Illustration of a Peacock, colorful tail fan quite spread.Trust in Authority

excerpts from Authority
by Richard Sennett

Authority we can trust is visible.


Authority is a bond between people who are not equal.

Without ties of loyalty, authority, and fraternity, no society as a whole, and none of its institutions, could long function.

To be on welfare, to be dependent upon people who are judging your weakness in order to decide how much you need, is an intensely humiliating experience. ... One of the subjects most avoided in our society is the relation between being controlled and being cared for.

The authority without love operates as a parade of benevolence but exists only in the interest of the ruler. It requires passive acquiescence as the price of being cared for.

Domination is a necessary disease the social organism suffers. There is no way to cure this disease; we can only fight against it.

Power between two people is the will of one person prevailing over the will of the other. ... The chain of command is the structure by which this imbalance of will can be extended to thousands or millions of people; it is the architecture of power.

Ideals of democracy that we inherited from the 18th Century are based on the notion of visible, legible authority.

"Visible" means that those who are in positions of control be explicit about themselves: clear about what they can and cannot do; explicit about their promises.

"Legible" specifies how such explicit statements could come about. No person in power can be trusted to serve as his own judge and jury. It is the subjects who have to decide what power means; the servants have to read the masters' actions as if they were trying to make sense of a difficult text. To make power legible is a reading, a struggle.

The citizens are to read together; they are to observe the conditions of society and discuss them with one another. The result of this common effort is that citizens entrust certain powers to leaders, and judge leaders on how well they merit that trust. Jefferson says the conditions of trust are to be entirely visible. The leader may use discretion, but may not be permitted to keep his intentions to himself.

The first thinkers on democracy had immense faith in the rational powers of thehuman race. Whether or not this faith was misplaced, it is certainly true that they discounted how hard is the work of creating visible and legible authority.

The language of power is often couched in the passive voice, so that responsibility is veiled, invisible. Much can be avoided if a master acts absent. Examples: "It has been decided that..." "It is inappropriate to... " The passive voice pins the decision down to no particular person, making authority invisible. The passive voice suggests that a command exists in the abstract as a universal principle.

Decisions can be written in the active voice. "Ms. Jones, Ms. Anderson and Mr. Barker decided that..." "Mr. Smith doesn't like it when... " A person who feels aggrieved can address the people who made the decision, appeal to them directly, renegotiate the decision.

An open negotiation about nurturance, face to face, seems to me the most disruptive experience which can occur in a modern chain of command. ... The question is whether people can lose their shame over their own weakness and avail themselves of the law, of the appeals process.

The evil effects of authority can be combatted not by making oneself less visible to authority but by drawing closer to it. The further away an authority is, the more he or she will inspire fear and awe. The closer we come to the authority, the less omnipotent it will appear. This is the work of demystifying authority. Differences of strength may remain, but the authority is dispossessed of Otherness, of strength which appears mysterious and unfathomable.

From Authority by Richard Sennett, first published in 1980 by Alfred A. Knopf. Excerpted with permission.

"I had the greatest respect for the authorities of my day — until I studied things for myself and came to my own conclusions."

— Sigmund Freud