Monday, December 26, 2005

* The Guardian State (2)

The Guardian State (2)
Basis of Political Legitimacy

Ali-Asghar Kazemi

"Religion, which is regarded as being the firmest of all the supports of political authority, and which would indeed play this role if it were rightly understood and rightly practiced, is ordinarily the force that does most to hamstring political authority."

Pierre Bayle [1]


We have explained elsewhere[2] the characteristic of an emerging new type of polity called the “Guardian State,” which is the outgrowth of the current crisis in the world order and international system. The guardian state seeks its mandate from the implicit consent and “general will” of a political community terrified by insecurity and violence. It makes no distinction between private and public sphere, ethics and politics, or the inner and outer world. It thus encompasses the governance of not only the external affairs of man in societies but also his personal and internal business as well. Since, its self-acclaimed responsibility goes beyond the assurance of man’s security and fulfillment of potentialities on earth, but also his salvation in the outer-world.

With the gradual collapse of radical secular regimes, a new form of polity, seeking its source from religious teachings of the past centuries, emerged in the world political arena with new ideas, goals and institutions. Islamic state is one such polity which in the last quarter of 20th century re-emerged through a revolution in Iran and which at the beginning of 21st century is becoming an important contestant in world political order. In an attempt to rationalize this resurgence we ought to assess its premises and basic conceptions as well as the appeal of its revolutionary teachings which led to its wide spread influence among Moslem believers of all sects. Among these a new group emerged as well known as fundamentalist zealous who are challenging the prevailing norms of modern societies at this juncture of history.[3]

State and the Legitimate Authority

The concept of legitimacy[4] in political is commonly applied to the manner in which a government, ruler or office-holder has attained office. Legitimacy being a relative rather than an absolute concept raises multiple questions of subjective nature. Thus, it has acquired various interpretations through time in different political cultures.[5]

Making use of religion for seeking political legitimacy is deep rooted in history. The political struggle between empire and papacy was long and complex and the main issue involved power and legitimacy. The dominant belief in Christian Medieval thoughts was somehow similar to what is still prevailing in Islamic doctrine. That is: human law is inherently subordinate to divine law, and political to theological authority. The idea further asserts that God possesses the supreme power over his whole creation and any lesser individual or institution can be said exercise legitimate authority only in so far as it is received from God through His grace.[6]

The period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the advent of modern nation- state is referred to as the Middle Ages and the medieval era.[7] The cultural issue during this period was centered on the question of influence of religion over state affaires or relation between church and government. The real problem involved a fundamental political query about the nature of the state and the source of legitimate civil authority.

The recognition of the fact that state receives its legitimacy through the church is one thing and to say that political rule comes into being and independent of the religion is quite another matter. The concept of two swords originated from the recognition of two distinct spheres of power with harmonious relationship. The civil power and its political task ceases on the threshold of the spiritual domain. Conversely, the jurisdiction of the religious sword stops at the gate of secular power. In this situation, both church and state had theoretically autonomous sphere of activity and respected each other’s authority and legitimacy.[8]

Philosophers and thinkers of great eminence of the middle ages Christian era have given thoughtful consideration on the question of state legitimacy and the place of religion in the realm of politics.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D), like St. Augustine is primarily a theologian rather than a political philosopher. His writings constituted the principal medium through which Aristotelian political ideas were incorporated in Western thought.[9] St. Thomas demonstrates that it is neither necessary nor possible to connect the origin of the state and its legitimacy with any supernatural act. Thus in his thinking, God remains the first and the ultimate, but not the proximate of the state.[10] As a Christian theologian he regards the man as a rational and moral creature with an ultimate and eternal end to be found in union with God.[11]

The whole tenor of Thomas political speculation is based on the premise that state power is of a limited nature and subject to law. In this view, human law is derived from natural law in two ways: as a conclusion from principles and as a determination from principles.[12] Furthermore, divine law was a gift of grace rather than as a discovery of natural reason.

