"I follow Erich Fromm in distinguishing carefully between rational, irrational and anonymous modes of authority. These modes of authority are described in three of his books; Escape from Freeedom (1941), The Sane Society (1955) and The Art of Loving (1956). . .
Let us start with rational authority. According to Erich Fromm, rational authority is a relationship between two (or more) people of unequal age, experience or status, where the person in authority seeks to abolish their differences in status eventually by bringing the student up to his (or her) own level (Fromm,1941, p. 186.) The person in authority here is recognized as someone who possesses knowledge rooted in their training and experience, or "expertise," and is therefore authorized to set goals and standards that students must strive to emulate. While equality is the ultimate goal of rational instruction, the achievement of such equality presupposes respect and discipline on the student's part. In order to master a skill or a body of knowledge, the pupil must follow the master's instructions, and practice diligently. The teacher, in turn, must teach by example, providing a model for the student of how to practice, and derives satisfaction from the student's progress, because it confirms his knowledge and ability. In the event that the student matches or exceeds the master's level of knowledge and proficiency, the friction of competing egos is presumably contained and diffused by a disinterested love of the craft that they both share.
To summarize, then, rational authority is based on competence, experience and mutual respect, and entails the possibility of equality, and indeed, perhaps, of deep and sustaining friendships, depending on circumstances. By contrast with rational authority, irrational authority is designed to perpetuate or intensify conditions of inequality through the use of force, or the threat of force, and/or the use of deception, secretiveness and/or the manipulation of interpersonal relationships. Though often disguised as benevolent paternalism, such authority is really motivated by greed, fear and/or the desire to dominate and humiliate others. Instead of teaching by example, it is blatantly hypocritical, saying: "Do as I say, not as I do." Those who embody and exercise irrational authority feel threatened by the prospect of genuine equality, and habitually distort the truth, though they may enjoy a kind of sordid intimacy with others--which Fromm variously called "sadomasochism" or "symbiosis"-- to alleviate their loneliness and to consolidate their hold on power. So while rational authority promotes the growth of reason, or critical thinking, and of ethical autonomy, irrational authority tends to stifle intellectual independence and sound ethical judgment, though it may promote the acquisition of certain adaptive skills, and a kind of cunning or facile intelligence.
Now consider the disparate meanings which words like "mastery", "obedience" and "disobedience" have, depending on whether they are invoked with reference to rational or irrational authority. For rational authority, "mastery" signifies a degree of knowledge, skill or self-command achieved through disciplined and dedicated effort, usually with the help of a "master" who consents to share his accumulated wisdom. Indeed, that is his primary function and raison d'etre . In this context, obedience to authority entails a commitment, not to the teacher qua teacher, but to the craft or discipline, and the goal of becoming a skilled practitioner in one's own right. Disobedience, by contrast, denotes an act or state of immaturity, because when voluntarily embraced, rational authority promotes gradual progress towards equality and autonomy.
When applied to the exercise of irrational authority, however, the word "mastery" means dominance, plain and simple. Dominance of this kind is sustained through force, intimidation or deception, rather than moral authority. Here obedience to authority means abject servility, which erodes the person's self-respect - although this fact need not be conscious, particularly when this servility is disavowed or covered up by neurotic pride and/or compensatory tendencies to idealize "the master." Conversely, disobedience in this context signifies a healthy attempt to sunder the bonds of oppression that masquerade as disinterested care and guidance.
Before we discuss anonymous authority, note that the concepts of rational and irrational authority Fromm outlined do not hinge on the content or domain of knowledge that is sought. On the contrary, it hinges on how that knowledge, skill or experience is imparted. In other words, it denotes what Fromm called a mode of relatedness between teacher and pupil. This is extremely important, because during the Enlightenment era, and much of the 19th and 20th century, spiritual or religious authority was construed by "progressive" thinkers as the very embodiment of irrationality, while science was thought of as inherently "rational."
