Legitimacy And Politics A Contribution To The Study Of Political Right And Political Responsibility

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Legitimacy and Politics
A Contribution to the Study of Political Right
and Political Responsibility
Jean-Marc Coicaud
United Nations University, Tokyo
New School University, New York
translated and edited by David Ames Curtis
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The translation presents Jean-Marc Coicaud’s Légitimité et politique.
Contribution á l’étude du droit et de la responsabilité politiques
by Presses Universitaires de France 1997
and © Universitaires de France 1997
2002
(Adobe Reader)
©
1 What is political legitimacy?
DEFINITION OF LEGITIMACY: THE RIGHT
TO GOVERN
The problem of legitimacy, which is central in politics, is not the exclu-
sive property of any one discipline. Philosophy and political science, law,
sociology, and political anthropology have all made of it a privileged object
of research. The breadth of the literature on this theme suffices to prove
the point. With each discipline representing a specific way of understand-
ing reality, it is not surprising that the various points of view being advan-
ced offer marked differences. And if one compares the works of various
authors or schools of thought, one finds, even within a given discipline,
some major divergencies. Despite these, there exists a common ground for
understanding: the idea of legitimacy concerns first and foremost the right
to govern. Legitimacy is the recognition of the right to govern. In this re-
gard, it tries to offer a solution to a fundamental political problem, which
consists in justifying simultaneously political power and obedience.
1
To justify power and obedience simultaneously is the first issue involved
in the question of legitimacy. Upon this twofold demonstration depend
both the right to
govern and what results therefrom, political obligation.
But in order for this operation to be successful, it has to fulfil at least
three
complementary conditions that have to do with the domains of consent,
law, and norms, these being in reality indissociable. An examina
tion of
these three notions will allow one to see in what way they are constitutive
of legitimacy.
Consent and legitimacy: from right to political authority
To define legitimacy as the right to govern assumes that consent plays
a major role therein. A study of the public character of right allows one
better to comprehend this argument.
1
See Raymond Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism: A Theory of Political Systems, ed. Roy
Pierce, trans. Valence Ionescu (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ann Arbor Paperback, 1990), p. 24.
10
What is political legitimacy? 11
From a general point of view, right serves to determine what is due to
each individual, that is to say, it serves to establish the just portion that
is to be attributed to him.
2
What is due to each person is precisely what
is called ‘his right’. Now, the right of an individual has meaning only in
relation to an other. The very idea of right presupposes the existence of
a community. In a world in which but a single person lived, right would
have no room to exist. Indeed, as both the result of a conflict and its
antidote, right is connected, on the one hand, to a state of competition
between at least two persons for
the possession of a given good and, on
the other hand, to the creation of a relationship of coexistence.
From this perspective, the public character of right is clear and mani-
fest. Its object being to coordinate the actions among individuals via laws
that delimit what is inalienable and, by way of consequence, what has to
be respected, right helps to set into place a network of sociability.
3
Such a
network allows exchanges to unfold within a fixed framework and under
the form of reciprocity, that is to say, in a tangling together of rights and
duties. For, to each right corresponds a duty.
Obviously, this public space cannot operate without individual consent.
It is, even, the product of the latter. Consent plays, in effect, a decisive
role in the mechanisms of reciprocity. A right whose validity is recognised
by no one does not possess, properly speaking, the character of a right. Its
nature is to be a valid title of property that one enjoys in full security.
4
It
has to be recognised in an incontestable manner. Nonetheless, everything
that is granted to some being necessarily abandoned by the rest, the rights
of individuals can be established only with the aid of a mutual limitation
grounded upon a spirit of compromise and concession.
This is the reason why obligation is the sanction that attests to the
effective actuality of rights: the feeling that we have a right vis-`a-vis an in-
dividual signifies that we recognise his right which presupposes, in turn,
that this individual also credits us with having our right.
5
In other words,
right is an understanding with the other about what constitutes each
one’s portion and about what is mutually due. In organising an ongoing
relationship among individuals, right creates reciprocal expectations that
the consent of each allows to be satisfied.
2
See Michel Villey, Philosophie du droit, 3rd edn, 2 vols. (Paris: Dalloz, 1982), vol. I,
efinitions et fins du droit, p. 146.
3
For the public, because social, character of right, see
´
Emile Durkheim’s The Division of
Labor in Society, trans. W. D. Halls (New York: The Free Press, 1984), p. 81.
4
This is what Montesquieu had in mind when he defined freedom as ‘that tranquillity of
spirit which comes from the opinion each one has of his own security’ (The Spirit of the
Laws, trans. and ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone
(Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 157).
5
See John P. Plamenatz, Consent, Freedom and Political Obligation, 2nd edn (Oxford
University Press, 1968), p. 85.
12 Legitimacy and politics
The importance of consent for right in general proves to be even more
marked when it comes to the right to govern. Through the decisions they
transmit, political institutions commit the society as a whole. Among
these decisions, one can distinguish those that relate to the regulation or
coordination of individuals or particular groupings and those that concern
collective undertakings or actions that mobilise society in its entirety.
6
In
this regard, political institutions settle conflicts that threaten the cohe-
siveness of the community both on the domestic level and on the
foreign
one. To enact a law, to render justice, and to conduct war are typically
political activities. As guarantors of the public space, political institutions
are at once the instrument and the expression of
right. It is what offers
these institutions a position of command and the monopoly on the con-
straints to be exercised. It is also what places consent at the centre of the
right to govern.
Since political institutions act as guarantors of the public space that
is to say, of the relationships of
reciprocity that exist among individu-
als within a given society it is logical that the role they play in coor-
dinating and in conducting collective affair
s will have the character of
law only to the extent that they have the accord of the population. The
consent necessary to the routine exercise of right also assures its proper
unfolding. That is all the more true as the defence of the interests of the
community as a whole helps to ensure that the general conditions for the
survival of the group will prevail, if need be, over this or that particular
right.
Political institutions radicalise in a systematic way the principle of mu-
tual limitation of individual powers, upon which right is based. Far from
imposing only negative obligations
7
as is for example the case in civil
law, where each is to remain in his own sphere and to respect the specific
right of the other political institutions require active participation from
the members of the community. This contribution of cooperation prises
individuals out of their immediate zone of interest and can go as far as
the sacrifice of their lives, especially in time of war.
This possibility of a radical limitation upon individual freedom, which
lies at the very heart of political life, engenders a need for consent in
order to establish the right to govern. The dynamic of rights and duties
presupposes the idea of an agreement about what is being abandoned.
The result is that, the greater the obligation, the higher is the level of
approval needed to establish a rights-based relationship. In order that
6
Our remarks are inspired here by those of Jean-William Lapierre on political systems:
L’Analyse des syst`emes politiques (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1973), pp. 34–35.
7
See the remarks of
´
Emile Durkheim on negative solidarity, in The Division of Labor in
Society,p.75.
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