on authority [and rousseau’s fork]

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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Hannah Arendt maintained that one has authority, when one commands obedience from others, not by exercising power over them, but because they recognize and respect one’s right to do so. [1] To accept authority, then, is to accept hierarchy, which, in turn, is to accept a substantial if not formal inequality that may derive from a number of sources: from different levels of expertise, as is the case between physician and patient or teacher and student; from an asymmetry in natural fitness and capability, as we find between adults and children; from disparities of culture and class, as obtain between nobleman and commoner; or from imparities in divinely granted prerogatives, as exist between priesthood and laity.

The story of Western modernity is in good part the tale of an escalating rejection of authority and of the beliefs, sentiments, and forms of life upon which it depends. This began over the course of two major developments in Western history: The Protestant Reformation, which denied the authority of the institutional church; and the Scientific Revolution, which rejected the authority of the medieval [Aristotelian] scientific paradigm and moreover, denied authority any role whatsoever in science. The Enlightenment saw this challenge extended to the social and political arenas, where the proposition that authority is exclusively contractual, grounded only in the natural authority that each person exercises over him or herself, would form the heart of modern political philosophy.

Equally significant was the Scientific Revolution’s materialism and mechanism which, having replaced supernaturalist and animist explanations of the nature and behavior of physical bodies, became a force for general demystification in the political sphere; one that undermined the idea that socially constituted institutions and forms of life might be purposeful, significant and authoritative in their own right. After all, from the standpoint of nature, conceived as the reductive materialist does, human beings are all pretty much the same, and social and political asymmetries are inherently wrong, except for those that are the result of mutual agreement. As John Locke put it: “There being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection…” [2] Meanwhile, the spiritual individualism of the Reformation, when brought into Enlightenment political thought, was transformed into a deadpan, hyper-individualism that suggested that all relationships between human beings are essentially contingent, self-interested, and contractual. From its earliest days, then, liberalism has run the risk of devolving into its degenerate, libertarian counterpart.

This hyper-individualism not only de-legitimized virtually every form of association and relationship not grounded in explicit or tacit agreement, it also cut a person off from his contemporaries, ancestors, and future generations in a way that undermined any authority they may have once exercised. When taken in the context of the modern nation-state, this hyper-individualism effected a catastrophic social atomization [which only has worsened with modern communications technology] and fueled a resentment of givenness and dependency that has insured this atomization is characterized by personal sanctimony and mutual hostility.

This decline of authority in the West has occurred not because the picture of human nature on which it rests is so compelling or well-founded [I have argued on many occasions that it is not], but because it has succeeded in bathing opposition to authority in the light of Justice. The trouble, of course, is that the idea of a civil society in which hierarchy is entirely absent and authority grounded entirely in contracts is fantastical and only serves to fuel envy and resentment. As Robert Nisbet observed:

There is no form of community that is without some form of stratification of function and role.  Wherever two or more people associate, there is bound to be some form of hierarchy, no matter how variable…or how minor…Our gravest problem at the present time, in many respects, is the disrepute into which this word, this unavoidable necessity, has fallen as the consequence of the generalized philosophy of equalitarianism…We have seen institution after institution weakened or crippled in the social order…in the name of a vain and vapid equality. [3]

In the case of Locke and the mainline Enlightenment political tradition [which bore fruit in England’s evolution into a modern, democratic nation and in the American founding], equality was understood to obtain only amongst a relatively small — though growing — cadre of people, who belonged to an already existing hierarchical civil society into which non-contractual authority was already built. Looked at in this way, American notions of freedom, equality, and democracy were not revolutionary or even new, but marked the latest stage in the gradual expansion of the upper and middle classes and of their civil and political prerogatives; a distinctly Anglo-Saxon development that stretched all the way back to the English Middle Ages and to the ancient prerogatives of feudal lords and freemen, held independently of those of the Church and the Crown.

When we examine the Enlightenment of the European continent, whose intellectual origins lie in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and whose politics were exemplified by the French Revolution, Great Terror, and subsequent Napoleonic Imperium, the egalitarianism is more radical and the rejection of authority more brazen. Rousseau may have devoted one of his three Discourses to the subject of inequality, and he may have begun On Social Contract or Principles of Political Right with the announcement that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” but it is difficult to think of a more illiberal political philosophy. Indeed, one might accuse Rousseau of being a most talented propagandist, for only a master of the “big lie” could have expected people to believe that liberty and equality are accomplished by way of wide-ranging State censorship; [4] by replacing traditional religion with “civil religion,” in which the object of worship is not God, but the state; [5] and through exclusive state control over the raising and educating of children.

[J]ust as each man’s reason cannot be left the sole arbiter of his duties, so the education of children can all the less be abandoned to the knowledge and prejudices of their fathers, because it is a matter of greater importance to the state than to their fathers. If children are bought up in common in the bosom of equality, if they are steeped in the laws of the state and the precepts of the general will…let us not doubt that they will thus learn to love each other as brothers, never willing anything but what society wills…and one day becoming the defenders and fathers of the homeland whose children they will have been for so long. [6]

Rousseau also was an inspired critic of the mainstream Enlightenment and uncovered the two biggest weaknesses in the Lockean social contract and modern, liberal political philosophy, more generally. First, he demonstrated that the materialism and individualism that characterizes the modern picture of “natural man” renders us unsuitable for civil society; that the combination of selfishness and practical reason is insufficient for the purpose of forming meaningful social bonds amongst otherwise disconnected people and cannot provide the grounds for authority-sustaining institutions and communities.

He who in the civil order wishes to preserve the primacy of the sentiments of nature does not know what he wants.  Always in contradiction with himself, always floating between his wishes and his duties, he will be neither a man nor a citizen. He will be good neither for himself nor for others. He will be a man of our day—a Frenchman, an Englishman, a bourgeois. [7]

Second, Rousseau realized that the modern rhetoric of equality could never be squared with the hierarchy; that it is too powerful a force for envy and resentment and is bound to destroy the reciprocity that must exist between those occupying the different levels of a hierarchy and the fealty that all must feel towards the hierarchy itself, if authority is to be responsibly exercised. Indeed, Rousseau’s own work is a testament to this fact, redolent as it is with a bitter hatred for all things traditional, customary, or otherwise inherited [his occasional paeans to the Spartans, notwithstanding]. [8]

Thus, Rousseau found himself confronting a dilemma: Authority could not arise naturally, from the grounds of untrained human sentiment, for the philosophers of the Enlightenment had maintained that human beings are essentially unconnected and human nature is intractably selfish, but it also could not be recovered from Europe’s pre-modern social and political institutions, because the egalitarian genie, once loosed from the bottle, could not be returned. Consequently, Rousseau believed that we are left with a choice — a “fork” — between, on the one hand, anarchy, in which civil society and political authority do not exist, and in which we remain in our natural condition, and on the other, a political reality, in which civil society and authority have been absorbed by the state; where the atomized mass of individuals are gathered under an artificially created superstructure that is managed by state power and justified on the grounds that the state embodies the “general will.”

