Authority Isn’t What It Used to Be

When one frames the current developments in the world – which may be framed in several ways – according to the question, whether the gradual waning of authority in the course of time, particularly since the end of the Second World War, could cast light on the present crisis, the answer may surprise some. 

Think of the apparent ease with which the ‘authorities’ (how hollow that word sounds now) could subjugate populations worldwide (with the exception of Sweden and Florida) to draconian Covid measures, and one has to wonder what made people accept their ‘authority,’ when the behaviour they demanded was so clearly in conflict with populations’ constitutional rights. 

To be sure, fear was a huge factor in the face of a ‘virus’ that had been hyped as a death warrant, should one be infected. And there was the misplaced ‘trust’ in (untrustworthy) governments and health agencies. But reading a book by one of Europe’s leading thinkers – Ad Verbrugge of the Netherlands – I am convinced that what he uncovers explains a lot about the fact that most people were a pushover for the neo-fascists of the so-called New World Order. 

The book’s title, translated into English, is The Crisis of Authority (De Gezagscrisis; Boom Publishers, Amsterdam, 2023), the provenance of which Verbrugge traces at various levels, and guided by four questions, keeping in mind that he is concerned, first and foremost, with the Netherlands, although his understanding of this crisis places his own country in a broader international context. 

The first of these concerns the ‘legitimacy of authority,’ a question suggested by the awareness of a crisis of authority. This enables the Dutch philosopher to distinguish between different kinds of authority, each of which requires a distinct kind of legitimation. In fact, Verbrugge describes authority of a specific kind as ‘legitimate(d) power,’ and stresses that it presupposes an (adult) individual’s voluntary agreement to (or ‘authorisation of’) the exercise of power.

When this occurs, it is usually also the case that those who accept the legitimacy of a certain kind of authority share the same values as those who are authorised to have authority. Clearly, this applies to democracies at a certain stage of their historical development, but need not remain so, depending on what cultural, social, and technological changes occur on the way. 

Against the backdrop of an exposition of ‘virtue ethics’ going back to Aristotle, Verbrugge emphasises that even if, in the democracies of today, interest in the ‘virtues’ of individual political figures and leaders may have waned, the voting public still needs a demonstration of virtues such as ‘exceptional political achievements, experience, practical wisdom and vision’ (p. 63) on the part of figures that are endowed with legitimate authority. As an example of this he mentions the late Nelson Mandela of South Africa. One is tempted to measure the so-called political ‘leaders’ of today by these criteria: Does Joe Biden display any of these virtues, for example? Does he even deserve the name of a ‘leader?’ 

The second question raised by Verbrugge delves into the historical and cultural reasons for the present crisis of authority, going back to the cultural ‘revolution’ of the sixties, with the vaunted ‘liberation’ of individuals during the ‘make love, not war’ era of hippies, Bob Dylan, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He also traces the entirely different (in fact, diametrically opposed) meaning of individual freedom, in economic terms, during the next ‘revolution,’ to wit, that of neoliberalism in the eighties. The latter supplied the foundation for what has become the current ‘network society,’ which has since generated countervailing attitudes: those who still experience it as a liberation, and a growing group that perceives it as a threat – a divergence that serves to hollow out the grounds of authority. More on this below.

Thirdly, the question is posed, what is actually happening to humanity – primarily the people of Holland, but also globally. Verbrugge characterises the ‘postmodern’ ethos of today in terms of the social and cultural dynamics at play in it, where the consumerist culture of ‘experiences’ in which the media play a dominant role, has undermined the notion of citizenship and of relations of authority, and has exacerbated polarisation. He further shows that the process of globalisation has brought divergent as well as converging forces into being, with their concomitant political consequences, as embodied in the phenomenon of ‘Brexit.’

The fourth question concerns the dwindling authority of governments – how is this explicable? Verbrugge draws one’s attention to factors responsible for this phenomenon, which derive from the systemic changes rooted in the 1980s, and have led to the incremental neglect of the principles of fairness and the common good, which have always been fundamental to the legitimacy of the state. 

Verbrugge pays attention to several significant events that were symptomatic of the cultural and political ‘uprooting’ that was taking place during the 1960s and 70s, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, both of whom – like Robert’s slain brother, John – promoted a vision of a better future of reconciliation before they were silenced (obviously by those, still around today, who did not want such a future). He detects a particularly ‘dark’ undercurrent in the popular culture of the time (which has prevailed until today) in the music of The Doors and Jim Morrison – consider their ‘iconic’ song, ‘The End’ – and draws a line between this and Francis Ford Coppola’s late 1960s film, Apocalypse Now, which stood as an indictment of the Vietnam War’s insanity (p. 77). 

The relatively peaceful hippie culture and protests of the 1960s were succeeded, Verbrugge reminds one, by the ‘ideological polarisation’ of the 1970s, when the protests against America’s military involvement in Vietnam increased worldwide, and became violent. Significantly, this also marks the time when criticism of the power wielded by the ‘military industrial complex’ emerged, and when the ‘terrorist’ activities, in Europe, of the Red Army, and the Baader-Meinhof group served as concrete expression of the growing questioning and rejection of established authority (p. 84). 

All of these cultural and political convulsions seemed to have been ‘neutralised’ by the return to ‘business as usual’ of the 1980s, when the resurfacing of the ‘manager’ type , hand-in-hand with a reappraisal of the economic sphere as ‘neutral’ regarding other realms of human activity such as the social and cultural, announced the emergence of a more ‘optimistic’ era compared to the doom and gloom of the previous decade.

Interestingly, Verbrugge – who was himself a pop star in his younger days – perceives in David Bowie’s album of 1983 – Let’s Dance – a manifestation of this altered Zeitgeist. Less auspicious is his observation that in the 1980s the social and moral ideals of the previous two decades were replaced by ‘career aspirations, limitless ambition and an unscrupulous, money-hungry lifestyle’ (my translation of the Dutch; p. 93). 

The ‘network society,’ which made its distinct appearance in the 1990s, was symbolically announced by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, according to Verbrugge. This was accompanied by a spirit of triumphalism, perhaps best expressed in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, which proclaimed the advent of liberal democracy – mediated by neoliberal capitalism – as the attainment of the telos of history. This, in itself, is already a barometer of the waning force of authority vested in (trustworthy figures) in the political sphere – after all, if democracy is qualified by the term liberal, which everyone knew referred to economic freedom first and foremost, it was only a matter of time before economic and financial processes became ‘authoritative,’ to the extent that this was (misguidedly) conceivable.

The ICT revolution of the 1990s, without which the ‘network society’ is unthinkable, inaugurated a ‘new economy.’ Not only did this transform the work environment of people fundamentally, but set in motion a complete transmogrification of the world economy and of governance structures. Predictably, this entailed the abandonment of any semblance of ‘wise rule’ on the part of governments and office bearers; in its place came the recalibration of the world as an economic (and financial) ‘functional system.’

What counted from here on, was the ’rationally autonomous’ individual as ‘consumer and producer.’ Is it at all surprising that the death knell of authority as such, which can only be sensibly vested in people, after all, sounded around this time (p. 98)? Verbrugge sees in Queen’s song of 1989, ‘I Want It All’ an adumbration of the insatiable ambition of the neoliberal ‘achievement-subject’ of the era.

In his discussion of the ‘new millennium,’ Verbrugge concentrates on the dangers and uncertainties generated by the new world system, already visible in the crisis, where large losses were suffered on the stock exchange. But more than this, the events of 9/11 must be seen as the turning point of the 20th to the 21st century, and as an external attack on the ‘system.’ Whatever the causality behind this disaster, its symbolic meaning cannot be overlooked: a fundamental rejection of the economic, political, and military power of the United States as representative of the Western world (p. 105). 

The financial crisis of 2008, in contrast, signified problems within ‘the heart of capitalism itself’ (p. 110; my translation). An unambiguous manifestation of where the true values of neoliberal society are located is the fact that banks were pronounced as ‘too big to fail,’ and were consequently ‘bailed out’ with colossal financial injections of taxpayers’ money. As Verbrugge remarks, this testifies to a familiar Marxist insight, that ‘profits are privatised and losses socialised.’ Again – what does this tell us about authority? That it is no longer vested in the political power and accountability of democracies. The system dictates what financial-economic action is required. 

Partly as a result of this, and partly because of the one financial crisis after the other (Greece, Italy), where the global financial system was shown as being capable of making or breaking entire countries (p. 117), several thoroughgoing critiques of the new world system appeared between 2010 and the 2020s, notably Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (2013), and – directed at the capability of internet surveillance to manipulate people’s economic and political behaviour – Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – The Fight for a Human Future at the Frontier of Power (2019). 

Verbrugge’s discussion of the ‘crack that appeared in the system’s structure’ in the 2020s focuses largely on the Corona crisis in the Netherlands, but in the main it is commensurate with what was experienced by people under lockdowns, social distancing, mask-wearing, and the eventual availability of ‘vaccines.’ What strikes one is his acknowledgement that the way in which the Dutch government of Mark Rutte handled the ‘pandemic’ has elicited significant criticism from many Dutch citizens (unsurprisingly, given that Rutte is one of Klaus Schwab’s blue-eyed boys), while others went along with government directives. It is also apparent that, as elsewhere, a chasm soon showed between the ‘vaccinated’ and the ‘unvaccinated,’ and that Verbrugge himself is highly critical of the use of experimental ‘vaccines’ on vulnerable populations.  

With this admittedly brief reconstruction of Verbrugge’s take on the crisis of authority in mind – which provides an illuminating backdrop to the currently dubious status of many institutions that enjoyed a certain authority before 2020 – what does it spell out for the present, more encompassing global crisis? Well, given the saddening state of affairs regarding the hollowing out of the historical grounds of authority in our supposed democracies, and more recently – since 2020, to be specific – the cognitive and moral dissonance caused by the bewildering arrival of a ‘virus’ whose lethality was exaggerated, to say the least, the impact on notions of authority has been twofold, it seems.

On the one hand the ‘sheeple’ – of whom Theodor Adorno would have said that they are the kind of people who ‘need a master’ – were either too weak-willed to resist the authoritarian manner in which lockdowns were imposed worldwide (except for Sweden), or, to be charitable to them, too dazed to think of resisting initially, and in some cases came to their senses later. Or they embraced these autocratic measures with alacrity, believing that this was the only way to be disciplined about the health crisis it was made out to be. This kind of person has the personality structure that Adorno, with the Germans who embraced Hitler and the Nazis in mind, called the ‘authoritarian personality.’ 

On the other hand, however, there are those people whose first response was an olfactory one: they smelled the distinct odour of a rat (only later discovering it was called ‘Fauci,’ and that it was part of a pack of rats called Gates, Schwab, Soros, and other rodent comrades).

Those belonging to the first group, above, accepted the unfounded ‘authority’ of the CDC, the FDA, and the WHO unquestioningly, or believed, perhaps forgivably, and in some cases only initially, that these organisations had their best interests at heart, as they should have, ideally speaking. The members of the second group, however, guided by what one could surmise was a healthy, deep-seated suspicion (the uncolonisable ‘inhuman’ that Lyotard theorised) of telltale signs, did not accept any such, as it turned out, spurious authority.

In my own case my suspicious self was kicked into gear by the contradictory imperatives issued by the South African health minister and the police minister. When very strict lockdowns were imposed in March 2020 (in lockstep with the other countries who goosestepped to the tune of Schwab of the WEF), the former minister announced that one was ‘allowed’ to leave one’s residence for purposes of exercise – a bit of sound common sense, I thought – only to be overruled by the minister of police, who forbade any such luxury. Not to be deprived of my daily exercise, climbing the mountains around our town, I resolved that I would continue doing so, by hook or by crook, and continued my climbing at night, armed with a flashlight and a knobkierie (to keep venomous snakes at bay).

At the same time I started writing articles critical of these draconian measures on a newspaper website called Thought Leader, where I had been a contributor since the early 2000s. This I continued doing until the section editor – clearly captured by the mainstream narrative – started censoring my articles, much to my chagrin. I stopped writing for them, and started looking around for other, truly critical online organisations, and found both Left Lockdown Sceptics (now Real Left) in Britain and eventually Brownstone. 

In sum: as in the case of other ‘awake’ people, my final rejection of ‘mainstream’ claims to authority happened during the Covid debacle. Whether a new, revitalised sense of legitimate authority could eventually be generated in the place of the spurious claims to authority on the part of those representatives of the supposed ‘New World Order’ who still wield power, only time will tell.

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