We live under constant pressure of authority, and in this world we created there is less and less space for free will and authenticity.
However authority is no natural nor divine law. We can arrange society in a more humane way, we can create a society where our true self can blossom under freedom. But first we must understand all the subtle ways authority influences our lives.
In this article we analyze the concept of authority, what it needs, how it relates to manipulation and how it differs from leadership. We have generalized a bit, but what follows holds true for the majority of cases.
We define authority as "the power to command others". There are different degrees of authority: greater it is and more commands we will be able to give. Absolute authority means that we have full control over a group of people, and that they will execute our commands without doubt. Masters have absolute authority over their slaves.
This definition may be confused with manipulation. Indeed, through perfect manipulation we can have full control over a person and let them do whatever we want, however there is an important distinction: manipulation is to trick another person without them realizing; authority instead requires the other person to recognize and accept the ruler.
The manipulator's power comes from themselves, from their personal ability to trick other people.
The ruler's power comes from others, from their awake willingness to follow the received commands.
What brings a person to bow to what another commands? Don't we all value freedom and free will?
There are several reasons. A common argument is that people don't like to think much and rather prefer to let others decide for them. Even though there may be a tiny minority naturally inclined to being commanded, it isn't enough to justify how prevalent it is nowadays.
Given the chance, the majority of people would prefer a position of power rather than receiving commands.
Authority stems from a generalized and subtle manipulation that begins as soon as a child start to be conscious of the world around them.
The first instance of authority is the one enacted by parents. We have been persuaded that we must whip our children into shape for their own good. They say children don't have the mental capacity to understand certain concepts, and ensuring they follow the parents' command is the easiest way to prevent them from messing up.
But is it the best way? Through our education we have instilled in our children the main ingredient of authority: obedience. We taught them that it is ok to mindlessly follow commands, they shouldn't question them nor even think about them. Even more, if they aren't an obedient child, then they are a bad child. It is a short-sighted solution with grave repercussions. We are making them exploitable.
We should differentiate between leadership and authority. Leadership is the ability to guide other people. It is often confused with authority, but they couldn't be more different. Authority presuppose that subjects follow commands, while a leader guide their fellows towards what they believe is the right direction. Followers listen to the leader because they understand and trust them, but they are free and encouraged to express their opinion and dissent without fear of repercussions.
Leadership main responsibility is to inform and listen, to teach and give the good example to those who follow. When authority must appear unbreakable and absolute, leadership can be humane and flexible.
Authority is strictly hierarchical, there is a sharp social and material distinction between those who rule and those who are ruled. The easiest way to gain authority is by having someone in a position of power bestow it upon us, that's how you climb the ladder. If you ever worked in a big company, you will surely be familiar with this.
Leadership cannot be imposed, but rather must be gained. Leaders are chosen by the group, they must gain trust through good deeds and demonstrated talents.
With authority, if subjects perceive they can seize the position of power for themselves, they will try hard to do so, no matter what. That's why a ruler must swiftly suppress any challenger, and destroy any form of dissent as soon as possible. Authority establishes an antagonistic relationship with its subjects.
In a healthy group the fellows trust their leader and have no reason to dethrone them. It is a symbiotic relationship: we are in this together and together we'll move on.
Hence we can lead our children, we can explain them why we ask them certain things in a way they can understand, to instill trust while empowering them to explore the world in a more autonomous way. It is true that this is much harder and more time consuming than obedience, but nonetheless we strongly believe it is a better approach.
Anyway, the next step in the child's education is school. Here again we submerge them in the teacher and school system's authority. Once they are done, it is time for either the military or the workplace. In both cases they are subject to an even greater authority than before, because their life now depends on it.
The greatest authority of them all, the one that dominates our life from the get-go, is the government and its laws.
Our whole life, at multiple levels of consciousness, is shrouded in obedience, thus it's only natural that parents, who are themselves subject to authority, will pass it down without thinking twice. For many of us obedience becomes as natural as breathing and there is no alternative.
