Legitimation Crisis

In the latest news story about collusive government-industry pipeline deals, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell announced a “partnership” between the Alaskan government, TransCanada, Exxon Mobil, BP and ConocoPhillips to build a pipeline “attractive to North Slope oil and gas companies.” Such pipeline projects, all involving massive government subsidies including the use of eminent domain to condemn — steal — private land along their routes, are in the news almost every day now.

In Legitimation Crisis, Jurgen Habermas argued that the legitimacy of capitalism depends on its portrayal in the official ideology as synonymous with a “free enterprise system” that arose and continues spontaneously, in a “nature-like” manner. Of course the state was, in reality, heavily involved in creating the capitalist system through the large-scale use of force (Enclosures, colonialism, police state restrictions on the free movement and association of working people in the early days of industrialism, etc.). But once the concentration of property and economic power in the “right” hands was completed, the state could repeal the Combination Laws and the Corn Laws and pretend to retreat from active involvement, leaving an ostensibly “neutral” set of laws in place. These laws themselves weren’t really neutral — they were class monopolies and privileges enforced by the state, like the artificial land titles by which the great landlords held enormous tracts of vacant land out of use, or patent and copyright law. But the popular education and propaganda system could do a fairly good job of passing them off as neutral.

That changed in the late 19th century, when a late capitalist model based on concentrated corporate ownership arose, with a chronic tendency toward overinvestment and underconsumption and falling rate of profit. From this point on, as Habermas pointed out, the state was forced to undermine its own legitimating ideology by becoming more and more visibly involved in directly regulating the economy to guarantee the realization of profit.

This increasingly visible state intervention, by which the state undermines the popular legitimating ideology of capitalism, is why we see thinkers on the left like Naomi Klein and Dean Baker looking behind the “free market” pretensions of an essentially statist system of extracting surplus value. Not only that, but we see even right-wingers like Rand Paul and Sarah Palin talking about “crony capitalism.” It seems to be Steam Engine Time for attacking corporate power in terms of its own “free market” legitimizing ideology.

You can read James O’Connor’s Fiscal Crisis of the State as a study of how the state is, of necessity, increasingly involved in the corporate economy, underwriting an increasing share of its operating costs in order to prevent its collapse. Habermas’s Legitimation Crisis can be read as a companion volume describing the effect of that involvement, in undermining the ideological conditions necessary for the system’s cultural self-reproduction.

Once the ideological legitimacy of a system is undermined, the state must increasingly resort to ubiquitous surveillance and open force to keep people doing what they need to do for the system to function. Hence the ongoing saga of NSA surveillance of virtually every form of electronic communication and the massive displays of violence by riot cops against peaceful protesters like those in the Occupy camps. Once the state and the system of class rule it enforces are stripped of legitimacy and forced to resort to naked force, that kind of stuff typically doesn’t work for long before the leadership has to be evacuated from the rooftops with helicopters.

The Stasi had East Germans under far more intensive surveillance than the NSA. Romania’s Ceaucescu was willing to resort to far greater brutality than anything Michael Bloomberg ever dreamed of. Yet their power collapsed in a matter of days.

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Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist