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The Convulsions of Multi-Institutional Legitimation Crisis

October 14, 2012 by and tagged

Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis know that the legitimation crisis is a pet peeve of mine. As we know since Weber, that the power of the nation-state relies on the monopoly of force (hard power) but also bureaucratic institutions sustained by ideologies that generate legitimacy for the system and the state. I would argue that of part of this triad is over-developed (the hard power part, extended by extensive surveillance systems) while the rest of the system faces a major legitimation crisis not just in the US but throughout the Western world. This post is about the constrictions and reactions to this crisis.

I think that is what the latest data on US religiosity show (more than just secularization):

“For the first time ever, the US no longer has a majority of Protestants as the number of people with no religious affiliation rises, a study has found.

The Pew report found only 48% of adults identified themselves as Protestants, down from 53% five years ago.

The long-expected decline was pinned to a rise in those claiming no religion – about 20% of Americans, the study said.

There are no Protestants on the Republican presidential ticket for the first time this year.

Nor are there any Protestant Supreme Court justices.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said the number of people with no religious affiliation was up five percentage points from 15% in the last five years.

The category includes atheists, as well as people who believe in God or who identify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”.

The study concluded most of the respondents were not seeking new ties within another religious institution.

One third of adults under the age of 30, but just 9% of those older than 65 claimed to have no religious identity.”

And these guys seem pretty set in their non-institutional view:

And they are younger:

The legitimation crisis in the economic and financial sphere is rather obvious. It ties into a crisis of legitimation in the political system not only through the popular cynicism towards political systems throughout Europe and the rise of extremism such as the Greek neo-nazi Golden Dawn. But we can see this as well from political actors themselves, from the systematic lying, an phenomenon understated by the phrase “post-truth politics” (an absurdity if there ever were one as truth remains truth and we are not beyond it. To not tell the truth does not project one into a post- state but into good old-fashioned lying), to efforts to limit voting and democratic accountability over the polity.

The massive corporate funding of politics from financiers combined with extensive and increased surveillance as well as repression of anti-systemic movements tell a story of a system where the power elite thinks it can only maintain its hegemony more bluntly, through hard power (municipal police states at home, never-ending resource wars abroad). The much-denounced 1% probably understand what is happening but, as Atrios repeatedly has told us, either through evil or incompetence, can only imagine policies that maintain their power and wealth but, by making things worse, only precipitate the crisis further.

Take this example:

“The world’s richest woman has equated Australia’s minimum wage to “class warfare,” following her controversial article last week where she called poor workers coddled, lazy drunks. Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart, who inherited her $30 billion fortune and mining empire, pointed to workers who make less than $2 as a model for economic competitiveness in mining.”

Which, of course, would totally solve the demand crisis. Le sigh.

That kind of attitude also fosters the repeated waves of austerity throughout Europe, followed by policy-makers shaking their heads at the fact that contractionary policy is indeed contractionary, followed by exhortations of more austerity, followed by calling the anti-riot police when riots predictably follow.

This is more broadly what Chrystia Freeland’s column is about:

“The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But as the story of Venice shows, virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.

You can see America’s creeping Serrata in the growing social and, especially, educational chasm between those at the top and everyone else. At the bottom and in the middle, American society is fraying, and the children of these struggling families are lagging the rest of the world at school.”

Then, of course, Freeland makes the mistake of taking that old racist hack, Charles Murray, seriously, which is an unforgivable mistake.

But this:

“America’s Serrata also takes a more explicit form: the tilting of the economic rules in favor of those at the top. The crony capitalism of today’s oligarchs is far subtler than Venice’s. It works in two main ways.

The first is to channel the state’s scarce resources in their own direction. This is the absurdity of Mitt Romney’s comment about the “47 percent” who are “dependent upon government.” The reality is that it is those at the top, particularly the tippy-top, of the economic pyramid who have been most effective at capturing government support — and at getting others to pay for it.

