What are the constituent parts of authority?

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Thursday, 3 August 2006

We sometimes refer to a person as being an authority on some aspect of human existence. This is usually because most informed people regard their writings in a specific area of study as truly insightful. John Rawls on ethics, Philippe van Parijs on basic income and T.H. Marshall on social citizenship are but three examples.

Other writers might contribute significant ideas to the debate but we can choose to discuss their work or ignore it. With the three writers just mentioned, however, were we to be writing in the area of their expertise, we would be wise to acknowledge their authoritative contribution and indicate our general acceptance of, or intellectual departure from, their position. Implicit in this recognition is one sense of authority, authority as guidance. This meaning of authority is authority at its least oppressive.

We sometimes talk about authority figures. By which we mean people whose direction we must follow or suffer some penalty: police, military officers, prime ministers, teachers and parents being some examples.

John Howard as prime minister committed us to wage war in Iraq even though public opinion was running strongly against the war. He is the parliamentary leader of what is claimed to be a “representative democracy”. In his deciding to go to war, he confused his role as our leading representative with that of our “absolute” ruler.

Authority figures sometimes exercise their authority by persuasion:

  • parent: “It’s for your own good”;
  • teacher: “It will help you to understand”;
  • police: “It’s the law”;
  • Howard: “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, they are developing nuclear weapons and they will pass them on to terrorists”; and
  • army officer: “It’ll save the nation from terrorism”.

But if you or I choose to ignore such entreaties the authority figures’ authority relies ultimately upon the extent of power at their command:

  • parent: “If you don’t do it, you’ll get belted”;
  • teacher: “If you don’t read books, you’ll fail”;
  • police: “If you don’t do what I say, you’ll be arrested”; and
  • military officer: “If you don’t stop, I’ll shoot.”

Of course, some teachers, parents and police kill people. This fact usually brings them to the attention of other, more powerful, authority figures. Even on the odd occasion, the killing of an unarmed civilian has led to the police being charged, but courts and juries are inept at handling such cases and most police killings are whitewashed. So-called independent judicial inquiries amount to a small hindrance. Still such killings are not lawful uses of authority.

Authority here is being used in two main senses: persuasion, force … though some find force persuasive.

If the aim is to instill compliance then, at one level, it is of little consequence whether one is persuaded or compelled, although many people find persuasion is more appealing than compulsion. We know that people who can be persuaded are far more likely to comply in the absence of the authority figure than those who, though unconvinced, can be forced to comply in the presence of a figure of authority.

We know about the policy of redemptive “pre-emption” and the coalition of the killing’s invasion of Iraq. According to George W. Bush, they won the war some time ago. But American troops are still getting killed in Iraq. Over 2,500 American troops have died as of June 2006. Here we see an example of people who were initially forced to comply by the overwhelming force of the invaders have not been persuaded of the righteous authority of the American imperialists’ claim to be imposing democracy.

Many politicians in the West claim that those who would kill such fine upstanding examples of American youth must be terrorists. We have conveniently forgotten the French resistance movement who fought the Nazi occupiers of their country and whom we then regarded as heroes. Whether it is the Chechen militants, Palestinian fighters, Afghani resistance fighters, or Iraqi resistance groups, they, we are told, must be terrorists. First, they are predominantly, though not entirely, Muslim; second, they are opposing the established order of either the Americans or the Americans’ current “best friends”; and third, we don’t like the fact they won’t do what we want them to do.

We have little understanding of those:

  • who would stand in the way of the new world order (which is dedicated to the liberation of Iraq “one barrel of oil at a time”);
  • who are driven by desperation or poverty or both to use whatever weapons they have at their disposal; or
  • those who are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the liberation of their homelands.

We see suicide bombers as crazed psychopathic killers, yet we ignore:

  • the Israeli Army’s demolition of homes, the regular assassination of militants and the shooting of civilians and combatants throughout the West Bank and Lebanon;
  • the repeated US invasion of any country they decide needs to be “democratised”; and
  • Australia’s involvement in the 11-year blockade of Iraq that led to the deaths of 6,000 Iraqi children each month.

We welcome home our servicemen and women, acknowledging them as heroes, after they have dropped bombs on other peoples’ cities. If we were consistent, we would recognise that those we call terrorists and those we call servicemen and women are both killers. If we want to distinguish between them, I would suggest we adopt the terms our killers and their killers.

About 40,000 people in the world die each day of hunger and malnutrition, yet there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. It is not as if those in authority don’t know about the starvation and maldistribution. In fact they choose to let “The hunger of the many fill the bellies of the few”.

If we diverted one-twelfth of the military expenditure of all the countries in the world (from guns and bombs) and used it to fight hunger then we would have enough money to feed, house, clothe, educate and provide basic health services for all poor people on the planet. If we refuse to be sucked into the “profits first, people last” mentality and struggle to ensure that no poor person goes to sleep hungry then we might have sufficient moral authority to convince people that we really do want to live in a better world.

Any authority which coerces proclaims to the world that it lacks sufficient “moral” authority to persuade. Some coercive authority figures attempt to enforce their authority by suggesting that they derive their authority from some higher power: God, democracy, the national interest, the common good, the general will or the rule of law. But when they do make such claims, we should remember the old demonstrators’ slogan that says, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”.