October 10, 2023

The Future of Authority?

Mladen Dolar

Poster, May 1968

Hannah Arendt starts off her famous essay “What is authority?” by immediately translating the title question into “What was authority?”, claiming that “authority has vanished from the modern world”. We can only speak about it in the past tense, “we can no longer fall back upon authentic and undisputable experiences common to all”, and this is what for her largely defines modernity.

The question can first be raised whether this was ever otherwise at any point in history. As far back as memory reaches we can detect this basic attitude: there were once times when the proper authority reigned supreme, but we now live in times of its decline. Look, for example, at Plato’s Republic or Laws, written on the assumption that we live in times of crisis, hence we have to remedy this degeneration and re-establish proper authorities. Maybe this is what defines the human condition from the outset: the crisis of authority, the supposition that the firm foundations of the social have met their demise. There was a proper past, but the present is diminished, degraded, debased in relation to it. We come too late, always already, and given this temporality it’s hard not to lament. Traditionally, the prevailing mode of speaking about authority was lamentation.

There is of course an ambiguity about this story: it can entail nostalgia for what was lost and instigate a call for retrieval, recuperation, restoration or renewal of authority. Or it can inspire a sense of liberation and emancipation, since authority as such implies hierarchy and obedience – so good riddance. Lamentation over the downfall of authority is thus countered by a heroic saga about doing away with it. What defines modernity, then, is not so much the sense that authority is gone from the contemporary world – this has arguably always framed talk about authority – but rather the new sense that this may allow us to breathe freely and regain our autonomy. There can be no neutral talk about authority, but are the only options the “conservative” and the “progressive” takes on authority, the former struggling to restore it, the latter to overcome it? Is this an exhaustive list?


Modernity is supposed to have delivered a lethal blow to authority, or at least to that in authority which has no proper foundation or justification. Yet, all modern experience overwhelmingly testifies that this is far from being the end of the story. It seems, rather, that authority has landed in limbo, where it ekes out an afterlife haunting the age that has allegedly done away with it. Arendt posited her case on the triplet “religion-tradition-authority”, but perhaps now that religion and tradition have lost their sway in modernity, authority has come to the fore, albeit disconnected from the other two – a subterranean authority with no proper grounding, hence all the more difficult to tackle. The story of modernity is in some sense the story of authority that persists after its demise. What we are stuck with can be called the haunting of authority.

Arendt provides another useful clue as to the nature of authority. She places it in a twofold opposition: authority is on the one hand irreducible to the use of force and violence – if one uses coercion then authority is in abeyance – and on the other hand irreducible to persuasion and argument – there is something in it that cannot be sustained by reason alone. Authority is placed at the interstice between two seemingly disparate and exclusive realms: that of violence, force, coercion, constraint, power, superior strength, and on the other hand that of argument, reason, persuasion, logic, proof. In sum, force vs. speech? Violence vs. argument? The “real” vs. the symbolic? To be sure, the two parts of these dichotomies are never entirely separate – every act of violence is discursively framed, prepared and legitimized by discourse, while the use of persuasion and argument is often interwoven with implicit threats and commands, with potential violence discursively maintained and disguised. (Thus threat, an intriguing entity, is like violence postponed, and the lag of postponement enables the site of symbolic power; it functions as a deferral where the actual violence can be indefinitely suspended, while always remaining present on the horizon as a last resort.) Implicit threats and commands are not some rare deviations from rational argument – rather, this is what most often underpins the very life of discourse, the numerous ways in which discourse can elicit constraint and compliance merely by symbolic means, with no external coercion.

This duality may be problematic and ambiguous, yet it nevertheless provides a good handle to highlight the problem of authority and its enigma: the threshold between violence and reason, coercion and argument. Authority is exerted at a point based in neither force nor reason, yet not simply external to them either. But if it is irreducible to both, how are we to come to grips with it? This is where the question of the downfall of authority in the modern world encounters the question of the authority of reason, which was the project of the Enlightenment. Arendt’s title question “What is authority?” can be coupled with Kant’s famous title question “What is Enlightenment?” (1784) – the two are separated by 170 years which encompass the rise of modernity and the advancing display of its dark undersides.

Kant’s answer is very simple, at least on the face of it: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”, that is, from the inability to use one’s own reason and thus being prey to authority. The proposed remedy is simple: “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding! – that is the motto of enlightenment”. All it takes is ultimately an act of courage, a decision to do away with all authorities imposed by tradition and to rely on the authority of reason alone and its immanent self-justification. If the free public use of reason is fully granted then reason will necessarily get the upper hand and is bound to prevail in the long run. One may tactically and provisionally admit the limited reign of existing powers and authorities, but only on the condition that they in turn admit the public use of reason. Kant proposed a tacit trade-off, a temporary compliance with current authorities as long as they allowed the public exercise of reason. (One can see that ironically the proposal took the form of an appeal to the authority of an enlightened ruler, Fredrick the Great.)

The grand ambition of the Enlightenment was thus to do away with all false authorities, both external and transcendent, and replace them with the authority of reason alone. In Arendt’s alternative, reason should fully reabsorb the question of authority and abolish all coercion. But can reason be sustained merely by itself? What vouchsafes for its authority? Can authority be purely discursive and immanent, based on argument alone? Can reason be justified merely by itself? What makes reason compelling? And why was modernity, after the alleged victory of the Enlightenment, constantly haunted by the afterlife of authority? The kernel of authority at the intersection of violence and reason wouldn’t vanish after the declared demise of its external and transcendent forms, but presented ever more intractable new avatars. Authority resurged with a vengeance. This has all the makings of the Freudian return of the repressed, with the rise of quasi-authorities that emerged in place of the vanished authority, in defiance of any foundation in reason.


In Easter 1898, during the gestation period of his inaugural Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Sigmund Freud visited an underground cave in Slovenia, a trip that he described as a descent into the Inferno worthy of Dante. At the bottom of this very deep cave he happened to meet another tourist who was by coincidence visiting the same place, none other than Dr Karl Lueger, who at the time was the burgomaster of Vienna. The encounter has the quality of a parable: Lueger was a notorious populist leader who won his position by venomous anti-Semitic propaganda, harsh to the point that he later served as a key role model to a young Adolf Hitler. His nomination to that post was vociferously opposed by the Emperor Franz Josef (arguably the last European ruler based on the model of paternal authority) who was horrified at this upstart; he refused his nomination four times, but eventually had to give in to the “democratic pressure”. This emblematic encounter (in the Slovene Inferno, of all places) brought face-to-face the arch-anti-Semite and the Jewish founder of a new science, with forebodings of so much that would happen in the 20th century. It strikingly displays how psychoanalysis, at its inception, had to confront and address a new type of authority: the populist masters that emerged after the demise of monarchs, sovereigns, patriarchal and religious figures of authority. One has to add that the very term “populism” appeared in general use at precisely that time.1

The origin of psychoanalysis was thus uncannily coterminous with the resurgence of a figure of authority that enlightenment reason was supposed to have done away with. One may well say that this figure has the air of a bogus and counterfeit authority, a caricature of authority that doesn’t even deserve the name, but this doesn’t make the problem any smaller, quite the opposite: the more fake it is, the more insidious it is. And we can see that the problem Freud had to confront in that cave in retrospect encapsulated the problem that we are still urgently engaging with in present times, albeit under very different circumstances. Arendt herself dealt with it in painstaking detail in her voluminous work on totalitarianism.

Freud, who was very much the man of the enlightenment, ultimately had no other alternative but to propose the voice of reason to counteract the seemingly irrational forces: “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained a hearing”. This may sound curious coming from Freud, the man who spent his career scrutinizing the (allegedly) “irrational” parts of human psyche, the (allegedly) indomitable forces of the unconscious and the drives. Still, Freud almost literally followed in Kant’s footsteps, ultimately still relying on the firm belief that reason cannot be suppressed, that it will insist and gain a hearing. But will it prevail? While there is the optimistic assumption that reason will always come out on top no matter how much one tries to suppress it, this optimism is offset by a new awareness that truth and reason can easily be cast aside, discarded by the formidable powers of self-deception and ideology.

Freud finished his days in exile after Lueger’s follower recaptured Vienna, almost exactly forty years after the encounter with his teacher. What does the authority of reason or the intellect amount to when confronted with this other kind of pseudo-authority, which is not a re-enactment of old authorities, but the by-product of Enlightenment itself? In the face of this dialectic, the solution proposed by psychoanalysis is a modest one – the practice of engagement with authority on the individual level, in a laboratory situation where one essentially “treats” authority. What is transference but the grappling with authority in order to unravel it? But this “one-by-one” engagement is insufficient if it doesn’t also engage a community and propose a universal process. What is unique in psychoanalysis is the way that a practice of individual therapy has yielded a critical social theory with wide-reaching political implications. I must leave in suspense the question of whether and how psychoanalysis has been up to this task.


The case of psychoanalysis is clearly symptomatic of the problem of modern authority and its relation to reason and knowledge, but we must cast our net further to understand this problem more clearly. The project of the Enlightenment was to reduce authority to knowledge alone, in the firm belief that its progress would do away with external remnants imposed by tradition. The ambition relied on the massive progress of science, incomparable with anything that had happened in human history. The idealistic part of it was exemplified by the vast spread of modern universities, the beacons of enlightenment, to the point that the university became the paradigmatic institution of the modern age. The Humboldt University, established in Berlin in 1810, was the first modern university based on these principles (as opposed to a host of venerable old universities stemming from medieval times that relied on tradition, authority and transcendence), providing the blueprint or inspiration for most others to follow. It heralded the principle of “knowledge for the sake of knowledge”, the complete freedom of research, and the concomitant process of Bildung, a practice of subjective formation characterized by independent judgment, autonomy and self-determination. It promoted a spread of mass education unprecedented in history.

All this sounds grand, but it was counterpoised by the less idealistic reality, the fact that the progress of science was heavily conditioned by market economies, by efficiency, calculation, maximization, profit, expertise, and technical know-how, such that the alleged autonomy of the authority of knowledge was underpinned by these heteronomous conditions. Knowledge, it turned out, was never a sole authority, but was always prey to intractable and anonymous authorities beyond its reach, funding it and conditioning its aims to the point that the celebrated progress of science and knowledge itself came to appear as an indomitable blind force, a far cry from the autonomous reason it was supposed to promote. This progress that pervades every moment and aspect of our lives both generates undeniably tremendous beneficial effects, while at the same time producing and serving ever newer kinds of domination. The project to fully subsume authority to knowledge easily morphs into a vehicle of coercion, as Arendt understood.

I happen to belong to the generation of the student revolts in the wake of 1968, and at the time one of the major targets of critique was precisely the model of the Humboldt University. The criticism was (in schematic simplification) twofold and seemingly contradictory: on the one hand it was aimed at the academic enclosure, the “academic knowledge”, precisely “knowledge for the sake of knowledge”, which seemed to yield an academic sphere insulated from the rapidly changing modern world, a sphere closed in on itself, distant from the interests and the antagonisms of the buzzing social reality. The catchword was “the ivory tower”, along with the reproduction of social elites. On the other hand the reproach was the opposite, namely that the university was not cut off from social demands at all, but rather was constantly subservient to social requirements translated into the needs of the market economy, and increasingly morphing into a quest for mass-produced marketable knowledge attuned to ruling ideologies. Too much autonomy of knowledge or no autonomy at all? Can one draw a line between the pure authority of knowledge and its external (ab)use? Can one conceive a critical authority that could provide a handle to transform both sides?


Authority, irreducible to both coercion and knowledge, cannot simply be done away with. There is a kernel that resists its removal, a kernel that vindicates itself. There is something in authority that evades and exceeds rational justification, even the best of justifications; something that cannot be quite covered by Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason (the inaugurating adage of the modern age). But this in no way entails blind submission to some inscrutable or unjustifiable powers; rather, the admission that there is a point in authority that eludes justification allows us to delineate it and to use it as leverage for critical engagement. Authority is a thin red line, but the line is difficult to draw.

What is often proposed is an easy way out, a compromise: we should retain the sound and beneficial authority, the one justified by good reasons, and be rid of the toxic authoritarian one. We should preserve its good side and abolish the bad one. The distinction is often made between “authoritarian” and “authoritative”, the former pernicious and the latter beneficial, an authority based on good will and reason, with no coercion or external imposition. But can one draw such a distinction? Can one avoid the ambiguity that essentially pertains to authority? The argument can quickly head in the direction of such entities as caffeine-free coffee, alcohol-free beer, fat-free bacon (the kind that Slavoj Žižek loves to evoke) – a kind of wishful thinking that proposes to retain the harmless part and get rid of the sting, all the while overlooking the unfortunate fact that the sting remains at the core of the entities in question. There is no easy way out. It is mere fantasy to propose an authority which wouldn’t involve something risky, perilous and exceeding justification, and without which we cannot quite understand the social, and ultimately the human.

To delineate this point and use it as a critical tool – this is the site of the political. No amount of bemoaning the disappearance of authority or the mere reliance on the authority of knowledge and science will ultimately do. No amount of advancement of expertise and information will do either – never in history was information so massively and easily available, but the more information we have, the less the knowledge seems capable of exerting authority. With the spread of the internet and the explosive expansion of social media in the last fifteen years, we may be, absurdly, even further away from “authentic and undisputable experiences common to all” whose loss Arendt regretted, further away from the common world of shared experience, since the spread of information is readily countered by the spread of disinformation, rumours and conspiracies, as well as by the creation of separate epistemic “bubbles” feeding and increasing prejudice and animosity. It seems that we have no choice but to continue fighting Kant’s battle for the free public use of reason, obstinately defending the disappearing public space. This recalls Michel Foucault who spent so much of his career grappling with the knotty relations between power and knowledge, the endless variety of ways in which the alleged authority of knowledge in modernity was deeply intertwined with the mechanisms of power. Yet, towards the end of his career he returned precisely to Kant’s text on the Enlightenment, claiming that the stance proposed by the Enlightenment may provide the best antidote against the ills it inevitably produces.

What is certain, however, is that we can no longer rely on the belief that the advancement of knowledge and science will by itself do away with the host of false authorities. Against the post-political idea that all we need is expert knowledge to take care of all our troubles, what is in fact most dearly needed is the reinvention of the emancipatory politics that is sadly gone from our world. One is tempted to say, echoing Arendt, “What was politics?” The disappearance of authority in the modern world that Arendt spoke about could arguably be seen as the historical precondition for the invention of modern politics – a politics no longer relying on trust in authorities but engaged in uncertain strivings and antagonisms. After all, the Enlightenment project of reason could be successful only insofar as it was underpinned by a political project entailing a radical displacement of authority. Rather than bemoaning the vanishing of authority, one is instead bemused by the decline of proper politics in this time of neoliberal consensus, its progressive abandonment in the face of a new rise of its insidious caricatures.


This time of the pandemic can also be seen as a litmus test of the question of authority. On the one hand, there is the authority of scientific knowledge, the medical and epidemiological authority which undeniably displayed great efficacy (albeit not without some tribulations), proposing effective measures, undertaking extensive research, and inventing the vaccine in record time. But the question of the efficacy of this authority was largely a political one, with so many parts of the world neglecting, disregarding or ignoring it. This also raised the political question of the status of public health services, another heir of the Enlightenment, and furthermore the question of global solidarity, since the pandemic can be fought only on the scale of a global agenda. What is at stake is the establishment of an authority that could implement the authority of medical knowledge, and, in a wider sense, this is the case with all authority of knowledge and reason. The pandemic doesn’t simply concern the ongoing spread of the disease, but is a magnifying glass that shows how sick we were before: the differences in wealth and income, the gender inequalities, the appalling lack of care for the old, the exposure of precarious workers, and the discrimination of ethnic and racial minorities. These antagonisms are the sites of political intervention, not of medical (or other) knowledge.

What is the temporality of authority? Is it “is” or “was”? I would like to think of authority not just in the mode of its questionable present nor in the mode of its supposed past reign, now vanished, but rather as something that imposes and requires a task for the future. It is a strenuous task, for it is in its nature that authority doesn’t depend merely on will and decision nor merely on knowledge and reason, although it necessarily involves all those elements. It is perhaps an impossible task, but its impossibility is matched by its urgency.

This essay was first published in The Philosopher, vol. 109 no. 2.


(Editor) For a more detailed account of this encounter, see Mladen Dolar, “Freud, Slovenia, and the Origins of Right-Wing Populism,” trans. Kaitlyn Sorenson, e-flux Notes, Nov. 23, 2022

Psychology & Psychoanalysis, Philosophy

Mladen Dolar is one of the founders of the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis, aka the Ljubljana Lacanian School. The author of more than a dozen books in Slovenian and English, he is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and the European Graduate School.


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