Exhibit A is the bipartisan, $700 billion rescue of Wall Street in 2008. Exhibit B is the crony recovery. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty found that 93 percent of the income gains from the 2009-10 recovery went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The top 0.01 percent captured 37 percent of these additional earnings, gaining an average of $4.2 million per household.

The second manifestation of crony capitalism is more direct: the tax perks, trade protections and government subsidies that companies and sectors secure for themselves. Corporate pork is a truly bipartisan dish: green energy companies and the health insurers have been winners in this administration, as oil and steel companies were under George W. Bush’s.”

Which leads to this where the wealthy have to find other strategies to protect their privileges, by any means necessary, which is rooted in a crisis of legitimation of the educational institution as well as a precipitating factor of it:

“Nayeem had cased the room beforehand. His iPhone had spotty service inside Stuyvesant, and he wanted to be sure he’d have a signal. He tested the device in the second seat of the first row—he’d assumed he would be seated alphabetically—and it worked. He tried out the second seat counting from the other side of the room just to be safe—also good. Then he examined the sight lines to both seats from the teacher’s desk—what could the proctor see and not see?—and checked out the seats where he thought some of his friends would be sitting. One was right in front of the teacher. He made a note of that. That kid was out.

Nayeem had cheated on tests before. By his junior year, he and his friends had become fairly well-known procurers of copies of exams handed down from ­students who had taken a class a year or two earlier. But since that wasn’t possible with a Regents Exam, the phone was his method of choice. He’d cheated that way before, too. In his three years at Stuy­vesant, in fact, he’d become somewhat skilled at surreptitiously texting during a test, ­developing a knack for taking out his phone and glancing down at it for just a millisecond without being noticed.

Regents Exams are typically administered for three hours. After two hours, students who are done are allowed to leave. Nayeem is a good physics student. He worked his way through the test quickly, as he knew he would, finishing in an hour and a half. (He’d later learn he received a 97.) His plan had been to use the next half-hour or so to type the multiple-choice answers into his phone, then send them to his friends, all of whom were taking the test at the same time, many in other parts of the school. In return, he expected help from others on future tests. He was the point person on this exam; others would play that role for subjects they excelled in. He and his friends had been helping one another this way for some time.

That day, however, there was a glitch. The proctor was someone Nayeem knew, Hugh Francis, an English teacher, and he was not just sitting at the desk but walking around the room. Francis even caught the girl next to Nayeem using her phone in the first few minutes of the test. While cell phones technically aren’t allowed in city schools, that rule was widely ignored at Stuyvesant.”

So cheating has become a logical response to an elite seeking to protect its privilege in test-based system that makes cheating easier and more tempting because more available.

Another important point here is that cheating is relatively guilt-free for students because they have adopted, following the lead from the media, probably their parents, education “experts” and the overall narrative about education, an instrumental view of education: secondary education gets you into an elite college, which will get you on Wall Street or other elite places. The point of education is the solidification of capital (cultural, economic and social) in the hands of the “1%”, not education per se. This instrumental conception trickles down but in the form of education = job training, or, to use the phrase now in vogue “workforce development” and this is justified by the idea that if education is so costly, then, there must be a visible, tangible return on investment. In that context, one can feel justify to minimize one’s investment (either through minimal investment in individual classes or through cheating).

As for the wealthy, as anyone who has read Richistan knows, there is a cutthroat competition at the very top of the social ladder so that already academically successful students are pushed hard, hence the cheating, because of the fear of falling, even if still within the top 10%.

One could also invoke Robert Merton’s strain theory and see the extensive elite student cheating as a combination of innovation and rebellion, since there is no intent to change the system, just game it and mildly swipe back at it for being treated like a cog in the mighty standardized testing machine. In an individualized society, cheating as collaboration seems like rebellion:

“Some students rationalize cheating as a victimless crime—even an act of ­generosity. Sam ­Eshagoff, one of the students involved in the Long Island SAT scandal, justified taking the test at least twenty times, and charging others up to $2,500 per test to take the exam for them, by casting himself as a sort of savior. “A kid who has a horrible grade-point average, who, no matter how much he studies is going to totally bomb this test,” Eshagoff told 60 Minutes. “By giving him an ­amazing score, I totally give him … a new lease on life.””

