The Anatomy of Power and Authority

There are a number of definitions for the word power such as the kinetic power in physics that propels an automobile or lifts a hundred pounds.  When left-libertarians use the word power, they are usually referring to social power.  Social power can be defined as “the exercise of influence: it is the process of affecting policies of others with the help of (actual or threatened) severe deprivations for nonconformity with the policies intended.”[i]  Another way to say this is that social power is the ability to impose penalties for noncompliance.  What is implied in the definition is that power has a social context since it requires more than one individual.  Furthermore, it is clear that “Power relations are asymmetrical in that the power holder exercises greater control over the behavior of the power subject than the reverse…”[ii]  With this context in mind, we can say that power is a form of social control.

Social power plays a central role in understanding left-libertarianism since it’s premised on an anti-authoritarian philosophy.  Authoritarianism is viewed negatively because it is perceived as the primary source that limits human action.  “Power is different from authority for where the latter asserts the right to command and they right to be obeyed, the former is the ability to compel compliance, either through the use or threat of force.  A society without political authority can still have coercive power relationships.”[iii]  If the goal is to understand authority, power must be understood because power and authority are intertwined:  to have authority, one must have power and to have power means to have authority.  However, there are cases where power and authority are justified.  Before returning to this subject, I would like to give an outline of the taxonomy of power.

Taxonomy of Power

The taxonomy I have created is in the context of left-libertarianism which is separate from other taxonomies of power created by those such as Dennis H. Wrong (Power:  Its Forms, Bases, and Uses) and Steven Lukes (Power: A Radical View).  Social Power can be broken up into 4 main components:  Authoritarian Power, Competent Authority, Persuasion, and Manipulation.  I’ll speak mostly of Authoritarian Power but before doing so, I would like to say a quick word on persuasion and competent authority since left-libertarians aren’t concerned with them.  First, competent authority is defined as having a specialized skill or knowledge.  This could include everything from being a fast runner to having technical knowledge of the sciences.  As Bakunin elegantly put it, “Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer…  But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure.”[iv]

Persuasion is another form of power where one puts forth an argument, idea, or opinion in order to convince someone of a position.   The individual is then able to freely accept or reject.  Without the power of persuasion, individuals could not disagree.  Unlike Competent Authority and Persuasion, Authoritarian Power is the ability to use leverage for social control.

One of the central features of authoritarian power is the ability of the authoritarian to use coercion.  Coercion is defined as “the practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats or intimidation or some other form of pressure or force.”[v]  Coercion might be said to be the opposite of liberty.  We now have a number of interrelated concepts.  In order to have authority, one must have power but in order to use that power, one requires the use of coercion, and in order to use coercion, one needs leverage.  Social power, leverage, coercion, and authority all emerge in a social context.   Without a social context, these related concepts become meaningless.  Let’s move onto the subject of authoritarian power.

One form of authoritarian power is manipulation which occurs when “the power holder conceals his intent from the power subject – that is, the intended effect he wishes to produce, he is attempting to manipulate the latter.”[vi]  The power holder is able to control future human action by deceit while the subject is not fully informed of needed information.  Advertising, the public relations industry, and think tanks all tend to use forms of manipulation.  Manipulation is different than persuasion because the former uses deceit by omission while the latter does not (or at least the persuader doesn’t believe they are leaving important parts of the argument aside).

Authoritarian power does not use the presentation of ideas to convince others but issues commands that are expected to be followed.   When commands are rejected or ignored, penalties are used to reassert power and impose conformity.   If successful, subjects acquiesce because the “subordinate obeys a superior solely out of fear that he will suffer physical punishment or economic deprivation should he [sic] resist.”[vii]  Authoritarian Power can be broken into two separate categories:  physical force and situational coercion.

Physical Force is most often, but not exclusively, associated with laws of the state.  One of the defining features of the state is that is has monopoly on the use of violence.  “Force involves treating a human subject as if he were no more than a physical object, or at most a biological organism vulnerable to pain and the impairment of its life-processes.  The ultimate form of force is violence: direct assault upon the body of another in order to inflict pain, injury or death.”[viii]  There are also forms of nonviolent physical force such as a “sit-in.”  Individuals use their own physical bodies to prevent others from carrying out action.

People tend to be blinded as to the definition of oppression by focusing on the most brutal modern and historical regimes, violence, and slavery.  Behind the scenes of our modern world, we are caged by invisible oppression fueled by the centripetal force of inequality transacting through effective overlapping forms of control such as information and money.  In effect, the alternatives to physical force that operate behind the scenes are far more effective as people voluntarily participate in their own oppression.

The vast majority of social control happens by the use of situational coercion.  Situational coercion occurs when an individual uses leverage by obtaining power in a situation and uses that leverage to control their subject.  The classic example is a person who has fallen into a deep well on their land.  Another individual comes along and uses the situation as leverage to coerce the individual to sign over all of their land.  The person in the hole is left with no choice but to sign over their land or die of starvation.  Most relationships involve some sort of situational coercion during the course of their lifetime.

Institutionalized situational coercion is when a situation is manufactured in which one person has permanent control over another.   While membership may be voluntary, obedience to authority is mandatory.  Capitalism is a classic example.  State laws (which require force) are used to enforce private property which is then used to create relationships based on subjects and superiors.  There are also cases where laws aren’t used.  For instance, racism, organized religion, and patriarchy are examples of institutionalized situational coercion that come about through culture.

Two important attributes of power are the extensiveness and intensity of power.  The extensiveness of power could be considered be either narrow or broad.  A narrow case would be one power holder controlling one subordinate while a broad case might be manipulative advertising which might control thousands.  The state would also be defined as having broad power because it can control a number of different intuitions from landownership to private companies.  The intensity of power might be classified as either weak or strong.  Laws which are often ignored might be considered a weak form of power while overbearing micromanagement within a company is strong.  Let’s turn to the subject of power and left-libertarianism.

There is a common slogan among left-libertarianism which claims they are, “Against All Authority.”   However, there are numerous cases where authority is justified, a few examples being persuasion and competent authority.  This has led critics of left-libertarianism to claim that the philosophy is internally inconsistent.  This false understanding of left-libertarianism occurs when one replaces a slogan with the philosophy of anti-authoritarianism.  As stated above; authority, power, and coercion emerge in a social context.  Therefore, within any society, there will likely be authority even within a left-libertarian society.  The aim and philosophy of left-libertarianism is twofold:  The first is the prevention of coercive authoritarian relationships, “to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations…, and much else.”[ix]  Second, left-libertarians aim for the maximization of individual liberty which “strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life.”[x]  The “maximization process” means to increase the greatest possible amount.

Intrinsically tied to the maximization of liberty are subsidiary qualities which are of primary importance to left-libertarianism.  For instance, to maximize liberty means to facilitate the maximization of equality, creativity, fraternity, mutuality, personal autonomy, and self-realization; or what Bakunin refers to as  “…the liberty which implies the full development of all the material, intellectual, and moral capacities latent in everyone….”[xi]  In effect, the aim of left-libertarianism is not the maximization of vices but the maximization of virtues.  Left-libertarians wish to create intuitions which limit or eliminate authoritarian bonds and replace them by freely associated institutions that allow the free unfolding of positive human attributes.  Left-libertarianism believes that the only way to produce these qualities is to have direct control of the intuitions and associations that affect their lives i.e. to self-manage them.


[i] Lasswell, H., & Kaplan, A. (1950). Power and society. (p. 75). New Haven: Yale University Press.

[ii] Wrong , D. H. (1988). Power, its forms, bases, and uses. (p. 10). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[iii] Marshall, P. (2010). Demanding the impossible: A history of anarchism. (p. 45). Oakland: PM Press.

[iv] Bakunin, M. (1970). God and the state. (p. 32). New York: Dover Publications Inc.

[v] Coercion. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coercion

[vi] Wrong , D. H. (1988). Power, its forms, bases, and uses. (p. 28). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[vii] Ibid., p. 36.

[viii] Ibid., p. 24.

[ix] Chomsky, N. (1995, May). Interview by Kevin Doyle []. Noam chomsky on anarchism, marxism & hope for the future., Retrieved from http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/rbr/noamrbr2.html

[x] Rocker, R. (2004). Anarcho-syndicalism, theory and practice. (6th edition ed., p. 16). Edinburgh: AK Press.

[xi] Bakunin, M. (1971). The paris commune and the idea of the state. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bakunin/works/1871/paris-commune.htm

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One Response to The Anatomy of Power and Authority

  1. Pingback: Anatomy of Collectivism: Social Body, Philosophical Collectivism, Institutional Collectivism, Communalism | The Left-Libertarian

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