Personal Authority and the Social Contract in the ‘Crisis of Freedom’

The concept of freedom, which has held sway in the West for at least the past 250 years and been a feature, particularly in the English-speaking world, for much longer, is now under attack on multiple fronts. There is the onslaught on the idea of free-will from the neurosciences and behaviourism, which advocate a wholly materialistic and deterministic understanding of conscious decision-making, even if the mechanism is not yet precisely understood. Then there are the multiple attacks on the ideas of political freedom and individual rights that have been paramount since the Enlightenment, from the identitarian left and various collectivist enemies of liberal democracy. Finally, there is the emergence of the digital state, combining advanced digital technology with the surveillance state, that is set to hold unlimited personal information about its citizens. It is not my purpose here to specifically address these issues, but to offer up a theory of freedom which establishes a rational and substantive concept of freedom in relation to the social contract, one that is both defensible and worth defending.

There are two main problems in regard to freedom. One is the nature of freedom itself; what the term actually denotes. Is it a feeling or a state of affairs? Is it an absolute or a relative value? Mapping the extension of its many meanings, connotations, conditions and consequences as they are generally found in discussion of the topic, leads to a maze in which the central concept begins to seem increasingly tenuous. The other is the limits of the freedoms enshrined in our documents and laws, such as freedom of speech and actions. Not everything that is legal is unproblematic; it is the problematic areas which are morally and politically contentious and of particular philosophical interest. A plausible theory of freedom should actually address the underlying connection of these problems and make a case that the idea of freedom is coherent, both morally and in law.

The Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin made a useful distinction between negative freedom and positive freedom (Berlin, 1969). This has become a standard distinction and, on the surface, it is a useful one. It enables us to discern a difference between freedom from such things as oppression, slavery, poverty, misery, ignorance, hunger – basically any type of negative circumstance – and freedom to do the things that make life worth living, such as choosing a career, choosing a mate, choosing a lifestyle, and all manner of leisure pursuits and possessions. It also pertains to a difference in political complexion between radical ideologies (including democracy), which tend to emphasise their function in promoting liberation or emancipation from all manner of evils, and contemporary liberal democracies with their market economies, which generally emphasise their strengths in providing their citizens with choice, although negative freedoms do make up some core claims of such societies, which have on the whole been rather good at ameliorating the evils of hunger, poverty (at least absolute poverty) and ignorance, though they have been rather poor at addressing the sense of meaning.

However, this distinction between positive and negative does not offer an understanding of what freedom as such actually is, whether and whereby the two forms are seen as manifestations of a single reality, or how one form can be transformed into the other. It is, in other words, an abstract categorisation. It also offers no account of how freedom arises and how it sustains itself, or what it means, fundamentally to be free. Or what the limits of freedom are. Hegel was the first to locate the quest for freedom in a social-historical metaphysics. Even critical rationalists, the arch opponents of such historicism, in offering the observation that freedom meaningfully cannot be self-undermining, imply that it is tied in to social processes, rather than being an abstract timeless facet of the human condition.

I want to recast the argument about negative and positive freedoms into one not about the liberation from various privations, but about the protection of a constitutional normative human state from the encroachment of powerful actors, in other words the condition of being able to act according to one’s fundamental desires with minimal interference, obstacle or impediment, which is taken as a basic definition of freedom. What that normative state is and what those fundamental desires are has been the subject of ethics and political philosophy from Plato and Aristotle onwards. Locke and Rousseau argued for forms of a social contract which underlies the forms of democratic government that exist today, based on their views of human nature. Under the three-pronged attack on freedom – from science, radical politics and the digital state – the idea of the social contract needs to be revisited and recast.

Unlike Hobbes pessimistic view of human nature as “the war of all against all”, which must be restrained by an absolute monarch, or Rousseau’s view of the innocent and peaceful state of nature before the arrival of civilisation, I believe there to be an unchanging set of fundamental human desires which transcends history, culture and the form of society, that can be characterised as the desires of the ordinary person, to live an unremarkable but authentic life, having a place to call home, having friends and family, someone to love, something to do, something to believe in and something to contribute. This is the basic template of a life that is given content and form by the particular geographical, historical, cultural and political circumstances into which a person is born and raised. It is this basic human condition, which we could also call the state of peace, that we desire to protect. Protecting what we value, can be inferred to be the most important foundation of freedom.

Frontispiece to Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’

While a detailed development of the various aspects of this concept of the basic template will have to await treatment on another occasion, it is important to establish the reasons why this state should be threatened. The first is environmental. Sheer necessity will drive one person to encroach on another’s territory, to take their life or enslave them in order to steal their land, provisions, people or possessions. The second factor (or group of factors) is largely cultural and economic; a culture that puts a premium on material wealth, but in which there are great disparities in wealth, a culture of envy in other words, is likely to be able to constrain social unrest and dispossession only through a complex system of laws, education and cultural norms. The third is when a powerful actor, such as a government, political faction or religion, promulgates untruths about a population, demographic group or social group in order to justify overriding the rights of individuals implicit in the basic template.

Just as the forms of encroachment on the basic template differ according to the level of development of society, so do the forms of protection. In all cases it is a form of power derived from nature and the social environment manifests as a social contract. The problem with the social contract in its classic formulation is that it assumes freedom as a given facet of individual human being – anarchic lawlessness in the case of Hobbes, a God-given right for Locke – which is partially traded for the security of the collective existence in society. This was a powerful argument in its time, enough to bring about a series of social revolutions that saw the establishment of modern democratic societies. It must now be improved upon and can be, I suggest, by accepting that human nature is irreducibly social, as well as individual; that the social contract has always existed in some form; and that the social contract evolves over time.1 The driver is the basic template and humans adapt to protect that according to the social and cultural level of development. Freedom is that space in which those fundamental desires can be realised, a space that must be negotiated through power, with power. The social contract is the form of human sociality that exists to protect our freedom, not something that is bought at the price of freedom.

It may well be that we have to abandon the idea of free will in light of modern science, at least in its naïve formulation. The forms of government that we refer to as democratic, based on the philosophical insights of the eighteenth century, will also change over time. However, fundamental human nature and desires, as encapsulated in the basic template, will not change. Attempts to suppress its realisation will drive social change, even revolution. While the future cannot be predicted, the positive development of the social contract must be towards the greater empowerment of the individual and a more decentralised, more limited state. If this is to emerge from the forms of society that we see today, in which the state is moving towards greater centralisation of power, there will need to be a subtle negotiation between the individual as the potential substantive good and the state as the collective abstract good. This, I will argue, is a state that emerges from the assumption of personal authority.  

The explicit comparison of freedom to forms of power has been undertaken, for example, by Pansardi (2012) and Morriss (2012), although has been implicit in much social science literature. In my view, freedom is more complex and conceptually elusive than power, a varying emotional response to having an existential or physical space (or spaces) in which one’s fundamental desires can be realised, but is closely connected to power as the means by which such spaces are negotiated, established and protected. The linking of freedom so closely to power substantialises the idea of freedom as an important sociological category and inoculates it somewhat against behaviourist, Marxist and postmodern identitarian critiques. The remainder of this essay will focus on an analysis of the nature of power, and its relationship to the ideas of authority and control.

