Authority is an uncomfortable and ambiguous form of political power. It is viewed with suspicion in much political theory, as it is a power relation that asks for obedience rather than consensus or reasoned debate. Immanuel Kant placed rejection of external authority at the heart of his characterization of ‘Enlightenment’. For many, the appeal to authority as a social and political good evokes a dangerously conservative nostalgia for cohesive communities, strong families and traditional values. Some libertarian and anarchist theorists argue that societies can (and should) be organized without any ‘artificial’ authority structures at all. Yet, authority – a relation of free obedience based on consent and claims to ‘know better’ – is a central form of power through which modern societies are organized. Moreover, if they are to succeed in creating change, it is necessary for minoritarian political claims to become authoritative; to create change is to make demands that cannot safely be ignored.
The analysis of authority relations was central to the work of classic social and political theorists such as Tönnies, Durkheim, Weber and Arendt. However, the concept of authority currently occupies a marginal place on the map of contemporary political theory. Max Weber’s account of the modern shift from ‘traditional’ authority to ‘legal-rational’ authority, where appeal to immemorial traditions is replaced by appeal to abstract and impersonal norms or rules, remains a dominant model for understanding contemporary structures of authority. Weber’s account of authority placed it within a historical narrative of modern rationalization, bureaucratization and disenchantment, where ‘experiential’ forms of authority based on tradition and charisma were to give way to rationalized and bureaucratic forms of authority. This ‘disenchantment’ narrative has rightly been criticized by writers who observe that religious, traditional and ‘irrational’ forces persist as major aspects of contemporary political life. Furthermore, that narrative draws upon and compounds highly problematic assumptions concerning the supposed irrationality and otherness of traditional political formations. Authority is everywhere bound up with various forms of knowledge, not only rationality, science and law but also affective processes, mystery, aesthetics and ‘enchantment’. This has significant implications for understanding the workings of authority in contemporary societies. The papers in this special issue approach the question of authority in ways that that take into account three key attributes of authority. Authority, we argue, is plural, positive and experiential