Thursday, 4 August 2016

POLITICAL LEGITIMACY IN THE THOUGHT OF POUL ANDERSON, by Sean M. Brooks

In this essay I wish to summarize, quote, and comment on what I found in some of the works of Poul Anderson on the issue of political legitimacy. One very important point to be found in his thought where it touches on politics is his insistence on the need for the state, any state, to be LEGITIMATE, for it to believe itself having the right to govern and for its people to also believe it is legitimate.  And it does not matter what form, republic or monarchy (or any other form), a state has--it still needs to be regarded as legitimate if it is to govern reasonably well (or at least not too badly).

In THE REBEL WORLDS we see Dominic Flandry doing his best to ruin the revolt of an Imperial admiral, Hugh McCormac, against the reigning Emperor, Josip III.  And this despite McCormac being a vastly better and more able man than Josip.  In Chapter XV we see Flandry explaining to McCormac himself why a successful usurpation would have been disastrous for the Empire: "You'd have destroyed the principle of legitimacy.  The Empire will outlive Josip.  Its powerful vested interests, its cautious bureaucrats, its size and inertia, will keep him from doing enormous harm.  But if you took the throne by force, why shouldn't another discontented admiral do the same in another generation?  And another and another, till civil wars rip the Empire to shreds.  Till the Merseians come in, and the barbarians.  You yourself hired barbarians to fight Terrans, McCormac.  No odds whether or not you took precautions, the truth remains that you brought them in, and sooner or later we'll get a rebel who doesn't mind conceding them territory.  And the Long Night falls."

I quoted the bit about the principle of legitimacy to Poul Anderson in my first letter to him and asked why Flandry later supported a usurper who had seized the throne by force.  In a letter dated 8 May 1978 Anderson replied: "As a matter of fact, you are not the first to point out the inconsistency in Flandry's remarks about legitimacy as the basic necessity of government, in THE REBEL WORLDS,  and the fact that later he supported Hans Molitor, whose only claim to the throne was sheer force.  Perhaps I should have spelled out in more detail what was left implicit: that Flandry was making the best of a bad situation."

An admirably clear statement of Flandry's views about legitimacy can be found nearly forty years later in Chapter VI of A STONE IN HEAVEN: "Once as a young fellow I found myself supporting the abominable Josip against McCormac--Remember McCormac's Rebellion?  He was infinitely the better man.  Anybody would have been.  But Josip was the legitimate Emperor; and legitimacy is the root and branch of government.  How else, in spite of the cruelties and extortions and ghastly mistakes it's bound to perpetrate--how else, by what right, can it command loyalty?  If it is not the servant of Law, then it is nothing but a temporary convenience at best.  At worse, it's raw force."

As a conservative/libertarian Poul Anderson was very skeptical of the state and frequently warned in his works of how easily tyranny can arise.  And he declared democracies were more prone in some ways to becoming tyrannical than other forms of government.  A good example of one of his characters expressing libertarian skepticism about the state or a society can be found in Chapter XXI of OPERATION CHAOS,  Steven Matuchek speaking: "I wouldn't think much of a youngster who never felt an urge to kick the God of Things As They Are in his fat belly.  It's too bad that most people lose it as they get old and fat themselves.  The Establishment is often unendurably smug and stupid, the hands it folds so piously are often bloodstained."  I immediately thought of "legalized" abortion as one of those bloody horrors we tolerate too easily and smugly.

However, Poul Anderson was also a conservative and realist who knew the state was a necessity, as this additional quote from the same Chapter XXI of OPERATION CHAOS shows: "And yet...and yet...it's the only thing between us and the Dark Ages that'd have to intervene before another and probably worse Establishment could arise to restore order.  And don't kid yourself that none would.  Freedom is a fine thing until it becomes somebody else's freedom to enter your house, kill, rob, rape, and enslave the people you care about.  Then you'll accept any man on horseback who promises to bring some predictability back into life, and you yourself will give him his saber and knout."  In other words, every state has bloody origins or will have blood on its hands. And I argue that one means for any state becoming less tyrannical is for it to become accepted as legitimate.

In the Introduction he wrote for the Gregg Press (1978) edition of THE LONG WAY HOME, one of his earlier novels, Poul Anderson said on page v: "You'll note where a born-and-bred slave, intelligent and well-educated, argues in favor of slavery as an institution with the shocked hero.  I intended the incident as a touch of character and background.  After all, people usually do support the regimes under which they live, if only passively.  No government which lacked that kind of acceptance would last a day.  It is a sad commentary on our species--a commentary I thought I was making--that by and large, the most monstrous tyrannies have been endured, yes, excused by their most immediate victims."  The points I'm stressing being how that ACCEPTANCE fits in with what I quoted from OPERATION CHAOS and how it's a necessary condition before any government can survive and be thought legitimate.  I want to prevent a possible misunderstanding about THE LONG WAY HOME: the regime ruling Earth in that book, the Technon, is NOT that bad.  It compares favorably to many actually existing regimes in our real world.