And yet we said that it is the ruled who gives power to the ruler. By just this definition, it would suffice and always possible for the ruled to refuse the command to break the mind-numbing straitjacket of obedience and exert their freedom.
Rulers are aware of this weakness, that's why compliance is ensured through a sophisticated web of psychological and physical chains, forged and refined throughout the millennials.
As we mentioned, indoctrination is the main vehicle, we are taught that those who don't follow the rules must be punished and rejected by society as a whole. The dream of authority is when citizen themselves police each others, informing authority of any transgression. We know how catastrophically well it worked in Nazi Germany.
Indoctrination is further reinforced by authority cunningly presenting itself as benevolent. It will reward us when we comply because it knows that more comfortable are its subjects, stronger will be its grip. They'll tell us: "Be obedient and I'll buy you that toy", "Repeat what we teach and you'll get good grades", "Get good grades and I'll put you in a good college", "Go to a good college and I'll give you a good job", "Get a good job, obey your masters and you'll have a great life". They'll insist that those who follow their commands are meant for great happiness. Some try to push it as the true reason to be alive, go figure.
More you have to lose, greater the fear of losing it. They'll tell you: "Why should you dissent and risk everything?", "Why all the fuss on fabricating this report when you could lose your job and become poor? Don't you see how much in discomfort they are? Do you really want to be part of it?", "Just live in your nice house and obey".
Fear is therefore the other main ingredient, and a very strong one. Authority makes clear the consequence of disobedience, of all the punishments it can unleash, such as losing our job, perhaps never be able to find another one; or losing our freedom, confined in a run-down, insalubrious prison, wasting our life away.
If fear isn't enough, rulers do all they can to deliver what was promised, perhaps even more. It is common in dictatorships to torture and ultimately kill the dissenters. The more vicious the punishment, better the effect. However relying on violence is a double-edged sword, it is authority last resort, a clear signal that it feels threatened, that it has lost its grip on a subject.
A better way to make everything work is to atomize us: every person to themselves. They tell us that as long as we eat we shouldn't be bothered if our neighbor die from hunger. The individualistic drive of capitalism is one of the reason why it is so esteemed and pushed by authority. It is the same compartmentalization used in boats for watertight subdivision: by isolating each person we ensure that even if one of them pierce through authority's weak frame, others will stay put, keep obey our commands and help "repair" the hole.
"Divide et impera", divide and rule.
Authority can become so tremendously powerful that each subject is individually rendered powerless, there is no other option but to obey.
And yet, it is its subjects who give it power. It is its subject who torture the dissenter. It is its subject who pull the trigger. It is its subject who ostracize one from finding another job. It is its subject who teach obedience to their own children.
It is always the subjects, never the rulers. It couldn't be otherwise.
One person is powerless, but rulers are people too. A lone master is as powerful as a lone slave.
One person is powerless, but if many people awaken and come together to protest, to show people how fragile and weak authority really is, then we can and will break free.
Organized people are the greatest might of any society. This is the same power exploited by authority, the one we should regain control over.
Our first goal must be to create a safe-zone, an armor for the ruled that can withstand the masters' backlash
In parallel we must provide good education, one that foster critical thinking, this is the best cure against indoctrination. Instead of obedience, let's hand down free will to our children; that's the only way we can ensure a brighter future.
One last but important consideration is that while forging our new path, we must be very cautious of leadership.
Authority is a corrupted form of leadership. The first leaders had good reasons to be, but such a position naturally lend itself to greater power and benefits; degeneration is inevitable. It is much better to let every person think for themselves and contribute to decisions, and if leadership still finds its way, then it should be applied only in particular context and always for the shortest time-span.
Once more, we must foster free will and active involvement instead of passive agreement. We must move away from the "hero" archetype and rekindle our social nature.
We have a long, harsh road ahead, but together we can overcome any ordeal. Together we can reach a better future.
If you want to know more about this argument and more, we strongly recommend to study Anarchism. A good entry point may be Between Peasants, written by Errico Malatesta in 1884 and still very relevant.