A little useful authority ....
Paradigms lost, among other things.
A spectre is haunting the dreams of the good-thinking classes of the West: the spectre of authoritarianism. Like most spectres, its definition is poor, and you can mostly see through it. But the fact that it’s insubstantial hasn’t stopped it frightening those who see it as their job to tell us what to be frightened of.
Authoritarianism, we learn is a Bad Thing. It is, oddly, found predominantly in countries hostile to the West (or more properly countries the West is hostile to), and among politicians and parties that don’t follow current liberal norms. It seems to be related to other undesirable abstract thingies such as “populism,” although apparently not all authoritarians are populists, and not all populists are authoritarian. Anyway, it’s a big problem, and we should be on our guard against it both in our own countries and internationally.
Let’s open the dictionary, not to find a definition of “authoritarian," since there are numerous conflicting ones, but to look at the root of the word itself: “authority.” We learn that, whilst the word is associated these days with the power to command obedience, its ultimate origin, in the Latin auctoritas, is also the root of the word “author," and it essentially referred to a source or person who could give worthwhile advice or inspire trust. In the pre-modern world, where the Ancients were believed to have been there and done all that, and where things had been declining ever since, an “authority” was a classical figure whose prestige was based essentially on his antiquity. The ancients, it was felt, knew more than we do, and increasingly so as they were more ancient. The best-known example is Aristotle’s overwhelming domination of thought in the medieval era. Dante did not even need to give his name in the Divine Comedy: everybody knew who “The Philosopher” was. But an “authority” was not necessarily a person. For a long time, the ultimate authority in the West was the Bible, and the most typical tactic in the controversies between Catholics and Protestants at the time of the Reformation was to flourish different verses from the Bible at each other in support of their assertions. Everybody knows that Hobbes believed that life without a Leviathan could be nasty, brutish and short, but it comes as a surprise to pick up his book and find a whole long section devoted to supporting his arguments with detailed quotations from the Bible. There are doubts about whether he did this entirely seriously, but what seems remarkable to us is that he felt the need to do it at all.
Authority in this sense is a basic human need; not because humans are weak, or because elites should rule, but simply because life is complicated, and we cannot all be experts on everything. Nothing is sillier or more counter-productive than to tell people to “work it out for themselves” or to “weigh up the evidence.” These are actually just ways of making people helpless and easily manipulated, since few of us are capable of weighing and judging evidence outside our narrow areas of interest. “Teaching people to think” sounds like a great idea in theory, but it’s not at all obvious how you could do it in practice. Indeed “teaching people to think,” and even more “letting people find out for themselves,” are often just disguised ways of not teaching them anything at all.
In, let’s call them, traditional societies, all this was relatively unproblematic. Anthropologists have shown that, even in the last century in isolated societies, authority came from knowledge and experience, and often simply from being recognised as the best at something. Everyone would copy the best hunter, or the best pottery maker. In this way, as Jospeh Henrich has shown, societies slowly develop collective social capital, which is added to and passed on from generation to generation. Innovation is always possible (“let’s try this wood for making arrows”) but has to be controlled. If you live in a farming village always on the edge of starvation (as was frequently true even a century ago) then disrupting the annual rice-planting with an edgy, new-technology initiative could simply mean that everyone in the village died.
The key is that authority was, in principle, never random or arbitrary, but was based on prestige, and performance over time. Even in our much larger-scale societies we retain this idea: we ask for advice on practical issues like buying a car, learning an instrument, putting up shelves or taking out life insurance policies. We seek experience and, for want of a better word, wisdom: it would seem curious if someone were to ask us whether we knew a cheap lawyer to advise on complex technical issues, for example. Obviously, though, the situation was, and always has been, more difficult when the judgements are of principle rather than practice: what to do, in other words, rather than how. But even here, individuals of long experience would often play mediating or deliberating roles precisely because they had successfully played them many times before.
