Aid and legitimacy IV. (The descriptive vs. the normative)

The question raised in the last post (how social groups can be influenced by foreign power) becomes interesting in the very moment when the concept of democracy enters the scene. Throughout the decades it has become a sort of synonym for political stability – stability here means the management of orderly change and not simply the maintenance of status quo[1] – and as such something to be promoted and supported worldwide by means of development aid channeled to governments and civil society organizations alike.

The democracy-related normative approach of legitimacy is slightly different from the descriptive-empirical understanding summarized above. The distinction is needed in order to understand the role legitimacy can play in non-democratic regimes known, among others, for using violence in more authoritarian ways against their own population and within their territory. The normative concept of legitimacy holds that ‘some objective notion of what is right, justifiable or legitimate exists’ and assumes certain conditions such as ‘acceptability or justification of political power or authority’.[2] The ‘legitimate being’ of democracies can be described by such qualities as having a constitution or basic laws, equality of citizens before the law, voluntary obedience to law, separation of executive, legislative and juridical powers, political pluralism and mass participation,[3] competition of political parties for votes, political and civil liberties, and also human rights and freedom of speech. These features are built on a normative interpretation of political legitimacy: if the conditions for legitimacy are not met, power is exercised unjustifiably or in illegitimate ways – and their commands do not entail any obligation to obey.’ While the Arab Spring demonstrators aspired to attain normative legitimacy, the stability of the authoritarian regimes depends on descriptive understanding of legitimacy.

Sources and further reading: [1] Razi, G. H. (1990) Legitimacy, Religion and Nationalism in the Middle East. The American Political Science Review 84 (1): 69-91, p78.; [2] Bruce Gilley, The Right to Rule. How States Win and Lose Legitimacy (New York: Columbia Press, 2009); Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles’, 235.; [3] The opposite of participation can be described as ‘alienation’ (M. Stephen Wheatherford, ‘Mapping the Ties That Bind: Legitimacy, Representation, and Alienation’ The Western Political Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1991): 251-276) or ‘marginalization’ (social exclusion, following Albert O. Hirschman,Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), but it would be too simple to say that non-participation in political life is the opposite of legitimacy. See Sedgwick, ‘Measuring Egyptian’, 253.


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