Equality may appear abundant in such a system, but it is a false equality; one that stems from the equal distribution of inequality, rather than from the equal distribution of genuine prerogatives or rights.  “All political theories regarding tyranny agree that it belongs strictly among the egalitarian forms of government,” Arendt reminds us.  “The tyrant is the ruler who rules as one against all, and the “all” he oppresses are all equal, namely equally powerless.” [9]

It is hard to imagine that any person living in today’s Western democracies really believes that he enjoys more equality with political and business elites than did his medieval predecessors. The disparity in power, influence, and wealth that exists between, say, a sitting United States President and an ordinary American citizen or between the Chief Executive Officer of a multinational corporation and an average consumer is greater than that which obtained between a feudal landlord or medieval merchant and a freeman or a peasant. What has happened is that the space between ruler and ruled has been widened and emptied of many of the intermediate levels of hierarchy and authority it once held, so while the ruled have the appearance of having more in common with one another, it is only because the distance between them and their rulers has become both vast and bare. “If we stick to the image of the pyramid,” Arendt says, “it is as though all intervening layers between top and bottom were destroyed, so that the top remains suspended, supported only by the proverbial bayonets, over a mass of carefully isolated, disintegrated, and completely equal individuals.” [10]

In Rousseau’s politics, as authority has been replaced by state power, so the institutions, sentiments, and forms of life necessary for authority have been replaced by proxies of their own: community is replaced by formal citizenship; fealty by artificial patriotism and fear; and religious devotion by a shallow, reactionary nationalism. What is initially mystifying is that it would seem obvious that these proxies are no more likely to give rise to feelings of solidarity between otherwise disconnected, atomized, selfish individuals than Locke’s rational self-interest. So, it is unclear why Rousseau’s state would not fall to precisely the same objections that he used so effectively against the Lockean commonwealth.

The solution to the mystery is that the Rousseauian proxies for the beliefs, sentiments, and institutions of civil society are not intended to provide an alternative to rational self-interest; their job is not to create solidarity among citizens. That task, for Rousseau, can only be accomplished by controlling the minds of citizens, a task which is left to a system of civic education that is the sole prerogative of the state and the aims of which eerily presage those of the system imagined by Huxley in Brave New World.  “If it is good to know how to make use of men as they are, it is better still to make them into what one needs them to be,” Rousseau wrote.  “[T]he most absolute authority is that which penetrates a man’s inner being and is exerted no less on his will than on his actions. Certainly, people are, in the long run, what the government makes of them…Form men, therefore, if you want to command men…” [11]  Far from serving to sustain a people and their place, then, the Rousseauian proxies for the institutions, habits, and manners of civil society constitute the critical behavioral reinforcers that are required to maintain a citizenry that is the creation of the state. They are to the citizens of Rousseau’s utopia, what neo-Pavlovian conditioning, mandatory promiscuity, and Soma are to the castes of Huxley’s increasingly realistic-seeming dystopia.

Immanuel Kant may have thought that enlightenment was humanity’s greatest weapon against tyranny; that only under the light of one’s own reason and volition could one remain free and in charge of one’s own destiny. [12] What he seemed not to understand was that a world in which the only authority is that which one exercises over oneself or loans to others is one in which tyranny of some sort is inevitable, and the freedom and equality one thinks one has is ultimately illusory. For it is only through interceding layers of authority that we, as individuals, are protected from state or other totalizing powers.

Notes

[1] Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?” in Between Past and Future (1961) (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 93.

[2] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980), p. 8.

[3] Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (1975) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p. 217.

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On Social Contract or Principles of Political Right (1762) in Rousseau’s Political Writings, pp. 164-5 (Book 4, Chapter 7).

[5] Ibid., pp. 166-173 (Book 4, Chapter 8).

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy (1755), in Rousseau’s Political Writings, pp. 73-4.

[17] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, tr. Barbara Foxley, Book One, §27.

[8] See, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, reprinted in Rousseau: The Basic Political Writings, tr. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, pp. 7-8; p. 11.

[9] Arendt, “What is Authority?” p. 99.

[10] Ibid., p. 99.

[11] Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy, pp. 66-7.

[12] Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” [1784]

42 comments

  1. Well, I will step up. In the rigid sort of teleological underpinning that characterized the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the goal of the state was to help each citizen achieve happiness (which is found in the free exercise of speculative reasoning). All other goods are just means to this end.

    The idea of the social contract is that we give up a certain amount of liberty so we can live in some semblance of harmony and to prevent life from being “nasty, brutish, and short”. And talk about the “telos” and end of man was replaced by a pluralistic set of values. And this strikes me as spot on. The life that works for an Episcopal priest in Seattle will not work for a truck driver in Rawlins Wyoming. And that does not mean that one of them is misguided or in need of more self-reflection.

    As recognized by the figures of the Enlightenment e.g., Adam Smith, this liberty will invariably lead to social inequality. As part of their idea of good life, many people will give money to Russell Wilson to watch him throw a football around, and as a consequence, he will become quite wealthy.

    And, philosophically, we have people, like Rawls, who argue that this leads to unfair advantages e.g., Wilson’s kids will have countless advantages that the truck driver’s kids won’t. Nozick, on the other hand, argues that trying to “rectify” this situation will lead to constant interference in people’s lives. The Nozick/Rawls debate is at the heart of the issue of distributive justice. As you mention, part of the role of education is to teach people about these issues and the form of government that provides it’s underpinning.

    I lean towards Nozick’s conception. My wife made prudent decisions in her youth and now enjoys a comfortable and quiet retirement – working on her art projects and taking our dogs for long walks. Her brother, on the other hand, dedicated his youth to hedonism and now contacts her because he needs 500 dollars to fix his car, to pay his heating bill, etc. And, such a system is bound to be “atomistic” since, as with the example of my wife and her brother, we have vastly different views of “the good life”, and this, in turn, will greatly affect how our lives turn out.

  2. I think all of the figures in philosophy you invoke here to discuss the “inevitability” of this or that or the need for authority and stratification were doing one thing quite different than what they thought of themselves as doing. Each of them looked out onto the social horizon and asked themselves where people had gone wrong and then attempted to construct theories explaining the origins of the wrongness or what alternative would escape or prevent the wrongness. But what they were doing is diagnosing something wrong and this need for diagnosis is rooted in what i would call problem solving. So, for example, Rousseau is concerned to defend a certain kind of educational reform to prevent certain evils down the road or the need for a certain kind of consensus (ink the general will) as a bulwark against the tyranny of royalty. Rousseau’s concern isn the problem of how to live together and though some of the answers he gives are to my mind simply terrible, he has had a strong effect until the present. Or Locke is trying to solve the problem of making property count for something, as ultimately a defense against privation, as he sees these as the alternatives in his moment. And Kant is trying to understand what to do with interiority which is remarkable since few have dealt with that problem as comprehensively as did Kant until then and interiority is something all of us have whether we want to attach significance to it or not.

    So they are actually doing this and not really creating reliable theories in other words; the theories are side effects of problem solving. Indeed they might not even be aware they are doing problem solving or formulating it that way. I don’t think there are clear cut patterns or laws in society or history so I am very skeptical of any kind of inevitability talk, whether from the Left or Right. People opine that democracies don’t go to war with each other until they do, or until they are taken over by weird and bad mass movements while retaining the formal structure of democracy. I admire the erudition in this piece but I ma much more relativistic about the pros and cons of hierarchy or its attempted absence. i think it is most likely the case that a society that is anti-traditional might have as many pluses as minuses and the same is true for the traditional society that knows no better and assumes hierarchy as natural. It depends first on what problems you are diagnosing and the what you think you are trying to solve.

    1. There are all sorts of interesting things that all three philosophers are doing, but which are not my focus here. My aim was very narrowly directed towards the question of authority. Also, as I indicated, I don’t think the old, traditional authorities can be revived. My sole point was that *without* authority between the individual and the state, tyranny is inevitable.

      1. I’m glad you cleared that up. It seemed you were, by way of Rousseau and others, creating a no win situation of having either anarchy or tyranny or an uneasy conflict between the two:

        “He who in the civil order wishes to preserve the primacy of the sentiments of nature does not know what he wants. Always in contradiction with himself, always floating between his wishes and his duties, he will be neither a man nor a citizen. He will be good neither for himself nor for others. He will be a man of our day—a Frenchman, an Englishman, a bourgeois. [7]

        “It is hard to imagine that any person living in today’s Western democracies really believes that he enjoys more equality with political and business elites than did his medieval predecessors.”

        The President or CEO is not gong to claim Jus primae noctis nor to be above the law. The law, arguably not always blind nor justice equally attainable, surely acts as a surrogate “middleman” for our modern layers of hierarchy and, I think a more fare and equalizing arbiter than a stratification of provincial magistrates and lesser nobles with their own intrigues.

  3. Such a great essay. It crystalizes so much of what makes Rousseau and his descendant State terrifying.

    I’m reminded of *Notes from Underground.” It’s typically read more as a confrontation with nihilism or spiritual emptiness. Nietzsche/Dostoevsky readings are rampant. I think it’s best to read the target of *Notes” as Rousseau. The novel is an *ad absurdum* attack on Rousseau’s idea of community and the state.

  4. Dan

    I agree that certain forms of liberal thinking are destructive of traditional social roles and differentiations and can and do lead to political tyranny, but I would want to quibble with some details of your account. For example, you write:

    “After all, from the standpoint of nature, conceived as the reductive materialist does, human beings are all pretty much the same, and social and political asymmetries are inherently wrong, except for those that are the result of mutual agreement.”

    I would have thought that, in terms of social philosophy, scientific reductionism fits just as well if not better with Social Darwinism, according to which there is no soul or intellectual essence serving to make us all equal to one another. According to this view human beings are not “all pretty much the same” and social and political asymmetries are natural and “good”, rather than inherently wrong.

  5. “Our gravest problem at the present time, in many respects, is the disrepute into which this word, this unavoidable necessity, has fallen as the consequence of the generalized philosophy of equalitarianism…We have seen institution after institution weakened or crippled in the social order…in the name of a vain and vapid equality.”
    Really? It’s all the fault of equalitarianism? Of all the countries in history, the United States by far has the most promise, the greatest potential. But the one thing that has dragged it down and kept it back was it’s long history of slavery. Egalitarianism has been a passing ideal from time to time – for instance, the philosopher John Dewey was egalitarian and promoted that philosophy in education. But ever since the forties his influence in philosophy and education has waned. I would argue that the U.S. would not be in this predicament of suffering from the overwhelming appeal of Trump amongst a large sector of the population, and the widespread denial of global warming amongst the same people, if Dewey’s ideas had been more influential and more widely known. It’s true that for a brief two decades of the sixties and seventies, egalitarianism was popular. But there was a huge and prolonged backlash, so it can hardly be said that all our present problems can be due to that era. But I realize trashing the sixties is a conservative trope. And I realize you didn’t mention the sixties, but if there was any period of American history where egalitarianism was briefly ascendant that was it.

  6. I can’t take this thesis too seriously (is it an argument from Arendtian authority?). By her definition, people are recognizing and respecting “their betters” autonomously, rather than being forced by the exercise of power. It seems obvious to me that such autonomy can only arise where (the) people have adequately countervailing power, and that justification for authority requires people have enough information to judge that those in authority are acting for the overall good. I’d like to think we are in a better place to do that than Rousseau’s compatriots (and do I detect an implication that non-Anglo European democracies are second rate, given Rousseau’s and Napoleon’s dark influences eg laïcité?).

    If “democracy exercises legitimate authority in virtue of possessing a modest epistemic power” [Anderson on David Estlund] , then it should be democratic authority at all levels – a view I see completely compatible with contractualism. And the authority of professors over students flow via those routes – viva 1968 ;), or the University of Bologna in the 13th century, where the students voted who to hire (they wanted more law professors, and fewer theologians). The real problem is either we don’t have those mechanisms, or there is a majority with no interest in supporting things like University Senates, trade unions etc.

  7. It makes sense to bring up Dewey here. He has his critique of Rousseau in Democracy and Education. But they would both opt for a state-driven creation of a citizenry, putting most of their eggs in the basket of education. Dewey makes it sound invigorating, freeing, high-minded, etc. But Dewey wants to use a large compulsory state-run school system to shape the population. Bottom-line, Dewey’s on board with Rousseau’s notion that intermediate, time-grown levels of authority grown without the mediation of the state and its school system cannot be trusted. Little citizens must be created as soon as they can be pulled from their homes and put under the tutelage of democracy teachers.

  8. A very interesting review of the history of the decline in the benign aspects of authority and the ascent of the ‘do your own thing…man’ selfishness. Sorry, let me correct that, self assertion and self esteem. Coincidentally before I read this essay I looked up ‘Liberal’ in the ‘Dictionary of Untranslatables’. Each country where the seed of political Liberalism landed produced its own variety.

