Authority and Resistance

22 April 2019

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. 


Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

Comments (7)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, April 22, 2019 -- 3:43 PM

The current state of

The current state of democracy is what we have made it...on the order of Dewey's remarks about belief (see: his book on How We Think, the section on Beliefs and Existences). I have referred to him before, so further comment is unnecessary. Right now, there is no viable political solution, as far as I can see. Hasn't been one since about 1962, and after the 1968 showdown in Chicago, it was 'turtles, all the way down...' I am glad most of this is past-tense for me... reading Kenneth Burke right now---his Attitudes on History. Amazing insight for a man born in 1897. And lacking formal education credentials. Well, we just never know...

MJA's picture


Wednesday, April 24, 2019 -- 10:04 PM

Ken Kesey's 'One Flew over

Ken Kesey's 'One Flew over the Coockoo's Nest' tells the story of a place filled with crazy people and a governess named Nurse Cratchet who's job it was to make order out of the order-less. In the end her government only made things worse and as for her good intentions, like perhaps all governments, perhaps, she was found to be the craisest and in most need of management of all.

Our Democracy needs management!

I think the best One can do is to learn to control One's own self. Once we elect others to rule or govern over us, we lose our own strength of self-control. An example: the climate is changing in a negative way caused by ourselves mankind. Because we have given away our self-control to others we now ask what our government is going to do to fix this, rather than ask what I will do to fix our dying planet. That is just one example.

"If you want to awaken all humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self transformation." LAO TZU

The cure for governments of all kinds around the world, including our own Democracy is self-control. Nothing more, nothing less. =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, April 25, 2019 -- 4:04 PM

Still reading the Burke book

Still reading the Burke book...perhaps de-mocratizing is a better description of what we have now, as your first paragraph suggests. Turtles all the way downward. In any case, Burke's book dissects history better than many more modern efforts I have read--- public intellectuals have done much to analyze things past, and somehow, project things future---prognostication is always risky, at best.Your question about collapse of top-down authority seems rhetorical to me because anarchy ensues when authority collapses: people just don't know how to behave. Going back a step, authority without hierarchy was a primal sort of contrivance---the hierarchy thing came with POPULATION,which is likely why some of the Enlightenment guys said democracy was better suited for small countries with small populations---if it gets too big,it is time to fall back and punt---or, 'go Walden' which is functionally impossible. For us to bemoan democratization of information is moot. Someone should have thought of that thirty years ago---and even if they had done so, what would that have attained? Freedom of speech is unassailable. So far.

As a practical matter, anarchy and chaos are concomitant with freedom. Be careful what you wish for...

I have not tried to answer all your questions---just those I feel most confident in addressing. I recommend Burke's book, Attitudes Toward History. You may already know of it. Didactic equates with propaganda and rhetoric, according to Burke. And, then some...

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, May 10, 2019 -- 9:05 AM

I have not yet listened to

I have not yet listened to this show. Let me offer a testament to its power and your erudition above by offering a take pre and post my listen.

Here are my PREcepts in regards to authority and resistance.

I walked into a bookstore last week and came across a blind date display. If you don't know what this is...let me tell you.

A book blind date is a wrapped book with a price and the first sentence of the book written on the outside of the wrapping.

If you have never seen one of these let me tell you a little bit about myself ... I read and appraised every one of them sniffing the package for traces of lignin and acid decay.

Writing the first sentence is a dark and stormy attempt to characterize ones authority to the reader. As a rule that authority can be contrafactual, apposite or gratuitous. The authority of these sentences lies in their truth. The very best books I have ever read portend in one truth in establishing their authority only to take harbor in another later. Truth is the bare standard by which I judge art and authority. My counter-narrative to false authors is my own definition of resistance and its baby is my attention span.

There you go. That is my take going in. Authority is a story. Resistance is when you don't believe the story. I'm not sure about the necessity of hierarchy or chaos (though I put it out there - chaos is not the opposite of authority... that would be a falsehood - (look...I double entendred?)) This is similar to Good and apathy where evil finds it's apposite in doing nothing.

