Is Authority A Good Thing?

(perhaps a slightly deeper topic for discussion than yesterday?)

We live in a society which is full of authoritative figures and structures, from national Governments to that prick in your friend group who always gets to pick what you see at the Cinema. However, these two examples raise an important question into the nature of authority; that we only listen to people who tell us what to do because we accept that they are in power – you only listen to that arsehole friend because you do, not because they have some deistic claim to power that the rest of you lack. Therefore, I’d argue that authority is theoretically a good thing, as power structures must be in place for a society of any intelligence to develop, but that our current means of determining authority are flawed, to the point of undermining this authority.

Our means of determining authority suck: on the one had you’ve got democracy, which represents the interests of those elected, not those who do the electing. The practice of dividing voters from who they vote for fundamentally divides people into the voters and the votees; we plebs aren’t electing in one of us, we’re electing in someone who claims to represent us. This is why politicians are always talking to ‘real people’, to try to convince us that they’re like us really, and not lizards; if they were like us, surely these campaigns wouldn’t be needed?

This creates a practical problem: due to the competitiveness of democracy, candidates need to appeal to a large number of people to get voted in, inevitably resulting in compromise; a Labour candidate will stand for policy x, where x is the best means they have of unifying the neurological impulses, called ‘ideas’, of millions of people, into one manageable policy. Ultimately, this leaves our candidates standing for what they think we as a group want, and not necessarily what we actually want.

This idea of electees standing for ‘what they think’ is important too; it’s far too difficult and time-consuming to go around and find out what the Comprehensive School-educated plebtacular mass actually want, when you could take any policy from your party’s manifesto and tell said plebs that these vacuous, theoretical ideals are really for “people like you“. I’m not knocking specific politicians here, my experience with Sim City would suggest that running a town or a nation is really bloody difficult, but the competitive nature of democracy itself inevitably leads to this division.

Even when you get in power, your authority is flawed, as you’ll end up blindly countering whatever the opposition say or just breaking promises, just to hold onto power for a few more years; it was slimy, but the Lib Dems jumped on the tuition fees bandwagon in order to strengthen their links with the in-power Tories, and distance themselves from Labour, who were a mess of a political organisation back in 2010.

These three flaws with democracy means that we live in a system where we vote in people who don’t represent our views, get pissed off when we realise they don’t represent our views, then vote them out in five years to start it all over again, meaning no long-term goals can ever be achieved. Go us.

But put down your overalls and dreams of a utopian agricultural society, dear Marxist, because totalitarianism’s not much better. For a start, the extremes of right and left are essentially identical in practice: Hitler purged his enemies, Stalin purged his enemies; Germany stockpiled weapons before World War Two, Russia stockpiled them for five decades after World War Two. The only difference, to Brits at least, is that Stalin doesn’t look so bad because he fought with us in the war, picked a fight with those fourteen-point-spouting, world-economy-leading, ‘We’re-slightly-better-than-Britain’-implying Americans after it, and had the nickname ‘Uncle Joe’. What a nice guy.

This means that these, heavily ideologically driven, systems of Government have no defining ideology behind them; Hitler wanted to destroy Communism, and so copied Stalin’s policy of purging his enemies. This renders totalitarianism, at least in its current manifestations in human history, as ideologically weak.

At least in a democracy we can remove people from power we dislike fairly easily, in a dictatorship, it takes a national revolution, and all the associated bloodshed and poetry, to change a single thing. This means that, again, the interests of the people aren’t represented, but it’s even harder for those people to get their voices heard by the few with the power. I’d argue that the capacity and desire for self-improvement are the greatest human qualities, but totalitarianism allows for neither of these things; extreme systems of government are flawed in that they can only stagnate, and maintain the status quo – it’s no coincidence that Europe’s massive social changes of the twentieth Century took place in the democratic West.

However, some form of authority needs to be in place for anything to get done; practically, there needs to be someone allocating resources and deciding on national policy and direction, otherwise people will just sit around and do nothing. This is why I think we’ll never reach true Marxism: human beings are too inherently selfish and lazy to work solely for ‘the good of the collective’; the only reason most of us to go work and pay our taxes is to avoid arrest or starvation.

Power structures also allow for intellectual development, as they divide people into social classes, meaning everyone will experience the same period of time in a different way; I’m not saying that the elites are inherently more intelligent or more able to philosophise than the lower-classes, but the radical difference between these two sets of lives offers us countless opinions and views on our society, and it is initially by understanding the views of others that we can form our own opinions.

In our image-driven and affluent society, there’s always going to be some poor sod who has to push the lever of a machine to cut out our iPhone case, or who has to sew our trainers together by hand, it’s naive to think there won’t be. However, their lives provide a great range of insights into our society, that we would all do well to understand.

I suppose that authority is necessary, for providing practical motivation and intellectual inspiration, but our current systems of democracy and totalitarianism provide weak authority, either because those in power can be removed from it so easily, or because violence is the only means the people have of changing their lives. Historian Tania Lozansky said of the Soviet Union that ‘the power of the regime rested upon common willingness to accept it’, perhaps suggesting that our authority figures may be inherently false or oppressive, but that the only way to progress as a society is to accept these flawed power structures and make the most of them, through constructive criticism and intelligent discussion, as without them we would be animals.

References:
Charlie Brooker, on David Cameron’s Lizardness

Nick Clegg, auditioning for a slot on Live At The Apollo

Tania Lozansky, regarding power in the Soviet Union

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