It's my belief that what matters is whether a government rules not too intolerably badly, more or less respects the rights of all its people, and accepts limitations on its powers, not what form it has.  If a republic or monarchy is accepted by its people as rightful and governs not too badly, then I have to say that kind of government is legitimate for that nation. Which means I disagree with dogmatists who rigidly insist that only ONE kind of government is right for everybody, for every nation.  And Poul Anderson would agree with me as this additional bit quoted from his letter of 8 May 1978 shows: "...I've long felt that legitimacy is the basic problem of any government and demand ["insist" might have been a better word, SMB] upon it.  Legitimacy can have any number of sources in different societies, such as tradition, religion, or heredity; in our country [the USA],  the Declaration [of Independence] and the Preamble [to the US Constitution] spell out  quite explicitly the basis on which the government claims its own rights.  But what does one do when this set of principles is no longer taken into account?  I doubt that much is possible except supporting whatever strong-arm contender seems likeliest to give the people a breathing spell."

In his letter of 31 December 1978, Poul Anderson wrote to me discussing, among other things, responses to my comments and questions in a letter I had written asking why so many in the Flandry stories despised (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) the Terran Empire.  Part of his reply was a summarizing of the American theory of legitimacy in greater detail: "Perhaps the most succinct formulation is in the Declaration of Independence--though it takes for granted a contractual theory of legitimacy, whereas in fact governments have claimed legitimacy on many different bases.  The ultimate point is that most people will accept their government as rightful, and be prepared to make great sacrifices for it, as long as they perceive it as serving--however imperfectly--the larger interests of its society.  When it ceases to do that, it loses all claim on their loyalty, and any service it gets is mostly from expediency or, still more, fear."

I discussed the Chinese Confucian theory of legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven, in a later letter (dated 18 November 1979)  to Poul Anderson, who responded (21 November 1979) that he was aware of the Chinese theory of legitimacy.  Anderson said that the Maoist conquest of mainland China fitted the Mandate of Heaven pattern in many ways, despite the Communists denying that and trying (for many years, SMB) to "scrub" (PA's term) Confucius from the culture. He even wondered if, even then (about 1979), the  Mandate of Heaven theory was not yet dead.  I mentioned the Confucian theory of legitimacy to give another real world example of a theory of rightful government.  Only time will tell if the old Chinese theory of legitimacy is dead or not.

Poul Anderson was a masterful writer deeply knowledgeable not only in the sciences but also in history and philosophy.  All of which gives unusual depth and  nuance to his works. Who were some of the saints and philosophers who helped to shape his beliefs about history?  To answer that question I'll again quote from his letter of 31 December 1978: "Turning to less profound matters, you ask why my imaginary Terran Empire is so despised by so many characters in the stories.  To explain in detail would require a book on the philosophy of history, with references to authors as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas, Rousseau, Locke, Toynbee, Voegelin...well, the list alone would take longer to write down than I have time for." Anderson would soon include the work of John K. Hord as a major influence shaping his philosophy of history, especially as regards how civilizations rose and fell (see Anderson's article: "Concerning Future Histories," BULLETIN OF THE SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS OF AMERICA, Fall 1979, pages 10-11).

(I have argued with Poul Anderson that he was sometimes too hard on the Terran Empire.  I gave arguments  in others of my letters for believing it was not as bad as some of his characters thought it was.  I wrote that compared to many actually existing regimes, the Empire looks far better, even very GOOD, compared to them.)

I must urge readers not to be deceived by my ponderous commentary on some of the works of Poul Anderson--they are FUN to read, well written, and with very plausibly described backgrounds and character development.  Anderson never let his deep and learned interest in philosophy and history to get in the way of what he modestly called his primary job: telling stories readers will enjoy and want to read and reread.

31 comments:

  1. Sean,
    Thank you. A very good article and it looks good with that cover image.
    Paradox: if the bulk of a population supports a monarchy, then anyone who tries to overthrow the monarchy and replace it with democratic institutions is acting undemocratically.
    Anderson's treatment of the issue of legitimacy bears out my argument that his future history series is a substantial work - more so than any others that I know of.
    Paul.

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  2. I advise blog readers to google the "Mandate of Heaven." It is not the same as the European "divine right of kings."