St. Thomas asserts that public action, and not individual violence, is the proper remedy against a tyrant ruler who in the eyes of people has lost credibility and legitimacy. St. Thomas feels that it would be detrimental to civil order if private individual could assume the right to murder their rulers whenever they believe them to be tyrants. However, he recognizes the right of the people to revolt against the authority in power when oppression and tyranny have become intolerable and revolution has reasonable chance to succeed without provoking greater social evil than those it attempts to eradicate.[13] Revolution in such circumstances is presumably more in the nature of masses than individual and private act.

The immediate end of the state, according to St. Thomas, is to preserve an orderly society by maintaining internal and external peace and by insuring man’s needs. To a Christian, however, there are needs that can not find their fulfillment in the political order. As moral being, the individual is ordained ultimately to a supernatural objective that transcends the temporal sphere. Thus comes the responsibility of religious institution to take care of man’s soul and moral needs in the society.[14]

John Calvin sought to penetrate all aspects public and private life with influence of religion. Calvin, like Luther, believes in the divine ordination of the secular rule. Calvin tries to bridge the alleged dialectical opposition between the religious and secular societies and to re-establish the moral status of the political order without making it to appear as a substitute for religious society.[15] Calvin makes it clear that religious matters shall be outside the purview of political rulers.

In Calvin’s practice, the religious authorities were free to their own standards of doctrine and moral in accordance with their interpretation of Holy Scripture. Once this was done, it became the duty and responsibility of the civil authority to enforce those standards. Thus the state was the instrument of the church for the establishment of God’s glory.[16]

While Calvin made the state a virtual agent of the religious authorities and combined both swords in their hands, Martin Luther deviated from the traditional doctrine of the two swords by entrusting the primary responsibility for the care of religious society to civil authorities. In so doing he had unwittingly permitted the spiritual sword to come under the control and domination of the temporal power.[17]

Perhaps the most important aspect of Luther’s political theory, as distinguished from his political actions, is the doctrine of non-resistance to political rule. The citizens, he asserts, own the full obedience to their government. Even if the ruler is tyrannical and abuses his office, the people have no right to rebel against him and to challenge his legitimacy. To him, it is improper for a Christian to set himself up against his government for any reason.[18]

It is worth to remember that Luther was a theologian founder of a great religious movement, and the political theory he did express was wholly related to his religious objectives. To him, relation of man’s soul to God was far more important than man’s position to temporal authorities. He felt that if man stood in the proper relation to God, his relation to society would right itself.[19] Luther’s religious radicalism stands in strange contrast to his extreme conservatism in social and political affairs. On the religious side he advocated far-reaching reforms while on the political side he urged pacifism in an orderly society.[20]

Other leading thinkers of the Christian world, like Jean Bodin and Hugo Grotius, inspired their political thought on state and sovereignty mostly from the medieval tradition by putting the legitimacy of the ruler under a moral obligation both God and community. The social contract era saw the deviation from moral and divine foundation of state and the development of a doctrine based on an intellectual recognition by isolated individuals to associate in order to create a civil society. Hobbes was the champion of this thought.

John Lock’s approach to the question of state and source of its legitimacy is not unlike that of Hobbes, although his conclusion is different. Locke is considered as the godfather of the American Revolution and a source of inspiration for contemporary principles and practice of limited and constitutional government.[21]

The age of reason and rationalism went a step forward to disavow state’s legitimacy dependent upon religion and metaphysics. Descartes and his followers known as the philosopher of the Enlightenment, turned to the model of contemporary natural science.[22] The movement based the foundation of the state on secular and not religious principles.

Rousseau makes the state an artificial creation of man established by social contract. The legitimate authority to exercise state power in the social contract is government which is an intermediate body set up between the subject and the sovereign to secure their mutual correspondence, charged with the execution of the laws and the maintenance of liberty both civil and political.[23] While Rousseau’s Social Contract was repudiated by English conservative Edmund Burke, it became the bible of the French Revolution and later Hegel and Marx benefited from its “general will” idea to devise socialism as a political philosophy.