I want to start by discussing two important theories of power and explain why they are problematic. The first is Max Weber’s theory that power is expressed hierarchically through social institutions. This of course is true and is manifest most directly in our experience of the bureaucratic functions of the state, in data collection and the regulation of all aspects of society. Though these functions were still fairly rudimentary in Weber’s own time in comparison with today, he was aware of the stultifying nature of the modern bureaucratic state, with its increasing mechanisation and rationalisation of process, that he referred to (Weber, 1958[1905]) as the “iron cage” (stahlhartes Gehäuse). Hierarchies are a feature of natural and human societies, but to understand human hierarchies only in terms of power is to mischaracterise them, for while they do represent a differential in power, they are also meant to differentiate competence; in a truly meritocratic society the most capable are supposed to rise to the top. As such, the purpose of a hierarchy of competence is to protect and benefit the entire ecosystem, not simply those at the top. Any hierarchy which is a manifestation of naked power actually represents a systemic failure.

The second theory of power is Michael Foucault’s assertion that all relationships are fundamentally and essentially relationships of power; we might say that power is ubiquitous and multi-directional, rather than, à la Weber, simply a top-down phenomenon. Foucault clearly draws on the neo-Marxist concept of ideological hegemony propounded by Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, in which populations are subconsciously socialised into a capitalist economy and mode of thinking by the manipulation of cultural values by the ruling classes and its institutional organs. Foucault’s concept of power, along with Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction theory, has directly influenced the current generation of critical theorists who are undergirding identity politics, such as the proponents of intersectional feminism, queer theory, postcolonialism and critical race theory.

Foucault has made an interesting contribution to our understanding of society, as clearly power is an aspect of all relationships. However, most of us would understand this to be a very impoverished understanding of the rich panoply of human relationships, reducing everything to power relationships; also, it conflates gentle forms of power, such as persuasion and influence, with stronger forms such as coercion and force. This is, incidentally, a common strategy of extremist thinking, to abolish nuance, in order that innocuous traits can be conflated with the most extreme.2 The problem lies in the lack of differentiation between power as such and other related terms, such as authority and control.

It is possible that power has sources in mystical or supernatural origins, but the only historically evidenced source is in physical and military prowess. All power was at one time consolidated in the most powerful warrior or general and this established the social hierarchy. All advanced societies passed through the stage of the centralisation of power in a single figure – king/queen or emperor/empress – before transferring that power to some form of governing body. Today states, rather than individuals, tend to have a monopoly on lethal power, but some powers have gradually been disbursed to individuals who are citizens of a state, such as the right to vote for the government of their choice. The route to a free society lies in the continual empowerment of the individual under the jurisdiction of the state. However, this process has stalled in recent decades, with government centralising powers which were formerly the provenance of local areas and individuals. It remains the case, though, that the source of power lies, ultimately, in the threat of violence, even as this is parlayed through the sway of the abstract state in all its many functions, a reality which has lead theorists, such as Bourdieu and Foucault to refer perceptively to “symbolic violence” (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977; Foucault, 1979).

This being said, I am not concerned primarily with power in this essay, which I view as a structural element of social reality, not, as the postmodern thinkers seem to do, as the essential nature of society and social relations. The understanding of empowerment hypothesised here as the basis of freedom through the social contract is rooted in the concept of the authority of the individual, rather than power as such, in which power plays a part in creating a role within a society, but a role which is substantialised, overlain and ‘tamed’ (I am unsure of the exact terminology to convey this meaning) by a set of personal skills, that I refer to generically as control. The authority that an individual holds, simply put, consists in a role that is conferred by society and the ability of the individual in that role to exert effective control.3 While authority can be variously defined, here it is understood in the sense in which we speak of an authoritative person.4 That means it is possible to state that individual freedom is rooted in personal authority and a free society is one that sanctions and enables the development of personal authority.

