2007 - 2022

Dealing with Authority

We all have to do it and most of us don’t like it. So let’s talk about what might help instead of  suffering alone! In a hierarchical society, most of our lives are structured by authority. (As an aside, for those who think that societies must be hierarchical to thrive, I warmly encourage you to check out David Graeber’s thought-provoking little book, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. It’s very enlightening in this regard and also an entertaining read.) 

Whether we’re finding issues arising with our boss, politicians, parents, teachers, medical professionals or anyone else, we might notice an emotional pattern that comes up when we have to ‘deal with authorities.’ Do you see how we make ‘them’ into a whole separate kind of person? In our modern societies, influenced so heavily by the American fetishisation of power and control along with our own imperial legacy, we are trained to see each other not as people, but as either ‘authorities’ or those lacking authority. In other words, the powerful and the powerless.

I wrote here recently about how this feeling of powerlessness can lead to resentment, and would like to look a little more at the social problems this can cause. For example, we see widespread movements of people attacking medical authorities for their opinions about a variety of issues, including how to take care of ourselves through the global pandemic. Then we see others attacking those people, saying they are stupid (i.e., not authorities) and so on. We see similar assaults on the dignity of others in debates around Scottish Independence, gender identity, climate change and numerous other issues.

Whatever opinions you or I may hold, my point here is to gently draw attention to the unhealthy dynamics of our modern divided societies. According to psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, in his groundbreaking book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, this division in our societies is directly connected to a sense of division within ourselves. By putting such a strong emphasis on rational, linear and logical thought over and above creative, non-linear and intuitive awareness, we have limited ourselves profoundly. Instead of the different aspects of our intelligence working together, we have one side trying to control the other.

Sound familiar? 

We see here the logic of colonialism which claims to bring the light of reason to those who don’t know any better. This is also the logic of sexism which claims that the way of thinking culturally associated with masculinity is superior to that linked with femininity. We could go on and on, looking at all kinds of isms and hierarchies, of course. But rather than spend forever intellectually dissecting the problem, perhaps we might prefer to focus on solutions.

So let’s return to the question of how to deal with authorities. And here’s a radical idea – that the solution might be to look at how to relate to ‘them’ as people. If we’re having trouble doing that, for whatever reason, we might decide to look within ourselves at what is making it difficult for us. I’m not suggesting this out of some misguided notion of pathologising anti-authoritarianism, but rather looking at how we can make life easier for ourselves and, perhaps ultimately, move beyond hierarchy. 

If Iain McGilchrist is right, and I think perhaps he is, anything that helps us cultivate our creative, non-linear and intuitive awareness is a tremendous support not only to our own wellbeing, but to our culture (and our world) as a whole. In other words, undermine the internal authority that tells us we have to be rational and in control of life (as if that were possible) and we help, little by little, to release that same tyranny in our social, political, economic and familial structures. 

So I ask you, dear reader, is there something that calls to you that you tend to think of ‘a waste of time’ or maybe that you’re just ‘too busy’ for? Maybe you used to like writing poetry or painting. Maybe when you were a kid, you would sit by beside a burn just watching the water flow past and listening to the birds. Maybe you wish you had more time for gardening, or yoga or meditation. When was the last time you curled up with a good book and switched off your phone? Notice if your mind thinks of things like this, whatever they may be for you, as less important than work or other commitments. If we’re not committed to our own wellbeing, how can we really contribute to the wellbeing of the world? 

Rather than trying to balance ‘work’ and ‘life’, what if we learn to work together the way we want to live our whole lives. Just imagine, if our places of work and decision-making were not full of the politics of power games and authority issues. Instead, they could places where we relate to each other as creative equals in order to contribute to the needs of all, including ourselves. Our homes, our communities, all of life can be like this if we are willing to open to the natural harmony of life. 

Of course, if we want to hang on to living a divided life, in conflict with ourselves and the world, that’s ok, too. Life does not impose a standard way of living on us. (Sorry to say, we do that to ourselves.) But life does seem to invite us to explore possibilities. Whether on your own or in creative collaboration with others, what might your heart be calling you to explore?


