Authority and Authority-effects

Authority: The OED presents a wide range of definitions, of which the one most pertinent to anarchist concerns is (II.2) “Power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience; moral, legal, or political supremacy.” The general heading (II.) is “Power to enforce obedience or compliance, or a party possessing it” and this is distinguished from the following set of definitions (III), which pertain to “Power to influence action, opinion, or belief, or a party possessing it.” Fundamental to the anarchist understanding of authority is this power to command and enforce compliance and obedience, since this power necessarily occupies a position “above” those subject to the authority, required and possibly compelled to obey. This is a hierarchical relationship.

A few clarifications:

Regardless of its origins, this sort of authority involves a non-voluntary relation between a ruling power and ruled subjects. An individual may choose to conform to the demands of authority, either through fear of punishment, shared interests, general indifference, etc., but non-compliance is not among the options open to the subject of authority.

Some custodial relations or relations of tutelage may appear to be relations of authority. The parental relation is an example where one party is presumed to have a right to command another, but the appearance of authority is arguably deceptive in these cases, as the parental right to command is generally bundled with a duty to place the interests of the child above those of the parent in many instances. Where we have a conventional right to command and a social hierarchy, but the interests of the subject of command are placed above those of the “authority” figure, we have something more complicated than authority, which is probably better understood as analogous to some form of hospitality.

The “power” behind authority is fundamentally one of right. Outside of some context where “might is right” is recognized as the basis of social order, the mere capacity to compel another does not constitute authority. At the same time, authority need not be competent to rule wisely, nor actually capable of compelling obedience. Rights and capacities may coincide, but that is arguably a different concern than whether or not authority exists. Nor is authority ultimately dependent on the importance of the rights assigned. It is, for example, quite possible to be authorized to exert powers that would never be called for.

As a matter of right, authority is specifically vested in or assigned to an individual, group, role or institution. As the right is not dependent on the capacity of the authority, neither is it dependent on the capacities or needs of the subject or on any of the various material conditions that might give a greater or lesser practical significance to the authority. The appearance of authority or an unauthorized power to compel may emerge from a variety of instances, but we must account for those authority-effects separately.

Authority-effect: The infamous “authority of the bootmaker,” from Bakunin’s “God and the State,” is probably the most familiar example of an instance where the uneven distribution of expertise, together with the staple nature of the object of expertise, combine to create a condition of quasi-authority, where an expert may be capable of “commanding” a situation, not because they have any right to do so, but because they occupy an advantageous position in society, thanks to the division of labor. We may be forced to take the advice of a specialist, but the source of their power to influence our decision is as much our lack of expertise and whatever exigencies we face as it is their own knowledge and skill. In a medical crisis, a doctor may be able to wield considerable power over patients without medical expertise, while in a time of good health or under circumstances where the patient has medical expertise, that power melts away. Certainly, we don’t bow to bootmakers when we don’t need boots, even if sufficient need on our part may create real power that they can wield. Credentialing systems may create a slightly different sort of authority effect, particularly where they are faulty or corrupt, by increasing the possibility of the false appearance of expertise or by limiting the ability of capable practitioners to meet the needs of others.

Authority-effects are very real, in the sense that the combination of factors can compel obedience to just as great an extent as more formal authority, and they may continue to be a problem even under circumstances where the principle of authority has been rejected. But their ill effects will almost certainly be reduced as we move beyond a social model that treats authority as a foundational principle and learn to engage in anarchistic relations.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 1949 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.