Authority can refer to people or institutions that have the political power to make decisions, give orders, and enforce rules.
This week we take up the topic of authority and resistance. We live in an age in which many of the old, top-down authority structures are collapsing before our very eyes. In large measure, the collapse of top-down authority is due to the “democratizing” effect of technology, especially, but not only, the internet. The democratization of information is having an effect on our politics, on the media, on medicine, even on education.
Does the collapse of top-down authority mean the rise of anarchy and chaos? Or can there be authority without hierarchy? Who needs top-down authority anyway? These are the sorts of questions we take up in this episode.
Now there are no doubt many who see these as exciting times. Less hierarchy, more choice, more freedom. What’s not to like, they may ask. But I am not sure the collapse of the old authorities is an entirely good thing. It has meant an explosion in untrustworthy news sources and the implosion of trustworthy ones. It has led to the sprouting of demagogues of every stripe and the withering of candidates vetted and tested by thriving political parties. I don’t want to sound overly nostalgic, but whatever else you can say about those old structures, they actually served the people, at least to a degree.
Some will no doubt reply that the old authorities served only themselves and their elitist cronies. That is precisely why people resisted them. That’s why they are tumbling down even as we speak. And where some see mere chaos spreading in the wake of the collapse, one might also see more democracy—more voices having a say.
But there is such a thing as too many voices! Especially when we have no good way to decide which ones to heed and which to ignore. That’s not democracy. That’s cacophony!
To be sure, those who applaud the collapse of the old hierarchical authority structures will gladly admit that democracy can be a little noisy at times. But to them the noise of democracy is the sound of good things emerging. When all ideas get a hearing, that’s when truth happens. When each of us is free to voice our dreams and fears, that’s when justice happens. Or so they believe.
It’s a pretty picture, I admit. But I some noise is just noise and not music at all, especially when it’s produced by people who flood the social world with discredited ideas, distorting propaganda, or dangerous drugs. And that is precisely what the old authorities promised to protect us from! At least in theory.
But one does have to asked who was actually silenced in practice. It wasn’t the snake oil salesmen, peddling false or misleading information. It was the marginalized masses. They were told to shut up and do as they were told. They were silenced by the bureaucratic-education complex—the military-industrial complex—the corporate-medical-pharmacological-insurance complex. A true gaggle of hegemonic complexes, each with its own hidden agendas. Perhaps that is precisely why people were right to resist them.
I can’t deny the force of these thoughts. They are surely getting at part of the truth about the old authorities. But I’m not entirely convinced that our current chaos represents an improvement. It just not true that all voices deserve an equal hearing. On the other hand, I admit that no one is automatically entitled to authority over anybody else. Authority has to be earned, if it’s to be legitimate. Those ossified authority structures that you’re so nostalgic for, they didn’t earn their authority. They usurped it.
But precisely that raises the million-dollar question. How can authority be legitimately earned, rather than merely usurped, especially when we face such a plethora of competing voices? Please listen in, comment on our blog, or send as email and help us figure out the answer.