Paul Verhaeghe – Authority


By Way of Introduction

  1. 1. Identity and Authority
  2. 2. Authority and Origins: ‘Why? Because!’
  3. 3. Three Impossible Professions
  4. 4. Return (Darth Vader) or Change (Big Brother)?




  1. 5. The Era of the Woman
  2. 6. Parents in the Plural
  3. 7. Your Money or Your Life
  4. 8. Mr. Valdemar or Deliberative Democracy





Endnotes 241

Index 265

By Way of Introduction

 One of my earliest memories: I’m playing outside; there’s a new window waiting to be fitted in my father’s workshop. I break the glass and cry my eyes out, frightened of my angry father. When he comes home he’s not in the least angry. The memory is still fresh in my mind, especially my surprise. Why such an immense fear? There was no reason for it. My father was a kind man who rarely lifted his hand to us. Why did I turn him into the bogey man he never was?


I’m thirty; my son breaks a window in my recently built greenhouse.

I’m so angry I give him a good shaking.

Remorse. And shame.




Secondary school; strict discipline. At the boarding school, the housemaster systematically picks out one of the weaker boys to humiliate him in public. Everyone knows it. Everyone is angry; everyone feels powerless.


Many years later. The Faculty Council is being led by someone who combines both power and authority and is absolutely not afraid to use them. For the sake of clarity I should add that he deploys the said combination for the good of the faculty. During a meeting, he lashes out at colleague x who is responsible for the library, where things have been running awry for quite some time. Everyone knows it, everyone knows why; a librarian with tenure, who can’t be shifted for all the tea in China, yet can’t mind his own business. Colleague x can’t help it. I get angry and intervene unexpectedly – I think back to my boarding school days, the feeling of impotence then but not now – and voice my disagreement. If colleague x is responsible for the library he should also be given appropriate power. If he remains bereft of it, then he can’t be blamed. After the meeting he walks by my side, rests his hand on my shoulder and says nothing.




Studying for my doctorate; a discussion between the assistants and ‘the Prof.’ For a variety of reasons I find myself at that moment in everyone’s bad books. During the discussion I raise something about which I am completely convinced – it’s dismissed. I repeat it and add that it’s being ignored because I’m its source.


Years later I experience the reverse: things I say are listened to because they come from me and not because they’re right.




My first Faculty Council as a very junior professor. I’m proud as punch and consider it necessary to get involved in one of the discussions without sparing the volume. After the meeting, one of the senior professors joins me and says almost in passing: ‘Do you mind if I give you some advice? Try to focus on listening during the next Faculty Council and wait a couple of months before you intervene.’ The man enjoys authority in my eyes so I listen to him. During my student years he was one of the few professors who took his teaching seriously. At the next meeting of the Faculty Council I understand why my intervention was both naive and idiotic. Lack of knowledge. I hold my tongue for at least six months.


Twenty-five years later, my discipline comes under attack in the newspaper De Standaard. A research assistant from another faculty – and barely out of nappies – monopolizes the debate and is critical of our research. He makes so many mistakes in the process that my department acquires the support of the entire faculty for the first time ever. One of my colleagues wonders out loud: ‘Isn’t there someone who can protect that boy from himself?’




Graduation ceremony in the university’s grand auditorium. A former student, now a junior colleague, stops for a chat. She thanks me for my lectures and says: ‘You have a lot of authority among your students because you don’t use your power.’ I nod politely, find her words well put, and don’t give it a second thought. Of the two of us, she was the more intelligent at that moment. Power isn’t the same as authority. I was only to understand that much later.




  Interview in De Correspondent

 According Paul Verhaeghe, everything will improve if we stop treating authority as a dirty word.

In his last book Identity (2012), psychologist and psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe sketched how the rebellion against coercive social structures at the end of the 1960s  resulted in an individual ideal of manipulability and ever strengthening liberalization: no one dares to stand out anymore in a vigorously competition oriented society. Everyone is personally responsible for ‘making it’; failure is your own fault. A hostility has emerged between the individual on the one hand, and structures such as government, political parties and major companies on the other. Permanent pressure on the individual leads to alienation, psychological syndromes and a general feeling of malaise.

All in all, a rather black diagnosis of contemporary society. But in September we can expect the publication of Verhaeghe’s new book: Authority. Will it be equally pioneering?

