Paul Verhaeghe on power and authority

Towards the end of his recent interview by the New Books Network Paul Verhaeghe makes the case for authority (which apparently is the topic of his next book now released in Dutch). Verhaeghe distinguishes between power and authority. Power is the relay of competitive forces that is maintained by the creation and imposition of rules. Verhaeghe is thinking mostly of the current neoliberal context in which economic powers structure are imposed on the various relations that determine much of our lives as well as promote the pervasive myth of ‘meritocracy’ and the goodness of competition.

Verhaeghe sees this as filling the void after the dismantling of patriarchy which he views largely in terms of authority. Authority is a structural relationship in which two individuals or institutions are defined hierarchically by their relationship to a third element. So in patriarchy the ‘third’ was the figure of the Father (ultimately based in a certain concept of God; though Verhaeghe does not say as much).

The West has dismantled much of this authority structure and Verhaeghe has no wish to go back to it. However, he does advocate for authority as opposed to power (I am sure his terms could be debated). He says that when authority is in place very few rules are actually needed. In this model (I am expounding here) more acceptance and collaboration is possible because of the unifying (or at least acknowledged) element of the third. Now of course the third can be tyrannical in need of being overthrown.

When asked to offer a suggestion of a positive relationship of authority Verhaeghe responds by naming the ‘horizontal collective’ as the third, the people. Theologically this appears to be the hegelian/zizekian move of the death of God and the movement of the Spirit in the community of the believers. I think care needs to be taken though that this move does not become equated with the posture of #alllivesmatter. Overall I like Verhaeghe’s clear and simply articulation of authority and as someone in a position of some authority it is always helpful to be given a grammar, vocabulary, and accountability for it. So while I would, at least in principle, accept Verhaeghe’s articulation I would argue that we need to continue to be accountable to ‘the least of these’ (to put it biblically) as our third. I understand there is a certain presumptuousness here and hypocrisy. However, in terms of expressing the theology and work that can and should be done in the church I still think this is most responsible and faithful posture towards questions of power and authority.

 

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