    We live in strange times in which authority that used to be given to those with knowledge, experience and wisdom is being subverted. This is from Quillette about an endocrinologist who was briefed by two students about how he should present his lecture on ‘difference in sexual differentiation’ which used to be ‘disorders of sexual differentiation’.
    https://quillette.com/2021/04/05/diversity-inclusion-and-academic-freedom-the-case-of-gender-biology/

    And then on the other hand we are being organised in every part of our lives by experts in only one aspect i.e. epidemiology. They are specialists that we ought not to put in charge of everything. In darker moments I am tempted to view it as a test run for authoritarianism that can be passed off as following the science if it is resisted too fiercely. Covid is not ebola. An illness that 98+ % recover from (and those that die have co-morbidity) ought not to have disrupted society . Governments all over the world are considering vaccine passports. This is the malign side of authority and sectional interests will promote it. Are we now in a death spiral of moral idiocy?

    1. The question of expertise and how much authority it should grant and to what extent is difficult, and I doubt that it will be possible to have a single, general account that will get the particulars right in every instance.

      The point of the essay was severalfold: (a) to give some sense of the history, as you indicate; (b) to get people to think about the crucial difference between authority and power; (c) to work through ideas that may on first glance appear paradoxical. That we are sometimes freest when we do what we are told; that less authority may actually entail less freedom or freedom of a diminished or distorted kind; (d) that our relationships are inadequately conceived, when they are reduced to contracts; and (e) that too many ideas from the scientific revolution and reformation were too indiscriminately applied in the area of politics.

      1. (a) to give some sense of the history, as you indicate;

        Just a small remark if you ever want to develop this piece into something more substantial: “the gradual expansion of the upper and middle classes and of their civil and political prerogative” was *not* a distinctly Anglo-Saxon development.
        It was happening in several places in NW Europe in the 14th century (and perhaps elsewhere to too).
        One could argue that the first modern European nation where the upper and middle classes actually ruled, was the Dutch Republic and not England.

        1. Well, perhaps I didn’t put it as clearly as I should. In England, decentralized and separated powers go back as far as Magna Carta, and there wasn’t the centralized kind of royal power that you had on the continent.

          The piece is actually a reworking of one section of an academic paper I wrote some time ago, so I won’t be doing anything more with it.

          1. There was not that much centralized power on the continent in the 14th-15th century. The idea that NW Europe was ruled by absolute kings, or dukes, counts etc. with absolute power is a myth. The Low Countries, for example, were a hierarchical but also very much a rule-based society in which rulers couldn’t break the rules at their wish.

            I know the Magna Carta is considered to be a landmark – certainly in Anglo-Saxon circles – but similar and more democratic evolutions took place in NW Europe. Examples are the Charter of Kortenberg of 1312 (which included not only the barons but all citizens, expressly ‘the rich and the poor’) and the Peace of Fexhe in the prince-bishopric of Liège of 1316.

            The Peace of Fexhe contains a beautiful sentence: “Lecteur, apprécie tes libertés à leurs justes valeurs, mais souviens-toi que la liberté des uns s’arrête où commence celle des autres.” The idea that freedom is only possible if one accepts that individual freedom has limits, is nothing new.

            The rulers of the prince-bishopric of Liège had to swear allegiance to the Peace of Fexhe, and they did until the French took over in 1795.

      2. “to work through ideas that may on first glance appear paradoxical. That we are sometimes freest when we do what we are told; that less authority may actually entail less freedom or freedom of a diminished or distorted kind”

        This is an interesting point, because I can somewhat feel the force of it but think it often proceeds too quickly and misses some important counterpoints.

        The idea, as it is most often put, is generally that too much freedom for individuals (a) will often mean that they’re sort of left in the lurch, have the burden of doing it all themselves, and gain the type of insecurity that at some point interferes with their ability to exercise their free choice; and (b) may lead to a social situation that gets so chaotic and laissez-faire that individuals’ freedom to do as they will gets constrained.

        I can see the force of this. We are in some sense arguably freer in a road system where we are all constrained by traffic laws because the increased safety allows us all an enhanced freedom to use the roads to get where we want. It also means the fewer decisions every individual has to make each second of their drive, which can also enhance a certain type of freedom.

        The problem is that all of this rests on a confluence of the directions we are forced to follow with what actually turns out to be good for us. But a situation where I must do as I am told will not generally permit me any real feedback about whether that is the case. “This doesn’t work for me.” “Okay, well, I’m the authority and I neither care nor believe you. I KNOW that this is right for you, and your saying it isn’t just tells me how much you need my authority in this matter, that I now consider closed!”

        Yeah, it can be that there are times where I need someone to force me to go the right way because I really don’t know what is best for me. (Libertarians downplay such cases at their peril.) But there are also cases where an authority just THINKS (wrongly it turns out) that they know what is best for me, gains the authority to force me to do what they think is best, and ends up fucking my life up. Both are possibilities within the types of authority hierarchies Dan is talking about.

        1. I would offer neither (a) nor (b) as the reasons.

          Also, authority has nothing to do with forcing anything. That’s what the entire essay is about.

          1. To your last point, then I am simply not getting what type of authority you have in mind. You say that the entire essay is about authority not having to do with forcing anything, or that such types of authority are possible and (as I read it) desirable.

            But here, you say:

            “This hyper-individualism not only de-legitimized virtually every form of association and relationship not grounded in explicit or tacit agreement…” What types of other authority is there, then? Because the clear opposite of authority grounded in explicit and tacit agreement is authority that is NOT grounded in explicit or tacit agreement. And how is that latter type of authority not an authority made possible by or revolving at its core around force?

          2. I’m sorry you’re not getting it. I would have thought some of the examples were more than clear enough and involve relations that virtually everyone is familiar with.

          3. Dan,

            What I’m not getting is how your examples of Arendtian-style authority and hierarchy are not ultimately examples of the “form of association and relationship not grounded in explicit or tacit agreement” that you seem to think is disapearing for the worse.

            In other words, you are saying that “to accept authority, then, is to accept hierarchy, which, in turn, is to accept a substantial if not formal inequality that may derive from a number of sources: from different levels of expertise, as is the case between physician and patient or teacher and student.” Yes and all of these types of authority are types of authority that have consent – tacit or explicit – somewhere at their heart (with the exception of the parent/child relationship which I just don’t see as being under unique threat in modern times). My relatives CHOOSE to be a member of the Catholic Church, I CHOOSE to go to graduate school and thereby accept the hierarchal rules therein, I CHOOSE to see a doctor and defer to her expertise, etc.

            So, what I’m not understanding is your apparent lament that choice is undermining authority, while the type of authority you think it is undermining is the kind that gets on quite fine in the presence of choice. I guess I read this article as based on an equivocation (or maybe false choice?) that prevents me from understanding the argument.

          4. Right. The authority of the nobleman over the commoner was not based on choice, but on force or the threat of a force.

          5. I took a look at the Arendt essay which you cite and which I read many years ago and did not remember well.

            She refers to the concept of authority in ancient Rome and then speaks very favorable of the authority of the U.S. political system as envisioned by the founding fathers. She speaks of “founding fathers”, without referring to mothers who of course were not included in the original American political system nor were, as we all know, slaves, Native Americans or those without property.

            Much of the breakdown of traditional authority in the U.S. and elsewhere comes from the fact that the descendents of slaves, African-Americans, women, Native-Americans and all other groups excluded from the original U.S. political system reject its authority as discriminatory or oppression.

            A positive comment on Arendt is that she is incredibly erudite about Plato and the history of Western philosophy, and her essay is certainly worth reading and rereading in order to savour her learning and intellectual brilliance.

  9. Thanks for sharing this information. I strongly agree with the view that we must have other authorities beside the state. All totalitarian states have made it their goal to undermine any other authorities. We see this today as well. I literally had to look at footnote 6 because I was not sure if you were quoting Rousseau or Hitler.

    Part of the practical genius of the American system is that it tended to limit state/government power and give deference to other authorities. It is true that the constitutional limit to government power was mainly spelled out to limit federal power but I think that sense did tend to trickle down to the individual states as well. Not only should there be limit to government power but we should also be supportive of other authorities whether they be families/parents, teachers/experts, religions/associations, and even individual conscience.

    Like so many things in politics it is a matter of properly balancing tradeoffs.

    You refer to the degeneracy of the libertarianism. I am not a libertarian. But I did hear something that I found interesting. Michael Huemer who is a philosophy professor at University of Colorado said something like:

    Think of libertarianism in terms of authority and when we should give it to others. So consider the case where I am collecting for a charity and I knock on your door but you say “not today.” Do I have the right to coerce payment? Should I have the right to pull out a gun and say you have to pay or I will throw you in jail? If that seems wrong why would we give people in government this right to force us to pay to charity. If my neighbor is paying someone a certain amount to do some work would I have the right to say no you can’t do that you must pay him more or you can’t have him do the job? If not why would we give the government that authority in minimum wages?

    Now of course there are other times we we do think we would have a right to impose on others such as in response to certain criminal actions or civil wrongs. And for those cases it does make sense to have government handle those things. I definitely don’t agree with everything he said but I do think that is helpful way to think about limits we should give government officials over our lives.

    I also agree with him that the whole “social contract” view of government always seemed obviously false.

    1. Huemer’s argument is absurd and it underscores Libertarianism’s distance from reality. His example of the government as a coercive charity is quaint but totally misleading. Most libertarian arguments, eg Nozick, etc. go back to John Locke, in the eighteenth century, when government really was small and the natural world seemed infinitely larger than human civilization. Today the scale of things has been reversed. Human civilization, in many areas has overwhelmed entire eco-systems and now is even threatening the global climate. Human population has grown exponentially, corporations budgets now dwarf those of many countries. Inequality is now astronomical: think of the difference in income between Jeff Bezos and his employees at Amazon. As human civilization has grown, the problems that we face have grown in scale. Global warming, social media inspired undermining of democracy, the prolonged effects of economic catastrophes, the covid pandemic – all of these problems require big government to solve, they are market failures, because leaving the free market to solve them makes them exponentially worse.

      1. Charles

        Huemer and I would agree the government has a role in dealing with externalities such as pollution and or global warming. This would fit with the general principle that we as people without a government would have justification to address someone say polluting drinking water we all use etc. So the principle isn’t violated.

        I don’t think minimum wage or forced charity has much to do with pollution or externalities except in an indirect sense.

        “Inequality is now astronomical: think of the difference in income between Jeff Bezos and his employees at Amazon.”

        I don’t think inequality itself is a problem. I agree with Stephen Pinker on that:
        https://bigthink.com/big-think-books/steven-pinker-enlightenment-now-inequality-happiness

        I think concerns of inequality are basically driven by jealousy.

        But I am also not convinced that the inequalities are bigger now. I think measuring the relative inequalities can be tricky. For example in the past there was much more starvation than there is now.

        Case 1:
        Person A has enough resources to feed 5xs their family comfortably, but person B does not and some of their family may literally starve or die due to malnutrition.

        Case 2:
        Person X has plenty of food to feed their family 10x over. No one is going to literally die of starvation unless there is some mental illness involved. Person Y has enough resources to feed billions of people.

        So yes if you take the difference in dollars between X and Y is bigger. But is there a bigger inequality? It seems to me that A would have much more power of B than Y has over X.

        And to my prior point that equality is not a concern to me I would say I certainly would rather be X than A if X had more than A in absolute terms.

        Anyway I think I was going to offer some pushback on Kaufman when he said this:

        “It is hard to imagine that any person living in today’s Western democracies really believes that he enjoys more equality with political and business elites than did his medieval predecessors. The disparity in power, influence, and wealth that exists between, say, a sitting United States President and an ordinary American citizen or between the Chief Executive Officer of a multinational corporation and an average consumer is greater than that which obtained between a feudal landlord or medieval merchant and a freeman or a peasant. ”

        I don’t think the president can just have someone killed at will. But a medieval king or bishop?

        Compare the presidents to say the leaders of North Korea. Yes to some extent the presidents “control” bigger militaries. But presidents are also much more limited in what they can do than say the various leaders of North Korea. If Bush wanted to shoot dissenters with rockets he wouldn’t be able to do that. Well in NK the leader apparently can. I am not saying that is a wonderful thing that we should be envious. But there are ways these dictators have more power than the president of the US. In many ways presidents are very restricted in their powers. They are followed around they need to watch every word they say etc. The supreme leader of of NK – not so much.

          1. “The disparity in power, influence, and wealth that exists between, say, ……the Chief Executive Officer of a multinational corporation and an average consumer is greater than that which obtained between a feudal landlord or medieval merchant and a freeman or a peasant.”

            Do you think

            1)The CEO of a multinational corporation has more power/influence over me (and average consumer) than the feudal landlord had over a peasant?

            Or are you just saying that

            2) The CEO has more power generally – like they can have orange juice whenever they want and can fly in planes etc.

            I mean if it is 2 then ok. I mean I have more power than the feudal landlord in those terms. But if you mean 1 then I think it is unclear. Jeff Bezos has no power over how I am going to live my life. If I was purchased along with the land that a feudal landlord bought then I think they would have more influence and power of my life. I think even if I worked for Amazon Bezos would have less power over me than my landlord I worked for as a serf.

