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Tales of Function and Form: The Legitimation of International Technocracy in the Interwar Years

Jens Steffek
Technische Universität Darmstadt
Jens Steffek
Technische Universität Darmstadt
Open Panel

Abstract

In the discipline of International Relations it has become commonplace to say that, in the past, international governance has been legitimated mainly, if not exclusively, by its ‘output’. The ‘permissive consensus’ of the age before the diagnosis of a ‘democratic deficit’ allegedly rested on it. There has been very little research, however, on the history of legitimating international governance to validate this point. In this paper I begin to address this gap by inquiring into the origins of output-oriented strategies for legitimating international governance. Scrutinizing the programmatic literature on international organization from the Interwar era, I illustrate how a new and distinctive account of ‘functional’ legitimation emerged and in the 1920s separated from other types of liberal internationalism. My inquiry, centring on the works of James Arthur Salter, David Mitrany and Pitman B. Potter, highlights a conception of ‘good functional governance’, executed by a non-political international administration. It is explicitly pitched against a notion of international politics, perceived as violent, polarizing, and irrational. The emergence of a functional legitimation of governance, I submit, needs to be seen in the wider context of societal modernization and bureaucratization that unfolded in the first half of the 20th century. In conclusion, I underline that the material ‘output’ of governance was just one aspect of a legitimating account that cannot be separated from the specific form of functional governance by international technocracy.