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  1. Meg Macleod says:

    so much good sense…balance …without it we are lost..the human spirit is a creative spirit….
    sit around the campfire in a circle…who becomes theleader? everyone……..has their opinion….and the right to speak..but not to control….balance has gone from the structure of society….
    but there is hope isnt there as community gardens and projects rise up like mushrooms requiring cooperation and consultation……a move in the right direction….

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      You have a beautiful easy with words, Meg. I agree, there are always signs of hope and the growth of a healthier culture. We can all contribute in do many ways, including through our own commitment to self care and healing so we can really be there for each other.

  2. Axel P Kulit says:

    Interesting article. Just been reading in Henry Hitchins “The Language wars” who cites Leonard Shlain’s claim that a community that is writing oriented is focussed too much on logic and reason and tends to be patriarchal which seems to relate to this.

    1. 220424 says:

      Schlaon’s claim is rooted in Marshall McLuhan’s contention that ‘the medium is the message’, that the process by which we take in and put out information is practically more important than the content of that information and its ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’. This is the fundament of our contemporary post-truth culture.

      Schlaon bases his claim on his ruminations on the social revolution he perceived as having occurred about three and a half thousand years ago with the invention of the alphabet, which democratised writing. It reconfigured thought as a linear/sequential or logical process (which he engenders as ‘masculine’), rather than the more intuitive figurative process of hieroglyphic and cuneiform script (which he engenders as ‘feminine’), and made truth a matter of the correct sequencing of signs or correct logic rather than a matter of trust in the speaker. (According to Schlaon, this reconfiguration also explains why male gods began to supplant female goddesses as the primary objects of worship and veneration at the time and the rise of patriarchy in general.) The same revolution is evident in the etymology of our word ‘truth’, which prior to the 15th century (and the advent of printing) meant ‘spoken in good faith’ and only after that acquired the sense of ‘being accurately representative’.

      The increased ubiquity and importance of the image over the word as a medium of communication in recent and contemporary popular culture might signal a postmodern return to a kind of pre-logical ‘feminine’ truth, which depends for its authority more on the trust we have in the messenger than on the correct sequencing or logic of her/his message, on the charisma of the truth-bearer rather than the rational sufficiency of her/his arguments.

      1. 220424 says:

        The name, of course, is ‘Schlain’!

  3. Dougie Harrison says:

    This is fascinating for me, in that it makes me confront aspects of myself that I’m only now, halfway through my eighth decade, now seriously trying to understand. By writing about them of course in my wee (of course unpublished) personal political memoir. Thank you. I’ll send it to my son.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Dear Dougie,

      I’m glad this wee article has been helpful for you in a personal way. I think we’re probably all learning to see things about ourselves and the world that we just couldn’t see before. Isn’t life amazing (if not always easy or comfortable)?! I hope you enjoy writing your memoirs. What a wonderful gift for your son and who knows who else.

  4. 220423 says:

    Am I missing something here?

    How does relating to authorities as people like ourselves (‘us’) rather than as ‘others’ (‘them’) help abolish the very real inequalities of power on which all authority rests?

    Surely, the way to deal with authorities is to ensure as far as we can that the media through which we relate to one another (collectively called ‘civil society’) are structured in ways that make them inhospitable to the existence of such inequalities; that is, democratically.

    The problem of authority is – again – a structural rather than a moral one. We’re not going to wish it away with kindness.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Probably we’re all missing things all the time! Probably that’s part of being human. Also, you and I seem to be peering through different lenses which is great! Your questions and comments always make me think carefully which I appreciate.

      So, on the us and them question… It seems to be that all hierarchy and inequality depends fundamentally on the idea of separation. You can’t have more and less important without an idea of an us and a them. It’s a logic that underpins all hierarchies.

      I attempt, in my clumsy way, to point to ways in which a cultural shift might occur that offers a real alternative to the foundations of hierarchy.

