The Global Crisis of SOME Institutional Legitimacy

Felix Salmon has a worthwhile (but, IMO, partly mistaken) post on what he deems “the global crisis of institutional legitimacy.” I think he’s right to see this as a significant challenge to our current political economy.

While watching another Arab government get toppled on Sunday evening — this time that of Muammar Gaddafi, in Libya — I was also reading George Magnus’s excellent note for UBS, entitled “The Convulsions of Political Economy”; you can find it chez Zero Hedge.

Convulsions is right — not only in the Arab world, of course, but also in Europe and the US. And the result is arguably the most uncertain outlook, in terms of the global political economy, since World War II ended and the era of the welfare state began.

As Magnus says:

It seems that we are having sometimes esoteric tiffs between Keynesians and Austrians about if and how governments should sustain jobs and growth. But, deep down, we are having a much more significant debate as we are being forced to redefine what we think about the rights and obligations of citizens and the State.

Most fundamentally, what I’m seeing as I look around the world is a massive decrease of trust in the institutions of government.

But I think Salmon makes two mistakes. First, he maintains an unwarranted distinction between the Arab Spring and the UK riots.

Where those institutions are oppressive and totalitarian, the ability of popular uprisings to bring them down is a joyous and welcome sight. But on the other side of the coin, when I look at rioters in England, I see a huge middle finger being waved at basic norms of lawfulness and civilized society, and an enthusiastic embrace of “going on the rob” as some kind of hugely enjoyable participation sport. The glue holding society together is dissolving, whether it’s made of fear or whether it’s made of enlightened self-interest.

From the perspective of the underclass in our society, it has been some time since “enlightened self-interest” counseled compliance. And from most perspectives, it’s clear that the elites, not the underclass, were the first to wave a huge middle finger at basic norms of lawfulness.

A more problematic error, though, is Salmon’s claim that corporations have retained their legitimacy.

Looked at against this backdrop, the recent volatility in the stock market, not to mention the downgrade of the US from triple-A status, makes perfect sense. Global corporations are actually weirdly absent from the list of institutions in which the public has lost its trust, but the way in which they’ve quietly grown their earnings back above pre-crisis levels has definitely not been ratified by broad-based economic recovery, and therefore feels rather unsustainable.

As a recent Pew poll shows, Americans are just as disgusted with banks and other large corporations as they are with their government.

While anti-government sentiment has its own ideological and partisan basis, the public also expresses discontent with many of the country’s other major institutions. Just 25% say the federal government has a positive effect on the way things are going in the country and about as many (24%) say the same about Congress. Yet the ratings are just as low for the impact of large corporations (25% positive) and banks and other financial institutions (22%). And the marks are only slightly more positive for the national news media (31%) labor unions (32%) and the entertainment industry (33%).

Notably, those who say they are frustrated or angry with the federal government are highly critical of a number of other institutions as well. For example, fewer than one-in-five of those who say they are frustrated (18%) or angry (16%) with the federal government say that banks and other financial institutions have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.

But there are institutions that Americans still trust: colleges, churches, small businesses, and tech companies.

Distinguishing between those institutions (government and big corporations) people distrust and those (churches, small businesses, and tech companies) they do is important for several reasons. First, because it prevents us from assuming (as big corporations might like us to) that Americans will be content with corporatist solutions. People may or may not like the the post office, but there’s no reason to believe they like FedEx, Comcast, AT&T, or Verizon any more, particularly the latter three, which all score very badly in customer satisfaction. (Update: as joberly points out, Pew found that the postal service was by one measure the most popular government agency, with 83% of respondents saying they had a favorable view of the postal service.)

Such polling also suggests where Americans might turn during this convulsion. Barring Apple buying out the federal government, it seems likely Americans, at least, will turn to local institutions: to their church, their neighborhood, their local businesses.

That’s got some inherent dangers–particularly if people decide they want to change my governance with their church. But it also provides a nugget of possible stability amid the convulsion, one that might have salutary benefits for our environment and economy.

