Identifying Our Identity and Legitimizing Our Legitimacy

In a comment thread at Psychopolitik, B-Psycho’s place, after some discussion of my post here on war as socialized torture, Mr. Psycho puts a question to me: “Is it, in your opinion, possible to accurately see the power of the identity formations you emphasize without accepting them as legitimate?” I would answer “no,” but I suspect that I have a different understanding of “legitimacy” than BP does, and of the connection between political identity and legitimacy.

“Legitimate” means lawful or in conformity with laws or rules. We can speak of universal moral laws, religious law, natural law, theoretical laws of nature, various types and sub-types of statutory law, or maybe rules and principles of conduct, but, when we speak about legitimacy in the sense BP is using it, I think we are referring to laws or principles relating to particular political regimes. The problem I think is that for B-Psycho, who I believe is something of an anarchist, such legitimacy is always false legitimacy. True legitimacy for him, if I understand him correctly, could only derive from elsewhere, beyond any particular regime, though some anarchists will treat the notion of any derivation of legitimacy as itself illegitimate. The only true legitimacy would be my legitimacy, what is legitimate to and for me. Any construction or derivation of legitimacy would be an imposed legitimacy. At that point, the anarchist discourse, like the ideal libertarian discourse, seems to become literally incomprehensible: It refuses to be comprehended. True anarchy or liberty cannot be described or pre-scripted: It could only be enacted or realized, though, as it happens, it is never or at most only very rarely enacted or realized either, unless its concept is merely tautological: Maybe anarchy or pure liberty simply is or all there ever has been, and anarchism is simply a way of seeing and leaving unaltered the free and spontaneous “anarchic construction” (yes, a contradiction in terms) of limitations and obligations.

The above digression may help to illustrate what we mean if we say that political identity and legitimacy are meta-concepts (like religious belief): The anarchist’s view on legitimacy or the possibly legitimate is already contained within his anarchism, and his anarchism is already contained within his view on legitimacy or the possibly legitimate. A political identity and a position on political identity may in the final analysis be indistinguishable from each other, and I cannot legitimize my own concept of legitimacy or of political identity without referring to the same to be legitimized, identity-creating or -affirming or -confirming concepts. So, what I consider legitimate and what I consider legitimizing are obviously connected, and are obviously tied to political and eventually ethical and arguably religious, probably epistemological and ontological assumptions or arguments as well. In short, these are all facets of the same fundamental questions. Who or what I am politically, my political identity, is inherently a statement about what I consider legitimate. What I believe about legitimacy and what I believe about my political identity will determine each other.

Now, I could choose to deny the legitimacy of something that very large numbers of people in diverse settings and over long periods of time have called and still call “legitimate” – while putting their money and their lives and their sacred honor, and so on, where their mouths are – but doing so would imply an embrace of an alternative form of legitimacy appropriate to an alternative political identity, for instance the anarchist identity. It would imply a belief that the majority can be completely wrong in its evident political determinations, or that widely held beliefs about what might constitute such evidence can be completely wrong or are, in a preferred and uniquely valid or highest sense of the legitimate, illegitimate. Such a position might be completely self-consistent, but it would be difficult to call it a democratic sensibility. We can wonder if “legitimacy” is really the right word for an absolute moral judgment of such a type. Maybe BP believes only in absolute moral legitimacy. Such a belief would seem to imply a source of absolute moral legitimation. Would that be a belief in conscience as an absolute? How would that be different from the voice of God heard only by the particular individual? Would it matter whether others heard it, too? What if they did not agree with me fully about what it said? If I cannot accept anyone else’s judgment, how do I know that I am not simply mad? Is “illegitimacy” of this type not really a claim regarding “immorality” or “heresy” or “sin” from someone who may simply prefer not to think of himself as, or to be identified as, a moralist or a religious believer, as someone who holds not finally rational or rationalizable beliefs?

To return to the original question, my position is that the collective identities I’ve been discussing simply are taken as sources of legitimacy, though not always in ways that are explicitly acknowledged as legitimate. To say that they are legitimate in this sense is not to affirm them, and it is even less to assert that they are perfect in themselves. The German theorist Lutz Niethammer apparently argues that collective identity is the problem, but I remain skeptical that he possesses an alternative. ((Niethammer’s  never-translated and hard to find book on collective identity was critiqued by Gopal Balakrishnan in his 2009 collection of essays Antagonistics.)) We can say that these collective identities, in our era typically national identities, are at best merely functionally legitimate, but a functional legitimacy may still be a legitimacy worth having, especially if an absolute legitimacy is unavailable, impossible, impractical, or inconceivable. ((We return to the theoretical question and familiar paradoxes of “the exception” – whether the true source of legitimation can exist within the bounds of legitimacy, whether legitimacy is not in effect a construct in relation to and dependent upon the not-yet-legitimized, perhaps never-legitimizable, perhaps necessarily illegitimate or non-legitimate or inherently pre-legitimate, and so on.)) At the outset, simply on the terms of Mr. P’s question, the political identities to which I refer simply provide for one form of legitimacy or mode of legitimation, though as such they may imply or rely on an argument about their own validity, as they are observably supported by a complex discourse of self-validation. We can refuse to accept the validity of this validation, or the legitimacy of this legitimation, or the authenticity of the identity, but doing so implies possession of a superior means to establish or reject validity, legitimacy, and identity. I do not yet know what superior means BP is proposing.