        1. On the one hand inequality is a motivator. People want to get what the rich have. This is a pretty important theme in American society. The problem comes when there is just too much inequality. When it gets to the point that the rich can unduly influence governing. In the U.S., thanks in part to Citizens United, it’s gotten to the point were large financial companies, the fossil fuel lobby, and the gun manufacturers lobby are determining which laws do or don’t get passed. If people see that the issues that are important to them are being swamped by the issues that are important solely to the rich there is less trust in government. The lack of trust trickles down, and people are less likely to trust each other. For decades the Republican party has specialized in denigrating government, as well as generating a never-ending supply of grifters running for office. This has accelerated distrust in government as well as distrust in fellow citizens. The more people in government who are just in it for themselves the more the general trust breaks down, and it becomes harder to govern. Respect for moral norms also breaks down for the same reasons. If people see that people at the top are getting away with graft and corruption, they figure – “Why should I follow the rules?” I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that schoolyard bullying of children from minority groups increased during Trump’s time in office. Leadership matters as an example, People like Trump and McConnell who obviously don’t care one bit about the public interest are terrible role models for children. That’s what’s really undermining society, not the supposed spectre of egalitarianism.

          1. I am glad Citizen’s United was decided the way it was. The problem is that politicians will tend to put their self interest before others. The answer is not to give them *more* control over political speech. The answer is to give them *less* power.

            I agree that jealousy can be a big motivator. But it seems to be a bigger motivator some rather than others. Socialist movements thrive on jealousy quite a bit. But I think many people want to prosper for the good to them and their family. It is not always the case that people want to be prosperous because they are striving to keep up with the Joneses.

          2. What I see is a recurring pattern on the right of power for its own sake, and an alarming trend towards amorality, systematic misinformation, and conspiracy theories, and wholesale abandonment of democracy and the rule of law when it seems expedient. We are seeing this now in the United States from the Trump Republican party, and we’ve seen it before in Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s.

          3. Hi Charles

            Republicans would accuse the democrats of the exact same things.

            I think in cases like this we should first recognize we are getting very polarized and at least consider that maybe one side or both are indeed trying to make big power grabs.

            Why are both sides claiming the other is this big menace? In part because it may believe it is true but true or not people will give power to governments that they think need that power to fight big threats. It is never a problem for a party if people falsely believe that the opposing party is worse than they are. Demonizing all dissenters is how authoritarian governments almost always operate.

            Nazis said the communists were the big threats and anyone that wasn’t Nazi was a Commie. Communists said the Nazis were the big threats and anyone that wasn’t Communist was a Nazi. (they both condemned capitalism) And they both used that rhetoric to gain power. Perhaps naively the capitalist countries didn’t fully appreciate the threats of either Nazis or Communists initially but perhaps for that reason never authorized their government to do “whatever it took” to prevent the threat. We have to have certain principles here as well. The government may say this or that is a huge threat. But we need to be brave and say ok I’m not saying communism or nazi-ism isn’t a threat but we aren’t going to give up our individual rights and other institutions of authority so the government/party has all the power to fight it. If we give up those principles then it is, indeed, all just a power grab.

            And that leads me to Jonah Goldberg’s principle. “Don’t just do something, sit there.” The opposite of “don’t just sit there do something.” I think politically those are very wise words. In the heat of the moment some very bad decisions are often made. Let’s wait out this heated moment so we can make sure we are making principled decisions not just decisions based on emotions that demagogues exploit to grab power.

            Yes some politicians and commentators really believe the democrats or the republicans are a huge threat. But others are just trying to use that rhetoric to gain power. Don’t do give them the power. Especially when they want to restructure the basics of our government such as our constitution and in particular limit our individual liberties we have through the bill of rights. If anyone is really concerned that the other side is trying to change everything in an alarming way then they shouldn’t protest you simply wanting things to stay as the status quo.

  10. You claim that without authority between the individual and the state tyranny is inevitable. Nothing is inevitable in history. The course of history is very unpredictable.

    Anyway, Chomsky says that all authority to be justified must be explained rationally. I agree with that.

    The doctor’s authority in medical matters can be explained rationally as that of the scientist when he or she talks about climate change as that of the police officer when he or she enforces the law or that of the parent or grandparent when he or she is with young children.

    The authority of the noblemen over the commoner, cited above, cannot be explained or justified rationally nor can that of husbands over wives (a traditional form of authority) nor that of the priest or rabbi to tell me how to live my sex life (as they can in traditional societies) as I’m not religious nor that of parents over young adult children, etc.

    So there are forms of traditional authority which are justifiable and those which are not. Many people do not distinguish between those two forms of authority and it’s important to do so. I don’t see the breakdown of nonjustifiable forms of traditional authority as bad. Obviously, any process of human liberation can go awry, but it’s up to us to try to steer it in sane and rational directions as far as we can. I don’t believe that the possibility that
    the breakdown of traditional authority could lead to tyranny (once again, it’s no more inevitable than Marx’s “scientific” laws of history predicting the “inevitable” collapse of capitalism) is a reason to bemoan the breakdown of non-justifiable forms of traditional authority.

  11. Another interesting essay, Dan. A lot of what I was going to say has already been said by some folks. So, I will point to a few things I find problem with.

    “This hyper-individualism not only de-legitimized virtually every form of association and relationship not grounded in explicit or tacit agreement, it also cut a person off from his contemporaries, ancestors, and future generations in a way that undermined any authority they may have once exercised. When taken in the context of the modern nation-state, this hyper-individualism effected a catastrophic social atomization [which only has worsened with modern communications technology] and fueled a resentment of givenness and dependency that has insured this atomization is characterized by personal sanctimony and mutual hostility.

    First, I am not sure why you say that such ‘hyper-individualism’ cuts us off from our ancestors and contemporaries. Frankly, that is not what I see in the world around me, the world you say is so hyper-individualized. I see folks in all types of associations and relationships with others: people in churches (even very hierarchal ones), people being quite close to their intergenerational families, etc. I even see, if I look at larger trends, a great deal of hubbub over various attempts to understand how history – that is the history of our ancestors – has shaped our present. Our ancestors are such a hot topic that attempts to tell stories about them in schools and elsewhere have been making the news! I don’t think this indicates that we are “cut off’ from our ancestors now any more than we were in previous ages with types of authority you speak of.

    Nor do I see atomization. If anything, I see people able to form more and more associations (or leave them) by choice, and I see that as every bit as much a good thing as a bad one. Divorce rates might get higher, but if this owes to an increasing freedom women have to be economically self-sufficient or either party’s ability to exit abusive relationships, the cost is worth the price. And maybe people today are more aimless because they are not anymore born with a meaning to (and limits on) their life imposed on them from without. But if that is because we can increasingly choose what we do and how we live, I again see that as a net win. Maybe you don’t mean it this way, but I read you as speaking of the type of authority you have in mind with an idealized reverence that ignores or downplays the great many downsides of such authority.

