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The authority of anti-authority

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

The question that all anti-authoritarian movements have to face, sooner or later, is: on what ground does your opposition arise? In other words, within any movement against improper authority there evolves a notion, or a bit more firmly, an idea, or more than one idea, of proper authority. It may emerge implicitly or not, near the surface or not, but somewhere within the complex of ideas that buzz around in a movement, a contrary emerges.

Martin Luther declares that the pope has forfeited legitimate authority because he’s usurped the prerogatives of real authority – scripture itself and alone. Against the charges alleged against King George III, and contrary to the original intention of the American colonists, there arises the idea that there exists an independent people, the Americans, who shall henceforward constitute themselves a nation and require that the government rule with the consent of the governed.

So it is too with the anti-authoritarian movements nearer our time. The question of the basis of anti-authoritarianism is a necessary question, a vexing question, a question that sometimes tears movements apart – even, I would say, deserves to.

I would not want to deny the power or the occasional usefulness of antinomianism, or lawlessness, flat-out rejection – the idea, to quote Wikipedia, “that members of a particular religious group are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality as presented by religious authorities.”

The tradition of pure negativity – if that is not oxymoronic – is a vigorous and (let’s face it) frequently delightful element of all historic upheavals. In the run-up to the Hussites and the Reformation come the Brethren of the Free Spirit, with their radical pantheism. With the Puritan revolution come the Levellers and the Diggers.

With the Sixties comes: “They asked me for some collateral and I pulled down my pants,” in the immortal words of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, and it has its point: not just “fuck you, Mr Jones”, but “my sex organ is my answer to all your silly questions”. This has its limits as social policy. Dylan knew perfectly well that his no to deference was a dream and only a dream. Such insouciance is an unconsummated flirtation.

Todd Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He has written ten books, most recently Letters to a Young Activist (Basic Books, 2003). His website is here.

A small selection of Todd Gitlin’s writings in openDemocracy:

“The ordinariness of American feelings” (October 2001)

“Rock of Sages” (December 2001) – on Bob Dylan

“The Clinton legacy and America” (August 2003)

“The forces of reason and unreason” (November 2004) – the last weekly “Our Election” column of 2004

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The authority of decorum took a body-blow in the 1960s and, not unexpectedly, hangs on the ropes. After such battering, what recovery? But there is a recovery, here and there, and it comes from an unexpected direction – the revival of reason in reaction to an unexpected assault. To get at this, we should put aside the problem of incivility for a moment, and try to distinguish between incivility and unreason.

It’s eminently reasonable (if possibly tautological) to look to the fate of reason. This was very much on Kant’s mind when he asked, “What Is Enlightenment? ”, in the words of his scintillating manifesto of 1784: “Enlightenment,” he wrote, “is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another….’Have courage to use your own reason!’ That is the motto of enlightenment.”

It becomes clear in the course of his essay, however, that Kant does not want to replace the unquestioned and indeed unquestionable authority of the unreasoning authorities by a mindless babble. He wants the “learned” to make “public use” of their freedom. He wants a free press for this reason – not as a ranting free-for-all, but as a channel for knowledge. He authorises authority that’s earned its way – what today is called “elitism.”

Now, evidently the 1960s amounted to one of the great global anti-authoritarian upheavals, if not the greatest. By dint of the cunning of reason, it was a boon to reason even when it committed its own unreason. It was, after all, largely right about burning issues: civil rights, the Vietnam war, the rights of women and homosexuals. Analytically, it might be possible to disentangle two strands of anti-authoritarianism: the questioning of authority in order to put authority on a stronger foundation, and the challenging of authority as a tropism of disrespect. The first is a matter of questioning authority in order to get answers. The second is a matter of punky naysaying.

Authority, as Richard Sennett wrote in his fine book on the subject, following on John Stuart Mill, actually needs questioning. It is in my view an altogether good thing that authorities such as doctors and politicians, accountants and chief executives, teachers and parents are at least periodically required to address the questions put to them – pre-eminently when the question are put by those who will be affected or afflicted by their authority.

We could use a great deal more questioning of authority and a considerable shattering of the habits of deference on the part of journalism, in fact – not least with respect to such matters as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq and the preparation of disaster authorities for hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Professionalism has to sing out its name louder and clearer when confronted with the professionally negligent and mendacious in government, business, and elsewhere. The principal trouble with American society today, for example, is not an excess of disrespect.

What’s interesting is that in the United States, at any rate, the anti-authoritarian tide has turned, and it’s the cultural right, not the left, that wins the prize in recent years for pulling down its intellectual pants. The extravagance of the left’s disrespect for authority sputtered away with excess. The deferential style that once was enamoured of Mao Tes-tung, Ho Chi Minh, and Eldridge Cleaver is today invoked chiefly by its political opponents: in the cult of George W Bush, the invoking of non-existent WMD, and the denial of convulsive climate change.

Today, the authority of science is transgressed routinely not by the banshees of eastern religion but by the administration of the know-nothing extraordinaire who reigns from the White House. So-called “intelligent design,” a designed movement for the triumph of unintelligence, is a creature of authoritarianism camouflaged as its opposite. Such is the cunning of unreason that crackpot revolts against reason have reinvented the Enlightenment – though as a minority movement in my home country, at any rate – by trashing it. They remind us of the authority of reason by displaying what happens in its absence.

The left and elitism

The organisers of this event ask whether “the more negative features of the current period [are] the inevitable consequences of democratisation and egalitarianism.” The ascendancy of Bush-minded know-nothingism owes everything to fatuous, demagogic “populism” and nothing to the 1960s’ attempt to revive substantive reason in public life. The present upsurge of faith-based governance goes along with pseudo-democratisation, not the real thing – not the version celebrated by Students for a Democratic Society in the form of participatory democracy and the ideal of “people making the decisions that affect their lives”; not the democratic deliberation now celebrated by political theorists.

This article is adapted from a talk by Todd Gitlin at the “Battle of Ideas” conference – organised by the Institute of Ideas – in London on 30 October 2005

The attack on elitism, exploited most impressively by the right, is probably an inevitable consequence of egalitarianism. Insofar as human dignity is a value, the disrespect of any opinion, however ill-founded, looks impermissible. But insofar as egalitarianism is taken to imply that all opinions are equally valuable, it succumbs to the mass engineering of consent and the undermining of reason by sensation in an omnipresent, torrential popular culture, with all the attendant demagogueries.

When the left joins in the attack on elitism without distinguishing between equality of opportunity and equality of opinion, it shores up the mindlessness of faith-based mental activity. When the tyranny of instant gratification prevails, it washes away the mind with the backwater. Beware.


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