The utilitarian scholars of the nineteenth century were not concerned with the moral legitimacy of the political authority and government. They simply regarded the state as a fictitious body formed by the association of individuals for the promotion of happiness. Thus the basis of government in this view is human needs rather than the drive for social contract. It regards the law as nothing but the expression of the sovereign will of the state. If government insist to remain in power despite the general will of the people, it begins to lose credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of masses that through their constitutional rights can use their political leverage to oust it from political office. In practice the utilitarian school has much in common with the Western tradition, though there are philosophical differences between the two.[24]

With the advent of scientific socialism of Marx, democratic socialism of the West, communism, revisionism and other, “isms”, gradually the image of religion and metaphysics or the divine laws as sources of political legitimacy faded out, instead positivism and pragmatism became dominant philosophy of modern state systems.

The twentieth century gave birth to many kinds of totalitarian states such as Nazism, Fascism and other absolutist governments which acquired power and claimed legitimacy through demagoguery and propaganda. Totalitarianism of both left and right denies the existence of any objective moral law. To the fascist Mussolini, for example, the only absolute good was the success of the state; and Hitler viewed a moral code as nothing more than a self disciplining weapon in the community’s struggle for power?[25]

The Secular Approach

In a democratic society, as we understand it in Western political tradition, government is a dependent variable or subunit that is vested the responsibility of managing the affairs of the state. In order to be able to assume its duty, government must have the power along with the legitimate authority to employ instrument of force on behalf of the society and for its benefit. A political system is said to be formed and organized when this relationship is properly established and the authority in power has acquired legitimacy.

Legitimacy in broad sense is- according to one definition- “the promise that the pursuit of one value will prove compatible with the pursuit or enjoyment of other values.[26] Hence, the idea of legitimacy is not quite a black and white issue; it is rather perceptual than objective. Furthermore, it is relative rather than absolute. It is a relationship among values within a situation that makes them compatible or put them in conflict.[27]

In the West, the separation of church and state or the secularization of political norms and the process by which legitimacy was acquired followed three historic steps.[28] The first step was the breakdown of the political universalism of the Church and the emergence of various national churches.

The second phase saw the extension of the church nationalization process to the authority of government. In this period, the legitimacy of the political authority was traced to God in the expression “divine right of kings”, which was in the hands of royal families through the process of inheritance.

The third step was the growth of Protestantism which provides the ground to a secular system of government which merely reflected religious values. Reliance upon secular authority in Protestantism, to police the church and to enforce a degree of religious uniformity had important consequences. A religion which had denied itself the power of an ecclesiastical organization was forced to reply on political rulers.[29]

In a secular political system, legitimacy is usually derived either by procedure or by representation.[30] In any event, legitimacy is derived from the implicit or explicit consent of people and the authority which holds the office or possesses the means of lawful coercion, is accountable to people. In practice, neither legitimacy by procedure nor legitimacy by representation is properly set in a rigid framework. They may in fact overlap and one takes the place of the other through tradition, norms or customs. The essential thing is that the power-holder shall be perceived as legitimate in the eyes and hearts of people whom he governs.

As we stated earlier, political rulers of left and right have claimed legitimacy merely because they were able to attract masses through charisma, emotion or coercion. Mussolini, the founder of Italian Fascism, insisted: when millions of individuals recognize the authority of a state, this latter acquires legitimacy and total supremacy over the individual; that should not be interpreted as tyranny or despotism.[31] In the Fascist conception it is not the individual but the state that determines truth and justice; hence the individual is free only so long as he conforms to this determination.[32]

If legitimacy is derived from the will of the people, it can easily be contested, corrected or ousted through the established laws, rule and democratic procedures. Thus a leader or ruler may lose his legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of his people who are the ultimate judge of what is good or bad, just or unjust.

