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The end of authority

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The discussion that follows will highlight the distinction between power and authority, and how power which privileges cooperation rather than domination might generate new forms of authority commensurable to a society that must work together.

Jenny Pearce
3 September 2013

Authority has gained a bad press amongst those frustrated with the world as it is. From 1968 onwards, movements for change have often styled themselves as being ‘anti-authority’. 1968 heralded what many conservatives mourn as an end of deference to authority, whether it be parental, religious, monarchical, political or cultural.  However, the late twentieth century also witnessed a search, even a yearning, for authenticity: something so trustworthy and genuine, it acts as a mooring in a fast moving world of marketing and messaging which nevertheless ignites creativity. Something, in other words, to believe in and act from, without recreating the inflexibilities of truth and tradition. 

Does participation, by proposing the right of everyone to take part, end authority as we know it? Or does it spur us to revisit the end(s) of authority and attune it to a ‘horizontal’ ethos which nevertheless must address the multiplication of differences and disagreements that accompanies increased participation?

Authority and authenticity in the age of horizontality

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt began her exploration of the concept of authority in the late 1950s, with the suggestion that the confusion surrounding it derives from the fact that we can ‘no longer fall back upon authentic and undisputable experiences common to all’.  Does authenticity become even more elusive in a participatory milieu? Does it further loosen a tether which enables people to withstand the buffers of external pressure while slackening before the winds of change?

I will argue that new forms of authority can be built through participation. Authority generated through participation is built around integrity and trustworthiness, commitment and critique. It provides stability without rigidity and strengthens capacity to discriminate between the quality of choices. Authority emerges through recognition of good judgement, a vital component for persuading others of the merits and value of participation.

We cannot, in a participation-oriented society, do away with authority. However, it must be created in totally new conditions to the past, when, as Richard Sennett argued in his book Authority, the recognition of authority reflected instinctive needs as much as sound orientation:  ‘What people are willing to believe is not simply a matter of the credibility or legitimacy of the ideas, rules, and persons offered them. It is also a matter of their own need to believe. What they want from an authority is as important as what the authority has to offer.’ Over time, participatory experience might gradually diminish and/or transform this ‘need to believe’. In the meantime, authority continues to matter, but not the form of authority which has tended to suppress critical voice and conserve traditional relations and exercise of power. It is hard to see how preserving the order of things could underpin a society geared to widening participation in naming problems alongside building the qualities to participate in finding solutions.

Such a society will only flourish through the growth of a form of power commensurate with working together and comfortable with conflict, rather than through relations of domination and subordination aimed at containing conflict and preserving hierarchy. Such a form of power still requires authority, trusted references which survive the moment and guide action without assuming infallibility, immutability or unquestioned obedience. Hence critical capacity as well as commitment to the tasks at hand, is a foundation for claims to authority. The discussion that follows will highlight therefore the distinction between power and authority, and how power which privileges cooperation rather than domination might generate new forms of authority commensurable to a society that must work together. It suggests that the end of authority is to satisfy the human desire for trustworthy signposts and distinguishing markers, so that the ‘human capacity for building, preserving, and caring for a world that can survive us’ may thrive despite the  ‘loss of worldly permanence and reliability’.

Authority and power

Authority has been usefully contrasted with power, but mostly only with one form of power, power over or dominating power. The ‘growing’ of an alternative form of power, which could be termed ‘non dominating’ power, widens and deepens the potentiality for greater participation. It stimulates human cooperation and capacity to address complex challenges and conflicts. When authority is paired with non dominating power, it takes on an extra significance to the time-honoured form of authority. Arendt saw the latter as deriving (unlike power) from a foundation in the past which it augments in the lives of the living (a reference to the etymology of ‘authority’ in the Latin, auctoritas from the verb augere, to augment). It implies ‘obedience in which men retain their freedom’. It exists prior to command and requires no external coercion. Those in authority do not have power, in fact, and Arendt quotes Cicero’s famous dictum that ‘while power resides in the people, authority rests with the Senate’, to illustrate the distinction between power and authority as understood in Ancient Rome, in which the elders advised (in ways it was better not to ignore) but did not command.

