Why Is Authority Always A Problem?
The fear of authority inescapably leads to the problem of trust.
During the next few months I will be exploring the issue of authority. As I argued in my book Authority: A Sociological History, the quest for legitimate authority is one of the key questions of our time. This issue was highlighted during the COVID pandemic when the question of ‘who can I trust’ was raised and re-raised time and again. Over the next few months we will be exploring this issue.
Twenty–first century society has an uneasy relationship with authority. Time and again we are confronted with the question: ‘whom can you trust? People ask continually: ‘who is in authority?’, ‘who is the authority?’, ‘who can speak with authority?’ or ‘on whose authority do you act?’ Every controversy surrounding an act of misfortune – whether it is an outbreak of a flu epidemic, an environmental problem, a natural disaster, an accident or a financial crisis creates a demand for authoritative solutions. Yet this aspiration for authoritative answers coincides with a cultural sensibility that is profoundly suspicious of the exercise of authority. This development is striking in relation to problems associated with inter-generational transactions. Society expects parents and teachers to act authoritatively with young people but at the same time it often conveys the impression that it does not quite trust adults to discipline children in a responsible manner.
In contemporary times authority has a very bad press. Unmasking authority has become a fashionable enterprise that resonates with popular culture. Those who hold positions of responsibility and of power – politicians, parents, teachers, priests, doctors, nursery workers – are ‘exposed’ continually for abusing their authority. That the term ‘authority’ is associated so readily with the act of abuse is symptomatic of western society’s disenchantment with the so-called authority figure. It appears that we have become far more able to demonise authority than to affirm it. Consequently even those who are formally in authority hesitate about openly exercising their influence. In numerous businesses and public institutions those in positions of responsibility are often far too ready to adopt the now widely practised custom of outsourcing authority to consultants and experts. Governments, too, are happy to ‘share’ authority with so-called independent bodies of experts (Bank of England), international bodies (EU Commission) and other third-party organisations.
So what is authority?
Hannah Arendt, one of the leading political philosophers of the twentieth century has argued that, ‘if authority is to be defined at all it must be in contradistinction to both coercive power and persuasion through argument’. From this perspective, authority is not reducible to a relation of power. When governments force an issue through the exercise of power they inadvertently draw attention to their inability to act authoritatively. Nor can authority simply rely on persuasion to gain public endorsement for a specific objective. Persuasion through debate presupposes a relation of parity between competing but equal parties. Arendt suggests that the use of coercion and of persuasion is symptomatic of non-authoritative behaviour. She writes that a ‘father can lose his authority either by beating his child or by starting to argue with him, that is, either by behaving to him like a tyrant or by treating him as an equal’. So when authority relies on coercion or persuasion it is forced implicitly to concede that it has lost the trust of those that it seeks to influence.
The confusion of power and authority is understandable since without authority, power loses its meaning and becomes difficult to exercise. Authority gives power meaning. Since meaning is rooted in culture and morality it cannot be artificially produced. That is why so many of the recently constructed institutions and conventions that touch on multiculturalism, the EU or personal life have little actual authority.
Concern with authority is as old as human history itself. The issue was explicitly raised in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve’s sin was to challenge the authority of God through disobeying his rule. The Bible constantly instructed people to take authority very seriously. ‘Let very person be subject to the governing authorities’ states Romans 13:1 before adding that ‘there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God’. From this perspective literally all authority needs to be obeyed since it was likely to have been ordained by God.
Many of the influential Greek myths and stories can be read as attempts to engage with conflicting claims about authority. Homer’s, The Iliad, begins with Achilles raising criticisms about Agamemnon’s authority and leadership. Nestor, the old king of Pylos, attempts to make peace between the two rivals by demanding that they defer to him on account of his authority as an elder. In the ancient world, the authority of the elderly was closely linked to most forms of authority. So it is not surprising that Nestor states: ‘listen to me, for you are both younger than I’. Characteristically, Agamemnon also claims the authority of age and demands that Achilles submit to him since, ‘I am more kingly, and avow that I am elder in age’. Others claim authority on grounds of their heroic deeds on the battlefield. But in the end the conflict is resolved through the reassertion of the need for some form of collective authority. Odysseus expressed this point most eloquently when he attempted to persuade the assembly of the need to submit to the authority of kingship. ‘In no way do we Achaeans all rule as kings here’ he asserts. Odysseus states that since, ‘the leadership of many is no good thing’ let ‘there be one leader’.
Odysseus’ warning about the dangers of the ‘leadership of the many’ was subsequently elaborated through the reflections of Greek philosophers. Plato in particular was obsessed with a condition that he characterised as ‘anarchy’, where lines of authority become eroded leading to political instability and cultural decay. The all too modern pre-occupation with the dangers associated with the ‘loss of authority’ was an issue that also preyed on the imagination of the thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome
The emerging crisis of modern authority
Western society has an ambiguous attitude towards authority and its exercise. Modern western society is itself a product of a revolt against traditional authority. In the eighteenth century the pursuit of freedom required a challenge to the authority of the Church and the State. Since that time, questioning the right of traditional authority to determine how people conduct their life has become one of the defining features of modern culture. Moreover the very assertion of authority is increasingly perceived as an encroachment on individual freedom. Ever since traditional forms of authority have come under question, all other forms have been challenged and sometimes castigated as arbitrary. Many people have come to regard authority as, by definition, the antithesis of freedom, and restricting its role is seen as the objective of movements fighting for the expansion of democratic rights. One consequence of this development is that authority in all its forms is often regarded with suspicion.
