Glen Newey’s Critique of Legitimacy: An Assessment

Anno LIV, n. 225-226, maggio-dicembre 2019

Anno LIV, n. 225-226, maggio-dicembre 2019
Centro Einaudi
Articolo completo/Full text


In Real Legitimation, Anarchism and Power Loops (Newey 2019), Newey examines whether the use of force in political circumstances could be disciplined by drawing clear boundaries between its admissible and inadmissible uses. The question, as Newey recognizes, is about the very possibility of offering a sound theory of legitimacy. Are there any uses of force that we can deem legitimate, and hence acceptable, as opposed to illegitimate ones? According to Newey, a theory of legitimacy can never achieve what it promises: since politics redefines the conditions upon which justifications can be found legitimating, politics constantly interferes with theoretical definitions of the boundaries of legitimacy. Force, as Newey points out, “destroys legitimacy”. Yet, Newey’s argument works exclusively if we accept that some suitably defined descriptions of politics can ground political normativity. In the specific case considered, if we believe that actual or hypothetical conditions of legitimations have a role in determining the normative criteria for the legitimate use of force. But this is far from obvious.
In this comment, I examine the strength of Newey’s general claim on legitimacy by clarifying how the interplay between political reality and political normativity should be interpreted, and what role it is supposed to play, in Newey’s analysis. In particular, the paper is structured in two main sections. In the first section I recall in a more detailed way Newey’s argument in support of his general conclusion, and I show that, despite its initial ambition, such argument can counter only theories of legitimacy which consider actual or hypothetical legitimations as grounds of legitimacy. However, in the second section, I propose a new argument in support of Newey’s general claim. More specifically, I explain that such defense can be built starting from scattered suggestions already contained in Newey’s discussion.