When legitimacy is claimed to have been acquired from the divine source, the invisible God, then we run into a much more complex situation. In this case the spiritual ruler or the political leader, who is supported by religious sector, will assert the right to judge the right or wrong, and once he has established his coercive power he can repudiate people’s will by hiding behind Holy Scripture and his inconspicuous Master.

Political sociologists, who attempt the interpretive understanding of social action for arriving as a causal explanation of its course and effects, define the state as “an imperatively coordinated corporate group: in which the enforcement of its order is carried out continuously by the threat of physical force within a given territorial area. In this situation the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force belongs to the state.[33]

Max Weber, the leading scholar of political sociology has classified the legitimate authority by taking a functional view of social interaction. Weber is concerned solely with the manner in which power functions in a society and not necessarily with its moral legitimacy. Thus, he distinguishes between three fundamental types of legitimate authority: rational, traditional and charismatic.[34] The classification is based on the claim to legitimacy that is made by each type of authority. In his view, the nature of this claim determines the kind of obedience that is rendered to a particular system of authority, the kind of institution that is developed to guarantee its continued existence, and the mode in which it is exercised.[35]

According to this classification, Weber’s first category of legitimate authority, i.e. the rational or legal legitimacy, is the case in which people obey the law-an impersonal order- and obedience is owed to those exercising authority only by virtue of the office they legally hold.[36] This type of legitimacy is ordinarily found in Western democratic society. In this type of authority, what is important is the fact that the particular claim to legitimacy is to a significant degree treated as valid, and this fact confirms the position of the person claiming authority and that it helps to determine the choice of means of its exercise.[37]

In contrast to the above, the traditional authority seeks its legitimacy in the sanctity of tradition in a society such a hereditary monarchy. In this case if the ruler failed to observe the traditional limits of his authority, usually the opposition is directed towards his person and not the whole state system. This is to say that legitimacy of the state is not merely challenged by the failure or incompetence of an individual ruler, unless indeed people perceive that the prevailing system is the cause of political deviation or corruption.[38]

Charismatic authority- often referred in connection with dictatorship-relates to certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary man. The charismatic leader is usually believed as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least some kind of exceptional powers or qualities.[39] When such an individual with exceptional moral and spiritual attributes is endorsed by the people and hailed as national leader, he gains legitimacy by virtue of which political and physical power of the state are vested upon him.

Charismatic leadership entails emotional enthusiasm and complete personal and mass devotion to the ruler. It can be motivated by many forces including religious zeal, political attachment or simply personal and human affection. There are instances in the history of a nation when people or the society as a whole are caught between hope and despair, and the ground is paved for the emergence of a charismatic leader. Hitler, Mussolini, Mao and Gandhi are typical examples of personalities who rose to power through charisma in different circumstances.[40]

Iran’s leader of the revolution-Ayatollah Khomeini- is a more recent example of spiritual charismatic authority that ousted a secular dictatorship to establish a theocratic autocracy on the premises of Islam.[41]

Most of charismatic personalities tend to be authoritarian. Whether they claim direct communion with the people or God, they seldom tolerate restraints on exercise of power. Even democratically elected leaders, after they become a charismatic figure, due to special circumstances or political environment, they often end up by imposing authoritarian rule and intolerance to dissension. This is the reason why most political analysts believe that charisma, attained or inherited, is always a threat to democracy.[42] Charisma by inheritance is also a phenomenon that is found in some traditional Third World states.[43]

A new kind of charismatic authoritarianism has appeared in the last decade, in which religion-Islam in particular- plays a legitimizing role. Libyan leader Ghaddafi, a seemingly religious soldier who uses religion to advance his secular aims, is characterized as a “hellion on the international stage”.[44] Elsewhere in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan, etc. the authoritarian generals defend their rule and legitimacy in the name of faith.

