A Source of Legitimacy

Every form of power seeks legitimacy. There needs to be something that justifies the rule in the eyes of the ruled. The worst, bloodiest dictators make very sure they give something valuable to the people. They seek consent.

Franco stayed in power for 36 years because under his rule people’s standard of living soared. That’s where he derived his legitimacy. This economic miracle was created by the US, of course, but Franco made the US want to do it.

Pinochet made Chile the best functioning economy in South America, so for a while Chileans put up with the dead, the tortured, and the disappeared.

Stalin made “life better and more fun” (it’s a famous quote). He really did. There was a dramatic improvement in the standard of living. That was the source of his legitimacy.

No dictatorship survives on terror alone. There’s always an enthusiastic consent on the part of the people. Of course, the terror makes people more eager to grant consent but there still needs to be something they are getting out of it.

Putin is no Stalin or even Pinochet. There are no concentration camps, no mass torture, no blood-soaked stadiums, no Tontons Macoutes, no dead bodies strewn around every morning to keep the populace terrorized. So what’s his source of legitimacy? If even Stalin or Hitler with their hardcore repressive apparatuses needed to give something – a lot, actually – to remain legitimate, what does Putin give his people? There’s no improvement in the standard of living. Nothing remotely like what Franco, Stalin, or Pinochet gave their people. (Or, on the positive side of the political equation, what FDR gave Americans with the New Deal or Adenauer to post-war Germans).

So what are the Russians getting out of it? They are eagerly running off to die by the hundreds of thousands. It’s been decades since US presidents were able to give anything to the American people remotely worth this kind of dedication. Even Stalin didn’t immediately manage to get his people to sign on like this during WWII.

Look at it from the point of view of legitimacy of power, and things become very clear.

2 thoughts on “A Source of Legitimacy

  1. I think early Putin did have great economic and increases in standard of living.
    If he had decided to retire in the 2010s, he could have been remembered very fondly.

    Now he’s just living off of past successes that he’s now rapidly undoing.


    1. “retire in the 2010s, he could have been remembered very fondly”

      No, the peak was around 2006 and by 2011 or so he was booed at some big event (which was the beginning of him becoming a recluse). His popularity isn’t about economics but about waging war beyond russian borders…

      I don’t know exactly what he gives russians (since I like to think I’m sane and russian motivations remain cloudy) but it’s something like a sense of being respected or feared: “It’s okay if we live in garbage as long as other countries hate us, because that hate is jealousy that they’re not powerful and feared like we are” (very rough approximation).


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