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    1. Kaor, Paul!

      Many thanks for publishing this article in your blog! And my thanks for Ketlan for his assistance.

      If a monarchy is old, deeply rooted, and beloved by most of its people, it certainly would be undemocratic for a "democrat" to overthrow it. Nor I do I think it is necessarily contradictory to associate monarchy with "democracy." Esp. if the monarchy includes a reasonably open and independent legislative body.

      The origins of this article lay in my frustration at being unable to contribute to repeated debates about monarchies or republics in John Wright's blog (due to the mess I made about renewing my "registration" there). NEITHER the defenders or attackers of monarchy ever said a single word about LEGITIMACY, about how that can take many different forms in many states. Nothing was said, I think, about how things like history, custom, law, religion, culture, etc., shapes the forms many governments have taken.

      If I had been able to comment on Mr. Wright's blog, I would have quoted much of what I took from Poul Anderson's letters and works about legitimacy. I thought the arguments pro and con weak and unsatisfactory precisely because of the lack of any serious discussion of legitimacy.

      John Wright is a philosopher who writes SF, so quoting Poul Anderson on a blog often devoted to discussion of SF would have made sense.

      Sean

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    2. Sean,
      Is there any way you can send a link to this article to Mr Wright and/or his blog?
      Paul.

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    3. Kaor, Paul!

      Yes, I can send this article to Mr. Wright. He is a busy man so I don't know if he will respond.

      Sean

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    4. That blog's loss has been our gain.

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    5. Kaor, Paul!

      Many thanks! Esp. since your blog focuses on the works of Poul Anderson and writers comparable to him. I would only stress it's my fault I can no longer comment on Mr. Wright's blog, due to me somehow botching up renewing my registration there.

      Sean

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  3. Sean:
    Terry Pratchett had a line in one of his books about how one of the main character's ancestors executed an evil king (prone to torturing people, and strongly hinted at being a child-molester). The reformer then offered the city-state's people democracy. When they learned of the intellectual labor necessary to make informed decisions for a successful democracy, the people VOTED AGAINST IT.

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    1. Hi, David!

      Evil kings, presidents, chairmen, etc., are all too plausible considering our fallen human nature! And I THINK I remember Poul Anderson saying similar things about the state, esp. in "The Master Key."

      I really hope I'm wrong, but I've seen comments about how the late, unlamented Chairman Mao in China had a fancy for VERY young girls.

      Sean

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    2. Sean,
      Your articles have a good effect on page views: 613 so far today. Make sure to email a link to friends and contacts.
      Paul.

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    3. That has just shot up to 636.

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    4. Kaor, Paul!

      Very flattering, the steep jump in page views! I certainly hope my essay interested readers. And I hope some will leave their own comments.

      Yes, given my share of human egotism, I will be sending the link to this article to various friends and relatives. (Smiles)

      And I did send the link to this essay to Mr. Wright! I hope he responds, if he has time.

      Sean

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    5. Kaor, Paul!

      I'm amazed! At the sheer number of page views on July 29, UK time. AND the astonishing number it's continuing to get. If it's because of my essay, I'm naturally flattered that so many found it interesting to read.

      I hope some will comment about my article, both pro and con.

      Sean

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    6. Kaor, Paul!

      Could you make some small corrections to mistakes I made in my article? In the second paragraph, in the next to the last sentence, could you eliminate the "n" in "nor"? It should be "or," not "nor."

      In the fifth paragraph, the second sentence has the word "become." Could you change that to "becoming"?

      Apologies for my nit picking!

      Sean

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    7. We have just reached 1,000 page views since 01:00 AM today, our first time ever in 4 digits - although Sean's articles have previously had a good effect on page views.

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    8. Kaor, Paul!

      I'm STILL amazed at the idea MY essay may be why, just now, your blog is getting so many visits. I can think of one possible reason, recent events are disturbing many, many people. Such as the far too numerous attacks by jihadist fanatics, the UK's decision to leave the failed EU, the unhappiness and frustration many in the US are feeling, etc. All this may be causing some to fundamentally question current leaders and policies.

      Sean

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    9. Sean,
      We have had good publicity on facebook - and some of your previous articles drew more page views. The current count for today, counting from 1:00 am, is 1275.
      Paul.

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  4. John C. Wright very kindly reprinted on his blog this essay of mine. And three persons, Bushi, Robert R Chase, Lliamander, left very friendly comments in the combox. To these persons I give my thanks and apologize for not doing so at Mr. Wright's blog.

    Bushi has said he will soon be reading his first Anderson book, THE HIGH CRUSADE. That is a very good way of beginning to delve into PA's works. And Mr. Chase has said that Anderson's "No Truce With Kings" strongly affects him. From the POV of politics that story criticizes both secret attempts at "helping" people and the urge for huge, centralized states of any kind.

    Lliamander offered very thoughtful comments about the way SOCIAL institutions like the media, academia, etc., plays a role in legitimizing the state. And Lliamander suggested that once social institutions become corrupt, that will inevitably affect the state and undermine its legitimacy.

    Sean

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    1. Sean,
      Page views here were 1376 yesterday and so far are 121 since 1:00 am today.
      Paul.

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    2. Kaor, Paul!

      Amazing, astonishing!!! I'm starting to think my "Political Legitimacy" note struck an unexpected CHORD with many people. But I certainly hope your own blog pieces interests readers as well.

      Sean

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    3. Sean,
      479 page views so far today.
      Paul.

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    4. Kaor, Paul!

      I'm frankly amazed by how much interest my article seems to have garnered! I would have thought only SF fans would be interested, and of them only that subset who knew of Poul Anderson and his works.

      Sean

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  5. Dear Sean,

    It's a pleasure to read your thoughts, as usual. I would like to comment that despising the Terran Empire is understandable, even if the Justice and wisdom of doing so can be questioned. The empire has slavery, wages military aggression when expedient, and can treat its subjects harshly. When I was twelve or so, I read about The Empire's aggression against Ythri, and the efforts of the brave Avalonians to stay out of the Terran Empire. In the Flandry stories, we see the Empire brutally enforcing its demands on Brea (spelling?), with the Marines killing any natives who try to fight back; and then there are the horrors Flandry witnesses on Shalmu in THE REBEL WORLDS. It is certainly understandable that people would want more freedom and justice.

    Granted, things could be much worse, as Kossara Vymezal comes to see in A KNIGHT OF GHOSTS AND SHADOWS, so, given a certain degree of sophistication, one can see that the Terran Empire is worth preserving despite its faults, but not everyone has that kind of sophistication; I certainly didn't at the age when ?I discovered Poul Anderson.

    Best Regards,
    Nicholas D. Rosen

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    1. Kaor, Nicholas!

      I certainly agree with you that the atrocious treatment of Shalmu and Brae would undermine confidence in, and respect for the Empire during Josip's reign. But, I don't agree that applies to the Terran/Ythrian War. For one thing, that was CENTURIES before what we saw on Shalmu and Brae. Secondly, both powers fought their war like civilized people should, trying to limit the harm done. And the Empire, despite it's victory over the Domain (never mind the LOCAL defeat at Avalon) did not try to annex the entire Domain or take the truly ruthless measures that would have broken Avalon. As Chunderban Desai was to say in THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN, the Empire accepted limits on what it could wisely do.

      As for slavery, that was an institution which had its origins in the Polestotechnic era. And it was used by the Empire largely as a punishment for crime. See my article "Crime and Punishment in the Terran Empire" for a fuller discussion of the issue. Paul even called it a form of community service.

      You mentioned A KNIGHT OF GHOSTS AND SHADOWS. Which reminded me of how one point in Hans Molitor's favor was that he was a RELUCTANT usurper, who accepted being proclaimed Emperor by his fleet only from a sense of workmanship after the legitimate order of succession had irretrievably collapsed. Old Hans was personally liked by Dominic Flandry, who said this reluctant usurper worked hard thru out his reign of 13 years to correct abuses and introduce reforms.

      Regards! Sean

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  6. Interesting article Sean. Thanks for sending me the link. It did raise a question for me, however. Does the concept of "legitimacy of government" merely require the perception of legitimacy by a substantial majority of the subject population and is therefore entirely relative, or is there more involved in the determination of legitimacy?

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    1. Hi, Dennis!

      Many thanks for your comments! I'm very glad one of my other online friends dropped by and left a note.

      You raised a very interesting question, one which seems to be the equivalent in political philosophy of which came first: the chicken or the egg? I would argue that a state or government, whatever form it took, needs to both govern reasonably well and to be accepted by most of its people before it would be considered legitimate. The Merovingian kingdom which arose in post-Roman Gaul on the ruins of the fallen Empire came to power first by naked conquest and force of arms under Clovis I. However, despite the ferocity of the early Merovingians, their conversion to Catholic Christianity helped enormously to reconcile their Catholic subjects to Frankish rule. Which means the Merovingians came to be accepted as legitimate.

      So, I would say both the "perception" and the "something more" would be needed for a regime to considered legitimate. And this can take different forms in different nations.

      Does this answer your question?

      Sean

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