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Power and Authority PDF Print E-mail


Politics, in its popular sense, is about power and the exercise of it (legitimate or otherwise).  A government without power is useless.  Power is the tool that enables rulers to achieve collective goals.  Talcot Parsons believed that the more powerful the government the more effective it was in achieving the goals of the community.  However, politics is more than the task of implementing collective goals.


Politics is inherently adversarial.  Power in this sense stresses the capacity to produce intended results.  It is the ability to get one’s way, to impose one’s agenda overcoming opposition.  Often those who possess and exercise power use/threaten the use of coercive measures to impose their will. This they must, when circumstances dictate for instance, in matters threatening national security.  The caveat, however, is if such coercion is heavy-handed, widespread, indiscriminate, frequent and ill perceived by the masses it lacks authority.  Consequently, many post World War II tyrants and military dictatorships have fallen as a result. While authoritarian regimes exercise the apparatus of the state to enforce state power upon the populace they do not have the legitimacy to govern.


Authority is the right to rule.  It involves the right to act based on an acknowledged duty of others to obey.  Many argue authority is the legitimate use of power.  Evidently, authority creates its own power base, as long as the people acknowledge the authority of the rulers and their right to make decisions.  Authority is the basis of representative democracy.  For instance, in the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system of government, authority to enact laws affecting the British public vests in the Queen in Parliament. In representative democracies legitimacy to govern is derived from the electorate exercising their right to vote for their choice of government. How truly representative are those governments in terms of their make up and the mode of the electoral process involved is another question.


Max Weber has provided an analytical classification of the different types of authority based on the different grounds on which obedience can be established.  To begin with, there is traditional authority, based on the sanctity of tradition/customs and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them.  Examples are the monarchies of the Middle East, where the entire administration operates on the principle of tradition and patriarchal authority.


Secondly, there is charismatic authority.  This is based on the intense commitment/devotion to the leader by the masses for his quality to inspire them to a cause/or to rise against oppression.  Charismatic authority can make tremendous/overwhelming impacts, appearing at times of crisis and upheaval but are often short-lived.  Perception of the leader goes hand in hand with his qualities.  Interestingly where the masses rise up against an authoritarian regime based on traditional authority it is the charistmatic authority of the leaders of the revolution that can unseat patriarchal authority.


Thirdly, there is legal-rational authority.  Here obedience is owed to accepted rules and procedures with elected representatives and government officials being acknowledged.  Max Weber believed that both modern bureaucracies and representative democracies derive their legitimacy from legal-rational authority.  This has the effect in theory, at least, of limiting the abuse of governmental power.

As is the situation in the Middle East (amongst them Yemen, Syria and Bahrain) and North Africa (formerly Libya, Egypt and Tunisia). When millions of citizens demonstrate on the city streets demanding political pluralism in place of authoritarian/dynastic rule the dictatorship loses its legitimacy to govern over them. While use of lethal force against unarmed protestors by autocratic regimes may be argued by them as use of State power in defence of their National Constitution by no means whatsoever is such use of deadly force legitimate nor for that matter can it be argued as a constitutional use of State power. A constitution reflects the democratic will of the citizens of a State. The use of State power to crush a popular uprising against entrenched autocratic rule can never be legitimate or constitutional. These despotic regimes must give way to the democratic will of the citizens for in them resides the political sovereignty of the State. An unfortunate consequence of these brutal clampdowns is interference by foreign governments in the internal affairs of sovereign States.


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