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Chapter 6

Theorems of Legitimation Crisis

by Jürgen Habermas



From: Jürgen Habermas [1975] Legitimation Crisis
Boston: Benon Press. pp. 68-75.
Translated by Thomas McCarthy.
Translation of: Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus [1973]
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

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The concept of the rationality crisis is modelled after that of the economic crisis. According to that concept, contradictory steering imperatives assert themselves through the purposive-rational actions not of market-participants but of members of the administration; they manifest themselves in contradictions that directly threaten system integration and thus endanger social integration

We have seen that an economic system crisis can be counted on only as long as political disputes (class struggles) maintain and do not change institutional boundary conditions of capitalist production (for example, the Chartist movement and introduction of the normal working day). To the extent that the class relationship has itself been repoliticized and the state has taken over market-replacing as well as market-supplementing tasks (and made possible a ‘more elastic’ form of production of surplus value), class domination can no longer take the anonymous form of the law of value. Instead, it now depends on factual constellations of power whether, and how, production of surplus value can be guaranteed through the public sector, and how the terms of the class compromise look. With this development, crisis tendencies shift, of course, from the economic into the administrative system. Indeed, the self-containment of exchange processes, mediated only through the market, is destroyed. But after the liberal-capitalist spell of commodity production is broken (and all participants have become, more or less, good practitioners of value theory), the unplanned, nature-like development of economic processes can re-establish itself, at least in secondary form, in the political system. The state must preserve for itself a residue of unconsciousness in order that there accrue to it from its planning functions no responsibilities that it cannot honor without overdrawing its accounts. Thus, economic crisis tendencies continue on the plateau of raising, and expending in a purposive-rational way, the requisite fiscal means.

But, if we do not wish to fall back on theorems of economic crisis, governmental activity can find a necessary limit only in available legitimations. As long as motivations remain tied to norms requiring justification, the introduction of legitimate power into the reproduction process means that the »fundamental contradiction« can break out in a questioning, rich in practical consequences, 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 sufficiently sedimented pre-determinations. Because the economic crisis has been intercepted and transformed into a systematic overloading of the public budget, it has put off the mantle of a natural fate of society. If governmental crisis management fails, it lags behind programmatic demands that it has placed on itself. The penalty for this failure is withdrawal of legitimation. Thus, the scope for action contracts precisely at those moments in which it needs to be drastically expanded.

Underlying this crisis theorem is the general reflection that a social identity determined indirectly, through the capability of securing-system integration, is constantly vulnerable on the basis of class structures. For the problematic consequences of the processed and transformed fundamental contradiction of social production for non-generalizable interests are concentrated, as O’Connor tries to show, in the focal region of the stratified raising and particularistic employment of the scarce quantities of taxes that a policy of crisis avoidance exhausts and overdraws. On the one hand, administrative and fiscal filtering of economically conditioned crisis tendencies makes the fronts of repeatedly fragmented class oppositions less comprehensible. The class compromise weakens the organizational capacity of the latently continuing classes. On the other hand, scattered secondary conflicts also become more palpable, because they do not appear as objective systemic crises, but directly provoke questions of legitimation. This explains the functional necessity of making the administrative system, as far as possible, independent of the legitimating system.

This end is served by the separation of instrumental functions of the administration from expressive symbols that release an unspecific readiness to follow. Familiar strategies of this kind are the personalization of substantive issues, the symbolic use of hearings, expert judgments, juridical incantations, and also the advertising techniques (copied from oligopolistic competition) that at once confirm and exploit existing structures of prejudice and that garnish certain contents positively, others negatively, through appeals to feeling, stimulation of unconscious motives, [l] etc. The public realm [Öffentlichkeit], set up for effective legitimation, has above all the function of directing attention to topical areas — that is, of pushing other themes, problems, and arguments below the threshold of attention and, thereby, of withholding them from opinion-formation. The political system takes over tasks of ideology planning (Luhmann). In so doing, maneuvering room is, to be sure narrowly limited, for the cultural system is peculiarly resistant to administrative control. There is no administrative production of meaning. Commercial production and administrative planning of symbols exhausts the normative force of counterfactual validity claims. The procurement of legitimation is self-defeating as soon as the mode of procurement is seen through.

