Authority in the Wrong Hands? By Leila Dawney.
In a recent article in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, I discussed the idea of the “interruption” as a mode of interrogating the power structures that worked to produce our subjectivity, and in particular our affective responses to particular situations. The interruption, I argue, is a way of recognising the “somatisation of politics and its emergence as feeling”. It “enables us to position ourselves as critics of the politics of our own bodies, asking questions of the modes of productive power that give rise to bodies that experience historically specific affective responses… Attention to the interruption can reveal something of these processes of subjectivation, providing a way of considering how the body’s affective responses to particular situations contribute to, reinforce, and at times disrupt the political and material rationalities of its own production”.
I want to bring this methodological approach to bear on the analysis of authority, specifically with reference to a recent incident that happened to me and to which I had a quite profound affective response. After critical reflection and interrogation of this response, both in dialogue with others and alone, I came to realise that the profundity of the response that I experienced was absolutely concerned with the relationship to authority that was at the heart of the situation. In short, my response was extreme and negative precisely because authority was seen to be “in the wrong hands”.
The Authority Research Network (ARN) has argued that authority is a specific type of power, and moreover, it is a type of power that can be positive and productive of community and a sense of common life. It is legitimated power, legitimated through a relationship of “bestowing – we give authority to others whom we trust. Institutions are thus granted the authority to inform us, lend us money, police and govern us. Arendt writes that authority cannot be forced, and when it is, it becomes something quite different, and no longer can claim to be that positive force that holds us together. Elsewhere, we have argued that authority is plural; it proliferates. The state as sovereign authority is accompanied by myriad other subjects and forms of authority. As neoliberalising forces erode the authority of the state, a “privatisation” of authority is seen to occur. Louise Amoore, too, discusses how increasingly the knowledge that supports state authority is generated by private consultants. What I want to discuss in this paper, however, is a specific devolution of state authority into private hands that changes the relation of authority from one that is bestowed and trusted to one which may be seen as an abuse of trust and potentially damaging to citizenship.
In 2012 the wheel clamping of vehicles on private land was outlawed. Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the Home Office minister, who was responsible for these changes, was quoted as saying, "This common-sense ban will give motorists the protection they deserve against rogue wheel-clamping and towing companies. "It will save motorists £55m each year in clamping charges and finally penalise the real criminals - the corrupt firms themselves."
Local Transport Minister Norman Baker said: "These new parking arrangements deliver a fairer legal framework for motorists and landowners, while getting rid of the indiscriminate clamping and towing by private companies for good" (BBC News, 1/10/2022). Similarly, the Daily Mail described clamping firms as “cowboys” and “criminals”. Rather than doing clamping firms out of business, however, they are now transferring their attention to public roads, by entering into partnerships with public bodies in order to enforce parking and road tax violations.
I recently bought a vehicle. A few days later I walked out of my door at 8:00 am to find that it had been wheel clamped, and a large yellow sign left on it, informing me that it was untaxed. I had to buy a tax disc that day, and get a lift to a car pound 10 miles away and pay a £100 fine in order for the clamp to be released. When arriving at the pound, I saw that the portacabin was run by “SIC services”, who were “working in partnership” with the DVLA, the government vehicle licensing organisation. Also in the portacabin were others in a similar situation, whose vehicles had been clamped. The assistant who took my money was behind a glass screen. My excuse that I was waiting for my ownership documents to come through was not going to wash here. My clamp was duly released on receipt of the fine. A few days later I received a fixed penalty notice from the DVLA, asking for another fine for the lack of vehicle tax which was separate from and unconnected to the fine paid to the clamping contractor. I reacted with anger, frustration, a sense of injustice and unfairness. It hit me hard. The manner through which the law had been enforced on this occasion led to my (possible over-) reaction. I was clearly in the wrong, and ignorance was no defence, but there was something about the turn of events that brought this reaction above the standard level of frustration that one might expect in these sort of situations. I decided to treat this response as an intellectual exercise, to consider where it came from and what was going on to produce these feelings, these emotions and this physiological response in me. I wanted to use this incident to think much more widely about power and authority, and on the relationship between state and citizen, between bodies and materials, between institutions and subjects.
The DVLA use of private enforcement companies to clamp or tow vehicles appeared to me to be about authority being in the wrong hands. Since government ministers had spoken publicly against the aggressive tactics of such companies, it seemed even more unfair that these companies should profit from an event that seemed to me to be a matter between myself and the state. My feeling that the (untrustworthy) enforcement company was given unfair authority by the DVLA as representative of the state speaks of a particular understanding of citizenship, and of the relation between state and individual whereby the authority to maintain social order is willingly ceded to, and placed in the hands of those whom we trust and expect to act in the interest of the collective. Here, the authority to enforce the law had been passed to a third party, a profit-seeking organisation that used aggressive and proactive tactics to generate as much income for itself as possible through actively seeking out possible violations. Companies accused by governments of extorting money on private property were now touting for business to enforce the law on public roads. This lay in contradiction to a deep-seated, embodied sense of citizenship as a relation to particular institutions that perpetuate social order. It is my suggestion that the unsettling of this relationship, the erosion of trust through the outsourcing of law enforcement into untrustworthy hands contributed to my affective response.
My point here, then, is that when the authority to enforce the law, make decisions about our lives about which we have no choice is removed from the government (as representatives of the people, as “we”) and taken into the hands of those whose motivation for action is profit, authority is no longer bestowed. The “it’s a fair cop” response to a minor flouting of the law no longer holds, because the nature of the relationship has fundamentally changed from one of legitimated bestowing of power onto a particular organisation for the perceived good of the collective to one where the power of the state is mobilised to gain profit for a separate organisation.
This example points to two avenues for further exploration:
The privatisation of authority
The privatisation of authority is a subject that needs urgent attention. As we move more and more swiftly towards neoliberal modes of organisation, institutions of authority are changing, as are our relationship to them. How do these changing relationships affect our subjectivities, our power to act, our agency as democratic subjects?
What does this change in the relationship between citizen and state mean? How do we feel and experience our relationship with the state? Are those of us who were brought up in living memory of the post war consensus, of a strong and perhaps trusted state experiencing these relationships differently from those from a generation further entrenched in neoliberal practices and subjectivities?
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