    “There is no form of community that is without some form of stratification of function and role. Wherever two or more people associate, there is bound to be some form of hierarchy, no matter how variable…or how minor…Our gravest problem at the present time, in many respects, is the disrepute into which this word, this unavoidable necessity, has fallen as the consequence of the generalized philosophy of equalitarianism…We have seen institution after institution weakened or crippled in the social order…in the name of a vain and vapid equality.”

    Well, in my view, there is an error when we go too far in EITHER direction. I agree that, as you say, hierarchy is likely a necessity. I suspect that has to do with divisions of labor and skills. Whenever people are different, interdependence will follow, and with interdependence almost certainly becomes hierarchy. Even the open source and linux communities ended up being quite hierarchal, with a few people who write and read the code, and, well, the rest of us.

    But again, I just don’t see the world that rejects all hierarchy that you seem to. Even anarchists tend to define themselves as being against UNJUST hierarchies. I see folks go to work and groan no less than they probably did in decades past about working for a boss. Still, to the hierarchal workplace they do. I see a world where we treat that very hierarchal place, school, as natural and normal. I see a world where my cousin (and almost all relatives on the other side of the fam) is very happy in that hierarchal religion of the Catholic Church. I see social unrest around SOME hierarchies, but if you ask the participants what about those hierarchies concern them, they won’t tell you “Well, they’re hierarchies!” They’ll tell you why they think that particular hierarchy is unjust.

    As another poster said, one problem with the type of hierarchy you seem to be pointing to – the one not based on any type of consent or exit option – is that you now have all the necessary conditions sans one for a very abusive hierarchy. The only thing that saves you from being abused within that hierarchy is that you’d better hope those above you are good people who will protect your interest when yours and theirs conflict. And when consent or exit rights don’t enter the equation, that hope is the only protection you have.

    1. The problem, as is usually the case [here indicated by your remark on atomization] is that you and I see entirely different cultures and problems in the same place. I also find the way you characterize choice and consequence to be almost unrecognizable. The remarks on divorce are just one striking example.

  12. There are a lot of questions, some which I’ve answered already, others not, so rather than try to chase everything down, I will simply make several points which hopefully will clarify things.

    1. A good part of the essay’s raison d’etre is to make the essential distinction between authority and power. This distinction is fundamental to any understanding of politics. This is why I defined authority in the opening sentences of the essay.

    2. Where there is authority, there is an absence of force. Authority [unlike mere power] is reciprocal and depends on the fealty of both parties. People seem quite confused on this point and keep raising examples where power is exercised in the absence of authority.

    3. I also emphasized the decline in the sentiments and feelings required for genuine, non-contractual authority. Fealty is one of them, but not the only one. This was the point of going into all the detail about the attack on these feelings and sentiments in both the English and Continental Enlightenments.

    4. At the beginning I give examples of non-contractual authority. They are not endorsements. And I was quite explicit that there is no possibility of returning to earlier models.

    5. The atomization and isolation characteristic of modern industrial — and technological — society is so well-understood; so well documented; the focus of such important and widely read essays and books, that I really am not inclined to argue over it. It’s at the heart of Jung’s thesis in “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”; Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism”; it’s all over Orwell, in multiple places; it forms much of the substance of Kafka’s corpus. I could go on, but you get the drift.

    6. The basic thesis is that a liberal society can only flourish when *most* of our authorities lie in between us and the state. It sickens and dies otherwise. The analysis depends on the idea that certain ideas from the Reformation and Scientific Revolution were carelessly and indiscriminately applied within the political sphere, where they do not fit and have only distorting effects, including the deformed conception of equality that Nisbet talks about in the bit that I excerpted from “Twilight of Authority.”

    1. Dear Dan. I did not wish to offend when I said I could not take the argument seriously – I was merely saying I strongly disagree.

      “Where there is authority, there is an absence of force”: Almost all examples of authority I can think of entail a right to “discipline and punish” transgressive behaviour eg parents over children, husbands having authority over wives, teachers over schoolchildren, police over all citizens. So, in the ’70s when I was at school, we kids thought it was appropriate for all 30 kids in the class to get “six of the best” on their hands with the steel-cored rubber strap for their inadequate attempts at homework. A friend recalls the nuns doing the same to girls with a metal ruler who “looked at them funny”, because this undermined their natural authority. This was the tail end of the era conservatives yearn for.

      Such powers associated with authority always some kind of a legal (in your terms, contractual) constraints, though the sentiments of all involved meant that often nothing was done about excesses of authority, or outright crimes viz sex scandals in the churches, where the ideal of natural hierarchy has persisted much longer. My earlier mention of democratic authority addresses both checks and balances and the justification that makes any derivative authority acceptable to those subject to authority because it flows from a mandate.

      My second major objection is that we are talking history, sociology and social science. Pinker, at least, quoted upthread, accumulates chunks of empirical evidence, though of course these attract criticism in terms of empirical matters. I know yours is only a short essay putting out the hypothesis, but there is a literature that attempts to test similar type hypotheses.

    2. Thanks for the further clarification. It’s nice to have it in summary form.

      I will focus my comment on point 1, since I think it is the most important. People tend to conflate and equivocate between the different meanings of authority and power. Arendt’s distinctions should perhaps be distinguished further.

      The use of the word ‘authority’ has two meanings: in the political sense, and in the sense of expertise. Politically, it means legitimacy of leadership which, in order to work, must rely on a certain popular threshold of either tacit or explicit consent. One cannot simply declare political authority without acceptance by others, since all legitimacy is social. This authority is invested in a person or institution viewed as legitimate (e.g. a person is said to ‘have’ authority). It can also refer to a system, (i.e. the authority of the law). One can say “I don’t have the power to make that decision”, but what they really mean is they don’t have the ‘authority’. The other use of the word authority refers to someone’s knowledge or skill. Expertise is something which must be recognized by others as well. A person is said to ‘be’ an authority on a topic. One cannot be an expert who is unknown to anyone else.

      ‘Power’ can also be glossed in a few distinct ways. There is the power of physical work or energy (e.g. horsepower). Another meaning is social power and influence, which takes the form of rhetorical, ideological, or explanatory power. If you have enough of this power, you can achieve authority. Then there is the power of physical coercion. I might try and coerce you, but if I don’t have enough physical power, I will fail. And sometimes we even bypass social power and confer authority to those with the most physical power (i.e. might is right).

      We can usually get away with using all these different meanings of authority and power interchangeably without causing too much misunderstanding, since often most of these meanings are interrelated in practice. However, it’s important to bear in mind the analytic distinctions to avoid confusion when talking about specific contexts.