Verhaeghe is expecting me in his office at the University of Ghent. The opening question asks itself:  the – at first sight – somewhat intimidating title. What exactly does Verhaeghe mean by it?

A Book about a (Once) Dirty Word

‘I belong to the ’68 generation, so “authority” for me started life as a dirty word. Liberation theology, the sexual revolution, anti-authoritarian education, anti-psychiatry are all movements that revolted in the 1960s and 1970s against the prevailing patriarchal authority.

Fifty years later there is an evident call to restore that authority. Even in my own field of study, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. I always had difficulty identifying with authority, but after reading an essay from 1954 by Hannah Arendt all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

Arendt makes a crucial distinction between power and authority. Power is always postponed violence. It is an unequal relationship between two entities. Authority, on the other hand, is based on a three-part structure. A first person subjects him or herself voluntarily to a second on the basis of a third party, recognised by both. For centuries, the third factor has been patriarchy.’

Power Articulates Impotence

‘The problem with the world we now live in is that patriarchy has disappeared as third party in the structure of authority without a new basis for a new authority having replaced it. As a result, the automatic authority of the teacher, the police officer, the doctor, the father of the nation, can no longer be restored. On the contrary: every attempt to restore must hark back of necessity to the two-part structure, whereby power takes the place of authority. And that is extremely dangerous because it introduces the arbitrary.

We can recognise this in all sorts of ways: the arming of the police, fines for anti-social behaviour, the presence of soldiers on the street after the attacks in Paris, but also in the education and healthcare systems, and, alas, for what today is expected to pass for democracy. Self-evident authority has disappeared from all these domains and people feel compelled to resort to the weapons of power.

Consider this: the most important decisions made by the EU are imposed by unelected instances (the so-called Troika: the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission).



So the solution is a rediscovery of authority and not its abolishment?
‘Correct, in the sense of: re-grounding. Many present day proposed solutions endeavour to restore the old authority, and that’s doomed to failure. Repression paves the way for terrorism. Teachers won’t regain their authority if we return to an “old fashioned” patriarchal approach to education. A recent study has even demonstrated that zero tolerance facilitates crime.

It can be compared to what often happens with radical anti-authoritarian communes: once all the rules have been jettisoned, dominant figures arise “as a matter of course” who determine what happens by decree. But that is power, not authority.’

The Collective as New Authority

‘We have to find a new “third point” we can all believe in and I’m convinced the search is already on. But it calls for a radical turnabout. Authority in the past was based on faith in the Great Leader, the father figure towering above everyone. New authority is based on the collective. The traditional organisational structure was top-down and pyramidal, the new is bottom-up and horizontal.’


It was clear in Identity that we don’t need a new Master Narrative like Marxism, Conservatism,pr Liberalism. But a ‘third point’ in which we can all believe sounds suspiciously like a Master Narrative.


‘Like many others, I too believed for a time that the disappearance of the Master Narratives was the reason for social disintegration. We thus had to look for anew Narrative. But I’ve since become convinced that this is not a good idea. On the contrary, what is characteristic of patriarchy in all its many variants is that it is based on Master Narratives that appease the people and keep them happy.

For the classical Master Narratives paradise is always in the hereafter. Whether it’s the workers’ paradise of socialism or the tax paradise of the neo-liberals: we all have to sacrifice ourselves for a goal that can only be achieved in the distant future. What I much prefer to see is people forming groups around a concrete common goal, which they pursue together and from which they also derive collective meaning. The new collectives are geared towards proximate, realisable goals. They focus on how we should regulate transport, take care of our children, generate energy together, produce the food we need.’



           Return (Darth Vader) or Change (Big Brother)?

Traditional patriarchal authority has more or less disappeared, together with our voluntary subjection to a number of conventions that were once part and parcel thereof. The effects are tangible on every possible level (emergency doctors and ticket inspectors know all about it). The quest for a solution is in full swing and has resulted thus far in two radically different responses.

The first response is a desperate attempt to return to the authority of yesteryear. This is doomed to failure because its foundations have disappeared. Power without authority, and thus with obligatory subjection, is on the rise in a number of sectors, including the economy, politics, education, and even healthcare. Our phobic concentration on Muslim terrorism is making us blind to an even greater threat that comes from within.

The second response is the promise of a new authority. ‘New’ here stands for a different foundation and modus operandi when compared with patriarchy. It may sound surprising, but I have a strong sense that the new authority will represent a radical turnabout. Instead of being shaped and determined by some unique, lofty instance, it will find its foundation in a horizontal surface, a group. Darth Vader makes way for Big Brother.