Apple aside, it’s the big institutions that have lost their institutional legitimacy. But we’re not entirely without institutions with which to rebuild.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

14 replies
  1. joberly says:

    @EW–Interesting post, thank you. One small note, related to the earlier post office thread. You write: “People may or may not like the the post office…” People do like the post office. The Pew data you cite shows the survey respondents rank the USPS by far the highest in approval(83%) of any federal agency.

  2. klynn says:

    Just catching up on the last few days. Took son-of-klynn to college.

    It would have been interesting to add PACs and lobbying firms to the institutions list for the survey.

    EW, some great posts the last few days. Thank you.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @klynn: Wow. This is son of klynn’s first year at college, isn’t it? Did he stay in the midwest? Given how smart he sounds, I’m sure he’ll thrive at college.

  4. Bob Schacht says:

    Nice work, EW!

    I’m wondering if what we see here is a global crisis of the MOTU class, who mainly are involved with the financial “services” industry. I think maybe they have over-reached and have brought on the global debt crisis, so that now what we are seeing is a defensive reaction by the MOTU: “Pay up or else!!!” –while the popularly elected governments try to figure out how to deal with their overlords.

    The “pay up or else” attitude shows in that with most debt settlements, the MOTU fare better than anyone else: we are made to foot the bill for their follies. They insist that we pay up, anyway. Schneiderman’s work is a blow aimed right at the heart of the MOTU apparatus. Pray for his safety!

    Bob in AZ

  5. Ramon Creager says:

    I had the same reaction you had when I read Salmon’s piece. To expect the underclass to respect the rule of law when so clearly the elites have twisted it into non-existence to serve their selfish interests is ridiculous. People like Salmon see what we’re seeing, but because of ideology and entrenched self-interest just can’t bring themselves to come to the right conclusion. I guess they don’t want to admit the system they work within is irretrievably broken.

  6. William Ockham says:

    I think the British riots have more in common with the protests in continental Europe and Israel than it does with the Arab Spring.

    The Arab Spring is very tightly linked to food prices (see this article: http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/27083/ )

    In Western democracies, we generally keep a social safety net functioning so that increases in food prices don’t lead to widespread social unrest. On the other hand, food riots and austerity protests are closely linked by their emphasis on the injustice of suffering being imposed by government fiat. Think for a minute about the institutions that aren’t horribly unpopular (churches, small businesses, colleges, and tech companies). These are institutions that are seen (rightly or wrongly) as equalizing the quality of life and the intrinsic justice of modern life.

    We are on the cusp of serious social unrest. This social unrest will be far more costly than addressing the inequities of modern life through effective government action would be. Unfortunately, the rich and powerful are, for the most part, too blind to see the danger.

  7. MadDog says:

    @William Ockham:

    “…Unfortunately, the rich and powerful are, for the most part, too blind to see the danger.”

    And unless they accidently turn onto a dead-end street, they are likely to escape from the serfs.

    Of course, if your mode of transportation is Gulfstreams, then dead-end streets are not a problem.

  8. MadDog says:

    @Pragmatic Realist: Probably get off the Gulfstream and onto their private helicopter for a quick jaunt to the manse’s helipad behind the razorwire-topped walls of their gated estate.

    And never a serf to be seen unless it is the gardening staff or the kitchen help.

  9. regulararmyfool says:

    Something that I find constantly amusing in the economics field is that they simply don’t see or hear the black market.

    I don’t believe that any economist ever came in contact with the black market in the United States.

    People are not going to starve to death just because some rich asses want to own everything.

    They will move to the black market. Those people will not come back to the measured market after they find out how much cheaper and more reliable transactions are if they just deal with the black market.

    I laughed about some comments made recently about the poor having microwaves, computers, televisions and some other small cost household items. The idiots don’t even realize how many of those items came straight from the black market for about 1/4 of Wal-Mart’s prices.

    The American people will be OK. The government may wind up being run by the super filthy rich. At which point, there will be no one paying taxes. The American people will be all right.

  10. richard says:

    Banks are now on most American’s seriously bad side — I imagine oil/gas frackers are too. Of course, government blunders and ineffectualness earn popular contempt. It’s interesting that unions are popular with about 1 of 3 polled. Labor and churches would get us to some throwing distance of a populist Solidarity-like coalition.

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