46. The Manifestations of Legitimate Authority

How can power be justified? Even in the freest democracies power will still belong to the few who control the many. The contemporary critique that every unoriginal observer employs is that people seek power for power’s sake. While that may or may not be the case, it seems to call into the question the very institution of politics — this would be a job for none other than Max Weber. Max Weber was a German sociologist by training, this discipline involves analysing the development and origins of particular societal institutions and social behaviour. In his heralded lecture “Politics as a Vocation”, he identified three forms of legitimate authority. Legitimate authority is essentially the recognition by the public of their authority figure and we can explain these three forms with reference to actual historical events and social experiments.

1. The Authority of the ‘Eternal Yesterday’

This is the authority whereby the legitimacy is justified by societal conventions or historical tradition. Historically, this could be observed in tribes; one particular family would necessarily possess some form of wealth in physical attributes or materials. The monarchical powers of Great Britain or the Netherlands for instance are perfect examples of how this form authority is legitimised by time, the ‘eternal yesterday’ as it were.

2. The Authority of the Gift of Grace

The “gift of grace” really translates to charisma.Therefor, the second way in which authority legitimately exists is known as ‘authority by charisma’. The leader who exercises this form of authority relies on his own hitler“personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation and heroism”. A better example could not be found with the authoritative and infamous Adolf Hitler who was unfortunately democratically elected to the Chancellorship of Germany. The utter fire in his speech was inspirational to the entire nation, not to mention TIME, which infamously hailed Hitler as the 1938 “Man of the Year”. What is important to note here is that his authority was unchallenged and legitimate by his charismatic prowess. Max Weber died in 1919, but his foresight and understanding outlived him, his conception of the charismatic ruler all-to0-accurately outlines Hitler:

“Charismatic leadership has emerged in all places and in all historical epochs…There is honor and booty for the followers in war; for the demagogue’s following, there are ‘spoils’–that is, exploitation of the dominated through the monopolization of office–and there are politically determined profits and premiums of vanity. All of these rewards are also derived from the domination exercised by a charismatic leader.”

3. The Authority by Legality

In the 1970’s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo designed the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ with results that were definitely more than what he bargained for. Essentially, several randomly selected individuals were given jobs as either ‘prisoners’ or ‘guards’ who were given explicit instructions to never physically assault the prisoners. The initial stages of the experiment were mundane in the activities, until 36 hours later, the shit hit the proverbial fan. Sanitary conditions rapidly declined, the guards who had been told to never physically harm the prisoners began attacking the prisoners with batons. The psychological aftermath of this social experiment is not for us to analyse, but the seamless acquiescence of the prisoners to the guards is what interests us. Legality is deemed a virtue and rules are created with rational intentions, thus, the authority is justified by the belief in legal systems and statutes. In this experiment, the hierarchy was quickly established with power being funnelled to the guards who set rules which could not be challenged by virtue of the benefits that rule-based societies could offer. Weber did not leave any stones unturned in his study of power and conceded the following:

“In reality, obedience is determined by highly robust motives of fear and hope–fear of the vengeance of magical powers or of the power-holder, hope for reward in this world or in the beyond– and besides all this, by interests of the most varied sort.”

This particular quote above identifying the two forces that seem to drive human obedience – fear and hope – lends credence to the fact that power is still somewhat of a nebulous concept to us. It possesses a psychological legitimacy, which can supersede the three forms of legitimacy that Max Weber describes. A plethora of historical examples can attest to the legitimacy of these types of authority, but politicians should still strive to legitimise their authority by the will of the governed.


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