Both perilous and wonderful? The global transformation of authority

These are exciting times, when authority is being challenged everywhere. But what will replace the old models that have dominated both societies and ourselves? Can our own "collective intelligence" take over?

James O'Dea
25 July 2013

Tania Rego/Agencia Brasil. All rights reserved.

Mark Swart is not a famous man, but that is not important to my story. What is important is that in many ways he represents the "new normal" in society: a person who has radically transformed his relationship to authority.

I first met Mark when he attended one of my leadership intensive courses. When still a young man in South Africa, he was among the first people to force the Apartheid government to recognize that his Buddhism could be a legitimate basis for conscientious objection to military service. Even in the medical corps which he joined as a consequence, he continued to hone the ability to question the trance of conditioned norms and beliefs in which many of us spend our lives with Zen-like precision, a capacity he continues to display today as a Buddhist practitioner and therapist.

Swart and many other people like him are opening up a new field of human consciousness that I believe will be unstoppable. The 1960s mantra of questioning authority is being regenerated by millions of ordinary people, not only by challenging authoritarian perspectives but also because they value a different kind of authority that emerges out of dialogue, consensus-building and - most importantly - their own direct experience and the experiences of other people.

South Africa has set a global benchmark for this kind of approach through the work of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which encouraged and validated both factual truths and spaces for people to give voice to the truth of their experiences.

In my own work to facilitate dozens of social healing dialogues with a wide spectrum of activists, protagonists and victims, the most transformative element has been to recognize that direct experience gives us the kind of authority that cannot be matched by theory, ideology or philosophy.

Listening to a man who was blinded by a rubber bullet as a ten year old in Northern Ireland speaking about forgiveness, or a mother in Rwanda who forgave the genocidal murderers of her children, carries much more weight than the celebrated luminaries who go around telling the rest of us to forgive.

Like Mark Swart, Molly Rowan Leach is not widely known, but she has taken on the role of promoting restorative justice in response to a catalytic event in her own family’s encounter with the U.S. penal system which represents its authority through an obsessive preoccupation with punishment. Molly’s mother has been incarcerated in Idaho for close to fifteen years. Bearing witness to the continuing atrocities of this system, her work promotes the transformation of the justice sector in an era of for-profit prisons and widespread, ongoing abuses.

As a single mother herself, Molly faces all the challenges of raising her seven-year old son while earning a living and also doing her part to be an effective change agent in the world. Out of very little, she has created a free and highly-popular telecast series called “Restorative Justice on the Rise” which tunes into a wealth of global voices. Those voices leave us in no doubt that even the harshest and most rigidly-authoritarian systems can be transformed. One day, we will see that justice derives its true authority from bringing healing to the social order rather than acting as an instrument of autocratic vengeance.

In similar ways authority is being challenged everywhere. Our own experience of health and healing counts increasingly, for example, not just “what the doctors say.” Our own sense of what we need for spiritual growth matters more than the dogmas of any faith that we grew up with. And the same process is slowly dismantling the privileges of rigid authority in academia, social media, parenting and politics.

The crude manipulation of government for "business as usual" has been exposed; even more so the dominance of the economy by big business.  Ideological extremism and the abuse of power are tolerated less and less. In the last four weeks we have witnessed vivid displays of popular dissent on the streets of Turkey, Egypt and Brazil. These are signs that people are becoming much less passive, and that finally they have the tools they need to organize democracy, and to share information and opinions as never before.

In Egypt people have directly taken on the authority of a government which, though fairly elected, was not committed to maintaining the democratic vision of the popular revolution that brought it into power.  Governments don’t get a "free pass," the protestors seem to be saying, just because they happen to win an election. The rules of authority have to change when large numbers of people, or even small numbers of individuals, can organize to protect their collective interests.

Ten years ago who would have imagined that Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden would have drawn back the curtain on so much government duplicity and the invasion of our privacy?  If the current transfer and transformation of authority continues in this direction, then the only way that governments will be able to retain legitimacy will be to act transparently and build consensus.

It is an exciting time to be alive, yet it is also perilous. The power of individual conscience is pivotal in helping to ignite a new collective consciousness and in forging new norms for social progress. In that sense it is a new day. In a world where people collectively share their needs and longings, their information, their tools for change and their vital experiences, no single power can remain in charge. But what kind of authority will stand in its stead?

We can see that the old dictators like President Assad in Syria have had their day in human history, and that the authoritarian structures they have maintained for so long are finally coming to an end. Yet we also know that the story has only just begun, for what replaces overt authoritarianism are unrestrained corporate interests which subvert the democratic process and act as the puppet masters of politicians, conflating economic interests with national security and  confusing market dominance with real progress.

The good news is that we are starting to see that this process of subversion can be halted and reversed. There is too much collective intelligence to allow corporations to rule the world and imperil the sustainability of planet Earth. As a result, we may be surprised to see just how quickly these remaining concentrations of power and authority begin to crumble as the current sea change in collective consciousness really gets underway.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData