Authority vs. Power

This morning a good friend sent me an article from The Imaginative Conservative (easily one of the best “blogs”) that outlined Robert Nisbet’s ten conditions of revolution. The piece is excellent and very worth reading in its entirety.

I’m not going to comment on all of the conditions, or even discuss revolution really, but what really stuck out to me was Nisbet’s famous distinction between power and authority.

“By authority, Nisbet meant not power (which is presumed and assumed), but a mutual and consensual understanding of respect both given and earned. An example would be a professor who earned the respect of his students and thus has established his authority by teaching well, knowing his subject, and treating the students with dignity. Opposed to this, as an example of power, would be the professor who wields grades over his students as a weapon.”

This distinction is something that is always good to have in hand because it applies to so many things. For instance, men have power, well most men, by virtue of being male. The Second Season of True Detective (which was not nearly as inferior as it’s made out to be) demonstrates this brutally:

“The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands.”

That is power. Not authority, but power. The ability to subdue. Authority on the other hand is a two-way street. There must be submission if there is to be authority. Jailers don’t have authority over their prisoners de facto, they have power over them. A prison can become a place where authority exists but only if it is mutual.

The two things are extremely difficult to disentangle within our contemporary experience because, at least for Americans, we don’t really recognize the authority of the Federal Government anymore. All we recognize is its power, or maybe its usefulness, which makes us a kind of slave society. If power is what obtains your submission, and not authority, then you are truly enslaved. There are secession movements all throughout the “union” for this very reason.

Slavery can be mutual, and it can be mutually beneficial. It can be based on authority, but that requires a very righteous master and very virtuous subservients. That situation has rarely obtained in the history of the world. Most forms of slavery, and all forms of permanent slavery, were reliant upon power of some kind that in many cases created the illusion of authority. As Eugene Genovese pointed out powerfully in Roll, Jordan, Roll this horrific dance played out in the Southern United States very delicately. There was authority granted by the slaves to the masters but there was also power that kept the masters in control. The masters violently suppressed slave revolts and also increased “benefits” in response to them. And as Genovese brilliantly observed the “peace” between the two sides was not understood in the same terms. The paternalism of the master class was interpreted differently by the slaves and they were the ones who really kept the “peace” and gradually emancipated themselves.

And it is one of the supreme ironies of history that since official slavery was made illegal in the Union in 1865 another form of slavery became applied to the rest of the Federated Republic. Ever since Lincoln violently and horrifically suppressed legal secession and the organic devolution of the Union, Americans have been under the impression that we were under the authority of the Federal government. But that is power speaking, not authority, and we are now finding our ears closing. 

We are in the middle of a great devolution; I tend to think of it as the industrial devolution. Over the last century and a half, the fallout from Lincoln’s violent Napoleonic war of unification, which destroyed the voluntary union and created an involuntary union, Americans have become increasingly enmeshed in what Lincoln called “civic religion.” The masters have continued to grant us more and more “benefits” as democracy has increased in order to keep the Federal subservients happy. Public education became public day care. The schools do not educate, they are a way station for our children. Then there’s Medicaid. The US department of “defense” (we’re surrounded by water with friendly countries to the North and South, even the Tyrant Lincoln understood that we had no need for National Defense, read his Lyceum speech) is the world’s single largest employer. This is why we put up with Federal tyranny. There is no two-way street of genuine authority, we believe we cannot leave the union and we are willing to accept the benefits granted to us. But that is coming to an end. The election of Bernie Sanders would have likely been its zenith but the DNC wisely rejected outright democratic socialism, probably because they knew it might literally lead to another war between the states.

And during Coronavirus we’ve seen that the Lincolnian structures are extremely weak. Civic religion cannot save us. What is emerging during this devolution is the more natural state of man. Rioting and looting, and books written in defense of such atrocities. But most importantly families and community are becoming seen for what they are: the true essence of life. We don’t need the involuntary Empire of Lincoln, Wilson, and the Roosevelts. We need the same things we’ve always needed. A hand to hold, food to share, and faith in a good God who remains in control when everything around us seems insane. Living under the authority of God is the greatest protection against insanity, it is the only thing that has ever been able to save us.

The best defense against the Paternalism of the Federal government are the words “Our Father who art in Heaven.” A father is someone who provides freedom to his children based on genuine authority, paternalism seeks to make children live in Neverland forever. It won’t be easy, and pain is in our immediate future, but Coronavirus is forcing us out of the Lincolnian Neverland. The “peace” we’ve made with Federal paternalism is coming to an end and growing up is painful and scary but it’s our only option in light of the current crisis.

About Aaron Gleason

A.C. Gleason is a proud Biola University alum, where he met his wonderful wife. He earned his MA in philosophy of religion from Talbot Seminary. He works as an educator in various capacities. His writing has been featured in The Daily Wire, The Federalist, Film Fisher, and Hollywood in Toto. He co-hosts and co-produces The AK47 Podcast with fellow Talbot Alum Kyle Hendricks and The New Worlders. You can find more of his writings on Medium and ricochet.com. More from Aaron Gleason

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