        From Father of the Nation to the (not so) Ideal Son-in-Law

Attempts to return to the former disposition are at their most striking in the world of politics. Every political party promises change, but once in power they insist that there’s no alternative. Politicians these days no longer look like fathers of the nation, but more like ideal sons-in-law who, after a while, turn out to be more interested in the family silver. Their failure is the failure of a superannuated system. When policy makers uphold this system nevertheless, a shift from authority to power occurs, with the accent on external control and compulsion. Political leaders reveal themselves to be rulers and are no longer the bearers of authority. Democracy seeps away on every said and dictatorial legislation increases – hence the ardent attempts of many politicians to justify what they are doing.

Such justification can only be achieved by pointing to an external foundation, because that’s the way authority functions. The Church as the most important pillar supporting patriarchy is more or less finished and is now aware of the fact. A new foundation for authority should not, in terms of priority, be open to discussion; rather it should engender as much certainty as possible.

Politicians in the meantime have discovered the new foundation: numbers! In the present disposition, every exercise of power goes hand in hand with references to figures. The ideal son-in-law turns out to be an accountant. A complaining public is showered with statistics making it evident that the proposed decision is the only one possible. The vast majority of policy meetings begin with spreadsheets, which are, indeed, difficult to argue with. Numbers reflect cold, objective reality; they’re neither right nor left because they’re based on scientific research, at least that’s what the accompanying message informs us.

Before I explore spreadsheets as the new source of authority, I would first like to focus attention on a twofold shift that takes place almost unnoticed when authority seeks its foundation in numbers. The first has to do with the person in authority: who is to designate the incarnation of the new authority? The second shift is even more important and has to do with the moral character of authority as such: which norms and values do the numbers represent?


         Gas Chambers, Gulags and Soup Kitchens

The first shift is the easiest to demonstrate. Traditional authority has a clear chain of command, whereby the highest person in authority carries most of the responsibility. Every link in the chain is a representative of patriarchal authority and is accountable, in principle, to the person above him. The fact that accountability can fundamentally miscarry from time to time does not detract from the clearly identifiable character of authority figures. In such a system, resistance is always able to turn to someone known to be a bearer of authority (the manager, the senior physician, the rector, the cardinal).

From the moment authority is based on statistics, the possibility of such focused resistance disappears. Numbers appear to live a life of their own inside digital bloodstreams based on inviolable algorithms. Every now and then they leave their subsoil and appear on a screen. Their manifestation engenders either enthusiasm or dismay among those who witness them, the latter, in both instances being nothing more than witnesses. There is little they can do. The required measures are already contained in the statistics themselves. Thinking out of box is inconceivable. You can’t dialogue with numbers, nor can you kick them out the door. Answering numbers with numbers means that one is turning within the same conceptual system. Authority is no longer incarnated in persons, it functions autonomously and anonymously. People these days can often be heard saying that ‘the system is to blame’. All we can do is bend to it.


This first shift – from a clear bearer of authority to an anonymous spreadsheet – facilitates a second shift, from a moral-ideological authority to a presumed objective authority, and conceals it at the same time. The most successful ideology is the one that knows how to make itself invisible, that can sell its ideological character as a so-called objective representation of ‘reality’.

Those who fall into this trap remain oblivious to a crucial fact. Authority is always rooted in moral positions on how the ideal relationship between parents and children, between men and women, between like and unlike should manifest itself. Such relationships are replete with norms and values and thus can never be grounded in objective knowledge. A shift from traditional authority to instrumental authority based on so-called scientific insights is flatly dangerous. In the last century, both German Nazism and Russian Communism tried to make such a transition. In both instances, the experiment quickly evolved into a totalitarian regime based on an instrumental rationality in which human beings were nothing more than statistics.

A similar shift is taking place today with an even greater risk attached and we are barely aware of it; even greater than the past century because the numbers today are incorporated into a digital bureaucracy. Sooner or later we all experience the following banality: a request made to an official instance cannot be answered in a self-evident manner because the answer itself is not anticipated in the digital processing of the request. A less banal example is the sending back of refugees ‘because the quotas have been reached’. The ultimate example is the replacement of a democratic government by financial centres that impose decisions autonomously and anonymously based on ‘the numbers’, whereby people of flesh and blood are reduced once again to mere statistics (‘the’ asylum seeker, ‘the’ unemployed fifty-year-old, ‘the’ single mother, ‘the’ entrepreneur). Weber’s iron cage is now a digital straightjacket, the impersonal and even inhuman character of which has increased exponentially. Computer says no.

