Legitimacy and the administrative state. By Gerardo Muñoz.

To follow up on my previous responses (that can be read here and here) in conversation with José Luis Villacañas’ lecture on Weber and populism, I want to return one more time to the question of legitimacy. I do not want to repeat what I have already said in the other commentaries, rather this time I want to specify the nexus between the administrative state and legitimacy. That is the purpose of this commentary, anticipating a more elaborate presentation of this problem in an upcoming conference at the University of Rome.

The heart of the problem can be laid out in a straightforward manner: is the administrative state legitimate? And if so, from where does the administrative state derive its legitimacy? For a moment I’ll leave aside the fact that for a wide range of legal scholarship, bureaucratic order itself is a material source of legitimation, in part because administration purports separation of the private/public spheres, and deters corruption, thus upholding the well-being of the social. But this answer is in itself tautological and needs of descriptive substance.

Here I find Adrian Vermeule’s typology of the legitimatization of the administrative state helpful and pertinent for a number of reasons. For one, it allows me to affirm my position in this debate [1]. As Vermeule fleshes out, the question of legitimacy of the administrative state is not new, and only recently – that is, the post-Reagan period, once the Federalist Society began having effective impact in the wake of the Neo-Conservative movement – has the legitimacy of the administrative state been challenged on the basis of it being inconsistent with the separation of powers (Epstein 2008, Hamburger 2014).

I cannot go into details about the reason of this development in the space of this commentary. Let me jump right into the analysis. Vermeule notes that the way in which the legitimacy of the administrative state has been posited – from the New Dealers of the 1930s to the current Supreme Court – takes different paths to understanding the core problem of “independence”. This is of no minor importance, since independence of the legislative deference and execution of an agency statute, has everything to do with what Moreiras and Villacañas understand as the reduction of the factual condition of domination. This is also a crucial premise as to move in the direction of a posthegemonic democracy, regardless of how it is defined and developed in each case.

Vermeule insists that “independence” has a heterogeneous form of legitimation of the administrative state in three main tracks (it does not mean that there are only three, but at least these have been highly influential): 1. the one posited by James Landis in Administrative Process (1938) who sought to provide independence of the administrative agency from the executive power; 2. Louis Jaffe’s formulaic deference of a strong position of independent judicial review of agencies; 3. Kagan’s inversion of Landis, who in the early 2001, interprets “independence” of the President against interests groups, or crony interest-restricted legislators. Regardless of the different premises and relational valences of these forms of administrative law, I agree with Vermeule that they affirm a common and perhaps dual legitimization value: to establish independence and internal legal pluralism.

There is good and bad news here for Republicanism. First, the bad news: the forms of legitimization of administrative law emerge in the wake of the crisis of the traditional Madisonian division of powers. However, the crisis of the archaic formulation should not produce neither horror nor nostalgia. In any case, this is an aspect that must be discussed after Villacañas’ own philosophical defense of the division of powers in genealogy of the Western tradition in his Teología Política Imperial (Trotta, 2006). As for the good news: the hermeneutics of administrative legitimation are affirmed on the ground of the equilibrium and an internal pluralism, which is how Vermeule establishes his stance against contemporary anti-administrative libertarians. This entails that the administrative state is not the abdication of the rule of law in a drift towards tyranny or unpopular rule, but rather part of an elastic historical development in a complex field of tensions [2].

Why is this important for thinking populism today? For one, because Villacañas’ Weberian position even when placed in the “factual grid” of the administrative state, perfectly convergences with Elena Kagan’s position (the third path of legitimation). In fact, Vermeule describes Kagan’s most important and enduring contribution in a way that we could also ascribe to Villacañas:

“A constitutional vision that attempt to combined two intellectual and constitutional strands that had often been assumed to be in tension with one another, or even outright contrition. The first strand was technical administration, whose major tool is quantified cost-benefit analysis; the second was Hamiltonian political leadership by an energetic elected President, who hallmark is accountability to a broad national public” (Vermeule 18).