Cultural traditions have their own, vulnerable, conditions of reproduction. They remain ‘living’ as long as they take shape in an unplanned, nature-like manner, or are shaped with hermeneutic consciousness. (Whereby hermeneutics, as the scholarly interpretation and application of tradition, has the peculiarity of breaking down the nature-like character of tradition as it is handed on and, nevertheless, of retaining it at a reflective level.) [2] The critical appropriation of tradition destroys this nature-like character in discourse. (Whereby the peculiarity of critique consists in its double function [3]: to dissolve analytically, or in a critique of ideology, validity claims that cannot be discursively redeemed; but, at the same time, to release the semantic potentials of the tradition.) [4] To this extent, critique is no less a form of appropriating tradition than hermeneutics. In both cases appropriated cultural contents retain their imperative force, that is, they guarantee the continuity of a history through which individuals and groups can identify with themselves and with one another. A cultural tradition loses precisely this force as soon as it is objectivistically prepared and strategically employed. In both cases conditions for the reproduction of cultural traditions are damaged, and the tradition is undermined. This can be seen in the museum-effect of a hedonistic historicism, as well as in the wear and tear that results from the exploitation of cultural contents for administrative or market purposes. Apparently, traditions can retain legitimizing force only as long as they are not torn out of interpretive systems that guarantee continuity and identity.

The structural dissimilarity between areas of administrative action and areas of cultural tradition constitutes, then, a systematic limit to attempts to compensate for legitimation deficits through conscious manipulation. Of course, a crisis argument can be constructed from this only in connection with the broader point that the expansion of state activity produces the side effect of a disproportionate increase in the need for legitimation. I consider a disproportionate increase probable, not only because the expansion of administratively processed matters makes necessary mass loyalty for new functions of state activity, but because the boundaries of the political system vis-a-vis the cultural system shift as a result of this expansion. In this situation, cultural affairs that were taken for granted, and that were previously boundary conditions for the political system, fall into the administrative planning area. Thus, traditions withheld from the public problematic, and all the more from practical discourses, are thematized. An example of such direct administrative processing of cultural tradition is educational planning, especially curriculum planning. Whereas school administrations formerly merely had to codify a canon that had taken shape in an unplanned, nature-like manner, present curriculum planning is based on the premise that traditional patterns could as well be otherwise. Administrative planning produces a universal pressure for legitimation in a sphere that was once distinguished precisely for its power of self-legitimation. [5] Other examples of the indirect perturbation of matters taken culturally for granted can be found in regional and city planning (private ownership of land), in planning the health system (‘classless hospital’), and, finally, in family planning and marriage laws (which relax sexual taboos and lower the thresholds of emancipation). The end effect is a consciousness of the contingency, not only of the contents of tradition, but also of the techniques of tradition, that is, of socialization. Formal schooling is competing with family upbringing as early as at the pre-school age. The problematization of childrearing routines can be seen in the popular pedagogical [volkspädagogischen] tasks that schools are assuming through parental rights and individual consultations, as well as in the pedagogical-psychological, scientific journalism on the subject. [6]

At every level, administrative planning produces unintended unsettling and publicizing effects. These effects weaken the justification potential of traditions that have been flushed out of their nature-like course of development. Once their unquestionable character has been destroyed, the stabilization of validity claims can succeed only through discourse. The stirring up of cultural affairs that are taken for granted thus furthers the politicization of areas of life previously assigned to the private sphere. But this development signifies danger for the civil privatism that is secured informally through the structures of the public realm. Efforts at participation and the plethora of alternative models —especially in cultural spheres such as school and university, press, church, theater, publishing, etc.— are indicators of this danger, as is the increasing number of citizens' initiatives. [7]

