considered useless.

Exhortations to governance are now in fashion. However, governance structures are now so obscure that it is impossible for ordinary people to know how they could contribute to, or demand ‘good governance’. Basically, there has been a shift in power, hence ‘The Silent Takeover’. Just as important, there has been a major change in where power is to be found, hence ‘Fugitive Power’. To do anything to change present trends we have to understand these developments. Equally, for anything to happen this knowledge has to be made widely available.

The Revolving Door Between Political and Corporate Power

Where does the power to determine the essential features of people’s lives reside? The straightforward answer would seem obvious: ‘the government’. A glance at the media is enough to convince you of the correctness of this response. The focus on what the prime minister, the ministers, members of parliament, councillors in town halls, etc. did and did not do is enough to dispel any doubters.

And yet, most people suspect that ‘the government’ is itself less powerful and less independent than assumed. This belief is not new, and it is not confined to the man or woman in the street. US president Hayes commented back in the 1870s, “it is a government of corporations, by corporations and for corporations.” President Coolidge in the 1920s was equally forthright: “The business of America is business.”

Basically, the belief that ‘the government’ that shapes our lives is comprised of the visible individuals we elect and install in parliaments and town halls is simply a convention adopted to ease comprehension. Otherwise, it would be impractical to try to influence decision-makers.

In practice, power resides in many locations, some of which are beyond direct electoral scrutiny. Any attempt to change present conditions has to recognise this fact. The strategies and tactics adopted must be able to influence a wider circle of decision-makers.

So far, there is nothing new in the above sketch. The economic and political spheres have always coexisted and interacted in fluid and ambiguous ways. But they were recognisable entities. However, radical changes to this picture have occurred in recent decades that muddied the waters even further. Three such developments are significant here:

  • A ‘revolving door’, occasionally called ‘crony capitalism’, between business and government became unmistakeable in the early-1980s. It is now difficult to draw a clear distinction between political power and corporate business power; the leading actors often move from one sector to the other and back.
  • Moreover, the same corporate executives sit on the boards of several strategic businesses (such as production, banking, and the mass media). Herman and Chomsky, for example, reported that the same 95 non-executive directors in ten US media companies “had directorships in an additional 36 banks and 255 other companies…” (Manufacturing Consent, 1994: 8.)
  • The above traits coincided with the increasing freedom for businesses to operate across political borders almost without restraints. Globalisation of corporate power has diluted national political power and increased the power of international agencies such as the World Trade Organisation, World Bank, and IMF.

Fugitive Power

Katharine Farrell referred to ‘fugitive power’ (after Morison from Queens University Belfast); “where power is understood to reside not only within formal institutional authorities…” Morison adopted the term ‘fugitive’ to suggest that it is now “beyond the law”. The merging of political and corporate power, as described above, offers an explanation of why power is now more diffused and less amenable to public scrutiny than ever before. Power is not only complex but it is also hard to get at.

There is an excellent reason why we should keep this concept in mind. As Morison pointed out, to recapture fugitive power we must “seek to exercise democratic control in the new sites where power is exercised.”

Why Are People Unhappy and Alienated?

Thomas Hobbs (1588-1679) wrote in Leviathan (1651) that people desire above all else their preservation. To this end, they are in a perpetual effort to seek more power over others through various means including force. Potentially, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To avoid this fate, rational people agree, on the basis of a social contract, to surrender their power and arms to a third party; the Sovereign in Hobbs terms. The Sovereign, government, etc. is then deputed to exercise unquestioned authority over its subjects.

The above model, as suggested by McLean in the Oxford Dictionary of Politics, “is entirely compatible with the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.” But Hobbs, it must be understood, was not interested in democracy as such. He was fascinated by science, geometry to be precise; axioms of human behaviour similar to Euclid’s geometric axioms. He believed implicitly in the scientific method based on resolution into parts, examination of the characteristics of the parts, and then re-composition into the whole once again. To learn about society, one must examine the behaviour of individuals. The science of economics is traditionally founded on this principle. This deductive process led Hobbs to the social contract with the Sovereign who enjoys unlimited authority.

Hobbs ideas have not changed fundamentally. More recent theories, such as rational choice, are mere elaborations. In short, the foundations of the style of government encountered today in ‘democratic countries’ can be traced back to the ‘social contract’. The main change concerns elections and other checks and balances designed to legitimate the authority exercised by the Sovereign or the state.

The Latest Innovation

When the USSR collapsed, the West’s model of liberal democracy and capitalist economics became the only option on offer. The concept could not be more linear: there is only one genuine version of democracy and one path to that idealised destination.

The state was in charge up to the late-1970s. Social security and welfare were, in part, a response to the ‘communist threat’. With the arrival of Thatcher and Reagan, in 1979 and 1980, homo economicus was moved to centre stage. Major effort was made to disengage the state from many of the traditional sectors that have hitherto been at the heart of government.

The demise of the USSR, in 1988-1991, enabled supporters of the neo-liberal philosophy to proclaim it as the one and only sensible option for all humankind. Radical political and economic changes were adopted within the leading industrialised countries and steps were taken to force others to follow suit by persuasion or by force.

The changes in Britain and the USA are worthy of particular mention. The blurring of the demarcation line between business and politics is one feature. The growing impact of multinational corporations and globalisation in general is another. However, a significant development took place even at party political level. New consensus-based ideas in politics are founded on a view that with the end of the traditional division between capitalism and socialism, a new age based on universally shared beliefs has arrived. (Giddens, Beyond Left and Right 1994, and The Third Way, 1998.) Choice has become meaningless in this new situation. It is implicitly assumed that all stakeholders view ‘Western’ style democracy coupled with neo-liberal market economics as being perfect and unalterable. A glance at the stream of literature on the subject reveals this as a mistaken belief. (See, for instance, Madron and Jopling’s Gaian Democracy, 2003, and, Shutt’s A New Democracy: alternatives to a bankrupt world order, 2001.)

The new consensus model compromised the modern concept of the social contract. First a significant amount of power shifted from the political arena, which is subject to some influence through the ballot box, to the corporate arena, which is beyond such restraints. Power has become a fugitive, as described earlier. But then citizens were told that there is only one agenda on offer firmly based on the capitalist philosophy. At heart, there are no essential differences between political parties. Labour, Conservative, Republican, and Democratic, etc. parties are all the same. The electorate are being told in effect that one lot of politicians are the same as any other group. What is the point in voting? There is nothing you could do if you were unhappy. You can change the faces but not the policies.

This is a massive change in the social contract , and one that has been adopted by the elite without negotiation. The Sovereign, or the state, has altered the terms of the contract over the head of the citizens.

A Problem of Legitimacy

A problem of legitimacy has occurred that is not yet generally recognised. Indications of this problem can be seen in the dwindling numbers of people taking part in elections, alienation and frustration by the stakeholders, and by widespread contempt for politicians (seen as corrupt and self-seeking).

Essentially, the social contract has broken down. This is not just a theoretical or academic development. The present situation is unsustainable; radical transformation is unavoidable. The question is not whether the system will change, but how the change will be brought about.

The purpose in the present presentation was to underline the point that the fundamental task is to recapture fugitive power. How? This is the topic addressed in the second presentation (Reclaiming Power).