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'Authority' from Rousseau to Weber

'Authority' from Rousseau to Weber

Tuesday, 5 July, 2022 - 05:00
Dr. Abdullah Faisal Alrabeh
Associate Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University.

Since the dawn of man, human beings have been organizing themselves into groups. Human beings have always been careful to manage their affairs within the community and manage their community’s relations with others.


Before the concept of a modern state emerged, the concept of authority was used to refer to the body governing the affairs of individuals within a community, ensuring their protection from the threats posed by other groups. Philosophy and human relationships evolved in parallel - sometimes at a greater pace - with societies’ evolution.


One cannot discuss authority and managing society’s affairs without mentioning France's Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778), who introduced a new way of looking into and understanding the ties between rulers and their subjects.


He believed that this matter could not be summed up to the dynamic and relationship between an elite that is powerful and another weaker one under its control. Everyone yields to a higher power in one way or another. Thus, Rousseau asserts in the introduction of his renowned book "The Social Contract" that "man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they." With his social contract, each member of society gives up some "natural rights" to integrate into civilized society.


In the European cultural context of his time, "natural rights" referred to the capacity to act and do. Individuals let go of the capacity to undertake certain actions that their strength allows in favor of communal peace, which protects them from those stronger than them. This is the spirit of the social contract; the strong refrain from aggressing those weaker than them in return for guaranteed protection from those who are stronger than them.


The century after the one Rousseau lived in saw the most important social change in Europe’s history as it industrialized. This economic shift was accompanied by major social changes to the way in which families were structured, urban centers were developed, and individuals engaged in politics.


Over the two centuries that followed Rousseau’s "The Social Contract", the concept and the structure of the modern state began to develop both philosophically and materially. Nonetheless, many of the philosophers who tried to find the foundations of legitimacy as such continued to obsess over the question of authority as an abstract concept. Here, we must discuss the work of German sociologist Max Weber (1864 - 1920) and his famous three types of authority.


Each of these authorities’ legitimacy ensues from the ideal type that suits the culture of the population; it rules through the type of authority associated with that ideal type. They are:


- Traditional authority: The members of the community (or society) accept the legitimacy of a particular elite’s authority based on precedent (historical right) or sacred (religion). This elite could be a ruling family governing in the name of its historical right to do so, which is inherited across the family’s generations, or it could be a group of religious clerics who are considered the reference point of a particular belief.


Here, only this elite is involved in determining the ruler, who becomes the leader of its political or religious authority. Just as the ruling family determines the king and his crown prince, so too do religious institutions like the Vatican, whose cardinals name the pope.


- Charismatic authority: An authority is considered charismatic when it is led by an inspiring leader whose distinct qualities mesmerize the masses who see his virtues as the basis of the authority’s legitimacy, regardless of his family background or other merits. However, this more consequential problem for this type’s sustainability is the issue of succession, as the question of who will succeed the inspiring leader in the event of his sudden death is not an easy one to resolve.


- Legal rational authority: The responsibilities of every position and the requisite merits for occupying it are clearly laid out. Here, citizens elect the elites to their positions. This style is also known as the bureaucratic type, whereby a person’s qualities, qualifications, and the limits of their power are publicly available in detail, allowing the community to elect him based on those criteria.


Weber believes that the first two types are irrational, as access to power is limited to a particular group as in the first type and to a specific individual as in the second type. Weber believes that the third type is the most suitable for modern society, as it is the foundation on which advanced industrial societies are built.


It is important to take note of an achievement of Weber’s; he succeeded in standardizing authority into three categories, and it is difficult to imagine any authority in history that could not be labeled as one of these three. No matter how divergent the cases, we will find that ultimately, any authority derives its legitimacy from one of these.


Weber’s preference for the third type that legitimizes democracy is inseparable from the environment in which he lived. European industrial society is founded on a capitalist economy that gives priority to the individual. Just as the individual is free economically, he must also be free in his private social life; in order to guarantee his economic and social freedom, a sustainable authority whose members are assigned through regular elections, which are also held to ensure that the authority keeps pace with shifts in public opinion with through limiting their time in office.


For societies that are not founded primarily on industrial capitalism, the third type is not necessarily the best.


Countries with a rentier economy or whose citizens ask their rulers to intervene directly in economic and social affairs by subsidizing goods or providing free services, specifically in the fields of health and education, cannot guarantee this to their citizens if the authority is completely renewable. The ideal democratic system deals with governance exactly like a company’s board of directors deals with shareholders.


The legal-rational type that Weber introduces does not allow for much flexibility. These political systems are based on material written with such detail that Weber calls it "irrationality of rationality." And it is on the basis of this material that laws that have unfair outcomes are passed, and in order to avoid its negative ramifications, polities must circumvent the system - or its interpretations - by employing clever lawyers. This is what democratic countries are witnessing today from the flourishing market of lawyers who are trying to find legal-rational ways out for those who had not been justly treated.


This paradox brings us back to the Rousseau quote we began with: "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they."


The freedom advocated by legal-rational authority applies in theory but restricts people’s freedom in practice. And thus, the three types put forward by Weber apply to all societies, regardless of culture and the knowledge structures that decide what is an acceptable foundation for the legitimacy of the authority tasked with managing the people’s affairs.


What Weber saw as valid for Europe and was successfully applied in other countries did not function properly in several countries around the world in which a traditional communal mentality or the sanctity of religion dominate. The imposition of democracy on Iraq is a model for how to bring down democracy in a space where clans and religious figures are sanctified.


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