Legitimation Crisis and Democratic Functions

by Alfio Cerami                                                                            REV: 5 March 2019

Solidarity becomes not only a key concept for understanding nation-state (or trans-national state) formation, but also a key concept for understanding the democratic stability, and consolidation, of democratic institutions. The work of Montesquieu, Durkheim, Tönnies, Weber, and other “classics of sociology” (such as Talcott Parsons) on the functional, system-stabilizing capacity of state-induced forms of social sharing has widely been discussed (for an overview, see Beckert et al. 20041; Bartolini 20052; Heidenreich 20063). A very brief reminder, however, of Luhmann’s concept of functional differentiated society, of Offe’s thoughts on the democratic functions of modern societies and of Habermas’ reflections on the EU legitimation crisis would be useful to the introduction of the main argument that will be developed in the course of this study.

According to Luhmann (19974), in a functional differentiated society the functions of each sub-system, such as material reproduction (economy), production of new knowledge (science), implementation of collective binding decisions (politics) or the choice of a partner (love) (quoted in Heidenreich 2006, p. 36)5 are not totally unrelated entities (even though they operate independently while tending to respond to their internal logics), but they all contribute, for their part, to the system-stabilizing capacity of a democratic system. In this context, social differences, resulting from on-going processes of inclusion and exclusion in each sub-system, can, if not adequately addressed at the various levels of the decision-making process, produce serious dysfunctional outcomes for society as a whole. This, in the long term, could put at serious risk the stability of the democratic institutions recently introduced.

As Offe (2003a)6 correctly states, a democracy cannot be stabilized if its core functions are not democratized. These democratic functions tend, however, to go beyond simple institutional structures that allow a democratic system to be representative, such as the existence of fair and equal election, free media, checks and balances of powers and instruments of direct democracy (e.g. referendums). Rather, they correspond to the real possibility of citizens having equal access to democratic benefits, such as the absence of any form, in the widest possible sense, of discrimination. What should not be forgotten, as Offe highlights, is that “the modern state does not have a universally recognized “meta-social” mandate from which its legitimacy can be derived, it turns to the “people” as its ultimate source of authority” (Offe 2003b)7.

In the European trans-national environment, the issue concerning the source of ultimate authority becomes strictly linked to the issue of “dysfunctionality”, which must be addressed not only in terms of politics against the markets (Esping-Andersen 1985)8, that is, the ways in which politics can compensate the shortcomings of market negative redistributive outcomes, but also in terms of politics with the markets, that is, the ways in which politics can strengthen the social integration capacity of its institutions (see Iversen 2005)9 through its political, economic, legal and social governance mechanisms being linked to the establishment of a single monetary union10. This also clearly involves the relations with third countries.

In fact, well before the current institutional impasse, Jürgen Habermas had already called attention to the legitimation crisis that governments and international organizations might have faced (see Habermas 1975, 2005)11. This legitimation crisis was understood not only in terms of the redistributive shortcomings of national and international policy-making, but also in terms of failing “communicative” and “coordinative” discourses and actions at the national and international level. It cannot, in this context, be denied that, despite the possible benefits that usually have occurred, the openness of markets to the global economy has exposed European, as well as non European, citizens to greater insecurity (Stiglitz and Charlton 200512; Deacon 2007)13, as well as also increasing the prospects for their possible exclusion in each of the Luhmann’s functional sub-systems. As the data on 30 OECD countries unambiguously show, the last twenty years have been a period of economic growth but also one of growing inequalities (OECD 200814) that is unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term. This is a problem that, so far, national and international institutions have not been able to deal with it, neither through efficient public policies, nor, and this is also as important, through a coherent socio-economic security politics15 understood in terms of effective communicative and coordinative action.


1 Beckert, J. et al. Transnationale Solidarität. Chancen und Grenzen.

2 Bartolini, S. 2005, Restructuring Europe Centre Formation, System Building, and Political Structuring between the Nation State and the European Union, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

3 Heidenreich, M. 2006, “Die Europäisierung sozialer Ungleichheiten zwischen nationaler Solidarität, europäischer Koordinierung und globalem Wettbewerb”, in ed. M. Heidenreich, Die Europäisierung sozialer Ungleichheit. Zur transnationalen Klassen und Sozialstrukturanalyse, Campus, Frankfurt aM.

4 Luhmann, N. 1997, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt aM.

5 Heidenreich, M. Die Europäisierung sozialer Ungleichheiten zwischen nationaler Solidarität, europäischer Koordinierung und globalem Wettbewerb.

6 Offe, C. 2003a, Demokratisierung der Demokratie. Diagnosen und Reformvorschläge, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/New York.

7 Offe, C. 2003b, Herausforderungen der Demokratie. Zur Integrations- und Leistungsfähigkeit politischer Institutionen, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/New York.

8 Esping-Andersen, G. 1985, Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

9 Iversen, T. 2005, Capitalism, Democracy and Welfare, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

10 Please note that I make reference to “the political, economic, legal and social governance mechanisms linked to the establishment of a single monetary union” primarily because, as highlighted by Beckert et al. (2007), markets should be seen as social structures, that is to say, embedded in the wider social environment, culture, law, and politics of a nation (in this case of the EU). Beckert, J., Diaz-Bone, R. and Ganßmann, H., eds, 2007, Märkte als soziale Strukturen, Campus, Frankfurt/New York.

11 Habermas, J. 1975. Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Beacon Press, Boston. Habermas, J. 2005. ‘Nach den Abstimmungs-Debakeln. Europa ist uns über die Köpfe hinweggerollt’, in Süddeutsche Zeitung, 6th June 2005. URL: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/artikel/383/54329/.

12 Stiglitz, J. E. & Charlton, A. 2005, Fair Trade for All. How Trade Can Promote Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

13 Deacon, B. Global Social Policy & Governance.

14 OECD 2008, Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, OECD, Paris.

15 By “socio-economic security politics” here I mean not only the set policies that can be introduced or promoted by national and international institutions, but rather the complex set of economic, political, legal and social principles, policies and procedures that crystallize at different levels of the decision-making process. These can take the form of dominant ideas and discourses on specific political and policy priorities, of public policy instruments aimed at achieving a particular, previously agreed goal, but also of policy-making procedures that once in place may hinder or foster the achievement of determined political and policy outcomes.

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