From Authority to Authoritarianism and back again
: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Hannah Arendt

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


From Authority to Authoritarianism develops an immanent critique of authority in the thought of Weber and Schmitt, and rethinks the notion from a post-foundational perspective. The thesis follows Arendt and Honig to conceptualise authority as resistible and thus open to democratic contestation and renegotiation. The objective is to intervene in current debates about the distinction between authoritative politics proper to democratic institutions and regimes, and authoritarian politics that undermine democratic procedures and processes. Post-foundational understandings of democracy tend to distrust authority. In some cases they actively undermine it. This argument -in defence of democratic authority -conceptually clarifies how it is distinct from authoritarianism. It then critically examines the operations necessary for democratic regimes to produce and regulate authoritative political institutions. From Authority to Authoritarianism thus responds to the failure of democratic theory to adequately conceptualise and defend democratic institutions against authoritarian populism. To this end, I conduct a critical analysis of ³authority ́ in the thought of Weber, specifically his typology of legitimate rule. Via a heterodox reading of the text informed by translation theory and Cedric Robinson’s critique of the metaphysics of order underlying Weber’s thought, I deconstruct the interpretation of charismatic authority as haunted by the idea of sovereignty. Weber’s metaphysical conceptualization of sovereignty is radicalized by Schmitt and becomes a fascist theory of decisionist sovereignty. Schmitt’s critique of representation in Dictatorship is the breaking point when his project turns away from reconceptualizing authority upon post-foundational premises toward decisionist sovereignty. Focusing on this moment of break, this study underscores the role of the concept of authority in the rise of fascism and the subversion of democratic institutions. However, in seeming contradiction, it also identifies the significance of the concept for a defence of constitutional politics –a hidden possibility in Schmitt’s account. This allows us to distinguish the metaphysical remnants and transcendental logics that render the understanding of authority anti-democratic limiting its genuinely democratic potential. I contend that when we take seriously Arendt’s refutation of absolutes and her emphasis on human plurality, as Bonnie Honig urges us, we must begin from authority’s resistibility. Authority then is understood as a practise at which heart lies the potential of its contestation and renegotiation. This resistible understanding of authority, the thesis concludes, allows us to rethink democratic institutions and regime politics critically. It appreciates authority’s reliance on recognition and active augmentation and is thus compatible with and, indeed, complimentary to a post-foundational understanding of democratic politics that rejects political essentialism.
Date of Award2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorClare Woodford (Supervisor) & Mark Devenney (Supervisor)


  • authoritarianism
  • political authority,
  • Max Weber,
  • Carl Schmitt,
  • annah Arendt,
  • post-foundationalism
  • democracy

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