Life is all the stuff in between authority and resistance... now let me find the time to listen up and hopefully learn something.

Edit for typo - 5/10

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, May 10, 2019 -- 9:06 AM

OK... I finally got around to

OK... I finally got around to listening to this show. Here is what I learned.

I think it's a pretty bad idea to comment on things without listening to the show first. :-|

Concepts often make sense to me in my mind. But when I listen to others and think about what is said I am changed. Often this happens without my even being aware of it. This before and after experiment, however, is forcing me to think a bit more.

The blog posts here often are runners for the show itself. Not always, but this time yes it is. Ken asks how can authority be legitimately earned?

If I am reading it right (and often I wonder myself what I was thinking when I read what I wrote - this is no exception) my response before/above is saying authority is a story earned by its inherent truth value.

I find James' vertical and horizontal metaphor interesting. I don't think I was thinking about authority in that light. In fact, am I just too privileged and well off to have missed the point altogether? Maybe. Vertical authority is a given whether it comes from Hammurabi or Facebook. These vertical authorities either protect the common good or inform us of the common thought and paradigm. I think I might be confused about the internet as well, which I see as subversively vertical.

I honestly can't think of a horizontal authority that hasn't ended poorly ... aka Orwell's Animal Farm. In a true horizontal authority who takes care of those who can not take care of themselves. Current failures in that regard from vertical authorities are not valid reasons to radically start over. There is too much to be lost.

I don't get putting science in a box on this one either (which I think James suggested due to needed expertise and deferment to expert knowledge and theory (in the scientific sense of the word.)) Science might be one case where horizontal authority is enforced by my PREconceived notion of authority as truth.

Horizontal paradigm breakers like the fire department, emergency response, free education, car sharing and socialized medicine all entail vertical enforcement and cost sharing.

I don't know. I think I might not really understand the idea of James' horizontal authority. It sounds like an Ancient Greek Boule where no one is thinking about the slaves or women who made it possible. Who will clean the streets in such a system? Someone has to pay for that.

I don't know why I think a dollar is worth a dollar. It sure works out in the short term if everyone agrees to a certain authority. Once you agree... doesn't it become vertical.

Even the hunter-gatherers deferred to the storytellers around the evening fires. Before that, there were no stories and the only authority was nature. I used to think nature was the ultimate authority. Now I'm not so sure. We seem to be resisting if not killing nature without too much difficulty.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, April 28, 2019 -- 12:35 PM

I have coined a little,

I have coined a little, playful soliloquy on the notion of authority. It fits into the military structure in its chosen language, but can also be transmogrified into other top-down organizational formats:

Private Interest and Corporal Punishment report up the chain-of-command in a line of accountability leading to General Confusion. Before that eventuality, however, Major Disaster has always already left his indelible mark and our friend, the General is left with no other option. All were, ostensibly, doing their job, but the Private and the Corporal were irrelevant from the beginning...


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, September 16, 2021 -- 7:05 AM

It seems fair to say that

It seems fair to say that where there is authority, there is resistence.. It is almost a yin/yang thing of co-equal opposition. Deep politics aside, if we examine the structures of everyday life, we see clearly the push and pull that goes on. Those of us who work(ed) for some higher authority know(ew) the drill and act(ed), more or less, accordingly. If we behave[ed] correctly, in line with institutional rules and structure, there was opportunity for better pay and, of course, more responsibility. The difficulty presented many of us was correctly aligning responsibility with any additional authority gained. This pitfall, or better, avoiding it, depends on an accurate reading of shallow politics. Some of us fail(ed) the assessment, and therefore, the chance for advancement. In government bureaucracies, deep and shallow politics are inextricably linked. The rope is tightly strung. For some, a rise to the level of their own incompetence demands success in melding together deep and shallow politics. Skill in that endeavor does not require much in the way of superior cognitive skills. It is more like a street fight, requiring toughness; resiliency; and ruthlessness. We don't all manage the combination.

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