Arendt herself has little problem differentiating authority from power, because her understanding of power is - controversially - based on an idea that power derives its legitimacy from an original collective act of consensus. Authority, vested in a person, or offices or hierarchical offices is a form of institutionalised power essential to the functioning of societies because it is instantly recognised and unquestioned and does not need to be exercised.  She is much criticised, however, for her  ‘revisionary’ redefinition of power as traditionally understood, thus obscuring the role of dominating power over people. She has also been criticised, more unfairly I would suggest, for eliminating conflict from the world of politics. Her foundational act of consensus does not in fact preclude subsequent conflicts over goals and actions. However, she does seem to preclude the possibility of legitimate coercive power.

Indeed, non-dominating power is still often dismissed as a normative ideal. However, it is an ideal which contemporary participants in global social justice movements, for example, have begun to experiment with. Non-hierarchical movements, consensus decision making and egalitarian approaches to listening and talking have emerged over the last decade. And at the community level, many activists reject the power that dominates and excludes. In a series of conversations about power with such activists, they spoke of power as ‘enabling, sharing and cooperating’.

Arguably, the problem today is less about the possibilities that such a form of power might grow, and more about the making, breaking and remaking of the meanings of authority. Authority, said the activists in the power conversations, is earned through behaviour towards others which they in turn recognise as enabling of them. Trustworthy arbiters and guides emerge in this way, not from foundational myths of the past or embedded structures, or the perpetuation of child-parent relationships in the public realm. However, such authority lacks codification and suffers from the lack of respect for experiential rather than formally accredited knowledge. This limits effectiveness to act and make change in the wider world, as these community activists generally prefer to remain in their own world of power and authority.

Non-dominating power can foster participation but not necessarily in ways which generate sustainable movements for change in articulation with others. Participation needs to expand and extend the domains of human cooperation and coactive power and win the trust of others. Co-producing authority through participation advances confidence in its approach to human endeavour. Non-dominating power could itself gain authority as coercive power is reduced and its limiting effects on meaningful participation exposed. Thus, without participation, there is no impetus toward authority remaking. Without authority, participation remains the hobby of the enthusiast.

Participation and the remaking of authority

Participation appears to require its own authoritative frameworks, but what might they look like and how do they gain authority? There is something fundamentally collaborative about authority, a symbiotic relationship between the dominant and the subordinate in the acceptance of authority and the reciprocity expected from it. This gives authority both its illusion and potency. At the same time, authoritative relationships derive from inequalities of knowledge and some collective acceptance of some criteria of knowing. Her suggestion that objectivity is a key condition of authority raises the question of how participation might remake authority of a new kind through relationships which do not depend on domination and subordination or the top down privileging of certain forms of knowledge and knowing and the containment and suppression of others. Mechanisms are still needed which distinguish qualities of knowledge and relevance to problem solving.

If the crux of authority is 'objectivity' and objectivity can be defined, not as 'the truth', but rather as 'the condition of living, experiencing and acting in common' then this is consistent with the logic of non-dominating 'power with' (as apposed to dominating 'power-over'). Objectivity emerges through processes of acting together, and we could say that the emergence of objectivity is the same as the breakthrough in which chains of command (power-over) can be converted into co-deliberated and co-determined horizontalism (power-with)'.

Such power also grows out of conflictive encounters with the desires of others, however counterposed to one’s own. Mary Parker Follett saw such interactions as continuously creating a new ‘whole’ out of the parts and new forms of agency and community. Authority could retain its task of augmentation of such processes. However, this would not be by virtue of past and present predictability and ancient wisdom, but through the nature of the social encounter which has created it. The validation of outcomes in terms of shared and agreed criteria of quality, universality and inclusivity, recognisable to wider and wider circles of participants creates new collective meanings and trustworthy reference points. While not permanent or infallible, they are beyond the subjective. Their authority is earned. They not only do not require a foundational myth but nor do they reproduce one, only trusted, co-created moorings and navigational aids for venturing out in voyages of discovery and new learning.

The exteriority of objectivity, the gap which gives it its potency beyond a mere aggregation of participant subjectivities, prevails as long as necessary to the lived experience of the activated agents of participation. Participants come to welcome their new-found responsibility in co-producing authority rather than relinquishing it in exchange for an illusory security. Remaking authority thus serves the logic of participation and the logic of participation continuously remakes the authority which serves it.


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This article is part of an editorial partnership called 'The Struggle for Common Life', which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.

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