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The Myth of Authority

Humans are incapable of looking after, organising, protecting or ruling themselves.

They need someone or something in power to do it for them. This creed emanates from every pore of the owner, the professional, the state, the institution and the egoic, unconscious parent.

Often the message is an explicit exhortation, or order, to respect authority, obey the prince or know your place, but usually, in the highly developed system, The Myth of Authority is implicit, an unspoken assumption that a world which has the power to command you and I, is normal, right and natural.

Obedience is fostered and sustained by rewarding those who submit and by punishing those who rebel.

Schools are structured to identify and filter out children who ‘don’t play well with others’, who ‘voice strong opinions’, who are ‘disruptive’, ‘insubordinate’ or have ‘a relaxed attitude’; admission panels of elite universities and interviewers for top jobs are hyper-sensitive to threats from those who might turn out to be intractable; records, references and even whispered reputations, increasingly systematised, follow trouble-makers to their grave; and if, somehow, someone who is resistant to authority finds their way through this minefield to a position of influence, they will be worn down, undermined and, eventually, ejected.

Most of this happens [semi] automatically. The system is set up to nullify threat and reward compliance with minimal human interference[1].

Those who tend to its operations do so unconsciously, instinctively or without seriously questioning its values and imperatives. Meanwhile, those at the bottom of the pile look up in wonder at those chosen to lead.

It seems that the typical manager is, at best, an unimpressive human being, and, more usually, skilled in little more than dithering, hiding facts, manipulating information, obfuscating class-relations, rolling over like a puppy when those above him shift their weight and paying lip service to fine qualities and instincts while stamping them out whenever they actually appear.

But these are all precisely the qualities which the system demands. Actual intelligence, competence, originality, human-feeling, generosity and integrity are, if they come into conflict with these core values, instantly and automatically rejected.

Underpinning the global filtering mechanism for compliance, an equally vast programme exists to validate it. History, biology, anthropology and psychology are all employed to justify, on the flimsiest evidence, the idea that human beings are rigidly hierarchical, selfish, warlike, in need of power to function or simply blank slates that exist to be programmed by whoever has their hands on the control panel.

Standard system history teaches us that only power is real or meaningful and the corporate media show us, over and over again, in its fawning reports of royalty (alive and dead), its lavish costume dramas, its celebrity gossip, its fascination with Big People and its uncritical coverage of politics[2] that power is either normal, necessary and unavoidable, or that it does not really exist.

And in some crucial respects, it no longer does. The final stage of the system has migrated a large part of the exploitative architecture of its earlier forms into the psyche of the individual. The disciplinary machinery of institutions still exists, as do positions of authority within armed forces, prisons, governments and so forth; but the uploading of large portions of the self, the digital exploitation of human communication and emotion, and the development of automated techniques of surveillance and control, have led to an introspection or privatisation of key aspects of systemic subjugation and power.

Just as collective urges for sociability and communication have been redirected towards exclusive desires and personal ambitions, so frustration at the boss or the dominant classes is now directed at one’s own lack of creativity, health, happiness, productivity, marketability or will-power.

This is why, as Byung-Chul Han points out, the oppressed are today more inclined towards depression than revolution.[3] Power appears to have been redistributed, but it is artificial distribution, meaning that inequality persists—worsens—while the emotionally-potent techniques which create and perpetuate it diffuse into the abstract, Phildickian cloud.

The Myth of Authority is one of the foundational myths of the system.

If man realised, in his own experience — rather than as a mere theory — that the source of meaning is his own experience, his own consciousness, and that he does not need to be told what to think, what to feel, what to want and what to do, the system would vanish like a bad dream on waking. But of course this bad dream has a much greater hold on him than any sleeping nightmare, as the source of his conditioning is not merely a mistaken intellectual belief, a system-serving lie that he has picked up on the way, but his entire self, shaped from birth to accept the form of the given world as ultimate reality.

