Monday, 30 April 2012

Anarchism and Authority

I'm becoming increasingly fascinated with the philosophical questions about 'authority': What is it? Where does it come from? Can it be rationally justified? It seems like anarchism can't answer a trivial 'no' to that last question, since parental authority seems thoroughly rational. So why can some forms of submission to authority be justifiable and some can't?

Habermas tried to rehabilitate the post-Enlightenment concept of authority by claiming that it makes sense to submit one's judgment to a person of superior insight - that, rationally, there are times when we ought to recognize the limits of our own reason and let somebody else think for us. Habermas was no anarchist (in the same essay, he describes the anarchistic utopia as a 'hermeneutically false consciousness', which certainly sounds bad), but can anarchists make use of his take on authority? On the surface, it seems like it might give reasonable criteria for 'justified authority': superior knowledge, for instance, or moral judgment.

And is authority such a necessarily poisonous concept, anyway? If there are forms of it that don't necessarily entail coercion - as the Abonilox suggests in the comments of my previous post - might anarchists embrace some form of authority without any problems at all?

I'm asking a lot of questions here, so I beg your patience. I've got no answers yet.


One final note: I notice that I'm rehashing a lot of the same ground that Helen Rittelmeyer covered years ago here. I don't want to immediately agree with the claim that authority and individuality aren't at odds - it sounds too similar to the 'freedom through submission' doublespeak of Christianity - but it is an excellent post.


  1. Read this earlier today and was struck by the interesting feature of the word "authority" that in English is often accompanied by the preposition "on" as in "he is an authority on" such and such.

    Being an authority over is quite a different thing and seems more connected to a military connotation, no?

    But those are just features of our use of the word.

    So, from that I glean two possible meanings of the term:

    1. I know more about this than you, that makes me an authority over you on this subject.

    2. I have more power than you, and you are under my command, that makes me an authority over you.

    Religious authority, interestingly, tends to blur both of the definitions. :-)

  2. Damn, I just lost my comment.

    I was posting regarding "The 3 Best Illegal Things To Do in...[insert city here]" series of posts you wrote.

    Basically, you're wrong about what you say on the light bulb and homing pidgeon points - I had the examples typed up but I can't be bothered typing them again. If you reply here I might bother to retype them.

    p.s. I can't find anything on the horse/ taxi point but I could be wrong.

    p.p.s. Try supporting your arguments by using real examples like, posting a reward for a lost pet on a light post.

    This is illegal because you can't post a bill on a light post without council permission and you can't offer a reward for the return of lost property.

    That said I see at least one of these posters a day.

  3. Abonilox, religious authority relies on that old saying: knowledge is power. Schopenhauer thought that was bullshit, so do I, and I suspect so do you. Do you watch Game of Thrones? There's a very relevant Cersei/Littlefinger interaction (I'll find a link, if you want) that sets out the relationship of knowledge to power.

    William Chau, I wasn't exactly making airtight legal arguments. Comedy articles posted on weekendnotes are not intended as legal advice and should not be taken as such. I am not a lawyer, so my interest is only tangential. Feel free to type out the examples - but be aware that the "3 Best Illegal..." articles themselves have comment threads, and your comments would probably be better placed there.