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The Question of Authority
Jon Lebkowsky, 12 Dec 07

Former Mondo 2000 editor RU Sirius recently launched two intiatives, the Open Source Political Party And QuestionAuthority. I've been working with him on the former, but this week I've been thinking conceptually about the latter – what the phrase question authority, seen by now on a bazillion bumperstickers worldwide, really means today, thirty years or more after it popped out of the Tim Leary quote, "think for yourself and question authority." (In fact, the concept of questioning authority is probably as old as the concept of authority. It was, for instance, a key aspect of Socrates' thinking and advice.)

A very serious RU Sirius characterizes the QuestionAuthority project as

an educational and advocacy project dedicated to defending and extending personal and civil liberties and encouraging free expression. Our goal is to create a broad-based coalition of non-authoritarian groups and individuals.

Note non-authoritarian, not anti-authoritarian. Important distinction: if you're anti-, you acknowledging authority as you oppose it. A non-authoritarian approach questions the conceptual validity of authority.

If the human race is in jeopardy because of decisions with large-scale impacts, then it's time to question authority – to question who has authority to make those kinds of decisions, and who can have an authoritative role in finding large-scale solutions.

I had a conversation Friday night with a friend, Austin Artist Kim Smith, ostensibly about climate change, but really about the question of authority. We were condsidering various related issues ... whether one believes that the climate is changing, that the change is a consequence of human behavior and can be mitigated by changing that behavior, how the question of climate change relates to sustainability, what the real economic impact of true sustainability and climate change mitigation might be, etc. These conversations inevitably lead to complex questions of science and sociology, including questions of authoritative knowledge. I was telling Kim that our heads aren't big enough to hold all the knowledge and all the issues and all the questions about climate, and we're in a context where there's little respect for authoritative sources, where the hierarchy of authoritative knowledge is challenged - "question authority."

Those of us who talk about the problem of climate change and the need for sustainable lifestyles and economies meet significant resistance from those whose economic interests would be challenged by sustainable approaches. At Worldchanging, we talk about the significant opportunities that such approaches would create, but for those who depend on profits from systems that are not sustainable, it is harder to consider new opportunities than to defend existing revenue streams.

What authority do we have to make the case for significant changes toward sustainable lifestyle, practice, and economy?

Can we assume that thinking will change? Our three-pound packs of wetware, the brains in our heads, can only handle so many facts, so much complexity. Not everyone is analytical, and even among those who are more scientific in their approach to issues and problems, there can be room for only so much real, in-depth thinking. So all of us, even those most brilliant, have areas that we care about where we lack expertise, and because we care, we form opinions that are often derived from sources that we consider authoritative. So much of what we consider our "knowledge" is really opinion that we've formulated based on conversations, periodicals, books, television, etc. Rush Limbaugh's dittoheads have a completely different world-view from avid Keith Olbermann fans. What do any of them really know?

While Kim and I were talking, I was thinking about the diversity of opinion about climate change; how there are so many voices, so many facts and varying interpretations, so many ways (on any side of the question) to get it wrong. In today's complex media environment, there are so many voices and so many claims to authority, and the sense we might have had, decades ago, that some sources are truly authoritative has been undermined by our evolving media literacy, in the robust and immediate online communications environment, where we can see more clearly the many errors, omissions, and outright falsehoods emanating from sources once thought credible. Questioning authority has become, for many of us, a way of life. Others have a desperate need to settle on some set of beliefs, however flawed or false, whatever the source.

Meanwhile there are critical decisions with large-scale impacts that someone has to make.

What would a truly non-authoritarian solution look like? Can we hope for someting more democratic, perhaps using Internet technology?

Doris Lessing, in her Nobel prize acceptance speech, was critical of the Internet, saying that "we are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers." She goes on to say that the 'net "has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc."

Certainties are questioned. Authorities are questioned. Lessing would definitely have a problem with RU Sirius' non-authoritarian politics.

What if we did propose, seriously (or Siriusly), a truly democratic system. I've debated with small-d democratic activists who think such a system of governance would be more effective – this just seems wrong to me, if only logistically. I don't see deliberative assembly and referendum facilitating decisions that are both efficient and effective, though I have to acknowledge that representative democracy can result in abuses \that might be avoided through the broader distribution of authority and power that democracy suggests.