This is why systems-man is such a pathetic coward; his self, from the moment it enters of the world, is deformed into a subservient appendage to the Way Things Are. As soon as he can walk his steps are directed towards a life made by others; his games are provided by others, his explorations shaped by others, his learning given from above and his life decided for him. The world he looks upon — overwhelmingly, massively, powerful — is entirely mediated, entirely made by other minds.

He doesn’t have to learn to submit to these others, or ever even think about them, he is completely dependent on the reality they have made for him and so, by the time he is an adult, he is anxious about upsetting authority, apathetic about resisting injustice, unable to think for himself and terrified of sticking his neck out.

He doesn’t just know, he feels, on the deepest level of his being, that to do so is gravely, existentially hazardous. This is why there is hardly any need to control or indoctrinate people, to discipline them, or to instil the Myth of Authority in them.

Human beings come pre-subjugated, with each generation more afraid, more dependent and more subservient than the one before. The system manufactures fear-machines, and with every year that passes it gets better at doing so.

The advanced system, of course, makes it very easy to be a coward.

Why, for example, should I stick my head above the parapet when I am in a trench full of strangers? Who cares if a few Jews or a few foreigners vanish? Who cares if a few radicals or dissidents go missing? Who cares if someone with integrity gets fired or arrested for their integrity?

Who cares—I don’t. Not really. I don’t even know these people.

And yes, yes, I know, it is sad and terrible that rainforests are being cleared and communities uprooted and all those poor folk in foreign lands have to work in nasty factories to make my trousers, but I’ve got more important things to worry about. There is just no real, concrete, reason to worry about my neighbours, my colleagues, the hundred species that went extinct today, or the people who make all the objects I use; and so the courage to do so also appears abstract and unreal.

Compounding this unreality is the glacial progress of the system, which makes it even more difficult to revolt. Those who own or manage the system, understanding that humans are more likely to resist sudden changes, work at the same piecemeal pace, enslaving their peoples and annihilating nature by degrees.

Everything that happens is worse than the last thing that happened, but only a bit worse, so it is bearable, and nobody else is acting, so, again, why risk your own neck? Who knows, the next step downwards might be the one that sparks off a revolution, then you’ll do the right thing, then you’ll join in. Who knows?

For now it’s better to hang on, stay quiet, keep your head down, not make a fuss. I’ll be brave a little while later.[4]

Because the Myth of Authority, the idea that we need a person, a group, a system or our own alienated consciences to tell us what to do, is an inherent consequence of living within the civilised system, it is common to all civilised ideologies; to communism, capitalism, monarchism, fascism, professionalism and nearly all religious traditions.

Each of these constituent ideologies makes a great deal of its differences to the others, of its own unique claims to legitimacy—our leaders were chosen by the working class / meritocratic education / the free market / science / God… but yet, strangely, the result is always the same. One group of people telling another group of people what to do and making a misery of life on earth for everyone and everything they, or the system they manage, control.

Earlier I mentioned ‘you and I’, because you know and I know that we don’t need these people. We don’t need laws to know what’s right and wrong, or states to direct every aspect of our lives, or institutions to tell us how to live, or telephones to direct our desires and evaporate our embodied selves. Although we might need the authority of tradition, or of wisdom, we don’t need the authority of systemic dominance and control; yes, but, perhaps you’re thinking; it’s them—they are the problem! Without princes or parliaments or professionals they would be out of control, they would be rapin’ and pillagin’, they would be sick and stupid and inefficient and unable to control themselves.

Yes, maybe, but we can deal with them, for they are our neighbours. They are human, and within reach. Shape the world into a monolithic ziggurat with unimaginable power at the top and nothing but automated phone lines between the planet-wide base and the glittering peak, automate exploitation and plug it into our own needs and desires, and we are left devouring ourselves and swiping at ghosts in an electronic vacuum.


[1] ‘Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms’. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1.

[2] Critical of parties and players. Uncritical of politics, democracy and the Big Play.

[3] Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics.

[4] ‘You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to “go out of your way to make trouble.” …So you wait, and you wait. …But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty.

If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33.

But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next… And one day… you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in… is not the world you were born in at all.

The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed.

Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.’

  • Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

Source: Darren Allen – Off-Guardian