Unlike power, which is conferred and hierarchical, control is a manifestation of the personal charisma of the individual, which can be either innate or learned. While this charisma (as the name suggests) may in some sense be an ineffable quality, it has tangible dimensions through which control is exerted, principally through language: as the shaping and structuring of space (physical, social and behavioural) through creating boundaries; as the rhythmic structuring of time (through rhetorical devices, strategic planning and the continuity of contact with others) referred to as periodicity; and as the shaping and manipulation of images through rhetorical structure of the spoken and written word and through performative acts, known as symbolisation.5

Although there are individuals with an innate ability to exert a degree of control through force of personality or other natural characteristics, such as height or physical appearance, in all cases the ability to control effectively is going to be a manifestation of acquired abilities. This will depend, obviously upon the specific area of interest, but in general would include things like knowledge, productivity, experience and achievement. It is one of the facts of existence that there is not an equal distribution of natural talents, but a fair and just society will provide its citizens with the services, such as healthcare and education and training opportunities, that allow the flourishing of the individual and ensure than none are disadvantaged because of their background or identity. Such a society allows its citizens to build their individual foundation of authority and in the process limits its own power and the extent of its influence.

The nexus between power and control is directly in the performative role and there is a symbiotic relation between the two. The individual can negotiate with power, largely on the basis of the acquired abilities, thus finding a role through which they can exercise control. Having a role and exerting control are both necessary but insufficient conditions of having authority (and, therefore, freedom) in themselves, but only together. Simply having charisma but no position through which to exercise it is a limiting situation; having a position but no ability to persuade people on the basis of ability is, unfortunately, rather more common than it should be, and is a feature of nepotistic institutions.

The concept of negotiation with power is a deliberately prescribed virtue of an Aristotelian nature, lying as it does at the mean between the vices of passive acceptance of a role (we might say being handed a position on a plate without the requisite qualifications, which is a feature of corrupt institutions) and rebellion against authority, although it is also meant to be fairly expansive, in allowing for preference for the local and at-hand over the global and of permitting resistance to an unjust system. Negotiation can be relatively mild or very harsh, in other words.

In speaking of freedom, we are not speaking of unbridled freedom or unrestricted licence. To return to the logical requirement that freedom be self-replenishing rather than self-undermining, all rational societies and the states which govern them have understood that there must be limits to what people can do and say. I am troubled by the extreme polarisation around freedom of speech today, by the strictures of hate speech on one side and of the absolute right to offend on the other, both of which are open to abuse. While this must be solved at the level of policy, from a philosophical perspective I would say that the limit of freedom relates to the limits of personal authority. From a moral perspective, power and control should be kept in balance; in particular, power should not exceed the individual ability to exert control through, for example, persuading others. Suppression, coercion and abuse are clearly corrupt uses of power unrestrained by moral consideration of the other and are undermining of the general freedom of society. Demagoguery and ideological indoctrination of whatever sort, which polarises and prevents dialogue between people, should be banished in any reasonable society.

The social contract is not the surrender of freedom for the sake of belonging and security in the crowd, as social contract theoreticians such as Hobbes and Locke thought; it is the negotiation with power to secure the basic template of the human desires, through which the constituents of freedom can be secured. Freedom is a complex emotional response to circumstances. One can be legally a free agent, but in the jail of the mind; another can feel free, even in jail, if the requirements of the basic template are met. The social contract is an immoveable aspect of the human condition, but it has evolved over time. The struggle of the present and the foreseeable future is to further the process of the empowerment of individuals through negotiation with the state, a circumstance in which the state, as the abstract common good, must be required to allow and to facilitate, a process in which we move towards the apotheosis of personal authority and a benevolent and limited state.


1. The first iteration of the social contract was mere survival under the rule of the powerful. The second, the common law tradition, which granted liberty outside the constraints of the law. The third, the rise of the modern state, which has granted rights and benefits in return for compliance.

2. One can clearly see this tendency in identity politics, where opposition to identitarianism in any form is an invitation to widespread opprobrium. The belief in the ubiquity of undifferentiated power, ultimately legitimises the postmodern left’s use of coercive power and also leads to their denigration of democracy, erosion of democratic norms such as compromise, and characterising the right to free speech as hate speech, through the accusation of their being forms of privileged power.