This is precisely what Villacañas’ response to me meant regarding the potential dismissal (in Castilian: “la patatada en el culo”) of the charismatic leader when he fails to meet the material needs of the People. In effect, this is completely consistent with Weber’s defense of presidentialism in “The Reich President” (not really the same as “charismatic leadership”), as a form of the checking the bureaucracy in line with the Hamiltonian vision of the modern state [3]. So, here is the big picture: whereas Landis favored anti-Presidentialist stance during New Deal legislation, in the case of Kagan it is the figure of the President that can advance the needs of the People in any given circumstance. It is interestingly enough that President Obama (who was a constitutionalist) followed more the track of Landis and not that of Kagan.

It is clear why Kagan needs to embrace a thin margin of presidentialism as a process of legitimation, since to do so entails reducing the ascending problem of factionalism, narrow interests, bad administration, or even more recent problems such as big financial conglomerates (Vermeule 23). Here the contending debate between populism as charismatic leadership (Villacañas), and an anarchic populism (Moreiras) on the other is also properly defined. Whereas I agree with Kagan and Villacañas that presidentialism could buffer certain corporate interests (“la casta”, in Podemos is a perfect example) and the weight of agencies, I also agree with Moreiras that then this could only mean that the “President” is no longer a political figure, but rather a mere administrator, a gestor [4]. The President becomes the perfect justification of an Enlightened monarch (in a phrase revered by Peterson in his response against Schmitt’ political theology): the King rules but does not govern. But I would add, he does function as a filter for what Vermeule calls “accountability to a broad national public”, which is synonymous with what Villacañas calls the “material interests of the People”.

I end with a question to align a few problems for further investigation: if the President is a mere filter in a complex structure that is the political fabric of the administrative state today, isn’t he already a sort of de-centralized and an-archic figure? Also: can there be, for instance, a concrete moment of demand of the People if there are only administrative agencies? Only placed in this backdrop does posthegemonic populism becomes clear: neither effective administrative law without the expansion of the democratic demand, nor effective or defective presidentialism. After all, no threat of factionalism has been tamed from a secure position of leadership without, at the same time, necessarily bending towards the expansion of its own (imperial) hegemony, which always amounts to the phantasm of a corrupted legitimacy.





  1. Adrian Vermeule. “Bureaucracy and Distrust: Landis, Jaffe, and Kagan on the Administrative State”. Forthcoming, Harvard Law Review, 2017.
  1. For Adrian Vermeule, the crisis of legitimacy is actually is greatest strength. See, “What Legitimacy Crisis?” CATO UNBOUND (May 9, 2016). https://www.- cato-unbound.org/2016/05/09/adrian-vermeule/what-legitimacy-crisis
  1. Max Weber presents in “The Reich President” (Social Research, 1987) a defense of presidentialism that is the principle to both Villacañas and Kagan: “For the great movement of democratic party life which develops alongside these popular elections will benefit parliament as well. A president elected by means of particular constellations and coalitions of parties is politically a dead man when these constellations shift. A popularly elected president as head of the executive, head of office patronage, and perhaps possessor of a delaying veto and of the authority to dissolve parliament and to call referenda, is the guarantor of true democracy, which means not feeble surrender to cliques but subjection to leaders chosen by the people them.” 132 pp.
  1. Alberto Moreiras: “Este es por lo tanto un populismo sin líderes (o sin líderes en función hegemónica), es decir, un populismo en el que la posición de líder—el notorio “significante vacío”—está ocupada por el gestor de la radicalidad democrática, y solo por él o ella en cada caso, a cualquier nivel administrativo (seguir llamando a ese “gestor de la radicalidad democrática” líder, o jefe, o caudillo, sería un capricho arbitrario).”. “La hipótesis Podemos”. https://infrapolitica.wordpress.com/2017/04/09/la-hipotesis-podemos-borrador-por-alberto-moreiras/

Una nota a la pregunta a José Luis Villacañas. Por Gerardo Muñoz.