      It seems to me that what we call a structure is the effect of certain ways of relating which in turn rely on certain ways of perceiving. Structures change slowly because they depend on those relationships changing. What you call morals then is what I see as the foundations of what you call structures.

      Whether or not you agree, I hope maybe that helps clarify why I’m saying what I’m saying.

      Also, while I would never underestimate the power of kindness, personally, you may notice the article has more to say than that. In a way, the focus is on inner authority and allowing ourselves to follow that. This is why in previous articles, I’ve emphasised spiritual practice as a way if accessing that different kind of awareness which includes, but us not limited to, logical mind.

      I hope that helps in some way, my mysterious anonymous friend.

      1. 220425 says:

        Indeed, it’s through separation and difference that we create our meanings, which are a function of the contrasts we set up with the meanings of others; that is, a function of the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised in our society (a.k.a. ‘politics’). But I still don’t how relating to authorities as people like ourselves (‘us’) rather than as ‘others’ (‘them’) would help to abolish the very real inequalities of power on which all authority rests? Abolishing such inequalities involves much more than just changing our minds; it would involve a restructuring of the aforementioned ‘matrix’ or ‘politics’ through which our relatedness is mediated and within which it’s constrained.

        From my perspective, what we call ‘structure’ is the rules by which the elements within a system are constrained to move within that system and by which that system is thereby defined (think games by analogy), and no element is intelligible except through its interrelations with every other element within the broader system. And applying this structuralist perspective to structure itself, it’s less an instrumental (and therefore normative) *effect* of certain ways of relating and perceiving and more just the descriptive *form* that a way of relating and perceiving takes.

        Also from my perspective, when it comes to authority or meaning, there is no ‘inner’ or ‘outer’. Like our meaning, our power and authority is differential rather than absolute. It’s again a function of the contrasts we set up with the power and authority of others; that is, a function of the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power and authority is exercised in our society. My authority, no less than my meaning, is neither ‘inner’ nor ‘outer’ but is rather ‘between’ (intersubjective or social), a product of the aforementioned matrix of official and social relations – again, something that’s holistically structural rather than innerly spiritual or ‘moral’.

        1. Vishwam Heckert says:

          Hi again, just catching up here. Thanks for sharing your perspective and helping me think about how to express these things more clearly. Sounds like you align more with structuralist Marxism where as my background is more poststructuralist anarchism.

          So, I agree it’s important to acknowledge how our sense of reality is affected by what we might call social structures and by all of our relationships in life. We might call this social conditioning. In my experience, including working with hundreds of people, this social conditioning can be unlearned and a much more open space of awareness accessed. This is part of why every human society ever has had spiritual practices!

          So when I say inner authority, I’m not referring to our mental ideas but to something far deeper. If you feel you haven’t experienced that yet, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

          You might enjoy this talk by Iain McGilchrist — https://youtu.be/N4AFdNxLmb4 — where he explores these things in a very philosophical way. Seems like it might be your kind of thing!

          1. Vishwam Heckert says:

            Also … observing variety and difference is not the same as separation. We can see the trees and the forest. We can recognise individuality and shared humanity. We don’t have to believe that social categories are real. And we don’t have to play any game by its rules completely. There’s always space to do things differently, even if only in subtle ways. There’s power in subtly.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Indeed, distributed authority is one of key benefits of constitutionally-encoded biocracy. Instead of authority being centralised and claimed by a human elite (possible on behalf of supernatural beings), authority can be spread beyond national boundaries, to any human individual or group capable of bearing witness, any method of objectively telling the health of ecosystems, and to non-human life. Who or what can tell us how well we are governing and living? All of the above.