The essential problem with legitimacy acquired through charisma, whether religious or temporal, is that the leader becomes so much a personality cult that soon he eclipses out of the purview of law and above the constitutional organs of the state. Thus, he, as the supreme legitimate authority and power-holder, escapes from responsibility and can not be taken accountable to anybody. In such circumstances, even the constitutional checks and balances, where they exist, become wholly superfluous, since it is in him- the charismatic ruler- that the will of the people is realized.

This is how the Nazi used every conceivable means of propaganda to indoctrinate German people that Hitler was sent by God to save Germany and he was always right;[45] he could do no wrong. The Cultural Revolution in Communist China was the most terrible fiasco of Chairman Mao’s initiative which only after his pass away came to light. But, even after, the political elites are reluctant to admit the great failure.[46]

When legitimacy is acquired through unusual social and political circumstances, such as revolution or mystical devotion to an individual, this type of authority cannot become stabilized without radical change in the prevalent institutions. Seldom can the continuity of such type of authority be guaranteed through attempt at institutionalization of succession. Thus, almost always a struggle for power is certain to ensue in order to fill the vacuum.

Need for further Research

The question of legitimacy in modern secular states with democratic socio-political institutions is not a critical issue of the contemporary world order; but elsewhere in the Third World, especially the traditional Islamic societies, it has become a major problem. A cursory examination of legitimacy issue in newly emerged regimes, which professed to be establishing the long awaited religious state on the premises of Islamic principles, is well to the point at this juncture. The next section will briefly review the question of legitimacy in Islam with special reference to the Shiite doctrine. (See Part 3 of this paper.)
* * *