El intercambio con Villacañas y Moreiras ha sido iluminador, en parte, porque como decía un amigo por comunicación privada estas notas ayudan a delinear posiciones. Yo no quiero disputar ninguna parte de los argumentos, y lo que sigue es tan solo un apunte mental hecho público sobre lo que me parece que es una posición de desacuerdo y que pudiera ser tema de futuros debates. Aunque el punto del desacuerdo tampoco es tan nuevo.

Me refiero, desde luego, a lo que Villacañas llama la necesidad de legitimidad en su réplica a Moreiras. En específico, J.L.V escribe: “El republicanismo no necesita de la hegemonía, pero si necesita de la legitimidad. Y el problema es que la legitimidad no es una afirmación de archē” [1]. Pero, ¿por qué no puede la legitimidad ser jamás una afirmación arcaica? Es sabido que Weber en Economía y Sociedad habla del necesario arcano de la dominación, pero solo como trazo transitorio hacia una función moderna de los tres tipos de apelación a la legitimación racional (la tipología tripartita: racionalización, autoridad personal, y carisma) [2].

Pero lo que Villacañas entiende por legitimidad tiene sus propios tintes, y ya ha quedado muy bien esbozado en su importante ensayo “Poshegemonía de Gramsci a Weber”. Allí, J.LV. pide el abandono de la hegemonía gramsciana en nombre de una noción de legitimidad en función de una institución visible [sic], capaz de renovación en cada instancia, y garante del pacto social [3]. Y es cierto que esto no tiene nada que ver con un principio legislativo supremo o metafísico, tal y como lo comenta Schürmann en el apartado sobre la legitimidad y la legalidad en la primera parte de Broken Hegemonies.

Ahora bien, en la medida en que la legitimidad no tiene arcano, habría que preguntarse si en el momento de la expansión del estado administrativo – que pienso que es consistente con lo que Moreiras llama la ruina del orden categorial moderno de lo político, o lo que Williams llama decontainment – no hace de la legitimidad algo defectuoso. Pero defectuoso ya no como ‘equilibrio’ de movilización e instalación propiamente político, sino defectuoso en el sentido de un vacío o abismo efectivo. De ser así: ¿cómo pensar aquí la legitimidad caída hacia la pura administración?

Si se apela a la “legitimidad” se apelaría solo al concepto. Por eso la cuestión medular es si la legitimidad tiene gancho compensatorio, o es todo lo contrario. En su librito sobre Benedicto XVI, Il mistero del male (2013), Agamben ha declarado que no existe estructura de gobierno legítima hoy en la tierra. Y quizás Villacañas diría que esta conclusión se debe a su prole schmittiana que desde el registro del mito deja intactas “muchas realidades históricas operando”. Y es verdad que tiene razón.

Y con esto concluyo: lo que si es importante derivar de esto es que si ya la legitimidad no es compensatoria para un momento democratizante, lo que prosigue a la hegemonía es la poshegemonía en la medida en que, en cuanto a su segundo registro infrapolítico, abandona ya la ratio última de la política como acceso de mundo y de vida. La biopolitica ha sido el último avatar de esta posición. Si el populismo contemporáneo – la mejor posibilidad populista, digamos Bernie Sanders, digamos ciertos grupos a escala estatal batallando contra los intentos revocatorios del Civil Rights Act en el sur estadounidense, el errejonismo – tiende hacia a la apelación a la legitimidad o a la poshegemonía es ya otro asunto. Pero yo no tengo dudas que esta es la verdadera bifurcación en nuestro momento para el pensamiento.




  1. Ver en este mismo espacio, a José Luis Villacañas. “Réplicas”. https://infrapolitica.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/replicas-por-jose-luis-villacanas/
  1. Max Weber. Economy and Society. University of California Press, 1978. P.953-54.
  1. José Luis Villacañas. “Poshegemonía: De Gramsci a Weber”, en Poshegemonía: el final de un paradigma de la filosofía política en América Latina (Biblioteca Nueva, 2015). P.165-66.