BP also appends a thought about the implications of a “no” answer for “the Left”:

[I]t seems the argument is that the Left cannot succeed without dropping what makes it Left. Accepting nationalism as legit without caveats of some sort deletes the critique, which is that things are being done in the name of such that actually harm the construct people seek to protect.

I take him to be saying that a Left that accepts nationalism or national identity as finally legitimate loses the ability to critique an American or any more or less liberal-democratic national identity based on universal ideals as self-contradictory – a particular and therefore limited national identity vs. a universal and unlimited aspiration. This problem for Americanism is one we have approached many times, and is not a merely abstract one, since the contradiction seems to be played out continually, most obviously in foreign policy. I am not sure, however, whether we need to see critiques along these lines as uniquely or strictly leftwing. At the same time, there is a long history of internationalist but nationally defined and oriented leftist movements, as well as avowedly internationalist leftist theories, that recognize the significance and practical or conceptual necessity of a national moment or “stage” of political-historical development.

I do not, however, know whether my “no” is the same kind of “no” that BP thought would carry the implications he mentioned. Maybe a Left of the sort BP may want to embrace could take my “no” as close enough to a “yes” after all.

11 comments on “Identifying Our Identity and Legitimizing Our Legitimacy

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  1. We have a left regime, that is currently organized against the consensus of the last 30 years, as he said ‘it was Reagan’s dark deeds’ that inspired him to community organizing, the Secretary of State, was the Sandinistas’s chief ‘lifeline’ and the Defense Secretary designate seems to have all his speeches translated from Farsi, as he had the endorsement of both Parsi’s NIAC and Amirmahdi’s AIC, who denies that Hezbollah and Hamas are terrorists, but Israel, the freeist nation in the region, is practicing apartheid.

  2. You see the identity formations as powerful, even useful in a utility sense. That they are powerful I actually take as given, which is why it’s so difficult to confront the assumptions that tend to creep up within them & the actions taken up in the name of such: people can conflate criticism of acts or rationale as criticism of their very identity. Their usefulness I take on a case by case basis, even individual by individual if necessary — if ones preferred construct leads them to be a good, decent helpful person in general then that’s fine, if it leads them towards conduct that violates people and general assholery then it is not. That said, there is such thing as patterns of behavior & it’d be a stretch to dismiss a common construct if it keeps reappearing in that context.

    That nationalism & the like exist and are powerful is clear. You argue the Left tends to underestimate them. I ask if to properly estimate them must mean to see them as not just there to be dealt with but as objectively correct, as not just useful or not depending on how people react to them but as The Way Things Must Be, warts and all. I doubt it’s possible to thread that needle.

    As for false legitimacy, there’s a reason for that within your definition of legitimacy. If it’s about conformity to law, if it’s demonstrable that the law-makers and enforcers tend to violate their own law, that contradicts the stated point to having the laws in the first place. Also, if the sources of the laws when enforced on the populace (assuming the regime in question claims to be “representative”) are traceable to particular interests arrayed against much of the public expected to follow them, it collapses the liberal case for government as “Us” or simply expression of collective will of the whole — it is instead Them, a tool of some against others. How can respect for the law be expected when in practice whether there is no law or the law is everywhere, arbitrary, & cruel depends on which side of the desk you’re on or who you know?

    In other words, the reason you’re correct about my being “something of an anarchist” is because I’ve come to the conclusion that liberalism eats itself. Mainstream liberals can’t end The Exception, so I say end the Rule, authority that cannot be checked is authority that should be nullified.

    • Even if I accepted your description of the real functioning of the regime in relation to its precepts as completely hypocritical and “everywhere… arbitrary, & cruel,” that would not necessarily show that it was not better than the complete “nullification of authority” would be, or that a complete nullification of authority was possible. As for the hypocrisy problem, if my doctor is a chain-smoking obese molester of small children, but happens to possess the skill to remove a bullet from my thigh without killing me or leaving me permanently lame, then I might prefer for him to operate anyway, though in general I might prefer to be operated on by a paragon of humanity. As for the impossibility problem, it seems that most people in all or almost all places at almost all times will agree that a bad authority, even the worst tyranny, is preferable to no authority. If the national authority is destroyed, they will construct lower level authorities. Eventually, they may revert to tribal-level authority until and unless higher-level authority is re-established. That doesn’t make most people in most places at most times right or wrong: It just makes it practically impossible to end up anywhere but with exercise of authority as imperfect as human beings are imperfect.

      As for further reason to support the presumption of the status quo, it also relates to the widely held belief that change is difficult and risky; that hypocrisy, arbitrariness, and cruelty exist in degrees, not as binary absolutes, and that we have plentiful knowledge as well as experience of regimes far more cruel or inequitable than mass liberal democracy; and finally that action on the basis of absolute, binary judgment tends to be destructive to self and others.

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