      In Chiefdoms, the head man or chief has political authority, which is more of a mediator type of role. He has no coercive power and cannot command anyone. His legitimacy rests entirely on his ability to negotiate and adjudicate fairly on behalf of others. He may even give gifts or redistribute wealth, so he must also be seen as generous. If the community grows dissatisfied with the chief, they get rid of him and agree on someone else to appoint.

      In most hunter gatherer societies, there is no political authority. They are fiercely egalitarian. These societies have not bifurcated into rulers and ruled. While there are still subtle hierarchies (e.g. men over women, elders over the young, etc.), generally speaking no one can tell others what to do. A good hunter has authority in the sense of expertise, but he cannot parlay that kind of authority into political authority. Individual autonomy is highly valued. Disputes are settled through ridicule, social ostracization, and as a last resort, physical coercion. In some hunter gatherer societies in South America, war with neighboring related groups is a tradition that prevents the temptation of forming a unifying state or chiefdom. Such is their value on local autonomous communities.

      For a modern case study in meaning usage, we can say: Many people voted for Trump because they thought an authority or expert in business (he wasn’t) morally ought to have political authority. It was an experiment in a kind of philosopher king scenario. This is where the two senses of ‘authority’ often gets muddled. In the end, Trump lost the federal election because he lost the political ‘authority’ (i.e. popular legitimacy) that comes with winning an election. And even though he had a sizable number of supporters who used physical coercion to ‘overpower’ capitol police on January 6th, the supporters were ultimately not powerful enough, either socially or physically to successfully overturn the election results. The institutional authority of the electoral process prevailed. Colloquially we would usually say Republicans are no longer ‘in’ power or ‘have’ power (i.e. the power to direct and achieve policy goals) because they do not have [enough] political authority.

      Also, governments can sometimes lose political ‘authority’ (i.e. legitimacy) yet still cling to ‘power’ through physical coercion. We often see this with failing dictatorships. These are also the cases where the distinctions between authority, power, and coercion, and all their different meanings become easier to see.

  13. Interesting essay. somewhat reminiscent of the critique of Rousseau tjhat floated among Post-Structuralist circles in France in the ’70s and ’80s, probably in response to the disappointment in the aftermath of ’68.

    An important historical point has to be clarified here – the political and economic theories of the 18th century were not occurring in some academic vacuum. The Scientific Revolution was deeply entwined in the Industrial Revolution, which fed on, and fed into, the urbanization of the West. The new economic formations brought to political dominance an entire class of entrepreneurial opportunists and adventurers who had no sympathy for prior social formations of community or cultural authority. As former farm laborers drifted into the cities, where survival depended on agreeing to work 12-16 hours a day in a sweatshop for maybe enough to buy bread and a room for the night, the connections which seemed so natural and inevitable back in the farming community from whence they came simply dissolved; in their place were ad hoc relationships of use, usually involving some means of acquiring wealth, or some easement of the burden of survival We’ve talked for decades about modifications of the New Family in the current era; but the Old Family was for millions dead as a door nail by the Napoleonic Wars. Strenuous efforts to revive it created the illusion that the supposed “Nuclear Family” has been traditional and definitive for centuries. The illusion has been supported, somewhat poignantly, by the experience of former agrarian workers and community members still drifting into urbanization throughout the 19th and 20th centuries – the experience of immigrants to America, for instance. But eventually they too learn the harsh lesson of modern capitalism – it is tooth and nail.

    George Will once remarked admiringly the “creative destruction of capitalism” that the collapse of industrialization in the ’70s and ’80s represented. When his interlocutor asked about the fate of former employees of closing factories, and the communities in which they now found themselves unemployable, without skipping a beat he advised, “well, obviously, they’ll have to move elsewhere and find a different job.” – Community? what is that but an anchor for a ship that needs to be free – free to re-enter the cheap labor market; free to compete for low wage jobs; free to work for the Rockefellers and Carnegies, and now the Bezoses and Koch Brothers. (The names change, because the creative destruction of capitalism always produces new monsters, but the vampirism remains the same.)

    It is undoubtedly true that in the modern state “community is replaced by formal citizenship.” But it is not clear to me how it could be otherwise. The reason the legalistic contract model of social politics remains the most robust is because neither older nor newer communitarian models (where indeed authority makes power and its threat of force moot) simply cannot survive the cynicism, the instrumentalism, the ego-centric selfishness of capitalism – an economic engine the function of which is to transform desire into needs, needs into consumption, consumption into profit; where ‘life’ is best depicted on a spread-sheet. ‘Halal meat is what my market sells the Muslim across the street; I sell pork to the Christian next door – and it is in my interest that the Christian and the Muslim don’t trust each other – the Muslim buys Halal more regularly to assert his adherence to the Quran, the Christian buys more pork to assert her dominance in American society, I take my profits to the bank.’ What keeps the Muslim and the Christian sharing the same urban space? what keeps them from attacking the market-keeper? The law. And the law has force behind it, and thus becomes the prize of power. What seems the real danger to me is when large numbers of a population find law itself so frustrating that they come to admire the open exercise of power without any law – when they come persuaded that power emanates from authority alone, or that power establishes itself as the source of authority.

    The law is a thin wall between the various fragmentations of a shattered agrarian socious that can never be recovered (It was such in ancient times, but in different ways, obviously.) It is fragile. It depends on conscious and unconscious agreements, mixed motivations of self-interest and collective identity, fear and hope – all of which are very tenuous and never to be fully realized. It is always frustrating to some degree and never adequate, and easily corrupted. But we have to begin understanding here with the recognition and admission that we are *not* a social animal. Social animals come overcoded instinctually with a host of signs of compliance and acceptance of others of the same species. Whatever we had in our formative evolution, now all we have are words.

    The babble of the marketplace ultimately translates into exchangeable signs of wealth. What governs their value and the protocols of exchange governs everything else. Somewhere in there – if we’re lucky – we get to enjoy intimacy with our families and friends, communications with those of shared interests, performance of beliefs and cultural practices and celebrations of value which we assure ourselves have neither commercial interest nor social conflict with our neighbors. If we’re not lucky – but oh, that’s a different story.

  14. “What he seemed not to understand was that a world in which the only authority is that which one exercises over oneself or loans to others is one in which tyranny of some sort is inevitable, and the freedom and equality one thinks one has is ultimately illusory. For it is only through interceding layers of authority that we, as individuals, are protected from state or other totalizing powers.”

    The problem is well understood, but those “totalizing powers” always keep ahead of the individual, even with occasional setbacks. Locke, Kant, Rousseau, et al. searched for solutions, but none of them could keep up either. The future is hopeless if you can only see Rousseau’s direction through Huxley’s lens.

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