Recognizing Authority, Acknowledging Power

Concepts of control in Kojeve and Arendt, Part III

Below is the final segment of a three-part series adapted from a final paper for Sociology of Power and Authority at UVA.

Having worked through the writings of both Kojève and Arendt, each of which endeavored to provide a thorough grounding in a comprehensive schematic of authority and power, it is important to place the two thinkers in dialogue. While Kojève identified four pure types of authority, and Arendt emphasized the significance of properly defining the terminology of power, both offer an interesting analysis of revolution and defiance, as well as the place of violence in authoritarian structures, that draw on a similar philosophical grounding. Kojève doesn’t attempt to disentangle synonymous terms meant to convey political control, but instead focuses on constructing a cohesive analytical scaffolding describing differing modalities of authority and their respective theoretical justifiers. His four pure types of authority correspond to the material reality of political power (in a non-Arendtian sense), comprising variations of authority through the combination of different modes.[1] His conception of the relationship between force and authority, however, corresponds almost exactly with the theoretical import of Arendt’s political philosophy. Kojève’s identification of the binary, conflicting nature of force and authority, with true authority destroyed by the uninhibited use of force, mirrors the Arendtian frame; both thinkers have developed a theory of authority and power that denies the ability to conflate those categories with the instrumentalization of abject and unmediated violence. Rather, in both of their theoretical projects, violence and power (or force and authority in Kojève’s terminology) exist at opposite ends of the spectrum of legitimate domination: power and violence sometimes meet in unison, achieving discreet political objectives, but violence in and of itself cannot create, sustain, or, in the final event, preserve an apparatus of power that is not intrinsically based on the validity of public assent. While Kojève orients this understanding in a Hegelian language of mutual recognition, Arendt achieves much the same end in her promotion of communication and collective agreement to a preeminent status in the hierarchy of steps needed for constituting and conserving institutions of power.

Related to their treatment of violence and power is their understanding of the potential for revolutions, erected upon the theoretical foundations of their conception of recognition and acquiescence. Both Arendt and Kojève accept, and indeed at times predict, the possibility of revolt against a prevailing authoritarian power structure, but Arendt is the only one of the two who offers a more complete theory of revolution, and involves her analysis of the role of minorities in majoritarian systems. Because of power’s reliance on assenting numbers to give it the guise of command and jurisdictional supremacy, the relationship between minorities and majorities can be fraught with conflict and suppression, a state of enmity more fully examined in her discussion of strength. [2] Nevertheless, the minority can play a defining and destabilizing role when actively opposed to the dictates of power, and the result of their opposition is contingent upon the reaction of the majority themselves, who are responsible for upholding and maintaining the authoritarian status quo. [3] A minority is only successful, and this is a critical point, when their defiance is paired with an explicit or implicit appeal to members of the majority, engaging them in an act of public discourse and ideally creating the conditions necessary for the construction of democratic will-formation directedagainst the prevailing system of power. [4] The potential impact of a minority, then, is not quantitatively but qualitatively defined, their possible sphere of influence enlarged as their appeals and criticisms are recognized as more valid than those offered by the institutions of political authority and apparatuses of power. [5] What remains to be seen, however, is how this dynamic, between authority and those subjected to it, is mediated within the concrete reality of the modern nation-state and its attendant instruments designed to ensure obedience; in what ways are rejection and nonrecognition expressed by a discreet populace in constant contact with potentially repressive organs of state control?

Didier Fassin’s Enforcing Order, an excellently researched and written ethnography of the urban French police force, allows for the application of both Kojève and Arendt’s philosophical projects onto the lived reality of authoritarian systems, revealing the complex and constant negotiations of legitimacy involved and the ever-present threat of their negation. As a routine and relatively conspicuous expression of control, the use of violence by the police, an institution emerging from the power of the state and imbued with the Arendtian concept of authority, offers an illustration of the ways in which power contributes to the process of its own delegitimizing.[6] While Fassin devotes the bulk of his text to specific interactions between the members of the police and the population policed by them, as well as the overarching policing mentality of his subjects, he notes in his conclusion the potential ramifications of the unbridled use of militarized force visited upon a domestic civilian constituency. [7] The constant, aggressive patrols by the Parisian police actually produce the opposite effect that they intend; instead of reducing crime, and inherently reiterating the validity and scope of the political power of the French state, they instead decrease it.[8] A collective emotion of public resentment emerges, and disorder becomes evermore provoked; failed by their institutions, and indeed actively harmed by them, the residents lose confidence in the structures of state order, “which they see not as serving but, on the contrary as contributing to their stigmatization.”[9]

Fassin illustrates the actions that inaugurate the gradual erosion of authoritarian legitimacy through the material interactions between abusive police and abused populace, underscoring the theories advanced by Arendt and Kojève. But more than that, Fassin brings into focus the repressive dynamics of minority/majority relations, which are a necessary component of investigating the means by which authority is allowed to retain its oppressive character. While the residents of the banlieu have lost their sense of connection, and hence conscious and willing subjugation, to the mechanisms and modality of authority itself, the French state remains a robust institutional apparatus. This seemingly incongruous fact is reconciled with the models of Arendt and Kojève when one recognizes that the police are allowed, indeed enabled, to continue their abuse by the tacit consent or antipathy by the majority[10] The minority is essentially sacrificed to the continuation and maintenance of the status quo in furtherance of the interests of the majority; the former have failed in their communicative act, or are unable to gain the dialogic traction necessary to expand the base of their support. The prevailing norms of the sociopolitical power structure inhibit the minority’s ability to agitate and activate the negative potentiality of the whole, remaining relegated to the margins and hence at the will of an authority’s legitimate repression. That this repression is seen as unethical or immoral inherently presupposes the ideological nature of the authority itself; but ideology can be slippery, and normative democratic-republican ideals do not inherently suffuse its ideological content.

The analytical landscape of ideology is not addressed by either Kojève or Arendt’s work, with radical implications for their analytical conclusions. Neither author addresses, nor even contemplates, the issue of interpellation, and its retarding effects on engendering the critical distance from regimes of power necessary for the conscious rejection of their legitimacy. Louis Althusser’s brief text On Ideology provides perhaps the most famous exposition of the quality and nature of interpellation, which Fassin relies upon in his own ethnographic exegesis. [11] Interpellation, in Althusser’s conception, provides the mechanism for constructing an individual’s own sense of himself qua individual, ensconced within a dominant ideological framework and defined by that framework’s ethical, moral, and ideational norms. [12] The subjects recognize themselves as subjects through the process of recognition as such by the apparatus of power; their conception of themselves as individuals is predicated first by their being recognized as individuals by systems of authority, imbuing them with a sense of individuality that is given by their category as “subject.” [13] The process and practice of interpellation, of recognizing the individual as subject at the same time as the subject recognizes himself in his very subjectivity, is performed daily on the streets of Paris and in the urban “jungles” of the economically depressed, ethnic ghettos of the banlieus. The practical effect of this interpellating activity removes, in a very real sense, the possibility of authority negation envisioned by Arendt and Kojève; as subjects structured at their core by the dominant systems of repression and surveillance, they lose their ability to extrapolate their selves from the clutches of the very authority they seek to escape. Through ideological hegemony, deployed throughout society and embedded in individual consciousness through Foucauldian disciplinary institutions, the potentiality of producing the ideal public-political communicative arena and the formation of a truly legitimate authoritative structure is lost, its likelihood eliminated from the very beginning. Arendt and Kojève seem to have no antidote to authority’s ability to entrench itself through ideology.

The philosophical excurses of both Arendt and Kojève offer a coherent framework with which to analyze varying manifestations of authority and power, both in the abstract and in the material world. Notably, both describe the binary, oppositional elements of authority and violence, noting the slow erosion of the former with the disproportionate application of the later. This analysis of erosion, in turn, brings them to perhaps their most interesting, and indeed their most theoretically significant, conclusion, that authority and power are dependent in the first instance on a conscious recognition and a freely given renunciation of resistance by those upon whom authority is wielded. This element of their conceptual architecture allows them to then insert the liberating potential inherent within their schematics, mainly that of revolution and the always present possibility of a fundamental restructuring of the nature of power; for Arendt, this analysis intrinsically entails a communicative speech act and the exposure of a public will, separate and uninfluenced by the prevailing power structure itself. Kojève similarly recognizes the existence and capacity of a concept of general will, but declines to imbue it with the constitutive and normative character given to it by Arendt. Fassin’s ethnography puts these theories into a material context, demonstrating both the strength of their theoretical precepts as well as an area of blindness, ignoring the influence and effect of ideology in strengthening and sustaining authoritarian systems. Throughout, however, both Kojève and Arendt insist on the fundamental significance of a singular element: the import inherent in the recognition and acquiescence to the existing institutions of power. Without that fundamental act of recognition, authority collapses in on itself, devoid of content and control; power, they seem to say, grows not from the barrel of a gun, but from a chorus of voices, all assenting or opposing the authority they face.

Eli Weiner is a Fourth-Year in the University of Virginia’s History honors program. His research focuses on the intellectual history of late-Victorian Britain, emphasizing the relationship between historical thought and efforts to reconfigure the structure of the British Empire. 


[1] Kojève, 29.

[2] Arendt, On Violence, 44.

[3] Arendt, On Violence, 42.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hannah Arendt, Crises in the Republic, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Company, 1972), 56.

[6] Didier Fassin, Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing, trans. Rachel Gomme, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 129.

[7] Fassin, Enforcing Order, 221.

[8] Fassin, Enforcing Order, 222.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Fassin, Enforcing Order, 6-7.

[12] Louis Althusser, On Ideology, (London: Verso, 2008), 44.

[13] Althusser, On Ideology, 47-48.


Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. On Ideology. London: Verso, 2008.

Arendt, Hannah. Crises in the Republic. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Company, 1972.

——————-. On Violence. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, 1970.

Fassin, Didier. Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing. Translated by Rachel Gomme. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Habermas, Jürgen and Thomas McCarthy. “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power.” Social Research 44, no. 1 (Spring 1977): 3-24.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action: Lifeworld and System, a Critique of Functionalist Reason vol.II. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.

Kojève, Alexandre. The Notion of Authority. Edited by François Terré, translated by Hager Weslati. London: Verso, 2014.

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