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On Whose Authority?

Nick Spencer

Nobody could say it has been a slow news year - but is there anything that unites the disparate protests, scandals, meltdowns and disasters of 2011? Nick Spencer detects an unfashionable common thread.


Historians looking back over the early years of the new millennium may well identify 2011 as one of those iconic years in which a whole lot of stuff happened - like 1968, though without quite so many drugs. So far - I write this three quarters through the year - we have had protests in Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, and Palestine; protests and regime change in Tunisia and Egypt; and protests, civil war and regime change in Libya.

While the southern Mediterranean shore convulsed, life on the northern one was not always noticeably calmer. 2011 saw the Eurozone debt crisis worsen, with a bailout for Portugal, a second bailout for Greece, rumours of bailouts for Spain and Italy, and the aftershock of a bailout for Ireland, all of which were accompanied by massive - and massively unpopular - austerity measures.
Moving further north still, Britain witnessed the unfolding of a media phone-hacking scandal that beggared moral belief, and then, brilliantly timed to coincide with silly season, thousands of rioters - arguably united not by ethnicity, age, socio-economic group, or political cause but by the desire for a 42" plasma screen TV and pair of new trainers - shout, smash, steal, and scorch their way onto the front page.

As if this weren't enough, we might want to mention the killing of the world's most wanted terrorist; rape charges made and then dropped against the head of the IMF; the unprecedented downgrading of the US's credit rating; a disastrous year for the global stock markets; a massacre in Norway; famine in the horn of Africa; an AV referendum at home; and a devastating tsunami and fears of a nuclear meltdown in Japan. Oh yes, of course, there was also a royal wedding. All in all, those journalists not listening to other people's voice messages have had a busy year.

Is there anything to unite all these news stories? On the surface of it, the answer is no. On first glance, 2011 seems like a good example of Joseph Heller's famous aphorism that history is a trash bag of random coincidences torn open in the wind. What could the Eurozone crisis possibly have to do with a Royal Wedding? What does the US credit rating have in common with the trials of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (and his hotel maid)? What, even, do UK riots have to do with those in Egypt or Syria?

The surface picture is, in many ways, right. Much as historians like to trace causes and consequences, many events appear as random and purposeless as a Japanese tsunami.

But dig a little deeper and there is a theme that runs through much of 2011. It doesn't tidily unite all the events of this most turbulent year, still less explain them. But it does offer a lens by which seemingly different stories can be read, understood and perhaps even addressed together. The theme is authority.

Authority sits awkwardly in the corner of many a modern conversation. Like 'intolerant' or 'undemocratic' (a word with which it is often twinned), 'authority' is one of those words best spoken with a sneer. 'And what authority, precisely, do you think entitles you to say that?' Its attendant adjective, authoritarian, clarifies the nature of the problem. Nobody approves of authoritarianism, and authority unless relentlessly and ruthlessly challenged will always slip, swiftly and silently, into authoritarianism. Authority is about power and control. It is about one person telling other people how they should live their lives. In as far as we need it at all, authority is there to be questioned.

There is, however, another group of cousin-words, with more positive or at least less negative connotations, which show that 'authority' is not an out-and-out boo-word, like racist, but one about which we are somewhat ambivalent. We don't have much of a problem today doing things that require authorisation, for example, particularly when they involved on-line banking or payments. Nor do we complain about something when it is authoritative. Quite the opposite, in fact: most of us actively search for the authoritative point when in argument.

The different smells that hang around this word root are indicative of the general confusion we have around the concept today. In some incarnations, authority is a good, in other a necessary evil, and in still others a positive blight. We are, however, running ahead of ourselves, analysing the cause before looking at the symptoms. What do the events of 2011 have to do with the question of authority?

For some stories the link is obvious. Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt since Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. His first three election victories were unopposed and his fourth highly questionable. He kept the country under emergency law throughout his time in office and despite presiding over economic growth and a pro-Western stance, resisted all attempts at political reform.

Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father (who himself had come to power in a mixture of intrigue and coup) as President of Syria in 2000. Although making some moves towards political liberalisation Assad's reforms petered out and he was re-elected in 2007 also unopposed and increasingly unpopular. Since then, despite lifting the country's state of emergency, he has proved willing to preside over military violence in order to maintain power and prevent further political reforms.

Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya since coming to power in a bloodless coup in 1969. Alternately astute and eccentric to the point of apparent insanity, he sponsored and supplied terrorist groups with impunity, crushed opposition, and imprisoned and tortured dissidents. Despite coming in from the cold in 2003, he has shown even less enthusiasm for Western-style political reforms than Mubarak or Assad.

The list could go on, but need not. Whatever the differences between Egypt, Syria, Libya, and the other countries touched by the Arab Spring, the unifying theme is painfully clear. These nations, like so many in North Africa and the Middle East, have long been ruled by leaders who have exercised very real and often brutal power without any commensurate authority (however we understand that term). The attitude of Western powers to the political protests that have exploded along the North African coast this year has been plain. Only by acquiescing to the wishes of the people - only by acting under the authority that comes from democratic accountability - can these rulers hope to claim political legitimacy.

The issue is subtler with the Eurozone crisis. Those countries that wished to join the Euro had to fulfil - or at least promise to fulfil - certain monetary requirements, such as keeping inflation, budget deficit, and long-term interest rates down. Many did not, but this didn't appear to be too much of a problem in the Euro's early years. Everyone thought that errant nations could and, one happy day, would fulfil the necessary criteria.

The events of 2008 proved such confidence misplaced and suggested that some countries would be unable to reduce their debt or control inflation without substantial help from others. Greece's apparent inability to do so even after one such bailout led to not only a second bailout but also to the palpable sense that the nation would never be in a position to do so. The Greeks, it appeared, simply could not get their spending under control or make sufficient inroads into the culture of endemic tax evasion. No matter that this would undoubtedly have been the best course for the nation; somehow either political classes or the public seemed unwilling or incapable to do the necessary.

And this is where the question of authority creeps in. The unpopularity of the austerity measures in Greece leave little doubt that, were George Papandreou daft enough to open them to a public referendum, the public would reject them out of hand. The supposed source of political authority, the people themselves, need, it appears, be ignored for the right course of action to be taken.

In reality, this paradox of European authority goes much wider that Greece alone. Joining the Euro demands monetary convergence but says little about fiscal control, i.e. issues relating to taxation, spending and borrowing. In other words, while (northern) EU leaders feel they have the responsibility to safeguard southern economies, and with them the Euro itself, they do not have the authority to do so. Not surprisingly, German taxpayers in particular have become increasingly agitated by this dilemma, as they have watched their money going to bail out nations which then continue to evade tax and spend far more than they can afford. Were the German public offered a referendum on the Greek bailout, they would not have been much more supportive than the Greeks themselves.

Tellingly, however, referendums are rare in the European Union. Its leaders are at best unsure of the public's support for 'ever closer union' and, at worst, are sure of the public's lack of support for it. Thus, although Spain and Luxemburg ratified the EU Constitution in 2005, the French and the Dutch rejected it. The consequence was a return to the drawing board, rather than the scrap heap, the result of which was the Lisbon Treaty, which most states wisely chose to ratify through parliamentary processes rather than open referendums. In the only nation to do otherwise, the Republic of Ireland, the electorate rejected the Treaty. The Irish government then went back to its people and told them to jolly well vote the right way next time, which they duly did in a second referendum in October 2009. The experience did not do a great deal to enhance a sense of the EU's democratic legitimacy.

Such Euro-shenanigans make a telling contrast with the Arab Spring. While European leaders are busy enjoining democracy on their southern Mediterranean counterparts as the only legitimate basis of political authority, it seems as if they themselves are somewhat shy of it.

Fauthority3.jpg PUBLIC INTEREST?
There is a similar story to be told with regard to that other great institution based on and justified by people's choice, the market, which brings us to 'hackgate'.

This scandal had a certain surreality to it. The nation experienced a minor moral earthquake when 60 million jaws hit the floor as it was revealed quite how grubby tabloid journalism could be. What justification could there possibly be for hacking into the phones of dead children and grieving relatives?
Sadly there is one: 'public interest', the media equivalent of democratic accountability. It is surely no co-incidence that The News of the World was the country's most popular newspaper. People bought and read it in their millions, without, it appears, being too vexed or even interested where they got their stories. Left to market forces alone the paper was doing very well indeed.
It is just possible that the collective moral shock of 'hackgate' would have sunk the paper 'naturally' as readers abandoned it in disgust. Had that happened, it would have apparently demonstrated that market forces were sufficiently sensitive to our notions of right and wrong. We shall never know (I have my doubts). But what is certain is that there was very little collective moral outrage when, years earlier, it emerged that the paper had been hacking into royal phones, let alone those of John Prescott and Gordon Brown, despite the fact that that under UK law any form of phone hacking is deemed illegal.
However you read the story, it seems clear that formally to punish the News of the World for hacking (most of) the phones it did, would have necessitated action based on more than the authority of public opinion alone. Right and wrong, it seems, needs more than public opinion, whether that is expressed through the ballot box or the cash till.

All of which invites the question, where does authority actually lie? Is it with the individual - in which case there can be no warrant for ignoring or overriding democratic/market opinion - or is it with some objective understanding of the good and the just - in which case democracy and the market are at best inadequate and, at worst, positively dangerous?

According to Christian thought, authority resides ultimately with God rather than the people. This doesn't always go down well in the current age, but St Paul's in/famous 'there is no authority except that which God has established' is about as blunt as you can get. This was, of course, the proof text of choice for innumerable Christian autocrats down the ages, but what Paul has to say about the governing authorities is subtler than it is sometimes given credit for.

First, recognising all authority as God's counters the tendencies towards dualism, antinomianism (disregard for moral law) and anarchism each of which may have been creeping into the church at the time. There is no part of creation over which God is not sovereign (as the writer of Psalm 24 put it) even when bits of it have been hijacked for wicked or oppressive ends (as the temptations or Jesus' encounter with Pilate in John 19 suggest). The public authorities are no less important for Christians than anyone else.

Second, and critically, recognising God's authority entails a diminution rather than an aggrandisement of human authority. Put more simply, kings are knocked off their pedestals by the King of Kings. Paul rubs the point in. Not only does he three times call the governing authorities 'God's servants' in the first six verses of Romans 13, but he is careful to define rulers as those who are to work 'for your good' and who should therefore 'hold no terror for those who do right', which rather invites the question 'what about the 'rulers' who aren't working for the good?'.

Third, the God, to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, and in whose name and under whose judgement the governing authorities must exercise their authority, is the crucified Christ. This is the one who 'being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; [but] made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant… [and] humbled himself by becoming obedient to death.'

If this is true authority, it looks very different from what we are used to. No wonder Christ had to keep on correcting his disciples' presuppositions: 'You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant'.

This is the ultimate Christian model of authority: self-emptying ('kenotic' as theologians put it) and self-sacrificial, living and working for the good of the other. In its own way, it is no less challenging to the modern mind than the very idea of authority independent of human opinion. But the nature of its challenge is, of course, somewhat different.

Christianity's understanding of political authority, then, while appearing brutally authoritarian at first is, in fact, rather subtler. It begins with an uncompromising insistence that what is good and just is written into creation and not subject to the opinions (read 'whims') of (fallen) humanity. However, it follows this by outlining a model of authority that is self-giving, oriented not around the good of the one who wields it but rather the good of others.

None of this, of course, gives Christians some magic insight into the Eurozone crisis, the reconstruction of North Africa, the form of regulation proper to a free press, or any other public issue that touches on the theme of authority (such as the value of a monarchy, the fairest electoral system, the causes of summer rioting, or the just way of disposing with mass murdering terrorists).
What it can do, however, is help us avoid parroting the received wisdom of the day and perhaps even say something sensible and provocative.

Thus, to those who give democratic accountability or uncoerced market interactions the final say in any public debate, we might point out that very few people are truly consistent in this view. Whether it is European politicians afraid of referenda, or US ones abandoning their free market principles in favour of massive government bailouts, most people are prepared to make the argument that 'this should be done because it is right rather than it is popular', when it suits them.

Conversely, to those who do make this argument, we might point out that 'because it is right' is predicated on some idea of objective good, and that such a sentiment demands we open up public ethical debate rather than close it down. This would have been particularly useful during Tony Blair's premiership, in which the Prime Minister often justified his action on moral grounds. This was certainly refreshing: a political leader who wasn't scared of talking of saying the 'm' word, appeared to believe in absolutes, and was prepared to lead (whatever else one thinks of Blair, he was a leader). The problem was not so much that his moral principles often slid into pragmatism (heaven protect us from politicians with no sense of the real world), but rather that the Blairite mantra 'It is what I believe' was used to shut down conversations, rather than launch them.

A public life marked by the clash of closely-held and clearly-articulated principles, rather than one ironed out by elections, referenda, viewing figures and market forces, is what we badly need. But that clash needs to be a clash, an open debate in which the moral principles to which we refer and which give authority to the actions we embark upon are exposed and deliberated.