We Need a Modern Thomas Paine
Published on Sunday, August 4, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
We Need a Modern Thomas Paine
by J. William Gibson
 

The real test of a social science is whether it helps us make sense of our world in times of dramatic political and economic change. Sociology offers one such concept: the "legitimation crisis." Briefly put, leaders of major institutions--economic, political, social, religious, etc.--need the consent of those they manage. They must show themselves morally fit to rule. When it becomes evident that these leaders have betrayed fundamental values, broken laws or behaved incompetently, a legitimation crisis is created.

The nation is now suffering through such a crisis.

High-level corporate managers have artificially inflated profits by keeping funny books. As a result, some of their companies are failing. No one knows how many more workers will lose their jobs, or how many more thousands of people will watch their retirement funds shrink. Because the corporate world has lost credibility, the stock market has been steadily declining; trillions of dollars in personal wealth have vanished.

While the Democrats desperately want to blame Republicans for the crisis in corporate governance, they share responsibility. Democracy 21, a group advocating campaign finance reform, reports that over the last 10 years, corporations gave $636 million to Republicans and $449 million to Democrats. That money helped buy big business political protection from governmental regulation and undoubtedly emboldened corporate executives into thinking that they could get away with just about anything.

The public has lost faith in other U.S. institutions as well.

Bureaucratic rivalry within the nation's intelligence apparatus may have prevented the government from heading off the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The military's war against terrorism in Afghanistan isn't going as well as it first appeared.

The U.S. mode of warfare threatens both the precarious Afghan regime and the legitimacy of the war. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in U.S. bombing raids, and two members of Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's Cabinet have been assassinated as old ethnic tensions and warlord rivalries have resurfaced.

When economic and political leaders fail, it's natural to look to civil society--churches, schools, universities and foundations--for moral leadership. But that doesn't offer much of an option either. The American Catholic Church has been disgraced by revelations of priestly pedophilia. University presidents are too engaged in boosterism and fund-raising to risk saying anything that might offend a potential donor. The public school system, a key element of U.S. democracy and a source of pride for the country, fails to educate too many of our children.

Legitimation crises are not new in America. The country went through one during the 1972-74 Watergate scandal, when Nixon administration officials illegally raised campaign money, drew up enemies lists and spied on the radical antiwar and civil rights movements, and even mainstream Democrats. But two years of investigation by the news media and a U.S. Senate select committee revealed the abuses, and in August 1974 the House Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon, leading to his resignation. One part of the U.S. democratic system stopped the corruption and abuse of power of another, and the crisis was resolved.

The current legitimation crisis is different because almost the entire institutional order is affected. As odd as it sounds, the decline of feudalism in the 17th and 18th centuries offers a historical analogy. For centuries, the feudal elite, made up of royal families interconnected with landowning nobility and the upper echelon of the Catholic Church, controlled the lives of peasants in the countryside and the merchant and artisan classes in the cities. But the intellectuals of the Enlightenment and the rising middle and working classes in the cities saw themselves as the vanguard of a new society. They criticized traditional feudal authority and advocated the separation of church and state, democracy, rights of free speech and assembly, and a market economy. Over time, these thinkers and doers undermined the legitimacy of feudalism. The American and French revolutions finished the job.

This sketch of the decline of feudal legitimacy brings into focus what the present legitimation crisis lacks--an organized opposition. Reporters interview workers and managers who've lost their jobs or lost their retirement funds, but, so far, their individual anger hasn't been channeled into a collective demand for dramatic change.

Feudalism's legitimation crisis was in part sparked by alternative visions of the good society. Even in colonial America, which did not suffer the worst of feudal abuses, critics such as Thomas Paine commanded attention as the public pondered what kind of society it wanted to be. His "Rights of Man" sold more than 250,000 copies in its first year.

Today, a serious political treatise becoming a bestseller and the talk of the country seems almost impossible, in part because the advocacy of major social and political change is risky. Twenty years of conservative critiques have taken their toll. Concern about the common good, as opposed to the sanctity of the private market, has been nearly discredited. To be called a liberal is to be deemed mushy, naive and ignorant; to be called a radical is even worse. Nevertheless, the only long-term solution to the legitimation crisis is radical--an organized opposition movement to make elites more accountable, and a renewed discussion of the public good.

Right now, such business reforms as increasing the prison terms of criminally convicted executives seems the most likely outcome. But the reforms signed by President Bush last week don't go far enough. For example, legislation requiring corporations to treat stock options as a business expense didn't pass. Nor has anything been done to help the victims of corporate fraud recover their losses. Such shady business practices as reincorporating headquarters overseas to avoid taxes remain legal.

Over time, the political system's failure to go beyond halfway measures may make the legitimation crisis worse. It's not hard to imagine the widespread withdrawal of people's loyalties to society's mainstream institutions. Our voting rates, already the lowest among the advanced capitalist countries, will continue to decline, so elites will feel even less pressure from below.

And as governments form that are voted into power by an ever-smaller fraction of the populace, fewer people will feel those administrations and the policies they pursue to be legitimate. It's a grim scenario. Under such circumstances, no democracy can endure.

J. William Gibson is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and author of "Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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