How authority became a dirty word

Frank Furedi on why there’s little positive about today’s crisis of authority.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books

Frank Furedi argues in his latest book, Authority: A Sociological History, that Western culture finds it very difficult today to give any positive meaning to authority. In fact, we are far more comfortable questioning authority, be it that of politicians or public institutions, than affirming it. In Authority, Furedi seeks to get to the heart of this phenomenon, by tracing how authority emerged in the Ancient world, gained shape and meaning, and sought to reconstitute itself in modern times. He talked to Tim Black about the problem of authority today.

Tim Black: A simple question to start with: what is authority and why is it important?

Frank Furedi: Look around you. Some of the most powerful institutions in the world, some of the most powerful countries in the world, seem incapable of achieving what they set out to do. Take American foreign policy. You have this major power that is often at a loss about what to do, and often taken aback by its setbacks and defeats against far, far weaker opponents. Elsewhere, there are plenty of other examples of what looks like an entirely arbitrary exercise of power. Why has this nation done that, why have they intervened in that country, but not in that one? And the reason is because they are exercising power without meaning. This highlights the absence of authority, because authority isn’t simply power: it’s the meaning given to power; authority gives power a direction and clarity.

TB:There are clearly plenty of examples today of power exercised without meaning. So when has this not been the case? When was power exercised with meaning behind it?

FF: A very good example would be Napoleon. There you had great clarity, where it was not a matter of simply going to war, but carrying out a war that really meant something. He inspired an enthusiasm and belief in what he was doing. There are other more recent examples, too. So during the Second World War, the fight against fascism created a certain degree of clarity on the part of the population and inspired an unusual degree of support.

TB: A quote from the twentieth-century writer and critic, Hannah Arendt, stands out in the introduction to Authority: ‘[M]ost will agree that a constant, ever-widening and deepening crisis of authority has accompanied the development of the modern world in [the twentieth century].’ So do you think we are in the grip of a ‘crisis of authority’?

FF: I wouldn’t necessarily use the term ‘crisis’ – it’s such an overused term – but I would say that there’s a fundamental problem with the normative foundation of social arrangements and social relations, which, after all, is where the raw material of authority lies. I also think there’s a widespread recognition that the erosion of authority is a problem. Even those who are anti-authoritarian recognise that, but they often backtrack and adopt an evasive strategy, saying we can do without authority. So whether you call it a crisis of authority or not, there is an attempt to avoid facing up to the fact that there is a very important problem to be tackled.

TB: As you say, there does seem to be a widespread recognition that exercising authority is a problem today. Yet at the same time, there is very little explicit discussion of it as an issue. Do you think that the problem of authority has been neglected?

FF: Yes, totally. That’s one of the things that really struck me writing this book. Authority is probably the central category of Western political theory. For centuries and centuries it is right at the core of many key discussions. Even those thinkers who begin to raise questions about authority, who want to limit its status, still use it as a central concept.

But from the interwar period onwards, there is a marked intellectual tendency to find substitutes for authority, to attempt to make do without it as an important category. This is particularly striking in sociology, which is the discipline I work in. There, the problem of order, which is the original problem of sociology, is gradually overlooked and eventually avoided. A number of sociologists talk about authority not being relevant for our times, and make a half-hearted attempt to displace the problem of authority, either through a theory of negative authority, or by redefining it as the problem of trust. What this does is to transform the problem of authority, from being a problem of a foundational norm upon which society rests, to a problem of individuals’ psychology and attitudes.

TB: Could you say a bit more about the problem of order?

FF: It’s really a question of how society is possible. Thomas Hobbes deals with it at length: how do you have order in a world where people have different interests, and where religion can no longer provide a narrative or consensus? How do you get people to cooperate and to abide by a certain set of shared assumptions? You can see the question of order with religious conflict during the eighteenth century, the problem of class conflict during the nineteenth century, and the disintegration of consensus during the twentieth century. The problem of order, of what morally grounds society, used to be the main subject many political thinkers dealt with. But now, the problem of order has been redefined in a more narrow technical sense, as a problem of social cohesion, for instance, or as a problem of trust. And all these evasive strategies ignore the substantive foundation for order.

TB: As you argue in the book, the break with tradition and the past as a source of authority meant that modern political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke sought to ground authority on a notion of public consent – this seems to be a key turning point in the conception of authority. But as you also write, over the past 200 or so years, public consent as the source of authority has come to be treated as a problem. Why is this?

FF: In Ancient times, there was the belief that public consent was necessary for the exercise of authority. But at the same time, it was also seen as a very unreliable form of legitimation, for the simple reason that to gain consent, you’re faced with a potentially very disorderly force. In fact, as I note in the book, anti-democratic theory, articulated by Plato or Aristotle, actually develops before democratic theory. The Athenian elite was very sensitive to the threat that popular consent posed for them. They understood that demagogues or people who promise the earth may well marginalise their influence. And at points, this did happen. The elite response was to pathologise the people, to call into question their capacity for judgement. So the negative representation of public opinion and popular consent actually originates in Ancient Greece.

In the modern era, democratic theory is far more positively expressed. But even then, as the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or even Robespierre show, the role of the people is always circumscribed – there are always checks and balances. In fact, there are very few people – Thomas Paine is certainly one – who are robustly for popular consent as the sovereign ground of authority. Everyone else invariably hedges their bets.

