Performance Legitimacy & Authoritarian Capitalism

Michael Ignatieff was on campus this week to give a lecture on “Human Rights and the Challenge of Authoritarian Capitalism”. It was a wonderful lecture, and in a luncheon with students beforehand he proved himself to be a thoughtful and engaging interlocutor. But it was surprising that not once did he use the phrase “performance legitimacy” in his description of the phenomenon of authoritarian capitalism. One might dismiss this as a simple rhetorical choice, except that considering authoritarian capitalism with explicitly this term in mind forces us to examine more concretely the dynamic from which these regimes derive their legitimacy and in so doing leads us to be more skeptical than was Professor Ignatieff about their long-run durability.*

In short, the concept of performance legitimacy expands on Weber’s three modes of legitimation (rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic) to suggest a fourth, that of socioeconomics or performance. Here is Stephen White‘s description from the paper linked to above, published in 1986:

…this distinctive  legitimation formula, and the political-economic tradeoff upon which it is based, may be described as a “social contract,” “social compact,” or “social compromise.” The regimes concerned provide few of the civil liberties that citizens of the liberal democracies take for granted…on the other hand communist regimes do generally provide a high level of social welfare: a comprehensive educational and health care system, security of employment and stable prices, modest but steadily rising living standards and upward career mobility – all of them sustained by high and steady rates of economic growth within a framework of public ownership and central planning

But of course not so long after this paper was published politburos across Eastern Europe and Central Asia saw it all come crashing down around them, and indeed White writes (in retrospect, rather presciently) a few lines later on:

What has mattered more in the 1970s and 1980s, however, is that communist governments have found it increasingly difficult to deliver their side of the politico-economic contract; in particular they have suffered from generally declining rates of economic growth…

In the post-Soviet (for Russia and many Central Asian states – post-Mao really in the case of China) era the agreement authoritarian capitalist states now maintain with their citizens (subjects might be a better word here) has slightly different characteristics from the one White describes, but the general concept still holds, recast as a sacrifice of public political freedoms in exchange for private economic ones. Ultimately, legitimacy is still predicated on the state serving as an effective steward of the economy – it’s just that now stewardship doesn’t mean Gosplan, it means a dirty float for the ruble and favorable treatment for oil firms with connections to the state apparatus.

Especially during the Great Recession, and now with Europe’s having taken up temporary residence in the economic doldrums, the success of capitalist authoritarians like China and Russia in maintaining their economic dynamism and widespread public support in the absence of free and fair elections has been cited frequently as a challenge to the Lipsetian theory that a rising GDP per capita will create a middle class increasingly desirous of the public political rights it has sacrificed to gain access to greater economic prosperity. But there are real fears in China’s Communist Party leadership that their position in power would become profoundly precarious should growth falter too much (GDP increases of 7%/year are commonly cited as the minimum expectation) – fears that Professor Ignatieff himself recognized with his use of the “the Chinese regime is riding a bicycle” metaphor so frequently deployed to encapsulate this dynamic.**

His contention seemed at its core to be that this pact between a middle class with relative economic freedom and their authoritarian capitalist overlords is far more durable than analyses to date have allowed, but my counter-contention is that applying the term “performance legitimacy” forces us to recognize that, far from being a permanent feature of the landscape, this pact is an explicit, ongoing, and dynamic negotiation in which consent can be revoked at any time by the silent majority which has so far tacitly approved the state’s trampling on civil liberties as an acceptable price to pay for rapid convergence with Western living standards.*** The presence of the word performance serves to emphasize the durational character of the relationship; state legitimacy is only ensured insofar as it can continuously function as a provider of economic growth – reaching a certain level of GDP per capita is, on its own, only relevant as a waypoint to another, higher one.

Emphasizing the necessity of ongoing and uninterrupted growth for the viability of the authoritarian capitalist model then forces us to consider the conditions requisite for that very growth. If you take the view that escaping the middle-income trap is in part (entirely?) reliant on having an economy capable of fostering creative service sector work and high-level innovation then it’s not hard to see authoritarian capitalist states hitting something of a ceiling as the people who can and want to work in those types of economies also enjoy being able to do things like use Facebook. In this way the Lipsetian argument (which correlates rising GDP per capita and demand for democracy) and the concept of performance legitimacy are no longer at loggerheads, the viability of the latter eventually giving way to the demands of the former.

I don’t expect Russia or China (or Kazakhstan or other authoritarian capitalist states) to fall apart tomorrow, and there is no guarantee they would be replaced with democracies if they did.**** But if we correctly understand the dynamics which underpin these types of state as performative and perpetual, these types of states look far more brittle than Professor Ignatieff believes they are.

*For the record, none of this is to suggest I think Professor Ignatieff is somehow unaware of the concept of performance legitimacy. I just thought it was odd he never addressed it
**The idea being that, in the same way a rider on a bicycle has to keep going forward at a good rate of speed to avoid falling over, so too must the Chinese Communist Party “ride” rapid economic growth to keep from being toppled
***I don’t mean to say we should call something a thing that it is not just to let us think about it in happier ways. Rather, if Professor Ignatieff and I are observing the same phenomenon, calling it one thing as opposed to another might lead to a different assessment of implications
****You can fairly plausibly imagine the Chinese Communist Party being replaced with a virulently nationalist, authoritarian, and perhaps even more statist government