    1. Adrian Roper says:

      Where can I read more about biocracy? Google only throws up one book from 1984 by an American called Lynton Caldwell, and it doesn’t sound very interesting.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Adrian Roper, then I guess I’ll have to write my own take on it, maybe in a week or so 😉 Yes, I have read Lynton Keith Caldwell’s Biocracy: Public Policy and the Life Sciences, which is a collection of essays written over a period of time up to the late 1980s, and is therefore a bit out of date, while anyway suffering a little from “the world is not ready yet to pursue these ideas to their logical conclusion”. It is a little dry. In the last chapter, Caldwell asks if democrats and biocrats are foes or allies (I would say they have a different perspective on collective decision-making, with some overlaps). While noting that some ancient cultures saw humans as inseparable, Caldwell also writes that biocracy is not (then/yet?) a formal ideology, and p217 “offers no political theory and has nothing to say about forms of government.” But it challenges all the other current homocentric ideologies. I would agree with Caldwell’s point that open democracies are adaptable but undisciplined, therefore prone to non-planetary-realistic ideologies.

        In Chapter 5 Life Sciences as Problems for Politics and Law, Caldwell summarises:
        p99 “Attempts have been made to deduce theories of ethics and governance from biologic principles and processes”. Categories:
        1. Conceptualisation of life
        2. Evaluation of life
        3. Freedom and responsibility
        4. Justice and equality
        5. Safety and survival”
        “The argument for biocracy rests upon the proposition that a viable future depends upon adherence to the basic principles derived from the life sciences, as mediated by human values, and tested for their real-life consequences.”

        But the book is short on detailed political proposals and does not really address constitutions, while recognising the need for changes in law, new government machinery, and contains some useful if outdated notes on international cooperation (perhaps you can guess who voted against the UN’s World Charter for Nature in 1982).

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @Adrian Roper, that should have been “some ancient cultures saw humans as inseparable *from nature*”. Anyway, what I meant about non-human authority is illustrated by the examples in the current BBC documentary series Our Changing Planet, “Charting our world’s most threatened ecosystems”, where the health of a coral reef, for example, can be indirectly but objectively measured by counting manta rays and quantifying bleaching percentages (as a medic might take your temperature and count your pulse).

        I am currently reading a European Union proposal paper Towards an EU Charter of the Fundamental Rights of Nature from 2020, which suggests some alternate terms to ‘biocracy’ that you might find return more search results, although they might have different meanings:
        “rule of ecological law”; “rule of law for nature”; “ordre public écologique”; “Estado de Direito Ecológico”; “ecological conversion” of law and politics;
        “Planetary Trust”
        One of the contributors to the report, Nature’s Rights, is apparently registered as a Scottish charity, although its website appears inactive.

        1. 220426 says:

          ‘…some ancient cultures saw humans as inseparable *from nature*…’

          Indeed, the conceptualisation or ‘logic’ on which such a separation depends is sometimes thought to have evolved among the Ancient Greeks, who invented the differential categories of culture (‘the human’) and nature (the ‘non-human’) in their making sense of their lives. One of the main tasks of critical theory is to deconstruct (and thereby overcome) this dichotomy or estrangement, to (as Marx put it) [re-]humanise nature and [re-]naturalise man, a process in which each term is ‘abolished’ in synthesis with the other and caring for ‘nature’ becomes indistinguishable from caring for one’s ‘self’.

          1. 220426 says:

            (Here’s a blast from the past!)


            Alfred Schmidt’s The Concept of Nature in Marx is one of eco-Marxism’s foundational texts. First published in 1971, it was reissued by Verso in 2014 in response to a reinvigoration of eco-Marxism, which was itself a response to the perception that the environment had remained under-theorised by the Left.

            This neglect of environmental issues had not always been a feature of the Left. Indeed, the Left had pioneered environmentalism in earlier decades. Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation and Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment both heralded the centrality of nature within their respective critiques of capitalism when they appeared concurrently in 1944.

            Polanyi argued that like the two other ‘fictitious commodities’, labour and capital, land will be destroyed through its being forced to conform to the logic of market competition and that we can only avoid the destruction of these three fundamental components of life by organising a ‘countermovement’ against the power of the market. Polanyi thus presented nature and humanity as two inseparable entities and argued that, like labour (‘humanity’), land (‘nature’) requires the ‘protective covering of cultural institutions’ or it will otherwise be defiled by exploitation.