At the start of the nineteenth century, many liberals and utilitarians hoped that through culture and education, the people would rise to the democratic occasion. But of course, what happens is that no sooner do liberals start running with these ideas than people start demanding electoral reform, wanting the vote, and so on. And therefore, as the nineteenth century progresses, liberals increasingly experience democracy as a threat more than anything else.

TB: Yes, and as you argue, it’s at this point that you get what you call ‘the pathologisation of the masses’, with theories of people’s fundamental irrationality, their unconscious drives and so on, coming to the fore.

FF: Yes. In fact, in the eighteenth century there are already signs of this. For instance, in 1741 the philosopher David Hume wrote a very positive assessment of press freedom in Of the Liberty of the Press. But when the essay was republished in 1770, following two decades of intermittent social unrest, with the pro-press freedom Wilkes Riots being especially troubling, Hume had changed the piece to call the liberty of the press an ‘evil’ the nation must live with.

Towards the end of the century, of course, there was the French Revolution, which many continental intellectuals and observers viewed as something brought about by an extremely jealous and selfish mob. It was seen as uncontainable, a threat, a danger. In England, there was more confidence that the status quo could keep the masses under control – you see that in James Mill and other utilitarian writers. But very soon, prominent thinkers and politicians start arguing that you can only trust the educated section of society, the people who are going to behave responsibly. So what you have is an attempt to cultivate a political system that continually integrates the more respectable, stable sections of the lower orders, while marginalising the influence of the left. This is the point at which theories around crowd psychology, the attempt to explain crowd behaviour as irrational, start to emerge.

TB: What happened to the idea of authority during the twentieth century? Why, after the Second World War, did authority effectively become a dirty word?

FF: There’s always been a tradition of questioning authority by people who felt that authority intruded upon the exercise of individual autonomy. But what’s interesting is that from the late nineteenth century onwards, a new word emerges: ‘authoritarianism.’ Hitherto, authoritarian, if it was used at all, had a largely neutral, sometimes positive connotation. But in the twentieth century, ‘authoritarianism’ as a pejorative starts to appear, and authority itself is damned as authoritarian.

The principal reason for this is the extremely powerful postwar reaction against the public – shared by both the left and conservatives – whereby the masses are seen as easy meat for authoritarian dictators of the Hitler/Mussolini type. Of course, the theories are a bit more subtle, but the underlying assumption is that the masses were duped, that authoritarians, with their propagandistic box of tricks, were far too strong for poor old democrats, who only had intellectual arguments, to counter. Ultimately, what the critics were saying was that the masses were almost instinctively authoritarian themselves.

TB: Societies still need something to ground themselves on – a source of legitimacy, a substantive foundation. How can this happen when authority has effectively been demonised?

FF: Yes, in the postwar period, there still needs to be some way in which societies can be managed, some way in which institutions can be legitimated. Public consent as the ground for authority is an option, but it is never really developed. (In fact, democratic theory does not develop at all in the postwar period. It’s the theories which curb democracy that predominate.) So, the alternative is the authority of science, of the expert, which does develop, and is used quite systematically. But science and expertise are a very limited and unstable form of authority, so although they can play an important role in legitimating government policy and initiatives, they don’t really provide a sturdy foundation for authority.

The law, too, increasingly becomes a proxy for authority proper. Admittedly, there are times when laws do have a very powerful normative foundation to them. Roman law, for instance, had a very important connection to people’s understanding of the world, and was therefore seen as a legitimate instrument through which everyday life could be mediated. But as law becomes more and more sophisticated, it develops according to its own inner logic. Which may well be very useful and may well provide important protections for people – so I’m not against the law. But the law in and of itself does not have the normative depth that you need in order for people to invest it with authority. So people can accept the law, but they’re not necessarily going to be inspired by it; their imagination is not going to be captured by the workings of the judiciary. The legal process is certainly more authoritative than arbitrary action, but it just doesn’t provide a normative foundation for authority.

TB: We’ve talked about the contemporary authority substitutes. But what do you think should be the foundation of authority?

FF: I think it should be some sort of democratic form of popular consent which is developed on the basis of debate and discussion, which is thoroughgoing and protracted, and which is integrated into the public life of society. And it’s this attempt to develop a twenty-first-century form of popular consent that is missing at the moment.

The reason I’m not pessimistic, however, is that we live in an era in which it is unthinkable that you could have any political arrangement that does not draw on popular consent – it simply wouldn’t work for any length of time. So given that we recognise the necessity of popular consent, it’s only a few steps to take that recognition forward and to argue for not just putting up with popular consent, but turning it into a virtue.

TB: There is a paradox, of course. At the same time as authority is profoundly problematic today, there is very little support for freedom.

FF: This paradox is something I’ve become very aware of. In the nineteenth century, opposition to authority was mainly in the name of extending freedoms. Today, there is very little aspiration for freedom. There are no real demands for free speech or greater freedom of expression. In general, we’re very ambivalent about freedom. At the same time, there isn’t really a demand for authority, except among especially authoritarian or religious types of people.

So we have this interesting situation where there’s both a diminished culture of freedom and a diminished capacity to celebrate authoritative behaviour. My argument is that the two go hand in hand. You need to be able both to uphold authoritativeness – authoritative statements, authoritative interventions – and also freedom, which is the basis of acting authoritatively. The two are not opposed; they’re interlinked.

Tim Black is deputy editor at spiked.

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