How to Distribute Authority

Most folks assume that authority rests with some sovereign person or government entity and that its power flows from the top down. That’s what kings, princes, and wannabe dictators would have you think. They invoke all sorts of justifications, from the divine right of kings or other presumed blessing of power, right down to the barrel of a gun. But wait! There is so much more!

All sorts of political regimes have arisen, floundered, and collapsed throughout the ages. For most of human history, groups (bands, tribes, clans, village communities, cities, and finally the state) have operated most effectively when based on cooperation between people with complementary roles to play. Nevertheless, overwhelming power vested in military force has tended to stamp out “self-rule.”

From Kings to Orange-headed Cabbage Pimps

Once “nobility” emerged and began to overpower the guilds of medieval cities of Europe, having already impressed the free members of village communities into service as serfs on the land powerful feudal lords of warfare confiscated from peasants, self-sovereignty was lost. The subtle interplay between church authorities and landed aristocrats forced their dominance and the loss of group authority among peasants, craftsmen, and laborers alike.

But what is authority after all? The classic definition is that authority is legitimate power. So, what makes power legitimate? Well, that’s where it gets complicated.

So, which came first, power or legitimacy. As it turns out, they are “recursive.” Once power is established, it tends to self-legitimate. Legitimacy sustains power. Remember the old adage, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”? Those who have power tend to find ways to justify their power. Kings appealed to the legitimacy of religion to claim their “divine right.” Powerful empires claim their responsibility to “civilize” indigenous groups or to “bring democracy” to a non-industrial society organized around clans not fully compliant with demands by extractive empire. Wannabe dictators simply divide and conquer congressional authority.

Some political theorists, especially those committed to democracy, argue that the authority of a central government arises from the legitimacy that democratic processes place upon the duly elected president or prime minister. The US Constitution clearly states, “We the People…in Order to form a more perfect Union…do ordain and establish” what was to be a democratic republic. That does not sound at all authoritarian. It is the people who form a society, not some “higher power” that is the seat of authority. Legitimate power inherently comes from the people.

Democracy, if You can Keep it

Modern states often claim some ideal as the source of their authority. Communism, capitalism, socialism, and various other “isms,” each profess mostly unreachable ideals that may lead to collapse and ruin. In the USA and elsewhere, democracy is only as good as its practice, which has slipped pretty far from the ideal in the global corporate political economy.

All manner of historical events and changes contributed to the demise of democracy in a system that is now democratic in name only. Financial, corporate, political, and military elites rule the political system and thus the nation. Sheldon Wolin calls it “inverted totalitarianism,” in his book, Democracy, Incorporated.

A shell of democratic institutions operates more like a hierarchical corporation, with centralized authority ruling from the top while sustaining a veil of illusory democratic processes. A couple of political scientists, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, studied US congressional legislation over decades and reported in 2014* that almost all measures passed into law served the interests of business interest groups and almost none responded to the needs and concerns of the American people. Yet, the illusion of democratic process survives, mostly due to clever propaganda by various members of the corporate state.

Princes and kings dominated then destroyed the self-governance of the diverse guilds of medieval cities and confiscated the common lands of the peasants. Today’s corporate state has usurped any democratic authority that may have arisen from the people’s early powers of mutual support and cooperation,

However, the modern trend toward centralized authoritarian states—ultimately leading to fascism along with Earth System collapse—now has to face some interesting countervailing forces. Mutual aid and support are blossoming in response to the federal failure to attend to the public interest in its response to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Bolstered by similar emotions and the last straw of George Floyd’s murder by police—as in, “enough!” and “We can’t breathe!”—vast multi-ethnic and multi-racial crowds spanning all ages have rallied day after day, behind the demand to purge racism from law enforcement, and to achieve the aim of “to protect and serve.”


*  Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page. 2014. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12:3 (September):564-581.

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