Another type of moral authority involves recourse to some outside principle or force. This can be as simple as tradition: we’ve always done it this way. Indeed, most of the world’s legal codes began as essentially the writing down of traditional customs and heuristics. But it can also be religion. It may be that you behave in a certain way because supernatural forces want you to, or will be angry if you don’t. In monotheistic religions, an omnicompetent God has revealed all that it is necessary to know to lead a good life, and a cadre of specialist priests is on hand to interpret difficult cases. At least formally, the priest who tells you to do this, or not do that, is not speaking in a personal capacity, but is interpreting the will of a deity who is presumed to know what he/she/it is talking about. And in most societies authority also came from your status in a divinely ordered universe: some individuals or groups were to be obeyed, and that was it.
Here, we come to the modern problem with “authority” as a concept. I say “problem," but it’s really a problem at a conceptual level, rather than in real life. It’s also a confusion between different ideas of the concept of authority itself. For example, almost everyone would accept that parents should have some degree of “authority” over children, for reasons that are entirely practical. In turn, it’s quite reasonable that children should resent parental authority and react against it. This has historically led to a kind of dialectical process in which individuals test themselves against their parents and other authority figures, eventually settling down to an accommodation with life, which varies with their personality and character, and also, of course, the nature of the authority against which they feel the need to rebel. This could be called growing up, maturing, or what Jung called “individuation”: the process of becoming an individual, as opposed to just the child of somebody else. Whether parents, school and other entities of authority are actually “right” in any given case, is a secondary consideration to the process of growth and individuation that rebellion against them should produce.
The generation that came to positions of prominence and importance (one might almost say authority) in the last twenty-five years was born after the Second World War, and was in almost all cases better educated than their parents. They also grew up in a time of relative prosperity and stability, but with the awareness that the generation of their parents and grand-parents had put the world to fire and sword twice already in the century, and was now hanging the threat of nuclear annihilation over them. There was a natural, and in some ways healthy, reluctance to believe that older generations could have much of interest to say. The very concept of authority, in all its senses, seemed outdated and illegitimate, and on hand were thinkers like Adorno and Marcuse to say, apparently, that that was indeed the case. Later, in a poor light, Foucault could be twisted into affirming that there was no such thing as Truth anyway, so why bother? In the Rousseau-like atmosphere of the sixties and seventies, it began to be argued that education itself was a type of oppression, so the emphasis should be on “finding out” and “learning together.”
Yet from the point of view of those were educated in those days, and saw their children educated later, this wasn’t actually very satisfactory. To suppose, as Marcuse did, that ordinary people are somnambulists, unable to think for themselves and just blindly accepting “authority,” is wrong and insulting. To assume, as some of his followers did, that people can be “liberated” from this condition is patronising and exploitative. Few of us since Aristotle have ever thought something through from first principles. In virtually every case, what we do is to test and evaluate ideas and choose those we will retain. In turn, our judgement has to come from confidence in skills we have acquired from education and from our experience of life. Telling people to “learn to think” is pointless, and nobody knows how to do it. On the other hand, nothing is more dangerous to entrenched political systems than mass education: ask any reactionary. By contrast, “work it out for yourselves” means casting people loose, and if they fail, it’s their own fault.
In terms of social mechanics, and for the reasons discussed above, most people seek authoritative guidance on difficult issues, which they can accept, at least as a provisional working solution. But this demand, which is a human constant throughout history, no longer has a guaranteed supply. A curious mixture of unreflective liberalism and neoliberal cynicism has degraded the concept of useful authority to the point where ordinary people simply have no idea where to start. Government institutions that were once regarded as disinterested and reliable have now been mostly privatised, and just want to sell you things. Journalists tell you that “everything the government says is a lie” but ask you to believe them. And so, of course, that demand for authoritative guidance is eagerly met by people with YouTube channels but nothing of any relevance to say. Just as in the sixties young people demonstrated their independence from parental authority by adopting exactly the same Marxist slogans as everybody else, so today we see that real political progress is being made by Islamic fundamentalists and evangelical Christians, while ineffectual liberals debate whether textbooks are instruments of oppression.
It’s not, to repeat once more, that people are weak or stupid, or want to be told what to do. But when the elites of a society not only fail to offer guidance for people to accept or reject, but even pour scorn on the idea that any guidance is possible, well, people will seek guidance where they can find it. And now, political elites are panicking about the consequences of that, as if it was somehow unexpected. That’s what I turn to next.