            Adorno and Horkheimer similarly warned that eighteenth-century liberalism had set in motion the instrumentalisation of nature that would lead to its destruction, although they focused on the conscious aspect of capitalism – the Enlightenment – rather than its material aspect in the form of the market. Enlightenment science had conquered nature, leaving the world’s environment (as Horkheimer and Adorno put it) ‘radiant with triumphant calamity’.

            Schmidt’s The Concept of Nature in Marx is a continuation of the work initiated by his Doktorväter, Horkheimer and Adorno. It was published in 1962, translated into English in 1971, and republished by Verso in 2014.

            Schmidt’s primary aim was to trace the evolution of Karl Marx’s philosophy of nature through a careful reading of his works, especially the newly discovered notebooks that comprise Marx’s Grundrisse. To this end, Schmidt detailed both the influences on Marx’s understanding of nature and his original contributions to nineteenth-century debates.

            With regard to the influences, Schmidt argued that Marx drew much from Hegel. However, while Hegel conceived nature as the ‘moment of alienation’ that would be reconciled with humanity through the conscious processes of thought, Marx argued that this reconciliation would occur through the unconscious material processes of labour. Through labour, according to Marx’s notes in the Grundrisse, ‘man opposes himself to nature as one of her own forces… [By]’ acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature’.

            In this way, according to Schmidt, Marx’s analysis bridges in both theory and praxis the fissure between and subsequent opposition of non-human nature and human society.

            Like any good student of the Frankfurt School, Schmidt fought on two fronts, against trendy Western Marxism on the one hand and Soviet orthodoxy on the other.

            Contra Western Marxism, Schmidt’s reliance on the Grundrisse was ‘polemical’ because he believed it to be an antidote to the overuse of the 1844 Paris Manuscripts, which had been at the height of fashion since their discovery in 1932. As far as Schmidt was concerned, the Manuscripts represented little more than ‘unhistorical anthropology’ and ‘maudlin moralism’. Schmidt, like Althusser in France, was more interested in historicising Marx’s own intellectual development, tracing how his early Romantic idealism hardened into an economic-biological materialism after the failure of that idealism in the 1848 revolutions.

            On the eastern front, Schmidt fought against the ‘bourgeois environmentalists’ in the USSR, who followed the tradition established by Friedrich Engels in his Dialectics of Nature. Schmidt criticised Engels for conceiving nature (in a thorough unMarxian, undialectical way) as the timeless, ahistorical object outside of society that’s supposedly revealed through positive science. In contrast, Schmidt pointed out that Marx had argued in the Grundrisse that natural laws could be understood or ‘framed’ only in a human context: ‘even “pure” natural science,’ Marx wrote, ‘is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men.’ ‘The concept of a law of nature is unthinkable without men’s endeavours to master nature.’

            Schmidt’s work failed to exert much influence over the Green-Left debates of the 1980s and ‘90s. Only until comparatively recently, the prejudgement remained that Marx didn’t have anything useful to say about the environment, and Marxism accordingly conceded the field of environmentalism to the ‘soft’ liberal Left.

            Schmidt’s problem was that his decision to ‘green’ Marxism clashed with its preferred hue. Indeed, as one would expect from a product of the Frankfurt School, Schmidt studied the abominable process of the humanisation of nature to rid critical theory of such a careless attitude towards the environment. That nature is also humanity, he counselled, should by itself be enough to lead Marxists to ‘renounce and denounce the ruthless exploitation of nature’.

            He suggested Bertolt Brecht as the model Marxist. In Stories of Herr Keuner, the protagonist remarks that he likes trees because ‘we city-dwellers get dazed by never seeing anything but use-objects… so trees, at any rate for me, since I am not a carpenter, have something soothingly independent about them, outside myself, and as a matter of fact I hope that for carpenters too they have something about them which cannot be put to use.’

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