[1]. Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, Quoted by: Arnold Toynbee, An Historian’s Approach to Religion, p. 254.
[2] See my paper: Ali-Asghar Kazemi, “ The Rise of the Guardian State” in Scholar E-Journal
[3] The main structure of this study is taken from : Ali-Asghar Kazemi, Religion and Politics: In Search of Compatibility and Compromise, Monograph, 1986
[4]Legitimacy in political science, is the popular acceptance of a governing regime or law as an authority. Whereas authority refers to a specific position in an established government, the term legitimacy is used when describing a system of government itself —where "government may be generalized to mean the wider "sphere of influence." The word legitimacy can be interpreted in either a normative or a positive way. For the former, which gets greater attention in moral philosophy, something is "legitimate" if one approves of it. For the latter, which gets greater attention in political science, an institution is legitimate if such approval is general among those subject to its authority. Issues of legitimacy are linked to those of consent, both explicit and tacit.
Legitimacy is considered a basic condition for rule: without at least a minimal amount of legitimacy, a government will deadlock or collapse. Robert A. Dahl explains legitimacy using the metaphor of a reservoir: as long as it stays at a certain level stability is maintained, if it falls below this level it is endangered. Regimes are sometimes seen as requiring the assent of a large proportion of the population to retain power, but this need not necessarily be the case: many unpopular regimes have been known to survive provided they are seen as legitimate within a small but influential elite. See:Legitimacy (political science) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.htm
[5]. Karl Deutsch, Politics and Government, How People Decide their Fate? . p. 16.
[6] CF. Henry J. Schmandt, A History of Political Philosophy, op. cit. pp. 134-135.
[7]. Ibid. pp. 127-142.
[8]. CF. Henry J. Schmandt, Ibid. p. 142.
[9]. See: Ernest Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946), p. 114.
[10]. Henry J. Schmandt, op. cit. p. 162.
[11]. Ibid. p. 160.
[12]. CF. e.g. Thomas Gilby, The Political Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1985), passim.
[13]. CF. Henry J Schmandt. Op.cit. p. 146.
[14]. Ibid. pp. 150-152.
[15]. See: e. g. S. Wolin “Calvin and Reformation: The Political Education of Protestantism” American Political Science Review June, 1957, quoted in Ibid. p. 181.
[16]. Ibid. p. 182.
[17]. See: H. J. Schmandt op. cit. pp. 182-183.
[18]. CF. supra. Chapter IV, Section B. on Luther’s reason to turn away from oppressed peasants who revolted against the status quo, Luther’s main preoccupation was the preservation of social order.
[19]. See: H.J. Grimm, “Luther, Luther’s Critics, and peasant Revolt”, The Lutheran Church Quarterly XIX 1946, pp. 115-132.
[20]. Luther thought it was necessary to keep the sword constantly hanging over people’s heads and to place them under the compulsion to renter full obedience to legitimate authority. See Schmandt, Ibid. p. 180.
[21]. Ibid. p. 264.
[22]. The leaders in the new movement were a group of French liberal minded and writers with an antagonistic stand toward the Church and supporter of Lock and Newton. Voltaire, Diderot, Helventius, and Holbach are among these philosophers.
[23]. Some scholars believe that Rousseau’s doctrine on the nature of the state is inconsistent. Since while he refers to the social contract as the basis of state legitimacy he nonetheless considers it as a moral and collective body with a will of its own separate and apart of the will of its members. See J. J. Rousseau, Social Contract III. 1.
[24]. The nature of utilitarianism or philosophical radicals can be observed in the work of its two most noted representatives: Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This school was a passing phenomenon in English political thought. It did not add much to the political philosophy beyond what Hobbes and others contributed.
[25]. CF. A History of Political Philosophy, op. cit. passim.
[26]. Karl W Deutsch, Political and Government, op. cit. p. 15.
[27]. Ibid. p. 16.
[28]CF. David E. Apter, Introduction to Political Analysis, op. cit. p. 444.
[29]. See: S. Wolin, politics and Religion: Luther’s Simplistic Imperative”, American Political Science Review, March, 1956. p. 33.
[30]. There is another kind of legitimacy mentioned by Professor Karl Deutsch that is legitimacy by result. This concerns with the substance of what is done and what exists in politics and not just with the procedure by which political power is obtained or the representation through which it is exercised. See his Politics and Government, op. cit. p. 18.
[31]. See: A History of Political Philosophy, op. cit. p. 450.
[32]. Idem.
[33]. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and economic organization 2nd edition, translated by A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (Glencoe: Free Press, 1947), passim.
[34]. Ibid. pp. 327329.
[35]. Max Weber, Ibid. P. 327.
[36]. Idem.
[37]. The validity of the office and the authority in power as well as the manner in which the authority I and responsibility of the office-holder is exercised are all established and defined by law. See Idem.
[38]. Max Weber, op. cit. p. 358. Quoted also in Henry J. Schmandt, A History of Political Philosophy, p. 476.
[39]. Idem.
[40]. It is interesting to note that Hitler was described by Herman Goering, one of the Nazi war lords, as the infallible leader that God had sent to save Germany. See his: Germany Reborn (London: Mathews and Marrot, 1934), pp. 79-80. Quoted in H. J. Schmandt op. cit. p. 467.
[41]. The Shah’s downfall in 1979, which resulted the collapse of the constitutional monarchy in Iran, was a direct consequence of the perennial crisis of legitimacy which had existed in Iran’s political tradition, deep rooted in the Islamic (Shiite) concept of state and political authority. See: Infra. Section on Islam and Shiism.
[42]. CF. Bharat Wariavwalla, “Authoritarianism in the Third World”, Strategic Analysis, vol. VIII, No. 12. March 1985 New Delhi, P. 1242.
[43]. For example Argentina has been caught for four decades in the web of charismatic personality of Juan Peron and his wives, Evita and Isabelita (a former strip-tease performer).
[44]. Ibid. P. 1943.
[45]. Hitler hat immer recht.
[46]. Mao Tsetung died in September 1976 two years after launching his second Cultural Revolution. The first blow to Mao’s legacy was the trial of his widow and her colleagues, the so-called “Gang of Four”.

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