The Narrowing Legitimacy of the State
by Charles H. Featherstone
I’ve long believed that the legitimacy of the state – that is, the state as seen and judged by those it governs – has been declining. But I’ve come to conclude that decline is not the right word, as we are not heading to an anti-state moment. Rather, the ability of the state to act and justify its actions is getting narrower. People are demanding as much of the state but becoming much harsher in their judgement of the state. And the state can no longer assume that because it acts, it can justify its actions merely because it’s the state. (“It’s the right thing to do because we say so. Nyaaah!”)
Allow me to try and explain.
The modern state – the state birthed in the Protestant Enlightenment – possesses two very important monopolies. The first is on the moral and lawful use of violence and coercion. The state alone can compel human action and punish human beings for actions against the law or for failing to act. This is “moral” because many (perhaps most) human beings through time have viewed state violence (violence done by those who have been appointed agents of the state) as having a moral legitimacy that mere individual violence does not have. And this is a trait of the state for as long as human beings have lived together. This is not new, and it will not go away. This monopoly on lawful and moral violence is what makes the state the state.
The other monopoly the state possesses is that of meaning. The state alone, especially from early 19th century through to about the middle of the 20th, took to itself the sole or primary right to construct the narrative through which human life within (and often outside) the state would be valued and given purpose. The state would author the story and create the ideas that would determine the purpose and meaning of individual and collective human life, what human beings would live for, contribute for, sacrifice for and die for. The state would accept no alternative narratives, no different meanings – all were considered threats to the creation of a state-centered society (society being that community contiguous with the nation-state). The state was the sole creator and sustainer of human purpose, and would accept absolutely no dissent.