That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. – Noam Chomsky
I was eleven when I stopped believing in god. I have a vivid memory of the feeling. It was existentially disorienting. It was like I had stopped clinging to the side of a cliff and I was in free-fall. If there was no god, who was in charge? It was as though I’d uncovered a deep secret that no one around me talked about. It was something I’d kept to myself for a long time. I grew up in the Deep South and though my immediate family wasn’t particularly religious (though we did attend church every Sunday), my extended family and the community at large certainly were.
After really letting it sink in, the initial terror of free-fall turned into a liberating weightlessness of being. After all that effort clinging to the side of the cliff, clinging to a set of prescribed beliefs, a view of order, the universe, power, and authority, with the flick of a mental switch it just… vanished. It was at this inflection point that the seed was planted for my life-long appreciation of existential absurdism and Epicureanism, two thought systems deeply rooted in the meaninglessness of gods.
It was the first time in my life that I realized how deeply I could internalize authority and power structures that were presented to me as natural and true from birth. It seems this exploration will continue as a life-long pursuit of introspection and self-discovery, with an intention to continue questioning my assumptions here as well.
It should come as no surprise with a blog named nomasters that I might have a particular point of view on authority and power structures. This post is meant to be an informal exploration of what the role of power structures conceptually means to me, as well as to track a bit of my journey through the inflection points in my life where rejecting authority has worked in my favor (and at times fundamentally changed my perception of reality).
Authority, as described on Wikipedia, is “…a concept used to indicate the foundational right to exercise power…” Authority manifests itself in many forms. Some authority claims are grandiose, as expressed in many religions where the claim to power encompasses the universe and beyond. Some authority claims are bound to geography, and economic systems, as in the nation-state (or coalitions of nation-states). Others are narrowly focused in context such as a police officer, a school principal, a boss, or a parent. These authority claims many times incorporate a time component as well. In the case of religion, some might claim eternal authority, while a substitute teacher might claim authority in the context of the classroom over a single school day.
As one who dabbles in anarchist thought, I’d quickly found the useful tool of questioning authority. It’s useful as a thought experiment and is something I’ve used personally to help me come to terms with my disbelief in god. For me, the question of god came down to my comfort level for living with the fundamental questions of the universe with the idea of “it seems we just don’t know”. It seems that the concept that we either “don’t know” or “may never know” why things are the way they are, and the idea that “no one is in charge” is so terrifying to some folks that we go to great lengths to explain away the seeming order of the universe by putting a god in charge. Once I let go of the folklore, I made room to get comfortable with internalizing that “not knowing” is part of the journey, and that to claim “we know” or “we might know” or “we think we found a path to knowing” should be kept at a very high standard. Brushing up against an “I don’t know” is important in the practice of introspective honesty, and it is a feeling I’ve come to cherish.
When I really accepted “we don’t know, and that’s ok”, god was no longer necessary for my mental model of the universe, so over time, the thought of god grew smaller and smaller until eventually, long periods of time went by without my mind even thinking about it. And what do I think about instead? Anything.
But this goes much further than that. If questioning the existence of god has led to organized religion losing power over me, what other fallacious authority structures exist that can be dismantled?
- Maybe you also have lingering questions about your relationship with religion.
- Maybe a family member still tries to exact control over you, even into adulthood.
- Maybe you’ve accepted a career path that you’ve been told is practical, but it makes you miserable.
- Maybe you’ve internalized the patriarchy, and its household expectations or gender roles aren’t in alignment with your personal identity.
- Maybe you’re not happy with how your government is doing things and you want to see what it might be like to live elsewhere.
- Maybe you suspect that state capitalism, propped up by back-room deals with nation-states and international corporations, isn’t serving us well.
Questioning fundamental assumptions, especially when it comes to authority systems, is a subset of a larger game I like to call “thinking dangerously”. Let the mind wander free. Entertain ideas that might be radically different than your own. Read works from thinkers on ideas that might challenge your own ideas. Entertain conflicting ideas. Poke holes in the assumptions you may have formed without thinking.
Questioning authority represents a sort of introspection that includes societal structures in the thought process.
I have a theatre degree with a focus on design and technology. I’ve worked (in this order) as: an improv teacher, a book store clerk, a copier salesman, an AV technician, a film post-production sound editor, a PC/printer/scanner hardware repair tech, an IT consultant, a CTO at a series A funded startup, and now I work remotely (from Costa Rica) part-time, on my own terms, operating as a contractor focused on cloud infrastructure, programming, and data pipeline work.
I’ve had an unconventional career path that’s given me the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting folks, and write and speak along the way. My modus operandi is that I know I’m in the right place if I’m working on interesting problems. It has allowed me to follow a path that has been deeply rewarding and would have come as a complete surprise to the version of myself just graduating from college. I think this has been possible, in part, due to the fact that I continuously try to question some of the self-imposed authority and power structures that I seem to internalize.
- I don’t have the right degree.
- I should have started down that path earlier.
- I have to live in a tech city to stay relevant.
Each time I hit one of these inflection points, I’d work hard to poke holes in my preconceived notions. I’d look for examples of folks who’ve been unconventional successes. If I couldn’t find a good reason why I couldn’t try going down a path I found deeply interesting, I’d simply give it a try. It hasn’t always worked out, but I’ve always learned something valuable along the way.
a parent and authority figure
As a parent of a two-year-old, I’m in a position of authority. To apply the Chomsky litmus to this role, the burden is that as the parent, the life of my child is positively influenced by the power position I hold. My wife and I spend time nurturing a newer member of the human species. At our child’s youngest and most vulnerable stages in life, my wife and I claim the most authority over this other human’s life. With development, my role should naturally shift. As she gains more autonomy, my authority should diminish until eventually my authority ends as she becomes an autonomous adult. At this point, my authority is no longer legitimate and it is dismantled.
Emma Goldman said it best, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Actionable philosophical systems have a sort of folk-honesty about them that makes them fun to use. When it comes to authority, for me, brutal honesty is the key. I like to dig deep and explore the nature of power structures and see where I come out on the other side. Sometimes it leads me to “I don’t know”, sometimes it leads me to deeper research, and sometimes it leads me to big changes.
I’ve never regretted dismantling a fallacious authority in my life. I’ll continue putting effort into chipping away at the ones I hope to be rid of one day (and I hope you will too).