“No society can function unless it gives the individual member social status and function, and unless the decisive social power is legitimate power. The former establishes the basic frame of social life: the purpose and meaning of society. The latter shapes the space within the frame: it makes society concrete and creates its institutions. If the individual is not given social status and function, there can be no society but only a mass of social atoms flying through space without aim or purpose.”
–Peter F. Drucker
I don’t think Peter Drucker explained this on a practical level all that well in his books. He did at a conceptual level and I once got a very concrete explanation from him on the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of power.
It brings me back to a time after the Berlin Wall had come down and right after the Soviet Union fell apart – these were all events that Drucker saw as inevitable – when we were gathered at a party at Dean Gale Merseth’s home I was really eager to talk to Peter about these monumental changes. As he came up the stairs with his cane, I asked “Peter, what do you think?” He was smiling. He was elated that Communism was coming apart. “I knew it would happen,” he said, “I just didn’t know it would happen so fast.” He then went on to explain that it happened so quickly because, “the people no longer believe in anything.”
[EXPAND More]You see, the Soviet power was no longer legitimate. Communism had failed, the corruption had been exposed, and Gorbachev was trying to hold it together with economic cooperation and transparency, but the people of the Soviet states did not see the power as legitimate. They no longer believed the propaganda. They had been systematically stripped of freedoms like religion and it was an atheist state. There was literally nothing to believe in any more. In order for a country to survive and to hold its people together, there has to be a belief that the ruling power is legitimate. In a functioning society, people have status as citizens, with freedom and responsibilities, and functions that give an element of personal control and dignity.
Peter never fully resolved this notion of legitimate social power and a functioning society, but he knew when it did not exist. I asked him at the end of 2001 about which country he thought had the best ideals and was closest to achieving them and he said, “I guess, the United States.” I think he liked it here.