Statistics as a source of authority might appear objective, but they’re not. Authority is always bound to moral themes, just like the human sciences in general – that’s why we call them human sciences. Their numbers are the result of prior choices: what do we ‘measure’ and ‘how’? Different interpretations of these questions render different statistics and lead to different ‘objective’ decisions.

A couple of examples might help illustrate the connection between authority, human sciences and moral themes. How do we study the development of a child? In function of which ideal? Not so long ago, humility was considered a virtue and self-promoting children were looked down upon. How should we organise our educational system? What kind of adults do we want to produce? Not so long ago we were set on the formation of critical citizens; now recent graduates are expected in the first instance to be ‘self operators’, ready at a breath to slip into the labour market. On what should we base the distinction between psychologically normal and divergent? On socio-economic criteria or on the wellbeing of the person concerned?  Which economic system should we choose (economics is not an exact science[1])? One that places the accent on growth or one that emphasises sustainability? How do we calculate profit and loss? Do we include environmental damage in the equation? What about the rise in the number of pollution-based cancers? What about the increase in government spending (of our tax money) on shared infrastructure? Or do we only account for the profit made by businesses and investors?

Different questions render different numbers and thus different policy trajectories based on different visions of human beings and society. Scientific methods in the human sciences may be objective, but that is not the case with respect to the set-up of a research project. The questions on the basis of which a study is conducted imply prior moral choices; always and without exception. The way in which a problem is formulated already steers our thoughts in the direction of the solution. The rabbit only appears from the hat because we hid it there in the first place. We lose sight of this when we become obsessed with the supposedly ‘objective’ numbers.

Disciples of the statistics cult tend indeed to be convinced that they are able to see ‘reality’ (I mean here the reality of our society) ‘as it is’, in contrast to previous generations whose vision of ‘reality’ was completely steeped in ideology,  a fact that led in the case of Nazism, to catastrophic consequences. The said disciples have liberated themselves from this perspective and see things as they really are; and those who follow them will have a hard time improving on their ideas.

Such timeless arrogance was formulated with the greatest clarity by the German philosopher Hegel. He claimed he was able to discern an inescapable evolution in history with a compelling internal logic pointing in the direction of a glorious final destination. The destination he had in mind was to be located at the beginning of the nineteenth century; after that more or less everything would continue unchanged. A similar position can be found in the more recent work of Francis Fukuyama, who likewise announced the end of history in 1992, after which we would all enter into a post-ideological paradise (Fukuyama has since revised his opinion).

The Nazis predicted a thousand year Aryan Reich, the Communists an endless proletarian paradise, and both were convinced that they represented the endpoint of the evolution. In its turn, the doctrine of the free market presumes that its vision is the only correct representation of ‘reality’ (‘there is no alternative’) and that its implementation will result in an entrepreneur’s paradise with prosperity (and democracy) for all.

Marxism had sufficient grasp of reality to mention the price tag: the proletarian paradise would only come after a period of ‘creative destruction’. It certainly lived up to that part of its promise. The same expression – creative destruction – was adopted by neo-liberalism, and has in the meantime been corroborated.

Nazism led to the gas chambers, Communism to the gulags, and neo-liberalism to the soup kitchens.

[1] Not even for Friedrich von Hayek, one of the pioneers of neo-liberalism. When he won the Nobel prize for economy, he devoted his entire acceptance speech to the subject (F. von Hayek, 1974). The opening paragraph immediately hits the nail on the head. Speaking as an economist and simultaneously confessing guilt he says:  ‘… as a profession we have made a mess of things,’ for which he lays the blame on ‘the pretence of knowledge’ (also the title of his speech). ‘It seems to me that this failure of the economists to guide policy more successfully is closely connected with their propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the brilliantly successful physical sciences – an attempt which in our field may lead to outright error’ ( laureates/1974/hayek-lecture.html). Forty years later, Ha-Joon Chang, professor of economics in Cambridge, said exactly the same thing – and a lot more – in his Economics: The User’s Guide published in 2014.



Translated by Brian Doyle