Fromm did not think that way at all. Before training as an analyst, Fromm considered a career in the Rabbinate, and was not naive or narrow minded enough to embrace this positivistic way of framing these issues. Even if he had been, fascism shattered that misconception, at least for Fromm and his contemporaries. After all, Hitler and his followers espoused a virulent irrationalism combined with an unbridled enthusiasm for science and technology. The two are quite compatible, as Theodor Adorno, and Zygmunt Baumann never failed to point out. (1)
Anyway, to repeat, rational and irrational authority are not domain or content-specific. Whether the subject being taught is botany or the Bible, cosmology or cooking, dentistry or Divinity, a teacher may address his or her pupil in a manner that embodies rational or irrational authority --or both, in some measure. Whether, or to what extent, rational or irrational authority are ascendant depends on cultural norms and on the style and personality of the teacher. And despite their manifest differences, rational and irrational authority share one important similarity. Unlike anonymous authority, rational and irrational authority engage those affected by them in a highly personal manner. As Fromm noted in Escape From Freedom:
In external authority it is clear that there is an order and who gives it; one can fight against the authority, and in this fight personal independence and moral courage develop. But . . . in anonymous authority both command and commander have become invisible. It is like being fired at by an invisible enemy. There is nobody and nothing to fight back against (Fromm, 1941, p.190).
So unlike rational and irrational authority, where differences in power, knowledge or status are freely acknowledged, or even rigidly insisted upon, anonymous authority is an attitude that fosters conformity or compliance that is diffusely present in groups of nominal equals. It is not backed by overt demands, or by threats and coercion. It manifests itself as bureaucratic anonymity or slack conformity in groups whose members share a collective identity, or a common project, but lack a deeper communion with each other, resulting in a perpetual sense of insecurity; a fear of being isolated, or merely "different." The consequent reliance on convention and public opinion, rather than on genuine principle, tends to erode the growth of humanistic conscience, rendering those subject to it prone to apathy or opportunism (Fromm, 1941, chapter 7). And unlike rational authority, which tries to raise the inexperienced or untutored mind to new levels of competence, anonymous authority tends to drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator.
Another crucial difference between anonymous authority and other varieties is that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. In Escape From Freedom, Fromm traced rational and irrational authority back to feudalism and the early capitalist milieu, when the modern university first took shape. Many of the customs, conventions and norms of academic life that emerged then persist, in attenuated form, today --more so in older universities that are conscious of their history and traditions. But increasingly the attitudes and expectations of those bygone eras are morphing into different rituals or attitudes, or merely crumbling in the tide of anonymous authority.
Fromm discussed anonymous authority in Escape From Freedom, noting that that this, and not the fascist mentality, is the mentality that is characteristic of industrial democracies. But Fromm's focus in that book was the eclipse of rational authority under fascism, so it was not until Man For Himself (1947) and The Sane Society (1955) that Fromm addressed anonymous authority with the seriousness it deserves. In Man For Himself, Fromm attributed the diffusion of anonymous authority to the growing impact of the market place on human values and behavior. Why? Because unlike a country fair or a medieval market, the modern market is not a place of meeting - a place where consumers know the producers of goods, appraise their wares carefully, and negotiate directly. In modern (or "mass") markets, producers and consumers are utterly disconnected from each other, encircled on either side by armies of "middle men" whose market machinations out the price and destination of commodities entirely beyond the control of producers and consumers alike. Moreover, in mass markets the packaging, presentation and advertising of goods assumed unprecedented importance. Since they cannot trust individual producers, whose work and products they know intimately anymore, people tend to rely on brand names and labels, and in due course, image and perception overshadow reality in the judgment of most consumers.
While preferable to fascism, obviously, anonymous authority poses formidable threats to democratic norms and institutions. Why? Because it erodes our capacity to think critically, and then to act on our thoughts and convictions. And by critical thinking, Fromm meant the capacity for "rational doubt" - or healthy skepticism - not intelligence as measured by I.Q. tests. According to Fromm, a person can be highly intelligent, highly successful and still lack the ability to think deeply, freed from conventional prejudices and beliefs. The primary prerequisite of critical thinking is an emotional ability to question prevailing beliefs and practices, which requires moral courage, and a willingness to court disapproval or punishment (Fromm,1955, pp.64-66, pp.152-155). And this sort of clarity and courage are discouraged by prevailing cultural trends and expectations. In effect, Fromm said that by eroding our powers of judgment and action, anonymous authority was transforming active, responsible citizens into mere consumers."
Daniel Burston, "Modes of Authority and the Crisis of Higher Education"