Legitimation Crisis, Jurgen Habermas

From Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, (translated byThomas McCarthy). Boston: Beacon Press, 1975, pp. 68-75.


Chapter 6. Theorems of Legitimation Crisis


 

The concept of the rationality crisis is modeled after that of theeconomic crisis. According to that concept, contradictory steeringimperatives assert themselves through the purposive-rational actionsnot of market-participants but of members of the administration; theymanifest themselves in contradictions that directly threaten systemintegration and thus endanger social integration

We have seen that an economic system crisis can be counted on onlyas long as political disputes (class struggles) maintain and do notchange institutional boundary conditions of capitalist production(for example, the Chartist movement and introduction of the normalworking day). To the extent that the class relationship has itselfbeen repoliticized and the state has taken over market-replacing aswell as market-supplementing tasks (and made possible a “moreelastic” form of production of surplus value), class domination canno longer take the anonymous form of the law of value. Instead, itnow depends on factual constellations of power whether, and how,production of surplus value can be guaranteed through the publicsector, and how the terms of the class compromise look. With thisdevelopment, crisis tendencies shift, of course, from the economicinto the administrative system. Indeed, the self-containment ofexchange processes, mediated only through the market, is destroyed.But after the liberal-capitalist spell of commodity production isbroken (and all participants have become, more or less, goodpractitioners of value theory), the unplanned, nature-likedevelopment of economic processes can re-establish itself, at leastin secondary form, in the political system. The state must preservefor itself a residue of unconsciousness in order that there accrue toit from its planning functions no responsibilities that it cannothonor without overdrawing its accounts. Thus, economic crisistendencies continue on the plateau of raising, and expending in apurposive-rational way, the requisite fiscal means.

But, if we do not wish to fall back on theorems of economiccrisis, governmental activity can find a necessary limit onlyin available legitimations. As long as motivations remain tied tonorms requiring justification, the introduction of legitimate powerinto the reproduction process means that the “fundamentalcontradiction” can break out in a questioning, rich in practicalconsequences, of the norms that still underlie administrative action.And such questioning will break out if the corresponding themes,problems, and arguments are not spared through sufficientlysedimented pre-determinations. Because the economic crisis has beenintercepted and transformed into a systematic overloading of thepublic budget, it has put off the mantle of a natural fate ofsociety. If governmental crisis management fails, it lags behindprogrammatic demands that it has placed on itself. The penaltyfor this failure is withdrawal of legitimation. Thus, the scope foraction contracts precisely at those moments in which it needs to bedrastically expanded.

Underlying this crisis theorem is the general reflection that asocial identity determined indirectly, through the capability ofsecuring-system integration, is constantly vulnerable on the basis ofclass structures. For the problematic consequences of the processedand transformed fundamental contradiction of social production fornon-generalizable interests are concentrated, as O’Connor tries toshow, in the focal region of the stratified raising andparticularistic employment of the scarce quantities of taxes that apolicy of crisis avoidance exhausts and overdraws. On the one hand,administrative and fiscal filtering of economically conditionedcrisis tendencies makes the fronts of repeatedly fragmented classoppositions less comprehensible. The class compromise weakens theorganizational capacity of the latently continuing classes. On theother hand, scattered secondary conflicts also become more palpable,because they do not appear as objective systemic crises, but directlyprovoke questions of legitimation. This explains the functionalnecessity of making the administrative system, as far as possible,independent of the legitimating system.

This end is served by the separation of instrumental functions ofthe administration from expressive symbols that release an unspecificreadiness to follow. Familiar strategies of this kind are thepersonalization of substantive issues, the symbolic use of hearings,expert judgments, juridical incantations, and also the advertisingtechniques (copied from oligopolistic competition) that at onceconfirm and exploit existing structures of prejudice and that garnishcertain contents positively, others negatively, through appeals tofeeling, stimulation of unconscious motives, [l] etc. The publicrealm [Offentlichkeit], set up for effective legitimation, hasabove all the function of directing attention to topical areas–thatis, of pushing other themes, problems, and arguments below thethreshold of attention and, thereby, of withholding them fromopinion-formation. The political system takes over tasks of ideologyplanning (Luhmann). In so doing, maneuvering room is, to be surenarrowly limited, for the cultural system is peculiarly resistant toadministrative control. There is no administrative production ofmeaning. Commercial production and administrative planning ofsymbols exhausts the normative force of counterfactual validityclaims. The procurement of legitimation is self-defeating as soon asthe mode of procurement is seen through.

Cultural traditions have their own, vulnerable, conditions ofreproduction. They remain “living” as long as they take shape in anunplanned, nature-like manner, or are shaped with hermeneuticconsciousness. (Whereby hermeneutics, as the scholarly interpretationand application of tradition, has the peculiarity of breaking downthe nature-like character of tradition as it is handed on and,nevertheless, of retaining it at a reflective level.) [2] Thecritical appropriation of tradition destroys this nature-likecharacter in discourse. (Whereby the peculiarity of critique consistsin its double function [3]: to dissolve analytically, or in acritique of ideology, validity claims that cannot be discursivelyredeemed; but, at the same time, to release the semantic potentialsof the tradition.) [4] To this extent, critique is no less a form ofappropriating tradition than hermeneutics. In both cases appropriatedcultural contents retain their imperative force, that is, theyguarantee the continuity of a history through which individuals andgroups can identify with themselves and with one another. A culturaltradition loses precisely this force as soon as it isobjectivistically prepared and strategically employed. In both casesconditions for the reproduction of cultural traditions are damaged,and the tradition is undermined. This can be seen in themuseum-effect of a hedonistic historicism, as well as in the wear andtear that results from the exploitation of cultural contents foradministrative or market purposes. Apparently, traditions can retainlegitimizing force only as long as they are not torn out ofinterpretive systems that guarantee continuity and identity.

The structural dissimilarity between areas of administrativeaction and areas of cultural tradition constitutes, then, asystematic limit to attempts to compensate for legitimation deficitsthrough conscious manipulation. Of course, a crisis argument can beconstructed from this only in connection with the broader point thatthe expansion of state activity produces the side effect of adisproportionate increase in the need for legitimation. I consider adisproportionate increase probable, not only because the expansion ofadministratively processed matters makes necessary mass loyalty fornew functions of state activity, but because the boundaries of thepolitical system vis-a-vis the cultural system shift as aresult of this expansion. In this situation, cultural affairs thatwere taken for granted, and that were previously boundary conditionsfor the political system, fall into the administrative planning area.Thus, traditions withheld from the public problematic, and all themore from practical discourses, are thematized. An example of suchdirect administrative processing of cultural tradition is educationalplanning, especially curriculum planning. Whereas schooladministrations formerly merely had to codify a canon that had takenshape in an unplanned, nature-like manner, present curriculumplanning is based on the premise that traditional patternscould as well be otherwise. Administrative planning produces auniversal pressure for legitimation in a sphere that was oncedistinguished precisely for its power of self-legitimation. [5] Otherexamples of the indirect perturbation of matters taken culturally forgranted can be found in regional and city planning (private ownershipof land), in planning the health system (“classless hospital”), and,finally, in family planning and marriage laws (which relax sexualtaboos and lower the thresholds of emancipation). The end effect is aconsciousness of the contingency, not only of the contents oftradition, but also of the techniques of tradition, that is, ofsocialization. Formal schooling is competing with family upbringingas early as at the pre-school age. The problematization ofchildrearing routines can be seen in the popular pedagogical[volkspadagogischen] tasks that schools are assuming throughparental rights and individual consultations, as well as in thepedagogical-psychological, scientific journalism on the subject. [6]

At every level, administrative planning produces unintendedunsettling and publicizing effects. These effects weaken thejustification potential of traditions that have been flushed out oftheir nature-like course of development. Once their unquestionablecharacter has been destroyed, the stabilization of validity claimscan succeed only through discourse. The stirring up of culturalaffairs that are taken for granted thus furthers the politicizationof areas of life previously assigned to the private sphere. But thisdevelopment signifies danger for the civil privatism that is securedinformally through the structures of the public realm. Efforts atparticipation and the plethora of alternative models–especially incultural spheres such as school and university, press, church,theater, publishing, etc.–are indicators of this danger, as is theincreasing number of citizens’ initiatives. [7]

