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Freedom versus authority?

What is happening in contemporary societies, interpreted according to a key duality of our modern times.

Freedom to undertake an enterprise, as well as to criticise, to change one’s mind, to develop oneself by following one path rather than the other, to express one’s opinion or disagreement. Key principles in any good society, as well as in any good production organisation. Freedom that, however, does not signify free will and even less the right to wreck everything. Freedom against authority, then, or freedom that, incorporating an appropriate degree of authority, can grow and become more powerful. A complex theme, no doubt, especially nowadays. This is why, a (careful) reading of La porta dell’autorità (Authority’s gateway), a book collaboratively written by Mauro Magatti (sociologist and economist, full professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan) and Monica Martinelli (associate professor at the same university) is very useful.

The book focuses on observing what happened in the past and what is happening today and starts from the consideration that challenging, to the point of rejecting, authority as a restriction to one’s freedom of self-expression is truly part of our late twentieth century’s heritage. A heritage whose weight is still felt today when the pillars on which authority stood – tradition, patriarchy, education, the Church – are being challenged. All in the name of asserting one’s individuality in a horizontal society without patriarchs or masters. Yet, the two authors explain how, just like the phoenix, authority is always rising from its own ashes, taking new forms that may be more fleeting and undefined but nonetheless equally effective. In other words, we are witnessing a proliferation of forces demanding the return of an authoritarian, tyrannical and conservative patriarchy or, in subtler and more insidious ways, of a technocratic dominion actually bent on taking us beyond the human condition as we know it, and there are also those who want to erect walls or others who, in the name of individual freedom, reject all obligations (including those related to the more tragic aspects of contemporary life).

According to the book, what we are experiencing pretty much everywhere today is the starkest – at least on the surface – conflict between freedom and authority (in terms of economy and production, too).

What can we do, then? Magatti and Martinelli are adamant: we cannot go back, rather, we need to move forward, finding new ways to conceive a duality that is as fundamental as it is complex. As the book very clearly explains, a world without authority is not possible, unless freedom is forfeited – a freedom whose limit becomes the source of action, contextualising the way we see the world. Namely, we need to re-establish a connection between generations, acknowledging the fact that authority is the juncture between those who were and those who will be (and not only in a temporal sense). In this way, authority can be seen like a gateway that, while framing and as such defining a direction, at the same time opens onto a future that does not yet exists but is forthcoming. A condition that, upon closer examination, applies to society as a whole as well as to its sections, such as institutions, businesses, groups. Magatti and Martinelli’s book makes for a challenging read that everyone should undertake.

La porta dell’autorità (Authority’s gateway)

Mauro Magatti, Monica Martinelli

Vita e Pensiero, 2021

What is happening in contemporary societies, interpreted according to a key duality of our modern times.

Freedom to undertake an enterprise, as well as to criticise, to change one’s mind, to develop oneself by following one path rather than the other, to express one’s opinion or disagreement. Key principles in any good society, as well as in any good production organisation. Freedom that, however, does not signify free will and even less the right to wreck everything. Freedom against authority, then, or freedom that, incorporating an appropriate degree of authority, can grow and become more powerful. A complex theme, no doubt, especially nowadays. This is why, a (careful) reading of La porta dell’autorità (Authority’s gateway), a book collaboratively written by Mauro Magatti (sociologist and economist, full professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan) and Monica Martinelli (associate professor at the same university) is very useful.

The book focuses on observing what happened in the past and what is happening today and starts from the consideration that challenging, to the point of rejecting, authority as a restriction to one’s freedom of self-expression is truly part of our late twentieth century’s heritage. A heritage whose weight is still felt today when the pillars on which authority stood – tradition, patriarchy, education, the Church – are being challenged. All in the name of asserting one’s individuality in a horizontal society without patriarchs or masters. Yet, the two authors explain how, just like the phoenix, authority is always rising from its own ashes, taking new forms that may be more fleeting and undefined but nonetheless equally effective. In other words, we are witnessing a proliferation of forces demanding the return of an authoritarian, tyrannical and conservative patriarchy or, in subtler and more insidious ways, of a technocratic dominion actually bent on taking us beyond the human condition as we know it, and there are also those who want to erect walls or others who, in the name of individual freedom, reject all obligations (including those related to the more tragic aspects of contemporary life).

According to the book, what we are experiencing pretty much everywhere today is the starkest – at least on the surface – conflict between freedom and authority (in terms of economy and production, too).

What can we do, then? Magatti and Martinelli are adamant: we cannot go back, rather, we need to move forward, finding new ways to conceive a duality that is as fundamental as it is complex. As the book very clearly explains, a world without authority is not possible, unless freedom is forfeited – a freedom whose limit becomes the source of action, contextualising the way we see the world. Namely, we need to re-establish a connection between generations, acknowledging the fact that authority is the juncture between those who were and those who will be (and not only in a temporal sense). In this way, authority can be seen like a gateway that, while framing and as such defining a direction, at the same time opens onto a future that does not yet exists but is forthcoming. A condition that, upon closer examination, applies to society as a whole as well as to its sections, such as institutions, businesses, groups. Magatti and Martinelli’s book makes for a challenging read that everyone should undertake.

La porta dell’autorità (Authority’s gateway)

Mauro Magatti, Monica Martinelli

Vita e Pensiero, 2021