In retrospect, the erosion of traditional authority has had many positive outcomes. Authority has less scope to behave in an arbitrary manner - it needs to account for its action. The questioning of moral codes gave some people the freedom to make their own way in life and to embrace new opportunities thrown up by a changing world. As Hannah Arendt argued, ‘with the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to a predetermined aspect of the past’. Traditional authority was deeply hostile to change and to new ideas. It needed to be challenged by democratic forces in order that society could realise the potential benefits of change.
However, the revolt against tradition has not always succeeded in developing alternatives that are consistent with contemporary aspirations for a meaningful and free life. Contemporary society is uncomfortable not only with traditional authority but also the very idea of authority. Terms like authority, authority figure and authoritarian are often used in ways that convey a negative connotation.
The progressive, Enlightenment-inspired questioning of tradition and authority has given way to a form of uncritical condemnation. In the twenty-first century it is not simply the arbitrary traditions handed down from the past that are questioned, but the status of the intellectual and cultural achievements of past generations. It is worth noting that the Enlightenment’s advocacy of critical inquiry through the application of reason is itself a legacy that needs to be cherished. It is a tradition of sorts, but one which needs to be upheld through the further development of knowledge, rather than as an article of faith.
Back in the 1950s Arendt drew attention to a dramatic development, which was the ‘gradual breakdown of the one form of authority’ which existed in ‘all historically known societies, the authority of parents over children, of teachers over pupils and , generally of the elders over the young’. She observed that this form of authority ‘required as much by natural needs, the helplessness of the child, as by political necessity’ was always accepted by society. However she added ‘ours is the first century in which this argument no longer carries an overwhelming weight of plausibility and it announced its anti-authoritarian spirit more radically when it promised the emancipation of youth as an oppressed class and called itself the “century of the child”’
That the contestation of authority dominates the pre-political spheres of everyday life is shown by constant acrimonious debates over issues of child-rearing, health, lifestyles and the conduct of personal relationships.
The erosion of the legitimacy of pre-political authority has deprived many parents and teachers of the self-belief to engage confidently with the younger generation. They are told time and again that their authority rests on outdated assumptions and that they lacked the expertise required for their role. Conscious of the difficulty of acting authoritatively, parents and teachers feel insecure about rejecting the advice offered by experts. The explosion of new child-rearing and pedagogic fads is symptomatic of adult society’s futile attempt to bypass the question of finding some alternative to the workings of pre-political authority. It indicates that the problem of authority begins at home. The unstable status of expert advice underlines the precarious character of this form of authority.
A key issue raised in the contemporary era is whether moral authority can exercise significant influence over people drawn towards the ideal of behaving in ways in accordance with individual choice and lifestyle preferences. One of the challenges facing western society is to reconcile the aspiration for human autonomy with the exercise of authority. Often individual freedom is perceived to be directly counterposed to authority. However experience shows that when authority exists in a feeble form, individual freedom is also compromised. That is why the diminishing of authoritative behaviour in public life tends to be paralleled by the disorientation of the private sphere.
Of course no society can survive without the workings of authoritative institutions that can maintain order and social co-ordination within which individuals can pursue their objectives. However in the absence of a positive narrative of authority we seek to bypass the problem of authority through compensating for it through rule making, inventing procedures and micro-managing personal life. This leads to attempt to formalise everyday life through the artificial production of rules and conventions. The conventionalisation of social life attempts to regulate personal behaviour through appealing to the authority of the expert and professional. However, when institutions rely on formal processes such as codes of conduct and transparency, they can rarely act authoritatively since these rules are not based on an explicit moral and philosophical system of meaning. That is why rule-making inexorably leads to more rule-making. The less western culture can affirm authority, the more dependent it becomes on the formalising and professionalising of daily life. The erosion of authority and autonomy is thus a mutually reinforcing process.
In the end we relate to authority in an arbitrary fashion. Those who reject some form of authority as illegitimate usually embrace others as acceptable. So, many critics of the teachers’ authority over the class room invite us to serve as ‘mentors’, ‘facilitators’ or ‘role models’ to children. In a world where the clergy is sometimes denounced for its authoritarian and abusive behaviour, it is the celebrity or the victim that is often endowed with moral authority. Some renounce all forms of public authority and recognise only the authority of the self. However the self, too, depends on the instructions and advice on the authority of the therapist and the expert. So although authority can be undermined it cannot be quite abolished. However when authority unravels it threatens to undermine public life and gives way to moral disorientation. That is why we need to be clear about how authority works.