The solution I've been favoring is more democratic representative democracy. "Representative democracy" really does seem to work relatively well. Winston Churchill nails it: "Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." We can make the system more democratic by encouraging citizen activism, giving citizens a better understanding of what they can do to have an impact on governance, and by pushing hard for transparency and responsiveness at all levels of government. A bit of a cliché, I know, and so much easier said than done.

Broader citizen participation and activism depend in part on the flow of communications. In the era of broadcasts politics, where the information flow was top down via a few broadcast channels, citizens felt remote from the process. In the Internet era, where there are many channels of communication and anyone can have a voice (however small) in the public forum, there is a growing sense of empowerment and an increasing tendency to use computer networks to facilitate access to government. And, of course, we dump more facts from more perspectives into our three-pound bags of wetware.

Meanwhile I haven't resolved for myself the question of authority vs non-authoritarian approaches that I've tended to favor. As I get older, I'm guided more and more by the old Firesign Theatre bit: "Everything you know is wrong." From a non-authoritarian perspective, maybe the argument is for us to stop making decisions, and let our karma chill for a while.

I don't think that's going to happen.

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Thanks for the thought-provoking piece, Jon. I've often wondered how to reconcile the democratic impulse with the fact that, simply put, we don't always know what's best for us. We need authority to give us guidance, but all too often that authority can become totalitarian or misguided itself.

As I see it, the real question isn't whether top-down authority is better than bottom-up democracy, but how they can inform each other. At what scale, and in what contexts, do emergent systems function more efficiently than authoritative ones? When is Britannica better than Wikipedia?

It's something that's been debated since the earliest days of civilization, and it'll probably continue to be debated deep into the regeneration. Lao Tzu, whom you might call history's first systems thinker, counseled that the great state must "be lower" than its subjects. Like the ocean into which the rivers flow, it had to accommodate the desires of its citizens by being passive, yet responsive at the same time.

The implication for the present day is that our systems of authority (government, but also agents of cultural authority) must be in a constant process of feedback with what they're managing. That means creating truly collaborative face-to-face communities that are assisted by virtual tools. And if we're accepting the added responsibility of managing the biosphere (we don't really have a choice at this point, do we?), that means developing robust means for assessing the health of our ecosystems - through networked sensors, perhaps, but also through creatively employing biological indicators.

Which is all stuff we Worldchangers probably already know. But thinking about it in the terms you bring up, of authority and democracy, helps us get at WHY these innovations are really so necessary.

Posted by: Adam Brock on 12 Dec 07

I'm curious about what exactly is meant by non-authoritarian groups. I could take it two different ways. First, it could mean that there is no recognition of authority. None. Don't do what anyone else tells you to do. Don't believe what anyone tells you to believe. Second, it could mean that authority should not be forced on an individual and that individuals (or communities, I suppose) should have the right to choose who or what they accept as an authority. I prefer this option and I would guess that this is what is meant by non-authoritarian. Of course, there's always the inevitability that people will make the wrong choice about what they should accept as authoritative. But nobody said free will was easy.

Posted by: Josh on 12 Dec 07

Adam: thanks for getting to the heart of my piece so well... makes me feel that I was clear (which is not always the case!) I hope to explore these questions further, and get more clarity about solutions, via the projects that RU instigated. Check out the Mondo Globo site, if you haven't already:

Josh: I suspect that the definition for non-authoritarian groups that RU had in mind was closer to the latter. The former position is pretty difficult... we all do tend to acknowledge some authority and have some beliefs.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 12 Dec 07

The transition to renewables and a restorative system that lives within a thriving ecological structure is beyond politics. It is bedrock cultural change.

How do you get "elegant frugality" to become fashionable? Can you say Solar IS Civil Defense without pressing the 9/11 fear button? What changes are necessary to get people out of their cars?

There are many other modes of human conversation that do not feed into our systems of laws and legislation, politics and news. Lech Walesa said that Solidarity began by talking loud at the bus stops. Vaclav Havel (bruces would appreciate this reference) calls for a politics of the impossible. Gyorgy Konrad wrote of antipolitics:

"In his thinking, the antipolitician is not politic.  He doesn't ask himself whether it is a practical, useful, politic thing to express his opinion openly.  In contrast with the secrecy of the leadership, antipolitics means publicity;  it is a power exercised directly over society,through civil courage, and one that differs by definition from any present or future power of the state."

Posted by: gmoke on 12 Dec 07

There's also Charles Olson and the Maximus poems which are all about the polis and what it means in America through the filter of Gloucester, MA's history, geography, demography.

Posted by: gmoke on 12 Dec 07

The transition to renewables and a restorative system that lives within a thriving ecological structure is beyond politics.

Human systems are never beyond politics. In fact, they're inherently political.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 13 Dec 07

Nice piece here by Jon.

Rather than respond to what Jon has written, I want to clarify some of my own meanings and implications regarding the QuestionAuthority project and around the idea of "non-authoritarians."

My intentions with all this is rather more prosaic than some might imagine. As we all know, authoritarian and authority are two different things.. or can be. An authority could be someone who knows something... an expert. An authoritarian is someone who imposes his or her will on me. Question Authority doesn't necessarily mean down with all authority and it doesn't necessarily mean that you reject authorities answer. I might question the authority of 99% of climate researchers, but that won't change the facts on the ground.

Anyway, when I write about or talk about non-authoritarians (and anti-authoritarians), my intention is to indicate people who are not authoritarians in fairly conventional terms -- we (in terms of the broader body politic) speak of Burma as being authoritarian or Russia under Putin or we look at the authoritarian cultures of certain Muslim countries or in Singapore... and we basically know what we're talking about.

With QuestionAuthority, I'm hoping to indicate that this is a discourse we now have to have about the United States -- and that it has to become a popular discourse and not a fringe discourse, because the wolf is not only at the door but it's halfway inside.

So I'm proposing to unite the full spectrum of persons and types who believe that we are drifting rapidly towards an authoritarian state and culture (or who feel that we have already arrived.).

The first project for QuestionAuthority deals with the state aspect of this authoritarian trend. We put together a timeline of liberties lost at the federal level during the period of the Bush Administration. In the timeline, the entries are brief but they are backed up by various links so that readers and investigators can appreciate the seriousness (or lack thereof) of each particular blow or swipe against essential constitutional liberties.

it's here:

This is -- as far as I know -- the only complete, organized wrap-up of its kind and it serves as an example of what we might achieve with a group like this. Before Phil Leggiere put this together for us, everything was (of course) miscellaneous. In other words, each fragment of this sorry record was out there, along with expressions of outrage usually timed near the event, and only to be replaced by the next one. Now there is a synthetic overview of what has occured (or at least the skeleton of that overview. It can be improved and there's a wiki up for that purpose.)

It seems to me that the response to this drift towards a more authoritarian state is also fragmented and miscellaneous. Naomi Wolf rights a book. Judge Napolitano does the same from the libertarian perspective. This blog or that expresses its outrage. And we all basically sit back and rely on the lawyers -- ACLU, EFF, ad infinitum.

Of course, as anti and/or nonauthoritarians, we favor this fragmentation over centralization. But I'm absolutely convinced that we need to also have a place for synthesis... we have to have a vector for responding to this drift, which is not going to end w. this administration (and didn't START w. it). In a way, we need a "Focus on the Family" for the non-authoritarian or anti-authoritarian types.

Anyway, my hope is that the main thrust of QA will be educational, and will be aimed largely at young people and that it will kick really hard at making room in the great left v. right public discourse for an authoritarian v. nonauthoritarian discourse... and that shouldn't be left entirely to the lawyers and shouldn't be limited politically to the libertarians. I'm not going to go into full essay mode here now, so I'll leave you with this fragment to ponder.


Posted by: RU Sirius on 13 Dec 07

MONDO2000 was a bit of a lifeline for me back during its publication days - the www was barely accessible even from public places, a total obscurity at best anyway, and I used to read the articles thinking things like "I'll need to try out this gopher and e-mail stuff".
MONDO was speculating on true wearables (that amazing piece on the fibre-optic -like scarfs that could be networked), while today the mainstream continues to be bogged-down barely noticing that true-VR gaming with cumbersome headsets and tube-backed-gloves happened a long time ago...

MONDO had the right attitude; sadly it hasn't quite manifested into 'consensus' reality. It's definitely there, it's surely what the visionaries of the '60s had in mind but didn't have the technology to get done, so they did the green parts of the vision first.

Probably Japan (and increasingly Shanghai, HK, Blade-Runner kinda enviros) are the most MONDO-like places, throw a bit of Silicon Valley in there, and keep things supergreen (hey, it's a cool term) as in sustainable and ecological like this site here, and that's a future worth wanting immortality for.

Posted by: zupakomputer on 15 Dec 07



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