Demands for, and attempts at, participatory planning can also beexplained in this context. Because administrative planningincreasingly affects the cultural system–that is, the deep-seatedrepresentations of norms and values of those affected–and renderstraditional attitudes uncertain, the threshold of acceptabilitychanges. In order to carry through innovations in the planningprocess, the administration experiments with the participation ofthose affected. Of course, the functions of participation ingovernmental planning are ambivalent. [8] Gray areas arise in whichit is not clear whether the need for conflict regulation is increasedor decreased by participation. The more planners place themselvesunder the pressure of consensus-formation in the planning process,the more likely is a strain that goes back to two contrary motives:excessive demands resulting from legitimation claims that theadministration cannot satisfy under conditions of an asymmetricalclass compromise; and conservative resistance to planning, whichcontracts the horizon of planning and lowers the degree of innovationpossible. Socio-psychologically viewed, both motives can beintegrated into the same antagonistic interpretive pattern. Thus,analytically separable types of opposition can be represented by thesame group. For this reason, laying claim to the “labor power ofparticipation” (Naschold) is an extreme and, for the administration,risky means of meeting legitimation deficits.

These arguments lend support to the assertion thatadvanced-capitalist societies fall into legitimation difficulties.But are they sufficient to establish the insolubility of legitimationproblems, that is, do they lead necessarily to the prediction of alegitimation crisis? Even if the state apparatus were to succeed inraising the productivity of labor and in distributing gains inproductivity in such a way that an economic growth free of crises (ifnot disturbances) were guaranteed, growth would still be achieved inaccord with priorities that take shape as a function, not ofgeneralizable interests of the population, but of private goals ofprofit maximization. The patterns of priorities that Galbraithanalyzed from the point of view of “private wealth versus publicpoverty” [9] result from a class structure that is, as usual, keptlatent. In the final analysis, this class structure is thesource of the legitimation deficit.

We have seen now that the state cannot simply take over becultural system, and that expansion of the areas of state planningactually makes problematic matters that were formerly culturallytaken for granted. “Meaning” is a scarce resource and is becominglyever scarcer. Consequently, expectations oriented to use values–thatis, expectations monitored by success–are rising in the civilpublic. The rising level of demand is proportional to the growingneed for legitimation. The fiscally siphoned-off resource “value”must take the place of the scanty resource “meaning.” Missinglegitimation must be offset by rewards conforming to the system. Alegitimation crisis arises as soon as the demands for such rewardsrise faster than the available quantity of value, or whenexpectations arise that cannot be satisfied with such rewards.

But why should not the levels of demand keep within the boundariesof the operating capacity of the political-economic system? It could,after all, be that the rate of the rise in level of demand is suchthat it forces on the steering and maintenance systems preciselythose processes of adaptation and learning possible within the limitsof the existing mode of production. The obvious post-war developmentof advanced-capitalist societies supports the view that this hasalready occurred. [10] As long as the welfare-state program, inconjunction with a widespread, technocratic common consciousness(which, in case of doubt, makes inalterable system restraintsresponsible for bottlenecks) can maintain a sufficient degree ofcivil privatism, legitimation needs do not have to culminatein a crisis.

Offe and his collaborators question whether the form of procuringlegitimation does not make it necessary for competing parties tooutbid one another in their programs and thereby raise theexpectations of the population ever higher and higher. This couldresult in an unavoidable gap between the level of pretension and thelevel of success, which would lead to disappointments among thevoting public. [11] The competitive democratic form of legitimationwould then generate costs that it could not cover. Assuming that thisargument could be sufficiently verified empirically, we would stillhave to explain why formal democracy has to be retained at all inadvanced-capitalist societies. If one considers only the functionalconditions of the administrative system, it could as well be replacedby variants: a conservative-authoritarian welfare state that reducespolitical participation of citizens to a harmless level; or afascist-authoritarian state that holds the population by the bit at arelatively high level of permanent mobilization without having tooverdraw its account through welfare-state measures. Both variantsare, in the long run, obviously less compatible with developedcapitalism than the constitution of a mass democracy with governmentby parties, for the socio-cultural system produces demands thatcannot be met in authoritarian systems.

This reflection supports my thesis that only a rigidsocio-cultural system, incapable of being randomly functionalized forthe needs of the administrative system, could explain a sharpening oflegitimation difficulties into a legitimation crisis. A legitimationcrisis can be predicted only if expectations that cannot be fulfilledeither with the available quantity of value or, generally, withrewards conforming to the system are systematically produced. Alegitimation crisis then, must be based on a motivation crisis–thatis, a discrepancy between the need for motives declared by the state,the educational system and the occupational system on the one hand,and the motivation supplied by the socio-cultural system on theother.