Part 6

Power, Politics, and Authority

Why do we need government? What is the purpose of politics? What would society be like without either of these institutions? The function of the government is to use laws and authority to set goals and make decisions on behalf of the population. In the United States, as in other nations, the President and other elected officials are legitimate authority figures who are given the power to make laws and enforce them. The political process provides a legitimate means of electing officials to govern and make decisions.

As we saw in the early stages of the war in Iraq, these social institutions played a special role in maintaining stability. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the Iraqi government, chaos erupted throughout the streets of Baghdad. Although Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator who used violence as a means of achieving his goals who deserved to be removed from power, his power and authority created order and stability throughout Iraqhe was considered a legitimate authority figure which the majority of Iraqis were subjected to. In order to maintain his power and authority, groups who threatened to revolt against Saddam’s Baathist Regime were forced to submit through violence and torture Shortly after the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the Iraqi government, chaos erupted throughout the streets of Baghdad. Although many Iraqis were glad to be rid of Hussein, many of them expressed years of pent up frustration by looting and rioting in the streets. One of the worst cases of looting was when people broke into the Iraq Museum in Baghdad which held priceless artifacts from the Mesopotamian civilization. Although many artifacts had been placed in storage before the war, there was a considerable amount of antiquities that were stolen.

German sociologist Max Weber was interested in power and authority. He defined power as the ability to control the behavior of others despite opposition. Weber said that the most direct source of power was coercion. In other words, governments use force or threat of force to keep the masses from revolting. This was certainly the case with Saddam’s government. Many Iraqis feared him for good reason. He used torture, secret police, mass murder, and chemical weapons to keep many Iraqis in fear of speaking out against him. Weber pointed out that governments which base their power on coercion were often unstable due to the fact that the masses are likely to form militant groups that fight back using violence as well. Other sources of power are include organization, mobilization, monetary rewards, prestige, land, knowledge, and charisma.

Weber pointed out that what legitimates a person’s power over another is authority. He believed that every society needs some form of authority in order to be stable and avoid conflict. He came up with three ideal types of authority:

  1. Traditional Authority. Stems from long held traditions of the past. Authority is usually passed down from generation to generation. Usually found in pre-industrial societies. (Monarchy)
  2. Charismatic Authority. Authority based on personal appeal. Charismatic leaders are great speakers who stir up strong feelings in the masses. (Gandhi, Hitler, Napoleon, Julius Caesar)
  3. Rational-Legal Authority. Based on rules (laws) and regulations. Found in modern societies. (Bureaucracies, U.S. Government, Constitution.

An ideal-type is meant to be used as a means of comparison. In England, for instance, there is a monarchy in place. However, they also elect members of Parliament and a Prime Minister, the source of executive power. Although England has a traditional monarchy in place, this political system is also based on Rational-Legal Authority because the Prime Minister and members of the Parliament are bound by a constitution or set of written laws.

Who has more power in society? According to C. Wright Mills, leaders of corporations, high ranking members of the military, and top-ranking government officials form an elite group of individuals who rule American society. This elite group of individuals set society’s goals and make decisions based on their own interests. Mills wrote a book called The Power Elite (1956) which outlined the true nature of power and authority in the United States. Below is an excerpt from his book which suggests that the true nature of power in modern societies rest in the hands of an elite group of individuals whose power is exercised mainly through the government, economy and military:

Families and churches and schools adapt to modern life; governments and armies and corporations shape it; and, as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends. Religious institutions provide chaplains to the armed forces where they are used as a means of increasing the effectiveness of its morale to kill. Schools select and train men for their jobs in corporations and their specialized tasks in the armed forces. The extended family has, of course, long been broken up by the industrial revolution, and now the son and the father are removed from the family, by compulsion if need be, whenever the army of the state sends out the call. And the symbols of all these lesser institutions are used to legitimate the power and the decisions of the big three.

What is interesting about this quote is that it supports the idea that the best interests of families are not always met by politicians, corporations, or members of the military. Instead, the family has had to adapt to modern life and the decisions of the “big three.” As you will see in the next section, the family is in transition today due to the changing nature of the economy and globalization.