What is also obvious is the students’ cynicism towards the test culture, and its enforcers, school officials. So, at one end of the system, policy-makers reduce education and learning to expensive test-taking, deligitimazing the institutions and deprofessionalizing its practitioners (teachers) in the context of administrative bloat. At the other end of the system, students understand the lack of intrinsic value of test scores except as gateway to the maintenance of privilege and therefore gaming the system becomes more legitimate than the system itself.

This cynicism and understanding of what the institution actually does is also present in this piece on the increase in Adderall prescription as academic booster:

“Dr. Anderson’s instinct, he said, is that of a “social justice thinker” who is “evening the scales a little bit.” He said that the children he sees with academic problems are essentially “mismatched with their environment” — square pegs chafing the round holes of public education. Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.


He added, “We might not know the long-term effects, but we do know the short-term costs of school failure, which are real. I am looking to the individual person and where they are right now. I am the doctor for the patient, not for society.””

I would argue that a society where the main institutions face a legitimation crisis is in trouble indeed.

In this context, individualized success (I’m getting mine, screw the rest of you) by any means necessary, combined with cynicism is not unexpected but is problematic. At the same time, the privileged will use their tools, as power elite, to consolidate and preserve their privilege, while, lower on the social ladder, the recipients of increase structural violence struggle to create social movements, or follow the media-led narrowing of the mind by whipping up fears of all sorts, but mostly fears of the other: the dark-skinned, the immigrants, the poor or any convenient scapegoat.

It is, I think, the context for the whole Reddit mess that got exposed with the outing of some vile individual over there. On this, you must go read this piece, by Zeynep Tufekci, especially the idea of norm-shifting:

“Indeed, “norm-shifting” function of the Internet is one of the reasons it has proven to be such a threat to authoritarian regimes.  I’ve heard this repeatedly in interviews and casual conversations in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in Middle East and other authoritarian states. It’s not that the Internet allowed people to necessarily decide what they privately thought—many already thought Ben Ali was corrupt and that Mubarak should go—but there were strong norms, backed by repression, which is another assertion of power, against articulating these views. Everyone held these views privately and did not know whether they were a minority or not (a situation political scientists call “preference falsification.”) That said, those unhappy with the status-quo were in fact majority and young people (the “Facebook generation”) helped expose that by shifting norms about publicly acceptable speech about the regime. They openly pointed out lies, exposed torture, criticized cronyism, and called for change. Over time, it became more and more acceptable to make this assertion in public and this fundamentally transformed public sphere laid the ground for social change.  Letting these creep forums exist on powerful Internet hubs also contributes to norm-shifting in a way that I don’t think anyone can argue is desirable or has anything to do with promoting free speech as a value. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to assert that victimization of children and intimidation of women is not strongly, strongly frowned up.”

I would argue that this case and the defenders of the individual in question also reflect a reactive defense of the questioning of privilege and its calling to account. Privilege, by definition, never has to defend itself, is never called to account, is taken for granted, and is often never exposed as such. In the Reddit case, the hubs were used as a corner where privilege would not be questioned. It is, in that context, not entirely surprising that individual in question was, de facto, an unpaid employee of Reddit.

What does this all amount to? A multi-institutional legitimation crisis where a lot of people find themselves brutally and violently assigned to the precariat, but also a situation where the privileged can see how easily, in this anomic context, their privilege could be questioned and react violently to it (whether it is lashing out on Twitter, or putting out political ads and funding elections or any other privilege consolidating strategy).

Of course, one such strategy can also consist in the highly expensive exercise of throwing oneself from some record-breaking heights. These kinds of David Blaine-style performances are only available to the nicely-funded, members of the leisure class.

On this, here is Marcus Brigstocke on David Blaine:

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