3. The following notes are taken almost verbatim from my thesis, Modelling Institutional Values Transmission through a Comparative Case Study of Three Schools,, pp.190-191, and are the basis of the concept of authority and its relation to power and control used in this essay (Trubshaw, 2014).

Power has a number of manifestations, but in this model of authority, only two functions which are of importance: one is to create roles that function to distribute power; the other is to licence control. It is in the first of these functions of the role that power reveals its capacity to give rise to a self-replicating hierarchy, though one of vertically diminishing power. All power is symbolic and the appointment of someone to a role is a secular anointing accompanied by the symbolic trappings, such as the certificate, the office and the desk, for example. In developed economies appointments to important or professional posts are (in principle) made on the basis of having met certain formal requirements that demonstrate sufficient skill to carry out the role.

Once conferred, a role then gives the appointee the right in turn to confer power. A role, though, does more than just confer power; it also limits it through regulation (legal, organisational and ethical). The exercise of power takes two forms, that of empowerment and disempowerment. The role both empowers and disempowers and by empowerment confers the power to empower and disempower in turn, though the nature of the conferred empowerment and disempowerment may be curtailed by the limitations of the role. Whether and to what extent limited, however, the power to employ empowering and disempowering methods, known collectively as ‘power distribution’, to alter the dynamics of a system, is fundamental to a role and one of the four areas of control conceded to a role in an institution. It seems that this power – the power to distribute power – is reproduced throughout the hierarchy, and is not a form of control which is a feature of personal charisma.

Power distribution is not a creative shaping force as control is; it is essentially a reproduction of the forms of power being transmitted through the hierarchy, embodied in the assigned role. As discussed above, the role empowers through a certain space for action – a space in which charismatic control can be exercised – but also disempowers by placing limits on that space and curtailing the freedom to act by imposing mandatory requirements and responsibilities, prohibitions and taboos. Although the exercise of power distribution may appear to be undertaken spontaneously at each level, in reality the freedoms and limits imposed on a role in the hierarchy are determined higher up the hierarchy and manifest in the legal and bureaucratic burdens that accompany the role.

The exact relationship between power and control is complex, because control also involves the use of coercive force, if not physical force. Happily, such considerations lie outside the scope of this theory; in regard to the creation of personal authority, coercive force would be entirely unproductive. The forms of control that are of interest lie in a form of authority that transcends the role, which could be referred to as ‘character’, ‘personal magnetism’ or ‘charisma’, and for which the role is either unnecessary or necessary but not sufficient. (The latter seems intrinsically more realistic; even if an individual has personal magnetism, unless they have the authority to stand in a role, they cannot exercise this control in a formal setting.) Power creates the context in which control can be exercised and, in that sense, unleashes it, but it is not the origin.

4. The authoritative personality is recognised in psychology as being the most effective in parenting, teaching, mentoring and generally leading others, falling between the extremes of authoritarian and permissive personality types (Steinberg, Elmen, and Mounts, 1989).

5. Examples of how this theoretical model functions in real-world scenarios are given in my thesis, cited above.


Berlin, I., 1969, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J.-C. (1977). Reproduction in education, society and culture. (Trans. R. Nice). London: Sage Publications.

Foucault (1979). Discipline and punishment. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Morriss, P. (2012) What Is Freedom if It Is Not Power? Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, Vol. 59, No. 132, Freedom and Power Part II (September 2012), pp. 1-25

Pansardi, P. (2012). Power and Freedom: Opposite or Equivalent Concepts? Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, Vol. 59, No. 132, Freedom and Power Part II (September 2012), pp. 26-44

Steinberg, L., Elmen, J. D. and Mounts, N. S. (1989). Authoritative parenting, psychosocial maturity and academic success among adolescents. Child Development, vol. 60, no. 6

Trubshaw, D. (2014). Modelling Institutional Values Transmission through a Comparative Case Study of Three Schools (Thesis). University of Derby. Available at:

Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Trans. T. Parsons) New York: Scribner.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *