The State–Weber’s definition, the role of legitimacy & Iraq

The state is an important concept in politics, and it is often one that is difficult to grasp for many students new to the study of comparative politics. Probably the most studied work on the state is that of German social scientist Max Weber, who in a lecture given in 1918 (which would eventually be published in 1919 under the name “The Politics of Vocation”) set out a formal definition of the state, and demonstrated the link between that and what is called “legitimacy”.

Below the fold, I’ll provide what I consider to be the crucial part of Weber’s lecture, with an assessment of how this relates to the contemporary situation in Iraq below:

Quoting Weber:

Sociologically the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones: today the state, or historically, those associations which have been the predecessors of the modern state.

Ultimately one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely the use of political force

…If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, the concept of “state” would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as “anarchy” in the specific sense of this word.

Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state – nobody says that – but force is a means specific to the state.

Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one. In the past the most varied institutions – beginning with the sib – have known the use of physical force as quite normal.

Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that “territory” is one of the characteristics of the state.

Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the “right” to use violence. Hence, “politics” for us means striving to share power, either among states or among groups within a state.

Like the political institutions historically preceding it, the state is a relation of men [sic] dominating men [sic], a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be. When and why do men obey? Upon what inner justifications and upon what external means does this domination rest?

This is where we begin to understand the link between the definition of the state and the role played by legitimacy. If the state is about using legitimate violence to achieve its ends, then we must ask ourselves (as did Weber) on what basis do persons deem something, anything, to be legitimate. Why do we obey? For three different reasons, claims Weber.

First, the authority of the “eternal yesterday“, i.e. of the mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orientation to conform. This is “traditional” domination exercised by the patriarch and the patrimonial prince of yore.

[Second], here is the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma), the absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership. This is “charismatic” domination, as exercised by the prophet or – in the field of politics – by the elected war lord, the plebiscitarian ruler, the great demagogue, or the political party leader.

Finally, there is domination by virtue of “legality“, by virtue of the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional “competence” based on rationally created rules. In this case, obedience is expected in discharging statutory obligations. this is domination as exercised by the modern “servant of the state” and by all those bearers of power who in this respect resemble him.

Control of the state is ultimately at the core of many of the issues that we study in comparative politics, and is certainly at the heart of the matter when thoughts turn to civil war and civil strife. We see a compelling illustration of this in the current situation in Iraq, where the Shia-dominated government has expressed its desire to reign in Sunni militia groups (whose cooperation with US forces has to a large extent contributed to the decrease of violence in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq). From the Guardian newspaper,

Iraq’s Shiite-led government declared Saturday that after restive areas are calmed it will disband Sunni groups battling Islamic extremists because it does not want them to become a separate military force.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish rebel targets, the military said, in the third confirmed cross-border offensive by Turkish forces in less than a week.

The statement from Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi was the government’s most explicit declaration yet of its intent to eventually dismantle the groups backed and funded by the United States as a vital tool for reducing violence.

The militias, more than 70,000 strong and often made up of former insurgents, are known as Awakening Councils, or Concerned Local Citizens.

“We completely, absolutely reject the Awakening becoming a third military organization,” al-Obaidi said at a news conference.

He added that the groups would also not be allowed to have any infrastructure, such as a headquarters building, that would give them long-term legitimacy.

“We absolutely reject that,” al-Obaidi said.

You can find a special report in the New York Times on the nature of the “Anbar Awakening”, the role played by Sunni-dominated militias in subduing Al-Qaeda-inspired forces in Anbar province. It’s not a surprise (the from Guardian excerpt above) that the Sunnis are reticent to give up their newly won military power to the central government in Iraq. How this plays out will, of course be interesting to say the least. For a video report (also from the New York Times) of the “Anbar Awakening”, click here.

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