Demands for, and attempts at, participatory planning can also be explained in this context. Because administrative planning increasingly affects the cultural system —that is, the deep-seated representations of norms and values of those affected— and renders traditional attitudes uncertain, the threshold of acceptability changes. In order to carry through innovations in the planning process, the administration experiments with the participation of those affected. Of course, the functions of participation in governmental planning are ambivalent. [8] Gray areas arise in which it is not clear whether the need for conflict regulation is increased or decreased by participation. The more planners place themselves under 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 the administration cannot satisfy under conditions of an asymmetrical class compromise; and conservative resistance to planning, which contracts the horizon of planning and lowers the degree of innovation possible. Socio-psychologically viewed, both motives can be integrated into the same antagonistic interpretive pattern. Thus, analytically separable types of opposition can be represented by the same group. For this reason, laying claim to the ‘labor power of participation’ (Naschold) is an extreme and, for the administration, risky means of meeting legitimation deficits.

These arguments lend support to the assertion that advanced-capitalist societies fall into legitimation difficulties. But are they sufficient to establish the insolubility of legitimation problems, that is, do they lead necessarily to the prediction of a legitimation crisis? Even if the state apparatus were to succeed in raising the productivity of labor and in distributing gains in productivity in such a way that an economic growth free of crises (if not disturbances) were guaranteed, growth would still be achieved in accord with priorities that take shape as a function, not of generalizable interests of the population, but of private goals of profit maximization. The patterns of priorities that Galbraith analyzed from the point of view of ‘private wealth versus public poverty’ [9] result from a class structure that is, as usual, kept latent. In the final analysis, this class structure is the source of the legitimation deficit.

We have seen now that the state cannot simply take over the cultural system, and that expansion of the areas of state planning actually makes problematic matters that were formerly culturally taken for granted. »Meaning» is a scarce resource and is becoming ever scarcer. Consequently, expectations oriented to use values —that is, expectations monitored by success— are rising in the civil public. The rising level of demand is proportional to the growing need for legitimation. The fiscally siphoned-off resource »value« must take the place of the scanty resource »meaning«. Missing legitimation must be offset by rewards conforming to the system. A legitimation crisis arises as soon as the demands for such rewards rise faster than the available quantity of value, or when expectations arise that cannot be satisfied with such rewards.

But why should not the levels of demand keep within the boundaries of the operating capacity of the political-economic system? It could, after all, be that the rate of the rise in level of demand is such that it forces on the steering and maintenance systems precisely those processes of adaptation and learning possible within the limits of the existing mode of production. The obvious post-war development of advanced-capitalist societies supports the view that this has already occurred. [10] As long as the welfare-state program, in conjunction with a widespread, technocratic common consciousness (which, in case of doubt, makes inalterable system restraints responsible for bottlenecks) can maintain a sufficient degree of civil privatism, legitimation needs do not have to culminate in a crisis.

Claus Offe and his collaborators question whether the form of procuring legitimation does not make it necessary for competing parties to outbid one another in their programs and thereby raise the expectations of the population ever higher and higher. This could result in an unavoidable gap between the level of pretension and the level of success, which would lead to disappointments among the voting public. [11] The competitive democratic form of legitimation would then generate costs that it could not cover. Assuming that this argument could be sufficiently verified empirically, we would still have to explain why formal democracy has to be retained at all in advanced-capitalist societies. If one considers only the functional conditions of the administrative system, it could as well be replaced by variants: a conservative-authoritarian welfare state that reduces political participation of citizens to a harmless level; or a fascist-authoritarian state that holds the population by the bit at a relatively high level of permanent mobilization without having to overdraw its account through welfare-state measures. Both variants are, in the long run, obviously less compatible with developed capitalism than the constitution of a mass democracy with government by parties, for the socio-cultural system produces demands that cannot be met in authoritarian systems.

This reflection supports my thesis that only a rigid socio-cultural system, incapable of being randomly functionalized for the needs of the administrative system, could explain a sharpening of legitimation difficulties into a legitimation crisis. A legitimation crisis can be predicted only if expectations that cannot be fulfilled either with the available quantity of value or, generally, with rewards conforming to the system are systematically produced. A legitimation crisis then, must be based on a motivation crisis — that is, 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 the other.


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Editor dr. Albert Benschop
Social & Behavioral Studies
University of Amsterdam
Created September, 1995
Last modified 23rd January, 2017